Indian philosophy can be quite complex. Yet, it has many great insights into the nature of man and universe – the macrocosm and the microcosm. So, here’s a simplified (highly simplified!) guide to the history of Indian philosophy, to get you started.
First, let’s start with the word “Vedanta”, which literally means “end of the Vedas” in Sanskrit. This word is used to define the corpus of texts that include the Upanishads. The Upanishads are not separate texts in themselves. They are the portions of the Vedas that deal with philosophy and similar matters, separated from the main texts of the Vedas. The Vedas themselves – the oldest of which is the Rig Veda – are huge texts and are vast in their scope. They cover everything from history, legends and lore, religion, philosophy, farming, advice on lifestyle matters and so forth. The Upanishads therefore concern themselves only with the philosophical aspects.
The Vedas were put into writing between 3500 BC and 1000 BC, and the Upanishads began to be put together from around 1200 BC to 500 BC. Several aspects of Hindu life were incorporated into the Vedas towards the end of the 3500-1000BC timeline. These were taken from the Dravidian society that already existed in India before the Vedas were even composed. For example, the Maha Mrityunjaya Jaap, a hymn to Lord Shiva, is found in the later Vedas but not the earlier ones.
The Upanishads can be split into five groups or schools, namely Samkara, Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabha. These are the primary schools of Vedanta, and each express a slightly different world-view, though they are all based on the philosophy proposed by the Upanishads. The Upanishads form the stem from which these various branches grow.
The Upanishads share many characteristics with the philosophy of Buddhism and Jainism. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha and the founder of Jainism, Mahavira the Theerthankara, were both contemporaneous to the composition of the Upanishads, and thus had similar influences on society. The Vedas on the other hands represent a world-view of the Indo-European tribes migrating from their homelands in the Central Asian steppes, and seeking out new pastures and living space in the regions of the northern Indian subcontinents, and what is today, Iran and Iraq.
These are the two main aspects of the Indian scriptures. Other concepts are also found but they are generally embedded within the epics and stories such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. These are known as the Itihas or history, while the Upanishads are known as Smritis and Shrutis.