Message of Indian Philosophy

Professor M. Hiriyanna is one of the little-known scholar-giants who gifted us new insights, and corrected thriving misconceptions in Indian philosophy. The title of this post is derived from his 1939 Indian Philosophical Congress lecture bearing the same title.

Hiriyanna's lecture delivers the message of Indian philosophy in the layman’s language both in content and presentation. That is a rare feat given the complexity and abundance of technical terms and concepts Indian philosophy contains. As he mentions at the outset that the subject he has selected “possesses little technical importance.” He deals with the “familiar theme” of the ideal of life in the backdrop of Indian philosophy. He begins by briefly examining the conception of philosophy itself.

Philosophy in India was not an idle quest unlike in the West where it aims at satisfying the desire or curiosity to know. In India, philosophic truth was sought for the light it may throw upon the ultimate significance of life. This practical interest in a way, unites all six systems of Indian philosophy. Philosophical exploration in India very early moved away from merely formulating a set of theoretical views of the universe and dealt in applying philosophic concepts to everyday life. This is also the Indian ideal of life.

Hiriyanna explains this ideal of life in the rest of his lecture. As a starting point, he identifies three common features of this ideal as unselfishness, service, and abiding enlightenment.


Both Vedanta and Buddhism stress on unselfishness as one of the ideals of practical life. Buddhism goes the extreme step of denying the very existence of the self (nairatmya vada) “in order to impress upon its adherents the importance of unselfishness.” However, unselfishness is clearly defined as the “entire abnegation of self-interest.” It is indeed an ascetic ideal but not in the sense of voluntary forsaking of the world. It is asceticism that goes hand in hand with altruistic activity and not divorced from it. The aim of life is not just detachment but detachment and service, which brings us to the second feature of the Indian ideal of life.


Hiriyanna devotes the majority of his lecture to service. The pursuit of service is not running away from society and seeking passive isolation. Indian philosophy commends self-renunciation, not world-renunciation. The Gita upholds this feature by emphasizing the necessity of leading a life of incessant activity although one may have no personal gain as a result. In the words of Krishna, there’s nothing in the three worlds I have to toil for; and yet I act.

To explore this deeper, renunciation and service are not separate aims. In the Indian conception, service is the means to cultivate renunication. True detachment cannot be achieved without living an active life in the midst of people, devoting oneself to their welfare with no thought of self-advantage. In Hiriyanna’s words, “as active service, it invovles self affirmation and as tending to complete detachment it also involves self denial…” Hiriyanna explains this apparent paradox best:

…the excellence of this teaching is in bringing these opposites into harmony; and it is possible to do so by purifying the one of egoism and the other of passivity or inaction. But these activities are not left to be determined by the choice or opinion of the individual, for the service which is to be the means of cultivating the spirit of renunciation is defined as consisting in doing sva dharma or the duties of the station which one fills in society.

Most classical Indian texts on Dharma stress on performing svadharma to near perfection. Vaguely, svadharma involves doing immediate duties first like taking care of the house. It is the simplest purifier known to man. A person who fails to perform svadharma effectively, fails in every other task. Gandhi is a good example. He embarked on liberating India while his own family life was in shambles. Was he effective in liberating India? All I can say is his legacy in this respect is doubtful. The need for performing one’s svadharma is deeper.

…this insistence on the performance of one’s own duties implies the abolition of all distinctions of high and low among them for, when we consider duties as means to renunciation, it is not their content that matter, but the selfless spirit in which they are done. All can therefore be sanyasins in this sense.

So, does it stop at selflessness and renunciation? The Indian ideal of life recognizes incompleteness even here. A person may abolish self-interest but he/she will still be aware of agency. Agency is the cognition that the person is (still) the doer of action. According to the Gita, though he may free himself from the idea that he is an enjoyer (bhoktr), he will remain conscious that he is the doer (kartr). Thus, “disinterested activity, even when it is the result of strife, may be commendable. But it cannot be the ultimate ideal. The need for such effort must wholly disappear. The notion of agency must be given up.”

In other words, the agent should transcend the sense of duty, and must become the effort/action itself. Tat tvam asi in many senses. Hiriyanna recalls this wonderful verse from the Mahabharata’s Shanti Parva:
त्यज धर्मम् अधर्मं च उभे सत्यनृते त्यज |
उभे सत्यनृते त्यक्त्वा येन त्यजसि तत्त्यज ||

Foreswear dharma, adharma, truth, and falsehood–and then
Foreswear that by which you foreswore all these.

The Indian ideal holds a person conscious of his own unselfishness as imperfect, even dangerous. There is no greater tyranny than that of the person who is convinced of his own moral superiority. Hiriyanna illustrates this very well using the example of a mother’s love for her infant. A mother’s love for her child is not out of a mere sense of duty. A nurse who is paid to take care of babies does the same job equally well–as a duty. “But the mother’s response is on a higher plane where duty merges in love and she grows completely unselfconscious in attending to the needs of the child.” The attainment of a similar level of action with regard to the whole universe represents the Indian ideal of life. According to Hiriyanna, it is “love mediated by comprehensive knowledge. Utter knowledge is utter love,” and "If one form of love is notoriously blind, all forms or it operate more or less instinctively and not with complete understanding. The only key to such understanding is philosophy."

Thus, in the Indian ideal, philosophy bridges the gulf between common morality and the ideal. A familiar term used even in routine conversation is shastra-jnana or knowledge of philosophy (shastra doesn’t translate to scripture). And Hiriyanna gives us the way:

For acquiring that key, a further course of discipline is necessary, that discipline is predominantly intellectual. Here we see the relation to philsophic theory to the ideal of practical life. Which means, it is not enough to think and know; one must also feel and experience. The knowledge conveyed by the teaching should be transformed into an immediate conviction, if it is to issue in unbidden action, like a mother’s love… it is only such a living awareness, and not a merely conceptual knowledge of reality that can inspire love which will transmute conduct.

When we realize the highest end of service, we come to the third feature of the Indian ideal of life.

Abiding Enlightenment

So far, what we notice is the successively-higher and higher stages of evolution: unselfishness, service and renunciation, and now, abiding enlightenment.

When the ethical training of the first stage comes to be aided by such enlightenment, renunciation, instead of being merely an aim externally regulating conduct, becomes the natural expression of an inner conviction; and…service, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the necessary consequence of that conviction. Or…the constraint of obligation is replaced by the spontaneity of love.

When this stage is reached, the person transcends all subjective valuations of his social/moral actions. He feels not the need to question “Have I done right or wrong?” In other words, though he is in the world, “he is merely an impartial spectator.” More, he sets a standard for others to strive for. That was the way of a host of sages and similar people that have dotted Indian history. The Gita calls this loka sangraha, meaning: what the best people do, that becomes the standard for the rest.

Hiriyanna concludes that the message of Indian philosophy is that

…man should seek for the fulfillment of his highest being in such service. The distinctive features of this service…are that it should be rendered in a spirit of absolute disinterestedness and that it should be rooted in an all-comprehensive love which is the outcome of complete enlightenment.

He laments the fact that in his time, “the emphasis on these features have weakened and the consequence was…subordination…of spiritual to worldly ends in the pursuits of life. The idea of altruistic service is..there but its scope has been narrowed in various soul-cramping ways. Its quality has deteriorated…on account of attempts made to reconcile service to others with what is called ‘reasonable self-love.’"



Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

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