Samkhya: Part One: The Beginnings

03 Oct

[I am posting a series of about four articles on the Samkhya School of thought with particular reference to Samkhya Karika, a text dated around the second century. These articles are in honor of my friend Shri DSampath, a teacher well versed in Samkhya; as a token of friendship and appreciation of a good person. I trust he will find these readable .

I have written as I have understood the Samkhya. I am aware there are various versions and traditions of the Samkhya; and my rendering may not please all. And therefore, it is open to attacks. I accept that position.]

A. The Early stages

The Origins

1.1. Samkhya is regarded the most ancient of the Indian Schools of thought. Many scholars believe the beginnings of the Samkhya pre-date the Vedas and Upanishads. That might be so; but it is rather difficult to pinpoint its origin. The Samkhya concepts might have emerged over a long period of time and been in circulation as streams of speculative intuitions. The origins of certain terms which later played a significant role in the unfolding of the Samkhya traditions, according to some, can even be traced back to an ancient group of wandering or itinerant ascetics, known as Vratyas who perhaps were pre-Vedic and chose to disassociate from the ritualistic aspects of the Vedic tradition.

1.2. It is generally accepted that Samkhya and Yoga sprang from a common nucleus. Both had their origins outside the Vedic fold. But, in terms of chronology, it is likely Samkhya as a collection of concepts was older than Yoga as a set of disciplines. It is often said that Yoga is indebted to Samkhya; because, Yoga in its early phase represented the ascetic practices (karma) of the ancient Vratyas; and, had its theoretical foundations in Samkhya (jnana). The two systems were fused together for a very long period. Mahabharata described the two as ’ancient twins’ (sanatane dve).

Bhagavad-Gita (5.4-5) declares: “The ignorant differentiate between Samkhya and Yoga; not the wise. He who considers the two as integrated has the right insight. He who applies himself well to one will reap the fruits of both.” But, in the context of the Bhagavad-Gita, Samkhya stands for renunciation (samnyasa) which has its roots in knowledge (jnana) and is basically withdrawal from action (nivrtti).Yoga, here stands for performance (pravrtti) of actions (karma).

Even after they were segregated and systematized into two distinct streams of thought (darshana) they continued to be mentioned in one breath as Samkhya-Yoga; and treated virtually as one. For instance, as late as in the fourteenth century, Madhava in his Sarva-darshana-sangraha described Yoga as Patanjala-Samkhya (the Samkhya of Patanjali) and also as Sesvara-Samkhya (theistic Samkhya). The philosophical Yoga is at times called Samkhya-pravachana an explanation of the Samkhya.

1.3. An attempt to trace the origin of Samkhya – Yoga to any one group or to any one tradition would be rather naive or simplistic. These two systems emerged from a churning of variety of traditions, speculations, concepts and practices. They later evolved, modified and were absorbed into various other traditions. After they were synthesized or absorbed, they acquired the hues, textures and cantors of the host traditions. As a result of that, it is very difficult now to specify and pinpoint an origin or a pristine form of Samkhya or Yoga. The true form of these systems is shrouded in a mist of myths, speculations and varied practices.

The Beginnings

2.1. Samkhya sprang out from a variety of traditions, both orthodox and heterodox. And, all those traditions attempted to find the ultimate or the inner-most essence of man. There might have been a number of tentative beginnings to classify and put together those diffusive, speculative streams of thought. It was only at a much later period that the many motifs, trends and ideas from a variety of contexts got assimilated into a composite system, which came to be known as Samkhya traditions or the Samkhya School of thought.

3.1. One may come across mention of Samkhya-like terms such as Pradhana (RV: 10.82.06) and Tamas (RV 10.129.03)    in Rig Veda.  Among the Upanishads: the Chandogya mentions the Gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) which perhaps originated as Samkhya concepts; the Katha Upanishad refers to categories of matter as they would appear in Samkhya; and, Svetasvatara refers to term  Samkhya and its principal figure Kapila by name (6.13). It also mentions number of Samkhya terms, such as: vyakta, a-vyakta, and Jna (1.8) as also Pradhana, Prakrti and Guna (1-10; 4-10; and 1-13).

3.2. Srimad-Bhagavata-purana (11.22) as also Mahabharata (12: 203-204; 219) discusses certain Samkhya concepts, but with significant variations (we shall come to those variations later). Bhagavad-Gita too picks up some basic aspects of Samkhya, and discusses those at various places, but, again, with its own variations and connotations. Mahabharata in fact remarks there is no knowledge like Samkhya; and no power like the Yoga (MB-Shanthiparva: 316-02).

4.1. However, what is significant is that all those references to Samkhya-like terms in the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, the epics and other texts,  including the Svetasvatara Upanishad,  were meant largely as metaphysical idioms or spiritual methodologies, but not as philosophical positions of a system titled Samkhya. Such terms were employed by the texts in their own context, carrying their own undertones. It is also likely that such terms or trends of thought or concepts later got assimilated into what came to be known as Samkhya system. Such processes perhaps suggest that monistic trends in Vedic thought and dualistic concepts of Samkhya had common origins.

4.2. Similarly, references to Yoga-like terms in those texts do not imply existence of a classical Yoga system as of Patanjali. But, those references were meant to suggest a cluster of practices and attitudes which emphasize importance of self-discipline, meditation and concentration in order to attain salvation.

4.3. In addition, there are no references in Vedas to the typical Samkhya concept of Dukkha being the nature of life, or to reliance on karma; as also to the doctrines of cause and effect (satkarya-vada), un-manifest matter (mula-prakrti) and the evolution or transformation of matter (tattva-vikara).More importantly, the notions of treating the Man as the focal interest of the world, or to examine the world from the point of view of Man’s consciousness do not find place in the orthodox texts. It is therefore apparent that during the Vedic and Upanishad times, Samkhya had not yet emerged as an independent cognizable system of thought. And, it is also likely that an independent tradition of non-theism was taking shape during the Mahabharata era.

It seems likely that the basic Samkhya doctrines crystallized during the period between the late Upanishads and the emergence of Buddhism (6th century BC).

B. Vedas and Samkhya

5.1. Among the systems that took shape in the Indian traditions, Samkhya was perhaps the first to be systematized; and, that marked an important watershed in history of Indian thought. Samkhya was perhaps the first attempt to present a philosophical position in a cohesive and a persuasive manner.

Kautilya refers to Samkhya as one of the forms of anviksiki. The concept of anviksiki in the ancient context refers to an analytical method of explaining or delineating a subject by a systematic enumeration and reasoning. The practice of anviksiki may not strictly be called a ‘philosophy’; but, it is a sort of enquiry through systematic enumeration of the basic principles. Such enumeration was employed in various field of study such as phonology, grammar, state-craft, medicine, law, iconography etc. Sometimes, such enumerations also came to be called as Tantra, meaning a systematic method (or a shastra or Vidya). The method employed certain devices (Yukthi) in order to elaborate on the subject. For instance; a brief statement of purpose (uddeshya) was followed by a lengthy exposition of the position (nirdesha), an etymological explanation (nirvachana), the proper order or sequence in enumerating the subject (vidhana) and so forth. Arthashatra   as also the Samhitas of Charaka and Sushruta provide a list of such methods and devices. (Perhaps it is because Samkhya followed the anviksiki , its texts  came to be known as Tantra)

The Samkhya depiction is characterized by its concern for the means of knowing (pramana); care to define its technical terms; putting forward an argument cogently; and to  project a consistent system of thought. In contrast to that, one can describe the philosophical gleanings that one comes across in the earlier texts — Vedas and Upanishads – as speculative intuitions having the sanction of authority; they are not well structured into arguments putting forward coherent systems of philosophies.

5.2. There are other distinguishing factors as well between the Vedas and the Samkhya. Vedas are expansive in their attitude, picturesque in depiction; and speculate on the nature of god, the human spirit; relation between the human and the universe; and, oneness of human spirit with the all-compassing cosmic principle. It aimed to communicate with the natural forces symbolized into deities through the medium of elaborate rituals; and to find long lasting happiness in heavens in the company of gods and ancestors. The Vedic poets were highly dexterous users of the words; gifted with the superb ability to express human ideals and aspirations in pristine poetry truly remarkable for its literary virtuosity.

5.3. The early Samkhya, in sharp contrast, refused to speculate on god and rejected the scriptures and rituals as means for human attainments. It stepped aside cosmological explanations or implications.  It affirmed the existence of the objective-world; emphasized the world has to be understood in the context of human existence; and said the world is inextricably wound up with the presence of human existence. One has to therefore deal with the world positively.

Samkhya attention was confined to human situation, particularly to the elimination of human suffering. Samkhya view of human existence marked a departure from the Vedic view. It gave credence to distinguishing characteristics of each individual; and recognized that each person is unique and operates within his or her own sphere of action, influenced by one’s own tendencies and urges. Samkhya was the first system to focus on the nature of Dukkha and on the study of consciousness.

It set its objective as release of Man from Dukkha suffering. It considered human being as a psycho-physical unity.  It examined the human body-mind complex from the point of view of consciousness. The question framed by Samkhya is: How to understand the various forms of experience, including that of the objective world, with reference to the consciousness of man?  Samkhya kept away from idealism; its approach was rather unemotional, clinical and analytical. Its account was pragmatic and terse, rather too terse. The stringent economy in use of words sadly lent scope to multiple interpretations, a result not surely intended by the Samkhya teachers.

5.4. The early Samkhya was uniquely human. Yoga and Samkhya each in its early phase: emphasized reliance on human effort; treated Man as the focal interest of the world; kept gods out of the scheme of things; did not even mention divine grace; believed that the man’s place in this world depends upon his inclinations and the becoming of a man is determined by his fundamental strivings which reside in him; stressed human striving as vital to eliminate suffering; and, asserted that it is possible to attain that goal within one’s lifetime, within human framework and experience. Samkhya said, the means of release from suffering is ‘effective discrimination’ which enables to understand the distinction between the seer (drastr) and the seen; and separates consciousness from everything else; and Yoga attempted to provide techniques that help attaining the objective.

That is to say; while sämkhya is the intellectual or reasoning method, Yoga is the method of spiritual discipline and ascetic practices. The follower of sämkhya is one who reasons or discriminates properly, one whose spiritual discipline is meditative reasoning (sämkhya-yoga-adhigamya).

6.1. Every School of philosophy reacted with Samkhya. Almost all the Schools employed the terms and concepts generated by Samkhya (e.g. guna, vyakta, avyakta etc), but in their own context, with their own variations; and not necessarily as references to the Samkhya system. Almost all the major Schools discussed the Samkhya streams of thought; some agreed with Samkhya, but a lot others found fault with its assumptions and carried on fierce intellectual battles attacking Samkhya. But, none ignored the Samkhya.


Continued– Next: Samkhya Teachers–

References and Sources

Early Indian Thought by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Classical Samkhya by Gerald James Larson

Samkhya Karika by Swami Virupakshananada

The Samkhya Karika


Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Samkhya


Tags: , , , ,

10 responses to “Samkhya: Part One: The Beginnings

  1. scribeinthehouse

    March 4, 2014 at 2:46 pm

    Dear Sir,

    I am amazed to find the wealth of knowledge on your blog. I am finding these articles on Samkhya particularly useful as I am currently struggling to understand how and where the Samkhya school of thought fits into the elaborate puzzle of Indian philosophy.

    I have read the Samkhya Karika and I am now reading the Samkhya Sutra Bhashya & Vritti as translated by Nandlal Sinha. Would it be possible to ask you some questions regarding the same?

    Thank you for sharing your hard work and extensive knowledge with the world.


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 4, 2014 at 3:14 pm

      Dear S
      I am glad you read this and delighted that you found it useful.
      Kindly go through the entire Series on Sankhya.
      It might , on the way , answer some your questions.

      Please do send me specific questions.
      I shall attempt to answer to the extent of my understanding.


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 3:27 am


    the existential philosophy
    seem to have evolved form the band of free thinkers..
    the roots are on humanism and is a very
    ruthless look into the conditions of dukka of the world.. the
    accent on consciousness and the
    visible and invisible talks of the much later psychology of jung and others..

    i am very shallow in my knowledge through hearsay i have learnt form doyen’s like you
    his particular blog on the origin and the origin ( original thinkers and wanderers ..)
    and the linkage with yoga and the ability of man to alleviate his condition..
    has clarified things to me… now i know why i have been so attracted to samkya..
    polease elucidete on
    and vyaktam
    and other constructs..
    happy diwali to you..


    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 3:27 am

      Dear Shri Sampath, I am glad you read. Yes, as you said the Samkhya had its roots in many soils; and it may have had its early origins in the group of free thinkers too. It is uniquely human and tries to understand consciousness and to look at the world from the point of view of an individual’s consciousness. Its basic objective is to eliminate Dukkha. Yet, it chose to step aside scriptures and rituals.

      I have tried to avoid technical terms, as much as possible; and also refrained from mentioning certain branded terms, say like existentialism etc. The idea is to put across the thing as it really is without bringing in the present day notions. I hope it works.

      As regards the concepts of Samkhya let’s talk about them a little later. Next, let’s get to know of Samkhya teachers.

      Thanks for reading. Wish you all a Very Happy Deepavali.


  3. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 3:29 am

    i could be wrong, but a vague memory of kapila samhita, if it is the same kapila you are refering to he puts the marga, of atmashakshatkar, as jnana, and bhakti,
    Jnana being masculine for with knowledge comes a certain arrogance or corruptability it is not unconditional.
    while bhakti, being feminine like the maternal love which conditional.

    Sharmila pn

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 3:29 am

      Dear Sharmila, All Samkhya traditions accept Sage Kapila as the principal person of the Samkhya way of seeing (darshana).There is much debate whether Kapila was a historical person or a mythical figure .As regards the Kapila Samhitha you mentioned , it is a text dated around fourteenth century and deals mainly with temples , gods etc. It is in vogue in Orissa. It is not a Samkhya text. Thanks for reading. Wish you a very Happy Deepavali. Regards

  4. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 3:30 am

    When we read all about our ancient teachings, which have been relevant to each age, it really fills me with wonder. Just imagine how many generations of thought and learning must be behind it. Such great thoughts could not have just come overnight. We have a very ,very ancient tradition:)

    Lakshmi M Bhat

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 19, 2015 at 3:30 am

      Dear Lakshmi M Bhat , Yes maa, I agree it is a very long tradition that have flown down the ages. Thanks for reading. Regards

  5. sreenivasaraos

    March 19, 2015 at 3:30 am

    dear sreenivasa rao garu
    as i read this
    i discover newer meanings..
    your works need to be preserved.they are so
    full of unearthed details



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