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Samkhya and Vedanta

Out of six classical systems of studies of Indian thought (Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta), Samkhya forms one of the most important philosophical currents. It is based on two distinct principles, namely 1) Purusha, and 2) Prakriti. This dualism forms the basis of this philosophy. Secondly, Samkhya is precise, rational, and logical, and therefore does not deem it necessary to invoke the concept of God for explaining the manifest and non-manifest multifarious nature: the individual self and the objective universe. Samkhya nicely propounds the theory of the possibility and the need to realize our true Self so that the bondage of ignorance is broken and the individual self attains liberation. Patanjali in his system of Yoga further elucidates the method and practice of this system to realize Purusha as distinct from Prakriti and attain Liberation.

It is to the credit of sage Kapila (of ancient India, circa 800 BCE) that saw the elaboration of this system, and thereby he established the basis for all subsequent philosophical deliberations. Therefore, Kapila Muni is truly called the "Father of Philosophy".


Through the concept of Prakriti Samkhya deduced the evolution of objective universe in its infinite diversity. This Prakriti is all pervasive but complex primal substance, which is transformed into multifarious nature. The primal entity is not perceived in its original form, for then it is in a state of equilibrium, and as such remains non-modified. This eternal and infinite principle is insentient and consists of three interdependent and interchangeable elements called the gunas. These are sattva, rajas, and tamas. These gunas are not the qualities but the constituent parts of Prakriti. They give complexity to Mula (original) Prakriti.

Under the inscrutable influence of Purusha, which is inactive and passive, but sentient (and also infinite and eternal), Prakriti loses its equilibrium. As a consequence of this, the equilibrium in Prakriti is disturbed and the whole universe of unlimited permutations and combinations comes into existence. The first modification of Prakriti - primordial nature - is called as Mahat or Cosmic Intelligence. It further involutes into two forces, 1) Akasha, the primal matter, and 2) Prana, the primal energy. Akasha forms the material basis, and Prana the energy basis of creation. From the interaction between Akasha and Prana are formed five subtle elements, crudely translated as Ether, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. In various proportions, these are the constituents of all the material existence in the universe. As can be seen, even Mahat or Intelligence is matter consisting of three gunas, and five elements.

Nothing can exist without the combination of these three gunas. Mind, intellect, ego, sense organs, sense objects, trees, plants, animal world, in short everything evolves from the various combination of these three gunas. In some of these the sattva guna predominates, in others the rajas or the tamas. Depending upon the preponderance of a particular guna in any combination, the object acquires its peculiarities. For instance, while the mind and intellect have predominance of sattva, a clod of earth or a stone is full of tamas! Sun rays are combination of Sattva and Rajas. Sattva is helpful in illumining the true nature of the thing, tamas in its extreme obscures the reality, rajas acts at the intermediate level, and it causes distorted perception and gives false perception of things. Sattva is pure and shining, rajas is active and passionate, while tamas is dull and lazy.


Samkhya philosophy should not be construed to mean naturalistic science; and its conception of the second principle as Purusha removes such a misconception. While Prakriti is insentient, Purusha is the sentient being. It is the principle of awareness. Because of its close association with Prakriti it is possible to gain experience. Organs of perception are responsible for bringing sensory stimuli to the mind, but it s only because of proximity of Purusha to the internal organ -antahkarana- one can gain the experience. One more important consideration according to Samkhya is that Purushas are many.

The process in brief can be described as follows:

Spirit or Purusha is the principle for the sake of which nature evolves. Experience is explained on the basis of a certain association of spirit with nature. Matter is merely the medium for spirit to manifest itself; matter is not the source of consciousness. Mind intellect complex (or internal organ, the Antahkarana) is refined, subtle matter predominantly consisting of sattva guna that acts as the main locus of union between Prakriti and Purusha resulting in possibility of an experience, and thereby knowledge.

Every thought, desire, i.e. mental process by way of internal or external stimulus brings about modifications in chitta - the mind-stuff. Like a stone thrown in a lake it produces ripples in the chitta. Immediately the mind reacts, it sends the message to the Buddhi or the intellect, which determines the nature of the impulse and decides the course of action. Thus, intellect acts as the deterministic faculty. Buddhi presents the whole series of modifications to the Purusha, which experiences the change in the chitta, but is not affected in the least in the process. It is like a colorless prism appearing red when a red flower is placed beside it! Thus internal organ or mind-stuff is the main conduit for knowledge. However, the ego-function confuses the situation by identifying the Purusha with the matter.

The Purpose

But what is the purpose of all these changes in the nature! Is there any? How and why this evolution from gross to subtle and back, and how can these changes be interpreted in relation to the goal? The question comes to mind: Is the cosmic revolution purposeful?

Answer to these questions forms the basis of various philosophical thoughts in the history of time and place. The westerners and Charvakas of India believed that such changes are meant for sense enjoyment alone, from grosser indulgence to refined intellectual deliberations. 'Eat, drink, and be merry' was the slogan of ancient materialist Charvakas. But the Indians didn't object to their whims, for, as a true religious democratic tradition, respect for every belief was the main pillar of Indian culture.

Anyway, coming to our point of answering the question of purpose, aim or goal of the changes in the nature, Samkhya maintains that changes are for the 'benefit' of Purusha. The Purusha gradually realizes that changes in the nature do not affect Him; and a day comes when it becomes free from all the bondage of identification with the body and mind. It realizes that it is eternally Free and omniscient. This realization of freedom of Purusha from Prakriti is the aim and destiny of every human endeavour.

The missing link in modern materialist science is the absence of any conception of primal sentient Self or Consciousness or Purusha. (Throughout the article, the terms Self or Consciousness or Purusha are used interchangeably.)
Differences Between Samkhya and Advaita Vedanta:

The ancient Samkhya and Vedanta philosophies discuss various aspects of origin of universe and evolutionary rationality of creation. The whole argumentative approach of various Indian belief systems, in some way or the other, is based on these philosophies.

We have seen that Samkhya maintains two independent Realities and infinite numbers of Purushas. Moreover, both the entities are taken to assume infinite and eternal existence. Vedanta does not accept two infinites and multiplicity of Souls.

Vedanta maintains that Brahman is the only Immaterial Sentient Existence; and being non-material and simple, It has to be all pervading and the only One Reality. The problem arises, then, about explaining this 'multifarious existence including our identity!' The simple and apparently clever answer to this question is:

Before everything there exists Reality as Absolute Consciousness. The 'Will' to become many is the beginning of manifest universe. The Will evolves as Illusion: the Maya. 'Absolute Consciousness, Brahman, willed to become many', this is Maya. Maya is the cosmic illusion that creates ignorance and veils the vision of the Only Reality. Due to the power of Maya, the Same Oneness is perceived as manifold universe.

'When one perceives this universe as real, the explanation based on Maya theory should suit the person. A time will come when one shall reach the state of higher consciousness when this multifarious reality will vanish, and the person will perceive the same universe as no other than Brahman, (or Atman, or Self, or God).'

Basically Absolute Consciousness was never modified, is not modified, and will not be modified. This is the basis of Advaita Vedanta. Based on their experiences the 'seers' or 'rishis' of ancient ages came to the conclusion that the entire manifest universe is the illusory expression of One Substance -the Absolute Universal Consciousness:

Swami Vivekananda has had honesty to praise sage Kapila and his exposition of Samkhya philosophy as, "(If we take into consideration Advaita Vedanta), then our argument will be that the Samkhya is not a perfect generalization, ...and yet all glory really belongs to the Samkhya. It is very easy to give a finishing touch to a building when it is constructed."
C S Shah
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