Previously, we attempted a brief introduction to the great founder of the Sankhya philosophy, the Sage Kapila, along with an exploration of certain fragments relating to the original Sankhya teachings, which have been covered by a thick veil of time. We will attempt now to give a quick introduction to the Sankhya system as it is known today, bringing in theosophical interpretations to provide additional perspectives on key ideas.
Sankhya or Samkhya, one of the six Darshanas or schools of Indian philosophy, is said to have been founded by the sage Kapila. Traditionally seen as a strongly dualistic philosophy, though not referring to itself as dualistic, it has also been referred to as a “system of analytical metaphysics.” Its principle work is the Samkhya-karika, which has been commented upon by Gaudapada. Sankhya is said to provide the conceptual framework of Yoga philosophy, and the two schools are seen as a complimentary pair.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Book V:4-5, Krishna says:
Children, not wise men, speak of Sankhya and Yoga as different;
he who has perfectly mastered one finds the fruit of both.
The goal that is gained by the Sankhyas, is also reached by the
followers of Yoga; who sees Sankhya and Yoga as one, he indeed sees!
The lofty position of Kapila, the founder of Sankhya philosophy is demonstrated when Krishna, while enumerating the chief divine forms by which he manifests himself, says: “[I am] Kapila the silent, among those who have attained [i.e. perfect saints],” (Bhagavad Gita, Book X:26)
Of Kapila, theosophist Charles Johnston states:
“We cannot speak definitely of the dates either of the Upanishads or of Kapila. We can only say that both certainly belong to a period long before Buddha, and that the Upanishads are much older than Kapila. We can further say, with some confidence, that Kapila’s great contribution to Indian wisdom was the division of life into the two opposing camps of Spirit and Nature: Purusha and Prakriti; and the further division of Nature under the Three Powers of Substance, Force and Darkness: Sattva, Rajas, Tamas.” (Bhagavad Gita, Introduction to Book XIII)
We find that the Sankhya philosophy is taken for granted in the Mahabharata and other ancient texts, and that it was seen not only as a central school of Indian philosophy, but in many ways as the school of Indian philosophy. Over time a fog began to envelop the true Sankhya teachings, until that primary and once-high system devolved into a shell of its former self, becoming hardly more than an intellectual sophistry of illogical dualism. It would seem, if we attempt an overview, that the system has passed into its own Kali Yuga, a dark age in which little, perhaps nothing, of the original teachings is properly understood.
As time progressed the system fell almost entirely out of use, and when the west first began to mine the soil of India for its treasures of philosophy, metaphysics and spirituality there was hardly a soul there to interpret the meaning of the philosophy and its core texts had falling into disuse, almost abandoned altogether.
With the arrival of the west came renewed interest in Sankhya, even if solely for historical or scholarly ends, and this has led to the unearthing of texts, and comparative study of such texts (see here for more on these developments). We have now a system that had fallen out of use, being once more picked up, dusted off and examined. With the addition of western interest, and particularly with the addition of theosophical literature—which itself examines many core aspects of Samkhya philosophy from a “new” perspective (perhaps not new at all)—we may yet find that the cycle of Samkhya has reached its bottom and is now beginning its ascending arc, which may yet bring it back into the minds and hearts of humanity.
The core of the Sankhya philosophy comprises a treatment of the 25 tattvas, and their complex interrelations, the full-scope of which is a complete system of emanation, by which the Manifest comes to be, out of the Unmanifest.
The pillars of this system are Purusha and Prakriti, or “Spirit”/”Self” and “Nature”. We may attempt a quick overview of each of these principles, thus:
Purusha: “Man” or Spirit, Self. In the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad (I:4:1), we read: “Atma, Supreme Self, verily, was here in the beginning, having the form of Purusha.” and later (II:5:18): “He, verily, is the Spirit in all strongholds. His name is Purusha, that is, Puri-shaya, ‘he who dwells in the stronghold.’ There is naught that is not enveloped by him, naught that is not penetrated by him.”
In the Sankhya philosophy, the term Purusha is used to indicate what might be called “pure contentless consciousness”. This is contrasted with Prakriti, Matter or Nature, with the pair viewed as “the two primeval aspects of the One and Secondless”, and thus as co-eternal and co-present principles (Tattvas). “. . . in Kapila’s ‘Sankhya’ Philosophy, unless, allegorically speaking, Purusha mounts on the shoulders of Prakriti, the latter remains irrational, while the former remains inactive without her.” (Secret Doctrine II:42)
In his translation of the Prashna Upanishad, Charles Johnston refers to Purusha as “the Spiritual Man” and in the Aitareya Upanishad as the “Heavenly Man”—both terms that he corresponds with the Logos. Other theosophical students likewise intimately associate Purusha with the Logos. H.P. Blavatsky provides this authoritative and perhaps definitive definition:
“The seventh principle (purusha) alone is the divine SELF” (Secret Doctrine II:574)
Prakriti: Nature or Matter. However, physical matter and nature are rather ‘productions’ that Prakriti (Nature in general) brings about.
In the Sankhya philosophy, Prakriti is characterized by three properties, powers or gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas), which may be in perfect equilibrium (unmanifested nature) or ‘disturbed’, the latter resulting in differentiation and giving rise to the universe, or manifested nature.
In Bhagavad Gita, Book VII:4 we read: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether [i.e. the five tanmatras, or subtle elements], mind [manas], thought [buddhi], self-consciousness [ahamkara, egoity]: thus is My nature [prakriti] divided eightfold.” (see also Sankhya Karika, III with Guadapada’s commentary where a sevenfold division is given—the same as above minus manas)
It is thus from Prakriti and the activity of the gunas that are said to derive (or evolute) the entirety of manifested Nature.
In Bhagavad Gita, Book XII:19-23, Krishna explains:
“Know that both Nature [prakriti] and Spirit [purusha] are beginningless; and know that changes [vikaras] and powers [gunas] are Nature-born.
Nature is declared to be the source of cause, causing and effect; Spirit is declared to be the cause, in the tasting of pleasures and pains.
For Spirit, resting in Nature, tastes of the Nature-born powers [gunas]; attachment to these powers is the cause of the Spirit’s births, from good or evil wombs.
The Supreme Spirit, here in the body, is called the Beholder, the Thinker, the Upholder, the Taster, the Lord, the Highest Self.
Who thus knows Spirit, and Nature with her powers, whatever may be his walk here, such a one enters not into rebirth.”
It is from these two, Purusha and Prakriti, that all else in the Sankhya philosophy originates, and it is this that caused some interpreters to label Sankhya as a dualistic philosophy. However, when we understand the true position of Purusha (neither evolving, nor an evolute) we understand that the system is not, in fact, dualistic, but only seemingly so. All is said to evolute from Prakriti, including the principles of Buddhi and Manas, and thus all relative consciousness has its foundation in “Nature” or “Matter”. Prakriti is said to be either unmanifest or manifest; the former being termed Pradhana. It is explained that Prakriti unmanifest is the perfect equilibrium of the gunas, manifest is the activity or non-equilibrium of the gunas. We may explore the gunas thus:
Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are the three gunas, which may be translated as “Powers of Nature”. In the Sankhya philosophy the gunas are the properties or elements that constitute Prakriti. Sankhya teaches that it is the action of the gunas, first upon each other—i.e. Rajas acting upon Sattva giving rise to Buddhi, thence Ahamkara, Manas, and the indriyas—and second upon that which they evolute—i.e. Tamas acting upon Ahamkara giving rise to the tan-matras and thence the gross elements—that establishes the entirety of manifested Nature.
The gunas are thus also fundamental to Maya (illusion or glamour), as Krishna explains in Bhagavad Gita, Book VII:12-14:
“. . . whatever forms there are of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, know they also are from Me; nor am I in them, but they in Me.
Entranced by the forms resting on these Three Powers, this whole world recognizes not Me, who am above them, everlasting.
For wondrous is this Glamour [maya] of mine, formed of the Three Powers, very hard to pass beyond; but they who come to Me pass indeed beyond this Glamour.
The binding nature of this glamour, caused by the gunas, is explained by Krishna in Book XIV of the Gita.
As we see here, it is from the gunas that arise Buddhi and Manas, terms well familiar to theosophical students. But we must add to this another term treated in Sankhya: Mahat. In Sankhya we find all three of these terms explored from a slightly different angle than we do in modern theosophical literature, but again we may try to bring light to the ideas by looking through eastern texts and theosophical literature. Let us continue our exploration:
Mahat (lit. “the Great One”), is variously translated as “Universal Mind,” “Universal Cognition or Intelligence,” “Thought Divine,” “the Intelligent Soul of the World,” “The first principle of Universal Intelligence and Consciousness,” etc., etc.. It has also been referred to as “manifested Omniscience,” and may be viewed as “the first Cosmic aspect of Parabrahm”.
In the Sankhya philosophy, Mahat is viewed as a product of Prakriti (the term being used generally synonymous with Buddhi), or as the “first product” of root-nature (Mulaprakriti or Pradhana), and with others it is nearly synonymous with the Logos. From one perspective Buddhi is said to be the characteristic property of Mahat. In addition, one may view Manas as a “direct ray” from Mahat.
If we were to view the Logos as “Father” and Mahat as “Mother” we would have both the subjective and the objective side of manifestation—Mahat being “of Nature” or “of Matter” and the Logos being “of Spirit”, so to speak. Or in other words, Mahat is “the great Soul, the vehicle of Spirit.”
The following outline of the initial genesis of Cosmos, from the Secret Doctrine, may be of aid:
(1.) The ABSOLUTE; the Parabrahm of the Vedantins or the one Reality, SAT, which is, as Hegel says, both Absolute Being and Non-Being.
(2.) The first manifestation, the impersonal, and, in philosophy, unmanifested Logos, the precursor of the ‘manifested.’ This is the ‘First Cause,’ the ‘Unconscious’ of European Pantheists.
(3.) Spirit-matter, LIFE; the ‘Spirit of the Universe,’ the Purusha and Prakriti, or the second Logos.
(4.) Cosmic Ideation, MAHAT or Intelligence, the Universal World-Soul; the Cosmic Noumenon of Matter, the basis of the intelligent operations in and of Nature, also called MAHA-BUDDHI.
(Secret Doctrine, I:16)
Mahat may be also seen as synonymous with the Nous of Anaxagoras.
Buddhi (from budh, to awaken): Spiritual, Universal or Divine Soul; also translated as “Wisdom” and sometimes as “intellect”. In his commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Charles Johnston refers to it as “the divine principle which brings illumination”. It is “the faculty of knowledge or intelligence,” the “inner determiner” in Man.
In the same author’s commentary on the Isha Upanishad, he refers to Buddhi as “the active potency and manifestation of Atma,” and later explains that the “divine and mysterious principle which lies behind manifested consciousness, and from which consciousness springs, is, in its unmanifested form, ever unknowable. It is in essence one with Parabrahm, the eternally Unknowable. . . . But while unknowable in its unmanifested form, the divine element is knowable in its manifested form; Atma is knowable when it is revealed as Buddhi.”
“Through the illumination of Buddhi, he [Man] is united with the Logos, this union being Liberation.” (commentary on the Prashna Upanishad, by the same)
In the Sankhya philosophy, Buddhi is the first evolute of Prakriti, or the first manifestation of the gunas. Sankhya teaches that due to cosmic vibration in Prakriti, the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed, leading Rajas to act upon Sattva, which gives rise to Buddhi.
Manas (lit. “Mind”). In the Sankhya philosophy, Manas stands at the head of the ten indriyas—the five powers of cognition and five powers of action. “Manas is both a power of cognition and a power of action. Assimilation and differentiation are its distinctive functions.” (Nandalal Sinha, preface to Samkhya Philosophy, 1915)
In an article titled “Does Consciousness Evolve: the Answer of the Vedanta”, Charles Johnston explains that:
“The ordinary waking consciousness of the physical self rests, of course, on the perceptions of the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, gathered together and governed by two subjective powers, which the Vedanta calls Manas and Buddhi. The meaning of Manas varies [in ancient texts] between feeling and thinking, but its essence seems to be, that it receives the reports of the senses and combines them, reporting to Buddhi, which pronounces judgments on the grouped pictures thus formed and presented to it. . . . The whole of this complex of the senses, Manas and Buddhi is suffused with consciousness, thus forming the self of ordinary waking life.”
Manas is treated from a slightly different perspective in Sankhya texts than it commonly is among theosophical authors, and much light is shed by a study of both.
The other tattva involved in this process is Ahamkara, or Egoity. We may treat of it briefly, thus:
Ahankâra (Sk.). The conception of “I”, Self-consciousness or Self-identity; the “I”, the egotistical and mâyâvic principle in man, due to our ignorace which separates our “I” from the Universal One-Self. Personality, Egoism. (Theosophical Glossary)
As Gaudapada says (commentary on Samkhya Karika, XXII):
“From that Mahat, the ego is born. . . . From that ego the group of sixteen . . . is produced. That is, the five subtle elements . . . the eleven organs—the five organs of sense [and] the five organs of action [with] the eleventh mind having the characteristics of both (organs of sense and action). This group of sixteen is produced from the ego.”
We come then to the indriyas, the “organs of action and sense”:
In Sankhya philosophy, the five indriyas of Cognition (jnanendriyas) are the powers located in the Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue and Skin—or: seeing, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The five indiryas of Action (karmendriyas) are the powers located in the Hands, Feet, Vocal Instrument, the Excretory Organ and the Organ of Generation—or: grasping, moving, speech, elimination and reproduction. At the head of the indriyas stands Manas.
With the addition of the five elements, “Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether”, we have the full overview of the twenty-five tattvas. The Sankhya Karika with Gaudapada’s commentary gives forth the teachings of Sankhya on these, tracing the process of Emanation from the “beginning” to the full flowering of Manifestation.
Let us wrap-up this brief exploration with a diagram drawn from The Sacred Books of the Hindus, Volume XI: Samkhya Philosophy:
In the interest of promoting new and enlivened study of Sankhya we have begun to compile texts, articles and reference material on the system. We believe all students of eastern philosophy, and all theosophists, will benefit greatly from even a basic study of the principles of this most ancient of systems. We also believe that much light can be shed on orthodox interpretations of Sankhya by those who have studied these ideas from the unique perspective offered by theosophical literature.
For more, see here: Sankhya Darśana