In India, philosophy had its origins in a search of relations between self and the universe, done by people who were religious in outlook. These were people less interested in the monotonous routines of the ritual sacrifices and more interested in probing relations between self and the universe.
This new interest was expressed in writings that were to be collected into what would be called the Upanishads, a collection of as many as two hundred books written across two centuries.
The Upanishads consisted of attempts to describe truth through poetry and analogy. Some contributors made points drawn from observed fact, and some merely recorded their intuitions and asked the reader to accept their insights on faith.
Some contributors to the Upanishads repeated beliefs already expressed in the Vedas, such as every living thing having a spirit, or soul, and spirits being able to migrate in and out of things. Their philosophy was their religion. They wrote of death as the passing of one’s spirit into other beings, and death as a rebirth, with souls returning to earth within another human or some other creature-reincarnation. Where a soul went, they wrote, depended upon how well a person had behaved in his previous life. Good actions led to a soul being bound to a higher form of life and the soul of the doer of evil found its way to a lower form of life.
Some contributors to the Upanishads pleaded that one’s fate could be altered only by learning — like a born again Christian who transforms himself by acquiring a knowledge of God. In the Upanishads this was expressed in the claim that rather than rejoice in externals known through the senses, people should turn their thoughts inward in a quest for self-realization and knowledge about themselves. They claimed that material or sensual pleasure should not be ultimate goals, that what people really want lies more deeply, that God is within us and that the wise seek the joys of the infinite, the joy that comes with separating the self from the body and freeing oneself from the clutches of birth and death.
It was written in the Upanishads that there are two kinds of knowledge. One kind was called lower knowledge, which was described as knowledge about the existence of a god, knowledge of rituals and the knowledge that one acquires through one’s senses about the material world. This lower knowledge was described as standing in the way of the other kind of knowledge: higher knowledge. This higher knowledge was described as impossible to explain, like trying to explain warmth to someone who knows only cold. Higher knowledge was described as a personal experience that touched one’s soul. It was claimed that written instructions might help guide one toward acquiring this knowledge but that in this acquisition emotions had to dominate.
This view of knowledge did not acknowledge a limited ability to know so much as it did a limited ability to teach. Some contributors to the Upanishads wrote that all they could do was stimulate thinking in others that would lead these others to acquire wisdom on their own. They described this search as an adventure on behalf of the human spirit. One contributor to the Upanishads wrote:
Into blind darkness enter they who worship ignorance;
Into darkness greater than that enter they who delight in knowledge.
Additional contributions to the Upanishads made this search for higher knowledge an attempt at awareness of an underlying, universal unity. Assumptions were made about universal consciousness. Various writings described different unifying forces: Vishvkarman, the Great Soul; the god Hiranyagargha, who established the earth and sky; Brahmanaspate the Lord of Prayer, who also produced the world; and Aditi, the mother of gods.
In these later contributions to the Upanishads the search for unity led to the question of how many gods exist — unity suggesting a single, all encompassing god. One contribution described a youth asking a learned man how many gods there are. The learned man named three hundred and three. “Yes,” responded the youth, “but how many are there really?” The learned man narrowed their number to thirty-three. “Yes,” responded the youth, “but how many are there really?” And finally the learned man said there was only one god.
One contributor to the Upanishads wrote that a person had to realize the god in himself before he could realize the god of the cosmos, and he claimed that realizing the god in oneself is recognizing oneself in all others.
Another view in the Upanishads held that everything is unified but that there is a world of the senses, which is illusion, that God is a maker of this illusion, and that there is the world of the spirit and mental realization. This view held that to grasp reality and reach one’s goal of harmony with the cosmos one must turn from the illusion of materiality to the world of mental realization.
A contrary view in the Upanishads combined the material and spiritual worlds more closely. Instead of turning from materiality, this view claimed that one helped oneself understand the unity of the universe by gaining knowledge about materiality, including the origins of the universe. One writer of this persuasion speculated that the world had begun as water, that the earth is water solidified, that every solid is basically water and that water and God are one. Another contributor to the Upanishads saw reality and God as fire.
One contributor to the Upanishads described God as mystery, and another contributor claimed that in the beginning there was nothingness, that the world was created from nothingness and would eventually return to nothingness. Another writer described God as having existed before all else. He wrote that in the beginning God was alone, that he looked around and saw nothing, and, being lonely, he divided himself into male and female, and that these two aspects of God then mated and brought into creation all living things.
Intellectual unrest continued in India through the 500s. A few writers in India challenged Hinduism by proclaiming that the universe was essentially inanimate and functioned other than by the magic of gods. They claimed that when a person dies he dissolves back into primary elements, that after death there is neither pain nor pleasure, that there is no afterlife or reincarnation, that soul and god are only words and that Hindu sacrifices accomplish nothing.
The materialist point of view found its way into the Upanishads, and Brahmin authorities responded by removing the offending entries, and they destroyed other materialist writings. No writings expressing the materialist point of view were to survive. They were to be known only through those who argued against them.