Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Indian and Tibetan philosophy


Indian and Tibetan philosophy

The people of South Asia have been grappling with philosophical issues, and writing down their thoughts, for at least as long as the Europeans and the Chinese. When Hellenistic philosophers accompanied Alexander the Great on his military campaigns into the Indus valley, on the western edge of what is now the Republic of India, they expressed delight and amazement upon encountering Indians who thought as they thought and lived the sort of reflective life that they recommended living.

Nearly all philosophical contributions in India were made by people writing (or speaking) commentaries on already existing texts; to be a philosopher was to interpret a text and to be part of a more or less well-defined textual tradition. It is common, therefore, when speaking of Indian philosophers, to identify them as belonging to one school or another. To belong to a school of philosophy was a matter of having an interpretation of the principal texts that defined that school. At the broadest level of generalization, Indians of the classical period were either Hindus, Buddhists or Jainas (see Buddhist philosophy, Indian; Hindu philosophy; Jaina philosophy). In addition to these three schools, all of which were in some sense religious, there was a more secular school in the classical period, whose tenets were materialistic and hedonistic (see Materialism, Indian school of). The end of the classical period in Indian philosophy is customarily marked by the arrival of Muslims from Turkey and Persia at the close of the first millennium. The contributions of Indian Muslims added to the richness of Indian philosophy during the medieval period (see Islamic philosophy ).

Writing was introduced into Tibet not long after the arrival of Buddhism from India in the seventh century. The earliest literature of Tibet was made up mostly of Buddhist texts, translated from Indian languages and from Chinese. Eventually, ideas associated with Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet, were also written down. Tibetan philosophers followed the habit of Indians in that they made their principal contributions by writing commentaries on earlier texts (see Tibetan philosophy). Key Buddhist philosophers from Tibet are Sa skya Paṇḍita (1182–1251), Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (1357–1419), rGyal tshab dar ma rin chen (1364–1432), mKhas grub dge legs dpal bzang po (1385–1438) and Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507– 54).

1 Hindu philosophy

The philosophical schools associated with what we now call Hinduism all had in common respect for the authority of the Veda (‘Knowledge’), scriptures accepted as a revealed body of wisdom, cosmological information and codes of societal obligations. The textual schools that systematized disciplines derived from the Veda were the Mīmāṃsā, the Nyāya, the Vaiśeṣika, the Sāṅkhya and the various Vedānta schools (see Mīmāṃsā; Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika; Sāṅkhya; Vedānta). Concerned as all these schools were with correct interpretation of the Veda, it is natural that questions of language were of paramount importance in Indian philosophy (see Language, Indian theories of; Meaning, Indian theories of). These involved detailed investigation into how subjects are to be defined and how texts are to be interpreted (see Definition, Indian concepts of; Interpretation, Indian theories of ).

Closely related to questions of language were questions of knowledge in general and its sources (see Epistemology, Indian schools of; Knowledge, Indian views of). The two most important sources of knowledge that Indian philosophers discussed were sensation and inference, the theory of inference being important to the development of logic in India (see Sense perception, Indian views of; Inference, Indian theories of). Another topic about which Indian thinkers had much to say was the problem of how absences are known (see Negative facts in classical Indian philosophy). Because of the importance of scriptures and religious teachers, epistemologists in India discussed the issue of the authority of texts and the question of the reliability of information conveyed through human language (see Testimony in Indian philosophy). The questions associated with epistemology are in Indian philosophy often closely connected with questions of human psychology (see Awareness in Indian thought; Error and illusion, Indian conceptions of ).

Most schools of Indian philosophy offered not only an epistemology but also an ontology (see Ontology in Indian philosophy). Many posited a personal creator god or an impersonal godhead (see God, Indian conceptions of; Brahman; Monism, Indian). Just how particular things come into being through creative agency or through impersonal natural laws was a matter of considerable debate (see Causation, Indian theories of; Cosmology and cosmogony, Indian theories of). Indian thinkers also debated the precise nature of matter, the ontological status of universals, and how potentials become actualities (see Matter, Indian conceptions of; Universals, Indian theories of; Potentiality, Indian theories of ).

In addition to epistemology and metaphysics, a third area that Indian systematic philosophers nearly always commented upon were issues concerning the nature of the human being (see Self, Indian theories of; Mind, Indian philosophy of). This included thoughts on a variety of ethical questions and the rewards for living an ethical life (see Duty and virtue, Indian conceptions of; Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of; Fatalism, Indian; Heaven, Indian conceptions of). While most thinkers dealt with individual ethics, some also gave attention to the question of collective behaviour and policy (see Political philosophy, Indian ).

The Hindu tradition produced a number of important individual philosophers. Among the earliest extant philosophers from India are the political theorist Kauṭilya (fourth century bc) and the grammarian and philosopher of language Patañjali (second century bc). The legendary founder of the Nyāya school, Akṣapāda Gautama, is traditionally regarded as the author of a set of aphorisms that modern scholars believe were composed in the second or third century. These aphorisms present the basic ontological categories and epistemological principles that were followed not only by the Nyāya school but by many others as well. The philosopher of language Bhartṛhari (fifth century) developed the intriguing idea that the basic stuff of which all the universe is made is an intelligence in the form of a readiness to use language. Vātsyāyana (fifth century) and Uddyotakara (sixth century) were both commentators on Gautama. The Vedānta systematist Śaṅkara (eighth century) wrote that realizing the underlying unity of all things in the form of Brahman could set one free. The aesthetician Abhinavagupta (tenth–eleventh century) made the education of the emotions through the cultivation of aesthetic sensitivity the basis of liberation from the turmoil of life. Udayana (eleventh century) of the Nyāya school developed important arguments for the existence of God. Rāmānuja (eleventh–twelfth century) and Madhva (thirteenth century), both Vedāntins, offered systems that became serious rivals to Śaṅkara’s monism. The work of the logician Gaṅgeśa (fourteenth century), who revised the classical system of logic and epistemology, became the foundation for an important new school of thought, Navya-Nyāya (‘New Nyāya’). Mādhava (fourteenth century) and Vallabhācārya (fifteenth–sixteenth century) made important contributions to Vedāntin philosophy. Gadādhara (seventeenth century) continued making advances in logical theory by building on the work of Gaṅgeśa. Also important in the sixteenth century were several thinkers who commented upon the religious thinker Caitanya (see GauḌĪya VaiṢṆavism). Finally, there were several thinkers and movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a period during which Indian intellectuals struggled to reconcile traditional Indian ways of thinking with European and especially British influences (see Aurobindo Ghose; Gandhi, M.K.; Radhakrishnan, S.; Tagore, R.; Arya Samaj; Brahmo Samaj; Ramakrishna Movement ).

2 Buddhist and Jaina philosophy

As was the case for Hindu philosophy, Buddhist and Jaina Philosophy in India tended to proceed through commentaries on already existing texts. Jainism was founded by Mahāvīra and is best known for its method of seeing every issue from every possible point of view (see Manifoldness, Jaina theory of). The principal Buddhist traditions that incorporated significant philosophical discussions were those that tried to systematize doctrines contained in various corpora of texts believed to be the words of the Buddha (see Buddhism, Ābhidharmika schools of; Buddhism, Mādhyamika: India and Tibet; Buddhism, Yogācāra school of). An important issue for Buddhist thinkers, as for most Indian philosophers, was analysing the causes of discontent and suggesting a method for eliminating unhappiness, the cessation of suffering being a condition known as nirvāṇa (see Suffering, Buddhist views of origination of; Nirvāṇa). A doctrine of special interest to the Mādhyamika school was that everything is conditioned and therefore lacking independence (see Buddhist concept of emptiness). Some Buddhists developed the view that the conditioned world is so transitory that it disappears and is recreated in every moment (see Momentariness, Buddhist doctrine of). In the area of epistemology and philosophy of language, some Buddhists repudiated the Hindu confidence in the authority of the Veda (see Nominalism, Buddhist doctrine of ).

The Buddhist tradition gave India a number of important philosophers, beginning with the founder of the religion, the Buddha (fifth century bc). The first important Buddhist philosopher to write in Sanskrit and the man traditionally regarded as the founder of the Mādhyamika school was Nāgārjuna (second century). A key commentator in both the Ābhidharmika schools and in the Yogācāra school was Vasubandhu (fifth century). Two key Buddhist epistemologists and logicians were Dignāga (fifth century) and Dharmakīrti (seventh century). Buddhism disappeared from northern India in the twelfth century and from southern India a few centuries later. In the twentieth century, there has been an effort to revive it, especially among the community formerly known as ‘untouchables’. A remarkable leader of this community was Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar .

3 Pronunciation of Sanskrit words

Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, closely related to Greek and Latin. In India, it is written in a variety of phonetic scripts, and in the West it is customary to write it in roman script. Many letters used to write Sanskrit are pronounced almost as they are in English; k, g, j, t, d, n, p, b, m, y, r, l, s and h can be pronounced as in English without too much distortion. The sound of the first consonant in the English word ‘church’ is represented by a simple ‘c’ in Sanskrit. In addition to these consonants there is a class of retroflex consonants, so called because the tongue is bent back so that the bottom side of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth. These sounds are represented by letters with dots under them: ṭ, ḍ, ṇ and ṣ. As in English, some consonants are heavily aspirated, so that they are pronounced with a slight puff of air. These consonants are represented by single letters in Indian scripts but by two-letter combinations in roman script; thus ‘kh’ is pronounced as the ‘k’ in English ‘kill’, ‘th’ as ‘t’ in ‘tame’ (never as ‘th’ in ‘thin’ or ‘there’), ‘dh’ as in ‘mudhouse’, and ‘ph’ as ‘p’ in ‘pat’ (never as ‘ph’ in ‘philosophy’). The letter ‘ś’ is approximately like ‘sh’ in ‘shingle’. The letter ‘ṅ’ is like ‘ng’ in ‘finger’ or ‘nk’ in ‘sink’, while ‘ñ’ is approximately like ‘ny’ in ‘canyon’.

Vowels are pronounced approximately as in Spanish or Italian. Vowels with a macron over them (ā, ī and ū) are pronounced for twice as much time as their unmarked equivalents. The vowel ‘ṛ’ is pronounced with the tip of the tongue elevated towards the roof of the mouth, very much like the ‘er’ in the American pronunciation of ‘carter’. The diphthongs ‘ai’ and ‘au’ are pronounced as ‘i’ in ‘kite’ and ‘ou’ in ‘scout’ (or almost as ‘ei’ and ‘au’ are pronounced in German) respectively. Accent tends to be on the third syllable from the end; thus the name ‘Śāṅkara’ sounds like ‘SHANG-ka-ra’, not ‘shang-KA-ra’. If the second syllable from the end is long, then it is accented; ‘Dignāga’ is pronounced ‘dig-NAA-ga’.

4 Pronunciation of Tibetan words

Tibetan is a language of the Sino-Tibetan family, which includes various languages spoken in China as well as Burmese and Thai. It is written in a phonetic alphabet derived from the Brahmi script of India, from which most modern Indian scripts, as well as the alphabets used to write Sinhalese, Thai and Mon, are also derived. There are many different systems commonly used by Europeans to transliterate the spelling of Tibetan words. In this encyclopedia, the system designed by T. Wylie is used for transliteration, and a system used at the University of Virginia is used to indicate approximate pronunciation of names.

The spelling of Tibetan words was fixed over a millennium ago and has not changed since. Pronunciation, however, has shifted. Unfortunately, it has not shifted in exactly the same way in every region of Tibet, with the result that the same written word may be pronounced quite differently in the east of Tibet from the way it is pronounced in the west and the central region. The University of Virginia system of indicating pronunciation captures the dialects of central Tibet, which have shifted the greatest distance from the pronunciations of a millennium ago. Consequently, many combinations of letters are not pronounced at all as they once were, and numerous letters have become silent in modern central Tibetan dialects. Given all these changes, the pronunciation of some Tibetan words can be surprisingly different from what one might expect from their spelling.

Many single letters and combinations are pronounced about as in Sanskrit, as described above; so k, kh, g, ṅ, c, j, ñ, t, th, d, n, p, ph, b, m, y, r, l, s and h can be pronounced as described there. The pairs of letters ‘ts’ and ‘dz’ represent single letters in the Tibetan alphabet and are pronounced as they would be in English ‘cats’ and ‘adze’ respectively. The letters ‘tsh’ represent a single Tibetan letter that is pronounced like an aspirated version of ‘ts’. The combination ‘sh’ is used to represent a Tibetan letter that is pronounced about like ‘sh’ in ‘show’. Some combinations of Tibetan letters are no longer pronounced as they were when spelling was fixed. Examples of this are ‘kr’, ‘tr’ and ‘pr’, all of which are now pronounced the same way, approximately as the ‘tr’ in ‘trick’. Similarly, ‘gr’, ‘dr’ and ‘br’ are all pronounced about like ‘dr’ in ‘drink’. When the letters ‘g’, ‘b’, ‘m’, ‘r’, ‘l’ and ‘s’ occur at the beginning of a syllable and are followed immediately by any consonant other than ‘r’ or ‘l’, they are usually silent. The letter ‘s’ at the end of a syllable is usually silent. Thus ‘bsdigs’ is pronounced somewhere between English ‘dig’ and ‘dick’.

The Tibetan script does not have upper-case and lower-case letters, so there is no custom of writing proper names any differently from ordinary words. In roman transliteration, however, it is customary to capitalize the first pronounced letter of a name. In the name ‘rGyal tshab’, for example, the silent ‘r’ is not capitalized. Similarly, in ‘mKhas grub’ the silent ‘m’ is not upper case.

Tibetan consonants are pronounced with no trace of aspiration or with heavy aspiration. To the English ear attuned to hearing aspiration about midway between that used in Tibetan consonants, Tibetan ‘t’ can sound like English ‘d’ and vice versa. Similarly, Tibetan ‘k’ and ‘p’ can sound like English ‘g’ and ‘b’ respectively. At the end of words, Tibetan ‘g’ and ‘b’ may sound like English ‘k’ and ‘p’ respectively. It is for this reason that the Virginia phonetic system renders ‘Tsong kha pa’ as ‘Dzong-ka-ba’ and ‘rGyal tshab’ as ‘Gyel-tsap’. In the name ‘mKhas grub rje’ we can see many of the principles discussed above represented in its Virginia rendering as ‘kay-drup-jay’.

How to cite this article:
HAYES, RICHARD P. (1998). Indian and Tibetan philosophy. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved June 18, 2021, from

Please note, this site uses web standards that your browser does not support.
See help for further information.

Back to Top