6 Schools | 3. Sānkhya


The Sānkhya


Obeisance to Śrī Kapila Muni, the founder of the Sānkhya system of philosophy, the son of Brahma, the Avatara of Vishnu.

The word ‘Sānkhya’ means ‘number’. The system gives an enumeration of the principles of the universe, 25 in number. Hence the name is quite appropriate. The term ‘Sānkhya’ is used in the sense of ‘Vichāra’ or ‘philosophical reflection’ also.

In the Sānkhya system, there is no analytical enquiry into the universe as actually existing, arranged under topics and categories:

There is a synthetic system, starting from an original primordial Tattva or Principle, called Prakriti, that which evolves or produces or brings forth (Prakaroti) everything else.

Perception (Pratyakṣa), inference (Anumāna) and right affirmation (Āpta Vākya) are the three Pramāṇas or proofs in the Sānkhya system.

The word Āpta means fit or right. It is applied to the Vedas or inspired teachers.

The Naiyāyikas have four kinds of proofs, viz., perception, inference, comparison and verbal authority. The Mimāmsakas recognise six kinds of proofs.

Dual Concept of Purusha and Prakriti

The Sānkhya system is generally studied next to the Nyāya. It is a beautiful system of philosophy. The Western philosophers also have great admiration for this system.

It is more categorically dualistic. It denies that anything can be produced out of nothing. It assumes the reality of Purusha and Prakriti, the knowing Self and the objects known.

Prakriti and Purusha are Anādi (beginningless) and Ananta (infinite):

Non-discrimination between the two is the cause for birth and death. Discrimination between Prakriti and Purusha gives Mukti (salvation).

Both Purusha and Prakriti are Sat (real). Purusha is Asanga (unattached). He is consciousness, all-pervading and eternal. Prakriti is doer and enjoyer. Souls are countless.

Non-acceptance of Īśvara or God

The Sānkhya system is called Nir-Īśvara (God-less) Sānkhya. It is atheistic. The Sānkhyas do not believe in Īśvara. They do not accept Īśvara (God).

The creation produced by Prakriti has an existence of its own, independent of all connection with the particular Purusha to which it is united. So the Sānkhyas say that there is no need for an intelligent Creator of the world, or even of any superintending power.

This is a mistake; according to the Vedanta, Prakriti is always under the control of the Lord. It cannot do anything by itself. The Lord gazes at Prakriti. Then alone it is put in motion, and it begins to create. Prakriti is non-intelligent. An intelligent Creator alone can have a thought-out plan for the universe. Prakriti is only a helper (Sahakari). This is the theory of Vedanta.

Theory of Evolution and Involution

The Sānkhya adopts the theory of evolution and involution. The cause and effect are the undeveloped and developed states of one and the same substance. There is no such thing as total destruction. In destruction, the effect is involved into its cause. That is all.

There cannot be any production of something out of nothing:

That which is not cannot be developed into that which is.

The production of what does not already exist potentially is impossible like a horn on a man, because there must, of necessity, be a material out of which a product is developed,

and because everything cannot occur everywhere at all times, and also because anything possible must be produced from something competent to produce it.

That which does not exist cannot be brought into existence by an agent:

It would be useless to grind groundnut, unless the oil existed in it. The same force applied to sand or orange would not express groundnut oil.

The manifestation of the oil is a proof that it was contained in the groundnut and consequently, a proof of the existence of the source from which it is derived.

The effect truly exists beforehand in its cause. This is one of the central features of the Sānkhya system of philosophy:

Cause is a substance in which the effect subsists in a latent form:

Just as the whole tree exists in a latent or dormant state in the seed, so also the whole world exists in a latent state in Prakriti, the Avyakta (unevolved), or the Avyākṛta (undifferentiated).

The effect is of the same nature as the cause. The effect or the product is not different from the material of which it is composed.

Fourfold Classification of the 25 Tattvas (principles)

The Sānkhya gives a description of categories based on their respective productive efficiency, viz.,

1. Productive (Prakriti)
2. Productive and Produced (Prakriti-Vikriti)
3. Produced (Vikriti)
4. Neither Productive nor Produced (Anubhayarupa)

This fourfold classification includes all the 25 principles or Tattvas:

Prakriti or Nature or Pradhāna (chief) is purely productive. It is the root of all. It is not a product. It is a creative force, evolver, producer.

7 principles- intellect (Buddhi), egoism (Ahankara) and the five Tanmātras (subtle rudimentary elements in an undifferentiated state before quintuplication or Panchīkaraṇa)- are productions and productive.

Buddhi (intellect) is productive as Ahankara (egoism) is evolved out of it. It is produced also, as it itself is evolved out of Prakriti.

Egoism is a production, as it is derived from intellect. It is productive, as it gives origin to the five subtle rudiments or Tanmātras.

The subtle rudiments are derived from egoism. Hence they are productions. They give origin to the five elements (space, fire, air, water, earth). Hence they are productive.

The 16 principles, the 10 organs, the mind and the five elements, are productions only. They are unproductive, because none of them can give birth to a substance essentially different from itself.

The Purusha or Spirit is neither a production, nor is it productive. It is without attributes.

The Object of the Sānkhya Philosophy

The enquiry into this system of philosophy is to find out the means for eradicating the 3 sorts of pain, viz.,

internal or Ādhyātmika (e.g., fever and other diseases),
celestial or Ādhidaivika (lightening, cold, heat, floods, earthquakes, storms etc.), and
external or Ādhibhautika (pain from animals, snakes, scorpions etc.), and the disease of rebirths.

Pain is an embarrassment. It stands in the way of doing Yoga Sadhana and attaining Moksha or release. Kapila Muni imparted knowledge of the twenty-five principles which annihilated this pain.

According to the Sānkhya, he who knows the twenty-five principles attains liberation. The ultimate cessation of the three kinds of pain is the final goal of life.


Prakriti’ means that which is primary, that which precedes what is made. It comes from ‘Pra’ (before) and ‘Kri’ (to make). It resembles the Vedāntic Māyā.

It is the one root of the universe. It is called Pradhāna or the chief, because all effects are founded on it and it is the root of the universe and of all objects.

Characteristics of Prakriti

Pradhāna or Prakriti is eternal, all-pervading, immovable. It is one. It has no cause, but is the cause of all effects.

Prakriti is independent and uncaused, while the products are caused and dependent. Prakriti depends only on the activity of its own constituent Guṇas (metaphysical properties).

Prakriti is destitute of intelligence. It is like a string of three strands. The 3 Guṇas form the three strands. Prakriti is mere dead matter which is equipped with certain potentialities due to the Guṇas.

The Modifications of Prakriti

Crude matter is without form. Mahat or the Cosmic Intelligence is its first form. Intellect is the matter for egoism.

Egoism is a form of intellect. It is the matter of which the senses and the rudimental elements are formed. The senses and the rudimental elements are forms of egoism. The gross elements are forms of the rudimental elements.

Intellect, egoism and the five subtle rudiments or Tanmātras are the effects of Prakriti. This creation, from intellect down to the elements, is brought about by the modifications of Prakriti.

Having observed the effects, the cause (Prakriti) is inferred. It is imperceptible from its subtlety. It must, therefore, be inferred from its effect.

The Function of Prakriti

Prakriti is the basis of all objective existence. Prakriti does not create for itself. All objects are for the enjoyment of the spirit or soul. Prakriti creates only when it comes into union with Purusha, like a crystal vase with a flower. This work is done for the emancipation of each soul. As it is the function of milk to nourish the calf, so it is the function of Prakriti to liberate the soul.

The Guṇas

According to the Sānkhya philosophy, Prakriti is composed of three Guṇas or forces, called Sattva (purity, light, harmony), Rājas (passion, activity, motion), and Tamas (inertia, darkness, inertness, inactivity).

Guṇas means a cord. The Guṇas bind the soul with a triple bond.

These Guṇas are not the Nyāya- Vaiśeṣika Guṇas:

They are the actual substances or ingredients, of which Prakriti is constituted. They make up the whole world evolved out of Prakriti.

They are not conjoined in equal quantities, but in varying proportions, one or the other being in excess. Just as Sat-Chit-Ananda is the Vedāntic trinity, so also the Guṇas are the Sānkhya trinity.

Interaction Between the Guṇas Leads to Evolution

The three Guṇas are never separate. They support one another. They intermingle with one another. They are intimately related as the flame, the oil and the wick of a lamp. They form the very substance of Prakriti.

All objects are composed of the three Guṇas. The Guṇas act on one another. Then there is evolution or manifestation. Destruction is only non-manifestation.

The Guṇas are objects. Purusha is the witness-subject. Prakriti evolves under the influence of Purusha. Mahat or the great (Intellect), the Cause of the whole world, is the first product of the evolution of Prakriti. Ahankara (egoism) arises after Buddhi.

Agency belongs to Ahankara. It is the principle that creates individuality. Mind is born of Ahankara. It carries out the orders of the will through the organs of action (Karma Iṅdriyas). It reflects and doubts (Sankalpa-Vikalpa). It synthesizes the sense data into precepts.

The mind takes part in both perception and action. There is no separate Prana Tattva in the Sānkhya system. The Vedanta system has a separate Prana Tattva. In the Sānkhya system, mind, with the organs, produces the five vital airs. Prana is a modification of the senses. It does not subsist in their absence.

Characteristics of the Three Guṇas

Sattva is equilibrium. When Sattva prevails, there is peace and tranquillity.

Rājas is activity which is expressed as Raga-Dveṣa, likes or dislikes, love or hatred, attraction or repulsion.

Tamas is that binding force with a tendency to lethargy, sloth and foolish actions. It causes delusion or non- discrimination.

When Sattva is predominant, it overpowers Rājas and Tamas.
When Rajas is dominant, it overpowers Sattva and Tamas.
When Tamas is predominant, it overpowers Rajas and Sattva.

How One Is Affected by the Three Guṇas

There are three Guṇas in every man:

Sometimes, Sattva prevails in him. Then he is calm and tranquil. He reflects and meditates. At other times, Rajas prevails in him and he does various sorts of worldly activities. He is passionate and active. Sometimes, Tamas prevails. He becomes lazy, dull, inactive and careless. Tamas generates delusion.

Again, one of these Guṇas is generally predominant in different men:

A Sāttvic man is virtuous. He leads a pure and pious life. A Rājasic man is passionate and active. A Tāmasic man is dull and inactive.

Sattva makes a man divine and noble. Rājas makes him thoroughly human and selfish, and Tamas makes him bestial and ignorant. There is much Sattva in a sage or saint and there is much Rajas in a soldier, politician and businessman.

The Purusha

Characteristics of the Purusha

The Purusha or the Self is beyond Prakriti. It is eternally separate from the latter.

Purusha is without beginning or end. It is without attributes and without qualities. It is subtle and omnipresent. It is beyond mind, intellect and the senses. It is beyond time, space and causality. It is the eternal seer. It is perfect and immutable. It is pure consciousness.

The Purusha is not the doer. It is the witness. The Purusha is like a crystal without any colour. It appears to be coloured by the different colours which are placed before it. It is not material. It is not a result of combination. Hence it is immortal.

The Puruṣas or souls are infinite in number, according to the Sānkhya. There are many Puruṣas. If the Puruṣas were one, all should become free if any one attained release.

The different souls are fundamentally identical in nature. There is no movement for the Purusha. It does not go anywhere when it attains freedom or release.

Souls exist eternally separate from each other and from Prakriti. Each soul retains its individuality. It remains unchanged through all transmigrations.

Each soul is a witness of the act of a separate creation, without taking part in the act:

It is a looker-on uniting itself with the unintelligent Prakriti, like a lame man mounted on a blind man’s shoulders, in order to behold the phenomena of a creation, which Prakriti herself is not able to observe.

The Purusha or the Self is the witness (Sākṣi), a spectator (Dṛṣṭa), a bystander (Madhyastha), solitary (Kaivalya), passive and indifferent (Udāsīna).

Inference of the Existence of the Purusha

Intelligence cannot belong to the intellect, because the intellect is material and is the effect of Prakriti which is non-intelligent. If intelligence is absent in the cause, it cannot manifest itself in the effect. Therefore, there must be a distinct principle of intelligence and this principle is Purusha or the Self.

The insentient body seems sentient on account of its union with the Self, and the Self appears as the agent.

Just as a pot with cold water appears to be cold, with hot water seems to be hot, so intellect and the rest seem to be sentient on account of union with the Purusha. This mutual transfer of properties is like that of fire and iron, or that of the sun and water.

There must be a Supervisor over and above the Pradhāna or Prakriti. The Supervisor is Purusha or the Self:

Prakriti and its products are objects of enjoyment. There must exist an enjoyer who must be an intelligent principle. This intelligent enjoyer is Purusha or the Self.

Just as chair and bench are for the use of another, so also this body, senses and mind are for the use of the Self which is immaterial, as it is destitute of attributes and as it is beyond the Guṇas.

The Purusha is the witness of the Guṇas. The Guṇas are the objects. Purusha is the witness-subject. Hence, it is not affected by pleasure, pain and delusion which are attributes of the three Guṇas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, respectively.

If pain is natural to the Purusha, and if the Purusha is not naturally free from the action of the Guṇas, no salvation from rebirth is possible.

Purusha and Prakriti – A Contrast

The characteristics of Prakriti and Purusha are contrary in nature:

Purusha is consciousness, while Prakriti is non-consciousness.
Purusha is inactive (Akarta), while Prakriti is active.
Purusha is destitute of the Guṇas, while Prakriti is characterised by the three Guṇas,
Purusha is unchanging, while Prakriti is changing.
The knower is Purusha. The known is Prakriti.

The knower is the subject or the silent witness. The known is the visible object.

The Universe

The world is evolved with its different elements when the equilibrium in Prakriti is disturbed. The countless Puruṣas exert on Prakriti a mechanical force which distracts the equipoise of Prakriti and produces a movement. Then the evolution of the universe starts.

The Process of Evolution and Involution

Prakriti is the root of the universe. Prakriti is both the material and the efficient cause of the universe.

From this Prakriti emanates the cosmic Buddhi or Mahat.
From Mahat proceeds the cosmic Ahankara or the principle of egoism.

From this egoism emanates the ten senses and the mind on the subjective side, and the five subtle Tanmātras of sound, smell, taste, vision (or colour) and touch on the objective side.

From these Tanmātras proceed the five gross elements- earth, water, fire, air and space.
Akasha (space) has the property of sound which is the Viṣaya or object for the ear.

Vāyu (air) has the property of touch which is the Viṣaya for the skin. Tejas (fire) has the property of form or colour which is the Viṣaya for the eye.

Apas (water) has the property of taste which is the Viṣaya for the tongue.
Prithvī (earth) has the property of odour which is the Viṣaya for the nose.

Each of these elements, after the first, has also the property of preceding besides its own.

During dissolution of the world, the products return by a reverse movement into the preceding stages of development, and ultimately into Prakriti:

Earth merges in its cause, water, water in fire, fire in air, air in space; and space in Antahkaraṇa (egoism), and Antahkaraṇa in Mahat (intellect), and Mahat in Prakriti.

This is the process of involution. There is no end to Samsāra or the play of Prakriti. This cycle of evolution and involution has neither a beginning nor an end.

The Process of Knowledge

An object excites the senses. The mind arranges the sense impressions into a percept. Egoism refers it to the Self. Intellect forms the concept. It converts the precept into a concept and presents it to the Purusha. Then there is knowledge of the object.

Before you engage in any matter, you first observe or consider, then you reflect, and then determine: “This must be done by me”; and then you proceed to act. This ascertainment: “Such act is to be done by Me”, is the determination of the intellect (adhyavasāya).

The intellect is an instrument which receives the ideas or images conveyed through the organs of sense and the mind, constructs them into a conclusive idea, and presents this idea to the Self. The function of the intellect is determination (Niṣchāyā).

The mind is both an organ of sensation and of action. The senses receive simple impressions from without. The mind cooperates with the senses, and then the impressions are perceived. The mind ponders, the intellect determines, and egoism becomes conscious.

Agency belongs to egoism- the Ahankara or the I-maker- which is itself a product of Prakriti, but not to the Purusha or Self who is always a silent witness.

Intellect, egoism, mind and the eye see a form (shape) at once, in one instant, and come immediately to the conclusion, say, “This is a jar”. The same three, with the tongue, at once relish taste; with the nose smell; and so with the ear and the skin.

The function is also occasionally gradual:

A man going along a road sees an object at a distance. A doubt arises in his mind whether it is a wooden pole (post or a stump) or a man.

He then sees a bird sitting on it. Then the doubt is removed by the reflection of the mind. The intellect makes a determination that it is a wooden pole only. Then the egoism says: “I am certain it is a wooden pole only”.

In this way, the functions of the mind, intellect, egoism and the eye are gradual, also.

There is leisure for the eye to see, for the mind to reflect or consider, for egoism to apply, and for the intellect to conclude. There is another example:

The ear hears the twang of a bowstring; the mind reflects that this must be for the shooting of an arrow; egoism says: “It is aimed at me”; and the intellect determines: “I must run at once”.

The intellect, the mind and egoism are the door-keepers.
The five senses of perception or Jñāna-Iṅdriyas are the gates.
The intellect is the instrument or organ which is the medium between the senses and the Self.

The Intellect and Its Functions

The intellect or the Buddhi is the most important of all the products of Prakriti:

The senses present their objects to the intellect. The intellect exhibits them to the Purusha. The intellect discriminates the difference between Purusha and Prakriti.

The intellect is the instrument or organ which is the medium between the other organs and the Self.

All ideas derived from sensation, reflection, or consciousness are deposited in the chief or great instrument, intellect, before they can be made known to the Self for whose use and advantage alone they have assembled.

They convey impressions or ideas with the properties or effects of pleasure, pain and indifference, accordingly as they are influenced by the qualities of Sattva (purity), Rājas (passion) or Tamas (darkness).

Just as the headman of a village collects the taxes from the villagers and pays them to the collector of the district, just as the local collector pays the amount to the minister, and the minister receives it for the use of the state,

so also the mind receives the ideas from the external organs, transfers them to egoism, delivers them to the intellect which is the general superintendent and takes charge of them for the use of the Sovereign Self.

The intellect is the prime minister of Purusha. It brings for Purusha the fruition of all that is to be experienced. It appears to be intelligent on account of the reflection of Purusha which is very near to it, though, by itself, it is really non-intelligent.

The Jīva (embodied soul)

The Jīva is the soul in union with the senses. It is limited by the body. It is endowed with egoism. The reflection of Purusha in the Buddhi or intellect appears as the ego or the empirical soul.

It is associated with ignorance and Karma. It is subject to pleasure and pain, action and its fruits, and rotates in the cycle of births and deaths.

The Jīva must realise the perfection of the Purusha. It must attain to the status of the Purusha. Every Jīva has in it the higher Purusha hidden within.

It must become conscious of the real nature of the higher Purusha. Freedom or perfection is a return into one’s true Self. It is the removal of an illusion which conceals one’s true nature.


Bondage belongs to Prakriti, but is attributed to Purusha. Purusha is eternally free.

Union of Purusha with Prakriti due to non-discrimination is bondage; the failure to discriminate between Purusha and Prakriti is the cause of Samsāra or bondage;

and disunion of Purusha and Prakriti due to discrimination is emancipation. Release is not merging in the Absolute, but isolation from Prakriti.

The object of the Sānkhya system is to effect the liberation of the Purusha or Self from the fetters which bind it on account of its union with Prakriti.

This is done by conveying the correct knowledge of the 24 constituent principles of creation, and tightly discriminating the Self from them.

In the Sānkhya system, the Pramāṇas or means of obtaining the correct measure of existing things, are three, viz., Pratyakṣa or perception by the senses, Anumāna (inference) and Āptavacana (trustworthy testimony).

How Release Is Effected

When the separation of the soul from the body takes place by destruction of the effects of virtue, vice and the rest, and Prakriti ceases to act in respect to it, then there is the final and absolute emancipation or the final beatitude.

When the fruits of acts cease, and body-both gross and subtle-dissolves, Nature does not exist with respect to the individual soul. The soul attains the state called Kaivalya. It is freed from the three kinds of pain.

The Linga-Deha or subtle body which migrates from one gross body to another in successive births is composed of intellect, egoism, mind, the five organs of knowledge, the five organs of action and the five Tanmātras.

The impressions of actions done in various births are imbedded in the subtle body.

The conjunction of the Linga-Deha with the gross physical body constitutes birth and separation of the Linga-Deha from the gross physical body is death.

This Linga-Deha is destroyed by the knowledge of the Purusha.

When one attains perfect knowledge, virtue and vice become destitute of causal energy, but the body continues for some time on account of the previous impulse, just as after the action of the potter has stopped, the wheel continues to revolve owing to the momentum given to it.

Release Is Nothing but Termination of the Play of Prakriti

The union of the Self with Nature or Prakriti is like the association of a lame man with a blind man:

A lame man and a blind man were deserted by their fellow-travellers in a forest. They agreed to divide between them the duties of walking and of seeing. The lame man mounted himself on the shoulders of the blind man and directed the blind man. The blind man was able to pursue his route by the directions of his friend.

Even so, the Self is like the lame man. The faculty of seeing is in the Self, not that of moving. The faculty of moving, but not of seeing, is in Prakriti. Prakriti is like the blind man.

The lame man and the blind man separated when they reached their destination:

Even so, Prakriti, having effected the liberation of the Self, ceases to act. The Self obtains Kaivalya or the final beatitude. Consequently, their respective purposes being effected, the connection between them terminates. The Self attains liberation by knowledge of Prakriti.

Prakriti’s performances are solely for the benefit and enjoyment of the Self:

Prakriti takes hold of the hand of the Self and shows it the whole show of the universe, and makes it enjoy everything which this world can give, and lastly helps it in its liberation.

In truth, the Self is neither bound nor released, nor does it migrate, but Nature alone in relation to various beings is bound, is released, and migrates.

As a dancing girl, having exhibited herself to the spectators, stops dancing, so also Nature ceases to function when she has made herself manifest to the Purusha or the Self.

Nothing is more modest than Prakriti, when she becomes conscious that she has been seen by the Purusha. She does not again expose herself to the gaze of the Purusha.