Samkhya

Doctrines The first three of the seventy-two Samkhya-karikas set forth in brief the essential teaching of the entire short work, and therefore of classic Samkhya. Human existence is characterized by suffering, and this cannot be removed by either empirical means or scriptural revelation; the only way to eliminate suffering is by discriminative knowledge. This saving knowledge comprises the clear identification of
  1. "the unmanifest", prakriti, primordial nature;
  2. "the manifest", the world which arises out of prakriti;
  3. the knower, purusha.

As is usually the case in Indian philosophy, the question of the means of valid knowledge (pramanas) is first addressed: Samkhya accepts three - perception, inference and reliable authority. It may clarify matters if we point out that each of the classical philosophical "schools" (darshanas : "views") clearly identifies the particular pramanas which it accepts and rejects : among the means of knowledge rejected by Samkhya, as failing to give valid knowledge, are verbal testimony, comparison, presumption, and non-apprehension (compare under Shankara).
Indian philosophical systems also include arguments on the nature of the causal process - if the Truth is to be attained, then an understanding of the world which is, in some way, to be left behind, is necessary. This involves knowing how it came to be, and there are two classic possibilities: the causal process interpreted as the effect being pre-existent in the cause (satkaryavada); and as the effect being different and not pre-existent in the cause (asatkaryavada). In simple terms, the second allows for new things to come into being, the first (and this is the Samkhya view) states that nothing new can come into being.
What appears as real change is merely modification or change of appearance: the "effect" is a modification of what was already there in the "cause". Everything in the world of experience comes from prakriti. This has two dimensions - the unmanifest and the manifest; the manifest is caused, finite, active and so forth, whilst the unmanifest is the opposite, but both are composed of the gunas. These are three: sattva, which is associated such notions as lightness, brightness, and intelligence; rajas, with such meanings as activity, energy, and passion; and tamas, dullness, heaviness, darkness, and so on. When these three are in equilbrium, prakriti is in its unmanifest state, but when the balance is disturbed, the manifest world emerges from prakriti. The process of emergence is governed by the dominance (but not the sole presence) of one or other of the gunas, so that the first evolute, for example, buddhi (intelligence, also called mahat, "the great") is characterized by the predominance of sattva. The elements of which the material world is composed are characterized by tamas as predominant.
There are twenty-four principles (tattvas) in all:
(1) the uncreated unmanifest prakriti;
(2) mahat/buddhi;
(3) ahamkara (ego, self-consciousness);
(4) manas (mind);
(5-9) the five sense-organs;
(10-14) the five motor-organs;
(15-19) the five subtle elements;
(20-24) the five gross elements.
These all emerge from prakriti, and are all composed of the gunas.
The twenty-fifth tattva is entirely and eternally distinct from all this: it is purusha, the changeless, eternal witness. Since self-conciousness, intellectual activity and emotion are all part of those elements which have emerged from prakriti, it is clear that purusha does not "feel" or "know" or "think" or "will". It is eternally passively free. There are many purushas, and not one single "Cosmic Purusha"; purusha is individual but not personal, since self-consciousness is an evolute of prakriti.
Human suffering is associated with the failure to discriminate between these two absolutely separate principles: for example, the pain of not getting what one wants disappears when one realizes that purusha is not "I", and that, so to speak, all the pain happens on the side of prakriti. It is the discriminative knowledge of the absolute difference of purusha and prakriti which is the key to salvation.
On the other hand, the evolutionary scheme has a clearly cosmic dimension as well, and serves to explain why the empirical world is as it is - why people are intelligent or active or lazy; why stones are heavier than feathers; why different foods have different effects. The Samkhya-karikas do not discuss these matters, but they are taken up either in texts which use Samkhya ideas (e.g., Bhagavad Gita, ch. XX for the gunas and food), or in the various commentaries (see above).
The precise manner of the emergence of the twenty-four tattvas from prakriti, the nature of the "relation" between purusha and prakriti, as well as many other subjects which are only in summary form in the karikas are all taken up in the commentaries.

History Although Samkhya ("enumeration") is one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy, its history presents many problems and is the subject of scholarly disagreement. Was there a definite "school" at the earliest stages of its development? Is it possible to identify several separate schools within the tradition? From where were its ideas taken - from the Brahmanical tradition or from a quite separate source? Was it atheistic in its early stages, or has theism been there from the beginning? What is the relation between the explicitly Samkhya texts and those sections of the Great Epic (the Mahabharata) in which Samkhya ideas are expounded? The fact that much disagreement exists should be borne in mind when reading the following summary.
For convenience, four stages in the history of the samkhya tradition may be distinguished.
  1. The traditional founder is Kapila, the first in a line of some twenty-six teachers, but he - as most of them - is a legendary figure. Although this cannot count as "history" in the usual sense of the word, Samkhya teachings have their roots in certain speculations which are found in the Rig Veda and in the oldest prose Upanishads (e.g., the Brihadaranyaka and the Chandogya). These may be dated ca. tenth-sixth centuries B.C.E. and in them are found suggestive hints and speculations on the self and on the cosmos, as well as enumerations and lists of entities. The Jain conception of the nature of ultimate release, and the Buddhist notion of the "suffering" which runs through the universe (duhkha[Sanskrit] /dukkha [Pali]) are also to be counted as feeding into that which later becomes the Samkhya tradition. At this first stage there is no "school", not even any single predominant point of view.
  2. Datable between ca. fifth century B.C.E. and ca. first century C.E. are several texts in which proto-Samkhya speculations are found, and they mark a second stage. These are: the middle Upanishads (especially the Katha and Shvetashvatara); the Charakasamhita (a composite text with its earliest portions maybe from the second century C.E.; the section of the epic Mahabharata (12.219) associated with the name of one Pancashika; chapter 12 of Ashvagosha's Buddhacarita, which dates from the first century C.E.; the section of Book 12 of the Mahabharata known as the Mokshadharma ; and that portion of Book 6 which comprises the Bhagavad Gita (? first-fourth centuries C.E.). The first clear signs of a doctrine of twenty-five principles appear: there is a dualistic, evolutionary perspective, and salvation is by knowing the enumerated principles. Yet certain ideas which become part of the classical teaching do not yet appear. In the later Maitri Upanishad, Samkhya terminology is found, connected with Yoga practice: the exact relation between these two aspects is another matter of scholarly debate. Some writers go so far as to identify particular Samkhya teachers, Charaka and Panchashika in particular, but there is no agreement on this.
  3. (i). The period from the first century C.E. to ca. the tenth presents us with what has been called "classical" Samkhya, and the teaching now becomes differentiated from other yogic traditions. The major text is the Samkhya-karika of Ishvarakrishna (ca. fourth century C.E.); he was probably a contemporary of the Buddhist Vasubandhu (who wrote a refutation of Samkhya) and of the Samkhya teachers Varshaganya and Vindhyavasa, so that his articulation of the tradition took place during the cultural flowering associated with the Gupta dynasty (ca. 320-540 C.E.). Ishvarakrishna's work was translated into Chinese by Paramartha between 557 and 569 C.E. This important writer also produced a Life of Vasubandhu, and it is from this, as well as from references in the works of the great seventh century Chinese scholar Hsuan-tsang and his pupil Kuei-chi, that we have an idea of the strength of Samkhya at this time. Indeed, it is so influential that the Buddhist logician Dignaga (ca. 480-540 C.E.) vigorously opposes it. A little later the Buddhist Dharmakirti (ca. 610-670 C.E.) also refers to it, and as late as the ninth century Shankara continually argues against it (see under Shankara).
    There is a reference in the Samkhya-karika to "sixty topics" (shasti-tantra), and the enumeration into sixty is also found in both later Samkhya texts and in a Pancaratra work (see under "Pancharatra"). However the claim that there was a text of this name is arguable.
    Several commentaries on the Samkhya-karika were composed. Paramartha wrote one to accompany his translation; Gaudapada's Bhashya, a simple and direct commentary, dates possibly from 600-800 C.E, ; in the ninth century C.E., Vachaspati Mishra - a significant figure in the history of Samkhya - wrote his Samkhyatattvakaumudi, and this was in turn glossed by Narayanatirtha (though according to Dasgupta, this gloss was on Gaudapada's commentary). There are also other commentaries of a most uncertain date - the Mathavritti, the Jayamangala, and the Yuktidipika.
    (ii) After this heyday of Samkhya, which lasted for several centuries, the school lost its force and entered a period of decline. This may have been because in place of a vigorous tradition (articulated by several teachers, and creatively pitted against other schools of thought), there came to be an emphasis upon the Samkhya-karika as normative. The eleventh-century Muslim traveller Alberuni, who wrote a work in which he summarizes the teachings of Indian philosophy, bases his summary of Samkhya primarily upon the karika. Similarly, the fourteenth-century Madhava in his summary of sixteen systems of Indian thought (the Sarvadarshanasamgraha) relies solely on the karika.
  4. A final stage is marked by a kind of renaissance. Aniruddha (late fifteenth century) wrote a commentary (bhashya) on the Samkhyapravachanasutra, as did Vijnanabhikshu (late sixteenth century). It is difficult to put a date on these sutras, but because not only Madhava, but also Gunaratna (also fourteenth century) make no reference to them they may well be later than this, a suggestion supported by the late date of the commentary upon them. On the other hand, it may well be that certain ideas or even passages in the sutras derive from the earlier, classical period. Vijnanabhihshu is credited by some scholars with having composed an elementary work on Samkhya, the Samkhyasara. Other late works on Samkhya are the Tattvasamhasutra, Simananda's Samkhyatattvavivecana, and Bhavaganesha's Samkhyatattvayatharthyadipana. Generally, according to some scholars, these late works are clearly influenced by Vedanta. Again, there are differences of scholarly emphasis, some using these late works directly as sources for the interpretation of Samkhya, others exercising a greater or lesser degree of caution in so doing.

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