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The 8 Eastern Philosophers

Philosophy majors and minors alike, if they hope to receive a well-rounded look at the diverse
perspectives out there, need to look beyond the more familiar “Western” ideologies. Those
hailing from the “Eastern” world have held just as much of a global impact over religion,
politics, art, science, and more, making them well worth academic inquiry. Far, far more than
eight names left their mark on the philosophy and culture of Asia, of course, but anyone just
launching their studies might find the following a reasonable start.

1 Lao Tzu

The founder of Taoism outlined all the tenets of his globally


beloved philosophy in the Tao Te Chingsometime between the 6th
and 4th centuries B.C. — and some even debate whether or not he
was a real or apocryphal individual. In his most influential (to put it
mildly) work, he touts the concept of the Tao, an invisible structure
which drives all things, and believes enlightenment comes from attaining oneness with the
surrounding universe. Harmony with nature as opposed to working against its will forms the
crux of this religious and philosophical approach, making it ideal for anyone hoping to
reduce stresses in their lives.

2 Siddhartha Gautama

Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama probably lived around the 6th or


5th century B.C., but even today his spiritual guidance inspires
millions of practitioners globally. He only founded Buddhism, after all.
Although details of his life will likely remain disputed for a while yet,
the Four Noble Truths Buddha taught stay largely static. The philosophy and faith encourages
the pursuit of these principles through as many lifetimes as it takes to finally achieve perfect
bliss and knowledge in Nirvana.
3 Confucius

In his Analects — and, some theorize, the Five Classics (Spring and
Autumn Annals, Classic of Poetry, Classic of Changes, Classic of Rites,
and Classic of History) — this 6th and 5th century B.C. thinker
promoted ancestor worship, strong filial bonds, and considerate living.
Many of the parables and maxims shared in Confucius’ writings
espouse humanistic ideologies, placing the well-being of all over the needs of the few. Li, an
ethical framework encouraging the populace to behave appropriately, serves as the best
introduction to his philosophies for beginners hoping to learn more.

4 Rumi

Rumi’s poetry and philosophy regarding Sufi mysticism directly led to


the establishment of the Mewlewi Sufi Order, known to most of the
“Western” world as the “Whirling Dervishes,” following his passing.
During the 13th century, lush lyrical works such as the
collections Matnawiye Ma’nawi and Diwan-e Kabir explored spirituality
so intensely, so provocatively, much of the Islamic intellectual and
creative world at the time found him absolutely inspiring. For him and his followers, faith stood
as a deeply personal journey with minimal adherence to a rigid doctrine.

5 Sun Tzu

The Art of War sits on the shelves of colonels and CEOs alike because
its details of successful psychological strategies hold applications far
beyond the battlefield. Although, of course, militaries across Asia —
especially those in China, Japan, and Vietnam — used it to dictate the
direction of everything from small skirmishes to the revolution against
French colonials. Unlike most (but not all!) of the other major “Eastern” philosophers, Sun Tzu’s
advice and aphorisms never touched upon spiritual matters, but remained largely planted in
terra firma.
6 Mulla Sadra

He can’t be credited for launching the 17th century Iranian


Renaissance, but scholars generally consider Sadr ad-Din Muhammad
Shirazi its most significant contributor. A Shia, he penned a library’s
worth of literature pulling from previous Islamic philosophers and
scientists and melting them together into one overarching mindset many cite as the direct
ancestor of the later existentialist movement. The Transcendent Philosophy of the Four
Journeys of the Intellect took nearly a quarter-century to compile, and covers a good chunk of
history and Mulla Sadra’s influences, partnered with encyclopedic commentary.

7 Mao Zedong

Maoism synthesized Marxist and Leninist philosophies with the


unique needs of China and forever altered the course of world
history and geopolitics after its namesake initiated the Chinese
Revolution of 1949. Through books such as On Guerilla
Warfare and On New Democracy (among others), he swayed the
citizenry toward communist ideals and instigated the Great Leap Forward and Cultural
Revolution which wiped out millennia of academia and art in favor of something very new
and very different. Religion and philosophy — particularly those promoted by some of the
others listed here — received considerable suppression as the nation’s attentions zoomed
in on industrialization and modernization.

8 Guru Nanak Dev

Sikhism dates back to roughly 1499, when its founder Guru Nanak Dev
— also known as the faith’s first great leader — disappeared for
several days and returned with the belief that Hindus and Muslims
have it all wrong. From there, he traversed across his native Pakistan
and beyond preaching the virtues of worshiping a single deity through
honest, simple, and devout actions revolving around humility and ensuring the safety and well-
being of others. Although Guru Arjan Dev (the fifth of the first ten gurus) is credited with
compiling the Sikh’s sacred text Guru Granth Sahib, the book hews closely to the originating
philosophies.