In ancient India, in a green mountain valley fed by rushing ice-cold streams, two groups of philosophers sit down to debate in public. Eyeing one another with keenness and memorizing last-minute lines of handwritten text, the pundits wait patiently while hundreds of people gather to watch. Coloured flags curl and snap in the fresh breeze, and the fragrance of incense perfumes the air. The atmosphere is tense with expectation. Between the two contenders is an adjudicator, an expert in the Veda. Sanskrit verses will be recited in quick succession, first the champion from one school and then his opponent.
From quoting verses, the debaters will move on to syllables, arguing over the minute differences between positions of vowels. The adjudicator, always from a third school in a distant village, must be quick to spot any weakness in grammar, logic, rhetoric, and philosophical consistency. Listening for accurate pronunciation, he knows he must be strict but fair. Each school has a lot to win, and the losers may forfeit more than their reputation. He knows that sometimes these matches are over quite quickly, sometimes they take hours with breaks for lunch, and occasionally the event lasts for days.
In some cases, the losing school would have to submit to the other, all the disciples surrendering to the opposing school’s champion as their guru. Along with the intellectual surrender of the entire school came the assets of the school, which in some cases totalled several villages with land, buildings, temples, and revenue. Speaking philosophy was therefore a very serious business. The speaker had to know exactly what he was going to say, and no vague ideas were acceptable. No half-formed, abstract, or poorly articulated notions would be tolerated – the philosopher had to be clear, logical, and systematic in thought and presentation. One declaration had to lead to the next, and the chain of statements to a firm conclusion. Everything had to be supported by verses from the Vedas and grammatical clarity. If the speaker could not prove what he stood for by citing Vedic evidence, the discussion would end there, and the opponent would assume that he had gained a victory.
This method, continued for thousands of years, led to philosophical clarity, razor-sharp presentation skills and a widespread memorisation of large portions of the Veda. It also led to each school placing great emphasis on codifying their conclusive philosophical precepts down into a short list of statements. Each statement would have to be supported with verses from the Veda, and therefore irrefutable. Choice of Veda portions would vary from school to school. The statements could then be memorised by each generation of students, and expanded and commented upon by successive head gurus, or acharyas. The list of terse, philosophical points was known as the school’s siddhanta, or ‘conclusive doctrine.’
The word siddhanta is used in two ways. It can refer either to the entire gamut of teachings and outlook of an individual school, or it can be used to indicate the singular, ultimate, distinguishing feature of such a school. Either way, and well before stepping into the arena of debate, young students would be taught the siddhanta as part of their training. It was essential in their developing a sharpened, intellectual mastery of the theology and grasping the underlying reasons for the specific daily practices of the school. It was also needed to help distinguish one school from another, particularly when schools were established with only shades of difference in their conception or practice. The siddhanta was an expression of the philosophical conclusion and yoga methods of the original guru, sometimes written down hundreds of years before. The students would recite daily a litany of such statements, along with any relevant supporting quotes, particularly verses from the Upanishads and Vedanta Sutra. When they had learned them verbatim, they would debate with each other and then, like newly qualified lawyers, step into the debating arena for the first time.