Indic Knowledge Systems

By Vinay HA, Research Associate at Rashtram

नास्ति विद्यासमं चक्षुः नास्ति विद्यासमं बलम्‌

nāsti vidyāsamaṃ cakṣur nāsti vidyāsamaṃ balam

Mahābhārata 12,169.033

Just as the eyes light up the physical world before us and guide all our activities, vidyā (knowledge) shows us the true nature of the various phenomena of life. It thus helps us to make informed choices to achieve our objectives. Consequently, the Indian tradition regards vidyā as puruśārtha sādhana: the means for realizing the human potential. The tradition has bequeathed to us a knowledge system that is vast in its sweep and pertains to various levels of thinking. Ranging from the most outward form of knowledge, the applied sciences of Upavedās which systematizes the practices of fine arts, medicine, polity and weaponry to the life-giving vision of the Darśanas, Purāṇas and Dharmaśāstras, the auxiliary sciences of the Vedāṅgas, and the profound but cryptic meditations of the Vedās, the entire gamut of knowledge is mapped into 14 or 18 different fields. The Yājñavalkya smṛti mentions 14 fields of knowledge, the caturdaśavidyāsthānāni: 


       वेदाः स्थानानि विद्यानां धर्मस्य च चतुर्दश ॥1.3॥


Vedāḥ sthānāni vidyānāṃ dharmasya ca caturdaśa ॥

The Viṣṇu Purāṇa adds the four Upavedās giving rise to 18 fields of learning or aṣṭādaśavidyāsthānāni:

अङ्गानि वेदाश्चत्वारो मीमांसा न्यायविस्तरः ।

          पुराणं धमर्शास्त्रं च विद्या ह्येताश्चतुर्दश ॥3,6.27॥

आयुर्वेदो धनुर्वेदो गन्धर्वश्चेति ते त्रयः ।

         अर्थशास्त्रं चतुर्थं च विद्या अष्टादशैव ताः ॥3,6.28॥

aṅgāni vedāścatvāro mīmāṃsā nyāyavistaraḥ ।

purāṇaṃ dhamarśāstraṃ ca vidyā hyetāścaturdaśa ॥

āyurvedo dhanurvedo gandharvaśceti te trayaḥ ।

arthaśāstraṃ caturthaṃ ca vidyā aṣṭādaśaiva tāḥ ॥

The following is a brief overview of the vidyāsthānas based on Śrī Madhusūdhana Saraswati’s text Prasthānabheda

The Four Vedās

The Vedās are the revealed means of knowledge concerning Dharma (virtue) and Brahman (the ultimate reality). They are divided into mantras and brāhmaṇa portions. While the mantras contain invocations to devatās and details about yajñas, the brāhmaṇas are like commentaries on the mantras and describe the performance of the yajñas. Secondly, the brāhmaṇas consist of the Araṇyakas and Upaniṣads; the former imparts instructions on upāsana based on symbolic interpretation of the yajñas[1], and the latter on the knowledge of Brahman. The portion of the Vedās concerning the performance of yajñas is referred to as the karma-khānḍa, the aryaṇyakas as the upāsana-khānḍa and the Upaniṣads as the jñana-khānḍa.

It is believed that Bhagavān Vedavyāsa classified the Vedās into four branches and assigned one each to four different disciples for preserving and propagating them to the future generations. The four branches of Vedās differ from each other in their functionality; they are used by four different priests (hotā, adhvaryu, udgātā, brahman):

1. Ṛgveda : hymns sung by the hotā to invoke the devatas while conducting yajña.

2. Yajurveda : gives the procedure of conducting yajña, it is used by the adhvaryu.

3. Sāmaveda : hymns sung by the Udgātā during the yajña addressing the presiding deities.

4. Atharvaveda : unrelated to performance of yajña; it is concerned with various occult rites, penances, statecraft, commerce, and so on.

The Six Vedāṅgas

The Vedāṅga-s are auxiliary sciences, traditionally conceived as aids to understand the meaning of the Vedās and execute their teachings.

5.  Śikṣā – It conveys knowledge of svaras such as udātta, anudātta and svarita, and explains the exact mechanism behind the pronunciation of each varṇa of the Saṃskṛt language. Its purpose is to teach the precise pronunciation of the Vedās.  

6.   Vyākaraṇa – helps to understand the correct meaning of the Vedic words by analyzing them   into prakṛti (base) and pratyaya (affix).

7.   Candas– explains the recitation of the Veda mantras in accordance with their metres.

8.  Nirukta – gives the etymological derivation of difficult Vedic words through the following four constituents: nāma (noun), ākhyāta (denotes action), nipāta (indeclinable), upasarga (prefix).

9.    Jyotiṣa – teaches astronomical calculation required for fixing the time for performance of vedic yajñas.

10.  Kalpa – explains the procedures and rules to be followed in the performance of yajñas.

11. Purāṇas: “Old but ever new”!

The Purāṇas are essentially a narration of the following five subjects dealing with the origin of universe and historical evolution of the humans:

सर्गश्च प्रतिसर्गश्च वंशो मन्वन्तराणि च । 

वंशानुचरितं चापि पुराणम् पञ्चलक्षणम् ॥

sargaśca pratisargaśca vaṃśo manvantarāṇi ca ।

 vaṃśānucaritaṃ cāpi purāṇam pañcalakṣaṇam ॥

They are:

i.     Sarga: evolution of the universe

ii.    Pratisarga: its dissolution

iii.   Vaṃśa: lineage of kings and sages

iv.   Manvantarāṇi: reign of different manus

v.    Vaṃśānucaritaṃ: the conduct of royal lineages.

Ādi Śaṃkarācārya derives the meaning of purāṇa as purā api navam, ‘old yet new’. Hidden beneath the surface of chronological details and stories of the purāṇas are the reflections on timeless questions about evolution of the universe, the purpose and meaning of human life which makes the purāṇas ever-relevant in spite of being temporally old!

Itihāsa: “So it happened”

Sri Madhusūdhana Saraswati writes that the itihāsa comes under the dharmaśāstra-s. Going by the Upaniṣads which refer to the purāṇas and the Itihāsa together as paṃcamaveda, itihāsa is listed here along with the purāṇas rather than the dharmaśāstra. The itihāsa is defined as that which guides about the puruṣārthas: dharma, artha, kāma, and mokṣa by the way of narrating past incidents:

धर्मार्थकाममोक्षाणां उपदेशसमन्वितं ।

 पुरावृत्तकथायुक्तं इतिहासं प्रचक्षते ॥

dharmārthakāmamokṣāṇāṃ upadeśasamanvitaṃ । 

purāvṛttakathāyuktaṃ itihāsaṃ pracakṣate ॥

The Mahābhārata, which is the most important itihāsa text along with the Rāmayaṇa refers to itself as a chronicle filled with “subtle meanings and logic”, embellished with “the essence of the Vedās” and many other śāstra-s.[2] The text affirms that Bhagavān Vyasa has provided as distilled summary of great knowledge for the benefit of the world. The itihāsa-puraṇas, though referred to as paṃcamaveda, they differ from the Vedās in that they convey abstract and complex ideas found in the latter through stories and symbology. They gently nudge the masses to pursue the puruārthas instead of instructing them authoritatively. Hence the Vedās are called as Prabhu sammita (ordained from a position of power and authority) and the Itihāsa-purāṇa as suhṛt sammita (ordained from a position of friendly relationship).


The Darśanas refer to the body of knowledge which show us the real nature and laws of phenomenal existence. Notwithstanding our conception about life and meaning of existence obtained through the sense perception and intellect, all the darśanas except chāravaka, affirm that the phenomenal existence is devoid of ultimate meaning and incapable of providing lasting peace. They all propose renunciation of the phenomenal world and the attainment of mokṣa as the paramapuruṣārtha.

12.    Nyāya : The Nyāya darśana seeks to represent the world through 16 distinct padārthas. Also called as Pramāṇa-śāstra the nyaya darśana is known for developing rigorous techniques of logical inquiry and argumentation. Though a full-fledged darśana in its own right, the techniques developed by Nyaya darśana came to be borrowed by all the Indian darśana to present their thoughts. Śri Madhusūdhana Saraswati writes that from Nyāya, the Vaiśeṣika darśana too should be inferred. The Vaiśeṣika darśana borrows its epistemology from Nyāya darśana and focuses on formulating metaphysics. Its objective being analyzing the 6 distinct padārthas (which are said to subsume all the sixteen padārthas accepted by Nyāya) by establishing the similarities and dissimilarities between them.

13.    Mīmāṃsā, : the science of interpreting the meaning of Vedās. The purva-mīmāmmsa regards the karma-khānḍa portions which convey the knowledge of yajña as the actual Vedās. The uttara-mīmāṃsā, or Vedānta as it is popularly known regards the Upaniṣads as the essence or ultimate purport of the Vedās. It is concerned with realising the nature of Brahman (the ultimate reality). 

The Sāṃkhya and Yoga systems too should be included under darśanas (instead of dharmaśāstra-s as categorized by Madhusūdhana Saraswati). Expounded by Bhagavān Kapila, The Sāṃkhya darśana teaches that removal of the three kinds of sorrow (ādhibhautika, ādhidaivika and ādhyātmika) as the puruṣārtha. According to Sāṃkhya darśana, it is achieved by realising that the puruṣa (real Self) is distinct from the prakṛti (the physical world). The Yoga darśana compliments Sāṃkhya by expounding systematic methods for attaining samādhi where discriminative knowledge of the Self is realized.

14.   Dharmaśāstra : the Dharmaśāstra-s describe the organisation of the society based on varṇāśramadharma. As per varṇāśramadharma, human life proceeds in four stages: starting with acquisition of knowledge as a kid (brahmacarya), followed by enjoying the pleasures of life (gṛhastha), leading a life of tapasya (vanaprastha) and finally renouncing the samsāra (sannyāsa).  Kalidāsa writes about the kings of the Raghuvamśa as the practitioners of the āśramadharma:

शैशवेऽभ्यस्तविद्यानां यौवने विषयैषिणाम् /

वार्द्धके मुनिवृत्तीनां योगेनान्ते तनुत्यजाम् //

śaiśave’bhyastavidyānāṃ yauvane viṣayaiṣiṇām /

                          vārddhake munivṛttīnāṃ yogenānte tanutyajām //Raghuvamśa 1.8//

The concept of varṇa as explained in the Bhagavadgīta posits that individuals should ideally take up the work which is in consonance with their guṇa (potential quality) and svabhāva (disposition).[3] While it remains a debatable issue as to whether the varṇa is to be determined hereditarily or based on the guṇa and svabhāva of an individual, both the Bhagavadgīta and Puruṣa Sūktha which mention the system of varṇa provide no categorical answer.

The Four Upavedās

Corresponding to the four Vedās there are four Upavedās:

15.       Āyurveda (associated with Ṛgveda)

Āyurveda is the science of life (āyu). It has eight sections[4]:

i.          Sūtram: lays down the foundational principles of Ayurveda.

ii.         Śārīram: describes the details about physical, body, mind and consciousness.

iii.        Aindrīyam: inspection of sense organs to identify imminent health conditions.

iv.        Cikitsā: treatment and management of various diseases.

v.      Nidānam: provides guidance to trace the origin of diseases by examining clinical history.

vi.       Vimānam: deals with quantification of dośa (vitiation).

vii.      Vikalpa: details the formulations used in therapeutic purification procedures.

viii.      Siddhi: standardization and administration of therapeutic procedures.

Madhusūdhana Saraswati traces the tradition of Ayurveda to the following teachers: Brahmaprajāpati, Aśvi, Dhanvantari, Indra, Bharadvāja, Ātreya, Agniveśya. Caraka, Śuśruta and Vāgbhaṭa are mentioned as teachers who composed consolidated works on Āyurveda at a later stage.

16.       Dhanurveda (associated with Yajurveda)

The Dhanurveda teaches the different types of weapons, and the method of acquiring and using them. It serves the purpose of helping the Kings to perform their svadharma of punishing the “wicked” and protecting the state from thieves. The Dhanurveda mentions four types of weapons:

             i. Mukthaṃ: that which is released, ex: Cakra.

            ii. Amukthaṃ: that which is not released, ex: khaḍga.

           iii. Mukthāmukthaṃ: that which can either be released or hand-held as necessary, ex:śalya                          


           iv. Yantramuktaṃ: that which is released from a machine, ex: śara (arrow).

17.       Gandharvaveda (associated with Sāmaveda)

The Gandharvaveda is an exposition on vocal and instrumental music, dance, and similar art forms. Madhusūdhana Saraswati states that the purpose of the art forms is to do devatārādhana or attain nirvikalpakasamādhi. The Nāṭyaśāstra of Bharata Muni is a treatise representative of Gandharvaveda. It is a comprehensive treatise on performing arts: expounding the principles of direction, enactment, and staging of a play, and the usage of music, dance and poetics in art forms.  It is most renowned for its contribution to the field of literature and aesthetics with the concept of rasa (aesthetic bliss), and developing a systematic method for birthing it in the hearts of the sahṛdaya (connoisseur).   

18.       Arthaśāstra (associated with Atharvaveda)

Śrī Madhusūdhana Saraswati writes that Arthaśāstra refers to the various śāstras expounded by different munis such as Nītiśāstra, Aśvaśāstra, Śilpaśāstra, Sūpakāraśāstra, and also to Catuṣaṣtikalās. The Kāmasūtra too can be considered under this category (Though Madhusūdhana Saraswati clubs Kāmasūtra with Āyurveda). These śāstra serve various worldly purposes by teaching about strategies, architecture, sculpture, etc.

The Consummation of Learning

Śrīharṣa, in the Naiśadhiya Carita, hints as to when really knowledge attains consummation in a learner. Describing the education of king Nala, Śrīharṣa puns on the word caturdaśa[5] saying that Nala brought out the character of being caturdaśa (one having four stages) in the caturdaśavidyāsthānas by going through the four stages of learning: adīti (study), bodha (understanding), ācharaṇa (practice), and prachāraṇa (teaching).[6] Is Śrīharṣa subtly suggesting that the caturadaśatva, that is, the potential of the caturadaśavidyāsthānas, is actualized only when it passes through the caturadaśās (four stages) of adīti, bodha, ācharaṇa and prachāraṇa is something to ponder on.

In the very next verse, Śrīharṣa states that Nala’s learning expanded to become eighteen-fold as if produced by multiplying the three Vedās by the (six) Vedāṅga-s. He also states that learning became a dancer on Nala’s tongue out of his desire “to conquer the sovereignty of each of the eighteen islands” of learning (aṣṭādaśavidyāsthānāni).[7] The seemingly straightforward verse points to the evolution of the four upavedās, the applied sciences derived from the Vedās with the help of the auxiliary sciences of Vedāṅgas. Further, by stating that learning became a dancer on Nala’s tongue, Śrīharṣa suggests that they became Nala’s natural possession after going through the four stages of adīti, bodha, ācharaṇa and prachāraṇa. Kauṭilya gives a slightly different set of the stages of learning.[8] He states that from śruti (study under a qualified Guru), ensues prajñā (clarity of thought or the quality of perspicuity). Prajñā enables yoga (practical application of learning in the ‘real world’), yoga leads to ātmavatta (self-possession of knowledge). In other words, by going through these stages, one embodies the learning as different from becoming merely familiar with it.

The Importance of Knowledge

Humans can either pursue their whims and fancies or strive to act in accordance with the true nature of things. It is knowledge that enables one to “see” the truth and do what is in their best interest. On the contrary, as Kauṭilya writes, one who acts whimsically never achieves anything.[9] Śrīharṣa writes that Nala had the śāstras as his third eye which put a check on his impulsive tendencies. The importance of knowledge, and so that of the śāstras (the means of knowledge), then lies in  helping us to act in accordance with the true or actual nature of things instead of being deluded by our ignorant impulses. 


[1] A Birds eye view of the Vedas, Swami Harshananda: (Last accessed on 21-09-2020).

[2] The Mahabharata, translated by Bibek Debroy, Vol-1

[3] BG 4.13 and 18.41-44

[4] Madhusudhana Saraswati mentions only the names of the eight sections of Ayurveda. The description of the sections are taken from:  

(Last accessed on 21-09-2020)


[6] अधीतिबोधाचरणैर्दशाश्चतस्रः प्रणयन्नुपाधिभिः ।

      चतुर्दशात्वं कृतवान्‌ कुतस्वयं न वेद्मि विद्यासु चतुरदशस्वयं ॥1.4॥ 

[7] The Naishadha-charita of Shriharsha Translation by Krishna Kanta Handiqui, 1956 

अमुष्य विद्या रसनाग्रनर्तकी त्रयीव नीताङ्गुणेन विस्तरम्‌ ।

अगाहताश्टादशतां जिगीषया नवद्वयद्वीपपृथग्जयश्रियाम्‌ ॥1.5॥

[8] 1.5.16, Arthaśāstra

[9] 7.11.35, Arthaśāstra