Asian philosophy encompasses a number of major cultures including Indian, Chinese, Tibetan and Japanese and is spread out through a time span of 3,000 years. Due to the diverse cultures and eras that it reflects, Asian philosophy cannot be defined as one outlook or set of values. Instead, the study of Asian philosophy must include the understanding of its prominent philosophers and the diverse philosophies that they espoused.
The Upanishads are philosophical texts written in Sanskrit that serve as one of the early sources of the Hindu religion. There are more than 200 known Upanishad texts, though the first dozen or so are considered the most important and are generally referred to as the Old Upanishads. The Upanishads were written in pre-Buddhist India. The Old Upanishads have been attributed to a number of authors, including Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka.
Brahman and Atman are two fundamental concepts in the Upanishads. Brahman refers to the formless universal spirit that is the absolute infinite existence. This spirit encapsulates everything that ever was, is or will be. The Atman refers to the spirit of any living creature, including flora and vegetation. The Upanishads suggest that the Atman and Brahman are actually one and the same entity.
The Dhammapada is a versified Buddhist text that has been ascribed to Buddha himself. According to Buddhist tradition, Buddha uttered the ethical verses included in the Dhammapada on a number of occasions. There are various versions of the Dhammapada, though the most accepted Dhammapada is the Pali edition that is included in the Pali Canon.
The Dhammapada and Buddhist philosophy focus on anatta, also known as anatman, meaning that there is no permanent conscious substance. There is no larger, unified being but rather fragments that link casually with each through relationships or associations. Upon death of a body, its mental processes continue to exist and are then reborn in a new physical body.
The Bhagavad Gita is a Hindu scripture that features 700 verses. Lord Krishna, revered by the Hindus as a manifestation of God, was the teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. In the context of a dialogue between himself and Arjuna, a Pandava prince, Lord Krishna explains Yogic and Vendatic philosophies. In this work, Lord Krishna also reveals his identity as the Supreme Being.
Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who lived between 551 and 479 BCE. He emphasized moral social relationships, justice and sincerity. His thoughts are the basis for Confucianism. There are no surviving texts that were authored by Confucius himself, but his ideas and thoughts were compiled in the centuries after his death. The Analects of Confucius contain a collection of teachings ascribed to Confucius.
Though Confucianism was followed as a religion, Confucius did not delve into matters considered the realm of religion such as the nature of the soul. He focused on the importance of study, encouraging his disciples to think on their own and study the outside world. Instead of formalizing religious rites, Confucius taught about moral superiority and ethics.
Nearly two centuries after Confucius' death, Mencius espoused his interpretation of Confucianism. His interpretations have generally been accepted by later Chinese philosophers including the Neo-Confucians. The Mencius, Mencius' main work, contains long dialogues with arguments and lengthy prose. He propagates the theory that there is an innate element of benevolence and goodness instilled in every human being.
The Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) is a text written in classical Chinese that is attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu). It is a fundamental text of philosophical Daoism (also known as Taoism). The text features 81 short poems and lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Taoism emphasizes compassion, moderation and humility and focuses on nature, health and longevity and the relationship between humanity and the cosmos.
The Zhuangzi is another prominent Daoist text. It has been attributed to a Chinese scholar of the same name. However, only some of the 33 chapters of the Zhuangzi work have been attributed to Zhuangzi itself. Many of the chapters have apparently been authored by other scholars. The philosophy espoused in the Zhuangzi argues that life is limited and knowledge unlimited. He negates the purpose of pursuing the unlimited with the limited. The philosophy additionally emphasizes a human's natural disposition that combines with acquired outlooks to guide a person in choosing his or her actions.