Freedom Philosophies of India: Similarities and Differences

  Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta: Unifying Concepts

In my last September post, Freedom is not Gained by Action I discussed the unifying concepts of freedom among three Indic philosophies of freedom – Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta. All three systems start with ignorance as the root cause for the sense of bondage, and knowledge as the only way to realize that one is already free. For this understanding to stay in one’s mind, however, a long and sustained practice to rehabilitate the mind is necessary to free it from attachments, aversions, cravings, distractions, likes and dislikes, generally included in the term saṁskāra meaning subtle impressions and habits of thoughts.

An important addition to the three philosophical system’s unifying concept to be noted here is this “How does this sense of bondage manifest in one’s life?” The systems express this by three Sanskrit words – tāpa in Sāṅkhya,  śoka in Vedānta and duḥkha in the teachings of Buddha.

The seminal work on Sāṅkhya was by Kapila in a series of terse aphorisms. Īśvarakṛṣṇa in the well known Sāṅkhyakārikā presents them in a way easier to follow. His work starts with the need for the ultimate removal of three-fold tāpa (Sāṅkhyakārikā 1:1).The word tāpa has the meaning ‘burning’ but it does not imply any physical sense of heat and burning but applies to the mind. That is, a mind that is restless and tries to totally eliminate the source of this burn (the effect on the mind caused by natural, man-made and internal that is, memories etc.,).

A well known Vedānta text, the Bhagavadgītā, starts with the student, Arjuna, asking his friend the way to remove śoka – grief (Bhagavadgītā 2:8). The Buddha’s first noble truth (Dhammacakkapavattanam-sutta )is that the world is duḥkha – usually translated as suffering. The point to be emphasized is that all these Indic systems, despite different ways of expressing these human emotions, are centered on the human mind, not the physical body. Also, none of the systems focus on freedom after death, as a posthumous award in an afterlife, unlike most of religious theologies.

Unfortunately, for a chronology-obsessed modern reader, the exact time frame for when the many of the systems came into vogue is well nigh impossible to determine with any degree of certainty except for Buddhism. The time of Gautama, the Buddha, is known to be the fifth century BCE though the Buddhist tradition holds that he was preceded by many other Buddhas.

It may be that you, esteemed reader, are a pragmatist, and being a seeker after freedom here and now, are not concerned with these philosophical differences. It is easy to dismiss them as futile intellectual exercises!  However, it is useful to be informed about these differences, to understand why there are so many heated arguments among proponents of these three systems, not unlike the “my God is the only God” type of religious belief-system-centered fierce discussion in today’s world.

Conceptual Differences
Among the Three Systems

This post summarizes the marked philosophical, that is, conceptual differences among the three systems as these differences have an impact on the practices they recommend for one to see the fact that one is never bound, but always free. Indian systems of philosophy have two distinct but related aspects – epistemology and metaphysics. The first one seeks to define how one gains knowledge. In Sanskrit it is called pramāṇa, the way one gains knowledge also called the means of knowledge. The second tries to explain the nature of reality, technically known as ontology as well as the structure of the universe called cosmology.


Buddhist philosophy accepts only direct perception (pratyakṣa) and inference (anumāna) as valid means to gain knowledge (pramāṇa). These two sources of knowledge tell us that everything perceived in this phenomenal world continuously changes starting with one’s mind. Nothing remains unchanged, that is, nothing is permanent nor eternal. Since the permanent, unchanging realities of ātman, brahman, puruṣa, prakṛti, Iśvara and similar words of Vedānta and Sāṅkhya are not directly perceived nor inferred in this phenomenal world, seekers of freedom need not pursue them. Thus, one of the tenets of Buddhism, expressed by the Pali word anattā (Sanskrit – anātma meaning no ātma), is a denial of the fundamental tenet of Vedānta – which posits a permanent, timeless reality. Tangentially, this also includes the permanent dualities of Sāṅkhya, prakṛti and puruṣa. Metaphysically, this is reflected in the belief that no permanent reality exists including the world, the cosmos.

The four Noble truths of the Buddha centered on duḥkha, function as the cornerstone of Nirvāṇa, freedom. He lays down the way to gain this freedom in his fourth noble truth of an eight-fold path which stresses right vision (understanding), right thought, right speech and others. Recognition of this freedom is the ultimate goal. All these practices, such as developing positive qualities of compassion and love for all living beings or leading an ethical life of reflection, are in order to fully appreciate the impermanence of everything in this phenomenal world starting with with one’s thoughts, feelings etc., Continued and prolonged practice results in clarity of understanding of the impermanence of the phenomenal world: thus, discovering the Buddha in your true self. This is nirvāṇa (nibbāna in Pāli) while living in this world, samsāra. I think perhaps this was the basis of the famous quote from the great Buddhist master Nāgārjuna, “Nirvāṇa is samsāra and samsāra is nirvāṇa.”

There is a certain charm and freshness to this reasoning founded on observed impermanence of the phenomenal world that includes oneself. As I heard from a friend of mine, “There is no fairy dust” to bless you with freedom: it is all your own effort to see that you are free here and now and not after death. The world and you remain the same, impermanent before and after nibbāna or satori . This is exemplified by the famous story in the Zen tradition of Buddhism. A novice seeker approached a Zen master and asked, “What were you doing before you gained Satori?” The master replied “Chop wood, carry water.” The eager seeker asked, “Master, what did you do after gaining Satori?” The master replied, “Chop wood, carry water.”

Sāṅkhya/Yoga System

In contrast to Buddhism, the Sāṅkhya epistemology adds āgama, scriptures (or the words of the teacher who explains the scriptures, also called verbal testimony) as the third valid source of knowledge. The core idea is the superiority of āgama based-knowledge over perceptual and inferential knowledge. In other words, what is missing from the two sources or knowledge of direct perception and inference, is acquired by using this third means of knowledge (pramāṇa).  Thus, scriptures, which are but words communicated by a teacher become the primary way for one to gain knowledge that results in freedom during one’s lifetime. Accepting āgama, scriptures as a valid source of knowledge, Creation, Heaven, Hell, Karma, Reincarnation, and other related concepts are brought into the fold of this system.

Sāṅkhya metaphysics postulates two independent and permanent (eternal, meaning timeless) realities of prakṛti and puruṣa. The prakṛti is one while puruṣas can be an infinite number. Before Creation, prakṛti’s three components or guṇas: sattva, rajas and tamas were in equilibrium. Creation is the result of a disturbance of this equilibrium by the  puruṣas. This results in multiples stages of evolution resulting in this cosmos including all animate and inanimate things.

An offshoot of the Sāṅkhya is Patañjali’s Yoga philosophy as described in yogasūtras . Note that this is different from what is usually understood as ‘yoga’. The popular word yoga refers to just the practice of āsana, postures. This practice, despite its undisputed value, is based on a very different philosophical system called Haṭhayoga. This system describes in detail how to assume postures (āsana), breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma) etc., but with a very different underlying philosophy. The aphorisms of the sage Patañjali, called Yogasūtras is what I refer to as Yoga philosophy here. His work is an extension of Sāṅkhya philosophy. Since he mentions āsana, prāṇāyāma etc., as part of the eight limbs of his yoga system with no “how to” instruction, it is popularly misunderstood to just teach āsana practice.

Patañjali’s yoga philosophy, on the other hand, rests on the bedrock of the Sāṅkhya system. The only conceptual addition he made was the introduction of a special puruṣa, Īśvara, The Lord, also known by the term God, but unlike the God of theistic religions, this one has no form but is just represented by the mystic syllable Om (Yogasūtra, 1:27). This puruṣa is special in that unlike other puruṣas who are driven by karma, this one is untouched by ignorance or karma and its consequences (Yogasūtra, 1:24). Patañjali has an eclectic view of yoga practices saying that one can attain freedom via different paths, either devotion to God and or following the eight limbs including āsana. Thus, it is common to treat Sāṅkhya/Yoga as a single system and different from Haṭhayoga.  The sense of bondage keenly felt by all human beings, according to Sāṅkhya/Yoga is due to the association between Prakṛti and Puruṣa. Thus, freedom is best described by sage Patanjali in his aphorism: “absence of association (between Prakṛti and Puruṣa, brought about by removal of ignorance) is indeed Kaivalya” (Yogasūtra 2:25). Thus, the understanding of ignorance and the way for its total elimination is quite different from Buddhist philosophies.

Typically, a seeker after freedom identifies with the mind, which is but an evolute of insentient prakṛti.  This mistake rooted in ignorance that gives rise to the I-sense, likes, dislikes, etc. Patañjali defines this ignorance: “Taking what is impermanent, impure, sorrowful, non-self to be the eternal-pure-happiness self is ignorance” (Yogasūtra, 2:5). By following the teachings of the Sāṅkhya precepts with a mind freed from the hold of one’s likes and dislikes and consequent distractedness and by following the practice manual Yogasūtras of Patañjali, you come to appreciate that you are, indeed, the ever free Puruṣa (Yogasūtra, 2:18) .

Vedānta: Advaita-Vedānta

Vedānta means the end portion of the Vedas. Vedas, also called śrutis are four in number and are considered to be millennia-old according to academicians.. But tradition believes it to be as old as creation. The end portion of the Vedas are called Upaniṣads.  Vedic analytical method admits six pramāṇās or ways of gaining knowledge: the three already mentioned above and presumption, illustration, and non-cognition (arthāpatti, dṛṣtānta, and anupalabdhi respectively). It is beyond the scope of this post to elaborate in detail on all these pramāṇās and their application for understanding Vedānta philosophy. The essence of Vedānta is described in the Bhagavadgītā and this text also is treated as a Vedānta text. While the śrutis declare that you are what you seek, but most of verses in the Bhagavadgītā describe in detail as to how to deal with the mind for getting ready to integrate the core teaching of Vedānta so it does not remain an just another piece of information. In this sense it is akin to the ‘practice manual’ of Patañjali with reference to Sāṅkhya.

In stark contrast to the Sāṅkhya/Yoga system, the Vedānta paradigm states that there  is no eternal duality of Puruṣa and Prakṛti but only the single non-dual reality of Brahman, that is you, the self, ātman. This is stated explicitly in an Upaniṣad, “This Ātman is Brahman” (Atharvaveda, Māṇdūyaka-Upaniṣad 1.2).

The metaphysics of Vedānta, in contrast to the impermanence of Buddhism and the eternal and independent dualities of Sāṅkhya postulates just one reality of Brahman. Creation has the appearance of plurality due to the power inherent in Brahman, called māyā, often translated as either illusion or just nonexistent. The correct way to understand the term māyā is “indeterminability”. This idea is exemplified by modern physics’ understanding of matter. Freedom is to see the existing non-duality of you, the human being, as none other than Brahman as revealed in the śruti. Accepting perceived duality as the reality is ignorance, and this can be removed only by the knowledge revealed in the pramāṇa, the śruti.

But to make sure that this not an intellectual idea but is integrated by the seeker, one has to have clarity and stability in this knowledge. That is, it is necessary to have a pure and steady mind. Most of the qualities a person must cultivate to develop such a mind are described in the Bhagavadgītā: humility, being unpretentious, not hurting, forgiveness, the alignment of thought, word and deed, etc., (Bhagavadgītā 13: 7-11).

Practices to develop a pure and steady mind are not elaborated in Vedānta, the teaching of the end-portions (veda-anta) of the Vedas. The earlier section, which forms the bulk of the Vedas, is centered on rituals and meditations. These actions result in the seeker having a mind capable of understanding and assimilating the teaching. The presumption is that one does not enter the portals of the Upaniṣads unless the mind is prepared by prolonged Vedic practice.  For the modern student of Vedānta who is not exposed to the prior sections of the Vedas, yogic practices do help to prepare the mind. In this regard, one may note that most of the ancient commentaries to the terse statements of Kapila’s and Patañjali’s sūtras are attributed to Vedāntic masters – Vyāsa (the author of the Bhagavadgītā) , Gauḍapāda, Śaṅkara, Vāspati Miśra and others.

Irrespective of the important philosophical differences among these three systems, the common baseline is the necessity to have a mind that is free of its usual trappings of the desires that drive the human being. Gaining such a mind by steady practice is the first step of any seeker. One can call this cultivation of a pure and steady mind relative freedom, a stepping stone to see that one is really and totally free here and now.

Three different freedoms or one?

Given the philosophical differences among the systems, Buddhism, Sāṅkhya/Yoga and Advaita-Vedānta, are there three freedoms? I can only think of modifying the answer given by my dear friend, an eclectic Catholic monk. When asked a similar question regarding heavens of Hindus, Muslims and Christians, his reply was “There are no Zip Codes in Heaven”!  Similarly, there are not three freedoms: there is just one. The conceptual approach and terminologies may be starkly different, but the end is just the same – to be totally free of the dictates of the mind, here and now, while living. Freedom is not a posthumous award such as the heaven of religions. This total freedom, however, is not possible unless there is relative freedom from the shackling hold of one’s impulsive actions driven by likes and dislikes. I conclude this discussion with a well known Vedic declaration

What IS, is one: the learned describe it differently
(ekam sat viprā bahudhā vadanti – Rig Veda).

I thank my dear friends Chris, Philippe and Richard for their valuable input.

Suggested sources for further reading

  1. Introduction to Indian Philosophy Paperback – December 1, 2012 by Satishchandra Chatterjee  (Author), Dhirendramohan Datta (Contributor)
  2. A History of Indian Philosophy (a 5-volume paperback Set) – July 16, 2009 by Dasgupta (Author)
  3. What the Buddha Taught – Second and Enlarged Edition, 1974 by Walpola Rahul
  4. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation Paperback – June 8, 1999 by Thich Nhat Hanh (Author)
  5. The Sánkya Aphorisms of Kapila, With Illustrative Extracts From the Commentaries: Translated by James R. Ballantyne (Classic Reprint) Paperback – February 9, 2017 by Kapila Kapila (Author)
  6. The Sánkhya Káriká (Classic Reprint) Paperback – November 16, 2016 by Íswara Krishna (Author)
  7. Gheranda Samhita/Commentary on the Yoga Teachings of Maharshi Gheranda Paperback – December 19, 2012 by Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati  (Author)
  8. Hatha Yoga Pradipika Paperback – Laser printed, September 1, 1998 by Swami Muktibodhananda
  9. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary Paperback – July 21, 2009 by Edwin F. Bryant  (Author)
  10. Journey From Many to One / Essentials of Advaita Vedanta Paperback – January 1, 2009 by Swami Bhaskarananda  (Author)
  11. The Six Ways of Knowing: A Critical Study of the Advaita Theory of Knowledge Paperback – January 1, 2017 by D. M. Datta (Author)