Tag Archives: Samkhya

Bhagavad-Gita Multiple interpretations- Part One



Bhagavad-Gita, by all accounts, is rather an unusual text.

Bhagavad-Gita, is revered as one among the exalted triad of the fundamental philosophical texts (Prasthana traya) of the Sanatana Dharma; the other two being the principal Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra which is the condensed essence of Upanishads . The Gita is accorded the position of Sadhana Prasthana (practical text); and, is regarded as the starting point of remembered tradition the Smriti Prasthāna.

[Sruti is the directly perceived truth, hence more authoritative. Smriti is the heard or meditated upon tradition that follows the Sruti.]

: – And yet; the Bhagavad-Gita is located within the Mahabharata, an Epic which is classified as Ithihasa, a narration of the past events. The Gita is conceived and developed as a solution to the climax of a Dharmic dilemma that emerges during the course of the Epic. As van Buitenen said; it was not an independent text that somehow wandered into the epic.  Mahabharata as Ithihasa is classified as Smriti, while the Bhagavad-Gita imbedded within it is assigned a superior and an exclusive position of a Sruti, though it deviates, in some respects, from the traditional Sruti format.

[However, the famous philosopher Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta in his monumental History of Indian philosophy makes an interesting observation. In the Rig Veda, he observes, Vishnu is called as Gopa, Sipivishta, Urukrama, etc., but not as Narayana. Then he goes on to say, similarly, Bhagavad Gita does not use the term Narayana; but, the Mahabharata identifies Narayana with Vishnu. This, according to him, could show that Bhagavad Gita was composed much before Mahabharata tale was reduced to writing. He opines, Bhagavad Gita was composed when Narayana was yet to be equated with Vishnu.

In contrast to that, Eknath Easwaran asserts that the Gita was composed much later under the realities of a new age. It ‘is not an integral part of the Mahabharata. It is essentially an Upanishad, and my conjecture is that it was set down by an inspired seer and inserted into the epic (later).’]

: – Though Bhagavad-Gita appears as a part of the Mahabharata, it is studied and commented upon as an independent text, complete in itself. All the Acharyas who wrote Bhashya-s (commentary) on the Gita regarded it as a Sruti; and a source text of valid knowledge.  It was even considered as the fifth Veda (Panchama Veda); and, cited as a Pramana (a text of undisputed authority) on a range of questions.

: – The conversation (Samvada) that takes place in the Gita is not very lengthy, not exceeding 700 verses; and yet, it caused thousands of commentaries over the centuries.

[ The Bhishma Parva (the Sixth Parva in Mahabharata) is spread over 124 Adhyayas (chapters), in 4 sub (upa) Parvas (sections) ; and, having in all 5,381 shlokas (verses). Within that massive Parva, the Bhagavad-gita  is just about 700 shlokas, contained in 18 Adhyayas (starting from the 25th and ending after 42nd chapter of the Bhishma Parva), which appear under the third Sub-Prava (Bhagavat-Gita Parva). Thus, Bhagavad-gita forms a very small portion of the Bhishma Parva; but, its value and significance is immensely huge – ‘A little shrine within a vast temple’.]

:-  Gita regards the Absolute Reality  as Brahman to which nothing can be attributed ; as well as Saguna Brahman , a divinity with most adorable qualities; and also as an ideal human being in the form of Krishna, the manifest Brahman. Gita refers to all the three forms without contradictions. They all are viewed as the different aspects of the One or THAT which is beyond –Tat Param

[Gita does not mention the term Avatar at all. Perhaps the concept of Avatar was then yet to be evolved. But, the seeds of an idea of a God who descends and takes forms on earth are present- sambhavami  yuge-yuge.]

: – As a philosophical text, Bhagavad-Gita is a part of the basic source-book of the Vedanta which speaks in terms of Brahman, the Absolute, infinite and eternal. But as a religious Book, it could even be reckoned as a Vaishnava text, since it regards Vishnu (Krishna) as the Supreme Lord of the Universe. And, it is closely associated with the Srimad-Bhagavata and related traditions of Vaishnava doctrine. Thus, Bhagavad-Gita is not only the revelation by Krishna, but also the revelation of Krishna as the Supreme Being.

 [However , the scholars of the Kashmir Shaiva School, such as Rajanak Ramkanth (Sarvatobhadra – 850 AD); Bhatta Bhaskara (Bhagavad-Gita Tika – 900 AD); and, Abhinavgupta (Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha – 950 to 1050AD) interpreted Bhagavad-Gita from the Shaiva point of view and regard it as the one among the Shaiva-Agama class of texts.]

: – At another level, the Gita could even be seen as a personal god in conversation with a human being. The involvement of a divine being (as an inspiring leader) on an earthly battlefield and asking the warrior to carry on the fight is truly interesting. It, somehow, seems to mark the limits of the human; and , to point to the nature of war, prompted by god, as an avoidable necessity for restoration of moral order (Dharma) on the earth.

This view, needless to say, is highly debatable.

[The Samkhya concept of the Purusha and Parakrti; the passive and the active; the   inspirer and the doer, runs throughout the Indian texts in one form or the other.  The Nara-Narayana is the classic model of this concept. Here too, Krishna (Narayana) does not fight; but, motivates Arjuna (Nara) the warrior to carry on the fight. Krishna is the awakener (the Sun).]

:-  The  religion , which for whatever reasons,  is known as ‘Hinduism’ does not have a Book  per se;   but therein , the Gita has come to be recognized as a Holy Book upon which one swears to ’tell the truth , the whole truth and nothing but truth’.

: – Further, while the other ancient Indian texts are gradually fading out of the discussions among the common people, the Bhagavad-Gita and its ‘message’ is still being debated, with some fervor . And, no other Sanskrit work approaches the Bhagavad-Gita in the influence it has exerted in the West as the chief philosophical statement of Hinduism.

: – The narrative structure of the Gita is rather peculiar, as the scholar Devdutt Pattanaik points out in his My Gita:

dritharastra-sanjayaWe never actually hear what Krishna told Arjuna. We simply overhear what Sanjaya transmitted faithfully to the blind king Dhritarashtra in the comforts of the palace, having witnessed all that occurred on the distant battlefield, thanks to his telepathic sight. The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but with a distant sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but with full authority (Dhritarashtra). This peculiar structure of the narrative draws attention to the vast gap between what is told and what is heard.

Krishna and Sanjaya may speak exactly the same words, but while Krishna knows what he is talking about, Sanjaya does not. Krishna is the source, while Sanjaya is merely a transmitter. Likewise, what Sanjaya hears is different from what Arjuna hears and what Dhritarashtra hears.

Sanjaya hears the words, but does not bother with the meaning. Arjuna is a seeker and so he de-codes what he hears in order to find a solution to his problem. Arjuna, during the ‘conversation’, asks many questions and clarifications’, to ensure that the he properly understands the purport of the ‘discourse’.

 In contrast, Dhritarashtra remains silent throughout. In fact, Dhritarashtra is not interested in what Krishna has to say; but is rather fearful of what Krishna might do to his children, the Kauravas.

: – As regards the treatment of its subjects, the Bhagavad-Gita describes itself as the essence of all the Upanishads. The Upanishads by their very nature are philosophical speculations transcending the physical world. The Gita on the other hand teaches about living a worthwhile, meaningful life in the world among fellow beings – Jivana- Dharma – Yoga.

:- Further, the Upanishads which aspire to understand the essential nature of all things in the Universe and in the individual, as also the relation between the two , emphasize the superiority of knowledge (Jnana) over action (karma). In the Gita, Krishna on the other hand, asks Arjuna to follow the path of action and to act decisively. The confused Arjuna, naturally, queries Krishna for a clear direction: ’Oh, Janardhana, if you consider Knowledge (Jnana) to be superior to action, why then do you instruct me to perform this terrible act?’   (BG.  3. 1 – 2).

The Gita does not seem to favor renunciation or total withdrawal from the world resulting in inactivity, nivritti. Instead the Gita teaches a sort of Jnana that endorses renunciation of desires, of fruits of action. It advocates activity pravritti with the renunciation of the fruits of action. Gita terms it as ‘inaction in action and action in inaction’ (4.18). That is, performing acts according to ones calling, with equanimity; and, relinquishing the fruits of one’s actions.

anaashrita karma phalam kaaryam karma karoti yah
sa sannyaasi ca yogi ca na niragnir na ca akriyaha

One who does not depend on the fruits of action but does the work which is his duty. He is a sanyaasi and also a yogi, not the one who has renounced fire (rituals) and not one who (merely) does nothing (Bg. 6.1)

yoga yukto vishuddhaatmaa vijitaatmaa jitenriyaha
sarva bhutaatma bhutaatmaa kurvan api na lipyate

He who  by following Yoga, has purified the mind; has controlled the mind;  has controlled the senses; sees his own Self in all beings; and, does not get tainted even if he does work (Bg. 5.7)

 [Krishna, of course, succeeds in reconciling the deep chasm between the two paths or approaches (Jnana and karma) by introducing the unique concept of internal renunciation, as opposed to external renunciation.

By reconciling otherwise two contradictory ideas, Krishna offers a realistic system which intertwines performance of one’s responsibilities in life without getting too attached to it. It cautions that an un-restrained desire for the fruits of one’s action, more often than not, leads to major blunders in decision making, both in personal and social life.

In this way, the Bhagavad-Gita adheres to both the ideals. It supports involvement in the performance of one’s social and moral responsibilities according to ones Dharma in life; and, at the same time it endorses the Upanishad ideal of self-realization which leads to liberation from confines of relative existence.  ]


Manifold paths

The Gita begins with a response to Arjuna entering a state of despondency just at the time when he was required to perform. This is the initial problem of the Gita. Krishna’s teaching will, in later stages, cover several other paths or approaches to life; but, the initial focus is on the problem of action, with Karma Yoga as the solution. It is self-less performance with equanimity; equal acceptance of pleasure and pain; and, renouncing fruits of one’s action.

Jnana Yoga is the discipline of knowledge of Self; recognizing ones true identity. It also means knowing clearly; realizing one’s own divinity; and, also seeing the divine in human and the earthly.

The first-half of the Gita essentially teaches a combination of Karma-yoga and Jnana-yoga – to act selflessly with true knowledge of the reality. Here, Equanimity serves as a foundation standing upon which one can look beyond and reach for a reality that is totally different, the Absolute.

Though the wise one fights battles, he does it with composure and with lack of enmity or hate or self-interest. The enemy, after all, is as much a manifestation of God as the warrior is.

The Bhakti-yoga is the path of love, complete surrender in guileless faith, and absolute devotion to the divine. It aims to experience the splendor of the divine in all its manifestations (Lila), and immerse in its delight (Ananda).

The Dhyana–yoga or Raja-yoga, the Royal way, is the discipline of meditation, withdrawing the senses, calming the mind and clearing it of confusions and other delusions. It seems to be based in the eight-fold (Astanga) Yoga system of the Sage Patanjali, though there are no explicit references to  it; and, there are also no separate verses or chapters devoted to this discipline

Arjuna begins in bewilderment and depression; and at the end, stands up to fight his cousins with composure.

[One of the commentators observes: assuming that the Gita was an insertion into the Epic; and, given the fact that the great battle did eventually take place, the outcome of the Gita could not have been different. Arjuna had to fight, in any case.]



It appears that the Bhagavad-Gita was composed during a vibrant period when growing verities of options for attaining liberation (Moksha) from confines of human limitations were hotly debated and ardently explored.

Bhagavad-Gita frequently refers to the fundamental philosophical concepts of Smakhya and Yoga Darshana-s. It is also based in many Upanishads providing verities of solutions to human predicaments, as also suggesting pointers to the understanding of the Universe, the individual and the relation that  exists between the two. The Bhagavad-Gita, in that process, draws upon many sources.

In that progression, the Bhagavad-Gita elaborates on the varied disciplines and paths of Jnana (knowledge), Karma (action), and Bhakti (devotion) as also Yoga for attainment of the highest good. The text calls itself Yoga-shastra – the science and knowledge of Yoga.   The term Yoga is used in Gita in a variety of senses. And, Yoga here also stands for Marga, the path; be it the path of knowledge (Jnana-yoga), devotion (Bhakthi-yoga) or the path of action (Karma-yoga). In all these paths, the essential message of renouncing the fruits of action is stressed. The Gita does not explicitly support one Yoga over the other. It rather extols one Yoga then another or a combination of Yogas. It is to be understood as a many-sided system with various elements harmonized.

Does not seem to favor a particular path

The discourse on those subjects, however, is not arranged in a systematic manner. The Gita gathers and combines different trains of ideas just as it finds them in traditionally accepted Schools, without much effort to harmonize them. The text does not seem to hold up a single discipline or path as its ‘true message’. And, such ambiguity in its ‘message’ or the adaptability of ‘its message’  to different Schools of Philosophy and to the circumstances in life  has led to plethora of interpretations, each claiming that it has certainly grasped the ‘true message ‘of the Bhagavad-Gita.

One can even say that the scope for deriving varied types of  interpretations becomes possible mainly because of the unique virtue of the Gita which allows each reader  to discover its essence, in his or her own manner, at his or her own pace and terms.

Deciphering its meaning and its ‘true’ philosophical intent is neither easy nor simple. Some of the greatest minds have grappled with the philosophical problems present in it.


The ways of reading the Gita

There are several ways of reading Bhagavad-Gita. It can be read as a literary work or poetry of merit with allegorical imagery; it can be read as a part of Oriental studies; and, it can also be read as a philosophical work.

As a work of literature, its literary or poetical aspects would be discussed and the allegories would be highlighted. As a work of Indology, its historical background and linguistic aspects would be examined. Such a scrutiny would focus on the date of its composition; on speculations about its plausible author or author/s; or on the question of its relation to the context of the Mahabharata-events. 

But, it is the study and explanations of Gita’s philosophical outlook, its conceptual structure and speculations about its ‘true message’ that has given rise to diverse stand points and multiple interpretations. Such interpretations over the centuries have been so diverse and   so complicated, one wonders whether they all were referring to one and the same text.

The Gita’s adaptability to different kinds of philosophical interpretation is partly caused by the effort of its composer/s to bind within it the tenets of several philosophical schools (Darshana-s) including Samkhya, Yoga and the devotional aspects of the then emerging Bhakthi traditions. That, to an extent, injected ambiguities and incompatibilities in reading and interpreting the text.

The phenomenon of multiple interpretations of the Gita has continued over the long centuries. At different times or phases in the history, fresh interpretations of the ‘true message ‘of the Gita sprang up, each in the context of its own times, environment and preferred attitudes. Each successive interpretation of the Gita was at variance with its previous one.  And yet, what is most amazing is that each of those varied interpretations is valid in its own context.

That is to say; each commentator has diligently gone about in putting forth his honest understanding of the ‘true message’ of the Gita. Each commentary of the Gita is thus a subjective view of the text. The ‘message of the Gita’ might indeed be all of those assorted interpretations; and, even be more.

The quest for objective truth or the real truth of the Gita is still very much on, even thousands of years after it was uttered on a distant battle field, amidst two huge armies raring to go at each other.


Quest for objective truth

The quest for objective truth – (what did Krishna say, exactly?) – is another cause for emergence of multiple interpretations and countless number of commentaries. In the zeal to uphold his own interpretation as the objective truth of the Bhagavad-Gita, each commentator, somehow, seemed to get intolerant of the ones that differed from his own. That, in a way, is rather uncharacteristic of the Indian tradition which accommodates within itself and harmonizes various seemingly contrary positions.

All the branches of Indian traditions, notably the Jain, have always tried to adopt the concept of Anekāntavāda which, essentially, is a principle that encourages acceptance of multiple or plural views on a given subject. The Buddha too said that merely judging the issue from individual (separate) stand points of view would lead to wrong conclusions; it would be prudent to approach each issue from more than one point of view (aneka-amsika).

[Devadatta Kali (David Nelson) in the introduction to his very well written work Svetasvataropanisad: the Knowledge That Liberates writes:

Although the Indian thinkers are not immune to disputation , by and large , their culture has valued the principle of accommodation and acceptance…Throughout the centuries of Indian philosophical traditions , the differing views have often been seen as just that – as differing views of a single reality that lies beyond human power of articulation. The tendency has often been to harmonize opposing views as distinct parts of a larger whole whose fullness lies well beyond the reach of mere perception or reason. It needs to be stressed that the primary purpose of sacred literature is to impart spiritual knowledge, not to fuel intellectual or sectarian debate – or to create confusion.]

The basic idea here is that the reality could be perceived differently from diverse points of view; and, that no single point of view should be taken to be the complete truth, to the exclusion of all others. The varied views could either be taken together to comprise the complete truth or as different dimensions of a single reality.

Bhagavad-Gita is a multi-layered text with many avenues for exploration.  I, therefore, reckon that an Anekāntavāda approach would be more appropriate in understanding its manifold message, rather than steam- pressing it into a particular mold.


Is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth?’

That again begs the question: is there a need to seek for the ‘objective-truth’ of the Gita? Because, there is a danger that such monolithic one’s own ‘objective–truth’ might shut out the options of myriad other plausible meanings. Thus, a purely objective view, despite its merit, seems to limit itself to a particular slot.

There is, therefore, surely some merit in subjective approach to the study and understanding of the Gita. In fact, some have suggested that each could try to compose his own Gita according to her/his own understanding and inclination. As Shri Devdutt Pattanaik observes: The quest for subjective truth (how does The Gita make sense to me?) allows each (after listening to the various Gita-s around him/her) to discover one’s own Gita at his or her own pace, on his or her own terms.

The Gita itself seems to advocate subjectivity. Bhagavad-Gita in its structure and narration adopts the idea of free-will.   At the conclusion of his discourse, Krishna counsels Arjuna to reflect on what has been said, and then do as he rightly feels.

For instance; Krishna says that his teaching can be perceived directly (Pratyaksha-avagamam) according to one’s understanding (BG.9.2)

And again, in Chapter 12 of the Gita, Krishna counsels:

Fix your mind on me alone, and absorb your consciousness in me; thus you shall surely abide in me. If you cannot fix your consciousness steadily upon me, then aspire to reach me through repeated yoga practice. O Dhananjaya, if you are incapable of even that, embrace the path of action, for which I am the highest goal, since by acting for me you shall attain perfection. But if you are unable to follow even that path of refuge in me through acts devoted to me, then give up the fruits of all your actions, thus restraining yourself. Knowledge is superior to practice; meditation is superior to knowledge; and, relinquishing the fruits of action is higher than meditation, as tranquility soon follows such relinquishment.

What really is the true vision or Darshana of this ancient, sacred and marvelous treatise named Bhagavad-Gita, the song celestial?


Pluralism of the Gita

The multiple interpretations or pluralisms of approaches in understanding the Bhagavad-Gita have an extensive and illustrious history. During that long period, different aspects of the Gita came into the fore; new meanings were read into its passages; and attempts were made to adopt its ‘message’ to suit new or emerging situations.

The history of the interpretations of the Gita can broadly be considered under the following heads:

: – The Acharyas

The medieval period starting with Sri Sankara ( 8th century)  followed by  the  Bhashyas of Sri Ramanuja , Sri Madhwa and other Acharyas as also  that of Abhinavagupta analyzed and commented upon the Gita in terms of the traditional Vedanta concepts of Advaita, Visistadavaita and Davaita;   and assigned primacy either to Jnana (knowledge) or to  Bhakti ( devotion) or to Karma ( action) . Each scholar went  according to the  principal philosophical precept of his School of thought , while sidelining the other plausible interpretations .

Santa Jnanesvar or Jnanadeva (1274-1297) of Maharashtra in his celebrated rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita – Jnaneshwari (Bhavarth Deepika) – taught  the path of loving and guileless devotion (Akritrim Bhakthi) and self-less action as the true way. He said that everyone should perform his/her duty lovingly as a Yajna and offer his or her actions as flowers at the feet of the Lord. According to Jnanadeva; it is through such Bhakthi and Bhakthi alone that the Supreme Reality can be realized


: – The Colonial period

The period starting with the middle of the 18th Century when the English, German and French translations of the Bhagavad-Gita , captured the attention of the intellectuals as also that of the general-readers, widened the range of its readership as also the scope for its varied interpretations. Initially, Bhagavad-Gita gained publicity mainly as a rare cultural object retrieved from the unknown past of the distant East; and , in particular , as ’a curious specimen of mythology and an authentic standard of the faith and religious opinions of the Hindoos’.

: – That was followed by study of the Gita as a literary work. It proved to be a major influence on Romantic literature in Europe and Britain.

: – And, to the intellectuals and philosophers in the West, the Gita provided a perceptive view of the Hindu philosophy.  Among the scholars, the linguistic study of the Sanskrit text of the Gita; the historicity of the Mahabharata event; the questions of its authenticity and its date; the enquiry into its plausible author /authors and so on were widely discussed.

:-  The Gita evoked a different sort of reaction among the Christian Missionaries , They saw in it a possibility ’ to encourage a form of monotheist ‘Unitarianism’ ; to draw Hinduism away from the polytheism  ascribed to the Vedas’;  and,  to pave  way to spread Christianity in India.

:-  As the English and French translations of the Gita began to gather attention from among the educated class of the Colonial India of the 19th Century , it led to review and re-assessment of the principles of the Hindu philosophy and the practices of its faiths . The Western educated intellectuals and social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohun Roy regarded it as the essence of all Shastrus; and. interpreted Gita as a message for self-less action.

Though the Brahmo Samaj did not seem to have got the Gita translated , Debendranath Tagore tried interpreting Gita , in the Biblical mode,  as a sort of allegory depicting  the final battle (Armageddon) between the forces of ‘good’ and ‘evil’.

: – The Western scholars

Following its translations into European languages, the Gita gained a sort of territorial transcendence, spreading its influence beyond Asia. The Gita came to be regarded by the western scholars as a universally acclaimed text.

Among the Western scholars, the Bhagavad-Gita came to be looked upon as the authentic essence of Hinduism. And, and it became the most influential work on Indian thought. The German philosopher William Von Humboldt called Gita: the most beautiful, perhaps the only true philosophical song existing in any known language –the deepest and most elevated text the world has ever seen.  He was fascinated by its concept of Dharma delineated in various layers.    Similarly, TH Griffith saw Yoga taught in the Gita as the discipline of life, giving a deep insight into the ebb and flow of human desires and aspirations. And, the German Indologist JW Huer described Gita as a ‘work of imperishable significance’ calling upon people to ‘master the riddle of life’.

Max Muller too believed ‘that textual authority of Gita should have pride of place in official knowledge about India’; but, he placed Gita next to Vedas in its authority and importance.


: – The Theosophists

The Theosophists recognized the Bhagavad-Gita as one of the major spiritual texts of the world.  Among the Theosophists, the allegorical approach with its esoteric and philosophical interpretations gained more importance. The historical and mythological context was kept in the background just to explain the context of the Gita. According to them, Krishna in the Gita represented Logos the objective expression of the Absolute; while Arjuna represented the Monad, Nara, the whole of mankind rather than as a single person.

They explained life as an evolutionary process in which an individual evolves from lower to higher, from grosser physical forms to subtle spiritual forms of beings. The Gita, according to Theosophists is a framework for such a progression.

Theosophists interpreted the concept of one’s duty in terms of the Sva-dharma. They presented the world as a conditioned reality similar   to a huge game in which each piece must move in accordance with the rules governing its movements in order to keep the game going.

: – Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda while in the West compared Krishna’s teachings to that of Jesus. And, while at Home   he spoke about the inner battles in human heart and mind. And he also described Krishna and Arjuna as men of action who could provide inspiration to reform and rejuvenate the Indian society that was fast degenerating into chaos and confusion. He also called for resistance against British oppression.

While laying more importance on the Gita’s larger allegorical meaning, Swami Vivekananda acknowledged the validity of historical research. But, he also said that mere discussion on   the historical aspects of the Gita cannot help one in acquisition of dharma, or moral righteousness’. The idea is: the Bhagavad-Gita is not merely a historically specific conversation; but, it is an ongoing teaching that has universal relevance. It is a process taking place all the times in each ones heart.

 He remarked:

 “One thing should be especially remembered here, that there is no connection between these historical researches and our real aim, which is the knowledge that leads to the acquirement of Dharma. Even if the historicity of the whole thing is proved to be absolutely false today, it will not in the least be any loss to us. Then what is the use of so much historical research, you may ask. It has its use, because we have to get at the truth; it will not do for us to remain bound by wrong ideas born of ignorance.”

: – The Nationalists in the Freedom movement

While the Theosophists tried to provide allegorical and esoteric interpretations of Gita as spiritual struggles, the Nationalists in the Colonial India of the 19th and early 20th century mainly from Bengal and Maharashtra saw it in quite another manner.

The freedom movement gave a great impetus to the study of Gita. Many saw it as national symbol that held within its bosom answers to the burning questions of colonial India. The Key word from the Gita taken by the nationalists was Loka-sangraha – welfare or involvement in the world. That phrase occurs only two times in the Gita (3.20, 25). Then,  there also came into use an  expression that is not found in the Gita . It gained much currency in the 20th century – Nish-Kama-karma, self-less action. Linking of these concepts with national movement for Independence and social reforms did much to bring forth Gita into popular debates. The nationalists promoted Gita as a central work of a rising Indian national ethos.

It is indeed remarkable that so many of India’s political and intellectual leaders of the last century and a half wrote detailed and extensive commentaries on the Gita. There were two broad categories of interpretations. One; as a sort of romantic allegorical  visions of the battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, as an authentic source of state craft that prompted to reconsider the nature of politics itself . The latter, led to gathering support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

Among the former category, Bamkim Chandra Chattopadyaya (1836-1894) provided great inspiration for the National movement, giving impetus to the concept of Motherland as the Goddess India, Mother India. He also depicted Krishna as the ideal person who exemplifies human virtues – a god-like person who was earthly wise and sublimely spiritual in his core. He projected Gita as an answer to West’s technological domination; and as India’s stand  asserting  the merits of  ancient wisdom in the face of colonial oppression.

Sri Aurobindo, who followed Bamkim Chandra, regarded Gita as an absolutely splendid revelation holding forth a Universal message.  He advised that Gita should be approached by forgetting all the religious and academic arguments that highlight or decry one Yoga (paths) or the other. The integrated vision of the Gita, he said, transcends all such limited interpretations.  He envisioned  Gita as a divine action, where the battle field (Krukshetra) is in the heart and soul of every human being. Each one of us, potentially brave, fights in his or her own way with the confronting doubts, desperation, fears and frustrations. Krishna is the one, hidden behind the veils of our psyche and mind, who reveals the mysteries of life. Sri Aurobindo stressed that in the present age it was necessary to understand the Dharma, Karma and Yogas in contemporary sense.

The more militant among the Indian nationalists projected India as the Motherland and Krishna as Avatar who rescued the nation from jaws of A-dharma and to establish Dharma. They accepted the call of the Gita for righteous struggle for national independence, even if it might require violence.  The new battlefield, according to them, was the British Raj; and , they found in Gita a strong support for engaged social and political action, the karma yoga.

Lokamanya Bal Gangaadhar Tilak, who at that time was imprisoned in Burma, presented Gita as an allegory for fighting a just war that historical circumstances had forced upon Indian nation and Indian people.

Even  while calling for a just war (Dharma-yuddha), these commentaries  did maintain a sense of composure and detachment. Just as Arjuna did not regard his warring cousins as foes, the British were also  not targeted as the ‘enemy’; not because of fear but in the interest of generating a broad theoretical principle for establishing a basis  for their political ideology and its strategy. Such an approach allowed Indian leaders to outline a political framework that would serve them well even beyond and after imperialism.

At the same time, at the ground level, there were also groups, organized or otherwise, that believed in disruptive violence as the effective means for overthrowing the alien imperialist power. 

In either case, the Gita provided a stable point of conceptual references, even while there was a range of multiple interpretations on the related issues.

: – Gandhi

Though all the nationalist leaders agreed that purposeful action was needed to attain independence, the form that such action should take, however, remained a point of heated contention. This is where the faith and the views of Mohandas Gandhi become very significant.

Gandhi called the Bhagavad-Gita his ‘dictionary of daily reference’ and his ‘Mother.’ He spoke and wrote widely on it throughout his career. Gandhi, in contrast to other major nationalist leaders, held no commitment more important than his principle of non-violence. But, he ran into a serious interpretive problem because in the course of the Gita Krishna persuades the reluctant warrior Arjuna to take part in an internecine disastrous battle.

Gandhi believed that the message of the Mahabharata itself was the virtues of non-violence; and, the Gita which was but a small segment of it carried a similar message. He wrote:

the author of the Mahabharata has not established the necessity of physical warfare; on the contrary he has proved its futility. He made the victors shed tears of sorrow and repentance; and has left them nothing but legacy of misery.

The question whether the true teaching of the Gita favors violence or non-violence became vitally important to Gandhi. He needed a clear , firm and an honest answer to anchor his faith in his struggle for India’s freedom ; to provide a principled public resistance; and, above all to ensure the authenticity of his inner spiritual life. The Gita, as he understood and practiced, was the foundation of his struggle without hatred, without passion (Nish-Kama-karma) with the attitude ‘mine is but to fight for my meaning, no matter whether I win or lose.’

And, that led Gandhi to offer a particularly distinct interpretation of the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instead of asking Arjuna to fight the war, instructs him to ‘fight the battle within the self; to battle passion and selfishness’.

According to Gandhi, Gita demonstrates the futility of violence; and its true message is non-violence and peace. At the end of the Mahabharata, nearly everyone on both sides is killed. Supporting  Gandhi’s view, ‘The epic’, writes Amartya Sen, ‘ends largely as a tragedy, with a lamentation about death and carnage, and there is anguish and grief … It is hard not to see in this something of a vindication of Arjuna’s profound doubts.’

The battlefield, Gandhi argued, must be taken as an interior one, where the forces of good and evil are locked in never-ending struggle.  The Bhagavad-Gita, he said, is not about the battle that is waged on the field of dirt soaked in blood; but, it is about the ever going conflict within the human heart between the forces of good and evil.

Gandhi said; when Krishna asked to fight, he meant fighting ones lower impulses and not to cling to its rewards; to overcome any self-interested inclinations; and,  to carry out his own righteous duty. One must be equally disposed to ones enemy as to oneself.

Gandhi based his own authority as an interpreter of the Gita on his personal endeavor “to enforce the meaning in my own conduct for an unbroken period of forty years.” Gandhi also claimed that the Gita was not a Hindu work, but rather one of “pure ethics,” which a person of any faith might read and follow.

Gandhi firmly believed that complete renunciation is not possible without total observance of Ahimsa (non-violence) in every form and shape.

Gandhi said that if one has to fight, one should fight non-violently.  Thus, Violence and denial of violence became major issues for debate and action.

Gandhi’s faith in Ahimsa as the core of the Gita gave rise to Satyagraha as an effective means to express one’s protest and to offer resistance without indulging in violence. According to him, a Satyagrahi should be willing to die like a soldier (Kshatriya) for the cause of India’s independence. Satyagraha was Gandhi’s unique contribution to fight against oppression and injustice.

This was in sharp contrast to the interpretation offered by the leaders of India’s nationalist movement such as Sri Aurobindo and others to fight a just war for liberating the Motherland. In fact, during Second War Sri Aurobindo called on Indian people to support the British in its war efforts and fight along with the British against fascist Germany.

: – Aldous Huxley

Similarly, in Aldous Huxley’s famous introduction to the translation of the Gita by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood (The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita, Hollywood: M. Rodd Co., 1944) which was published just after the end of World War II, the questions of war, violence gained special significance. Writing in the midst of a war of destruction and violence on an unprecedented scale, Huxley re-read and re-imagined the Gita in a mode which rejected the utter need to kill. He, like Gandhi, emphasized that the true message of the Gita is not violence; but, on the contrary, the futility and uselessness of violence, self-destruction; and, the harm it can bring upon whole generations.


: – Allegorical Interpretations

Since the early periods the allegorical interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita have been in vogue, by looking upon Kurukshetra as not a mere geographical region or historic battle.

Abhinavagupta, in his Gitartha-sangraha, a commentary on Bhagavad-Gita, refers to a tradition of interpreting Kurushetra as zone of war that takes place between the righteous and un-righteous tendencies within the human body.  According to him, Kurushetra is something more than a geographical venue where a battle took place among the cousins and their supporters.

Similar allegorical interpretations of the Gita became quite a regular feature by the turn of the nineteenth century; and it has been carried forward ever since. Such interpretations fall in to two broad categories: One, to battle against forces of lower tendencies such as greed, ego, selfishness etc; and, the other, to gather support for reform efforts and for justifying a fight against the British rule for attaining independence.

For Sri Aurobindo, ‘the physical fact of war is only an outward manifestation of a general principle of life. The war symbolizes all aspects of struggle that takes place all the time, both in our inner and outer living.. Life is a battle and a field of death; this is Kurukshetra’.

For Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Kurushetra signified Dharmakshetra, a just war against oppressive foreign rule.

Edwin Arnold too referred to Kurukshetra as human body, the field where Life disports.

Gandhi followed Arnold’s interpretation that Kurukshetra is where an eternal struggle is taking place within us.


The present-day

In the present day, the discussions about Bhagavad-Gita in terms of Advaita – Dvaita; or Jnana-Karma-Bhakti have become very rare. The focus is now more on Gita’s stand on the question of violence; whether it advocates or shuns violence; the efficacy or the moral justification for resorting to violence as a vehicle for expressing one’s protest against the establishment.

There are a notable few who adopted the Gandhian method of Ahimsa to fight against oppression. The celebrated ones among such votaries of non-violence are:  the HH the Dalai Lama the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans who firmly believes that the all-embracing ‘concept’ of Ahimsa is the proper solution for any human conflict; Dr. Martin Lather King who led the civil disobedience movement against racial discrimination; and, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese nationalist leader who influenced by the philosophy of non-violence of the Buddha and of Gandhi chose non-violence as an expedient political tool in her struggle for democracy and human rights.

In India, we have the dauntless lady Irom Sharmila from Manipur who during August 2016 quit  her 16 long years of fast demanding repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.  We also have Anna Hazare who largely adopted non-violent protests and hunger strikes (a la Gandhi)   in his struggles to promote rural development, to increase government transparency, and to investigate and punish corruption in public life etc.  And, there is Medha Patkar, the resolute social activist and social reformer, ever engaged in various protests.  These and such other well-meaning protesters, sadly, have not met with much success.

Apart from these and few others there is hardly any who has earnestly adopted Ahimhsa in her/his struggle against injustice. The Gandhian way seems to be losing its ground in India. This seems to reflect the state of our being; the times we live in; and, the values we cherish.

Let’s take, for instance, the Indian situation.

The India of the present-day is no longer under foreign rule. It is now governed by the political parties elected by the Indian citizens. The question is:  whether one is entitled or justified for expressing dissent in a violent manner. The question was answered by a resounding YES by the Naxalite and such other militant groups. They sought to find moral justification for taking up arms by quoting Bhagavad-Gita.

A similar justification is made out by the Jihadist terrorist groups who, strangely, also quote the Gita for carrying out their violent attacks.

Even the protests involving inter state river-water disputes, social injustice etc is marked by violence and vandalism destroying public property.

: – There are also those who denounce the ‘message of the Gita’ for various reasons.

For instance:

 Mahatma Jotiba Phule (1827-1890) who was a pioneer in raising awareness of the rights of the Shudras and Ati-shudras (OBC and SC, as classified now) regarded Manu Smruti and the Gita as signs of slavery (Gulamgiri).

Dr. BR Ambedkar, in his essay, Krishna and His Gita, wrote, ‘The philosophic defense offered by the Bhagavad Gita of the Kshatriya’s duty to kill is, to say the least, puerile.’

The infamous Wendy Doniger has said: “The Bhagavad-Gita is not as nice a book as some Americans think. Throughout the Mahabharata, Krishna goads human beings into all sorts of murderous and self-destructive behaviors such as war. The Gita is a dishonest book.”

And, Meghnad Desai, economist and politician, in his Who wrote Bhagavad-Gita, declared the Gita as ‘unsuitable to modern India’ whose Constitution commits it to ‘a world of social equity and democratic freedoms. The Kurukshetra war was fought over land dispute and Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna to fulfill his caste obligation. The message of the Gita is casteist and misogynist and as such profoundly in opposition to the spirit of modern India.’


: – The other views

There have, therefore, been many intellectuals who condemn what is presumed to be ‘the message of the Gita’.

They question:  how can a spiritual being command one to wage a war knowing well the disaster that a war would bring upon the society at large and on the women and children in particular?

As regards the question of Nishkama karma (selfless action), as the scholar Easwaran writes:

the Gita’s focus is relentlessly on the doer’s attitude while he dispenses his Dharmic duty, not on what he actually does to others and its human impact. Krishna is thus able to ask Arjuna to perform ‘all actions for my sake, completely absorbed in the Self, and without expectations, fight!’

As VR Narla put it, ‘while action without seeking some personal gain can be noble, action without any care for its evil consequences to other men [is] reprehensible, even diabolical.

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen too finds this problematic: ‘Krishna argues that Arjuna must do his duty, come what may, and in this case he has a duty to fight, no matter what results from it … Why should we want only to “fare forward” and not also “fare well”?

Many wonder, how could the essential teaching of the great scripture be as simple and blatant as to favor war and violence? These wise scholars sought to encourage the readers/listeners to look beyond the obvious; to delve deep; and , to un-fathom its metaphorical allegorical message.

Such bewilderment stems essentially from anxiety, dilemma and loss of direction; but not necessarily from fear or cowardice.


Apart from the questions of violence and war, the Gita is of much  significance to the present-day world – a reflective person cannot act confidently without a thorough knowledge of the rightness of the motive and effect. Action and knowledge are very efficacious when combined with love or devotion.       

 [Abhinavagupta in his Bhagavadgitarth Samgraha asserts that Jana and karma are not two things.]


The Dynamic way

Whichever way you look at it, the Gita is admirably amenable to multiple interpretations.   Its ‘real meaning’ (whatever be it) need not be restricted to either Jnana or Karma or Bhakti or even to violence or non-violence. The Gita could very well be read without imposing upon it one’s own interpretations. One needs:  to be aware of; to recognize; and, to acknowledge its various other plausible interpretations.

Laurie L .Patton in her essay: The failure of the Allegory – Notes on Textual Violence in Bhagavad Gita ( see under section titled  Beyond Allegory: Toward a Dynamic Interpretation of the Exhortation to Fight) included in the book Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts edited by John Renard , speaks about a ‘dynamic way of reading ’ where one would be constantly aware of the other plausible interpretations  as one chooses a particular interpretation. She concludes her very scholarly discussion on varied interpretations of the Gita with the words:

Read in this way, one can engage many possible meanings of the Gita within the clear boundaries of the verse. However, a reader would not be obsessed with the “real” meaning, nor would she be trapped by the literal meaning or the spiritual meaning, or any other possible meaning in between.


The Bhagavad-Gita is not an abstract theological valuable story, but is a discourse through which are woven many insights, allegories and directions which provide a broader and a meaningful vision of life. It is particularly relevant when one is placed in the very cauldron of life; facing conflicting situations; and when one is confronted with multiple choices.

 When a society enters chaos it does not usually return to its earlier status; but, will re-invent itself; and, ushers in a new society with its own moral, cultural and social references.

In the next segment of this article, let us discus in fair detail each of the above streams of the interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita.


Continued in Part Two

References and sources

  1. Interpretations of the Bhagavad-Gita and Images of the Hindu Tradition: by Catherine A. Robinson
  2. The Bhagavad Gita and the West: The Esoteric Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita by Rudolf Steiner
  3. Exploring the Bhagavad Gitā: Philosophy, Structure, and Meaning by Ithamar Theodor
  4. The Bhagavad Gita: A Text and Commentary for Students by Jeaneane D. Fowler
  5. Fighting Words: Religion, Violence, and the Interpretation of Sacred Texts by John Renard
  6. The Failure of Allegory: Notes on Textual Violence and the Bhagavad Gita by Laurie L. Patton
  7. A Comparative Study of the Commentaries on The Bhagavadgītā by T. G. Mainkar
  8. Bhagavad-Gita in Mahabharata Translated and Edited by J. A. B. van Buitenen
  9. My Gitaby Devdutt Pattanaik
  10. The Bhagavad-Gita and modern thought introduction by Shruti Kapila and Faisal Devji
  1. The quest for objective truth – Modern Indian Interpreters of the Bhagavad Gita Edited by Robert Neil Minor
  2. Who Wrote Bhagavad-Gita by Meghnad Desai
  3. Da’ud ibn Tamam ibn Ibrahim al-Shawn – The Bhagavad Gita interpreted – Edited by Daud Shawni
  4. A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume 2 by Dr. Surendranath Dasgupta



Posted by on October 14, 2016 in Bhagavad-Gita, General Interest


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Samkhya : Part Six : Samkhya – Buddhism – Vedanta

Continued from Part Five

W. Samkhya and Buddhism

50.1. Samkhya and Samkhya-like ideas certainly predate emergence of Buddhism. One of the teachers of the Buddha is said to have taught a doctrine that resembled Samkhya. There are certain similarities between Samkhya and the early Buddhism. It is likely each influenced the other, in their later stages. That does not however mean that Buddhism is the same as Samkhya. Their dissimilarities are perhaps more significant than their similarities.

50.2. The similarities between Samkhya and the early Buddhism could briefly be mentioned as: acceptance of the notion that life is characterized by suffering; rejection of the notion of absolute God; rejection of the concept of soul; emphasis on individual rather on cosmic; similarity in the theories of evolution; similarity in the view of the world as a constantly becoming and changing phenomena; acceptance of the concept of Gunas; acceptance of the Satkarya vada that the effect resides in its cause;   similarity in enumeration of the basic elements or components of nature; similarity in the notions of liberation kaivalya or nirvana;   rejection of both the Vedic authority and the validity of rituals; rejection of extreme practices and self torture etc.

50.3. In each of these similarities the Buddhist projections appear more radical or perhaps more elaborate. Having said that let me also mention that such similarities are not unique to Samkhya and Buddhism alone. One finds such features generally among other ancient Indian Schools too. For instance, the adoption of enumeration of various components of nature was a well accepted method among other systems of thought; rejection of Vedic authority and its ritualistic attitude was also a feature of other rational schools; the notion of aloofness kaivalya absolute independence was also the ideal of Jains. Similarly, the theories of Karma, Gunas and such other beliefs were commonly accepted by most schools.

50.4. But one similarity which is rather striking is the emphasis on Dukkha suffering and its eradication. That was the stated objective of both the systems. Buddhism however made that the central point of its doctrine. The Buddha’s second and the fourth postulates on the origination of sorrow and the methods of elimination of sorrow are his original contribution to Indian thought; the former being his philosophical stand point and the latter his religious system.

50.5. The other distinctive characteristics of Buddhism are the emphasis on compassion and ethics. . The Buddha asserted that it is not adequate if one merely focuses on elimination of suffering; but one must acquire the skill of probing the nature of the object. Those efforts must essentially be rooted in ethics and a wholesome mental state. The cultivation of the four sublime virtues of loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic Joy, and equanimity is of great importance.

50.6. The Samkhya abandons the idea of the existence of the absolute, but it retains the idea of spirit (Purusha) and of material world (Prakrti); the Buddhism, on the other hand abandoned both these two conceptions, and retained only the fleeting series of mental states (stream of consciousness) as a quasi reality, In either case there is effort to disown the human psycho-physical apparatus and its functioning.

51.1. Samkhya teaches that we should look beyond our personal affinities with Prakrti and realize the timeless unchanging nature of our true self, which resides beyond Prakrti as Purusha the pure consciousness. This realization can be understood as the reverse process of evolution back into the Purusha. Whereupon the Purusha is established in its own nature as kaivalya solitary and independent, indifferently observing the natural world.

51.2. Early Buddhism as also Samkhya attempted to do away with the illusion that empherical ego is the real Self; though the Buddha remained silent on the question of Self as also on the question of nirvana. But, the Buddha’s studious disapproval of metaphysical discussion on these aspects did not seem to have yielded the results he desired. Because, his silence spurred series of speculations in the later Buddhist Schools; and caused much confusion and bewilderment.

51.3 . The nature of Nirvana is perhaps the most debated issue of Buddhist philosophy, probably because the Buddha himself refused to speculate on it. His attitude was, in effect: If you want to know what nirvana is like, then experience it. But clearly Nirvana does not involve the isolation of a pure consciousness as in the case of Samkhya, because there is no such thing as permanent consciousness in early Buddhism. The unique feature of Buddhism is that there is no permanent Self at all, and never was; there are only five skandhas, “heaps” of elements, which constantly interact. It is significant that the skandhas do not constitute a Self; the sense of a Self is merely an illusion created by their interaction. The Buddha emphasized that one should not identify anything as the Self.

X. Samkhya and Vedanta

52.1. Even prior to the emergence of Samkhya as a system , the Samkhya-like ideas and terms appeared in the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the epics and other texts .This suggests that the monistic trends in Vedic thought and dualistic concepts of Samkhya had common origins.

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

52.3. The Samkhya separated itself from the scripture- based Vedanta and preferred to be a group of reason-based free thinkers with only a loose scriptural affiliation. But the Samkhya never rejected the Veda completely unlike the Buddhists and the Jains; but maintained that Vedas cannot be accepted as unquestioned sole authority. Besides, the Samkhya brand of atheism never collapsed into the materialism of Charvakas and naturalists (Lokayatas). Samkhya always maintained spiritual and salvation-oriented outlook.

52.4. Though both the Upanishads and Samkhya identified knowledge (jnana) and effective discrimination (viveka) as the means for attaining human aspirations, which is realizing one’s true identity, Samkhya was dualistic to its core whereas the Upanishads adopted a non-dual approach saying that the absolute consciousness encompasses the entire universe, everything that resides in it is but a transformation of that principle.

53.1. The Samkhya insisted that the individual consciousness, the true identity of man , is distinct from everything else and there are infinite number of such unit consciousness. It said consciousness (Purusha) which sees the world (Prakrti) is separate from what it sees. It asserted that confusing the seer for the seen or mixing both is the cause for man’s suffering.

53.2. Vedanta, on the other hand, asserted the notion of identity of the individual consciousness and the Universal consciousness. It declared that the entire manifest universe is an expression or transformation of that absolute consciousness. Vedanta sharply differed from the Samkhya theory of evolution of the manifest world as emanating through a series of causes and effects.

53.3. Samkhya maintains two independent realities and infinite numbers of Purushas. Vedanta does not accept two infinites and multiplicity of Souls.

The extreme form of dualism between subject and object was seen as a basic inadequacy of Samkhya as it left no room for coexistence of the two categories.

53.4. The later variations of the Samkhya School attempted to resolve these difficulties by (1) conceiving Purushas not as distinct from each other, but as various aspects or reflections of one unitary consciousness; and (2) conceiving prakrti not as distinct from this unified consciousness, but as an aspect of it. But this, of course, transformed Samkhya into a completely different system, because it gives up the basic dualism of Purusha and Prakrti.

53.5. With these modifications Samkhya came to resemble the monistic system of Sri Shankara. It was also rendered theistic with Samkhya accepting the existence of a Supreme Being (Parama Purusha) the God.  But, these adaptations rendered Samkhya acceptable to Vedic Schools; and Samkhya came to be regarded, since about the sixteenth century, as one of the six accepted Schools of traditional Indian philosophies (Darshana).

53.6. With or without its modifications, Samkhya is a very important School of thought; and has contributed to the richness, profundity and breadth of the Indian philosophy. The explanations and elaborations offered by most other Schools of Indian thought are based in the foundations provided by the terms and concepts provided by the Samkhya. Swami Vivekananda in his exposition of Samkhya philosophy aptly remarked, “If we take into consideration Advaita Vedanta, then our argument will be that the Samkhya is not a perfect generalization …and yet all glory really belongs to the Samkhya. It is very easy to give a finishing touch to a building when it is constructed.”

Y. Kaivalya, Nirvana and Moksha

54.1. Samkhya, Buddhism and Vedanta are the three most important philosophical systems. The three together represent almost the whole of Indian philosophies. Nearly every shade of metaphysical discussion revolves round these three pillars. They may also be viewed as three basic ways of resolving the relation that exists between God and world; Man and God; Man and world; and in general the nature of relation between subject and object.

54.2. All the three systems regard realizing ones true identity and gaining release from suffering of all sorts as the goal of human evolution. There are similarities as also differences among the three modes of enquiry.  All the three instruct the individual to avoid identifying with any physical or mental phenomenon but to let-go all identities. All three agree that enlightenment – variously called as kaivalya, nirvana or moksha- is not an intellectual construct.  They point out that liberation cannot be attained through theoretical knowledge of the scriptures because it is a state that is beyond all categories of thought. In other words, enlightenment or liberation is beyond philosophies. Enlightenment is an experience.

55.1. The question is: since all the three systems regard enlightenment as a state beyond intellect, are they all referring to the same experience or whether there are different kinds of enlightenment?

That question arises because the basic tenets and methods of the three systems are irreconcilably different. Samkhya is dualistic, the early Buddhism may be considered pluralistic, while Advaita Vedanta is monistic.

55.2. Samkhya is the most radical possible dualism between subject and its object. The separation between the two (Purusha and Prakrti) is so extreme that the system-connect virtually fails because the two neither can come together nor communicate with each other.

55.3. Early Buddhism attempts to combine subject into object. Consciousness according to Buddhism has no independent existence; it is something that is conditioned and arising out of the interaction with other factors (skandas). Buddhism does not believe in a permanent Self. The Self is merely an illusion created by the interaction of the five aggregates (skandas). The Self shrinks to nothing and there is only a void; but the Void is not a thing — it expresses the fact that there is absolutely nothing, no-thing at all, which can be identified as the Self.

Both Samkhya and Buddhism focus on the individual and do not discuss cosmic aspects of existence. Both are basically radical and dualistic in their approach. And, both disregard the Vedas, Vedic authority and its rituals.

55.4. Advaita Vedanta on the other hand conflates object into subject. There is nothing external to Brahman, the One without a second. Since Brahman is a non-dual, self-luminous consciousness, it encompasses the entire universe. And the universe is nothing but the transformation of Brahman. Everything is the Self the Brahman.

56.1. What do kaivalya, nirvana or moksha   mean in these systems

 According to Samkhya, the Purusha in its true form is ever pure and ever-present. The Arhat, said the Buddha, is “deep, immeasurable, and unfathomable, like the mighty ocean.”  The Brahman of Vedanta is an infinite pure consciousness pervading everywhere.

The Samkhya ideal of attaining enlightenment (Kaivalya) is described as Discriminative Knowledge (Viveka-khyāti). It consists in Purusha (pure consciousness) realizing its distinction from Prakrti (everything else) with instruction of Buddhi (knowledge of discrimination).Ignorance (Aviveka)  is failure to differentiate Purusa (Jnasvarupa) as distinct from the intellect, ego, mind and other modifications of Prakrti. Liberation (Kaivalya) in Samkhya is neither the acquisition of a new state, nor the shaking of an old one. It is only the disappearance of the conditioned factors of Aviveka, ignorance or the wrong-knowledge. The state of liberation is named as Kaivalya (aloneness) because the Purusa enjoys unique aloofness in its splendid isolation.

But,  Kaivalya which is essentially based in dualism was viewed as an inadequacy of the Samkhya. The Yoga which has its theoretical base in Samkhya sought to correct the position. In Samadhi the pure consciousness becomes one with the object of meditation. The distinctions between the knower, knowing and the known is obliterated .It is akin to the Advaita ideal of realizing the whole universe as the Self.

56.2. Nirvana is also the realization of the true nature of Reality – of being, non-being and becoming.  The term Nirvana derived from the root va (to blow like the wind) qualified by a negative prefix nir denotes a state of motionless rest where no wind blows, where the fire has been quenched, where the light is extinguished and where the stars have gone out .The Buddha explained it with a simile of an oil-lamp sinking upon itself and expiring when its fuel has been consumed .Nirvana suggests a state of emptiness and nothingness. At the same time Nirvana is described as a state of blessedness, unbound peace and deliverance.

Nirvana is characterized as a state beyond conditioned consciousness, beyond the ceaseless motion of life (Samsara).  It is the absolute extinction of suffering and attainment of unique intuitive wisdom ( Prajna or Pannā). The Buddha however refused to speculate on the nature of it. We therefore do not really know how the Buddha understood Nirvana. The Pali Canon speaks of a state beyond all conceptual thoughts; and yet, it could be experienced in meditation.

But nirvana does not seem to involve the isolation of a pure consciousness, (as in the case of Samkhya) because such concept is not present in the early Buddhism. The concept of a permanent Self is also not there. The Buddha emphasized that one should not identify anything as the Self. Nirvana, in essence is complete freedom by abandoning all sensations, all perceptions, all volitions, and acts of consciousness. It is a state of bliss which is entirely different from and free from all that exists in the Samsara.

The Buddhist Nirvana is not the eternal essence, which is the basis of everything and from which the whole world has arisen (like the Brahman of the Upanishads) but the reverse of all that we know, something altogether different which must be characterized as a nothing in relation to the world, but which is experienced as highest bliss by those who have attained to it (Anguttara Nikaya, Navaka-nipata 34).

56.3. Vedanta says Brahman is One without a second; Brahman is unbound there is nothing outside it. For Sri Shankara, moksha, liberation, is the realization that I am, and always have been, Brahman. One does not attain or merge with this Brahman; one merely realizes that one has always been Brahman. Sri Shankara uses the analogy of the space within a closed jar: that space has always been one with all space; their separateness is nothing but a construct (kalpana vishesha)

57.1. On the face of it the early Buddhism and Vedanta appear to have serious differences. While Buddhism does not believe in a Self, Vedanta says everything is the Self. There is apparently no consciousness in nirvana, but everything is consciousness in moksha. The one appears to be the mirror image of the other. They are extreme positions, trying to resolve the relation between the Self and the non-self by conflating the one into the other. The not-self of Buddhism holds within it the Self; while the Self of Advaita swallows the not-self.

57. 2. How different are they? Or do they mean the same thing in reverse?

It perhaps depends on the way one looks at it. In either case there is no duality between the object (that which is observed) or the subject (that which observes).If you look at it in another way there is not a great deal of difference between the two systems.

In both the systems the right understanding is the key to salvation. It is the right understanding that liberates. In Vedanta, one does not attain or merge with this Brahman; one merely realizes that one has always been Brahman. Similarly in Buddhism too one does not achieve anything new, but realizes ones true nature (or Buddha nature) as being always been pure and unstained. All that one needs to do is to realize that fact.

The concept of Shunya emptiness of later Buddhism is rather fascinating. Shunyata transcends human thoughts and speech. In Mahayana Buddhism shunyata, emptiness not merely refers to the absence of a Self but is also the fundamental characteristic of all reality; shunyata is the category which corresponds to the Vedanta concept of Brahman.

57.3. But can shunyata be reconciled with the One without a second?

Yes, it can be done. The explanation offered is that there is essentially only one thing; and to put it more accurately it is not even one in the numerical sense. We cannot say that it is One, yet, we cannot say it is not one, not two or not any number. The term selected by Vedanta to give expression to its idea  of Reality is: ‘it is not two’ (a-dvaita).

To call it One, is just a way of saying that it is a unity and there is nothing outside it — no duality of a subject and an object. The it (tat) would not even be aware of itself as being one or being alone. It is absolute wholeness. In another way of saying, because there is nothing outside it, its phenomenal experience would be of nothing or nothing, which is shunyata.

58.1. There are some passages in the Pali Canon which almost sound Vedanta- like. Its language too resemble the mysticism of Vedanta

 There is Oh disciples an unborn, un-originated, uncreated and unformed. Were it not there … Oh disciples,.. there would be no possibility of existence of the world of the born, generated, created and formed.(Udana 8.3)

The great ocean is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable..So also the Perfect One is deep, immeasurable and unfathomable as the great ocean. (Samyutta Nikaya 4)

58.2. The Buddha emphasized that nirvana is neither annihilation nor eternal life. In the Brahmanimantanika Sutra (Majjhima-Nikaya), the Buddha said: Do not think that this [nirvana] is an empty or void state. There is this consciousness, without distinguishing mark, infinite and shining everywhere (Vinnanam anidassanam anantam sabbato-pabham); it is untouched by the material elements and not subject to any power.
On another occasion the Buddha describes the state of an Arhant the one who has realized;

He who has gone to rest, no measure can fathom him.

There is no word to speak of him.
What thought could grasp has blown away.
And every path to speech is barred.
58.3. Just as there are passages in the Pali Canon which sound like Vedanta, so there are passages in the Upanishads which seem Buddhist-like. Perhaps the most famous among them is Yajnavalkya’s instruction to his wife Maitreyi in the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad: “Arising out of these elements (bhuta), into them also one vanishes away. After death there is no consciousness (na pretya samjna ‘sti)….”

Yajnavalkya explains: For where there is a duality, as it were (iva), there one sees another…. But when, verily, everything has become just one’s own self, then what could one see and through what… Through what could one know that owing to which all this is known? So, through what could one understand the Understander? This Self… is imperceptible, for it is never perceived. (II. iv. 12-15)

Thus, the notions of infinity and nothingness appear in both the systems. Nothingness is an image or a reflection of the infinity.

59.1. But, why did Sri Shankara preferred to speak of the One and the Buddha of nothingness?

It seems that the answer to this lies in the nature of their philosophies. In referring to Brahman as One without a second, Sri Shankara tries to describe reality from outside, as it were, because that is the only perspective from which it can be understood as One. Sri Shankara was basically a philosopher; and as all philosophers do, he looks upon the whole of reality objectively and to comprehend its structure. It is as if the philosophizing intellect takes a look at the whole of existence from outside of it.

59.2. But the Buddha was describing his experience. He realized that one cannot get outside of reality and describe it as an object; because one is inseparable from that reality. He also believed too much philosophizing and clinging to ideas is an obstruction to enlightenment. He advocated meditation as a process to let go all attachments, even the attachment to ideas and concepts.

59.3. But both the savants accept that conceptual thinking is part of the problem; not in itself the way to enlightenment. If one accepts that the goal is to attain liberation rather than to understand it, then philosophy too must ultimately be transcended or let go. Philosophy might try to view things externally, but ultimately it is one’s experience that really matters.

59.4. Can nirvana or moksha be experienced? I do not know. But it appears these states suggest a condition where the boundaries of individual identity would simply dissolve. It would perhaps be a complete absence of tension and effort, a letting go of all identities and of everything that was previously clung to;   and one would eventually become that everything which in fact one always was.

60.1. In summary, the difference between the Buddhist nirvana and the Vedantic moksha is one of perspective. The Vedanta explanation — that of realizing ones true identity -is a philosophical view. The Buddhist interpretation of letting go all identities is objective description. But in each case the actual experience appears to be the same. Ones experience is the truest test of all, as Sri Shankara observed.


Duality is a normal reality of experience.. So Samkhya talks of a framework to link up with the dual world as elementising becomes logical and reasonable..and easier to comprehend. Advaita is an unusual reality… an abstract experience and perhaps can be obtained in a particular state. You can’t understand it as even elemntaising of a whole kills the essence. Buddhism is like Samkhya as it does not delve on question of god and is very practical to remove dukkha… and so is Samkhya.

All theses are true but in different locations… and if all locations exist within us…all these are true…as experiential realities. So one does not contradict the other.


Lotus_Flower purity


References and sources

Vedanta and Buddhism

Enlightenment in Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta


Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Samkhya


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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.]


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).

[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-bhighatatJijnasatadabhighatakehetau|Drste sdpartha cet  Naikantatyantatabhavat ||(karika no-1)

Duhkhatrayabhighatat – from the torment by the three-fold pain; Jijnasatadabhighatake 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; aikantatyantatabhavat –  (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. 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.


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)” . 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. 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 methodic 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 a 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 (likely before 9th-century); the Gaudapadabhasya ( approximately eleventh century A.D) ; the Matharavrtti ( approximately eleventh century A.D); and, as Samkhya-sutravrtti (1500A.D.) . Most of these texts are rather difficult to date; only the approximate time of their compositions are surmised.

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) 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.

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 atomism 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.

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.

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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Samkhya: Part Two: Samkhya Teachers

Continued from Part One

C. Samkhya Teachers

7.1. Sage Kapila is generally revered as the founder of the Samkhya system.  He is first mentioned in the Svetasvatara Upanishad considered as a text with Samkhya inclination. But, again, scholars argue whether Kapila was a historical person or a mythical figure. To worsen the confusion, as many as three sages by name of Kapila are mentioned in the texts. In any case, all the Samkhya traditions trace their origin to Kapila.

7.2. According to Samkhya traditions, it appears, there were as many as twenty-six Samkhya teachers. The more important of them are: Kapila, Asuri, Panchashikha, Vindyavasa, Varsaganya, Jaigisavya and Isvarakrishna. Some of the other Samkhya teachers mentioned are Sanaka, Sananda, Sanatana and Vodhu. They appear to be figures from mythology; and no historic details of them are known.

The Samkhya tradition ascribes its first formulation to Sage Kapila who imparted Samkhya doctrines to his disciple Asuri. Not much is known about either Kapila or Asuri. The name of Asuri appears in all the three generations of  the lists of teachers and pupils mentioned in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad . The first two of the lists mention Asuri as a disciple of Bharadwaja, while the third mentions him as a successor of Yajnavalkhya. There is also a tradition which ascribes Purusha -vidha- Brahmana (of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad) to Asuri. It is not clear whether all these references pertain to one and the same person.

7.3. As regards Kapila, he  is described as a parama-rishi the greatest sage, an incarnation:  “The primeval Seer, incarnated through the medium of an artificial mind as the mighty divine sage Kapila, out of compassion, revealed the Samkhya doctrine, in a systematic way, to Asuri, who desired to know it.”(Srimad Bhagavata SB 3.24.31).

Sage Kapila in his hermitage, Illustration from Ramayana, Kangra or Garhwal

Kapila is also described as the son born out of the will  (manasa putra) of Brahma; and variously identified with Prajapathi, with Vasudeva, and with Hiranyagarbha. Krishna declares in the Bhagavad-Gita “Among perfected beings I am the sage Kapila” (BG: 10.26) – Siddhanaam Kapilo munih.

7.4. There are several references to Kapila in Mahabharata (12.327.64-66) where he is described as Parama Rishi (the Supreme seer), Yogavid (well versed in Yoga) and Moksha-shastra –acharya (Master in the science of liberation). Yoga–Shastra, the science and practice of liberation is otherwise called as Kaapila, the path of Sage Kapila. Here, Kapila is distinguished from the other learned ones in Vedas (Vedavid) whose Dharma is that of Pravritti, the one that binds. Kapila,  on the other hand, is revered as the Master of Nivrtti Dharma, the Dharma that liberates.

Kapila is said to have taught the ‘fourth –Upanishadic – Dharma’ (chaturtha aupanisado dharmah) which asserts that apavarga (liberation) is the essential duty of an ascetic (yati-dharma).  Chandogya Upanishad (2.23.1) explains this ‘fourth Dharma’ as the way of a Brahma-nista (the one rooted in Brahman), an ascetic in search of true knowledge having renounced all ties and affiliations.  And, such a Brahma-nista is freed from the endless cycle of rebirths (Brahmanah padam anvicchinna samsaran mucyate suich).  The teachings of Sage Kapila, in essence, emphasises that the highest path to liberation is characterised by renunciation and thirst for true knowledge.

7.5. Asvaghosha in his Buddha- charita (Sarga 12.6) mentions that Alara Kalama while teaching Samkhya to his pupil Gautama (the future Buddha) explains that Kapila‘s path to final liberation (nivrtti marga) was through knowledge (samsara   yatho samsaro nivarthate). He contrasts the Vedic way (Pravrtti) which aims to attain heaven (savarga) with Kapila’s way (Nivrtti) which leads to liberation (Nirvana).

The Buddhist sources mention that the city of Kapilavastu was built in the honour of Kapila. It was in Kapilavastu that the Buddha was born; and it was here he spent the first twenty-nine years of his life.

7.6. Baudhayana Grihya Sutra (4.16) which describes the rules for becoming a Sanyasin makes a mention of Kapila’s association with renunciation; and names the rule as ‘Kapila-sanyaya-vidhi’

[The Baudhayana Dharma Sutra mentions Kapila as the son of Prahlada, the King of Asuras. And, at times, addresses Kapila as Asura.  Some, explain the name of his disciple  Asuri  as being  the son or the disciple of Asura.]

It is apparent that Kapila, whoever he was, was held in the highest esteem, and revered as Parama-rishi.


8.1. As regards Jaigisavya, he is revered as Yogacharya, the Yoga teacher of great merit. Mahabharata (Shanthi Parva: 229) refers to him as the great Muni Jaigishavya   “Possessed of great splendor, that great ascetic, ever devoted to Yoga; and rapt in meditation and leading the life of a mendicant”; and the epic carries an interesting episode narrating Sage Jaigisavya’s discourse imparted to king – rishi  Asita Devala preaching virtues of equanimity and renunciation . Jaigisavya is mentioned as a renowned Yoga teacher also in Vyasabhashya on Yoga sutra (2.55); as also in Buddhacharita (12.67) of Asvaghosa (first century). References to Jaigisavya are often made by scholars to confirm that Samkhya and Yoga were at onetime welded together.


8.2. Panchashikha is a great name in Samkhya – Yoga traditions, as also in the field of music ( gandharva ) . Panchashikha sometimes addressed as Panchashikha Kapileya, that is to say he came from the linage of Kapila, was a great teacher and honoured in many philosophical schools. Panchashikha, a disciple of Asuri, it is said, was a brilliant scholar who gave Samkhya its characteristic outlook.

 The Mokshadharma Parvan of Mahabharata (12.211-212) has passages ascribed to one Panchashikha who instructs King Janaka. One of these passages is the Panchashikha-vakyawhich talks about the highest form of Freedom. Panchashikha is referred to here with much respect. He is discribed as: ‘mahamuni‘ (great sage); ‘ rishinam… ekam‘ one among the seers; ‘parama rishi‘ (supreme seer); and a seer who performed a Satra of a thousand years (yah satram aaste varsha-sahasrikam). The Panchashikha-vakya carries many terms that have the Samkhya flavour; such as : the triple Bhava – Sattva , Rajas and Tamas ; Kshetrajan; Buddhi ; and, Mahat . There are also terms that are not strictly Samkhya but are often used there : jnanendriya ( faculties of knowledge ) with Manas  as the sixth (mana-sthana ) followed by faculties of action (karmendriya ) . However, there is no mention of Purusha, the key component of the Samkhya ideology. Its absence is conscicuous.

Strange as it may seem, Panchashikha-vakya, the teaching of Panchashika, has shades of the Charuvaka atheist beleif (nasthika) denying existence after death of the body; na pratya samjnasti (there is no consciousness after death).


Pancasikha also appears as the divine minstrel in the Buddhist lore. According to the Bilarikosiya Jataka, Pancasikha, like his father Matali, was a divine musician par excellence; and, Pancasikha along with another musician Timbaru constantly waits on Sakka (Indra), the king of the Devas. It is said; Pancasikha married Suriyavaccasa, Timbaru’s daughter.

Dr. C Sivaramamurti, identifies a figure, among the sculptures from Amaravati, playing a Veena in presence of the Buddha as Pancasikha.

And, in the Nispanna –yogavali a Vajrayana Buddhist text of 9-10th century credited to Mahapandita Abhayankara Gupta of the Vikramasila monastery, Panchashikha is described as a Gandharva king of golden complexion, playing on the Veena- Panchashiko Gandharva-rajendrah pita vinam vadayati.

And, again, a certain Panchashikha is believed to have lived in or around the sixth century BCE. According to the Buddhist text Pancasikha -sutta he visits the Buddha at Gijjhakuta (vulture peak) and questions why some men are emancipated in this birth while the others are not? Charaka (c. third century BCE) the celebrated surgeon of ancient India and the author of the Ayurveda text Charaka Samhitha relied on the analysis and explanations offered by Panchashikha.


8.3. Ayurveda, as a doctrine and as a practical discipline, benefited by adopting the Samkhya ideologies of Panchashikha. It accepted the Samkhya view of human body as psycho-physical unity, a body-mind complex; and did not see the need for a soul or divine spirit that controls the body. It does not talk about Karma or its ill effects; or about appeasing Vayu who supposedly frees one from deceases. Instead, it ascribes the causes of disease to individual characteristics of the patient, which are fundamentally rooted in his/her  Guna or Dosha composition.

It followed the  deha-tattva, body principle, a Samkhya concept of subtle-body (sukshma sarira or linga-deha) comprising consciousness, ego, eleven senses and five subtle elements; with the ever changing stream of consciousness flowing through the body-mind complex. Ayurveda, which followed the Samkhya ideal of eliminating suffering, formulated methods and curative procedures for lessening pain-provoking conditions (hanam) .It, is said; the basic theories of Ayurveda –Tridosha and panchabauthika – can be better understood if one is familiar with the Samkhya.

8.4. Charaka Samhitha adopted the philosophical principles of Panchashikha School . The atheistic line of thinking which appear in the teachings of Pancasikha finds a fuller and more systematic development in the Samhita of Caraka. The first chapter of Sarira Sthanam in the Caraka-Samhita opens with an interpretation of Purusha that is quite different from the others.  In fact, the concept of Purusha finds no place in Caraka’s medical science; and, human organism- the body mind complex- alone is the subject of his study.  The Purusha , in the sense of soul does not figure here. His Samhita says – pleasure, pain, disease, death, old age, etc. can happen to a mind-body complex and not to pure transcendental Purusha (soul).

Charaka’s logic relied on Anveshiki , the method  of listing things into similar and dissimilar categories. It adopted Panchshikha’s  principles  by accepting twenty-four category of tattvas (principles or basic components) combining the a-vyakta and the Purusha into one tattva; by accepting that human experiences arise out of the combination of body, mind and consciousness; by subscribing to the view that human suffering is caused by error in identifying the self with that which is not-conscious; by treating the Gunas as psychic states of man rather than as qualities; by adopting the concepts of kshetra (field) and kshetrajna (field-knower , the foundation for the field) as representing notions of Prakrti and Purusha; and by adopting the monistic view that the ultimate truth of a person is his un-manifest state which is a combination of the a-vyakta (un manifest Prakrti) and Purusha (consciousness).

8.5. The last mentioned, that is, treating the a-vyakta and the Purusha (consciousness) as a unity (perhaps suggesting that Purusha is just the state of a-vyakta) is a departure from the older Samkhya traditions; and it also differs from the later classical Samkhya (which holds the view that a-vyakta and Purusha are entirely different).

The Panchashikha-Charaka concept of a unified a-vyakta and Purusha, however, is closer to the ideal of the Tantra School. In the Sri Vidya tradition, Bindu the dimension-less ultimate source of all existence represents the absolute harmony (saamarasya) or union of Shiva (consciousness) and Devi the Mother-principle (as Prakrti).The Prakrti of Sri Vidya is also said to comprise three Gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) the fundamental fabric of all existence. According to Sri Vidya, the process of creation (shristi) is nothing but the expansion or the evolution of the Bindu. And, at the time of dissolution, all existence dissolves back into the source, the Bindu. Thus, the concepts of Panchashikha School of Samkhya are very similar to that of the Tantra, if not identical. These, again, suggest that Samkhya and Tantra had common origins.

8.6.. The Buddhist poet-scholar Asvaghosa (first century) too, in his Buddhacharita, largely, adopted Panchashikha’s doctrine of Samkhya, but with variations.  Panchashikha’s version is more monistic, while Asvaghosa’s rendering is dualistic (with twenty-five tattvas) brining in the Upanishad notions of self. Yet, Asvaghosa’s is considered, basically, as a later rendering of the Charaka-Panchashikha version.

8.7. From the point of view of tracing the historical development of the Samkhya traditions, the Panchashikha-Charaka version of Samkhya occupies an important position. It represents the stage of transition from the Samkhya-like Upanishad ideas to the doctrines of what came to be known as the classical Samkhya.

But, it needless to mention that all the versions of Samkhya are inspired by and within the broader framework of the common Samkhya tradition.

[There are too many references to Panchashikha in: mythology, music, Mahabharata, Buddhism, Jainism besides those in Samkhya and Yoga lore. Another text refers to Panchashikha as an expert in Dahara-vidya, an esoteric knowledge. Panchashikha also figures in conversations with philosopher-king Janaka.  It is therefore apparent that the name Panchashikha refers to not one but to many persons.

Some scholars also opine that Panchashikha was not only the name of a person/s; it was also the name of an office (like Sakka). For instance, in the Bijarakosiya Jataka, Ananda is said to have reborn as Pancasikha; and in Sudhabhojana Jataka, Anirudda is identified with Pancasikha.]


8.8. After Panchashikha the name that comes up in the Samkhya tradition is Varsaganya (Ca. first century) who is said to have lived in the foothills of Vindhya Mountains. He was popularly known as the king of the Nagas; and also as a teacher of ‘five-fold ignorance’ (pancha-parva avidya or viparyaya): tamas (darkness), moha (delusion), maha-moha (deep –confusion), tamisra (gloom) and andha- tamisra (dark gloom).  This perhaps was a system comparable to the five-fold klesha (afflictions) named by the Yoga system [avidya (ignorance), asmita (ego), raga (clinging), dvesha (hate), and abhinivesha (attachment to your own conceptions)].All these errors of perception and cognition lead to wrong understanding, false identification and to clinging to the false.

8.9. Varsaganya was one of the principal exponents of Samkhya as also of Yoga, thus confirming that Samkhya and Yoga were two facets of the same school; and indicating that pure metaphysics was Samkhya while the practice was Yoga. The followers of Varsaganya (Varsaganah) included Vidhyavasin (or Vindhyavasa).

A statement that is commonly associated with Varsaganya is; “there is neither production of something new nor extinction of something existent. What exists is always existent; what does not exist will never be existent” (Abhidhamma Kosa -5). It is said; the Samkhya theory that the effect resides in the cause (satkarya-vada) stemmed from this idea. But, again ,  this  idea is traced back to Uddalaka Aruni’s assertion ‘there must have been a Being at the beginning’.

[At a much later time, the idea that existence implies always existing or being eternal became a point of departure for the Buddhist thought which firmly believed that nothing is eternal and everything is subject to change and is ever changing.]

[The name Varsaganya is also associated with Jaiminiya Grihya sutra of Sama Veda; He is mentioned there as Sushravas Varsaganya. A certain Varsaganya is also referred to in Bharata’s Natya Shastra, as the founder of a technique of discharging a weapon. Varsaganya is also mentioned in Mahabharata (shanthi parva: 319) as a great teacher of Yoga. This Varsaganya it is believed is the pre-Buddhist teacher of Yoga and he preceded Patanjali. There were thus, number of Varsaganyas in the ancient traditions.]


8.10. Vindhyavasa, it is said, learnt Samkhya from Varsaganya, but then re-worked or revised the system by re-interpreting the traditional Samkhya concepts. That he did, perhaps because of his encounters with Buddhism and the influences that Buddhism exerted on him. He is even credited with pithy couplets summarizing the revised doctrine. According to the Buddhist scholar Paramartha who travelled to China and settled in Nanking (around 550 CE), Vidhyavasin entered into a fierce intellectual debate, at Ayodhya, with the Buddhist scholar Buddhamitra, the teacher of Vasubandhu (an exponent of Yogachara and Madhyamika School of Buddhism); and Vindhyavasin won that debate. Some say that Vindhyavasin’s re-interpretations and use of Buddhist terminologies won the debate for him.

An immediate outcome of that win was that it enraged Vasubandhu disciple of Buddhamitra (the one who lost the debate).  And, the embittered Vasubandhu wrote in anger paramartha-saptati, a scathing critique on Samkhya. [The Chinese version of the story, according to Hsuan-tsang is slightly different.] In any case, the Chinese and Indian traditions accept Varsaganya and Vindhyavasa as great teachers who influenced the course of Samkhya development.


8.11. Isvarakrishna (first or second century) is a very important name in the Samkhya tradition. According to the well known philosopher Dr SN Dasgupta, Isvarakrishna‘s period may be around 200 CE. But, again, as in the case of his predecessors, it is difficult to determine his period. Further, very little is known about Isvarakrishna .It is said he belonged to Kaushika gotra; and he was perhaps a contemporary of Vindhyavasa and Vasubhandhu. (The text Jayamangalä mentions that he was a parivräjaka, an itinerant monk) . His Samkhya-Karika is the oldest Samkhya text available on which we have commentaries by later writers; and it is a definitive work as it systematized the Samkhya view point. It is hailed as the standard reference text of what came to be known as the Classical Samkhya. It was a text the Vedic Schools could accept though rather reluctantly. Paramartha the Buddhist scholar translated Isvarakrishna’s work Samkhya-Karika into Chinese sometime around 560 AD.

[Let’s talk about Samkhya karika and its concepts in an another article]


Continued à Next: Part Three

— Samkhya Texts and Traditions-


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 One: The Beginnings

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

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

A. The Early stages

The Origins

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

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

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

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

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

The Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


B. Vedas and Samkhya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As John Davies said (Sankhya Karika of Isvarakrisna; 1881) :

Kapila, or his expounder, contends: Our senses are limited in their own nature, and their action is imperfect from many opposing circumstances. Hence many things exist which they cannot reveal, and they give imperfect information of things which lie within their range. The intellect (Buddhi) must arrange and present our sense- conceptions, that there may be a true cognition. In this way we rise from the knowledge of the manifold to the conception of the one, in which all things were contained and from which they have issued. Kapila, however, confines this notion of oneness to the primordial matter, the Prakriti.

He does not refer to the existence of one Supreme Spiritual Being, as do the theistic schools. Further, Kapila asserted that the cause and effect are, indeed, so far identical that an effect is only a developed cause. Herein too, he differs from the Vedantists who maintain that all things indeed are, the One ; and,  that the visible things of the outer world are only Maya (illusion), the deceptive form with which the Invisible is veiled; and that, therefore, there is neither cause nor effect.

The system of Kapila is essentially a philosophy. He had no theology. He admitted, indeed, the existence of gods; but, they were only emanations from Prakriti; and, are to be absorbed hereafter into this all-comprehending source, as all other forms of material life.

As the system of Kapila ignored a Supreme Being, it sought only to guide and strengthens man by his own unaided power

Sankhya is the earliest attempt on record to give an answer, from reason alone, to the mysterious questions which arise in every thoughtful mind about the origin of the world, the nature and relations of man, and his future destiny

Kapila established no society and no hierarchy; he addressed himself to thinkers like himself. Hence his system remained only as a philosophical theory; not  attaining to a practical supremacy over large masses of men.

 It was never embodied and crystallized in a concrete form, and as a complete system it has been preserved only as an intellectual product, or as an esoteric doctrine, understood and accepted by a small inner circle of free-thinking men.


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


Lotus young and old

Continued– Next: Samkhya Teachers–

References and Sources

Early Indian Thought by Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao

Classical Samkhya by Gerald James Larson

Samkhya Karika by Swami Virupakshananada

The Samkhya Karika


Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Samkhya


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