Taxomies of Religious and Philosophical Knowledge in Classical Sanskrit Literature

Responsible for the postdoc project: Dr. Robert Leach
Funded by: URPP Asia and Europe (2012–2014) / SNSF Project funding (2014–2017)
Project duration: December 2012 – April 2017
Research Field: Concepts and Taxonomies


In Classical Sanskrit literature there are numerous classifications of traditions of religious and philosophical knowledge in which the latter are named, categorised and subsumed under generic terms (such as sastra, vidya, darsana, mata, or siddhanta). Their classification can be understood as attempts to organise an expanding spectrum of knowledge traditions and to confer authority upon some of these by including them within a group with a finite set of members. Very often such groupings entail a taxonomy, an evaluative ordering. This is expressed not only in the exclusion of traditions, but also in the ways in which those included are arranged and related to each other (e.g. hierarchies, horizontal juxtapositions). Taxonomies transport claims of authority and power, as well as ideas of resemblance and difference between traditions. Some of the groupings of traditions were widely accepted and gained a canonical status, others were contested. This project will study historically and systematically these processes of classification and canonisation as well as the taxonomies employed therein. It will focus, in particular, on the history of a classification of five traditions of knowledge (Veda, Samkhya, Yoga, Pañcaratra and Pasupata) which is found in a large number of works belonging to several different genres of Sanskrit literature, but which has not yet received the scholarly attention it deserves. The project will analyse the emergence of this classification of five “knowledges” (jñana), most likely during the pre- or early Gupta period (c. 3rd-4th centuries CE), and its subsequent history in Sanskrit literature. It will also examine the structural and historical relations that adhere between this classification and others that enjoyed similar longevity and even wider circulation, namely the 14 or 18 “places of knowledge” (vidyasthana) and the (ordinarily) six philosophical “views” (darsana). In the final part, the results of this research will be applied to the current scholarly debate on the “pre-history” of the idea of Hinduism in South Asian literary sources. In this debate, the issue as to whether classifications of philosophical and religious traditions in pre-colonial texts indicate that these traditions were regarded as belonging to a common ideological framework or “cultural” (i.e. “Hindu”) identity, plays an important role. The intended project will analyse how traditions of knowledge were classified in India before they were re-grouped, in accordance with European concepts such as “religion” and “philosophy”, during the colonial period. This analysis aims to provide new insights into the ways in which these traditions were evaluated by focussing on the role of structures of taxonomies in Indian intellectual history.