Tag Archives: Decline of Samkhya

Samkhya: Part Three: Samkhya Texts and Samkhya Traditions

Continued from Part Two, 

D. Samkhya Texts

Texts of early period

9.1. Unlike the other Schools of Indian thought (darshana), Samkhya did not have a Sutra, a compendium of its principles, in condensed pellet forms. The ancient Samkhya texts that are mentioned are the Maathara-Bhashya and Atreya-Tantra. Both these texts are no longer available. These were said be of importance next only to the celebrated Sashthi-Tantra (sixty –themes), which also is lost. All that we know about Sashthi-Tantra is that it contained two books of thirty-two and twenty-eight chapters (according to Ahirbudhnya Samhita, but its version of Samkhya is disputed)

9.2. Charaka –Samhita (earlier to first century) which is in the tradition of Atreya-punarvasu is believed to be based on the ancient text Atreya-Tantra, mentioned above. The account of the Samkhya in Charaka-Samhit is materialistic, pragmatic and atheistic. The Samkhya represented in Charaka-Samhita is believed to be based on the older form of Samkhya.

Samkhya and Tantra

10.1. The use of the suffix Tantra to describe Samkhya texts is truly interesting. The Samkhya texts titled Tantra could be understood to mean a methodical device, a systematic work, Shastra or Vidya following the method of Anviksiki.  The term Anviksiki does not stand for   philosophy per se, but it suggests a way of  systematic enumeration of basic principles or the contents of a chosen subject matter, following an organized reasoning.   

Such method of enumeration was adopted by the texts on grammar, medicine, law, iconography etc. And sometimes; such texts came to be called as Tantra. In the later periods, the term Samkhya could refer to any enumerated set of principles following the ancient method of anviksiki, meaning a way of enumerating a systematic reasoning.  

But  the oldest version of Samkhya was not a developed system of thought or an Anviksiki or a Tantra. The Samkhya-like notions could have occurred as intuitional speculations or groping attempts to understand a system (vidya, jnana or viveka) that leads to liberation.

10.2. There is also an argument which says that the term Tantra stretches back to the times of the ancient Vratyas. It appears, while Vratya was the folk-name, Tantra was its cult –word. The expression Tantra comprehended both knowledge and practice. Tantra thus signified a way of thinking and understanding; and it also implied a set of practices and exercises that were different from the rest.

10. 3. These arguments again suggest that Samkhya and Yoga had their roots in the Tantra- knowledge and practices of the Vratyas. It is therefore not surprising if the earliest Samkhya texts carried the suffix Tantra. The Samkhya Karika (70) too describes itself as a Tantra, Secret Doctrine(guhya) leading to the emancipation of the Purusha.

etat   pavithram agyram  munir asuraye   anukampāyā  pradadau / āsurir  api  pañcaśikhāy  Tena –    sā- bahudhā   kritham  tantram // 70//

This supreme purifying doctrine the sage compassionately imparted to Asuri; Asuri taught it to Panchasikha, by whom it was extensively made known.-70

Sri Sankara in his commentary on Samkhya, branded it as a Tantra (tantrakhya). And, Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra is at times referred to as Patanjala-Tantra.

The preoccupation of the Samkhya and Yoga with refining human psyche, human nature, human body and its constitution can perhaps be traced back to the Tantra concepts and practices of the Vratyas. Both Samkhya and Yoga attempt to understand the innermost core of man by systematically rejecting every known identity; isolating self from everything that could be named; and, by searching for the ’other-ness’.

The difference between Samkhya and Yoga  appears to be more in their perceptive and in their emphasis with regard to the role and function of the intellect (buddhi)  and the cognitive faculty (Chitta).

The way of the Samkhya is through intellect (buddhi) and discrimination (viveka); viewing pure consciousness as distinct from Prakrti and its three constituents (Gunas) and attain liberation (Kaivalya) from ordinary human experiences.   In Yoga, the Yogi practices austerities (tapas) , studies (svadhyaya) and  devotion to god (isvara-pra-nidhana) in order to discipline body and mind. The Yogi also pursues (abhyasa)   the eightfold (ashtanga) yogic disciplines with devotion (bhakthi) and non-attachment (vairagya). The Yogi eventually attains that state of isolation through Yoga; and, Samkhya attains by segregating consciousness from everything else and viewing it in its isolation.

To put it in other words; in contrast to methods of spiritual discipline {yoga) that emphasize posture, breathing, recitation, and ascetic practices (tapas), sämkhya is the intellectual or reasoning method. The follower of sämkhya is one who reasons or discriminates properly, one whose spiritual discipline is meditative reasoning.

10.4. Some scholars point out that the Samkhya theories of evolution and dissolution of Prakrti which explain that the evolutes of Prakrti (matter) manifest according to their natural tendencies (svabhava), unfold and transform (parinama) into multiplicity of objects, but then dissolve back into the origin, the primordial Prakrti, only to rise again, are largely influenced by the Tantra ideologies.

[Note: Prakrti, here is a technical term and stands for the root cause for the manifest world. It is the creative factors in creation implicitly containing the possibilities of all substance, thought and action. Its equivalent terms in Tantra and Samkhya are: sattva, pradhana, mula-prakrtior ayvakta. The Prakrti, in the Samkhya context, does not mean material- nature as it came to be commonly understood later.]

10.5. It is believed; the earliest form of Samkhya which emerged out of the Tantra-Vratya foundations was pragmatic, naturalistic and pluralistic. It moved away from religion and religious sentiments; and attempted providing psychological orientation to its concepts.

10.6. That does not however mean that Samkhya had its roots only in Vratya tradition; it is just that Vratya was one of its main early influences. In fact, Vratya itself was a cult name for heterogeneous groups of free-thinkers comprehending a variety of local traditions and regional cults that disapproved ritualistic tendencies.


11.1. The earliest Samkhya text now available is Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya-karika or Samkhya-saptati (seventy verses of Samkhya), dated around the second century. It is a very important text in the Samkhya tradition, particularly in the absence a Sutra text. The Samkhya-karika, for centuries, has therefore been the definitive text of the Samkhya School. Just as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra systematized the Yoga, Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya-Karika   systematized the Samkhya. It was Samkhya-Karika   that centuries later found acceptance with the Vedic Schools, although reluctantly.

11.2. Samkhya-karika marked the separation of Samkhya from the Yoga traditions. Though both the systems identified release from suffering as the greatest human concern, Samkhya focused on discrimination (viveka) as the means of liberation; while Yoga accepted the Samkhya position and in addition advanced several techniques to achieve ecstatic states (Samadhi) to gain insight into deeper level of consciousness. Yoga stressed the importance of disciplining mind and body as also suppressing those mental conditions that tie down man to false identities that are not-consciousness.   While Samkhya remained a self-sufficient and a rather closed system, Yoga tended to be open-ended connecting with every other school of Indian thought and technique. The other significant difference between Yoga and Samkhya is that Samkhya asserts the plurality of purushas, whereas the object of yoga is essentially non-dual striving for the moment when the knower, knowing and the known all become one.

11.3. The Samkhya of the Karika is slightly different from the older Samkhya as also from the later versions of Samkhya. Yet, Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya has come to be recognized as classical Samkhya; and is treated as a norm. Perhaps, the only reason for conferring such distinction could be that the Karika was produced during heydays of the Samkhya School when Samkhya was a vigorous and an influential system of thought. That period lasted till about the tenth century.

Almost every merited scholar took note of Samkhya-karika either to comment or to attack it .For instance, the Buddhist logician Dinnaga (ca.480-540) attacked it vigorously; Paramartha (ca.560) another Buddhist scholar translated it into Chinese and also wrote a commentary; a little later the Buddhist scholar Dharmakirti (ca. 610-670) wrote about it; a certain Gaudapada (ca. seventh century: perhaps not the one who wrote Mandukya-karika) also commented on it; and during the ninth century Sri Sankara wrote a detailed critique on Samkhya-Karika.

The most well known of the commentaries on Sankhya- Karika is Samkhya-tattva-kaumudi by Vachaspathi Misra (ca. ninth century).

Among the other notable commentaries on the Karika the following may be mentioned: Paramartha’s Chinese version (ca. A.D. 557-569); Yuktidipika ( (approximately between the 7th and 8th century) ;  the Jayamangala  or Samkhya- saptati-tika ** (likely before 9th-century); the Gaudapadabhasya ( approximately eleventh century A.D) ; the Matharavrtti (approximately eleventh century A.D); and, as Samkhya-sutravrtti (1500 A.D.) . Most of these texts are rather difficult to date; only the approximate time of their compositions are surmised.

(**  Jayamangala,  describes itself as a commentary (Tika) on Isvarakrishna’s  Samkhya-spatasati , authored  by Sri Sankaracharya ; but , that seems rather doubtful.

iti śrīmat-paramahaṃsa-parivrājakācārya- śrī govinda- bhagava-pūjya- pāda- śiṣyeṇa śrī śaṅkara-bhagavatā kṛtā sāṃkhya- saptatiṭīkā samāptā //

It is likely that some one might have hoisted his work upon Sri Sankara; perhaps to ensure its  acceptability among the contemporary scholars  – Further, it is pointed out that Sri Sankara could not have described himself as, śrīmat-paramahaṃsa-parivrājakācārya, Sri Sankara bhagavata . And, the opening benediction lokottara-vādinaṃ praṇamya munim  , is a typical Buddhist expression. )

That was followed in the later times  by glosses and lesser commentaries by number of other scholars.


12.1. The term Karika means a concise verse; and like Sutra, is a vehicle for teaching a particular subject matter. Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya-Karika too is a brief work of 70 or 72 verses setting forth his version of the Samkhya.

Karika is not an easy text to understand. It is not a text in the traditional pattern presenting the prima facie view of the statement (Purva-paksha); followed by an answer or rebuttal (Uttara-paksha); and the conclusion (Siddantha).It is not a complete commentary, either. It presents the Samkhya doctrine in a dogmatic and in a condensed form, without discussions, without illustrative examples or arguments against rival thoughts. The verse number 72 of the Karika (perhaps a later addendum) states: “72. The subjects treated in the seventy verses are those of the entire science of sixty themes (shashti-tantra), exclusive of illustrative tales, and devoid of polemical consideration of rival doctrines.”

12.2. On certain aspects, the Karika is either unclear or incomplete. For instance, the Karika does not explain the relation between its theory of evolution and the doctrine of transmigration to which it subscribes. The relevance of its enumeration of the basic components of matter (tattvas) in the context of achieving the stated objective of the Karika – elimination of suffering – is not explained. For these reasons; some scholars believe that Samkhya-Karika might have been written down as notes for the purpose of a debate. Some others say, Isvarakrishna was rather disappointed by Vindhyavasa’s projection of Samkhya in the Buddhist light, and therefore came up with a summary of the old Samkhya text Shasti-tantra; but with his own variations.

The commentaries that were produced centuries after the Karika are also not of great help in understanding the text clearly. The commentators either just attack the Karika or impose on it concepts of their own school (such as Vedanta, Buddhist or Jaina)   or attempt explaining in the light of notions    prevalent in the commentators’ times. It is therefore difficult to understand the Karika per se, as it is.   My explanation or understanding of it, I fear, would also be very inadequate.

13.1. Samkhya- karika sets forth its objective as elimination of human suffering. It emphasizes that human existence in the world is characterized by Dukkha, which cannot be decidedly removed by drugs, medicines or scriptures. The Karika believes that human bondage and suffering arises out of wrong understanding and false 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. Freedom, according to Karika, comes from intuitive realization or discrimination which separates pure consciousness (Purusha) from everything that is not consciousness.

It is said; the first stage of liberation is through knowledge; the second stage is through evaporation of attachment (raga); and the third is the banishment of suffering. The threefold process is condensed into the term darshana, to see and be seen. Samkhya darshana is the Samkhya way of seeing and be seen; by discriminating the difference between the seer and the seen.

(We shall discuss the main concepts of the SamkhyaKarika separately, in the next post).

Other Texts

14.1. The other Samkhya texts that followed Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya karika were also commentaries such as Kapila Sutra (about 14th century) of an unknown author, Aniruddha (1th century) and Vijnanabhikshu (16th century) – Samkhyasara -that reconciled Samkhya with Vedanta and cast it in a theistic mode. Other late works on Samkhya are the Tattvasamha-sutra, Simananda’s Samkhya-tattva-vivecana, and Bhavaganesha’s Samkhya-tattva-yatharthya-dipana. These late texts too were influenced by Vedanta.

E. Some basic assumptions

15.1. Before talking about the contents of SamkhyaKarika text let me briefly mention a few basic beliefs of the Samkhya, in general.

[The relation between the cause and effect is one of the basic problems discussed among the Indian thinkers.  And, in fact, the divisions among the Indian theories of causation are based on this factor. To put it simply: there are only two possibilities with regard to these arguments: either an effect derives its essence from its cause; or, it does not. This is the basis of the two broad divisions of the Indian theories of causation: Satkaryavada i.e. the theory of the pre-existence of the effect in the cause; and, A-satkaryavada i.e. the theory of the non-existence of the effect in the cause before its production.

The main exponents of Satkaryavada were Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta; and those who supported A-satkaryavada were the Schools of Nyaya, Vaisesika and Buddhism. The Jaina theory, which took a middle course, is the third;  and,  it is often called Sad-Asatkaryavada.

Satkaryavada is further divided into Parinamavada or Vikaravada which believes that through a causal process, change actually occurs and cause actually takes the shape of effect; and, this argument  is advocated by Samkhya and Yoga.  And, the other division of Satkaryavada is the Vivartavada advocated by Vedanta followers of Sri Samkara. This School argues that the ultimate reality is unchanging and all kinds of changes are only apparent and illusory

The A-satkaryavada is also divided into Arambhavada advocated by Nyaya-Vaisesika and followed by Mimamsa School; and the Patityasamutpada, advocated by Buddhism.

There are, however, another theory of causation, called Svabhavavada of the Lokayatas and the Yadrcchavada, which denies any sort of philosophical theory of causality.  For more on these materialistic Schools – please click here]

Samkhya firmly believes that the effect resides in its cause (satkarya-vada); and the cause transforms into effects (parinama-vada). A cause should be existing, active and changing if it has to manifest into effects. That which has not existed before can never be brought into existence. Therefore, a non-entity can neither bring forth an entity, nor can it be made into an entity. Similarly that which exists cannot be entirely destroyed.

An effect exists in its cause in un-manifested form before it is revealed. The effect is always related to its cause; if it were not so, then every effect should be possible from every cause.

That is to say; Samkhya accepts the identity of cause and effect. A cloth, e.g., is not different from its cause, the threads. Samkhya-Karika gives many arguments to prove its contention which are elaborated in its commentaries.

The Samkhya –Karika (No.9) of Isvarakrsna tries to establish Satkaryavada by putting forth five types of arguments.

Asadakaranadupaddnagrahandt Sarvasambhavabhdvat / Saktasya sakyakaranat karanabhavacca Satkaryam // {karika no-9)

1) Asad-akaranat: In this argument Isvarakrsna tries to say – that which is non-existent cannot be produced. If the effects were non-existent before the operation of the cause, it could never be brought into existence by anybody. Vacaspati Misra, in his Samkhya-tattva-kaumudi-, a commentary on Samkhya-Karika, supports this argument.

2) Upadana-grahanat: Here, Isvarakrsna says – only a particular material is taken to bring about certain effect. A jar can be produced out of clay only, not from the threads. This means that there is a definite relation of cause with effect.

3) Sarva –sambhava-bhavat:  Isvarakrsna says – if we do not accept the relation between cause and effect, then every effect would arise from every cause, without any restriction, which is impossible and is contrary to experience. Everything is not possible everywhere and always. He asserts; we shall have, therefore, to admit a relation between cause and effect, and hence also the existence of effect before the causal operation, without which the relation is not possible.

4) Saktasya-sakyakaranat: This argument says – it is common knowledge that the effect must be such as is within the power of the cause to create. There must therefore be a relation between the potential of the cause and the effect that is produced.

5) Karanabhdvacca satkaryam : Here Isvarakrsna says – because effect is of the essence as cause, it is not essentially different from cause. If a cause is existent, then how can its effect, which is inseparable from the cause, be non-existent? That is why it can be said, effect exists even before the operation of cause.

Vacaspati Misra puts forth some more arguments to prove this identity of cause and effect. These are:

1) An object differing in its essence from another object cannot be its attribute. For example, a cow is not the attribute of a horse. But the cloth is an attribute of the threads; hence the cloth is not a different object from thread.

2) Threads and cloths are not different objects because threads are the material cause of cloth; and, there is a relation of constituent and constituted between them.

3) Threads and cloths are not different also because a cloth does not contain in itself any product which makes its weight different from the weight of threads constituting it. An object different in essence from another always has a weight different from that of the latter. We find no such difference between the effect of the weight of the cloth and that of the weight of the threads constituting it. This proves that the effect, cloth is not different from its cause, the threads.

Isvarakrsna’s doctrine of Satkaryavada plays a significant role in the establishment of the subtle principle like Prakrti and the three Gunas in the Samkhya tradition. He argues, as  the nature of the cause (Mula-prakrti) and its evolutes (Gunas) are the same , the Mula-prakrti can be accepted as the cause of these evolutes. Thereafter, he takes up the discussion on the twenty three principles of evolution.

The concept of Satkarya -vada  is therefore  central to the Samkhya system.

[The Kashmir Shaiva tradition also accepts the concept of Satkaryavada – the effect inherently exists in the cause. It asserts that the entire Universe even before it manifested (as effect) existed in the consciousness (as cause) of its creator Shiva. However, Shaiva thinkers differ from the classical Samkhya, mainly, on two counts. The first is that: the cause and effect, Shaivas point out, cannot coexist in the relationship of identity-cum- difference (tadatmya) as the Samkhya believes. That is because the cause (seed) and effect (tree) cannot exist at the same time. The second objection of the Shaivas is that the Samkhya cannot explain how effects came into existence from Prakrti, which basically is inert (jada). Therefore, Shaiva thinkers put forward their own theory stating that the entire creation is nothing but the manifestation of the absolute consciousness of Shiva stirred into motion by the iccha-shakthi (the power of the Will) of the creator Shiva. Therefore both the cause and effect are ultimately the effects of the highest consciousness, who is the primary cause.]

15.2. The early Samkhya, elaborating on these explanations, stated that in case a God exists and if he is unchanging, then he cannot be the cause of the world, for the reason that a cause has to be active and changing to bring forth an effect. Samkhya questioned, what inspired God to direct evolution? In case he is prompted by will or a desire, it merely implies that God is either incomplete, wanting in something or imperfect. Such a one, whoever he is, cannot be The God.

15.3. Samkhya does not regard the world as a miraculous creation by a God or by a Creator. Instead, it states, the world has evolved through creative processes stretched over various phases of changes and transformations .The dynamic process of evolution is directed and monitored by the inherent tendencies (svabhava) of the substances as characterized by the combination of their constituent Gunas. The Samkhya therefore views the world as a network of substances and activities, as tangled scene of elements, relentlessly changing and transforming, each struggling for expression and ascendency.The world according to Samkhya is a state of incessant striving, motion and transformation.  Samkhya considers both matter and spirit that constitute the objective world are equally real.

15.4. According to Samkhya, the relevance of the world should be understood in the context of human existence. It is the presence of man that lends meaning to the world; just as a painting acquires meaning and provides enjoyment only when someone views it. The world is that which is witnessed.  The world, like the painting, is for the sake of one who sees it (Purushartha) – human consciousness or the Purusha. Man’s contact (samyoga) with the world represents association between being and becoming, between existence and occurrence; and that indeed is the real stuff of the world.  In that sense, the world of Samkhya is uniquely human oriented.

15 .5. Samkhya is primarily concerned with individual consciousness. It does not speculate on universal consciousness. It tries to understand consciousness in terms of what it witnesses viz the un-manifest and manifest world, which is everything that is not consciousness. That indirect approach is because consciousness being a translucent nothing-ness cannot be grasped ordinarily.

The point of this entire exercise of understanding consciousness is to realize ones true identity and to overcome suffering.

15.6. The Samkhya’s attempt to understand that ‘other-ness’ is rather unique. It systematically enumerates every category of basic components (tattvas) – from the most subtle to the most gross – that constitute matter; and says that any of those is not consciousness; the translucent consciousness is different from any or all of those. Consciousness is itself and it is nothing else.

After enumerating all components of the un-manifest and manifest world, the Samkhya suggests separating it , through the process of intuitive discrimination; and setting it aside, which means stepping past all notions of ” I”, all strivings, all urges, all thoughts and all processes . If that could be achieved, it says, consciousness alone and nothing else would be left, a sort of emptiness or nothingness.

15.7. To put it rather simplistically, the enumeration of categories of matter and its evolutes could be viewed as a sort of road map guiding the individual in search of his true identity. In his quest , at each stage, he rejects identity with elements or components or evolutes of matter enumerated in the text, until he comes to that ‘other-ness’ a state of absolute loneliness (kaivalya) a condition of absolute freedom which is consciousness itself.

One way of looking at Samkhya is to regard it as a systematic process of giving up ones identities, of every sort. That, perhaps, is the reason Samkhya is otherwise known as the way of renunciation (samnyasa-yoga).

(Let’s talk a little more about these aspects in the next part of the article)

Certain concepts


15.8.The Samkhya does not seem to accept verbal testimony (Sabda) with the seriousness with which the Mimamsa and the Vedanta accepted it. The Samkhya took a rather an interesting stand on the Vedas. It made a distinction between its statements relating to worldly matters (laukika), and those that are super -experiential (a-laukika).It totally disregarded the former as unreliable. As regards the latter, it said could be accepted as one of the reliable sources (aptavacana); but not as the sole source. However, the Samkhya made very little use of the Vedas for building up its system, and adopted an independent approach in expounding its ideas.

The Samkhya thinkers were essentially free thinkers, psychological in their approach and orientation; and relied more on sense perceptions (pratyakshya) and inference (anumana) than on verbal testimony (aptavacana). Inference is dependent upon sense perception; and presumption (arthapatti) is dependent on inference. But sense perception is direct and is not dependent on any other method, not even on scriptures (sabda or aptavachana).It is the guide to understand the world .Samkhya gave credence to man’s experiences.[Sri Sankara too laid emphasis on ones experience ; but made a distinction between the relative and the absolute which is beyond contradictions (baadha –rahityam).]

The snake and the rope

15.9 The Samkhya maintains that every cognition is valid or invalid in itself, and not made valid or invalid by something else. The Samkhya adopts a realistic attitude. Let’s take the much used or abused case of the snake and the rope. It says even a false object (snake) is existent and has being .It argues that Non-being is just a concept; and, How can anyone perceive Non-being with his senses? But the snake is not a concept; it is not a remembrance of something. It is an existent or being. If the Buddhi (the element of reason) saw it as a rope then we could not have seen the snake. And in case we see the snake i.e. if reason is modified as the snake, we could not have seen the rope. Samkhya maintains the object is seen either as a snake or as a rope; and not as both .According to Samkhya both- snake and rope – are states of reality in their own context. What we call as illusion, it says, is the perception of one object and non-perception of another. In case the perception is false, it applies to the judgment but not to the subject. Therefore, each  cognition as a modification of reason (Buddhi), is a separate one, and is without reference to the other. The cognition of the snake is invalid by itself and not made invalid by the cognition of the rope; and the cognition of the rope is valid by itself, and not made valid by anything else. Thus, even a false object (snake) is existent in its own context and has being.

If both the snake and the rope are existent, why do we call the former false? Here, the Samkhya says, the snake does not belong to the world of action and does not serve the purpose for which it is meant. We therefore treat the rope as real and the snake as unreal. In the world of action, every object of cognition is existent and real. Samkhya accepts that contradictions do exist between logical reality (truth) and falsity. But Samkhya argues that falsity, although an error is not illusion; and it does not raise the problem of its existence.[It is perhaps for this reason the concept of Maya does not figure in Samkhya.]

Samkhya thus attempts to understand the world from one’s experiences. Therefore, every division and classification made in Samkhya is with reference to the being of man. It assumes that man is more certain of his own existence – although he may not be clear about exactly what it is – than of anything else. As per the Samkhya view, the inner being of man is more important than that of the external world of matter.


15.10 Samkhya also relied on reason (Buddhi) which guides as the discriminative knowledge (viveka). It argues that sense perception and inference pre-suppose sense organs which in turn cannot exist and function apart from the body-mind complex enlivened by consciousness. Unless there is a knower who is apart from the object to be known, it is rather meaningless to talk about the methods of cognition. Therefore all methods have relevance only in the context of subject-object relationship. The reason (Buddhi) is the guide which monitors the process and leads to correct understanding.

[Sri Sankara speaks of reason blessed by intuition that becomes the aspect of one’s experience. Otherwise he remarks reason can end up in vain surmises (sahka tarka)]

According to Samkhya, the subject ought not to be identified with the object. Their identification is the fundamental error. When the subject realizes that it is not the object at any level, it is released from all error and suffering and attains liberation. This realization of non-identity or complete distinction is itself the state of liberation, or at least ought to be so according to the Samkhya. The experience of liberation is described by Ishvarakrisna as:

 Thus from the analysis of the tattvas,
arises the knowledge ‘I am not, nothing is mine I do not
exist.’ [This knowledge) is all-encompassing,
free from error, pure, and final [67].

 Even after the realization, the body, due to the force of past impressions (Samskara or residue karma), continues to perform, like a potter’s wheel which keeps turning even after the potter finished his job and walked away

Potter’s wheel

15.11. The image of the potter’s wheel, in addition to showing how life continues after knowledge is gained, also provides an excellent simile for understanding Samkyha’s philosophy of freedom through detachment in action, a way to be conscious in the midst of the non- conscious. This perhaps is the seed of Karma-Yoga of the Bhagavad-Gita.

The potter sitting above the spinning wheel, aloof yet involved, witness silently, watches the pot grow and take shape. There is harmony between the stillness–the authentic consciousness–and the activity, the realm of manifestation, the inert pot which is taking birth. The two modes work- detachment and earnestness- together create a new order.

This skill in action enables a person to move through life; and in a way liberates him from preoccupations of self-consciousness, and of broken dreams. Samkhya teachers explain when the mind is filled with thoughts and the sense of self; it becomes difficult to move unencumbered. Samkhya advices man to pacify the mind and to discard the barrier of ego between pure-consciousness (witness) and the task at hand. Consciousness becomes authentic when I, me, or mine no longer intrudes between the person and his task.

Time and Space

15.12. For the Samkhya, time and space have no separate existence; they are only forms in which the pluralities of the Prakrti appear. The Rig Veda says Time is endless and all pervading, though three- fourth of space is beyond human perception (R.V. 1-131-1 and 6-47-8). However some Vedic sages call Time and space as substance (dravya), forms of Prakrti.

indrāya hi dyaur asuro anamnatendrāya mahī pṛthivī varīmabhir dyumnasātā varīmabhiḥ |RV_1,131.01 |

uruṃ no lokam anu neṣi vidvān svarvaj jyotir abhayaṃ svasti |  ṛṣvā ta indra sthavirasya bāhū upa stheyāma śaraṇā bṛhantā ||RV_6,047.08 |

The latter make an interesting distinction between the absolute space and the space that is within ones experience. They agree space is One and Unitary (dis). But, they say, the Prakrti-space that which is in ones experience is finite. That space is understood and experienced according to each ones knowledge and reach. For instance, for a child space is small, to a student it is bigger and to an ashvinaus (a seeker or a scientist), it is very large and expanding and to a philosopher it is infinite, eternal and not part of Maya. But all the while the space of universe is illusionary but looks real to our senses no matter whether he/she is a child or a student or a scientist or a philosopher. It is just a matter of one’s perception and understanding…

[Sri Sankara asserts all space is One , its divisions are relative and therefore not real.]


F. Samkhya Traditions

16.1. The development of Samkhya traditions has been rather complicated and diverse. The ebb and follow of Samkhya traditions over the centuries is uneven and interrupted. Its flow is analogous to that of a typical river which trickles out unknown origins , gathers volume and pace; then breaks up into branches some which go sub -terrain and emerge at different locations, as different rivers with different names and eventually lose their identity by joining the main stream in an onward journey towards the ocean.

16 . 2. There are layers and layers of Samkhya. The Samkhya in its earliest form was atheistic and continued to be so during the period of Panchashikha – Charaka, until the time of Isvarakrishna who gave it a quasi-theistic form. Then on, the Samkhya turned entirely theistic, placing God or Supreme Being at the Apex.

The third version which accepted the God or the Purushottama seems to have come about when the Samkhya philosophers were persuaded to accept the existence of God. After that modification, Samkhya was allowed into the orthodox fold by about the sixteenth century.

[ The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies – Volume Four _ Samkhya; edited by Karl Potter, Gerald James Larson and Pundit Ram Shankar Bhattacharya. It is a very comprehensive and highly well researched Book on Samkhya. Under the Chapter “History and Literature of Samkhya “and Sub section “The Samkhya Textual Traditions” (on pages 14 to 18), the Book provides a list of all the known credible Texts on Samkhya.

The Book in a thorough and scholarly manner examines the entire Samkhya period under seven heads:

(1) Proto-Sämkhya: 800 B.C.E.—100 C.E.

(2) Pre-Kärikä Sämkhya: 100-500 C.E.

(3) Kärikä-Sämkhya: 350-850C.E.

(4) Pätanjala-Sämkhya: 400-850 C.E.

(5) Kärikä-Kaumudi-Sämkhya: 850 (or975)-present

(6) Samäsa-Sämkhya : 1300-present

(7) Sütra-Sämkhya: 1400-present

The check-list begins with proto – Samkhya. However, the texts mentioned here are not Samkhya – texts per se. They only refer to certain Upanishads which might be  the probable intellectual environment from which the Samkhya philosophy (ies) of the later periods root. The Samkhya –Philosophy, in proper, begins with the period labelled as “Pre- Karika – Samkhya”. The text relating to this period is Sastitantra; and its teachers are Paurika, Pancädhikarana, Värsaganya, Vindhya-väsin, and so forth.

Kärikä-Sämkhya: 350-850C.E. is the classical period of Samkhya.

Under the head “Kärikä-Kaumudi-Sämkhya: 850 (or975)-present; Samäsa-Sämkhya: 1300-present; and   Sütra-Sämkhya: 1400-present” are listed texts of the Post –Karika period. Among these is the “Samknyasutra” of an unknown author identified as belonging to tyhe period 1400-1500.

The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies – Volume Four _ Samkhya is available on the net. Please check the link: ]


[ what  is Shankara’s critique of Samkhya ?

Sri Shankara in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya – also called Saririka Mimamasa Bhashya – takes up for criticism the rival schools of thoughts. He does  criticize the ritual oriented Mimamsa School; the logical distinctions of the Nyaya School; the atom-ism of Vaisesika; and even the naive exuberance of the Bhakthi; and yet,  he pays special attention to refute the Samkhya theories.

 As Sri Shankara himself remarks, “We have taken special trouble to refute the Pradhana doctrine, without paying much attention to atomic and other theories. These latter theories, however, must likewise be refuted, as they also are opposed to the doctrine of Brahman being the general cause (BSS: I.4.28)”.

The pradhäna – kärana – väda (namely, the Sâmkhya) was the main focus of his attack.

Sri Shankara, in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, spreads his critique of Samkhya in four broad segments , which for the sake of convenience could be called as : (a) Section I.1.5 – 11 and 18; (b) Sections I .4 .1-28; (c) Section II.1.1-11; and (d) Section II.2.1-10.

The Sections (a) , (b) and (c), as mentioned above, refute the Samkhya claim that its views are based in or supported by Sruti-scriptures  such as  Upanishads (Vedanta vakya) and reasoning (tarka). Shri Shankara vigorously argues and dismisses the claims of Samkhya; and, also points out that Smruti (tradition), reasoning (tarka) or whatever is always subordinate to Vedanta vakya. These subordinate or auxiliary texts, he asserts, can never gain precedence over scriptures as being Pramana, the means of complete knowledge (samyag darshana).

After taking his position on the strength of his arguments in those first three Sections, Sri Shankara mounts attack on Samkhya from a rational point of view. He argues (in Section (d): II.2.1-10) to prove that Samkhya is a bundle of contradictions that cannot be logically explained. He concludes by saying that the Pradhana – karana –vada (meaning Samkhya) has now been completely refuted (Pradhana-karana-vado nirakrtah).

The points that Sri Shankara raises are mainly with regard to Pradhana. He argues that according to Samkhya, Pradhana is unconscious (a-chetana) and yet it is described as the material cause (karana) of all existence. He queries; how is it possible for an unconscious Pradhana to act independently and to cause creation. This goes against common experience, he says. And, he points out that it stands to reason to accept that Pradhana must be ruled by another principle that is both intelligent and operative. It must be that Principle which is the material cause of the world; and, not Pradhana (BSS: II.2.1).

Again, the Gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas – cannot be the ultimate material cause as stated by Samkhya. Because, he says, these Gunas limit one another; and cannot therefore be ultimate (BSS: II.2.1)

According to Samkhya, the Gunas cannot become active unless they are disturbed out of their state of equilibrium. But, how can Purusha which itself is totally inactive (akartr-bhava) initiate activity into some other thing which again is unconscious? In view of this, Sri Shankara questions, how can Pradhana ever modify itself? And, even assuming, it somehow succeeds in its attempt, how can it control or bring to halt such self-modifications? (BSS: II.2.2; II.2.4; II.2.8; and II.2.9)

He further remarks; if it is argued that Purusha and Prakrti function according to their own nature (svabhava) then the manifest world would never cease to function – unless , of course , a third principle intervenes to hinder their functions (BSS : II.2.3 ; II.2.5; and , II.2.6).

Again he questions, how can Pradhana which is unconscious (a-chetana) serve the ’purpose’ (Purushartha) or enjoyment (upabhogha) of Purusha, when it  is said that Purusha is  incapable of experiencing pleasure, pain or such other sensations?

Sri Shankara argues:  if Purusha is a mere witness, totally inactive (akartr-bhava), indifferent (audasinya) and yet conscious (chetana); and, in contrast if Pradhana is active (guna-parinama) and unconscious (a-chetana) , then it would mean the two are radically different and have nothing in common. He thereafter questions, how can the one influence the other?

 Purusha is radically different from Pradhana, as Samkhya says.  But, they somehow do manage to influence one another. Then, he points out that such influence is not possible unless there is some sort of a relation between them. But, he says, Samkhya insists the two are not related.

Further, if Samkhya says that Pradhana provides for the release of Purusha, then it, simply, is pointless. Because, Purusha is already ‘released’ even prior to the activation of the Gunas.

Again, then , what do the terms ‘bondage’ (bandha) or ‘release’ (moksha ) actually mean here ? These terms contradict themselves, he says, because Purusha was never bound; and was always independent (svatantra).

Having said these , let me also mention that many effective arguments are put forward by scholars of recent times countering or rebutting Sri Shankara’s criticism of the Pradhana- karana-vada (Samkhya). But, one cannot fail to appreciate the elegance of Sri Shankara and his effective reliance on the authority of Sruti which provides a good deal of intellectual security to his arguments.

The Brahman of Sri Shankara is the ultimate inner essence, the all-pervading supreme consciousness and the bliss of Being itself. It is the productive fountainhead of everything that is and will ever be.

The vision of the Samkhya, in contrast, is that of the human condition which generates itself; and which finally awakens to its own state of freedom or release. Freedom for Samkhya is not realizing the content-less metaphysical self ; but , it is the individual finding or realizing his true identity that is not restricted by any other known label or identity or name  ( na asmi , na me , na aham iti – I am not this; it does not belong to me;  nor I am that : Samkhya-karika – 64).]


One of the other  factors that the Samkhya debaters found it difficult to defend was the Samkhya concept of innumerable Purushas, but only one Prakrti. They found it hard to answer the questions: How does an attribute-less purusha get entangled with the world? Whether one purusha or by many Purushas or all the Purushas together inspired Prakrti to manifest? In case the creation occurred because of only one purusha, does that mean the creation was in spite of or against the wish of all other Purushas? In such a case, why did the will of one purusha override all the rest? Or, in case all the Purushas together inspired Prakrti to create, then there must be some sort of communication among all the Purushas; and there must also be an agent or a Supreme Being who organizes and guides the Prakrti. Samkhya scholars accepted the tacit existence of God.

Since there is infinity or at least a very large number of distinct,unrelated Purushas How can they all occupy the same infinite space without  affecting each other? A corollary problem is that each undifferentiated Purusha has a relationship with only one particular Buddhi (individual mind). Furthermore, each liberated Purusha, being omnipresent, must be coextensive with all of Prakrti, yet be completely unaffected by it.

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.

[Later, Ram Mohan Roy observed : Had the Samkhya philosophy asserted that at a definite stage in the development of the world, consciousness (chaitanya) arises out of things, while quantitative changes, reaching a certain phase of development, become qualitative changes producing new qualities, then the whole inconsistency (asangati) would have disappeared.]

These difficulties were attempted to be resolved 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.

With these modifications Samkhya came to resemble the monistic system Sri Sankara. It was also rendered theistic with Samkhya accepting the existence of a Supreme Being (Parama Purusha) the God.  But, these rendered Samkhya acceptable to Vedic Schools.

G. Decline of Samkhya

17.1. Samkhya School began to decline by the end of the tenth or eleventh century. And thereafter the School lost its vitality; the focus of attention on it too steadily diffused rather swiftly. Samkhya eventually lost its independent status and identity.

[Please check here for a discussion on ‘some important problems of Samkhya system‘]

17.2. The later commentaries of the Samkhya-Karika were rather restrictive and did   little more than explaining the text. No attempt was made to discuss fresh perspectives or to clarify the Samkhya position on difficult issues. The paucity of Samkhya vigour is evidenced by the absence of major independent or significant texts after about 14th century. And its scholars did not also come up with an effective rejoinder to Sri Sankara’s elaborate critique on Samkhya.

17.3. By about the sixteenth century Samkhya had got assimilated with the orthodox systems and had given up its independent status. Samkhya and Yoga were segregated, sanctified, rendered theistic and brought into Vedic fold as two separate disciplines. Yet, their acceptance within the orthodox schools was rather tepid. The Vedanta schools continued to either downplay or criticize the Samkhya theories of creative factors in creation (pradana vada) and of evolution (parinama vada).

18.1. The reasons for the decline of Samkhya Schools are many. Unlike Buddhism or some sects of Hinduism, the Samkhya did not develop into institutional forms. It remained a sort of secret-knowledge which only the close groups of ascetics, Yogis and intellectuals discussed among themselves. It is true many Samkhya principles and concepts formed the theoretical framework of the Sahaktha Schools of the Tantra; but, Tantra itself was a sort of secret society that exuded an aura of awe and mystery. The Samkhya ideologies and their significance did not directly percolate to the level of the common man.

18.2. Following Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya-karika, the Samkhya School moved away from the popular notions of Yoga, meditation and super-natural attainments. The Samkhya thereafter focused on knowledge and effective-discrimination (viveka) as the means for salvation. That was because; Samkhya is basically a prescription for renunciation (samnyasa), giving up all identities and moving towards that which is conscious and luminous.

18.3. And, since Samkhya did not accept a God, it left no scope for religious sentiments, aspects of worship, prayers etc. The Samkhya concept of salvation as kaivalya – isolation- too was rather stark and an austere idea; it naturally gathered very little popular appeal.

18.4. Further, the unquestioned acceptance of Isvarakrishna’s text as the normative view of the doctrine tended to curtail further creative thought within the Samkhya School. It was unable to face challenges from other Schools of thought.

18.5. The other reason could be the rise of Advaita Vedanta of Sri Sankara which pressed a vigorous critique on the Samkhya dualism from the perceptive of the older Upanishads and monistic tendencies.

With the Samkhya School turning theistic and getting absorbed into the orthodox traditions, it lost its identity. The interest in Samkhya ideologies, even among the intellectuals, remained merely academic.

19.1. Even though Samkhya declined and ceased to exist as an effective independent School, many of its ideas lived on and continued to influence the Indian way of thinking and culture. Samkhya influence can be found in the Tantra lore, puranas and Manu smrti; and among Buddhists, Jains, Bhagavatas, Pashupatas, and others cults. Some of the terms and concepts generated by Samkhya – Gunas, Prakrti etc- were transported to other systems and assigned their own connotations and variations. Many Samkhya terms and ideas have seeped into to common wisdom through Yoga, Buddhism and Jainism.


Continued – Next: Samkhya Karika–

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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