For many centuries, Indian thinkers have spoken of the ṣaḍ darśana, or “six views” on reality. This article will explore the concept of darśana, the question of precisely which views are intended when the term ṣaḍ darśana is used, and the six views that have come to be
accepted as belonging to this group of perspectives.
What Is Darśana?
Many have spoken in recent years of the untranslatability of certain Sanskrit terms in any simple, one-to-one fashion. The rendering of particular Sanskrit
words into English, such as dharma into religion, or śāstra into scripture, inevitably involves a major distortion of
what these words mean in their original contexts: a loss of much of the original meaning, as well as an addition of connotations never intended. The word darśana is no exception.
(or darśan in modern Indian languages such as Hindi) is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root dṛś, or “see.” Darśanam literally
means seeing. Building on this foundation, darśana has come to hold two very specific meanings in Hindu traditions. A very well known
meaning of darśana is the act of seeing and being seen by a deity in the context of worship, usually in a temple. The deity is present in a mūrti, or image, which a devotee beholds. A spiritual communion thus occurs between the devotee and the deity, through the medium of sight. And
such darśana is not limited to the use of mūrtis. It is also possible to have darśana of a living human teacher, such as one’s
The other meaning of darśana, more relevant to our discussion here, is a specific system of ideas used to perceive reality: that is, a perspective
It has become a common practice to translate darśana, in reference to this second concept, as philosophy. Here, though, is a case where
we see the problem of distortion if we fail to attend to unwanted nuances that this translation brings into the conversation. To the degree that philosophy has come to refer, in most modern universities, to a purely academic activity of a highly technical nature, with little or no reference
to lived human experience, this term is an inadequate translation of darśana, which is always understood to occur within the context of a way of
life, usually (though not always) one aimed at the goal of mokṣa, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, the highest of the puruṣārthas
, the aims of human existence.
It might therefore be tempting to translate darśana as theology; for theology has come to refer increasingly to any reflection on the
basic questions of life that occurs self-consciously from within the context of a lived tradition of practice, which is a pretty good account of darśana. However, due to its long association with the Christian tradition, as well as to its original Greek meaning, which refers to reflection
specifically on the nature of divinity, many hold a deep aversion to applying this term to any activity in the Hindu tradition.
In this article, therefore, I shall utilize the common practice of translating darśana as philosophy, with the proviso that the reference
here is not to the denaturalized activity of many contemporary philosophers–particularly Anglophone philosophers, Continental philosophy being far more
self-conscious about its location within a reflective tradition–but to philosophia as this was conceived by the ancient Greeks: as not only an
abstract set of cogitations, but as reflection occurring within the context of a way of life aimed at the realization of the ultimate good. This is a very
appropriate translation, which really does capture the sensibility surrounding the traditional activity of darśana.
What are the Ṣaḍ Darśanas?
For many centuries, Indian thinkers who have written about the practice of darśana have referred to ṣaḍ darśana, or six systems of
philosophy. However, many more systems of philosophy have developed in India than this. To speak, therefore, of the six systems of Indian
philosophy does a major disservice to the Indian philosophical tradition. There are dozens of systems of Indian philosophy.
Many scholars who have written of six darśanas have used this number, it seems, as a convenient way to limit the purview of discussion to what
they regarded, in their particular times and places, as the major systems of thought then seen as making serious claims about the nature of reality: claims
which any thinker worthy of the name needed to consider and reflect upon (even if ultimately rejecting one or more of them).
Probably the earliest Indian thinker to write about six darśanas was the Mahāyāna Buddhist philosopher, Bhāvaviveka, who lived in the 5 th century CE. In addition to his own Madhyamaka system (established by Nāgārjuna), Bhāvaviveka engages with earlier Buddhist thought (which he
labels as Śrāvakayāna or Hīnayāna), Yogācāra (a Mahāyāna Buddhist school that developed after Madhyamaka), Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya, Vedānta,
and Mīmāṃsā. An early 6th century Tamil Buddhist text lists the six darśanas as Lokāyata, Bauddha (Buddhist), Sāṃkhya, Nyāya,
Vaiśeṣika, and Mīmāṃsā. The 8th century Jaina (Jain) thinker Haribhadra lists them as Bauddha, Nyāya, Sāṃkhya, Jaina, Vaiśeṣika, and Mīmāṃsā
Again, the basis for classifying a darśana as one of the six systems in these works seems simply to be the fact that it is well known to the
author. But at least as early as the 10th century Advaita Vedānta thinker Vācaspatimiśra, another way of conceiving of the six darśanas
had emerged. This system of organization had become commonplace by the nineteenth century, and is presupposed, for example, by Swami Vivekananda (Complete
Works, Volume 3, 397-398).
According to this system, although there are certainly many more than six schools of Indian philosophy, six of these schools are regarded as āstika, a word often translated as orthodox. The precise meaning of the word āstika, too, has shifted over time. Today, it most
often refers to belief in Īśvara, the Supreme Being, with a nāstika–the opposite of āstika–being an atheist. For the Jain
thinker Haribhadra, though, āstika referred to belief in the principle of karma, the cycle of rebirth, and the possibility of liberation. In
regard to the categorization of the ṣaḍ darśanas that has become standard today, however, āstika means affirming the authority of the Vedas. And because affirmation of Vedic authority is seen as definitive of Hindu identity, the six āstika systems of philosophy refer to
what are now seen as the Hindu systems of philosophy.
The ṣaḍ darśanas, according to this categorization, are Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Mīmāṃsā (Pūrva Mīmāṃsā), and Vedānta (Uttara Mīmāṃsā).
Left out of this categorization are the systems of philosophy that do not affirm the authority of the Vedas, such as the various Buddhist systems,
Jainism, and Lokāyata. Although Buddhism and Jainism affirm the principle of karma, the cycle of rebirth, and the pursuit of mokṣa (and are
therefore, from Haribhadra’s perspective, āstika), they reject Vedic authority, while the Lokāyata system, a form of ancient Indian materialism,
rejects both Vedic authority and the cosmology of karma, rebirth, and liberation, as well as the existence of Īśvara.
Exploring the Ṣaḍ Darśanas: Many Views, One Vision
The six systems of Hindu philosophy can be further categorized into a set of three pairs, based on shared assumptions and affinities. These pairings are:
Sāṃkhya with Yoga, Nyāya with Vaiśeṣika, and Mīmāṃsā with Vedānta. Sāṃkhya and Yoga share a common worldview (with one exception, which we shall discuss
below) and terminology. Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika share so much in common that they eventually fused into a single system, known as Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika. Mīmāṃsā and
Vedānta share the fact that both are focused on the interpretation of the Vedas. Mīmāṃsā, however, focuses upon the earlier karma kanda,
the action portion of the Vedas that is concerned primarily with ritual. Vedānta is focused on the later jñāna kanda, or knowledge
portion of the Vedas: the Upaniṣads. In the cases of Sāṃkhya and Yoga and of Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika, the first member of each pair can also
be seen as having a relationship with the second of theory to practice. That is, there is a sense in which Yoga is applied Sāṃkhya, and Vaiśeṣika applied
These systems of philosophy seem originally to have been independent schools of thought, even at times engaging one another polemically, their adherents
disagreeing with and critiquing one another’s ideas and approaches. Again, though, beginning at least as early as Vācaspatimiśra, thinkers over the course
of the last millennium have come to see these systems as complementary, and as reflecting different, but not wholly incompatible, approaches to different
dimensions of a shared reality. This is in keeping with Hinduism as an internally pluralistic system that allows for diverse approaches and interpretations
of reality for persons with different bents of mind, akin to the four Yogas as presented by Swami Vivekananda.
Sāṃkhya is a very ancient system of thought, traced to the sage Kāpila (for whom the city of the Buddha’s upbringing, Kāpilavastu, was named). Sāṃkhya is
dualistic. It affirms, in other words, that there are two fundamental types of thing making up reality. These are puruṣa, or spirit, and prakṛti, meaning nature or materiality. There are as many puruṣas as there are living beings. They are numerically many. Their nature, however, is
one; and this nature is pure consciousness. The puruṣas passively observe the operations of active prakṛti, or material nature. Prakṛti is in constant
motion, and oscillates through three modes of being, or guṇas. These guṇas, or qualities, are known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. Rajas is the active quality. It could be translated as dynamism. Tamas is inertia. Sattva is a peaceful state of equilibrium between these
two. From a spiritual perspective, to be tamasic is the worst state to cultivate, in which one makes no progress, nor has any interest in doing so. A
tamasic person–one in whom this quality is predominant–could be called a spiritual “couch potato.” The predominance of rajas causes one to be very active
in the world: a better state than tamas, but nonetheless one in need of transcendence. The best of the guṇas is sattva, a calm but alert state in which one
can view reality with more objectivity than the desire-driven states of rajas and tamas. Even sattva, though, is to be transcended; for the ultimate goal
of Sāṃkhya philosophy is the liberation of the puruṣa, which has become so transfixed with the activities of prakṛti that it has falsely identified itself
with them. The most obvious example of this identification is our identification with the physical body, which is itself a bundle of prakṛti.
The reader may note that no reference has been made in this account of Sāṃkhya to Īśvara, the Supreme Being. This is because this system, at least in the
preponderance of its texts, is non-theistic. In this respect, Sāṃkhya is quite similar to Jainism, which is also a form of dualism that sees the universe
as consisting of countless centers of life and consciousness (called, in Jainism, jīvas rather than puruṣas) that are striving for freedom from
bondage to materiality (known as ajīva, the Jain equivalent of prakṛti). As Andrew Nicholson has noted, not all Sāṃkhya authors deny the existence
of Īśvara (Nicholson 2010). But an understanding of Sāṃkhya as non-theistic has been the predominant view of most scholarly commentators on this tradition.
Affirmation (or not) of the existence of Īśvara is the primary difference between Sāṃkhya and the Yoga darśana with which it is traditionally
paired. Yoga does affirm the existence of Īśvara, which it defines as a puruṣa that has never been bound to prakṛti. Īśvara is an ever free being; and
contemplation of Īśvara (Īśvarapraṇidhāna) is one of the practices that the Yoga system commends for the attainment of liberation.
Yoga, as mentioned earlier, could be seen as a practice built upon the Sāṃkhya theory of the nature of reality. The Yoga darśana accepts the
Sāṃkhya worldview, but adds to this worldview an eight-step or eight-limbed (aṣṭāṅga) system of practice for the purpose of liberating puruṣa from
These eight steps, as enumerated by the sage Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtra, the root text of this system, are yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇayama, pratyāhāra, dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi. Yama and Niyama are ethical restraints
which one must master before one even begins the process of meditation. The yamas are nonviolence (ahiṃsā), telling the truth (satya),
not stealing (asteya), self-control in all areas of life, especially in the area of sexuality (brahmacarya), and detachment (aparigraha). The niyamas are purity (śauca), contentment (santoṣa), asceticism (tapas), study, including self-study ( svādhyāya), and the aforementioned contemplation of Īśvara (īśvarapraṇidhāna). Āsana is the posture in which one practices meditation.
Interestingly, given the complex system of āsanas that are developed in the related system of Haṭha Yoga (and expanded upon in modern yoga practice),
Patañjali tells us that the only absolute requirements for posture are that one be in a clean and comfortable place and that one keep one’s back straight
(to aid breathing). Prāṇayama is control of the breath. Pratyāhāra is control of one’s response to external stimuli. One is gradually withdrawing one’s
attention and identification from prakṛti and directing it inwardly, toward the puruṣa, which is one’s real identity. Dhāraṇā consists of concentration on
a single object, which is a preparation for Dhyāna, or meditation. The culmination of Dhyāna, is Samādhi, or complete absorption in the object of
meditation: the puruṣa. Samādhi itself has two modes: savikalpa samādhi, where there is a residual awareness of the distinction between subject
and object, and nirvikalpa samādhi, where this distinction has gone completely. The practitioner is now fully one with the puruṣa.
Turning now to the next pair of darśanas, Nyāya is a system of logic and a theory of knowledge (what philosophers call epistemology), and
Vaiśeṣika is a realist account of the nature of the universe revealed to our common experience. Developed by the sage Gautama (not to be confused with the
sage Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha), Nyāya is focused primarily upon establishing a firm foundation for knowledge. How do we know what we know? How do we
support the truth claims that we make? In Indian philosophy a basis for making a knowledge claim is called a pramāṇa. The various darśanas accept different sets of pramāṇas, and the pramāṇas that a system of philosophy accepts is one basis for distinguishing one system from
one another. One principle of Indian philosophy accepted by all schools is that, when one is debating with an adherent of another darśana, one
should only use pramāṇas that the other accepts. If, for example, one is an adherent of a Vedic system debating with a Buddhist or a Jain, citing the
authority of the Vedas as the basis for one’s claims will carry no weight with one’s interlocutors. In order to be persuasive, one would need to
cite sensory experience or inferential logic–both of which Buddhists and Jains accept–in one’s argument. Nyāya accepts four pramāṇas: sensory perception ( pratyakṣa), inferential logic (anumāna), comparison (upamāna), and “word” (śabda), which is the speech of an
authoritative person or text (such as the Vedas).
Vaiśeṣika is a system of cosmology. It describes the types of entity that make up the world revealed in common experience. The types or category ( padārtha) of entity are six in number: substance (dravya), quality (guṇa–bearing a somewhat different meaning than this term
carries in Sāṃkhya and Yoga), activity (karma), universality or generality (sāmānya), particularity (viśeṣa), and inherence, or
the relation between a quality and a substance (samavāya). Some Vaiśeṣikas add to these six a seventh category of absence, or non-being ( abhāva).
One can already begin to perceive how these various systems, each with its own emphasis and terminology, could be seen either as distinct systems, with
potential areas of contradiction and conflict, or as different approaches to a common reality. Again, it is the latter view which eventually held sway
among a wide array of Indian philosophers, mostly adherents of the Vedānta tradition, which gradually “absorbed” these systems into itself.
The final two views, Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta, are sometimes referred to as Pūrva Mīmāṃsā and Uttara Mīmāṃsā–or as “earlier interpretation” and “later
interpretation,” respectively. Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, as mentioned above, is focused on the interpretation of the earlier portion of the Vedas, which is
concerned with ritual action. Uttara Mīmāṃsā, or Vedānta, is focused on the interpretation of the later portion of the Vedas, also known as theUpaniṣads, which is concerned with knowing Brahman, or the Supreme Reality. The name Vedānta itself refers both to the fact that the Upaniṣads are literally the “end of the Veda” and that the knowledge of Brahman is the ultimate goal or “end” of Vaidika or Vedic thought
Although they do not deny the possibility of mokṣa, the adherents of Mīmāṃsā were not traditionally concerned with this puruṣārtha so
much as with the attainment of more worldly (laukika) ends through the correct performance of Vedic ritual, or yajña. Some of the
greatest philosophical achievements of these Mīmāṃsikas were in the area of linguistics, given the importance of the correct usage of Sanskrit in Vedic
practice. In addition to language, with regard to ritual itself, the entire structure–what one might call the “grammar”–of Hindu ritual is based upon
Vedānta, probably the best known of the darśanas, itself consists of many diverse schools of thought, each with its own conception of the
relationship of Brahman both to the self and to the world. There is Advaita Vedānta, whose best-known exponent is the teacher Śaṅkara, which affirms the
non-duality of Brahman and the world. Sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ Brahman: all this, indeed, is Brahman, in the words of the Upaniṣads.
There is Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, developed by Rāmāṇuja, which affirms the identity of Brahman with all of existence, but does not see the distinctions
between self, world, and Īśvara as a mere appearance, or māyā, but as reflecting real difference within Brahman. Then there is Dvaita
Vedānta, established by Madhva, which affirms a distinction among Īśvara, the living beings (or jīvas–the same term we saw previously in Jainism), and the
world. And then there are a variety of systems, such as Bhedābheda, each of which seeks to affirm, in some fashion, both the unity of existence as Brahman,
and the reality of the diversity of the world.
Each of these darśanas has added to the richness, and the sum total of the insight, that is available from within the vast field of Indian
philosophy. The conclusions reached by each system are the result of the presuppositions and categories with which it begins its inquiry into reality. One
may analyze one’s experience in terms of the categories of Sāṃkhya. One may add to that analysis a practice of Yoga, to make the fruits of this analysis
concrete in one’s experience. One may apply the logic of Nyāya to the claims that one wishes to make, and that are made by others, in order to sort out
real possibilities from things which do not hold together coherently. One may apply the categories of Vaiśeṣika to the analysis of the external world, just
as one applies those of Sāṃkhya to one’s inner life. One may perform karma and embody bhakti utilizing the ritual science of Mīmāṃsā. And one may
synthesize all of this into a Vedāntic vision of totality. Each system contributes its share of insight to form a more complete and ever-unfolding view of