The oldest system of organized philosophical thought to arise on Indian soil, many experts opine, is that known as Sankhya. It is believed that the Sankhya system of thought was already well-established before the time of the Buddha and Mahavira, and is traditionally attributed to the ancient sage, Kapila. The most authoritative text expounding the Sankhya known today, however, is a late work known as the Sankhya Karika authored by Ishvara Krishna.
Sankhya, which literally means “of numbers”, is known as such because it authoritatively enumerates all of existence, consisting of mind and matter, neatly into twenty-five categories known as tattvas (“thatnesses”). Within the Sankhyan system, the individual knower (the sentient being, the self) is called Purusha, and that which is known (insentient matter, or more correctly the root of all insentient matter) is called Prakriti, primal nature. The entire philosophical system of Sankhya is built upon the dichotomy between the Purusha and Prakriti.
According to Sankhya, Prakriti in its basal state is a perfect balance of its three modes (gunas) known as sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (darkness). At some point, there arises an imbalance in the three modes, and as a result basal Prakriti impinges into differentiation into grosser and grosser elements (tattvas) of which there are twenty-three. The lower twenty-three tattvas of Sankhya are therefore considered expansions of Prakriti (the twenty-fourth tattva), and are to be experienced by the twenty-fifth tattva, which is the sentient being or Purusha.
The twenty-five tattvas of Sankhya
Nature (prakriti) is the state of equipoise of Goodness (sattva) Passion (rajas), and Darkness (tamas): from Nature [proceeds] Mind (mahat); from Mind, Self-consciousness (ahamkara); from Self-consciousness, the five Subtle Elements (tanmatra), and both sets [external and internal] of Organs (indriya); and, from the Subtle Elements, the Gross Elements (sthula-bhuta). [Then there is] Soul (purusha). Such is the class of twenty-five.
~ Sankhya Karika I:61
25. Purusha – the sentient being (consciousness), the experiencer
24. Prakriti – primal nature (root of all insentient matter)
Antahkaranas – internal organs
23. Mahat-Buddhi – intelligence
22. Ahamkara – objective ego
21. Manas – mind
Jnanendriyas – organs of knowledge
20. Stotra – organ of hearing (ears)
19. Tvak – organ of touching (skin)
18. Chakshu – organ of seeing (eyes)
17. Rasana – organ of tasting (palette)
16. Ghrana – organ of smelling (nose)
Karmendriyas – organs of action
15. Vak – organ of speech (tongue)
14. Pani – organ of grasping (hands)
13. Pada – organ of movement (feet)
12. Payu – organ of excretion (anus)
11. Upastha – organ of sex
Tanmatras – subtle elements
10. Shabda – sound
9. Sparsha – feel
8. Rupa – form
7. Rasa – taste
6. Gandha - smell
Mahabhutas – gross elements
5. Akasha – space
4. Vayu – air
3. Tejas – fire
2. Ap – water
1. Prithivi - earth
Per this system, the individual Purushas are bound by Prakriti and its subsequent expansion of twenty-three tattvas, and the Purushas mistakenly identify themselves with the insentient matter which makes up the gross and subtle body. The Purusha is truly the sentient, atomic self experiencing Prakriti and her byproducts from within. Once the Purusha understands himself as such, as truly a liberated being and independent of Prakriti, he becomes dissociated from all the elements and organs, and he is liberated from further embodiment.
Sankhya and Theism
From the pure Sankhya perspective, there is no doctrine on the nature of a Divine Being or Lord, and it is expressly a non-theistic philosophy which argues against the need for any Lord or Governer of the universe. However, from a certain perspective it may be said that the “Divine Being” is nothing more than the sum totality of all liberated Purushas. This type of Sankhya is called nir-ishvara (non-theistic) Sankhya.
It is generally assumed that nir-ishvara Sankhya transformed into sa-ishvara (theistic) Sankhya when the Sankhyan system became associated with the Yoga system of Patanjali, which accepts Sankhyan ontology completely, but infuses it with theism. This assumption, however, may or may not be valid. The “pure” Sankhya system outlined above and in almost all books is that derived from the Sankhya Karika of Ishvara Krishna (ca. 200 ce). It must be remembered that the Sankhya philosophy is much older than the most authoritative text on it. The textbook of Yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (ca. 200 bce), for example, attaches itself to a theistic version of Sankhya. Similarly, the Bhagavad-Gita (ca. 200 bce) and the Mahabharata epic (200 bce-200 ce) also elaborate a theistic version of Sankhya. More importantly, the Agamas of Shaivism, Vaishnavism, etc., many of which were likely in existence ca. 100 ce, also speak of a theistic framework for Sankhya. To assume that the Sankhya philosophy was non-theistic in the beginning, and then transformed into theistic may not be a valid. It is far more likely that the theistic version of Sankhya was transformed into non-theistic Sankhya under the criticism of other non-theistic systems that arose on Indian soil, and it is that version which we find outlined in the Sankhya Karika.
Regardless of which version came first, it is the theistic version of Sankhya that is now accepted in all schools of Hinduism. The theistic version of Sankhya makes room for a Divine Being (Ishvara) who is the Ruler over Prakriti and the Purushas. The Divine Being in theistic Sankhya is beyond the twenty-five tattvas, yet is equally present within them as the Pervader. Though pervading Prakriti, the Divine Being remains unaffected by its material insentience. From a dualistic stance, the individual Purushas or souls, when liberated, gain union with this Divine Being. From a non-dualistic stance, however, there is really no difference between the Divine Being, the perceived multiplicity of Purushas and the myriad forms of Prakriti – all are aspects of the Divine Being. Individual Purushas only exist as individuals in a matter of speaking, as individuality is experienced only in the context of Prakriti, which itself is a gross aspect of the Supreme. This is the manner in which the schools of Vedanta accept Sankhya and its ontology.
In a future post, we shall examine how the ontology of Sankhya figures into the ontology revealed by the Agamas of Shaivism, and how it is deemed by the Agamas as accurate, yet incomplete to understand fully the nature of Being. Since Sankhyan principles are at the root of Agamic philosophy, a basic understanding of Sankhya is absolutely necessary to grasp Agamic philosophy.
Aum Namah Shivaya.
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Related post: Shuddha-ashuddha Tattvas