Samkhya philosophy

(Article by M. R Dwarakanath)
This is an orthodox system which accepts the Vedas as veridical and it is attributed to Sage Kapila. There are no extant texts on Sankhya by Kapilamuni. The principal extant text for this system is Sankhya-karika of Ishwara-krishna which is of a more recent date – 4th century CE. It is perhaps the oldest of the 6 Philosophical systems of Sanatana Dharma. However the system is basically non-theistic. As a philosophy, it does not appear to include much religious dogma. It is a dualistic philosophy somewhat akin to Descartes’ dualism. In Descartes’ dualism, mental phenomena are not physical phenomena, thus setting up the main issue of how mind can arise from matter! Whereas Descartes was concerned about Mind and Matter as two distinct principles, both insentient; however Sankhya considers sentience and insentience as two eternal orthogonal principles (with no overlap) which are called Purusa and Prakrti . Understanding this system along with the other Philosophical systems helps one to understand Vedanta in proper context and more clearly. The evolution of thought becomes more apparent.
The centuries before the present era were a period of great intellectual ferment in India which spawned many religions (Buddhism, Jainism, etc.) and philosophies. The two disciplines of religion and philosophy seem to have coexisted seamlessly; both together and apart from each other. Sankhya appears to be more a theory of evolution and understanding the universe rather than a quest for understanding transcendental Brahman. It also appears to fit much closer to the definition of Philosophy which is a path to knowledge and understanding from arguments and reasoning. The religious aspect of this system appears tangentially when dealing with the causes and cessation of suffering. This system accepts the concept of Karma and transmigration.
Purusa: Purusas are many (infinite in number) and they are real, eternal, uncaused, inactive and unchanging. It is pure sentience, the consciousness principle, the perceiver (Saksi) and the Subject. It is has no parts, is omnipresent and it is a witness to Prakrti’s manifestations. Although independent of Prakrti, it can get bewitched by Prakrti, whence is confused by Prakrti’s Gunas and starts to behave like nature. This is the cause of Purusa’s bondage and grief. Purusa cannot be cognized directly. It has to be inferred as the enjoyer of the show Prakrti puts on. It is the soul that distinguishes sentience from all insentient matter; yet Purusa is inactive and Prakrti is alive! Purusas are many and they are distinct, yet it carries no Guna to distinguish one from another. The concept of Purusa in Sankhya seems enigmatic.
Prakrti: is also real, eternal, infinite and uncaused like Purusa. This is insentient, unconscious matter but is alive; it is not Jada. It is active and restless. We have to be careful to distinguish between life and consciousness! They are not concomitant! A virus is alive but not be conscious. Prakrti is singular and is purposeful (Teleological.) It is the cause of the physical universe as well as forming the gross and subtle bodies of individuals. It strives to serve / please Purusa. Its very existence is for the enjoyment of souls. It seduces the soul by its charms! It is the source of everything material. It is the cause of all objective existence but is itself uncaused. It is also nature and represents potentiality due to its tripartite Gunas. It is the object of Purusa’s perception. It reacts to the wants of Purusa! It is always changing; reminiscent of Heraclitus who famously said that ‘All is flux.’ Heraclitus lived in the 5th century BCE, perhaps not too far removed from the age of Sankhya! Prakrti can be manifest or unmanifest. Unmanifest Prakrti along with Purusa are among the 25 principles or Tattvas.

Gunas: Manifest Prakrti comes in 3 flavors. Sattva is existence, essential matter, characterized by light and intelligence. Rajas is energy or activity, passion being its hallmark. Tamas is inactivity or indolence, sloth and darkness are its characteristics.
The concept of Gunas appears to be an original contribution of Sankhya to Indian Philosophy. The Gunas always occur together and in varying proportions, yet they are not themselves substances.
The Souls & Jeevas: The souls are infinite in number and each is distinct. Purusa and the soul may be regarded as being synonyms in Sankhya. But again it is a non-doer without passion. It is unchanging and it is not the Elan Vital of life. Prakrti binds to Purusa to make the Jeeva. The Jeeva is an embodied soul. This body can be gross or subtle. The subtle body transmigrates. Evolution: Prakrti and Purusa are two complementary and mutually separate entities. One is active while the other is not. The other is conscious but the former is not. When the two come together creation is possible. This is called Parinama or transformation. When the 3 Gunas are in equipoise or well proportioned, there is no disturbance and occurs no change. Change results as a disturbance from this ideal state of equilibrium. Matter is always conserved. Creation and destruction are mere manifestation and involution. When in the presence of Purusa, the equilibrium among the Gunas of Prakrti is disturbed and Prakrti undergoes Vikrti or transformation.
The law of causality: It is a curious one in Sankhya philosophy. The effect is ever present in the cause. The cause is regarded as a substance with the effect present in latent form. This is termed Sat-karya-vada. Considering the example of a clay pot, Sakhya holds that pot-ness is always present in the clay. The potter simply causes the effect to become apparent. He only makes manifest the pot-ness present in clay! A potter cannot make bread out of clay as bread-ness is not in clay. This idea suggests that the Sankhyans were aware of the concept of properties of matter such as: malleability, ductility, cohesion, adhesion etc. It is the cohesive property of clay that makes a pot!
In Sankhya creation, nothing new emerges as the action is already present as a cause or potentiality. Creation takes place because of Purusa’s interest in Prakrti and when Purusa withdraws, creation retracts back into an unmanifest state. Sankhya is a non-theistic, dualist and deterministic philosophy. It is to be noted the dual encountered here is different from the duals spoken of in the Bhagavadgita. There it is about polar opposites – likes and dislikes etc.

Bhagavadgita Weighs in: The Bhagavadgita takes up the subject of Prakrti and Purusa in Chapter 13 with Verses 19-21. Translated freely, it says: Prakrti and Purusa are both beginningless. All transformations are the result of Gunas of Prakrti. While Prakrti is the cause of actions, the Purusa is the enjoyer of happiness and sorrow only in contact with Prakrti. Association with Gunas is responsible for the soul to be born in good or evil wombs. This appears to be generally consistent with the teachings of Sankhya. In Chapter 3 verses 27-29 we see elobration of similar idea.
The gist of the above is: all actions are carried out by the Gunas of Prakrti. The fool deluded by ego thinks of himself as the doer and stays attached to the Gunas and works. Those deluded by Gunas stay attached to Gunas and actions.

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