Indian Knowledge Systems Part 1 - an Overview

# Indian Knowledge Systems

Indian Knowledge Systems Part 1 - an Overview

26 January, 2024


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The purpose of this series of three essays is to make the reader aware of the richness of Indian knowledge systems. It also focuses on the ontological and epistemological foundations of Indian knowledge systems. The series tries to give an overview of how Indian metaphysics differs from the scientific and modern perspectives of knowledge production and understanding of reality.

The author does not make any claim of original scholarship in these areas. He is only trying to understand what the great scholars have already said. The essays draw heavily on the works of Śrī Chittaranjan Naik, Śrī Shatavadhani Ganesh, and Dr. SN Balagangadhara Rao. It is a paraphrasing and summarising of their works, and hence there may be direct quoting without indication in each case. Every effort has been made to attribute the work correctly.


We have a legitimate heritage to be truly proud of, without requiring outside validation. How did it happen that everything in Indian Knowledge Systems (IKS) suffers from ignorance or denial? Everything good in India seems to be derived from the Greeks, Romans, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Arabs, or Europeans, and rarely from Bhārata itself! Simultaneously, critics have a field day at the extreme claims of head transplantation, flying aeroplanes, and cloning in the Indian past.

The linear progression of history from a “primitive” past to an “advanced” future, deeply entrenched in western philosophy, embeds itself in Indians even today as a classic case of ‘colonial consciousness’, explained by Dr. S. N. Balagangadhara. It is a misfortune of our education system that few have heard of Śrī Dharampal and his books like The Beautiful Tree and Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century. The colossal work of Śrī Dharampal in deconstructing the discourse - which leads us to conclude we were primitive before the colonials came - is vital to shaking off our persisting colonial consciousness.

Beginning in 1964 – 65, through over a decade later, Śrī Dharampal went into the deepest corners of archives and records in various libraries in India and England. He meticulously reconstructed from the archives what the British discovered and thought about Indian society. The archival material of the colonial descriptions of Indian sciences and technologies seriously undermines the legitimacy of standard perceptions about Indian society. Studied neglect, contempt, and the economic breakdown uprooted and eliminated indigenous sciences and technologies not only from society but from Indian memory itself, says Śrī Dharampal.

Contrary to the standard teaching, Indian society was functioning well and was extremely competent in the arts and sciences of its day, when the British started their rule. Its interactive grasp over its immediate natural environment was undisputed; in fact, it demanded praise. For example, Reuben Burrow says in 1790 that -

Hindoo religion probably spread over the whole earth; there are signs of it in every northern country and in almost every system of worship.

Burrow thought that Stonehenge, Arithmetic, Astronomy, Astrology, Holidays, Games, names of the stars and figures of the constellations, ancient monuments, laws, languages, and the Druids of Britain clearly descended from the ‘Hindoo world’!

English education is perhaps a major factor in generating and perpetuating this colonial consciousness. The statement that Ananda Coomaraswamy made more than a century ago makes sense even today:

A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future. The greatest danger for India is the loss of her spiritual integrity. Of all Indian problems, the educational is the most difficult and most tragic.

The Broad Classification of Indian Texts

Apart from the non-orthodox Buddhist and Jain corpus of texts, the orthodox Sanātanī texts divide broadly into the Śruti (that which is heard) and Smṛti (that which is remembered). The Vedas constitute an important part of Indian culture and civilization, but they are by no means the only one. Also, a belief or disbelief in the Vedas does not in any way reflect the status of being a Hindu or belonging to the Indian civilizational heritage.

Five groups of texts — Veda, Upaveda, Vedāṅga, Purāṇa, and Darśana — lay the foundation for the knowledge and wisdom of our heritage and cover the concrete and the abstract, the so-called ‘secular’ and the ‘spiritual.’ The separation of the sacred and the profane makes no sense in Indian traditions.

Thus, as Śrī Aurobindo and Ananda Coomaraswamy stressed, the concept of secularism ends up becoming an intense attack on Indian culture. It is a culture where all matter and all fields of activity (literature, arts, poetry, dance, drama, science, and technology) are intensely “spiritualized.”


There are four Vedas, which are the core Śruti texts:

  1. Ṛgveda (ṛks or verses)
  2. Yajurveda (yajus or prose)
  3. Sāmaveda (sāmans or songs)
  4. Atharvaveda (Sage Atharvaṇa’s compositions)

Each Veda further subdivides into four sections:

  1. Saṃhitā
  2. Brāhmaṇa
  3. Āraṇyaka
  4. Upaniṣad

The Saṃhitās deal with bhakti (devotion); the Brāhmaṇas with karma (work, action, ritual); and the Āraṇyakas with dhyāna (meditation). These three dealing with rituals and devotional activities form the Karma-kāṇḍa.

The Upaniṣads (or Vedānta, the final portion of the Vedas) form the Jñāna-kāṇḍa — treatises on the philosophical aspects and deep discussions on the body, mind, soul, nature, consciousness, and the universe. Of the several Upaniṣads (at least 108 of them), ten are most important: Īśa, Kena, Kaṭha, Praśna, Muṇḍaka, Māṇḍūkya, Taittirīya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brhadāraṇyaka.

Loosely, the Vedic divisions also associate with the āśramas or stages of life: theSaṃhitās correspondto brahmacarya (student) āśrama; the Brāhmaṇas correspondto gṛhasta (householder) āśrama; the Āraṇyakas correspond tovānaprastha (forest dweller) āśrama; and the Upaniṣads correspond tosaṃnyāsa (the ascetic) āśrama.

The Core Vedic Texts - (1) Upavedas

Upavedas (upa, or ‘secondary’ to Vedas) are bodies of aparā (material) knowledge, though still intimately linked to parā (transcendental) insights. Each Upaveda corresponds to one Veda. The Upavedas and Vedas also support the classical concept of Purusartha, the four objectives of life: dharma (duty), artha (material wealth), kāma (intellectual desires), and mokṣa (liberation, freedom).

The Upavedas concern themselves mainly with artha and kāma (‘pravṛtti’ or practice in the outer world), while the Vedas are about dharma andmokṣa (‘nivṛtti’ or practices for the inner world of Self-realization). However, these are not at all strict, as there is an expected overlap in the purposes of the huge corpus of literature.

They include the following:

  • Āyurveda
  • Arthaveda
  • Sthāpatyaveda
  • Gāndharvaveda
  • Dhanurveda

Āyurveda is the medical and surgical science, and some foundational texts include Suśruta Saṃhitā, Caraka Saṃhitā, Aṣṭāṅga Hṛdaya, Vāgbhaṭa Saṅgraha, andBhāvaprakaśa.

Arthaveda is the wisdom of not only economics but also political science, law, ethics, constitutional studies, defense, management, sociology, trade and commerce, and civil and military engineering. Some of the renowned Arthaveda texts are: Artha-śāstra (Kauṭilya), Pañca-tantra, Yukti-kalpataru, Nīti-kalpataru, Nīti-sāra, Hitopadeśa, Nīti-sūtra, Nīti-vākyāmṛta, Vyavahāra-mayūkhaḥ, Rāja-nīti-mayūkhaḥ, and Rāja-nīti-ratnākāra.

Sthāpatyaveda forms the wisdom of engineering. Sthapati was a head engineer, under whom were sūtradhāras (design engineers), śilpis (sculptors), kārukas (artisans), takṣas (carpenters), kalādas (goldsmiths, silversmiths), kārmāras (blacksmiths), kulālas (potters), tantuvāyas (weavers), and so on. Sthāpatyaveda includes the basic sciences of physics, mathematics, and chemistry and their applied forms like mechanical engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering, hydraulics, mechanics, and dynamics. The texts of the Sthāpatyaveda included Māna-sāra, Mayamatam, Viśvarūpam, Aparājitapṛccha, Samarāṅgaṇa-Sūtradhārā, and Rūpavastumaṇḍana.

Gāndharva-veda is the wisdom of arts and crafts. The Yajurveda mentions twenty-eight types of arts and crafts. The number of arts and crafts increased over time, and later literature mentions the famous sixty-four arts (catuḥ-ṣaṣṭi-kalā). This includes not just the fundamental arts like poetry, music, dance, theater, painting, and sculpture; but also secondary arts like flower arrangement, magic, juggling, carpentry, and so on. Some of the important texts are as follows: Kāma-sūtra, Nāṭya-śāstra, Kāvyālaṅkāra, Kāvya-darśaḥ, Dhvanya-loka, Śṛṅgāra-prakāśa, Sarasvatī-kaṇṭhābharaṇa, Vakrokti-jīvita, Vyakti-viveka, and Kāvya-prakāśa.

The famous Kāma-sūtra (Sage Vātsyāyana, period between 400 BCE and 200 CE) discusses love and lovemaking with an overall awareness towards a person’s life and society; and furthermore, includes discussions on sociology, aesthetics, ethics, medicine, anthropology, and psychology. The Nāṭya-śāstra (Sage Bharata, period between 200 BCE and 200 CE) is a comprehensive encyclopedia of all performing arts, as well as literature and architecture. It deals with the emotions, sentiments, and moods of theatrical communication. It also deals with methods of presentation; creativity; vocal and instrumental music; lyrics; grammar and figures of speech; stage construction, building sets, and architecture; costumes, jewelry, and make-up; and the education of the actors, dancers, and connoisseurs.

Some scholars include Dhanurveda, the science of archery, as one of the Upavedas. However, there are no foundational texts specifically under Dhanurveda.

The Core Vedic Texts - (2) Vedāṅgas

Vedāṅgas are the limbs (aṅgas) of knowledge (veda). They are the six auxiliary disciplines essential to the study of the Vedas and include the following:

  • Śikṣā (phonetics)
  • Vyākaraṇa (grammar)
  • Chandas (prosody)
  • Nirukta (etymology)
  • Jyotiṣa (astrology/astronomy)
  • Kalpa (ritual)

Śikṣā (phonetics, phonology) is the study of the pronunciation of a language. Śikṣā reveals the sophistication of the Saṃskṛta language and of the Vedas. The texts on Śikṣā include Ṛgveda Pratiśākhya (Śākala Śākha), Śukla Yajurveda Pratiśākhya, Taittirīya Pratiśākhya, Atharvaveda Pratiṣākya (Śaunakīya Śākha), Śaunakīya-Caturādhyāyikā, Yājñavalkya-śikṣā, Nārada-śikṣā, Māṇḍūkī-śikṣā, Pāṇinīya-śikṣā, and Śikṣā-saṅgrahaḥ.*

Vyākaraṇa is the most important study of grammar. Saṃskṛta grammar, especially the system of Pāṇini, is known for its perfection, richness, depth, and beauty. Texts on grammar include: Aṣtādhyāyī (ṛṣi Pāṇini), Vārtikā (ṛṣi Vararuci), Mahā-bhāṣya (ṛṣi Patañjali), Vakyapadīya (ṛṣi Bhartṛhari), Mādhavīya-dhātu-vṛtti (ṛṣi Sāyaṇa), and Siddhānta-kaumudī (Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita).

Nirukta, the study of etymology, is auxiliary to the study of grammar. Grammar tries to develop a word, while etymology tries to analyze it. The texts are: Nighaṇṭu (Yāskācārya), Nirukta (Yaskācārya), Amarakośaḥ (Amarasimha), Trikāṅḍa-śeṣaḥ andVaijayantī-koṣaḥ (Yādava-prakāśa).

Chandas, the study of prosody and rich poetical meters in Saṃskṛtam, is extremely crucial to understanding the verbal utterances of hymns from the Veda. The texts include: Chandaḥ-śāstra (ācārya Piṅgala), Vṛtta-ratnākara (ācārya Kedārabhatta), Chandonuśāsana (ācārya Hemacandra), and Chandānuśāsana (Jayakṛti).

Jyotiṣa includes astronomy and astrology. The former is a factual description of celestial bodies and their behaviors. Astronomical observations, mathematics, and calendar making were the highly interlinked and deepest skills of ancient Indians. Astrology, a probabilistic system based on the above three, unfortunately got prominence in the narratives of a “superstitious” India.

There are four sub-groups in the Jyotiṣa group: Jyotiṣa (astronomical observations), Gaṇita (mathematics), Siddhānta, and Horā (astrology). The texts are Vedāṅga-jyotiṣa (ācārya Lagadha), Bṛhat-saṃhitā (ācārya Varāhamihira), Brhad-jātaka (ācārya Varāhamihira), Āryabhaṭīyam (ācārya Āryabhaṭṭa), Sūrya-siddhānta (ācārya Bhāskara), and Siddhānta-śiromaṇiḥ (ācārya Bhāskara).

Kalpa, the study of rituals, covers a vast expanse of knowledge, including ethics, sociology, politics, traditions, and worship.

Sub-groups of Kalpas

Kalpa texts have again four main sub-groups of texts:

  1. Dharmasūtras (rituals, duties, and responsibilities at a societal level)
  2. Gṛhyasūtras (household rituals and duties)
  3. Śrautasūtras (rituals and worship of the Vedas)
  4. Śulbasūtras (construction of the altar for Vedic fire ritual).

The Dharmasūtras include Vasiṣṭha-, Āpastamba-, Baudhāyana-, Viṣṇu-, and Gautama- sūtras.

The Gṛhyasūtras include: Āśvalāyana, Kauṣītaki, Śāṅkhāyana associated with Ṛgveda; Gobhila, Khādira, Jaiminīya, Kauthuma associated withSāmaveda; Baudhāyana, Hiraṇyakeśī, Mānava, Bhāradvāja, Āpastamba, Vādhūla, Kapiṣṭhala Kaṭha associated withKṛṣṣa Yajurveda; Pāraskara, Kātyāyana, associated withŚukla Yajurveda; and Kauśika associated withAtharvaveda.

The Śrautasūtras include texts like Āsvalayana, Śāṅkhāyana, Lāṭyāyana, Drāhyāyana, Jaiminīya, Baudhāyana, Hiraṇyakeśī, Bhāradvāja, Āpastamba, Kātyāyana, and Vaitana.

Finally, the Śulba-sūtra Kalpa texts include Baudhāyana, Mānava, Āpastamba, and Kātyāyana.

Consolidation and Further Expansion of Kalpas

A consolidation and further expansion of the Dharmasūtras andGṛhyasūtras of Kalpa are a group of eighteen primary texts called Smṛtis and eighteen secondary texts called Upasmṛtis. The smṛtis include the texts of Manu, Yajñavalkya, Parāśara, Viṣṇu, Vyāsa, Dakṣa, Likhita, Atri, and many others.

Āgamas are the consolidation and further expansion of the Śrautasutras andŚulbasutras of Kalpa. They include numerous and voluminous texts dealing with the temple tradition — construction, art and architecture, iconography of the images, as well as the daily, fortnightly, monthly, and annual rituals and festivals observed in the temples. Above all, they discuss the underlying philosophy of the entire system. The Āgama literature divides into Śaiva (pertaining to lord Śiva); Vaiṣṇava (pertaining to lord Viṣṇu); Śākta (pertaining to goddess Śakti); Bauddha; and Jaina Āgamas.

The Śaiva Āgamas are Raurava, Mukuṭa, Kāmika, and Vātula. The Vaiṣṇava Āgamas are Pañca-rātra Agamas, Sāttvata Saṃhitā, Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā, and Lakṣmī Tantra. The Śākta Āgamas are Śāradā-tilaka, Tripurā-rahasya, and Varivasyā-rahasya. These Āgamas are by no means exhaustive.

Purāṇa and Itihāsa

Amarasimha (fifth or sixth century CE) defined a Purāṇa as having five characteristic topics (pañca-lakṣaṇa):

  1. The creation of the universe
  2. Its destruction and renovation
  3. The genealogy of gods and patriarchs
  4. The reigns of the Manus forming the periods called Manvantaras.
  5. The history of the Solar and Lunar races of kings

Purāṇas consist of stories to educate ordinary people on many topics like famous people, rituals, pilgrimages, festivals, arts, sciences, and so on. They deal with geography, local traditions, history, and folklore with great spiritual insight. There are eighteen Mahāpurāṇas and eighteen Upapurāṇas. The Mahāpurāṇas include the Brahma Purāṇas (Brahma, Brahmāṇḍa, Brahma Vaivarta, Mārkaṇḍeya, Bhaviṣya); Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas (Viṣṇu, Bhāgavata, Nāradīya, Garuda, Padma, Varāha, Vāmana, Kūrma, Matsya); and Śaiva Purāṇas (Śiva, Liṅga, Skanda, Agni).

The Purāṇa literature also includes Sthalapurāṇas that pertain to local traditions in different places, taking elements from the local folklore and from the traditional stories of the Purāṇas.

The Itihasa are the famous epics of India—theRamāyaṇa of ṚṣiValmikī and theMahābhārata of Ṛṣi Vyāsa. These literally translate into our ‘history’ but are stories finally with metaphysical, allegorical, and philosophical insights targeting individual liberation. The spirit of the Upaniṣadik message and the four purposes of life - especially Dharma - run throughout the two most important Itihāsas. The Bhagavad Gītā forms one component of the huge corpus of the Mahābhārata.


Darśana, or ‘point of view’ is the English equivalent of philosophy, though with different connotations. There are six orthodox schools of Indian philosophy (Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Pūrva Mīmāṃsā, and Uttara Mīmāṃsā) and three non-orthodox schools (Jaina, Bauddha, and Lokāyata or Cārvaka).

TheNyāya (epistemology) and Vaiśeṣika (ontology) systems largely deal with the physical level. The Sāṅkhya (method of reasoning) and Yoga (union of body, mind, and soul) systems largely deal with the spiritual level. Pūrva Mīmāṃsā deals with the preparation for philosophical pursuits and explains the philosophy of rituals; and the system of Uttara Mīmāṃsā deals with philosophical pursuit and gives means for transcending rituals. Each of the darśanas has a huge number of treatises and authors.

What Represents “Hindu Religion” and To Whom Do These Texts Belong?

These knowledge traditions are not the exclusive hold of any single country, faith, or community. The main point is that India had a huge corpus of literature covering all aspects of life by reflecting its own experiences and using its own metaphysics. The knowledge tradition had very exacting standards which led them to postulate the laws of motion and create perfect astronomical tables on the one hand; while on the other, for example, devise plastic surgery techniques for amputated noses. A metaphysics rooted in the Vedas formed the sound basis of our knowledge traditions.

The methodology was perfect, the encapsulation as short sūtras for easy remembrance was also advanced. Maybe, they did not reach the last stage of developing equational formulae because of Islamic invasions and colonialism. Following the Islamic invasions, the output, especially in mathematics, moved southward. European colonialism resulted in a change from production to protection of the generated knowledge. That became the sole concern of the intellectuals. However, over a period, the constant colonial onslaught, helped majorly by missionary narratives, put a stop to the knowledge output. Not only did the Brahmins become the villains of Indian society - the varna group which painstakingly fought to preserve the knowledge tradition - but wholesale, the Indian population grew ashamed of themselves for being so “primitive and superstitious”.

Independence should have been a break; but unfortunately, a heavy colonial consciousness colored our intellectuals, academics, and educated Indians who parroted yet the same understanding as the colonizers. Very few turned to question the colonial narratives. The truth of their narratives seems obvious because the proof appears to be their “scientific and technological might”. When “reason” became supreme as a lens to study non-western cultures and their knowledge traditions, the latter appeared hazy, ambiguous, confused, and only seemed to have that odd achievement by pure chance.

Knowledge comes through three levels of mind: instinct, intellect, and intuition. Śrī Aurobindo says that the highest knowledge state of the civilization in the past was that of intuition where the Rṣis played a primary role. The age of Reason (or intellect) was in fact a degeneration of the state of civilization. This is the state of modern science, where metaphysics addresses at the level of intuition to produce knowledge.

Brahmins as Villains

Indian Knowledge Systems belongs to anybody identifying as a human being; and more so, as an Indian. The knowledge base of Indian scriptures and texts is accessible to everyone. Knowledge always is the supreme divine in Indian traditions and the story of villainous Brahmins withholding this knowledge is simply a colonial narrative which we internalized. The learning of Vedas and preservation of Vaidika ritual was more a matter of duties rather than any “hereditary-based-rights”. Twisted narratives of liberalism and individualism raised such questions.

Anti-Brahminism has a relentless story since the 17th century European reports of missionaries and travelers. No evidence seems to change this core narrative, even as the auxiliary hypotheses and explanations undergo modifications, as pointed out elegantly by Jakob De Roover. As he writes, every research program consists of three elements:

…a “hard core” of basic theses and assumptions; a “protective belt” of auxiliary hypotheses that surrounds this core; and a “heuristic” or problem-solving machinery consisting of sophisticated techniques.

Scientists regularly encounter observations that conflict with a theory’s predictions and other types of problems. However, there is no discarding of a research program simply because it faces some set of anomalies; instead, its protective belt allows the scientists to cope with these problems by immunizing its hard core against falsification - by generating new auxiliary hypotheses.

The basic assumptions about the religion of the Brahmin and its hold over society and education are part of this program’s hard core, whereas other claims concerning Aryan invasion, racial superiority, and the varna ideology are part of its protective belt. The latter ideas form a more flexible set of auxiliary hypotheses, which scholars can modify and revise in the face of anomalies, to protect the research program from refutation. Indeed, this has happened regularly, not only during the past decades, but also in the centuries before. Between the 17th and the 21st centuries, in the face of empirical and conceptual problems, the auxiliary hypotheses moved, as an example, from an Aryan invasion and conquest to peaceful migration and contact. But the hard core of assumptions concerning stories of a tyrannical priesthood and closing off the knowledge to other people in society remained immune against falsification.

Śrī Aurobindo significantly says -

When it is spoken of as a Brahminical civilisation, the phrase cannot truly imply any domination of sacerdotalism, though in some lower aspects of the culture the sacerdotal mind has been only too prominent; for the priest as such has had no hand in shaping the great lines of the culture. But it is true that its main motives have been shaped by philosophic thinkers and religious minds, not by any means all of them of Brahmin birth. The fact that a class has been developed whose business was to preserve the spiritual traditions, knowledge, and sacred law of the race, – for this and not a mere priest trade was the proper occupation of the Brahmin – and that this class could for thousands of years maintain in the greatest part, but not monopolise, the keeping of the national mind and conscience, and the direction of social principles, forms, and manners, is only a characteristic indication.


The classification of texts / śāstra herewith, as given in this piece, is just one such perspective. Other perspectives and ways to classify the literature may also be valid.

  1. Gainsaying Ancient Indian Science in two parts by Michel Danino.
  2. Integrating India’s Heritage in Indian Education in two parts by Michel Danino.
  3. Indian Culture and India’s Future (2022) by Michel Danino
  4. Indian Science And Technology In The Eighteen Century (2021) By Dharampal
  5. Anand Coomaraswamy on Education in India
  6. Understanding Hinduism: V. Foundational Texts of Hinduism - Indic Today by Shatavadani Ganesh (co-authored by Hari Ravikumar)
  7. The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo
  8. The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo
  9. The Collected Works of Sri Aurobindo
  10. The Brahmin, the Aryan and the Powers of the Priestly Class by Jakob De Roover.
  11. Natural Realism and Contact Theory of Perception: Indian Philosophy’s Challenge to Contemporary Paradigms of Knowledge (2019) by Chittaranjan Naik
  12. On the Existence of the Self: And the Dismantling of the Physical Causal Closure Argument (2021) by Chittaranjan Naik
  13. Apaurusheyatva of the Vedas by Chittaranjan Naik.
  14. Apaurusheyatva of the Vedas Part 2 by Chittaranjan Naik.
  15. Cultures Differ Differently: Selected Essays of S.N. Balagangadhara (2022) Edited by Jakob De Roover and Sarika Rao
  16. False Supremacy of Science by Venkat Nagarajan
  17. THE IMPERISHABLE SEED: How Hindu Mathematics Changed the World and Why this History was Erased (2023) by Bhaskar Kamble and edited by Sankrant Sanu.
  18. INTRODUCTION TO INDIAN KNOWLEDGE SYSTEM: CONCEPTS AND APPLICATIONS (2022) by B. Mahadevan, Nagendra Pavana, Vinayak Rajat Bhat

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