Asian Philosophy Research Paper

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Finding harmony with others and harmony with nature are foundational goals of Asian philosophies. While Indian traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism) focus largely on the individual’s path toward harmony with the cosmos, Chinese philosophies (Confucianism and Daoism) depend on finding the right Way (dao) to live a prosperous life—and on worthy rulers to administer the state in line with the right values.

Asian philosophies teach notions related to living well in harmony with others and in harmony with nature. Both India and China developed complex responses to issues of cosmology, ultimate meaning, ethics, and human will. Especially today, Asians are seeking to reclaim their philosophical foundations, and intellectuals worldwide see the need to understand traditional and contemporary Asian thought. In south Asia, the profound affect of Mohandas Gandhi’s teachings on nonviolence can still be seen. In China, the twenty-first century has seen a resurgence of interest in neo-Confucianism. Understanding the key ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Daoism can help put the role of India and China on the world stage in a clearer context.

From the creations myths conveyed in the hymns of the sacred Rig Veda some 3,500 years ago, to the emergence of the Jainism (800 BCE) and Buddhism (500 BCE), and, in the early centuries of the common era, the six distinct paths toward spiritual realization, philosophies originating in India grew from and fostered a number of beliefs: the connectedness between the human order and the larger cosmos; principles of self-sacrifice as a means of fulfillment; the importance of breath and breathing techniques; the theory of karma (the law of moral causation); hierarchical relationships, rules, and rituals that bring an individual to a place of identification with and empathy for the natural order; and methods of achieving transcendence and interiority. Indian philosophy, then, was largely focused on an individual’s path toward harmony with the cosmos.

Ancient Chinese philosophy focused on finding the Way (dao), that is, the right way to live a prosperous life. Unlike Greek and Roman philosophers who sought an abstract truth, Chinese philosophers sought the best path to success. The Chinese philosophical tendency inspired a social movement away from aristocratic birth rights to follow worthy rulers with versatile ministers who could administer the state, ensuring safety and a good harvest. The ancient Chinese developed logical argumentation, made scientific discoveries, and invented technology, especially in metallurgy and agriculture, that required a greater need for (and advanced as a result of) these philosophical “disciplines.”

Ancient Indian Thought

The philosophy of India begins with the early hymns of the Rig Veda. Chanted, memorized, and kept sacred by priests whose ancestors composed them at least 3,500 year ago, in the northern area of what today is Pakistan and India, these hymns represent the oldest extant literature in the Indo-European language family.

In the creation narrative of the Rig Veda (X: 129), the world begins in a nameless, shapeless chaos. From this beginning, water first emerges, followed by the fire of the sun and the movement of breath. Desire wells up from these vaguely perceptible entities, and from desire, that which is below distinguishes itself from what lies above. Sages emerge who perceive that the existent always remains in close proximity to the non-existent. They also proclaim that no one can look to the gods for answers on the ultimate origin of the universe, as the gods were created after that originary moment.

In another hymn, the human body is seen as a microphase of the macrophase realities of heaven and Earth. Human feet touch the body of the Earth. The mid-regions of the body correlate to the rise and fall of the breath. The head reaches up into the sky, with the right eye betokening the sun and the left eye the moon. Furthermore, human social structures also follow the structures of the body. Farmers work the Earth and correlate to the feet. Merchants ply their wares through the movements of the legs. Soldiers and kings protect the people with their strong arms. Priests, teachers, physicians, and law-givers depend on their heads in order to maintain ritual order.

The story of the great warrior Indra, who battles the life-obscuring dragon to release life-giving waters (and hence ensures the flourishing of humans), also embodies early Indian philosophy. From the dreaded, drought-filled state of non-existence (asat), Indra allows the emergence of a reliable existent realm or world (sat-loka) by releasing the life-giving monsoons with his thunderbolts (vajra). Within this realm, people are free to perform sacrifices (yajna) to myriad deities, seeking fulfillment through worship of Lakshmi to receive wealth, Sarasvati to receive knowledge, Vak to become strong in voice, and so forth. Having sacrificed and been fulfilled, one dwells for a moment in a state of art, ritual culmination, and rhythm (rta) that signals the good life. Eventually, the cycles of life continue, requiring the process again to repeat.

Foundational Traditions

When they emerged by 800 BCE, the early Upanishads (spiritual treatises) signaled new philosophies that form the foundation for later traditions. Desire and the importance of the breath remain constant themes. New insights given forth by such teachers as Yajnavalkya and Satyakama Jabala discuss the primacy of the elements and the importance of orienting oneself within the four directions, the three zones—Earth (bhu), the atmospheric zone of life and movement (bhuva), and the sky above (sva)—as well as the vast ocean (udaka). Yoga, reincarnation, and ideas of karma were first introduced into Brahmanical circles through the Upanishads.

This same historical period saw the rise of Jainism (c. 800 BCE) and later of Buddhism (c. 500 BCE). The Jainas emphasized a rigorous code of ethics designed to rid the human spirit (jiva) of the fettering presence of karmic material. This code includes the practice of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, sexual restraint, and the minimal possession of material goods. The early Jainas condemned the elaborate animal sacrifices performed by some Brahmanical communities, and continue to promote vegetarianism.

Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha, c. 566–486 BCE) created a monastic religious order more moderate than that pursued by the Jainas. The Buddha taught an eightfold path to rid oneself of suffering, beginning with the adoption of right view and culminating in rarefied states of meditation. Both traditions created copious literature, detailing their philosophy (purification of soul in Jainism, absence of enduring soul in Buddhism), the stories of their great teachers, past life narratives, and detailed lists of rules to be followed.

In the Brahmanical traditions, four goals and an ideal fourfold analysis of life stages emerged. Dharmashastras (Hindus law codes, both sacred and secular, written between 600 and 300 BCE) list the pursuit of wealth and pleasure as the first two great necessities. Next is the responsibility to society (dharma). For some, these three goals provide insufficient meaning for human life. In such a case, there is a fourth: the quest for liberation (moksha) by following a teacher (guru) skilled in techniques and philosophies that lead to transcendence. At the age of seven, according to the ancient Dharmashastras, one’s study should begin and continue for approximately seven years, after which one marries and takes up the life of a householder. In late middle age, one might turn all one’s duties to one’s children and grandchildren and enter the stage of the spiritual quest (sannyasa). Those who gain wisdom then are qualified to teach others.

Six Distinct Paths

By the early centuries of the common era, six distinct philosophical paths arose within Brahmanical India: Samkhya, Vedanta, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaiseskika, and Mimamsa. The first three hold forth spiritual attainment as a human possibility. The last three claim that liberation from the woes of the world can only take place after death. The best hope, according to these three, is to live one’s life well, with hopes for reward after death.

Classical Samkhya analyzes life in terms of two major categories, consciousness and activity, with the latter divided into twenty-three subcategories. Activity generates a psyche that differentiates into ego and thought. This psyche, which serves as the repository for karma, can be fraught with anxiety and difficulty, or it can be trained to become pure. The psyche further gives forth the human body, whose action organs (anus, genitals, hands, feet, and voice) are connected to the five senses and to the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, and space. By understanding that all this activity provides experience and liberation for consciousness, one advances toward human freedom.

Vedanta, while not rejecting the details provided by Samkhya, opts for a simpler philosophy. Grounded in some of the great apothegms from the Upanishads, Vedanta proclaims that all things are suffused with an indwelling consciousness linked to God. God is one without a second. All things are part of God. Each individual embodies that God in the form of an individual soul (atman). When one sees the true nature of one’s soul, then a connection is made with God.

Yoga, building on Samkhya, provides specific ethical and physical practices to move an individual to a state of freedom (nirbija or dharma-megha samadhi; also referred to as sublime aloneness or kaivalyam). These include the cultivation of friendliness, compassion, happiness, and equanimity, as well as the ethical precepts of the Jainas listed above. The Yoga sutras of Patanjali specify the performance of exercises to purify the breath and make connection with the energy centers of the subtle body (chakras).

To live the good life, Nyaya suggests that one be skilled in thought and logic. Vaisesika outlines the categories of the physical world, suggesting that by knowing how the world works, one can optimize pleasure and happiness. Mimamsa provides detailed instructions for how best to perform rituals, noting that an act of worship yields states of deep happiness.

By the late classical period (c. 400 CE) these various traditions were in active conversation with one another. The Buddhists constructed a vast university near modern-day Patna called Nalanda, which housed and trained thousands of monks each year. By this time, vast temple and cave projects gave testimony to the wealth and power of each of these three traditions, Buddhism, Jainism, and what came in later years to be known as Hinduism. Epic literature, including the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas became widespread. These vast texts, in addition to including compelling stories, also served as a vehicle for people to learn about philosophy. The Bhagavad Gita emerged as a repository for the teaching of Indian thought, as Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) informs the reluctant soldier Arjuna about Yoga in its various forms: Knowledge, Action, Devotion, and Meditation.

New Visions

In the seventh and eighth centuries a new movement appeared, Tantra, which arose in both the north and the south. Tantra suggested that rituals might be enacted that would efficiently propel one toward deeper states of power and interiority. It included the violation of conventional morality in order to help practitioners overcome all forms of attachment. Tantra gave birth to a copious new body of literature, both Hindu and Buddhist, as well as stern critiques of its methods by numerous Jaina monks, for whom the adherence to a strict ethical code was inviolable.

At the same time the young philosopher Sankara, who wrote extensive commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, advanced a new philosophical articulation known as Advaita Vedanta. Sankara emphasized that the world of change is merely an illusion (maya) and that through correct contemplation and remembrance of “not this, not that,” one can sift through the veils and dross and achieve a vision of reality. Other philosophers came to prominence over the next several hundred years, including Abhinavagupta, who articulated a philosophy grounded in aesthetics, and the unnamed author of the Yogavasistha, who advanced a view that the world appears and dissolves as if it were a dream, and that we need to find the strength within to manage and purify this dream. Partly in response to the compelling monotheistic theology of Islam, which began to enter India by the eleventh century, devotional movements arose that urge dedication to a single deity, most notably Krishna, particularly as found in the poetry and song of Chaitanya and Mirabai. The middle period of the last millennium also saw the rise of systematic philosophers such as Yashovijaya (Jaina) and Vijnanabhikshu (Advaitin). By this time, Buddhism had retreated from India as the Sultans from the west destroyed Buddhist monasteries and libraries. Hindu and Jaina construction projects were dwarfed by such edifices as the Taj Mahal.

The British period of India saw a resurgence and re-energization of Indian thought. Such thinkers as Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi received Western educations and brought new ideas into dialogue with the ancient texts and traditions of India. Roy was an advocate of a Hindu Universalism. Vivekananda suggested that the Yogas of India would enhance spirituality worldwide. Tagore, a Nobel Laureate, reminded the world of the importance of poetic beauty. Aurobindo rejoiced in joining such ideas as evolution with the inner process of self-realization. Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence revolutionized political strategies. Not only did he successfully campaign for India’s independence from colonial rule, he also inspired the civil rights movement in the United States, and the overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines decades later.

Philosophy in India has a long legacy. As the world modernizes, its distinctive stamp can be found not only in the subcontinent, but also in a now nearly universal discourse on theories of karma, dharma, and the life well lived through various forms of Yoga.

Ancient Chinese Thought

Before the state of Qin unified China in 221 BCE, ending the bloody Warring States period (475–221 BCE), Chinese philosophers focused on finding the right Way (dao) to pursue a prosperous life, and they expected rulers to administer their governments according to those values. The various philosophers of the pre-Qin period were subsequently categorized into schools of thought. Sima Qian’s (145–86? BCE) Records of the Grand Historian (c. 99–98 BCE) lists six schools: Confucian, Mohists, Legalists, School of Names, Yinyang School, and Daoists. In Ban Gu’s (32–92 BCE) Standard History of the Former Han, the “Journal of Literature” by Liu Xin (d. 23 BCE) adds four schools: Agriculturalists, Diplomats, Eclectic School, and Storytellers. Each “school” contains interpretations that are used to subdivide them. There are various sub-schools of Confucianism, Mohism, and Daoism, as well as schools not listed in these ancient records, including the Militarists School, and the Pacifists represented by Song Rongzi. Unsurprisingly, disputes materialized not only about which way (dao) was right way, but about how to find it.

Technological changes in agriculture, metallurgy, military arts, and rulership created the need for skilled personnel. The notion of a worthy ruler leading versatile ministers is a shared idea among the various philosophers. Political, economic and cultural changes accelerated during the pre-Qin period, opening a context for new philosophies. Providing an education for everyone, even commoners, begun by Confucius (551–479 BCE), became popular during the pre-Qin period because of the need for highly trained scholar-knights, officials, and skilled craftsmen. Most of the pre-Qin philosophers proposed that all people, especially the ruler and ministers, adhere to their socially acquired roles. Everyone was to do his or her part for society to function properly. Most of the philosophers looked back to a past golden age to set a standard for harmony among people and with nature. Many of them advocated that everyone is potentially a sage. Aside from these general commonalities, the various philosophers disagreed about the details for achieving harmony and how to properly educate people.

Confucius and His Influence

Confucius believed that the Zhou imperial family and the feudal lords had lost the way of the former kings, the way of the Zhou founders—kings Wen and Wu, and the Duke of Zhou. For Confucius, the dao refers to the way of the former kings, the way of virtue. Confucius advocated the popular idea of a past golden age of perfect social harmony. He intended to reform society by reviving past virtues and values; such reform instituted first within the ruling families, would trickle down to commoners through aristocrats. Methodologically, Confucius’ teachings begin by instilling filial piety within children. Filial children become loyal ministers. Ontologically, Confucius held that all people are similar at birth, having the ability to be kind. Through improper training, people lose their natural propensity to be kind. Filial devotion maintains the propensity to be benevolent. These teachings promote graded love in which people love close relatives more than distant ones and villagers more than strangers.

The problem of social decay is further abated by virtue education and character development. Ritual action (li) is the proper way to promote human kindness (ren). All people and especially government officials must be trustworthy (xin). People must follow the correct standards of rightness (yi). They should practice moral wisdom (zhi). These are commonly called the five virtues; there are many more. Through virtue education people learn their role and practice virtue, resulting in a well-rounded individual and peace in the empire.

The Confucian disciples emphasized different aspects of his teachings. Mencius (Mengzi, 371–289 BCE) argued that people are naturally good at birth. Mencius interpreted the Mandate of Heaven, the divine sanction to rule, to include peasant rebellions. Mencius debated against the individualist Yang Zhu, the Agriculturalists, the Militarists, and the Mohists. His philosophy was revitalized in Song dynasty (960– 1279 CE) Neo-Confucianism. Xunzi (fl. 298–238 BCE), who offered a pragmatic Confucianism, proposed that people are born deviant. Education and ritual-action control them. Xunzi argued that a wise ruler follows the way of the recent kings, not the former kings. His teachings influenced the development of Confucianism in the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE).

Mozi (Mo Di, fl. 479–438 BCE) began as a Confucian. Trained in military arts, he defended the underdog. He attracted many disciples. Like Confucius, Mozi believed that the way of the former kings and virtue education are the means to rectify social decay. He attacked Confucius’ project. For Mozi, social decay is caused by promoting the family values and graded love of Confucius. Mozi argues that the way of the former kings promotes equal love for each and every person (jianai). If people would love each other the way they love their parents, all strife would end with peace in the empire. For the general welfare, Mozi advocated frugality in state functions, opposing the excesses of aristocratic funerals and musical performances that the commons imitated. Mozi criticized offensive warfare as evidence that graded love generates misery. His followers developed methods for defining terms and argumentation.

The Legalists argued for social reform to establish law and order, proposing that Confucianism and Mohism corrupt society by promoting morality over the law. Morality creates social problems because it justified protecting special interests, not the law. As the Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE) incorporated various ethnic groups and expanded economically, the need for legal governance grew. By the end of the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BCE) written laws were published. Some Legalists emphasized the need for a well-ordered state administration; written law applied equally to commoners and nobility, the value of statecraft, and political techniques and methods. Han Fei and Li Si studied under the Confucian, Xunzi. They went to Qin to assist Lu Buwei, prime minister to the child king who would become the first Qin Emperor. Han Fei synthesizes Legalist thought, especially the concepts of law, power, and statecraft. He attacks the Confucians and Mohists for claiming to accurately represent the moral way of the early sage rulers, criticizing their morality in favor of the law. Similar legal developments occurred in the ancient Greek and Roman states.

The School of Names (or Logicians) originated among the officials who allocated rewards and punishments. Assessing job titles and performance transformed into a philosophy of linking name and reality. Because debate was the means by which philosophers gained fame and a livelihood, argumentation was emphasized by all the schools. The logicians took rational inquiry into the paradoxical realm. Hui Shi (c. 380–305 BCE) was a friend of the Daoist Zhuangzi. They argued that all things form a comprehensive unity. Hui sought to know that unity through reason and language. Zhuangzi sought it through direct experience. Their ideas can be contrasted with the Greek Skeptics and Sophists.

Grappling with nature’s forces, people demarcate bipolar, interconnected yet opposing phenomena, such as heavy/light, dry/damp, hot/cold, bright/ dark. This kind of correlative thinking underlies most Chinese philosophy. It is seen in the Greek pre- Socratic thinkers, especially Anaxagoras. At first, yin denoted the shadow, and yang the sunlight. Later they become philosophical concepts, referring to the interconnected yet opposing forces of the universe. Yang is associated with light, movement, the male gender, and life-giving forces. Yin is associated with darkness, tranquility, the female, decay and death. These two forces are interconnected and contain each other. They are used to explain why and how things change. They were coupled with the five phases (wuxing), namely, wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Daoists and the Way

If the Confucians establish the cultural tradition, then the Daoists form the counter-culture. Unlike most philosophers, the Daoists wanted to be anonymous. Some of their ideas are similar to those of Heraclitus. Some of the Daoist practices are similar to the Greek Cynics who withdrew for society. Their meditation practices can be compared to Hindu and Buddhist practices. Daoism originates in ancient shaman-practices such as merging with the forces of nature. These shamanic practices were modified into breathing and meditative techniques (Roth, 1999).

The Laozi and the Zhuangzi are the two extant texts from the pre-Qin period that form Daoism’s core. Lao Dan or Master Lao (Laozi, c. 6th century BCE), is the alleged author of eighty-one poems (chapters) that bear his name, Laozi. The text was written by court officials who sought to give advice to their ruler and other officials on the proper way to govern the state by means of self-cultivation that connects them to the forces of nature. The four great things in existence are: the dao, sky, Earth, and the king. People take Earth as their model; Earth follows sky; sky follows dao, and dao follows self-so-spontaneity (Laozi, chapter 25). The ruler is encouraged to behave like the dao by taking no purposive action and nothing will be left undone (Laozi, chapter 37). Laozi’s contribution to ancient philosophy was his ability to abstract the dao into the most general and ultimate category.

According to Zhuang Zhou’s (370–301 BCE) biography in the Records of the . . . Historian, he rejected an invitation by King Wei of Chu (reigned 339–329 BCE) to serve as prime minister. He is the alleged author of the first seven chapters of his namesake book, the Zhuangzi, focusing on the theme of self-cultivation by embracing the flow of natural transformation that ultimately leads to entering the silent oneness of the sky, or mystical union with the dao. This type of nature mysticism can be contrasted with the transcendental mysticism of the Neoplatonists and Brahmanic mysticism. Living properly in harmony with the forces of nature, the dao, and dying in harmony with nature is the ultimate mystical experience. Zhuangzi’s philosophy emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with change. Zhuangzi recognizes that people are preoccupied with others’ opinions. So they work hard, live in distress, and die young. He proposes that people practice meditation and reduce stress and conflict to bring them into harmony with the dao of nature.

The first three texts, the Shizi, the Lushi chunqiu, and the Huainanzi, listed under Eclectic School in the “Journal of Literature,” are philosophical works that employ a unified philosophy, drawing from the other schools. The Shizi (c. 300 BCE), survives in fragments, synthesizes other philosophies. The syncretic, unified philosophy of the Lushi chunqiu (238 BCE), and the Huainanzi (130 BCE) are more obvious. The Lushi chunqiu organizes the philosophical systems under the seasonal calendar such that Yang Zhu’s individualism, Daoist non-action, and Mohist love are practiced in the spring; Confucian education, ritual, and music are studied in the summer; military and legal affairs are reserved for the autumn, and Mohist frugal funerals, Legalist administrative matters, and executions are suited for the winter. This eclectic trend influenced Han dynasty literature and philosophy.

The Militarists are not listed among the other schools in the Han histories. They were given the honorary title of Master (zi) that is bestowed on the philosophers. Sun Wu (Sunzi) is famous for his work on strategy, the Art of War, which is studied at military academies today. His text recognizes the importance of developing moral virtues in the troops to bolster their loyalty, and proposes only engaging in just war.

The pre-Qin period was a turbulent yet important time for Chinese philosophy. Aspects of the various schools were absorbed into Han dynasty Confucianism, making it comprehensive and viable. Although Confucians disdain Legalism, the imperial “Confucian” state sponsored by the Han and subsequent dynasties could not have prospered without a legal system, first and foremost, in addition to the system of ritual for controlling the masses, and for diplomacy with other countries. Given the eclectic character of the subsequent development of Confucianism and Daoism, the Eclectic school left a lasting impression on Chinese philosophers as they continued their search for the right Way.


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