Tag Archives: Vedas

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 Prof. 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.” – sāńkhya-yogau pṛthag bālāḥ/ pravadanti na paṇḍitāḥ/ ekam apy āsthitaḥ samyag / ubhayor vindate phalam //

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 , in the Rig Veda , mention of Samkhya-like terms such as Pradhana (RV: 10.82.06) and tama āsīt tamasā (RV 10.129.03) . 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 (5.2).

ṛṣiṃ prasūtaṃ kapilaṃ yas tam agre jñānair bibharti jāyamānaṃ ca paśyet // SvetUp_5.2 //

 It also mentions number of Samkhya terms, such as: vyakta, a-vyakta, and Jna (vyaktāvyaktaṃ bharate viśvam īśaḥ; jñātvā devaṃ-1.8); as also Pradhana (pradhānam amṛtākṣaraṃ-1-10); Prakrti (māyāṃ tu prakṛtiṃ vidyān – 4-10) ; and, Guna (viśvarūpas triguṇas trivartmā  – 5.7).

3.2. Srimad-Bhagavata-purana (BhP_11.22.001-25) 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, asserts that  there is no knowledge like Samkhya; and no power like the Yoga – nāsti sāṃkhya samaṃ jñānaṃ ; nāsti yoga samaṃ balam  (MB-Shanthiparva: 12.304. 002).

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 (and in Maitrayani , the date of which is debated) 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. (sāṃkhyaṃ yogo lokāyataṃ ca ity ānvīkṣikī  – Ar.Sa. 01.2.10).

The concept of anvikshiki in the ancient context refers to an analytical method of explaining or delineating a subject by a systematic enumeration and reasoning. The practice of anvikshiki may not strictly be called a ‘philosophy’; but, it is a sort of inquiry 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).

This 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.

Arthashastra   as also the Samhitas of Charaka and Sushruta provide a list of such methods and devices. (Perhaps it is because Samkhya followed the anviksiki (the method of enumeration)  , 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 striving 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-adhigamyam – Sv.Up. // 6.13 // ).

The scholarly opinion is that “the Sāṃkhya shows us that there is no essential  dichotomy between atheism and spirituality. Moreover, its understanding of the human condition, the self, and the universe provide us with profound psychological insights that may be utilized for better living in this world” . 

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.

flower design

Continuing on the theme of relevance of the Samkhya in the present days, please read the following are few selected extracts from Introduction to the Modern Samkhya: Ancient Spirituality for the Contemporary Atheist, written by  Douglas Osto,,  a member of the Philosophy Programme in the School of Humanities, Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand; and,  one who specializes in Indian Mahayana Buddhism, South Asian religions and philosophies, contemporary Buddhist and Hindu practice,

The goal of his book, as Prof. Osto says, is to present a manual of “Modern Sākhya” for use as a path toward transcending personal suffering; a practical guidebook for activating Sākhya philosophy; and, to serve as a tool for transcending suffering.


Although Sākhya possesses an extensive collection of philosophical writings, Īśvarakṛṣṇa (sometime before the mid-sixth century CE) , in his khya-kārikā , succinctly enunciates the fundamental ideas of the classical system in a mere 73 verses. Thus by focusing on this short text, one can, I believe, reconstruct and reinterpret the philosophy for utilization in the contemporary world.

The central aim of Sākhya, like the other renouncer traditions of India, is to counteract human suffering. To do this, Sākhya proposes a special type of metaphysical dualism, which asserts the absolute distinction between an infinite numbers of nodes of pure consciousness (puruas) on the one hand, and the phenomenal world (prakrti) on the other.

khya may be viewed as asserting a special type of philosophical “perspectivism

According to Sākhya, liberation is attained through the practice of discriminating all the various processes of the psycho-physical entity and disassociating from them as either “me” or “mine.” Once all possible phenomena in the field of consciousness are recognized as not consciousness, nature returns to its unmanifest state and the transcendental subject resides isolated (kaivalya) in its own nature; thus liberation from suffering has been obtained.

The ancient philosophy of Sākhya can be applied to modern life in a number of valuable ways. Rather than becoming overly concerned with the metaphysics of the system, Sākhya can be seen as a psychological tool to overcome suffering. Through rigorous philosophical and psychological analysis, a person can learn to detach or disassociate from the psychophysical entity, and realize witness consciousness or what I refer to as transcendental subjectivity.

khya is a form of spirituality in the sense that it recognizes the possibility of transcendence. Each of us has the potential to rise above our human condition and attain a state or condition beyond the limitations of our individuality, psychology, physical body, social conditioning, historical context, and even the space-time continuum we find ourselves in.

Thus Sākhya shows us that there is not a necessary dichotomy between atheism and spirituality.

Moreover, its understanding of the human condition, the self, and the universe provide us with profound psychological insights that may be utilized for better living in this world.

khyan spirituality is not about worship of a supreme deity, blind faith, empty ritualism, meaningless ceremony, traditionalism, fundamentalism, infallible sacred scripture, ecclesiastical authority, or some New Age woolly-eyed optimism; but is a philosophical outlook based on individual self-enquiry, analytical discrimination, and discerning the fundamental facts concerning our human condition.

The religions and religious philosophies are constantly undergoing changes and transformations in order to adapt to the needs of people. These days renouncing the world to become a wandering ascetic is not a viable option for most people living in modern, industrialized societies.

Moreover, few people would choose to give up all their worldly possessions, emotional attachments, erotic relationships, and family ties to pursue a transcendent state beyond space, time, death and decay. However, what many people today want as much as the ancient Indian renouncers is to live a life free from suffering, and attain some type of lasting happiness.

YOU are not your bank account; you are not old or young, fat or skinny, good-looking or ugly, tall or short. You are not your personality, your personal history, your wants, desires, hopes, dreams, fantasies, or memories. The psychophysical entity you think you are is not you. It is a part of nature. All of it – bones, blood, organs, brain, thoughts, memories, and personality – is linked inexorably to the laws of physics, cause and effect, and is part of an interconnected web of conditioning by the society, culture and environment in which it is located. But none of this is YOU.

So what are YOU? YOU are the WITNESS. You are a node of pure consciousness; a transcendental subjectivity that is the “enjoyer” of all phenomena. Without this source consciousness there would be no experience at all. All experience is experience from a particular point of view. That point is you. And as the ancient texts assert, “the eye cannot see itself.” In this case, it is “the ‘I’ cannot see itself.” But this “I” is not your ego; your ego is merely a construct, and it also is a part of the world of nature. You as witness are and always have been free; you have never been bound by any suffering, sadness, depression, or loss.]


6.1. Going back to the ancient and medieval times of India, 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. 

Just , for instance, click here and here for the criticisms of the Samkhya, by the renowned scholar Prof. Surendranath Dasgupta (A History of Indian Philosophy – Volume 3).

But, none ignored the Samkhya and its concepts.


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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