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A chariot wheel at the sun temple at Konark.
A chariot wheel at the sun temple at Konark.

Ancient Indian Philosophy Sounds Surprisingly Modern

A period of expansion of horizons from about 800 BC – 200 BC encouraged people in India to ask thoughtful questions about reality

Jessica Frazier, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, offered some thoughts about a remarkable period in human history, the Axial Period (roughly 800 BC – 200 BC) when a number of today’s major thought traditions got started or were amplified. One of these traditions was philosophy of mind in India.

Jessica Frazier

Frazier, author of Hindu Worldviews (Bloomsbury, 2017), offers a look at one of the drivers of the trend:

The answer lay in the public’s growing worry about existential problems. Mortal life seemed little more than a flame struck over the open ocean at night; our minds shine but a brief, faint spotlight on the immensity of the world before sputtering into darkness again.

As their frustration grew, India’s ancient inhabitants became obsessed with a new goal: changing our minds so as to alter the very nature of life and improve it from the bottom up. Mental disciplines became all the rage: outsider ascetics developed an arduous new concentration meant to purify the mind into a single, undistracted stream of consciousness… and yoga was born. A young prince named Siddhartha Gautama gave up his inheritance and taught a way to deconstruct the ego and its desires, becoming the Buddha.

Jessica Frazier, “Ancient Indian texts reveal the liberating power of metaphysics” at Psyche

At the time. the peoples of India were learning more about the thought worlds of other cultures, Frazier says. Many wondered how to weave a coherent whole from many strands. The Upanishads, the sacred Hindu scriptures of most Hindu traditions, were, she argues, “one of history’s first distinctly philosophical attempts to solve the problem of human finitude”:

The oldest prayers of Hindu culture included questions of a uniquely philosophical nature. One poem from around 800 BCE lamented: ‘What thing I am, I know not clearly,’ and another demanded to know:

“Why were we born? By what do we live? On what are we established? Governed by what… do we live…?”

The rise of systematic philosophy offered a solution. Those who used induction (the process of generalising new information and abstract principles from the visible world) and deduction (discovering unseen truths hidden within our existing knowledge) came to be seen as rishis or seers, with a unique power to look into the heart of reality. The Mundaka Upanishad tells us that the mind is an arrow able to send thought deep into the imperishable nature of reality – ‘Strike it!’ the author says.

Jessica Frazier, “Ancient Indian texts reveal the liberating power of metaphysics” at Psyche

Much ancient religious literature of all cultures was dedicated to seeking the favor of the gods; what’s interesting here is the apparent desire to understand reality, in and of itself — a hallmark of philosophy. Frazier explains that some Upanishad authors did not have mystical experience in mind so much as greater skill at reasoned explanation that might have the power to change our lives:

One story tells of how the learned man Uddalaka Aruni advised his son to look behind the ‘names and forms’ of the empirical world, ignoring the misleading ‘word handles’ we give individual things. If we can identify the features they all share, then we start to see the underlying fabrics and forces that span time and space. This power to speculate eventually earned a name: the Samkhya Karaka, a philosophical text composed c350 CE, called it anumana or ‘inference’. Learning to see the world with anumana meant always seeing the unchanging substrate of reality behind its changing identities, and noticing the way that our own existence is taking ever new forms, even as we experience it.

Jessica Frazier, “Ancient Indian texts reveal the liberating power of metaphysics” at Psyche

If we can even use terms like induction, deduction, and inference, we are in the realm of philosophy. The principle idea, in any event, is “it was believed that whatever fills our minds – large ideas or small – that is what we are.” Today, we would put it like this: “You are what you think.”

She contrasts the Upanishads’ approach with dismissive materialism:

In the modern world, we are liable to forget all this. Bodies are real and minds are insubstantial. Ideas seem trivial – barely there. But if, as physics tells us, reality is made as much of waves, patterns and clusters, energy, emergent systems and movement, as of blank blocks of matter, then there is no reason to see ideas as ‘less real’ than physical things. The basic stuff of reality generates atoms, cells, life systems. From these come consciousness, sensations, perceptions, analyses and responses. And from these emerge emotions, concepts, projects, goals, ideals, stories and meaning in all that the word implies. The ‘higher’ levels of reality are not less real – they are just emergent.

Jessica Frazier, “Ancient Indian texts reveal the liberating power of metaphysics” at Psyche

A dualist would take exception to the idea that the mind just somehow emerges from the body, as Frazier implies. The mind is thought to be immaterial and reality is thought to have a dual nature. In any event, the Hindu tradition generally adheres, as she admits, to reincarnation, which requires a dualist approach to at least some aspects of the mind.

But her look at the birth (or rebirth) of philosophy in a time and place remote from us — yet in one way similar — is a stimulating read.

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Ancient Indian Philosophy Sounds Surprisingly Modern