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Samkhya : Part Four : Samkhya Karika

Continued from Part Three

[ We will be trying to understand only a few concepts of Samkhya –Karika; and not discussing the entire text.

Please check here for

The Sankya Aphorisms of Kapila, With illustrative extracts from the commentaries, Translated by James R. Ballantye, Published by Turner & Co., London – 1885 ]


H. Freedom from suffering

20.1. As mentioned earlier, Samkhya- karika sets forth its objective as elimination of human suffering. It emphasizes that human existence is characterized by Dukkha, which cannot be decidedly removed by drugs, medicines or scriptures. It assures that Samkhya system offers a valid means to eliminate suffering. Samkhya- karika puts forth the view that understanding the ultimate ground of human existence, which, according to it is pure-consciousness, is the right way to freedom.

 [The very first karika of Samkhya-Karika is

 Duhkha-traya-bhighatat Jijnasa tad abhighatak ehetau|Drste sdpartha cet  Na ikantatyantata bhavat ||(karika no-1)

Duhkha traya abhighatat – from the torment by the three-fold pain; Jijnasa tad abhighatake hetau –  a desire for inquiry into the means of terminating it; Drste – the existing visible means;  sa – it (i.e. the inquiry); apartha – superfluous; cet – if it is said; na – not so; aikantatyantata bhavat –  (since in them) there is the absence of certainty and permanency)

In this karika, Isvarakrsna says: since one is struck by the threefold misery i.e. (i) the natural and intrinsic, both bodily and mental (adhyatmika); (ii) the natural and external (adhibhautika); and, (iii) the divine or supernatural (adhidaivika); an inquiry into the means of terminating it is to be made. If it is said that such an inquiry is superfluous since visible means exist, it is to be replied that ‘no’; for these means do not secure absolute and final relief.

It implies that, for final relief from these three types of dukha, a systematic inquiry is necessary. ]

20.2. The Karika believes that human bondage and suffering arise out of false understanding and wrong identification with that which is not -conscious such as body, mind, intellect etc. That lack of knowledge leads to attachment or clinging to the false. The Samkhya prescription for removal of suffering is the way of knowledge, the way of right understanding: ‘effective discrimination’ vijanana which separates pristine consciousness form everything that is not consciousness. If one could segregate one’s consciousness from everything else and view it in its isolation, then one would be free from bondage and suffering.

20.3.The Samkhya method of inquiry could be described as an individual’s quest for his true identity ; a journey deep into the very core of his existence ; travelling from the gross outer peripheries to the subtlest inner core; going past the body, mind, senses, emotions etc ; shredding away everything , every emotion and every thought ; all along the way, at each stage, rejecting what is not-consciousness and stepping into the next inner zone which is more subtle than the previous one; until he sheds away every identity ; and ultimately finds a condition of “otherness” , freedom and isolation which is consciousness in itself .

20.4. Paradoxically, that right understanding or discriminating knowledge leads to the fact that consciousness – the inner most core of man- was never bound; it had always been pure and free. One’s notions of bondage and freedom or of pain and suffering stem out of false understanding. Thus, suffering is a sullied relative state; while ones consciousness is pure and unbound.

20.5 The consciousness that Samkhya talks about is not man’s senses, will, intellect, mind or awareness, emotions or his empirical ego structure; and not even what is called soul. It is rather pure consciousness which is at once the source of man’s freedom and suffering. It is the inner-most core of man; an individual’s true identity. It is the consciousness that makes the man.

The term that Samkhya employs to refer and to describe absolute consciousness is Purusha.

I. Purusha

21.1 Purusha in Samkhya is a highly technical term. The Purusha of Samkhya is radically different from the Purusha described in the Vedas and the Upanishads.

The Rig Veda employed the imagery of an immense human form to symbolize the universe; and named it as Purusha (purusha evedam vishvam). Visualizing the universe as cosmic person of Purusha is a grand imagery. The Purusha of Rig Veda fills and enlivens the entire universe; and is the absolute and unchanging reality, the Brahman, from which everything emanates and in which everything resides.

21.2. The Katha Upanishad views the Purusha as the absolute sprit or principle that gives birth to the a-vyakta the un-manifest into which the Purusha enters to provide it individualized form.

22.1. The concept of Purusha in the Samkhya karika is much different from that of the orthodox texts.

In the Samkhya, the term Purusha refers to the fact of individual consciousness; and there are countless Purushas. The Purusha, in infinite number, is not only different from matter but is also not in any way involved with matter.

[ Isvarakrsna  gives some arguments for the plurality of Purusha in the karika No-18.

Janama – marana-karananam  Pratiniyamat- ayugapat- pravrttesca / Purusa-bahutvam siddham . Trigunyavi-paryayaccaiva // (Karika No.18)

(Janama-marana-karananam – of birth, death and instruments of action and cognition; pratiniyamat – because of individual allotment; pravrtteh ayugapat – because of non-simultaneity of activities; purusabahutvamsiddham – multiplicity of spirits is established; trigunyaviparyayaccaiva – because of the diverse modifications due to the three gunas)

His arguments say:

Had there been only one Purusha, the birth or death of one should have meant the birth or death of all; and, any particular experience of pleasure, pain or indifference by one should have been equally shared by all. Hence the souls must be many.

Again; if the self were to be one, the bondage of one should have meant bondage of all; and, the liberation of one should have meant liberation of all.

The activity of one should have made all persons active and the sleep of one should have lulled into sleep all other persons.

The individual souls differ in qualities also, since in some the sattva might predominate, while in others the rajas, and in still others the tamas.

The incidence of birth and death; and the actions of the sense organs (indriyas) differ from individual to individual. It is obvious that all men do not have the same inclinations at the same time.  the thoughts arising out of the action of the three Gunas vary from individual to individual .

 From all these factors, it evidently follows that Purushas are indeed many.]

22.2. The Purusha which is consciousness is not the striving, not the urges, not the impulses nor any other emotional forces which make up man’s nature; it is not even what is called soul. Purusha is simply the fact of consciousness. Putting this in another way, Purusha is nothing, or nothingness or emptiness in the world. It is a sort of emptiness at the very heart of world and of the man.

22.3. The Purusha, according to Samkhya Karika is translucent individual consciousness, free inactive witness (sakshi). Because of these characteristics it is customary in the English language texts to refer to Purusha of the Samkhya School as: pure-consciousness.

22.4. Samkhya Karika describes the individual Purusha in a variety of ways, as being: un-caused; neither produced nor does it produce; absolute; infinite; all-pervasive; inactive; solitary; unsupported; non-emergent; not made of parts; and , an independent (SK: 10); witness, isolated (kaivalya); indifferent spectator;  inactive (akartrbhava) (SK: 19); consciousness (chetana); a free, action-less witness (SK: 11, 20 , 55) .

hetumat-anityam-avyāpi sakriyam-anekam-āśritaṃ liṅgam |sāvayavaṃ paratantraṃ vyaktaṃ viparītam-avyaktam || SK 10  || 

triguṇam-aviveki viṣayaḥ sāmānyam-acetanaṃ prasava-dharmi | vyaktaṃ tathā pradhānaṃ tat-viparitaḥ tathā ca pumān || SK 11 || 

tasmāt-ca viparyāsāt siddhaṃ sākṣitvam-asya puruṣasya | kaivalyaṃ mādhyastyaṃ draṣṭṛtvam-akartṛbhāvaḥ ca || SK 19 || 

tasmāt-tat-saṃyogāt-acetanaṃ cetanāvat-iva liṅgam | guṇa-kartṛtve-api tathā karteva bhavati-udāsīnaḥ || SK 20 || 

tatra jarāmaraṇa kṛtaṃ duḥkhaṃ prāpnoti cetanaḥ puruṣaḥ | liṅgasya avinivṛtteḥ tasmāt duḥkhaṃ svabhāvena || SK 55 || 

In the karika No-19, Isvarakrsna says Purusha is characterized as being :

    • 1) a witness (saksitvam) ;
    • 2) isolated or free  (kaivalyam) ;
    • 3) indifferent (madhyastham);
    •  4) a spectator or one who sees (drstam); and,
    • 5) inactive (akartabhava).

Isvarakrsna indicates that the Purusha does or add nothing to the Mulaprakrti and its manifestations. It is simply present in the world-evolution and sees or witnesses the modifications of the nature. Moreover, it is not determined by the worldly evolutes as it does not possess the three qualities i.e. sattva, rajas and tamas. It is isolated or completely free (kaivalya)

Purusha is said to be neither Prakrti (creative) nor Vikrti (created). (Na prakrti na vikrti purusah). That is; Purusha is not connected with the other twenty four principles (Tattvas). Purusha is neither Vyakta nor Avyakata.  In other words; Purusha exists distinct from the manifested and unmanifested world. It is a reality of a completely different order of its own.

23.1. The sole function of the Purusha is being a witness (sakshi); an isolated (kevala), inactive (akartarbhava), detached (madyastha); indifferent (uadasina), spectator (drastatva) (SK: 19 ) . In other words, Purusha is just a passive presence; an unseen seer; just witnessing or seeing. But, Purusha is the principle of consciousness.

23.2. It is said; consciousness is always consciousness of something. If it were so, what is the Purusha conscious of? What does the Purusha see or witness? It is explained; Purusha witnesses the un- manifest Prakrti. And, that forms the very heart of Samkhya dualism.

What is Prakrti according to Samkhya karika?

J. Prakrti

24.1. Prakrti, in Samkhya, again, is a highly technical term. Prakrti, here, does not mean sublime nature as it is commonly understood. Prakrti in Samkhya stands for the root cause (kaarana) of intellect, ego, mind and everything else; of all existence; comprehends the un-manifest (a-vyakta) and the manifest (vyakta).

In order to understand the nature of the Prakrti, we may have to go back to certain basic concepts of the Samkhya School.

24. 2. Samkhya believes that something cannot come out of nothing.  The process of evolution does not generate something that is totally new; it only brings into manifestation what was already present in the cause. Every effect must pre exist in its cause (satkarya-vada) in an un-manifest condition. The effect is therefore nothing but the transformation of its cause (parinama-vada). The effect is always related to its cause.

24.3. Further, a cause is subtler than its associated effects; and that a cause characterizes its effect. For instance, the seed holds in its womb, in a subtle form, all the characteristics of the tree that grows out of it. The seed (cause) is subtler that the tree (effect); and holds within it the essence of the tree.

24.4. The material world – including body, mind, senses and self identity – that we see and experience must have sprung out of their causes, which were more subtle. The cause that gave forth the formless mind, ego, senses, sensations, and emotions must be more subtle than its effects; and must indeed contain within itself all the characteristics of its effects. And, that cause must have had its cause, which in turn had its own cause. At each stage, the cause is subtler than its associated effects; and holds within it all the characteristics of its effects.

24.5. When that process reaches down to the level of minutest particles, which could be extremely subtle matter or a gross form of energy, Samkhya, extending its logic, argues that the cause of the particles must be subtler than the particles. Then, the atoms which are the source of the particles must indeed be a very subtlest form of energy. Yet, the atoms are mere effects that are ever changing, evolving and transforming. The cause of atoms – an extremely subtle form of energy – must indeed be much more subtle than the atoms; and almost invisible or an un-manifested powerful force of energy that holds within it the essence of all its effects.

K. A-vyakta & Vyakta

25.1. Eventually, one has to stop somewhere, at some stage. That last-stop, out of sheer necessity, has to be given a name; say, the ultimate cause. That ultimate cause would, thus, be the sole source or the sole cause (kaarana) of all effects (kaarya), of all existence – both un-manifest and   manifest. Since all worldly things possess certain common characteristics by which they are capable of producing pleasure, pain and indifference. Hence there must be a common source (Samanvayat ) composed of three Gunas, from which all worldly things arise. That ultimate source is the finest, subtlest stuff or principle. The Samkhya named that ‘ultimate’ single root-cause (kaarana) of all that is un-manifest (a-vyakta) and manifest (vyakta) as Prakrti.

25.2. Since Samkhya accepted Prakrti as the last-stop (or in other words, the origin of all existence), it perhaps, saw no point in going behind Prakrti. And, therefore, it preferred to accept Prakrti as un-caused-cause (Bhedanam parimanat). Accordingly, a-vyakta the un-manifest Prakrti is treated as uncreated Prakrti in its primordial condition (mula prakrti). It is a state which cannot be said either to exist or to non-exist; but is the potential source of all existence.

25.3. Isvarakrsna says, when we consider the magnitude of the activity of the universe, we cannot but be convinced that there must be an immense immeasurable force at work (Saktitah pravrttes’ca). The world we experience (Vyakta) cannot exist without the support (asrita) of a subtle, ultimate dormant (A-Vyakta) force.

The manifest Prakrti, vyakta, evolves from the un-manifest (a-vyakta) aspect of Prakrti. The manifest world is therefore is generated or caused (hetumat); it is finite (anityam), active (sakriyam), and diverse (anekam). The un-manifest (a-vyakta) is the opposite of the manifest.

Thus, Prakrti which is the sole material cause of the world is in effect composed of its two diverse aspects: the un-manifest (a-vyakta) and the manifest (vyakta).

25.4. The alternate names for Prakrti that Samkhya employs are: mula-prakrti (primal nature in its un-manifest state); or sattva (substance); and, Pradhana (the principal one).

[But, in the Samkhya-karika of Isvarakrishna, the a-vyakta, the un-manifest, alone is named as mula-prakrti or pradhana. The karika avoids using the term sattva for Prakrti perhaps because it employs that term to signify one of Gunas.]

The Prakrti by its very nature is ever changing, evolving and transforming; and is not consistent. It binds; yet it is inert, that is not-conscious. Yet all human experience is bound with Prakrti. In fact human mind is evolved out of Prakrti.

The material world is Prakrti. It is not absolute; and its existence and changes have no effect on Purusha the absolute ground. Yet Prakrti revolves around Purusha.

26.1. According to Samkhya, just as that which had not existed before can never be brought into existence, that which exists cannot be entirely destroyed, either.

Following this principle; it is said, at the time of dissolution of the world, the reverse process sets into motion with each effect collapsing back into its cause; the physical elements broken down into particles; the particles into atoms; the atoms dissolving into finer energies which in turn merging into extremely fine energies; and ultimately the whole of existences dissolving back into the subtlest un-manifest Prakrti, the a-vyakta. Thus, Prakrti even when all its evolutes are withdrawn remains unaffected; and is thus eternal.

[Isvarakrsna says; the diverse objects in this universe beginning from Mahatattva downwards are the results of a continuous change of causes into effects (Vaisvarupasya-avibhagat). At the time of dissolution, the reverse processes, i.e. merger of effects into their causes, must happen. Thus, the Mahabhutas, the basic elements, will merge into their cause, i.e. the Tanmatras; the Tanmatras , in turn , into the Ahamkara tattva ; and the latter into Mahatattva ; and that into the Avyakta (prakrti). Here, Isvarakrsna says that the unity of the universe points to a single cause. And this cause is Prakrti.]

26.2. Just as Samkhya believes that something cannot come out of nothing, it also asserts that nothing can be totally destroyed. That is ; the disappearance of an individual object or phenomenon does not mean destruction of matter. It is only that it is transformed into another form. The elements of matter are in eternal motion ; any material process, any growth or withering away is nothing but redistribution of matter; its transition from the past into the present and from the present into the future, or from potentiality to actuality.

Which is to say that there is neither creation nor destruction. The sum total of all matter  always remains constant. Thus, in the process of evolution, nature does not increase or diminish quantitatively. 

The Russian scholar , V Brodov , in his  The Indian Philosophy In Modern Times , writes

The idea that matter (mass and energy) does not grow or diminish quantitatively ; but, is merely redistributed in the process of emergence and destruction of individual objects and phenomena of nature, can be regarded as one of the strokes of genius of ancient Indian thinkers who anticipated later discoveries. In a most general form, this can be viewed as a distinct expression of the idea of the Law of conservation of the mass of substance as it is known to modern natural science. It should be stressed at the same time that anticipation as one of the forms of perception of scientific truth was characteristic of many outstanding thinkers of antiquity. As Engels put it, thinkers of the past brilliantly anticipated countless numbers of truths whose correctness is now proved scientifically.

26.3. Samkhya explains its theory of manifestation and withdrawal of the manifest world through the analogy of a tortoise that extends its hidden limbs out of its shell and again draws it back into its shell. Nothing was created and nothing is lost.

27.1. Since Prakrti is the root cause of all existence, it must contain in itself, in a potential form, all the possibilities and all the characteristics of infinite numbers and infinite varieties of sensations, feelings, attributes, actions, forms etc. But, one thing that Prakrti does not possess is consciousness. Samkhya therefore variously describes Prakrti as: inert (jada); non-conscious principle (a-chetana), unintelligible etc.

27.2. Purusha and Prakrti are two totally unrelated and totally diverse principles: Purusha is un-generated and un-generating; a-vyakta is un-generated but generating; and vyakta is generated and generating.

Prakrti is dynamic non-conscious and is that which is seen; Purusha is consciousness, the passive un-seen seer.

It is the proximity of these two diverse principles that sums up and makes man and his world.

27.3. The object of the Samkhya exercise is to segregate every evolute of Prakrti and view the Purusha the consciousness in isolation. (Let’s talk of Purusha-Prakrti relation or non-relation a little later)

L. Seeing and be seen

28.1. The notions of seeing and be seen; of a passive onlooker and a busy enjoyer appear to fascinate the Indian thinkers. The imagery of unseen disinterested seer and the active object is often employed in the Indian texts to project two states of reality. For instance, the Mundaka Upanishad (3:1:1) and the Svetashvatara Upanishad (4:6) present the metaphor of two birds (dva suparna) perched on the same tree, one active and enjoying the fruits; the other bird merely looking on and doing nothing.

dva suparna

28.2. In the Upanishads the active bird represents a self involved and identified with the world; the inactive bird represents that other mode of being human that neither claims nor rejects the world, remaining ever aloof and hence always free.

Two birds, in close companionship,
Are perched upon a single tree.
Of these, one eats and relishes the fruit,
The other does not eat, but just looks on.
dvā suparṇā sayujā sakhāyā samānaṃ vṛkṣaṃ pariṣasvajāte / tayor anyaḥ pippalaṃ svādv atty anaśnann anyo abhicākaśīti // SvetUp_4.6  //

28.3. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3:7:23) Uddalaka Aruni calls the on -looking bird as “the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the un-thought Thinker, the un-understood Understander…the Self (atman), the Inner Controller (antaryamin), the Immortal (amrta)” .

yaḥ pṛthivyāṃ tiṣṭhan pṛthivyā antaro yaṃ pṛthivī na veda yasya pṛthivī śarīraṃ yaḥ pṛthivīm antaro yamayaty eṣa ta ātmāntaryāmy amṛtaḥ || BrhUp_3,7.3 ||

Each School of Indian thought has interpreted the metaphor of two such birds, each according to its inclinations. For instance, the Bhagavad Gita (13: S) identifies the bird that eats and enjoys as the field (kshetra) and the other as the filed-knower, the foundation (kshetrajna)


29.1. The importance of seeing or been seen by an un-seen seer has also become an integral part of Indian ethos. As Ms. Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies, explains in her Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India: “ The central act of Hindu worship, from the point of view of the lay person, is darshan, is to stand in the presence of the deity and to behold the image with one’s own eyes, to see and be seen by the deity… Beholding the image is an act of worship, and through the eyes one gains the blessings of the divine.”

29.2. It is explained; seeing according to the Indian notion is going forth of the sight towards an object. Sight touches it and acquires its form. Touch is the ultimate connection by which the visible yields to being grasped. While the eye touches the object, the vitality that pulsates in it is communicated.

30.1. The notions of seeing and being seen figure prominently in the Samkhya karika. Here, the seer is Purusha; and he sees or witnesses the inert and un-manifest Prakrti (a-vyakta). The fact of seeing and be seen is highly purposeful and is of vital importance in Samkhya.

As we shall read a little later, it is the fact of Purusha seeing the a-vyakta that triggers the process of evolution, the unfolding of the a-vyakta. Even thereafter it is because of the illumination by the Purusha the inert matter appears to be alive. The reverse process of absorption concludes with a-vyakta seeing the Purusha.

30.2. The relation between the unseen seer (kshetrajna) and the field (kshetra) forms an important issue in the Samkhya darshana, the Samkhya way of seeing. The basic cause for suffering and bondage, according to Samkhya, is to mistake the seer for the seen (the field). That principle also forms the basis for many practices outlined in Yoga. Both Samkhya and Yoga speak of the seer and the seen; both stress suffering as the reason to seek release from bondage. However , Samkhya focuses on knowledge as the means of liberation; while Yoga accepts Samkhya position and in addition advances several techniques that ensure that seer is not mistaken for the seen (the field).

M . Evolution process – initiated

30.1. According to the Samkhya Karika, the passive, disinterested Purusha merely sees or witnesses or comes into proximity of the inert (acetana) a-vyakta, the Prakrti in its un-manifest or latent form. The Purusha is the “seer”; and, that which is “seen” is Prakrti.

30.2. The Samkhya Karika says, the very presence or proximity or the mere seeing by the Purusha who is the fact of consciousness, enlivens and activates the constituents of the dormant or un-manifest (avyakta or mula- prakrti) Prakrti. The mula-prakrti, in other words, is simply the undifferentiated, unconscious thing-ness, which is witnessed.

30.3. The Purusha does nothing and is unable to act; but his mere proximity or seeing, somehow, disturbs the equilibrium (samyavastha) of the potent forces of avyakta or mula-Prakrti made up of three Gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. This disruption of equilibrium caused by the proximity (samyoga) of two diverse principles triggers the struggle for ascendency among the constituent Gunas; and that sets in motion the process of unfolding or evolution of the man and the world, flowing out of the a-vyakta.

That is, when these Gunas are in equilibrium or in balance, no creation or modification is possible. It is only when this equilibrium is disturbed the manifest world (vyakta) emerges out of the un-manifest (a-vyakta).

30.4. The karika clarifies that just because the presence of the individual Purusha results in the appearance or the emergence of the world, it should not be construed that the world is derived from Purusha (because Purusha does not generate or create anything); but, it only means that without the presence of Purusha, the Prakrti would remain in un-differentiated, un-manifest state (a-vyakta).  In other words, the world in and of itself is simply un-manifest avyakta when not in the presence of Purusha. It is only when it is illumined Purusha the world appears to be alive.

The Karika stresses, Purusha and Prakrti are entirely different realities. Purusha is the opposite of Prakrti or the whole system of vyakta and a-vyakta. The Purusha is apart from all strivings, all discursive thought etc. And, every form of creation bears this sign of duality.

Purusha the seer is a sort of translucent emptiness, a pure witness. Inactive (akartrbhava), isolated (kaivalya), pure consciousness (chetana):  and Prakrti the seen is matter that is witnessed is inherently non-conscious or non-intelligent. Neither can be reduced to the other.

The Karika however says that the Purusha is understood in terms of what it witnesses. Karika therefore describes everything that appears to Purusha (consciousness), which in other words is the whole of the a-vyakta and vyakta. Ultimately, everything that appears to consciousness is eliminated, leaving Purusha as the sole reality.

N . Guna


31.1. It is said; the Gunas are infinite in number, but for the sake of understanding they are grouped into three broad categories in accordance with their main characteristics. Both the vyakta and a-vyakta are composed of three Gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas.

These three Gunas are the intrinsic or inherent nature or the basic constituents of Prakrti; they are not the external attributes of Prakrti; and are in fact the three strands of Prakrti which hold the world together. They are described as substantive entities or subtle substances each with its characteristic expression; they are not to be dismissed as abstract qualities.

Gunas are objective, constituent elements of experience; they are the modes of being. Everything or every process in the world is composed of Gunas. The essential character of a particular thing or a process is determined by the relative dominance of each of the three Gunas; and is thus a cumulative expression of their three inherent Gunas.

The Gunas produce the impressions of pain and pleasure and allow us to feel and even think about the world of things. They are responsible for human passions, hopes and fears. And they determine the individual’s inclinations and attitudes.

Prityapritivisadatmakah-Prakasa-pravrtti-niyamarthah-Anyonya-bhibhavasraya-Janana-mithuna vrttayasca gunah | [ {Karika no-10]

(Priti-apriti-visada-atmakah, are of the nature of pleasure, pain, and delusion; prakasa-pravrtti-niya-marthah, they serve the purpose of illumination, endeavour and restraint; anyonya-abhibhava-asraya-janana-mithuna vrttayah ca, and are mutually dominating, supporting, productive and cooperative)

These Gunas or strands are the content of Prakrti. They are continually in tension with one another and by their mutual interactions the world as we see and know emerges. Another important feature of Gunas is that they are constantly changing. Thus, change or transformation characterize  the very nature  of the Gunas.

The attributes (Gunas) are of the nature of pleasure (sattva), pain (rajas) and delusion (tamas); they serve the purpose of illumination, action and restraint respectively; and, they are mutually dominating and supporting, productive and cooperative.

[John Davies explains [The Sankhya-Karika (Exposition of the Sankhya), by Iswara Krishna; 1881] :

Some important questions are suggested by this theory of a primordial matter, from which all things, except soul, have emanated. How does this universal Nature, being one, produce different effects? How does it act at all, since it is not acted upon by anything external to itself?

The answer of Kapila is that it acts by virtue of its internal formation. It is composed of the three gunas or modes, and is inert when these are in equilibrium. It acts through a disturbance of this state. The modes are endowed with a power of motion, like the atoms, and from their restless action combination may be effected in different proportions, asone or another may be predominant. This is the mixture or blending mentioned in Distich 16.

It is also modified, as water or moisture, by different conditions, caused by the nature of its receptacle or seat. “As simple water coming from the clouds is modified as sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, in the nature of the juice of the cocoanut, palm, bel-karanja,1 and woodapple.”

“Modified condition,” says Vachaspati, “is the character of the three modes, which are never for a moment stationary.” This constant motion produces different effects by the ever-varying proportion of their action. In the gods, the quality of ” goodness ” predominates, and they are happy; in mankind, that of “passion” or ” foulness,” and they are miserable; in animals and lower substances, “darkness” prevails, and they are -in- sensible or indifferent.]


31.2. As already said; the mere proximity of conscious Purusha enlivens , activates and disturbs the three dormant Gunas resting in a state of equilibrium; they turn restless, struggle for expression and each strives for ascendency over the other two. Eventually, they cooperate and interact and pull together, even as they keep striving for survival and dominance. The Gunas are always uniting, separating, and uniting again.

[The Karika text does not however explain why or how the Gunas get disturbed by the mere proximity of the Purusha.]

31.3. The restlessness of the Gunas and their striving for ascendency or perpetual tension with one another is described as the natural-law or the inherent tendency (svabhava) within man and of the world. The Gunas, in a sense, are the real doers (kartarah) in the Samkhya scheme of things. They are the productive agents, the factors that are responsible for evolution as also for involution.

It is because of their mutual interactions, the differentiated heterogeneous manifestations emerge out of the un-manifest (a-vyakta); and, even after the process of evolution gets going the Gunas colour every act, speech, thought and becoming of man. According to Samkhya, what a man becomes is determined by his fundamental strivings, which in turn are influenced by his inclinations, the Gunas.  This process of emergence and transformations which depends upon the modifications and changes in the mutual interaction of the Gunas is known as guna-parinama

31.4. These Gunas extend throughout and represent the fundamental structure of the manifest and the un-manifest world. And, they undergo continual modification and transformation in the presence of the Purusha. All the evolutes of Prakrti are made up of various admixtures of three Gunas.

With respect to man, they constitute psycho-physical make up of his nature; each acting within his or sphere of action as characterized by the combination of the Gunas. Similarly the Gunas constitute the nature of everything that is not man. But, in themselves the Gunas are unconscious; and are absolutely separate from Purusha, just as the mula-prakrti or avyakta.

Samkhya karika (SK 11) elucidates that Purusha is the opposite of both a-vyakta and vyakta, which means that Purusha is not characterized as made of the three Gunas. Purusha is beyond Gunas; it is subjective, specific, conscious and non-productive. Purusha exists separate from the manifest and un-manifest world. It is an order by itself; distinct from all orders.

Gunas are the expression of Prakrti; and as said, they are not related to Purusha. In a way of speaking, the dualism in Samkhya could be between the Gunas (becoming) and Purusha (being).

32.1. Of the three  Gunas, the Sattva Guna  is described as subtle and light; characterizes quality of thought and goodness. The Rajasa is active and aggressive; characterizes quality of energy, stimulation and passion. The Guna Tamas is passive and dull; characterizes quality of matter, indifference and delusion.

[Sattva Guna is said to be light and illuminating; Rajas, stimulating and accelerating; and, Tamas, heavy and restraining. They function (by union of contraries) for a purpose like that of a lamp and co-operate.

Sattvam laghu prakasakamistamupastambhakam Calam ca rajah | Guru Varanakameva tamah, Pradipavaccaarthato vrttih | | (karika no- 13)]

The three together constitute the psycho-physical nature of an individual. The process of emergence or evolution is determined by the respective dominance of each of the three Gunas.

And, in the wider context too they constitute the nature and structure of everything in the manifest and un-manifest world. They are thus the underlying qualities of all aspects of the world – physical, mental or otherwise – that can produce pain, pleasure or indifference. The Samkhya karika, however, confines its discussion of the Gunas mainly to their relevance to the nature of the body-mind complex of the individual.

The text clarifies; the Gunas by themselves are not-conscious (jada); an object for Purusha to be illumined.

32.2.After samyoga, the proximity of Purusha with a-vyakta, the emergence of the manifest world takes place as characterized by the combined qualities of the Gunas : sattva, rajas and tamas.

Let’s talk about the process of evolution, the evolutes of the Prakrti, the enumeration of the tattvas, the Purusha –Prakrti relation or non – relation, the Samkhya concept of liberation and of the other issues in the next part of the article.



Next: Samkhya Karia Continued

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


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