W. Samkhya and Buddhism
50.1. Samkhya and Samkhya-like ideas certainly predate emergence of Buddhism. One of the teachers of the Buddha is said to have taught a doctrine that resembled Samkhya. There are certain similarities between Samkhya and the early Buddhism. It is likely each influenced the other, in their later stages. That does not however mean that Buddhism is the same as Samkhya. Their dissimilarities are perhaps more significant than their similarities.
50.2. The similarities between Samkhya and the early Buddhism could briefly be mentioned as: acceptance of the notion that life is characterized by suffering; rejection of the notion of absolute God; rejection of the concept of soul; emphasis on individual rather on cosmic; similarity in the theories of evolution; similarity in the view of the world as a constantly becoming and changing phenomena; acceptance of the concept of Gunas; acceptance of the Satkarya vada that the effect resides in its cause; similarity in enumeration of the basic elements or components of nature; similarity in the notions of liberation kaivalya or nirvana; rejection of both the Vedic authority and the validity of rituals; rejection of extreme practices and self torture etc.
50.3. In each of these similarities the Buddhist projections appear more radical or perhaps more elaborate. Having said that let me also mention that such similarities are not unique to Samkhya and Buddhism alone. One finds such features generally among other ancient Indian Schools too. For instance, the adoption of enumeration of various components of nature was a well accepted method among other systems of thought; rejection of Vedic authority and its ritualistic attitude was also a feature of other rational schools; the notion of aloofness kaivalya absolute independence was also the ideal of Jains. Similarly, the theories of Karma, Gunas and such other beliefs were commonly accepted by most schools.
50.4. But one similarity which is rather striking is the emphasis on Dukkha suffering and its eradication. That was the stated objective of both the systems. Buddhism however made that the central point of its doctrine. The Buddha’s second and the fourth postulates on the origination of sorrow and the methods of elimination of sorrow are his original contribution to Indian thought; the former being his philosophical stand point and the latter his religious system.
50.5. The other distinctive characteristics of Buddhism are the emphasis on compassion and ethics. . The Buddha asserted that it is not adequate if one merely focuses on elimination of suffering; but one must acquire the skill of probing the nature of the object. Those efforts must essentially be rooted in ethics and a wholesome mental state. The cultivation of the four sublime virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic Joy, and equanimity is of great importance.
50.6. The Samkhya abandons the idea of the existence of the absolute, but it retains the idea of spirit (Purusha) and of material world (Prakrti); the Buddhism, on the other hand abandoned both these two conceptions, and retained only the fleeting series of mental states (stream of consciousness) as a quasi reality, In either case there is effort to disown the human psycho-physical apparatus and its functioning.
51.1. Samkhya teaches that we should look beyond our personal affinities with Prakrti and realize the timeless unchanging nature of our true self, which resides beyond Prakrti as Purusha the pure consciousness. This realization can be understood as the reverse process of evolution back into the Purusha. Whereupon the Purusha is established in its own nature as kaivalya solitary and independent, indifferently observing the natural world.
51.2. Early Buddhism as also Samkhya attempted to do away with the illusion that empherical ego is the real Self; though the Buddha remained silent on the question of Self as also on the question of nirvana. But, the Buddha’s studious disapproval of metaphysical discussion on these aspects did not seem to have yielded the results he desired. Because, his silence spurred series of speculations in the later Buddhist Schools; and caused much confusion and bewilderment.
51.3 . The nature of Nirvana is perhaps the most debated issue of Buddhist philosophy, probably because the Buddha himself refused to speculate on it. His attitude was, in effect: If you want to know what nirvana is like, then experience it. But clearly Nirvana does not involve the isolation of a pure consciousness as in the case of Samkhya, because there is no such thing as permanent consciousness in early Buddhism. The unique feature of Buddhism is that there is no permanent Self at all, and never was; there are only five skandhas, “heaps” of elements, which constantly interact. It is significant that the skandhas do not constitute a Self; the sense of a Self is merely an illusion created by their interaction. The Buddha emphasized that one should not identify anything as the Self.
[The following are few chosen extracts from Introduction to the Modern Samkhya: Ancient Spirituality for the Contemporary Atheist, written by Douglas Osto, a member of the Philosophy Programme in the School of Humanities, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand; and, one who specializes in Indian Mahayana Buddhism, South Asian religions and philosophies, contemporary Buddhist and Hindu practice,
The goal of his book, as Prof. Osto says, is to present a manual of “Modern Sāṃkhya” for use as a path toward transcending personal suffering; a practical guidebook for activating Sāṃkhya philosophy; and, to serve as a tool for transcending suffering.
Sāṃkhya and Buddhism
Although both Sāṃkhya and Buddhism emerged from the same historical context in ancient India and share a number of important features characteristic of the renouncer traditions, the two have followed substantial different paths since.
Buddhism eventually traveled beyond India and spread throughout all of Asia ; and, in the modern period has undergone profound changes during its transmission to the West.
Sāṃkhya, on the other hand, while exerting a profound influence on India thought throughout the centuries, never took root beyond India ; and , has all but become extinct as an independent religious philosophy in the modern period.
One of the most profound changes to occur to Buddhism in its encounter with modernity has been termed “psychologization“, whereby Buddhism is viewed as psychology; and, its mythological and traditional aspects are either downplayed or ignored. This has in turn led to the “Buddhicization” of psychology, whereby growing numbers of psychologists use Buddhist concepts and techniques for therapeutic reasons.
We see this most clearly in the “mindfulness” craze that has entered mainstream psychology in the United States. Thus a de-traditionalized, psychologized Buddhism is now firmly entrenched within the American medical and psycho-therapeutic communities.
Another aspect of this new Buddhism is the downplaying or complete ignoring of the world-renouncing aspects of Buddhism, in favor of the “this-worldly” benefits of Buddhism
The above comments are not meant as a criticism of modern Buddhism or how it is used by some people in the contemporary world. Rather it is to point out that religions and religious philosophies are constantly undergoing changes and transformations in order to adapt to the needs of people. These days renouncing the world to become a wandering ascetic is not a viable option for most people living in modern, industrialized societies.
Moreover, few people would choose to give up all their worldly possessions, emotional attachments, erotic relationships, and family ties to pursue a transcendent state beyond space, time, death and decay. However, what many people today want as much as the ancient Indian renouncers is to live a life free from suffering, and attain some type of lasting happiness.]
X. Samkhya and Vedanta
52.1. Even prior to the emergence of Samkhya as a system , the Samkhya-like ideas and terms appeared in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the epics and other texts .This suggests that the monistic trends in Vedic thought and dualistic concepts of Samkhya had common origins.
52.2. But Samkhya as a doctrine was ever distinct from the Vedic stream of speculative intuitions. 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.
52.3. The Samkhya separated itself from the scripture- based Vedanta and preferred to be a group of reason-based free thinkers with only a loose scriptural affiliation. But, the Samkhya never rejected the Veda completely unlike the Buddhists and the Jains; but, it maintained that Vedas cannot be accepted as unquestioned sole authority. Besides, the Samkhya brand of atheism never collapsed into the materialism of Charvakas and naturalists (Lokayatas). Samkhya always maintained spiritual and salvation-oriented outlook.
52.4. Though both the Upanishads and Samkhya identified knowledge (jnana) and effective discrimination (viveka) as the means for attaining human aspirations, which is realizing one’s true identity, Samkhya was dualistic to its core, whereas the Upanishads adopted a non-dual approach saying that the absolute consciousness encompasses the entire universe; everything that resides in it is but a transformation of that principle.
53.1. The Samkhya insisted that the individual consciousness, the true identity of man , is distinct from everything else and there are infinite number of such unit consciousness. It said consciousness (Purusha) which sees the world (Prakrti) is separate from what it sees. It asserted that confusing the seer for the seen or mixing both is the cause for man’s suffering.
53.2. Vedanta, on the other hand, asserted the notion of identity of the individual consciousness and the Universal consciousness. It declared that the entire manifest universe is an expression or transformation of that absolute consciousness. Vedanta sharply differed from the Samkhya theory of evolution of the manifest world as emanating through a series of causes and effects.
53.3. Samkhya maintains two independent realities and infinite numbers of Purushas. Vedanta does not accept two infinite-s and multiplicity of Souls.
The extreme form of dualism between subject and object was seen as a basic inadequacy of Samkhya as it left no room for coexistence of the two categories.
53.4. The later variations of the Samkhya School attempted to resolve these difficulties by (1) conceiving Purushas not as distinct from each other, but as various aspects or reflections of one unitary consciousness; and (2) conceiving Prakrti not as distinct from this unified consciousness, but as an aspect of it.
But this, of course, transformed Samkhya into a completely different system; because, it gives up the basic dualism of Purusha and Prakrti.
53.5. With these modifications Samkhya came to resemble the monistic system of Sri Shankara. It was also rendered theistic with Samkhya accepting the existence of a Supreme Being (Parama Purusha) the God. But, these adaptations rendered Samkhya acceptable to Vedic Schools; and Samkhya came to be regarded, since about the sixteenth century, as one of the six accepted Schools of traditional Indian philosophies (Darshana).
53.6. With or without its modifications, Samkhya is a very important School of thought; and has contributed to the richness, profundity and breadth of the Indian philosophy. The explanations and elaborations offered by most other Schools of Indian thought are based in the foundations provided by the terms and concepts provided by the Samkhya.
Swami Vivekananda in his exposition of Samkhya philosophy aptly remarked, “If we take into consideration Advaita Vedanta, then our argument will be that the Samkhya is not a perfect generalization …and yet all glory really belongs to the Samkhya. It is very easy to give a finishing touch to a building when it is constructed.”
Y. Kaivalya, Nirvana and Moksha
54.1. Samkhya, Buddhism and Vedanta are the three most important philosophical systems. The three together represent almost the whole of Indian philosophies. Nearly every shade of metaphysical discussion revolves round these three pillars. They may also be viewed as three basic ways of resolving the relation that exists between God and world; Man and God; Man and world; and in general the nature of relation between subject and object.
54.2. All the three systems regard realizing ones true identity and gaining release from suffering of all sorts as the goal of human evolution. There are similarities as also differences among the three modes of inquiry. All the three instruct the individual to avoid identifying with any physical or mental phenomenon but to let-go all identities. All three agree that enlightenment – variously called as kaivalya, nirvana or moksha- is not an intellectual construct. They point out that liberation cannot be attained through theoretical knowledge of the scriptures because it is a state that is beyond all categories of thought. In other words, enlightenment or liberation is beyond philosophies. Enlightenment is an experience.
55.1. The question is: since all the three systems regard enlightenment as a state beyond intellect, are they all referring to the same experience or whether there are different kinds of enlightenment?
That question arises because the basic tenets and methods of the three systems are irreconcilably different. Samkhya is dualistic; the early Buddhism may be considered pluralistic; while, Advaita Vedanta is monistic.
55.2. Samkhya is the most radical possible dualism between subject and its object. The separation between the two (Purusha and Prakrti) is so extreme that the system-connect virtually fails because the two neither can come together nor communicate with each other.
55.3. Early Buddhism attempts to combine subject into object. Consciousness according to Buddhism has no independent existence; it is something that is conditioned and arising out of the interaction with other factors (skandas). Buddhism does not believe in a permanent Self. The Self is merely an illusion created by the interaction of the five aggregates (skandas). The Self shrinks to nothing and there is only a void; but the Void is not a thing — it expresses the fact that there is absolutely nothing, no-thing at all, which can be identified as the Self.
Both Samkhya and Buddhism focus on the individual and do not discuss cosmic aspects of existence. Both are basically radical and dualistic in their approach. And, both disregard the Vedas, Vedic authority and its rituals.
55.4. Advaita Vedanta on the other hand conflates object into subject. There is nothing external to Brahman, the One without a second. Since Brahman is a non-dual, self-luminous consciousness, it encompasses the entire universe. And the universe is nothing but the transformation of Brahman. Everything is the Self the Brahman.
56.1. What do kaivalya, nirvana or moksha mean in these systems
According to Samkhya, the Purusha in its true form is ever pure and ever-present. The Arhat, said the Buddha, is “deep, immeasurable, and unfathomable, like the mighty ocean.” The Brahman of Vedanta is an infinite pure consciousness pervading everywhere.
The Samkhya ideal of attaining enlightenment (Kaivalya) is described as Discriminative Knowledge (Viveka-khyāti). It consists in Purusha (pure consciousness) realizing its distinction from Prakrti (everything else) with instruction of Buddhi (knowledge of discrimination).Ignorance (Aviveka) is failure to differentiate Purusa (Jnasvarupa) as distinct from the intellect, ego, mind and other modifications of Prakrti. Liberation (Kaivalya) in Samkhya is neither the acquisition of a new state, nor the shaking of an old one. It is only the disappearance of the conditioned factors of Aviveka, ignorance or the wrong-knowledge. The state of liberation is named as Kaivalya (aloneness) because the Purusa enjoys unique aloofness in its splendid isolation.
But, Kaivalya which is essentially based in dualism was viewed as an inadequacy of the Samkhya. The Yoga which has its theoretical base in Samkhya sought to correct the position. In Samadhi the pure consciousness becomes one with the object of meditation. The distinctions between the knower, knowing and the known is obliterated .It is akin to the Advaita ideal of realizing the whole universe as the Self.
56.2. Nirvana is also the realization of the true nature of Reality – of being, non-being and becoming. The term Nirvana derived from the root va (to blow like the wind) qualified by a negative prefix nir denotes a state of motionless rest where no wind blows, where the fire has been quenched, where the light is extinguished and where the stars have gone out .The Buddha explained it with a simile of an oil-lamp sinking upon itself and expiring when its fuel has been consumed .Nirvana suggests a state of emptiness and nothingness. At the same time Nirvana is described as a state of blessedness, unbound peace and deliverance.
Nirvana is characterized as a state beyond conditioned consciousness, beyond the ceaseless motion of life (Samsara). It is the absolute extinction of suffering and attainment of unique intuitive wisdom ( Prajna or Pannā). The Buddha however refused to speculate on the nature of it. We therefore do not really know how the Buddha understood Nirvana. The Pali Canon speaks of a state beyond all conceptual thoughts; and yet, it could be experienced in meditation.
But nirvana does not seem to involve the isolation of a pure consciousness, (as in the case of Samkhya) because such concept is not present in the early Buddhism. The concept of a permanent Self is also not there. The Buddha emphasized that one should not identify anything as the Self. Nirvana, in essence is complete freedom by abandoning all sensations, all perceptions, all volitions, and acts of consciousness. It is a state of bliss which is entirely different from and free from all that exists in the Samsara.
The Buddhist Nirvana is not the eternal essence, which is the basis of everything and from which the whole world has arisen (like the Brahman of the Upanishads) but the reverse of all that we know, something altogether different which must be characterized as a nothing in relation to the world, but which is experienced as highest bliss by those who have attained to it (Anguttara Nikaya, Navaka-nipata 34).
56.3. Vedanta says Brahman is One without a second; Brahman is unbound there is nothing outside it. For Sri Shankara, moksha, liberation, is the realization that I am, and always have been, Brahman. One does not attain or merge with this Brahman; one merely realizes that one has always been Brahman. Sri Shankara uses the analogy of the space within a closed jar: that space has always been one with all space; their separateness is nothing but a construct (kalpana vishesha)
57.1. On the face of it the early Buddhism and Vedanta appear to have serious differences. While Buddhism does not believe in a Self, Vedanta says everything is the Self. There is apparently no consciousness in nirvana, but everything is consciousness in moksha. The one appears to be the mirror image of the other. They are extreme positions, trying to resolve the relation between the Self and the non-self by conflating the one into the other. The not-self of Buddhism holds within it the Self; while the Self of Advaita swallows the not-self.
57. 2. How different are they? Or do they mean the same thing in reverse?
It perhaps depends on the way one looks at it. In either case there is no duality between the object (that which is observed) or the subject (that which observes).If you look at it in another way there is not a great deal of difference between the two systems.
In both the systems the right understanding is the key to salvation. It is the right understanding that liberates. In Vedanta, one does not attain or merge with this Brahman; one merely realizes that one has always been Brahman. Similarly in Buddhism too one does not achieve anything new, but realizes ones true nature (or Buddha nature) as being always been pure and unstained. All that one needs to do is to realize that fact.
The concept of Shunya emptiness of later Buddhism is rather fascinating. Shunyata transcends human thoughts and speech. In Mahayana Buddhism shunyata, emptiness not merely refers to the absence of a Self but is also the fundamental characteristic of all reality; shunyata is the category which corresponds to the Vedanta concept of Brahman.
57.3. But can shunyata be reconciled with the One without a second?
Yes, it can be done. The explanation offered is that there is essentially only one thing; and to put it more accurately it is not even one in the numerical sense. We cannot say that it is One, yet, we cannot say it is not one, not two or not any number. The term selected by Vedanta to give expression to its idea of Reality is: ‘it is not two’ (a-dvaita).
To call it One, is just a way of saying that it is a unity and there is nothing outside it — no duality of a subject and an object. The it (tat) would not even be aware of itself as being one or being alone. It is absolute wholeness. In another way of saying, because there is nothing outside it, its phenomenal experience would be of nothing or nothing, which is shunyata.
58.1. There are some passages in the Pali Canon which almost sound Vedanta- like. Its language too resemble the mysticism of Vedanta
There is Oh disciples an unborn, un-originated, uncreated and unformed. Were it not there … Oh disciples,.. there would be no possibility of existence of the world of the born, generated, created and formed.(Udana 8.3)
The great ocean is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable..So also the Perfect One is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable as the great ocean. (Samyutta Nikaya 4)
He who has gone to rest, no measure can fathom him.
Yajnavalkya explains: For where there is a duality, as it were (iva), there one sees another…. But when, verily, everything has become just one’s own self, then what could one see and through what… Through what could one know that owing to which all this is known? So, through what could one understand the Understander? This Self… is imperceptible, for it is never perceived. (II. iv. 12-15)
Thus, the notions of infinity and nothingness appear in both the systems. Nothingness is an image or a reflection of the infinity.
59.1. But, why did Sri Shankara preferred to speak of the One and the Buddha of nothingness?
It seems that the answer to this lies in the nature of their philosophies. In referring to Brahman as One without a second, Sri Shankara tries to describe reality from outside, as it were, because that is the only perspective from which it can be understood as One. Sri Shankara was basically a philosopher; and as all philosophers do, he looks upon the whole of reality objectively and to comprehend its structure. It is as if the philosophizing intellect takes a look at the whole of existence from outside of it.
59.2. But the Buddha was describing his experience. He realized that one cannot get outside of reality and describe it as an object; because one is inseparable from that reality. He also believed too much philosophizing and clinging to ideas is an obstruction to enlightenment. He advocated meditation as a process to let go all attachments, even the attachment to ideas and concepts.
59.3. But both the savants accept that conceptual thinking is part of the problem; not in itself the way to enlightenment. If one accepts that the goal is to attain liberation rather than to understand it, then philosophy too must ultimately be transcended or let go. Philosophy might try to view things externally, but ultimately it is one’s experience that really matters.
59.4. Can nirvana or moksha be experienced? I do not know. But it appears these states suggest a condition where the boundaries of individual identity would simply dissolve. It would perhaps be a complete absence of tension and effort, a letting go of all identities and of everything that was previously clung to; and one would eventually become that everything which in fact one always was.
60.1. In summary, the difference between the Buddhist nirvana and the Vedantic moksha is one of perspective. The Vedanta explanation — that of realizing ones true identity -is a philosophical view. The Buddhist interpretation of letting go all identities is objective description. But in each case the actual experience appears to be the same. Ones experience is the truest test of all, as Sri Shankara observed.
Duality is a normal reality of experience.. So Samkhya talks of a framework to link up with the dual world as elementising becomes logical and reasonable..and easier to comprehend. Advaita is an unusual reality… an abstract experience and perhaps can be obtained in a particular state. You can’t understand it as even elemntaising of a whole kills the essence. Buddhism is like Samkhya as it does not delve on question of god and is very practical to remove dukkha… and so is Samkhya.
All theses are true but in different locations… and if all locations exist within us…all these are true…as experiential realities. So one does not contradict the other.
..Prof. Durgadas Sampath
References and sources
Vedanta and Buddhism
Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta