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Extensive Definition

Samkhya, also Sankhya, (, IAST: - Enumeration) is one of the six schools of classical Indian philosophy. Sage Kapila is traditionally considered to be the founder of the Sankhya school, although no historical verification is possible. It is regarded as the oldest of the philosophical systems in India.
This was later incorporated as being one of the six orthodox (astika) (that which recognizes vedic authority) systems of Hindu philosophy with the major text of the theistic school being the extant Sankhya Karika, written by Ishvara Krishna, circa 200 AD. There are no purely Samkhya schools existing today in Hinduism, but its influence is felt in Yoga and Vedanta schools of philosophy. Its philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: Purusha and Prakriti. It is therefore a strongly dualist and enumerationist philosophy. The Purusha is the centre of consciousness, whereas the Prakriti is the source of all material existence.
The Samkhya school has deeply influenced the Hindu Yoga school of philosophy. They are sometimes referred together as Samkhya - yoga school.

Literature of Samkhya

Tradition ascribes the foundation of this school to the sage Kapila, but there is no evidence to prove the texts attributed to him, the and the were actually (?) composed by him. The earliest extant text of this school is of (3rd century AD). in his described himself as being in the succession of the disciples from Kapila, through and . wrote a commentary on this . The next important work is ’s (9th century AD). ’s treatise is based on the . The is assigned to the 14th century as (14th century) did not refer this text but referred the . This text consists 6 chapters and 526 s. The most important commentary on the is ’s (16th century). Anirruddha’s (15th century) and ’s (c. 1600) and ’s are the other important commentaries on this text.

Evolution of the Samkhya School

Samkhya doctrines go back to older Upanishads, and were compiled into a formal system only later. The history of the evolution of this school of thought begins with dualist teachings in the Upanishads. Anima Sen Gupta characterizes the references to samkhya ideas in the Upanishads as "scattered", gradually being developed into an orthodox system.
A division by time periods is noted by the commentator (14th Cent.) who mention two Samkhya schools: (original) and (late). Some Indologists use the terms "preclassical" and "classical" to distinguish between the early concepts and the codified system that eventually arose.
While many people believe that it was always an atheistic school of thought, in fact Samkhya passed through both theistic and atheistic stages of development as Gupta explains:
"In the classical both dualism and atheism are visible in clear and vivid forms. The complete passivity and disinterestedness of and the acceptance of , as the independent cause of all inner and outer manifestations of the world, are the important characteristics of the classical form. It is also realistic in its attitude towards the phenomenal world. The pre-classical on the other hand, has passed through different forms and stages such as theistic and monistic, atheistic and semidualistic, and so on."
There were several different schools of Samkhya, differing in their theistic emphasis and their conception of the soul.

Epistemology of Samkhya

According to the Samkhya school, all knowledge is possible through three pramanas (means of valid knowledge) -
  1. Pratyaksha or Drishtam - direct sense perception,
  2. Anumana - logical inference and
  3. Sabda or Aptavacana - verbal testimony.
Samkhya cites out two types of perceptions, a. Indeterminate (nirvikalpa) perceptions and b. determinate (savikalpa) perceptions.
Indeterminate perceptions are merely impressions without understanding or knowledge. They reveal no knowledge of the form or the name of the object. There is only external awareness about an object. There is cognition of the object, but no discriminative recognition.
For example, a baby’s initial experience is full of impression. There is a lot of data from sensory perception, but there is little or no understanding of the inputs. Hence they can neither be differentiated nor be labeled. Most of them are indeterminate perceptions.
Determinate perceptions are the mature state of perceptions which have been processed and differentiated appropriately. Once the sensations have been processed, categorized and interpreted properly, they become determinate perceptions. They can lead to identification and also generate knowledge.

Metaphysics of Samkhya


Broadly, the Samkhya system classifies all objects as falling into one of the two categories: Purusha and Prakriti. Metaphysically, Samkhya maintains a radical duality between spirit/consciousness (Purusha) and matter (Prakrti).
  • Purusha
Purusha is the Transcendental Self or Pure Consciousness. It is absolute, independent, free, imperceptible, unknowable, above any experience and beyond any words or explanation. It remains pure, “nonattributive consciousness ”. Purusha is neither produced nor does it produce.
  • Prakriti
Prakriti is matter. Matter is inert, temporary, and unconscious. It is composed of three qualities (gunas) corresponding to creation, sustenance, and destruction. They are:
  • sattva (goodness) – pure, elevating, enlightening
  • rajas (passion) – motivates us to create, acquire and enjoy
  • tamas (ignorance) – dirty, degrading, deluding, and destructive.
All physical events are considered to be manifestations of the evolution of Prakrti, or primal Nature (from which all physical bodies are derived). Each sentient being is a Purusha, and is limitless and unrestricted by its physical body. Samsaara or bondage arises when the Purusha does not have the discriminate knowledge and so is misled as to its own identity, confusing itself with the physical body - which is actually an evolute of Prakriti. The spirit is liberated when the discriminate knowledge of the difference between conscious Purusha and unconscious Prakriti is realized.
  • Ishwara (Creationist God)
The original school of Samkhya was founded by Sage Kapila. There was no philosophical place for a creationist God in this system. The Samkhyan's argue that the existence of Ishvara cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist. The school also argues that an unchanging Ishvara as the cause cannot be the source of a changing world as the effect.
Later on followers of Samkhya adopted theism and included Ishvara within the system. The concept of Ishvara was incorporated into the Sankhya viewpoint only after it became associated with the theistic Yoga system of philosophy.

Nature of Duality

According to Samkhya, the efficient cause of the world is Purusha and the material cause is Prakriti. Here Purusha stands for the ‘Supreme Self’ and Prakriti stands for ‘Matter’. Purusha (Self) is the first principle of Samkhya. Prakriti is the second, the material principle of Samkhya.

Theory of Existence

The Samkhya system is based on Satkaryavada. According to Satkaryavada, the effect pre-exists in the cause. Cause and effect are seen as different temporal aspects of the same thing - the effect lies latent in the cause which in turn seeds the next effect.
More specifically, Samkhya system follows the Prakriti-Parinama Vada. Parinama denotes that the effect is a real transformation of the cause. The cause under consideration here is Prakriti or more precisely Mula-Prakriti (Primordial Matter). The Samkhya system is therefore an exponent of an evolutionary theory of matter beginning with primordial matter. In evolution, Prakriti is transformed and differentiated into multiplicity of objects. Evolution is followed by dissolution. In dissolution the physical existence, all the worldly objects mingle back into Prakriti, which now remains as the undifferentiated, primordial substance. This is how the cycles of evolution and dissolution follow each other. Sankhya theorizes that Prakriti is the source of the world of becoming. It is pure potentiality that evolves itself successively into twenty four tattvas or principles. The evolution itself is possible because Prakriti is always in a state of tension among its constituent strands -
  • Sattva - a template of balance or equilibrium;
  • Rajas - a template of expansion or activity;
  • Tamas - a template of inertia or resistance to action.
All macrocosmic and microcosmic creation uses these templates. The twenty four principles that evolve are -
  • Prakriti - The most subtle potentiality that is behind whatever is created in the physical universe, also called "primordial Matter". It is also a state of equilibrium amongst the Three Gunas.
  • Mahat - first product of evolution from Prakriti, pure potentiality. Mahat is also considered to be the principle responsible for the rise of buddhi or intelligence in living beings.
  • Ahamkara or ego-sense - second product of evolution. It is responsible for the self-sense in living beings. It is also one's identification with the outer world and its content.
  • "Panch Tanmatras" are a simultaneous product from Mahat Tattva, along with the Ahamkara. They are the subtle form of Panch Mahabhutas which result from grossification or Panchikaran of the Tanmatras. Each of these Tanmatras are made of all three Gunas.
  • Manas or "Antahkaran" evolves from the total sum of the sattva aspect of Panch Tanmatras or the "Ahamkara"
  • Panch jnana indriyas or five sense organs - also evolves from the sattva aspect of Ahamkara.
  • Pancha karma indriya or five organs of action - The organs of action are hands, legs, vocal apparatus, urino-genital organ and anus. They evolve from the rajas aspect of Ahamkara.
  • Pancha mahabhuta or five great substances - ether, air, fire, water and earth. They evolve from the "tamas" aspect of the "Ahamkara". This is the revealed aspect of the physical universe.
The evolution of primal Nature is also considered to be purposeful - Prakrti evolves for the spirit in bondage. The spirit who is always free is only a witness to the evolution, even though due to the absence of discriminate knowledge, he misidentifies himself with it.
The evolution obeys causality relationships, with primal Nature itself being the material cause of all physical creation. The cause and effect theory of Sankhya is called Satkaarya-vaada (theory of existent causes), and holds that nothing can really be created from or destroyed into nothingness - all evolution is simply the transformation of primal Nature from one form to another.
The evolution of matter occurs when the relative strengths of the attributes change. The evolution ceases when the spirit realizes that it is distinct from primal Nature and thus cannot evolve. This destroys the purpose of evolution, thus stopping Prakrti from evolving for Purusha.
Samkhyan cosmology describes how life emerges in the universe; the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti is crucial to Patanjali's yoga system. The evolution of forms at the basis of Samkhya is quite remarkable. The strands of Samkhyan thought can be traced back to the Vedic speculation of creation. It is also frequently mentioned in the Mahabharata and Yogavasishta.


Like other major systems of Indian philosophy, Samkhya regards ignorance as the root cause of bondage and suffering (Samsara.) According to Samkhya, the Purusha is eternal, pure consciousness. Due to ignorance, it identifies itself with the physical body and its constituents - Manas, ahamkara and Mahat, which are products of Prakriti. Once it becomes free of this false identification and the material bonds, Moksha ensues.
Non-theistic Samkhya teaches that moksha is attained by one's own development of the higher faculties of discrimination achieved by meditation and other yogic practices. Theistic Samkhya states that by devotion and service one attains the clarity of mind to have this discrimination with the grace of God. Views of what happens to the soul after liberation will vary tremendously, as the Samkhya view is used by many different Hindu sects and is rarely practiced alone.

Theistic Samkhya

Samkhya is accepted by both theistic (astika) and non-theist (nir-Ishvara) schools of Hinduism. It is not considered atheist (nastika) as this would be against the Vedas and Samkhya is an accepted orthodox view (darshana) of the Vedas. The non-theist approach believes that god cannot be proven with correct knowledge (pramana). The theistic view believes that god has been revealed through revelation and therefore exists. Both nir-Ishvara and astika views are accepted by the Vedas. The non-theist view scientifically enumerates the factors in the created world, while the theist view adds that God is guiding this process.
Pancharatra The Panchratra Agamas are the earliest theistic texts describing the enumeration process with the guidance of a single godhead named Narayana (sometimes Vasudeva). These texts derive their Vedic authority from the Purusa Sukta (10.90 Rgveda). They believe that god exists in both the formless state as well as with form and therefore has the ability to interact with mankind as well as incarnate in the material world. The Panchratra Agamas use the Samkhya system as part of their three stage creation process. In the first stage the levels of consciousness are created and then the main 25 tattvas evolve. In the second stage the tattvas mix and create the universe. In the third stage the physical manifest world as humans know it is created. The Mahabharata gives authority to the Pancharatra Agamas in the Narayaniya section (chapters 334-348). This theistic text also explains the Samkhya teaching as being guided by a single divine personality.
Visnu Purana The Visnu Purana teaches the Samkhya view as guided by Vasudeva in the form of Time (Kala). The biggest difference in the enumeration here is that it is stated that the tanmatras are created from the tattvas which has been explained by some as a variation in the phase of creation.
Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam According to Sankhya doctrine of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam also called the Bhagavad Puraana (3.26.10-40, 11.22.10-16), the Purusha who is identified with the supreme divinity undergoes various transformations to manifest the material world. It is a theistic view of the Samkhya system which describes the role of god and the soul in the creation process, with a few minor variations on details from the Karika (like the addition of Kāla). (3.26.15) All the twenty-four qualities from god (brahman) become set in motion due to the quality of time (kāla) which becomes the twenty-fifth aspect. (3.26.16) The influence of Purusha as Kāla is felt by the doer (kartu) as fear of death (bhaya) by the contact of the deluded ego (ahamkara- vimūḍhasya) with the material creation (prakrti).
Gaudiya Vaisnavas believe that Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is a divine and authoritative text similar to the western view of the Bible. Modern scholars place the text as being created in the Puranic period around the 3rd to 12th century. It is considered a later Vaisnava text according to linguistics and theological ideology- which has in some places more given more developed concepts and in other places has left out certain earlier Vaisnava theology. Examples of earlier (according to modern scholars) Vaisnava Samkhya philosophy can be found in the Pāñcarātra-āgama which are also referred to in the Mahabharata and the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.
In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Sri Kapiladeva (Kapila) is believed to be an incarnation of Sri Krishna (this is also stated in the Bhashya of Vjnana Bhikshu on the Samkhya-pravachana-Sutra). Kapila teaches the Samkhya to his mother, Devahuti, who is asks for knowledge which will remove the ignorance created by sensory interaction with the material creation.
  • 3.26.17-3.26.72 of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam elaborate the creation of the 25 tattvas.
A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who is a teacher of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology has given commentary on sankhya philosophy in his English translation of the Srimad Bhagavatam (excerpt given below):
“In the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, First Canto, it is described that one becomes joyful by discharging devotional service. In that joyful attitude, one can understand the science of God, or Krishna consciousness; otherwise it is not possible. The analytical study of the elements of material nature and the concentration of the mind upon the supersoul are the sum and substance of the Sankhya philosophical system. The perfection of this sankhya-yoga culminates in devotional service unto the absolute truth.” Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.26.72 purport
Prabhupada Purport: The path of sankhya yoga has nothing to do with mental speculation and is not the creation of any conditioned living entity of this material world. Explanations of sankhya philosophy devoid of the devotional service of the Supreme Lord or which refuse to acknowledge that Kapiladeva belongs to an entirely different class of entity (Vishnu tattva) cannot liberate anyone from material bondage. Such commentaries diverge fundamentally from the Vedic conclusion ishvara parama krishna sac cid ananda vigraha; a conclusion which clearly states that the highest truth is Lord Krishna, who is the cause of all causes and possesses an eternal body of perfect cognizance and bliss.
Lord Kapiladeva explains that “The yoga system which relates to the Lord and the individual soul, which is meant for the ultimate benefit of the living entity, and which causes detachment from all happiness and distress in the material world, is the highest yoga system.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.25.13)
  • On the highest platform of yoga one who becomes transcendentally situated by elevation to devotional service to the Lord is joyfully aloof from the temporary and ephemeral states of mundane happiness and distress. That state is described by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is(18.54) brahma-bhutah prasannatma na socati na kanksati samah sarvesu bhutesu mad-bhaktim labhate param "One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman. He never laments nor desires to have anything; he is equally disposed to every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me."
When the consciousness of the living entity is conditioned by the three modes of material nature, sattvas, rajas and tamas, the living entity is considered to be entangled in guneshu, or maya consciousness. When the same consciousness is attached to the Supreme Lord, one is considered to be in liberated consciousness. Material consciousness conditioned by the modes of nature has as its cental focus fruitive action by the living entity for the enjoyment of material sense gratification. Pure Krishna consciousness is the innate quality of the living entity and is characterised by the absence of fruitive desire for sense enjoyment, which is replaced by the desire to please the senses of the Supreme Lord.
The entire yogic process, culminating in bhakti yoga, is to cleanse the mind and senses of the effects of kama and lobha – lust and greed. As soon as the living entity is purified of the false ego of identifying with the material body he transcends the influence of mundane happiness and distress. The living entity is described in the Bhagavad Gita (15.7) as mamaivamso jiva loke jiva bhuta sanatana, the “eternal, fragmental part of the Supreme.” As long as the Supreme Lord exists, His part and parcel also exists.” (Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam 3.25.17)
By other systems Kapila is believed to be merely a sage, while in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam Kapiladeva is the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Elsewhere on Wikipedia are other comments such as: “The original school of Samkhya as founded by Sage Kapila. There is no philosophical place for a creationst God in this system. The Samkhyan's argue that the existence of Ishvara cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist. The school also argues that an unchanging Ishvara as the cause cannot be the source of a changing world as the effect.” Such statements are not supported by those who follow the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam.



  • Yoga: Immortality and Freedom Second Edition. Translated from the French by Willard R. Trask.
  • Hinduism: Past and Present
  • A Source Book in Indian Philosophy Princeton paperback 12th printing, 1989.
  • Sen Gupta, Anima. The Evolution of the Sāṃkhya School of Thought. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.: New Delhi, 1986.
  • A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (1972-77) (multiple volumes)

Further reading

  • An Introduction to Indian Philosophy
  • Six Systems of Indian Philosophy; Samkhya and Yoga, Naya and Vaiseshika Reprint edition; Originally published under the title of The Six Systems of Indian Philosophy.
  • A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy
  • R.A. Ramaswami Shastri, A Short History Of The Purva Mimamsa Shastra, Annamalai University Sanskrit Series No. 3 (1936).
  • Philosophies of India Bollingen Series XXVI; Edited by Joseph Cambell.
  • Sankya - The Sacred Doctrine.
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