Tag Archives: Prakrti

Varuna and his decline – Part Four


Continued from Part Three

Varuna’s association with waters

Varuna’s associations with waters are explained at two levels. The two are extremes; so extreme that one is far removed from the other like the rarified deep space from the dark underground. The one is pure metaphysics and high symbolism, while the other is mundane and vulgar. The differences between the two levels cannot be bridged. There is no common ground for reconciliation. The two sets of associations cannot also be rationalized and bound into one. It is best that each is viewed separately, each in its own context–for whatever.

The philosophical explanations and suggestions on the nature of  Varuna’s association with waters have bred numerous debates, theories and speculations. Scholars have come up with varied interesting and intricate explanations which at times sound too abstract; hard to grasp. It is not easy to present them either. We shall briefly see a couple of such explanations and theories.

N. Creation- the process


Apah – Dark, deep and unfathomable waters

47.1. The terms Salilam and Apah which denote waters in the Rig Veda are said to be highly significant. Dr. Usha Choudhuri (in her scholarly thesis Indra and Varuna) explains these terms as implying more than just the water-element.   In the most celebrated hymn of creation – Nasadiya Sutktha which occurs in the Tenth Book of Rig Veda, as also in the Vak Suktha (RV.10.8.125) and  in the Hiranya-garbha Suktha  (RV. 10.121 ) the terms Salila and Apah represent Great Waters  or the primeval waters or the primeval matter of creation. They stand for the manifest as also for the un-manifest primeval matter: Prakrti or Vak or Aditi or Viraj.

47.2. Apah or Salilam is conceived as the threshold prior to which there was no distinction between existence and non-existence; between form and formlessness. Whatever that was there prior to it was neither sat nor a-sat; neither being nor non-being. That is; Apah or Salilam represents the crosses-over stage at which the unformed primordial universe transforms into existence. It could be regarded as the first stage of creation. Thus, Apah is Prakrti   as in Samkhya; and it is the primary source of all possibilities of manifestation in the world.

47.3. Apah is twofold: as the undifferentiated, un-manifest and formless (a-vyakta or apraketa or a-murta); and as the manifest with forms (vyakta or praketa or murta). It is said; Apah and Salilam denote Prakrti or the creative power (Shakthi) of the Purusha the Absolute principle. It also suggests movement (gati) and action (karma). Thus, Apah or Salilam signifies the state of Becoming; while Purusha signifies the state of Being.

47.4. To explain it in another way; these dark, deep and unfathomable waters (gahanam ghabhiram – RV. 10.129.1) hold in their womb the un-manifest universe. And, it is from these dark waters the manifest world springs forth. Nasadiya Suktha mentions “the un-manifest conceals within itself the formless manifestation. The universe was then undifferentiated in the primeval waters” (RV  agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam– RV.10.129.3). That is; these Great waters (mahat-salilam)   represent the immense potential of Prakrti in its un-manifest (a-vyakta) state. It has that potential to give expression to infinite possibilities as forms (vyakta).

RV_10,129.01a nāsad āsīn no sad āsīt tadānīṃ nāsīd rajo no vyomā paro yat |
RV_10,129.01c kim āvarīvaḥ kuha kasya śarmann ambhaḥ kim āsīd gahanaṃ gabhīram 
RV_10,129.02a na mṛtyur āsīd amṛtaṃ na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsīt praketaḥ |
RV_10,129.02c ānīd avātaṃ svadhayā tad ekaṃ tasmād dhānyan na paraḥ kiṃ canāsa ||
RV_10,129.03a tama āsīt tamasā gūḷham agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam |
RV_10,129.03c tucchyenābhv apihitaṃ yad āsīt tapasas tan mahinājāyataikam ||
RV_10,129.04a kāmas tad agre sam avartatādhi manaso retaḥ prathamaṃ yad āsīt |
RV_10,129.04c sato bandhum asati nir avindan hṛdi pratīṣyā kavayo manīṣā ||
RV_10,129.05a tiraścīno vitato raśmir eṣām adhaḥ svid āsī3d upari svid āsī3t |
RV_10,129.05c retodhā āsan mahimāna āsan svadhā avastāt prayatiḥ parastāt ||
RV_10,129.06a ko addhā veda ka iha pra vocat kuta ājātā kuta iyaṃ visṛṣṭiḥ |
RV_10,129.06c arvāg devā asya visarjanenāthā ko veda yata ābabhūva ||
RV_10,129.07a iyaṃ visṛṣṭir yata ābabhūva yadi vā dadhe yadi vā na |
RV_10,129.07c yo asyādhyakṣaḥ parame vyoman so aṅga veda yadi vā na veda ||

Varuna symbolizes Prakrti

48.1. The essential character of these primeval waters is Avarana – to cover or to encompass (var). Varuna is the encompasser; he pervades (var) everything; he presides over the visible and the invisible worlds. Varuna is the mythical symbol of primeval matter. And, he is the presiding deity of Apah and salilam. Varuna the lord of these waters, the primeval matter, thus symbolizes Prakrti.

48.2. It is by the will or the desire of Varuna, and through his wisdom-extraordinary (Maya) the forms of the visible world (Murtha) emerge from out of the formless (a-Murtha). Varuna in this sense is the creator; the world is born out of his mind (manas); and thus, he symbolizes kaarana –Brahman, the Brahman with a desire to create.

48.3. Shri Ananda Coomaraswamy too (in his Yakshas) explains Varuna as denoting Prakrti. He states that the term Samudra originally meant the sky; and the sky did not merely signify the physical sky but the all encompassing desire of the Purusha. Varuna is that will of Purusha. Varuna who is described as Rta-Samudra or Rta-sadana   is indeed the Prakrti.

Aditi is Apah and Prakrti

49.1. Aditi, the Mother – principle, Deva matri  the mother of all gods . Therefore , all the Devas , the solar deities who represent light and who reside in the heavenly regions are Adityas – the children of Aditi.  Thus , Aditi , the mother of   all existence is described as the mighty mother,’ lofty like a mountain, swelling with sweet milk’, the celestial light (jyothihmati RV .1.115.5), the queen or the guardian of Rta (rtavari), ever expanding and never decaying, gracious guide and great protector (YV. 21.5). She denotes freedom from bondage. She gives birth to manifest world. She is the Mother of all creation. Because the nourishing Mother Aditi is the source of all manifested reality – the past, the present and the future; of “all that has been and will be born” she is   regarded as Prakrti the creative principle, the desire of the Supreme to create (YV.10.7).

49.2. As mentioned earlier, Apah or Maha-salilam the great waters denote primeval matter or the primal cause of creation from which the manifest is born. Thus, Apah, the waters too are mothers (apah asmin matarah) – ‘The waters are our mother (ambayah), womb of the universe’ (RV.1.23.10). Aditi the great mother (mahi mata) who gives give birth to the manifest world is thus equated with Apah, among other things.

49.3. As Apah, Aditi is the creative energy which is active and moving (gati). Since Apah suggested movement (gati), it is said, the life-giving(jiva-nadi) , flowing rivers and streams are deemed feminine (Prakrti) ; while the stagnant Samudra the ocean into which all beings go and from which all beings emerge acquired a masculine identity (Purusha).

49.4. Aditi (Apah and Prakrti) is the forerunner of the Mother –Goddesses of the later texts and lore who symbolize the power (shakthi) of Prakrti in all its aspects.

Vak is Apah and Prakrti

50.1. In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha    of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah is conceived as the birth place of Vak or Vac   who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry She declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds “.

Vak the primal energy the Great Goddess Mother is described in various ways : Vak is the eternal being; the first-born of the eternal waters.   Vak is the Mother who gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to things by naming them. Vak is the faculty which gives expression to ideas. She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and express in words or otherwise the true nature of things. She is the navel of energy

50.2. Vak who springs forth from waters, touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence is indeed the Prakrti. Vac is also Apah and an attribute of Varuna.

I sprang from the waters,
And from there I spread throughout the universe,
I touch that heaven with a flowering body.

I move with Rudras and Vasus,
I walk with the Sun and other Gods,
I esteem Mitra, Varuna
And Indra, Agni and the Asvins.

[Please click here for the rendering of Devi Sukta]

50.3. Eventually; Apah, Aditi, Vak and Varuna all represent the same principle: Prakrti the creative principle.

O. Lotus and the inverted tree

Lotus symbolizes waters and life

51.1. The Lotus symbolizes waters; and earth is a leaf thereof. The lotus-leaf is called the back of the waters (Tai.sam. The earth lies spread on water just as the lotus-leaf does. The noted scholar Ananada K Coomaraswamy (in his Yakshas) too relates lotus to waters. He explains the concept of earth resting on waters in the context of the full-blown lotus flower that supports a divinity in the Indian iconography: ”where it seems to be implied that the figure is supported by a widely extended lotus flower rising out of the waters; and in the last analysis the deity is supported by the waters”.

51.2. He also mentions that lotus symbolizes life. The imagery of creation springing forth from the all-encompassing creator was initially related to Varuna. That is because Varuna in the early phases of Rig Veda was the Creator who brought forth all existence. But, since the virtues and powers of Varuna merged into Vishnu, in the later mythologies lotus came to be depicted as rising from the navel of Narayana resting on celestial waters bearing Brahma the abjaja –born of water or born of lotuses.

51.3. In any case, that imagery pictures the principle that all life and existence is born out of the waters.

Inverted tree of life – Varuna

tree with roots

Urdhvamulo ’vaśakha eso ’aśvatthah  sanatanah  / tad eva śukram  tad brahma tad eva amrtam ucyate  / tasmi  lokah  śritah , sarve tad u naty eti kaś cana
This permanent fig tree has its roots upwards and its branches downwards. It is bright, it is the  Brahman  ; that is it which is called immortality. In it all the worlds have their support and nobody goes beyond it (KaU_6.1)

52.1. Dr. Ananada K Coomaraswamy  referring to the concept of  “The roots of the inverted tree are in the sky and its branches are spread downwards “, says : Varuna called the unborn in Rig Veda symbolizes the root of that tree of life; the source of all creation. That cosmic tree is originally said to have sprung from the navel of Varuna the sky- god blue like the waters reflecting the sky.” – abudhne rājā varuṇo vanasyordhvaṃ stūpaṃ dadate pūtadakṣaḥRV.1.24.7)

52.2. Tracing the myth of the world tree from Varuna to Narayana, Ananada K Coomaraswamy refers to the remarkable resemblances in the ethical character of Varuna and Vishnu. According to him, ’the cosmic-tree myths of various forms and their relation to the lotus symbol verily owe their origin to Varuna. He says the concept of the cosmic functioning originally represented Varuna.   That concept did not undergo any change; but it only acquired new names and new symbols.

Thus, Varuna is Kaarana Brahman by whose desire the manifest world materializes.

 abudhne rājā varuṇo vanasyordhvaṃ stūpaṃ dadate pūtadakṣaḥ |
 nīcīnā sthur upari budhna eṣām asme antar nihitāḥ ketavaḥ syuḥ |
 uruṃ hi rājā varuṇaś cakāra sūryāya panthām anvetavā u |
 apade pādā pratidhātave ‘kar utāpavaktā hṛdayāvidhaś cit ||

Varuna the king of pure intelligence / Sits atop the tree with its roots/ in his un-supported and absolute realm; Its branches spread downwards. 

Varuņa of hallowed understanding,/ Holds aloft a mass of life-giving radiance, which streams down; May these rays sink deep and set within us. (RV. 1.24.7- 8)


P. Some other explanations for Varuna’s association with waters

Waters, Darkness and Varuna – Prakrti

53.1. Varuna’s association with darkness (tama) metaphorically called night (rathri), as also with waters (Apah) has given rise to number of other highly interesting philosophical speculations.

Nasadiya Suktha says, “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by darkness. All this was unmarked formless waters. ..”. That image of primordial waters was perhaps meant to convey the absence or the sense of absence of all sorts of distinctions in the pre-creation universe. And, similarly, darkness implied a state where day or night was not marked. Here, darkness and waters both seem to mean the same principle -– the all enveloping unformed state before the world of things (sat) arose out of its matrix.

“All this was produced from the dark waters (Taittiriya Aranyaka of the Krishna Yajurveda – 1.23)”.

Àpo va idamasanth-salilam-eva | sa prajapatirekaÏ puÍkaraparÉe samabhavat |
tasyÀntarmanasi kÀmassamavartata | idaÙ sÃjeyamiti | tasmÀdyatpuruÍo manasÀ’bhigacchati | tadvÀcÀ vadati | tatkarmaÉÀ karoti | tadeÍÀ’bhyanÂktÀ |
kÀmastadagre samavartatÀdhi | manaso retaÏ prathamaÎ yadÀsÁt

53.2 As said earlier, Varuna symbolizes un-manifest (a-vyakta or a-praketa or a-sat) as well as manifest (vyakta or praketa or sat) state of existence.

53.3. It is also explained; Rathri the darkness is Varuna (Ait Brh. 4.10); Rathri the starlit night belongs to Varuna (Tai .B 1.7.10); and, Varuna is waters (Apah) as it pervades (var) everything. Thus, both – darkness and waters- become associated with Varuna.

53.4. For these reasons, it is said that Varuna, Rathri and Apah all represent Prakrti.

Water- purifier – joy of life


54.1. Water is glorified as the nectar or honey (madhu) and the joy of life; and it is also the elixir of immortality. Water is the symbol of creation, life (jeevanam), strength and energy. Water is thus the nourishing mother of all life and existence. Water is as essential to life as is the vital-air (prana– aphomaya pranah. Water is the source of all existence; it   sustains, heals and purifies life.

Water is regarded as an extraordinary and omnipresent element in Rig Veda. It is the support of all lives; and, the savior of everything living or dead on earth. The world moves along  with the pure and simple movement of the water. It washes away the impurities and also cleans the inconsistencies of human behavior. Water is a great medicine. It does away with the diseases and is the benefactor of health, strength, long-life, wealth and immortality.

Yasam Raja Varuno Yati Madhyai Satyanrite Avapashyanje yajnanam| Madhushchutah Shuchaye yah pavakah ta Apao devirih mamvantu|| VII.49.3

The water dwells where gods dwell. The water in which the king of waters Varuna dwells, the water in which Soma lives, in whom all gods drink exhilarating strength, the waters in which the leader of all–Agni enters, who are full of divine values, help me in the world.

He, whose destination is the ocean, who purifies the world, is always flowing, such water lives in the middle of the Universe. Indra, who possesses ‘Vajra‘ and rains the desires, broke opened a path for these divine waters. May these waters help me and be received by me.

Samudrajyestha Salilasya Madhyapunana Yantyanivishmanah | Indrah ya vajri vrishabho rarad TaApoa devirih mamvantu ||

54.2. Shatapatha Brahmana (SB. makes an interesting remark: when Agni burns brightly, he then indeed becomes Varuna the purifier (paavaka). There is therefore a belief that the purifying waters cleanses sins, betrayals (abhidudroha) and falsehood (anŗtam duritam) – (RV. 1.23.22). The one that has been purified shouts in ecstasy: “I have become one with the essence of the celestial energy, rasena”. Water represents that faith (shraddha) in life.

54.3. Though the waters are celebrated by various metaphors, the physical aspect of water is not lost sight. The Chandogya Upanishad describes Waters as the source of all plants and herbs Oshadhis; the giver of good health and destroyer of   diseases. It is the source of joy of healthy living. The mountains, the earth, the atmosphere and the heavenly bodies too derive their form through water (Chandogya Upanishad – 7.10.10) .It is said; even the gods are waters – as they are the foundation and source of the universe and everything is contained in them.(SB. 10.5) .

And again , it is said; the water which is created in the universe; which is pure and full of light; which is full of divine characteristics; the water which flows in the form of river; the water which comes from the digging of the wells, canals; the water which is self-created in the form of waterfalls; and, that which enters into the ocean, help me in this world and thereafter.

Ya Apaodivya Ut Va Sravanti Khanitrima ut va yah swayamjah | Samudrartha Yah Shuchayah pavakasta Apao Devirih Mamvantu || VII.49.2

Varuna too is water.

“Verily all this is water. All the created beings are water. The vital breaths (prana) in the body are water. Quadrupeds are water. Herbs and crops are water. Madhu the nectar is water. Samrat[perpetually shining] is water. Virat [shining] is water. Svarat [self-luminous] is water. The metres (pankti) are water. The Devas are water. Vedic formulas are water. Truth is water. All deities are water. The three worlds denoted by BhuhBhuvah and Suvah are water. The source of all these is the Supreme denoted by the syllable ‘Om”. (Mahanarayana Upanishad- 29.1)

54.4. Since Varuna is waters, Apah, all its virtues and attributes are imbibed in him.

Apah and Sathya

55.1. Varuna who is the lord of waters (Apah) is also related with the order in world and to the laws in nature (Rta), and the Truth (satya). It is said ‘waters are the Truth…where waters flow there the Truth resides …. It is the waters indeed that were made first of this universe, hence when waters flow then everything whatever that exists in the universe is brought forth’ (Sathapatha Brahmana).Water is thus the universal mother –principle in the Rig Veda. Waters are Prakrti.

55.2. Thus Waters, Truth and Varuna symbolize Prakrti.

The child of waters

56.1. Varuna the son of Aditi resides among primal waters. He is described also as Apam-shishuh ‘the child of waters, in the best of the mothers – Aditi’

56.2. It is also said; since Varuna dwells in waters he is Apam Napat, “Son of the Waters’ (RV.1.2.35). Apam Napat is also referred to as the embryo (garbha) of the waters (RV.7.9.3). It is said; the sun when he sinks into waters – to quench his thirst- becomes Varuna the fire in the waters (Apam Napat).

[But, Varuna soon lost this ancient title; and it came to be applied more and more to Agni born of a spark from water and to other solar deities such as Savitr.]

Varuna and the moon

56.7. Another explanation offered to reason Varuna’s association with waters seems to me rather flat. It is said; as the god of the night sky Varuna is related with the celestial bodies that shine in the night sky: the stars and the moon. And, the moon  who  is related to Varuna influences the tides of the ocean and movement of terrestrial waters. Therefore, Varuna is connected with water and the aquatic realm.

Q. Varuna the water-god

This is the other-side of Varuna’s association with waters.

57.1. The status and the attributes of Varuna changed drastically, for worse, in the Puranas and the epics. Varuna lost the authority of kingship and the moral superiority that he once enjoyed in the Rig Veda and in the other Samhitas.   He is relegated as the regent of the west and demigod of waters; and practically nothing more.  It was as if the once mighty Varuna had been pensioned off and assigned a minor rank.

57.2. The waters that Varuna is now made in – charge are just waters on earth – plain and simple; they have no symbolic interpretations or philosophical connotations. Varuna is Salilesvara the king of terrestrial waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. Samudra the vast urukşhaya (1.2.9) is his abode. There he resides in his magnificent underwater palace (saagaro varunalayah) a den of sensual delights, surrounded by nymphs, snakes and all types of aquatic creatures.

57.3. His underworld too has gone radical reimaging; it is no longer the sedate and welcoming abode of the Pitris, but it is now tainted by the fearful pollution of death. Varuna has now turned sensuous and cruel; and developed dark and sinister associations.  He has also lost his good looks. Varuna in this phase does not command much respect. He is often chastened by other gods. Stories are told of his misadventures and humiliations. It appears he abducted and seduced Urvasi a nymph of Indra’s court and fathered a son from her. On another occasion, it is said, Varuna kidnapped Bhadra, daughter of Soma and wife of Uthahya.

57.4. Varuna who once was: the nearest approximation to the Supreme Being, the sovereign of all earth and heavens, the creator and sustainer of life in all three regions, the lord who presided over order in the physical and moral realms, the judge who dispensed justice and handed down punishments, is now turned into the regent of the west and god of seas; and eventually a demigod of local water- bodies; a god of not much consequence… a god of small things….what a fall….!!

In the next section let’s look at the explanations offered for Varuna’s decline and fall.


58.1. His association with waters  however earned Varuna number of descriptive epithets, such as: Prachetas, apam-pathi , ambu-raja, jaleshwara, jalaadhipa, vaaripa, udakapathi, salileshwara, Jala-pati, Kesa  ( lord of water) ; Sindhu pathi , Nadi-pathi ( lord of the seas or rivers ); sarit-pathi (lord of all that flows);  VIloma, Vari-loma ( watery hair) ; Yudh pathi ( king of aquatic animals) ; Uddama ( the surrounder) ; bharti  (the nourisher); and, Pashi ,  Pasha bhrit, (bearer of the noose) .


Continued in Part Five

References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. UshChoudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda

11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999

All images are by courtesy of Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


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Samkhya : Part Five : Samkhya Karika – continued

Continued from Part Four

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


O. The unfolding

33.1. As mentioned earlier, Samyoga the proximity of the Purusha (consciousness) and the a-vyakta (undifferentiated un-manifest Prakrti) disturbs the Gunas the dormant constituents of the a-vyakta. The three Gunas resting in a state of equilibrium turn restless, struggle among themselves for expression and each strives for ascendency over the other two. That turbulence gives birth to the first stage of the evolution process.

33.2. It is said; the evolution process detailed in the Samkhya is twofold: one cosmic and the other individual. Further, the outward process of the unfolding (sarga) is also meant to delineate the reverse process of absorption (apavarga). Samkhya considers evolution and absorption as processes that complement one other.

The evolution processes described in the Samkhya Karika are with particular reference to the individual.

33.3. The turbulence that takes place within the a-vyakta results in the Guna rajas gaining the ascendancy; the rajas then activates sattva. And, the two together overpower the inertia of the tamas; and set in motion the process of evolution.

P. The evolutes of Prakrti


34.1. The first to evolve out of this churning of the Gunas is Buddhi (the intellect) or Mahat (the great one).The latter term is usually employed in the context of cosmic evolution, while the term Buddhi is used with reference to the individual. But, both (mahat and buddhi) represent the principle of intellect or discrimination buddhi-tattva.

34.2. Mahat or Buddhi is the first principle which the Purusha sees or witnesses; and is the first phenomenon to emerge out of the undifferentiated ground of the un-manifest (a-vyakta) and to cross the threshold into manifestation (vyakta).

Buddhi represents the first phase of evolution, and is therefore described as the primacy phenomenon. For this reason, Buddhi or Mahat is otherwise called ‘the seed of the material world’ (prapancha-bija).

34.3. Buddhi is said to be very subtle, transparent, not extended in space and dominantly sattva in its nature.   Buddhi is a unique faculty of human beings. It is man’s instrument for exercise of judgment and discrimination (viveka). It not only ‘knows’ but also ‘works’; meaning, it is awareness as well as the will to be active. For that reason, according to Samkhya-karika, the becoming of man is determined by his fundamental strivings which are guided by the Buddhi. In other words, the man’s place in this world depends upon his inclinations (Gunas) as directed by the Buddhi.

34.4. But, Buddhi, an evolute of Prakrti, is not consciousness; only the Purusha is consciousness. Buddhi is an effective instrument of knowledge or cognition.

Buddhi, the first evolute and the instrument of discretion, is the nearest to Purusha, of all the evolutes of the a-vyakta. It, in a way, compliments the functioning of the Purusha. If Purusha provides consciousness which makes evolution possible, the Buddhi provides requisite knowledge to attain liberation by isolating Purusha from everything else; by showing, at each stage, that Purusha (consciousness) is indeed different from Prakrti (matter) and its evolutes. The function of Buddhi is Adyavasaya or certainty leading to action. The Buddhi instructs the individual that he or she is not prakrti or any of its evolutes; but is essentially the pure consciousness itself. The Buddhi spurs the man to action.  The Buddhi is, thus, the faculty that guides and bestows man the true understanding which liberates him. It is the paucity of this discriminating knowledge (viveka) that subjects the man to bondage and suffering.

[ Samkhya Karika (26) names the five sense organs [Bhuddhi Indriyas- because they are the means or the Dvara of perceiving sound etc by the internal organ] and five organs of action (Karmendriya) namely , voice , hand, foot , organ of excretion and organ of generation. And the Eleventh organ is the mind

In the Samkhya system  , the senses , the sense-organs, the sense-objects and sense-perceptions are all discussed within the overall framework of the notion of Purusha and Prakrti ; the three Gunas; the levels of gross (sthula) and subtle (sukshma) ; as also the levels of the interplay of Manas, Ahamkara and Buddhi.

The last three (Buddhi, Manas and Ahamkara) constitute the inner organs (Antha-karana) .They are the powers that open and close the gates; monitor, control and register whatever is carried through. The body-mind complex of human system is active (kartar) through the ‘five organs of action’ (Karmendriya) and receptive through the ‘five organs of perception’ (Jnanendriya) .

These two sets of five each are the vehicles of alertness and responses. These faculties work outward (bahyendriya) and are akin to gates or doors (Dvara) ; while mind (Manas)  and the ego ( sense of “I’) , intellect, judgement (Buddhi ) are the door-keepers. Since the mind (Manas) operates directly with the ten faculties (Bahyendra) it is considered as the eleventh (Ekadasha) and is called the ‘inner-sense’ (Antar –indriya).

Among the eleven organs of perception and action, mind is said to have the nature of both. Because, the organs of sight, speech, hearing etc function within the limitations of their assigned tasks; but are governed by the mind, which is the faculty that judges and determines   . The organ of perception perceives an object as such , no doubt; but , it is the mind that  identifies and determines   : ‘it is an object’; ‘ it is of this nature’ or ‘it is not of this nature’ etc.

It is the mind (Buddhi) which continuously identifies, classifies and determines the objects it perceives. In the process, it is said, the mind keeps transforming itself into the shapes of the objects of which it becomes aware. Its subtle substance takes on the colours, forms of everything that is presented to it by the senses m by the memory and emotions. Yet, it has also the capability to calm and still the senses as also itself, like a jewel in a pond, by the power of the Yoga.]

samkhya tattvas

(source : )



35.1. Arising out of Buddhi and projected from it is Ahamkara the self-identity, bringing along with it notions of “I-ness” and “mine”. Ahamkara breeds ‘self-assertion’ (abhimana) or self-love; and even self-conceit or self-pity. The Ahamkara is the specific expression – ‘me’ and ‘mine’- of the general feeling of self.

35.2. It is the Ahamkara that sets apart the individual from rest of the world, erecting enclosures around the person. It makes the person think and to interpret everything and every notion in terms of I and the rest. All thoughts, action and speech of an individual are in terms of his or her sense of Ahamkara. It is the foundation of one’s actions of every sort.

35.3. Ahamkara pervades and influences all human experiences; it even colours the Buddhi; and is very scarcely silenced. If Buddhi is predominantly sattva, the Ahamkara is predominantly rajasa. It is dynamic in nature; and pervades all human experiences including mind, senses etc. Ahamkara is functionally an urge for self-preservation and self-perpetuation amidst series of environment changes and fluctuations. The Samkhya therefore regards Ahamkara as an ongoing ceaseless process (vritti) and not as a substance.

Group of sixteen

36.1. In the next stage of evolution, from out of the Ahamkara there emanates ‘a group of sixteen’ elements; in two sets: of eleven and five. Those sixteen elements (tattvas) are nothing but the various transformations (vaikruta) of Ahamkara. This means, the evolution stream which till then was vertical (avyakta —  buddhi — Ahamkara) turns horizontal at the stage of Ahamkara.

36.2. The first set (of eleven) comprises manas (mind), five buddhi-indriyas (five senses of perception: hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling) and five karma- indriyas (five organs of action or rather the functioning of these five organs: speech, apprehension, locomotion, excretion and procreation). The set of eleven represents the first stage of man’s contact with the world. It is characterized as sattvic-ahamkara; meaning its components are predominantly of sattva nature.

36.3. The Manas (mind) the first among the group of sixteen, according to Karika, is described as samkalpa, meaning it is constructive, or analytical or explicit. The Manas is concerned with determined perceptions .It arranges impulses or sensations coming from the senses and organs of action; and is a coordinator of various streams of thoughts, sensations and emotions. The manas acts as a bridge between the internal and external worlds; and, it is said to be involved mainly with a person’s waking experiences.


37.1. The triad of manasbuddhi and Ahamkara form the antahkarana, the internal organ or instrument, which in other words is a psychological field that is subjective and individualized. It is the threshold area which connects man’s inner world to external world (bahya – karana).   [Yoga reduces the three components of antahkarana into one Chitta the seat of awareness.]

37.2. Though the antahkarana is formed by the evolutes of un-intelligent Prakriti, its constituent psychological categories are predominantly Sattva in nature. The antahkarana therefore reflects the intelligence of the Purusha, and appears as if it is a conscious entity.

38.1. These thirteen (anthahkarana plus five buddhi-indriyas plus five karma – indriyas) together form the essential psycho-physical instrument which enables Man to know, understand the world and himself. This set of thirteen is also a prelude to the emergence of the physical world.

38.2. In the Samkhya scheme of evolution, the physical world appears only after the basic constituents of mind and the sense and the functioning of sense organs are put in place.

Tanmatras and Bhuta

39.1. The ten senses or indriyas that follow are external (bahya) instruments (karana).

The second set of five (out of the group of sixteen mentioned above) consists the five subtle elements (tanmatras): shabdasparsharuparasa and gandha (elemental sound, touch, form, taste and smell). This set of five is characterized by rajasa, the Guna of action. The function of the rajasa Ahamkara is to motivate two other Gunas to be creative.

39.2. From out of the second set consisting five subtle elements, emerges Bhutas a set of five gross elements, the basic elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and space (pancha-bhuta) leading to the gross or external world. This set of five gross elements is said to betamasa-ahankara, meaning they are the forms of Ahamkara characterized by predominance of the Guna tamas. Because of the predominance of tamas, the Bhutas or material elements are incapable of reflecting intelligence. They are therefore called insentient matter.

 39.3. The gross elements are produced by various combinations of subtle elements. To illustrate:

 First to evolve is the tanmatra that is the essence of sound (sabda), which in turn produces akasha the space element. Therefore, the akasha element contains the quality of sabda perceived by the ear.

Shabda and sparsha together produce marut (air); the air element contains the attributes of sound and touch, although touch is the special quality of air and is sensed by the skin.

The teja (fire) element is derived from the essence of colour (rupa tanmatra). It combines the qualities of sound, touch, and co]or, and its special property sight as perceived by the eyes. 

Shabdasparsharupa and rasa together form apha (water). The water element has all the three preceding qualities–sound, touch, and colour– as well as its special quality taste, as sensed by the tongue.

All five elements combine to produce kshiti (the earth). The five gross elements combine in different ways to form all gross objects of the world that are perceivable. This grossest element kshiti (the earth) contains all of the four previous qualities.

Akasha Sabda        
Vayu Sabda Sparsha      
Agni Sabda Sparsha Rupa    
Apah Sabda Sparsha Rupa Rasa  
Prithvi Sabda Sparsha Rupa Rasa Gandha


[Note:  Earth means earthly properties, similarly wind means properties of the wind, sky means the ever pervading space and fire means the energy (of creation and destruction) and water means the organic properties]

Q. Twenty-four tattvas

40.1. Thus, buddhiAhamkara, the group of sixteen and the five gross elements together make the twenty-three tattvas the basic components of the Samkhya karika. In addition, the text counts a-vyakta the un-manifest Prakrti as one of the tattvas; thus bringing up the total of the tattvas to twenty-four.

40.2. Thus, the objective world according to Samkhya karika is made of twenty-four tattvas each composed of varying degrees of the three Gunas: sattvarajas and tamas. The term tattva is comprised of two words tat (that) and tva (you) meaning ‘thatness’ or the nature of a thing. The Purusha (consciousness) is not a thing and is not treated as a tattva; Purusha is different from everything else. This is what distinguishes the karika version of Samkhya from the older atheistic version; from the version of Panchashikha; as also from the later versions influenced by the Vedanta.

[To summarize; the first tattva to emerge from avyakta is buddhi (intellect), closely followed by Ahamkara (sense-of-self) and manas the mind or cognition. These three collectively referred to as the inner organ (antahkarana) is predominantly of sattva Guna; and determine how the world is perceived.

That is followed by the five sense organs and the five organs of action. These possess the combined qualities of sattva and rajas; and provide conditions necessary for human functions. At the same stage, the Guna rajas combines with tamas to produce five subtle elements tanmatras (sound, touch, form, taste, smell). This set of subtle elements, in turn generates five gross elements (space, wind, fire, water, earth).

These twenty-three, along with a-vyakta   form twenty-four tattvas or basic components of matter, as per Samkhya karika. Since they are all evolutes of Prakrti, they are not-conscious or intelligent.  They are the objects of experience of the Purusha, the consciousness.

Please see the figure at the bottom of the post.]

R . The scheme

41.1. The evolution as projected in the Samkhya –Karika systematically proceeds, in stages, from the extremely subtle matter in its un-manifest state (a-vyakta) down to the grossest physical element. The ‘group of eleven’, and more particularly the antahkarana which is a psychological field formed by the triad of the subtle forms of intellect, mind and ego is the threshold area which connects man’s inner world to external world (bahya -karana).  In the Samkhya scheme of evolution, “physical world” appears only after the basic constituents of mind and the sense and the functioning of sense organs are put in place.

41.2. In a way, the Samkhya scheme is an inversion of the western model where the man and matter are just created. In contrast, what the Samkhya describes is not an act of creation but a process (vritti) of evolution originating from the most subtle towards the gross.

Samkhya regards the processes of evolution and absorption as complimentary to one another. The Samkhya scheme of absorption is therefore exactly the reverse of its evolution process. Samkhya also believes that just as that which had not existed before can never be brought into existence, that which exists cannot be entirely destroyed, either. Following these principles, the Samkhya projects its scheme of absorption. According to which, at the time of dissolution of the world, the reverse process sets into motion with each effect collapsing back into its cause; the gross physical elements broking 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 eternal.

S. Enumeration

42.1. Some scholars say that the whole of the Samkhya karika can be viewed as a systematic enumeration of its twenty-four tattvas or basic elements which compose the man and his world. Such enumeration is in keeping with the meaning assigned to the term Samkhya suggesting reckoning, summing up or enumeration.

42.2. However, Samkhya Karika is not mere enumeration of categories; it is much more that. It is a method of reasoning, analysis and enquiry into the very core of man’s existence and his identity. The term Samkhya also refers to an individual who has attained true knowledge. Whatever be the meaning assigned to the term, Samkhya is one of the most important Schools of philosophy.

42.3. The method of enumerating their basic principles is not unique to Samkhya .The enumeration procedures seemed to be quite well accepted in the ancient times; and a number of ancient texts followed the enumeration method. For instance, the parts of man are enumerated and correlated with parts of the universe in Rig Veda (10.90) and in Taittiriya Upanishad (1.7).The dialogue that takes place between Yajnavalkya and his wife Maitreyi as many as seventeen of the twenty-five tattvas of the later Samkhya are enumerated (Br. Up . 4.5.12)

42.4. The Samkhya enumeration system is more through, purposeful and logical. The seemingly elaborate system of Samkhya enumeration of the elements of existence (tattvas) is a deliberate effort to systematically reduce the countless manifestations into comprehensible categories. It attempts to trace the stages of development of the categories of existence in their ordered phases of their evolution, consistent with a well thought out scheme (tattva-ntara-parinama).It proceeds from the most subtle to the most gross; and arranges the sets cogently in successive stages of their dependence in order to delineate their mutual relationships.

For instance; at the fundamental level the translucent pure –consciousness Purusha is neither generated nor generating; while the extremely subtle mula-prakriti is un-generated but generating. BuddhiAhamkara and the tanmatras are both generated and generating. The psychological fields manas, the buddhi-indriyaskarmendriyas, as also the elemental mahabhutas are generated and do not generate anything in turn, thus closing the onward flow of the evolution. The reverse process of absorption or dissolution starts with the gross elements at the outer periphery of existence; each stage collapsing back in to its source; and ultimately all dissolving into the primal source the mula-prakrti.

The Samkhya concept of liberation (of which we shall talk a little later) is described in terms of the involution or the absorption process of the manifest world. It is the reverse of the evolution process where the individual in quest of his true identity traces his way back to the origin viz  presence of the pure-consciousness.

T. Purusha-Prakrti

43.1. The relation or rather the non-relation between the Purusha and Prakrti as depicted in the Samkhya Karika is of a very peculiar sort. Purusha never comes in contact with Prakrti; he is ever separate and aloof. Yet, Purusha’s proximity to the a-vyakta disturbs or influences the Gunas; and triggers the process of evolution.

43.2. The two are totally different realities of existence. Purusha is consciousness, passive and does nothing but see rather disinterestedly. Avyakta Prakrti, which is witnessed, is the root cause of the world containing in a potential form infinite possibilities of world and all its characteristics. But, Prakrti does not possess consciousness; it is inert and intelligible.

How Purusha and Prakrti were first formed or came into existence is not explained. But they together form the basis of all existence. Although the manifestation of Prakrti depends on Purusha, the Purusha has no role in creating Prakrti or giving it its shape and appearance.

Because Purusha is perfect and unchanging complete unto itself, there is no reason for it to take active role in the creation of Prakrti. Thus the concept of Purusha is entirely unlike the idea of God the creator of the world.

43.3. Samkhya karika says that Purusha and Prakrti (though unrelated) need one another .Prakrti requires the presence of Purusha in order to manifest and to be known; and Purusha requires the help of Prakrti in order to distinguish itself from Prakrti and thereby realize liberation.  The manifest world (Prakrti) serves its own purpose by serving the purpose of Purusha. Samkhya karika compares the samyoga the association of Purusha and Prakrti to the teaming of a blind person with a lame person. The blind being Prakrti who can move but cannot see and is not intelligent (not conscious); the lame being Purusha who is intelligent and can see, but cannot move (SK: 21).

[ Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, (Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p.326) writes :”If we admit the Samkhya view of prakriti and its complete independence of purusa, then it will be impossible to account for the evolution of prakrti. We do not know how latent potentialities become fruitful without any consciousness to direct them.,]

[The main problem appears to be the polarity between Purusha and Prakrti;  Purusha is so indifferent and Prakrti so mechanical. The simile to explain their interaction as that of a blind man of good foot carrying a cripple of good eye is not a great analogy. It is rather brittle and should not be pressed too hard. Because, both the blind and lame are intelligent; whereas Prakrti is not. The simile would fit better if the lame had no desire to go anywhere and he says nothing and does nothing; while the blind person has no mind at all. Clearly in such a case they would not be able to cooperate; yet Samkhya somehow forges an association between Purusha and Prakrti.]

43.4. Samkhya seeks to understand the world and man’s place in it from the perspective of consciousness. Consciousness is the reason why there is a manifest world, although the Purusha adds nothing to the world. The Purusha only witnesses the world. Since its nature is to witness, it sees the world as an instrument for its own purpose and ends.

43.4. The world is that which is witnessed. Prakrti like a painting acquires meaning and comes alive only when it is viewed by a viewer. The painting is for the enjoyment of the viewer. Purusha is the seer and Prakrti is that which is seen; and Prakrti (matter) is meant for the enjoyment of the conscious Purusha. The world exists for the sake of Purusha.  (Purushartha).

43.5. To start with, the manifest world appears because of the presence of Purusha. Further, all the objects of the world–including the mind, senses, and intellect—in in themselves unconscious — appear to be alive, intelligent, possessed of consciousness only because they are illuminated by the Purusha.

Purusha (consciousness) which has no form appears through objects, which by themselves do not posses consciousness. The objects appear as if they are possessed of consciousness; giving a false impression that consciousness is their nature. In other words, the world appears as conscious, which it is not. Similarly, the conscious appearing object is mistaken for Purusha; the Purusha appears as what it is not.

There is a perpetual dilemma here .The world is real but can manifest only because Purusha the pure consciousness is associated with it. But Purusha can realize its true nature only when it separates itself from Prakrti.

44.1. Since Purusha has no form it can be grasped or understood only in terms of what it witnesses. Samkhya therefore describes everything that appears to Purusha; and eventually discards all that it described. It then says Purusha is radically distinct from everything it witnesses and everything that was described.

The seer is not the seen. This distinction is crucial to Samkhya. The Samkhya follows a method of elimination; it seeks to understand Purusha by identifying what Purusha -is –not and rejecting all that. When Purusha is thus isolated from everything else, one understands that the ultimate ground of human existence is none other than Purusha itself.

U. Dualism in Samkhya karika

45.1. The fundamental dualism in Samkhya centres on the distinction between individual consciousnesses on one hand and the not-conscious world on the other. It is between Purusha and Prakrti in its manifest (vyakta) and un-manifest (a-vyakta) forms. The duality is   between Prakrti the creative factors in creation (becoming) and Purusha (being).

45.2. Purusha is not characterized as made of the three Gunas. Purusha is beyond Gunas; it is subjective, specific, conscious and non-productive. In contrast, the Gunas are the expression of creative factors of Prakrti. In a way of speaking, the dualism in Samkhya could be between the real doers Gunas (becoming) and the passive Purusha (being).

45.3. The Samkhya dualism is not that of body and mind, or a dualism of thought and extension. All such dualisms are included and comprehended on the side of Prakrti, the not- conscious world. Because, according to Samkhya, the mind, the self-awareness of man is all evolutes emerging out of the mula-prarti. Similarly, all of man’s emotions and strivings and urges are also comprehended on the side of the mula-prakrti.

[Before going further some explanations appear necessary, here:

45.4. Samkhya Karika’s treatment of the subject is from the perspective of the individual consciousness. It does not speak of god or cosmic soul. The Purusha and Prakrti are ever separate and do not come together. There is no manifestation of world without Purusha; yet, Purusha exists apart from the world which is not-conscious. The dualism of the Karika is between consciousness and that which is not conscious.

45.5. As regards the plurality of Purushas, the Samkhya Karika underscores its assertion that man or the world is not derived from an all encompassing cosmic source; but each evolves following its own natural laws (svabhava). The Purusha of the Karika is individual; but not personal. The basic concern of the Samkhya Karika is individual suffering and the liberation of the individual. It is not concerned with abstract concepts of suffering or universal spirit. You might recall that the Buddha who had his initial training also pursued similar approach; and refused to get into discussions on cosmos or the cosmic soul. His approach too was highly individualized.

One might perhaps appreciate the concept of plurality of Purushas, if you treat it as jiva of Vedanta or Jainism .The Vedanta Schools however brought the jivas under the umbrella of Brahman or Parama-purusha.

45.6. Again, the question of god too is linked to Karika’s major concern: salvation from suffering. Karika regards the discriminative knowledge alone as the means of salvation. The salvation according to Karika is the realization that Purusha (consciousness) is distinct and separate from Prakrti (materiality). Isvara, god, in case he exists, according to Karika scheme of things, would be a part of Prakrti and therefore not-intelligent. .And, which case the presence of god, becomes irrelevant to Karika. The Karika in fact refers to Vedic gods (SK 53 and 54) and makes no attempt to deny their existence; but they are treated as part of Prakrti. And, by implication those gods too are in need of salvation.  In short, the question of salvation is viewed in Karika from non-theistic perspective. Whether or not a god exists makes little difference.

The later Samkhya, of course, reconciled with the orthodox systems   by accepting a God. Yoga too was theistic.]

V . Reverse process of release

46.1. Consciousness, ego and mind constitute the inner world of a human being (Samyogi purusha). Human contact (samyoga) with the material world of   appearances, the contact between being and becoming is the real stuff of the world. The Man develops natural inclinations of attachment and involvement in the world that surrounds him. He nurtures clinging to certain urges; and he also dreads isolation. These are the foundations for all his actions. These are also his problems, aspirations, anxiety and frustrations of life.

The Samkhya believes that clinging to the world of appearances leads to suffering. It asks Man to detach from excessive involvements, to exercise control over senses, to discipline the mind and to move away from false identifications.

Samkhya compares the world to a dancing girl who withdraws when she finds no one is paying attention to her. When we look beyond the world, it will go away. This happens with the individuals as they separate themselves from hopes, fears, desires and passions, renouncing the Guna aspects of the intellect  in order to realize their true identity as pure consciousness.

46.2. 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. It instructs that Prakrti is distinct from Purusha which has always been pure and free; and it is only the non- conscious Prakrti that is bound and strives for release.

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.

46.3. The Samkhya puts forward the premise, that the translucent consciousness adds nothing to the world ; and it can therefore be understood only in terms of what it witnesses: the un-manifest and manifest world viz, everything that is not consciousness. Following this, Samkhya enumerates all components of the un-manifest and manifest world; and suggests a process of enquiry guided by Buddhi, the faculty of discrimination (viveka), segregating everything that is not conscious in an attempt to view Purusha the consciousness in its isolation. Finally, he realizes Prakrti is distinct from Purusha. It is a state of realization (apavarga) that consciousness is ever pure and free; and consciousness is not matter.“No one is bound, no one is released…only prakriti in its various forms is bound and released” (SK .62).

The kaivalya isolation that Samkhya speaks about is not shuttered retreat from the world but is a way of being in the world sans entangled with Prakrti. The Buddhi which earlier was confused with wrong identities is now clear like a dust-free mirror reflecting the light of Purusha.

47.1. The practical method that Samkhya advocates is involution, a sort of returning to the roots of one’s existence; or returning to the origin or reversing the process of birth (prati- prasava). It is a systematic regression or an attempt to reverse the process of evolution; it is the opposite of spreading out (pra-pancha); leading back to the original state.

47.2. The Samkhya method of enquiry could therefore be described as an individual’s quest for his true identity ; a journey deep into the very core of his existence guided by Buddhi (viveka) ; travelling from the gross outer peripheries of his being into his subtlest inner core; going past the body, mind, senses, urges , etc ; shredding away every identity , 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 aspect of Prakrti . It is also a method of giving up all identities. Once he finds Prakrti is distinct from Purusha he realizes the ultimate condition of “otherness”, freedom and isolation which is consciousness, Purusha in itself.

47.3. The relevance of the enumeration of the categories in Samkhya could be viewed in this context of involution. The hierarchical inversion begins with the elements of the body; progressively leading to the avyakata the un-manifest Prakrti which gets to see the Purusha the pure consciousness. To put it in another way, the evolution commences with Purusha seeing the avyakta; and, the cycle ends with the avyaktha seeing the Purusha; the seer becomes the seen. The un-differentiate Prakrti sees the un-differentiated consciousness.  The reversal is complete. Yet, Purusha and Prakrti stay apart; there is no suggestion of the union of the two.

48.1. Samkhya ideology of reversing the normal trend of human existence in the world and attaining the condition of isolation or kaivalya provided the frame work for other spiritual persuasion, such as Yoga, Sri Vidya and other forms of Tantra.

It might perhaps help to understand better if one follows the Sri Chakra model of creation and absorption. In the Sri Vidya tradition, the aspirant regards his body as Sri Chakra wherein the innermost core of man is encased within a nine-fold fort of matter, senses, emotions, thoughts etc. He, following the samhara-krama the absorption method, proceeds from the outer periphery wall (body) to the innermost Bindu (consciousness) in an ascent through various levels of psychic states. As he proceeds inward from the outermost enclosure the devotee’s thoughts are gradually refined; and the association of ideas is gradually freed from the constraints of conventional reality.

Bindu the dimension-less point at the centre of the Chakra, just as the avyakta of Samkhya, represents not only the origin but also the ultimate end of all existence

48.2. The Tantra too followed the hierarchical inversion of the twenty-four principles of Samkhya, but was not happy with Purusha and Prakrti being kept perpetually separate. It aimed to obliterate the subject-object duality; fuse the seer and the seen into one; and realize that unity in the Bindu symbolized as Ardhanarishwara the united Shakthi and Shiva. The Tantra improved upon Samkhya’s twenty-four principle- categorization by adding another twelve to render the dualistic universe into a unity.

48.3. The Yoga Sadhana too is patterned after the reversal of the Samkhya model of evolution. In the Yoga Sadhana, the yogi draws his energy from the root-chakra (muladhara) the earth element up to vishuddhi chakra the element of akasha space. Once at the vishuddha the five elements are purified, the prajna ascendants to   ajna which is the collective frame of reference for manas the mind. The four chakras rising from the ajna correspond to the Samkhya tattvas of manas (Chandra chakra), Ahamkara (Surya chakra) , buddhi (Agni chakra) and   avyakta prakrti (Sahasra chakra).In Yoga, the seer, seeing and the sight all dissolve into one.

49.1. The ultimate ground of human existence, according to Samkhya is Purusha pure-consciousness itself. One dwells in pure translucent consciousness, a kind of emptiness which transcends everything in the manifest and un-manifest world. The realization that one’s essential nature is consciousness: pure and free, relives one of all bondage and suffering. And, that is the supreme ambition of Isvarakrishna’s Samkhya karika.

Verily, therefore, the Self is neither bounded nor emancipated; No one is bound, no one is released. It is Prakrti alone, abiding in myriad forms that is bounded and released.

(Samkhya karika62)

 Next: Samkhya – Vedanta and Buddhism

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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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.]

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 enquiry 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 discriminative 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 witnessing (SK: 11, 20 , 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 subtle form of emery. 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 principle 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.

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 Prakasapravrttiniyamarthah Anyonyabhibhavasraya- Jananamithunavrttayasca 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, the Gunas, sattva 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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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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