Philosophy:Āstika and nāstika

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Short description: Classification of Indian philosophies

Āstika and nāstika are concepts that have been used to classify Indian philosophies by modern scholars, as well as some Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts.[1][2][4] The various definitions for āstika and nāstika philosophies have been disputed since ancient times, and there is no consensus.[5][6] In current Indian languages like Telugu, Hindi and Bengali, āstika and its derivatives usually mean 'theist', and nāstika and its derivatives denote an 'atheist';[7] however, the two terms in ancient- and medieval-era Sanskrit literature do not refer to 'theism' or 'atheism'.[5] The terms are used differently in Hindu philosophy.[8] For example, Sāṃkhya is both a non-theistic (as it does not explicitly affirm the existence of God in its classical formulation) and āstika (Vedic) philosophy, though “God” is often used as an epithet for consciousness (purusha) within its doctrine.[9] Similarly, though Buddhism is considered to be nāstika, Gautama Buddha is considered an avatar of Vishnu in some Hindu traditions.[10]

Āstika (Sanskrit: आस्तिक; from Sanskrit: asti, 'there is, there exists') means one who believes in the existence of a Self or Brahman, etc. It has been defined in one of three ways:[5][11]

  1. as those who accept the epistemic authority of the Vedas;
  2. as those who accept the existence of ātman;
  3. as those who accept the existence of Ishvara.

Nāstika (Sanskrit: na, 'not' + āstika), by contrast, are those who deny all the respective definitions of āstika;[5] they do not believe in the existence of Self.[12]

The six most studied Āstika schools of Indian philosophies, sometimes referred to as orthodox schools, are Nyāyá, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedānta. The four most studied Nāstika schools of Indian philosophies, sometimes referred to as heterodox schools, are Buddhism, Jainism, Chārvāka, and Ājīvika.[13][14] However, this orthodox-heterodox terminology is a construct of Western languages, and lacks scholarly roots in Sanskrit. Recent scholarly studies state that there have been various heresiological translations of Āstika and Nāstika in 20th century literature on Indian philosophies, but many are unsophisticated and flawed.[5]


Āstika is a Sanskrit adjective and noun that derives from asti ('there is or exists'),[12] meaning 'knowing that which exists' or 'pious.'[15] The word Nāstika (na, not, + āstika) is its negative.

One of the traditional etymologies of the term āstika—based on Pāṇini's Aṣṭādhyāyī 4.4.60 ("astināstidiṣṭam matiḥ")—defines the concept as ‘he whose opinion is that Īśvara exists’ (asti īśvara iti matir yasya).[16] According to Sanskrit grammarian Hemachandra, āstika is a synonym for ‘he who believes’.[16] Other definitions include:

  • 'opposite of nāstika' (nāstika bhinna);
  • 'he whose idea is that Īśvara exists' (īśvara asti iti vādī); and
  • 'he who considers the Vedas as authorities' (vedaprāmāṇyavādī).

As used in Hindu philosophy, the differentiation between āstika and nāstika does not refer to theism or atheism.[5] The terms often, but not always, relate to accepting Vedic literature as an authority, particularly on their teachings on Self. The Veda and Hinduism do not subscribe to or include the concept of an almighty that is separate from oneself i.e. there is no concept of God in the Christian or Islamic sense. N. N. Bhattacharya writes:

The followers of Tantra were often branded as Nāstika by the political proponents of the Vedic tradition. The term Nāstika does not denote an atheist since the Veda presents a godless system with no singular almighty being or multiple almighty beings. It is applied only to those who do not believe in the Vedas. The Sāṃkhyas and Mīmāṃsakas do not believe in God, but they believe in the Vedas and hence they are not Nāstikas. The Buddhists, Jains, and Cārvākas do not believe in the Vedas; hence they are Nāstikas.
Bhattacharyya 1999, pp. 174

Āstika is also a name, such as that of a Vedic scholar born to the goddess Mānasā ('Mind') and the sage Jaratkaru.[17]

Classification of schools

The views of six śramaṇa in the Pāli Canon
(based on the Buddhist text Sāmaññaphala Sutta1)
Śramaṇa view (diṭṭhi)1
Amoralism: denies any reward or
punishment for either good or bad deeds.

Niyativāda (Fatalism): we are powerless;
suffering is pre-destined.

Materialism: live happily;
with death, all is annihilated.
Sassatavada (Eternalism):
Matter, pleasure, pain and the soul are eternal and
do not interact.

Restraint: be endowed with, cleansed by
and suffused with the avoidance of all evil.2

Agnosticism: "I don't think so. I don't think in that
way or otherwise. I don't think not or not not."
Suspension of judgement.
Notes: 1. DN 2 (Thanissaro, 1997; Walshe, 1995, pp. 91-109).
2. DN-a (Ñāṇamoli & Bodhi, 1995, pp. 1258-59, n. 585).

v · d · e

The terms Āstika and Nāstika have been used to classify various Indian intellectual traditions.


A list of six systems or ṣaḍdarśanas (also spelled Sad Darshan) consider Vedas as a reliable source of knowledge and an authoritative source.[18] These are the Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā and Vedanta schools of Hinduism, and they are classified as the āstika schools:

  1. Nyaya, the school of logic
  2. Vaisheshika, the atomist school
  3. Samkhya, the enumeration school
  4. Yoga, the school of Patañjali (which assumes the metaphysics of Sāṃkhya)
  5. Mīmāṃsā, the tradition of Vedic exegesis
  6. Vedanta or Uttara Mimāṃsā, the Upaniṣadic tradition.

These are often coupled into three groups for both historical and conceptual reasons: Nyāyá-Vaiśeṣika, Sāṃkhya-Yoga, and Mimāṃsā-Vedanta.


The main schools of Indian philosophy that reject the Vedas were regarded as heterodox in the tradition:[3]

  1. Buddhism
  2. Jainism
  3. Charvaka
  4. Ājīvika
  5. Ajñana

The use of the term nāstika to describe Buddhism and Jainism in India is explained by Gavin Flood as follows:

At an early period, during the formation of the Upaniṣads and the rise of Buddhism and Jainism, we must envisage a common heritage of meditation and mental discipline practiced by renouncers with varying affiliations to non-orthodox (Veda-rejecting) and orthodox (Veda-accepting) traditions.... These schools [such as Buddhism and Jainism] are understandably regarded as heterodox (nāstika) by orthodox (āstika) Brahmanism.
—Gavin Flood[19]

Tantric traditions in Hinduism have both āstika and nāstika lines; as Banerji writes in "Tantra in Bengal":

Tantras are ... also divided as āstika or Vedic and nāstika or non-Vedic. In accordance with the predominance of the deity the āstika works are again divided as Śākta, Śaiva, Saura, Gāṇapatya and Vaiṣṇava.

Usage in religion


Manusmriti, in verse 2.11, defines Nāstika as those who do not accept "Vedic literature in entirety based on two roots of science of reasoning (Śruti and Smriti)".[5] The 9th century Indian scholar Medhatithi analyzed this definition and stated that Nāstika does not mean someone who says "Vedic literature are untrue", but rather one who says "Vedic literature are immoral". Medhatithi further noted verse 8.309 of Manusmriti, to provide another aspect of the definition of Nāstika as one who believes, "there is no other world, there is no purpose in giving charity, there is no purpose in rituals and the teachings in the Vedic literature."[5]

Manusmriti does not define, or imply a definition for Astika. It is also silent or contradictory on specific rituals such as animal sacrifices, asserting Ahimsa (non-violence, non-injury) is dharma in its verses such as verse 10.63 based on Upanishadic layer of Vedic literature, even though the older layer of Vedic literature mention such sacrifices unlike the later layer of Vedic literature.[21] Indian scholars, such as those from Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya and Vedanta schools, accepted Astika to be those that include Śabda (शब्द; or Aptavacana, testimony of Vedic literature and reliable experts) as a reliable means of epistemology, but they accepted the later ancient layer of the Vedic literature to be superseding the earlier ancient layer.[5]

Without reference to Vedas

In contrast to Manusmriti, the 6th century CE Jain scholar and doxographer Haribhadra, provided a different perspective in his writings on Astika and Nāstika. Haribhadra did not consider "reverence for Vedas" as a marker for an Astika. He and other 1st millennium CE Jaina scholars defined Astika as one who "affirms there exists another world, transmigration exists, virtue (punya) exists, vice (paapa) exists."[5][6]

The 7th century scholars Jayaditya and Vamana, in Kasikavrtti of Pāṇini tradition, were silent on the role of or authority of Vedic literature in defining Astika and Nāstika. They state, "Astika is the one who believes there exists another world. The opposite of him is the Nāstika."[5][22]

Similarly the widely studied 2nd-3rd century CE Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, in Chapter 1 verses 60-61 of Ratnāvalī, wrote Vaiśeṣika and Sāṃkhya schools of Hinduism were Nāstika, along with Jainism, his own school of Buddhism and Pudgalavadins (Vātsīputrīya) school of Buddhism.[23][24]

Based on belief in Atman

Astika, in some texts, is defined as those who believe in the existence of Atman (Self), while Nastika being those who deny there is any "Self" in human beings and other living beings.[11][25] All six schools of Hinduism classified as Astika philosophies hold the premise, "Atman exists". Buddhism, in contrast, holds the premise, "Atman does not exist."[26][27] Asanga Tilakaratna translates Astika as 'positivism' and Nastika as 'negativism', with Astika illustrated by Brahmanic traditions who accepted "Self and God exists", while Nastika as those traditions, such as Buddhism, who denied "Self and God exists."[28]


According to G. S. Ghurye, the Jain texts define na+astika as one "denying what exists" or any school of philosophy that denies the existence of the Self.[29] The Vedanta sub-traditions of Hinduism are "astika" because they accept the existence of Self, while Buddhist traditions denying this are referred to as "nastika".[29]

One of the earliest mentions of astika concept in Jain texts is by Manibhadra, who states that an astika is one who "accepts there exist another world (paraloka), transmigration of Self, virtue and vice that affect how a Self journeys through time".[30]

The 5th–6th century Jainism scholar Haribhadra, states Andrew Nicholson, does not mention anything about accepting or rejecting the Vedas or god as a criterion for being an astika or nastika. Instead, Haribhadra explains nastika in the manner of the more ancient Jain scholar Manibhadra, by stating a nastika to be one "who says there is no other worlds, there is no purpose in charity, there is no purpose in offerings".[30] An astika, to Haribhadra, is one who believes that there is a purpose and merit in an ethical life such as ahimsa (non-violence) and ritual actions.[30] This exposition of the word astika and nastika by Haribhadra is similar to one by the Sanskrit grammarian and Hindu scholar Pāṇini in section 4.4.60 of the Astadhyayi.[31]

The 12th century Jaina scholar Hemachandra similarly states, in his text Abithana Chintamani, that a nastika is any philosophy that presumes or argues there is "no virtue and vice."[32]


Nagarjuna, according to Chandradhar Sharma, equates Nastikya to "nihilism".[33]

The 4th century Buddhist scholar Asanga, in Bodhisattva Bhumi, refers to nastika Buddhists as sarvaiva nastika, describing them as who are complete deniers. To Asanga, nastika are those who say "nothing whatsoever exists," and the worst kind of nastika are those who deny all designation and reality.[34] Astika are those who accept merit in and practice a religious life.[34] According to Andrew Nicholson, later Buddhists understood Asanga to be targeting Madhyamaka Buddhism as nastika, while considering his own Yogachara Buddhist tradition to be astika.[34] Initial interpretations of the Buddhist texts with the term astika and nastika, such as those composed by Nagarjuna and Aśvaghoṣa, were interpreted as being directed at the Hindu traditions. However, states John Kelly, most later scholarship considers this as incorrect, and that the astika and nastika terms were directed towards the competing Buddhist traditions and the intended audience of the texts were Buddhist monks debating an array of ideas across various Buddhist traditions.[35]

The charges of being a nastika were serious threat to the social standing of a Buddhist, and could lead to expulsion from Buddhist monastic community. Thus, states Nicholson, the colonial era Indologist definition of astika and nastika schools of Indian philosophy, was based on a narrow study of literature such as a version of Manusmriti, while in truth these terms are more complex and contextually apply within the diverse schools of Indian philosophies.[34]

The most common meaning of astika and nastika, in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism was the acceptance and adherence to ethical premises, and not textual validity or doctrinal premises, states Nicholson. It is likely that astika was translated as orthodox, and nastika as heterodox, because the early European Indologists carried the baggage of Christian theological traditions and extrapolated their own concepts to Asia, thereby distorting the complexity of Indian traditions and thought.[34]

See also


  1. Perrett, Roy. 2000. Indian Philosophy. Routledge. ISBN:978-0815336112. p. 88.
  2. Mittal, Sushil, and Gene Thursby. 2004. The Hindu World. Routledge. ISBN:978-0415772273. pp. 729–30.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Flood 1996, pp. 82.
  4. Flood: "These schools [such as Buddhism and Jainism] are understandably regarded as heterodox (nāstika) by orthodox (āstika) Brahmanism."[3]
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Nicholson, Andrew J. 2013. Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. ISBN:978-0231149877. ch. 9.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Doniger, Wendy. 2014. On Hinduism. Oxford University Press. ISBN:978-0199360079. p. 46.
  7. For instance, the Atheist Society of India produces a monthly publications Nastika Yuga, which it translates as 'The Age of Atheism'. .
  8. Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendramohan Datta. 1984. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (8th reprint ed.). Calcutta: University of Calcutta. p. 5n1: "In modern Indian languages, 'āstika' and 'nāstika' generally mean 'theist' and 'atheist,' respectively. But in Sanskrit philosophical literature, 'āstika' means 'one who believes in the authority of the Vedas'. ('nāstika' means the opposite of these). The word is used here in the first sense. The six orthodox schools are 'āstika', and the Cārvāka is 'nāstika' in both the senses."
  9. Francis Clooney (2008). "Restoring 'Hindu Theology' as a category in Indian intellectual discourse". in Gavin Flood. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism. Blackwell Academic. pp. 451–455. ISBN 978-0-470-99868-7.  "By Sāṃkhya reasoning, the material principle itself simply evolves into complex forms, and there is no need to hold that some spiritual power governs the material principle or its ultimate source."
  10. Literature review of secondary references of Buddha as Dashavatara which regard Buddha to be part of standard list:
  11. 11.0 11.1 GS Ghurye, Indian Sociology Through Ghurye, a Dictionary, Ed: S. Devadas Pillai (2011), ISBN:978-8171548071, page 354
  12. 12.0 12.1 Monier-Williams 2006
  13. Flood 1996, pp. 82, 224–49
  14. For an overview of this method of classification, with detail on the grouping of schools, see: Radhakrishnan & Moore 1989
  15. Apte 1965, pp. 240
  16. 16.0 16.1 Squarcini, Federico (2011). "Traditions against Tradition. Criticism, Dissent and the Struggle for the Semiotic Primacy of Veridiction". in Squarcini, Federico. Boundaries, Dynamics and Construction of Traditions in South Asia. Anthem Press. p. 446. doi:10.7135/UPO9781843313977.018. ISBN 9781843313977. 
  17. George Williams (2003), Handbook of Hindu Mythology, Oxford University Press, ISBN:978-0195332612, page 65
  18. Flood 1996, pp. 231–2
  19. Flood 1996, pp. 82
  20. Banerji 1992, pp. 2
  21. Sanskrit: Manusmriti with six scholar commentaries VN Mandlik, page 1310
    English: Manusmriti 10.63 Berkeley Center for World Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Georgetown University
  22. P. Haag and V. Vergiani (Eds., 2009), Studies in the Kāśikāvṛtti, Firenze: Società Editrice Fiorentina, ISBN:978-8860321145
  23. Markus Dressler and Arvind Mandair (2011), Secularism and Religion-Making, Oxford University Press, ISBN:978-0199782949, page 59 note 39
  24. Ernst Steinkellner (1991), Studies in the Buddhist Epistemological Tradition: Proceedings of the Second International Dharmakīrti Conference, Vienna, Volume 222, Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, ISBN:978-3700119159, pages 230-238
  25. C Sharma (2013), A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN:978-8120803657, page 66
  26. Dae-Sook Suh (1994), Korean Studies: New Pacific Currents, University of Hawaii Press, ISBN:978-0824815981, page 171
  27. John C. Plott et al (2000), Global History of Philosophy: The Axial Age, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN:978-8120801585, page 63, Quote: "The Buddhist schools reject any Ātman concept. As we have already observed, this is the basic and ineradicable distinction between Hinduism and Buddhism".
  28. Asanga Tilakaratna (2003, Editors: Anne Blackburn and Jeffrey Samuels), Approaching the Dhamma: Buddhist Texts and Practices in South and Southeast Asia, Pariyatti, ISBN:978-1928706199, pages 128-129;
    God, states Tilakaratna, in Brahmanic traditions is Parama-atma (universal Self, Ishvara, Brahman)
  29. 29.0 29.1 S. Devadas Pillai (1997). Indian Sociology Through Ghurye, a Dictionary. Popular Prakashan. pp. 353–354. ISBN 978-81-7154-807-1. 
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 Andrew J. Nicholson (2013). Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. pp. 172–175. ISBN 978-0-231-14987-7. 
  31. Andrew J. Nicholson (2013). Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-231-14987-7. 
  32. Ramkrishna Bhattacharya (2011). Studies on the Carvaka/Lokayata. Anthem Press. pp. 164–166. ISBN 978-0-85728-433-4. 
  33. Chandradhar Sharma (2000). A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. Motilal Banarsidass. p. 101. ISBN 978-81-208-0365-7. 
  34. 34.0 34.1 34.2 34.3 34.4 Andrew J. Nicholson (2013). Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History. Columbia University Press. pp. 174–176. ISBN 978-0-231-14987-7. 
  35. John D Kelly (1996). Jan E. M. Houben. ed. Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language. BRILL Academic. pp. 88–89. ISBN 90-04-10613-8.