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What is Samkhya and what is its relationship to yoga?

Samkhya is one of the six classical Indian schools of philosophy, and the oldest formulation of the ideas of even older revealed texts, like the Upanishads and the Vedas. Yoga, tantra and Ayurveda are all rooted in Samkhya philosophy, and its concepts are essential in understanding the context for study and practice.     Since the self in Samkhya-yoga metaphysics is devoid of any attributes that could individualize it, no difference can be made between one pursusha and another, therefore their plurality is problematic.

The self is without attributes or qualities, without parts, imperishable, motionless, absolutely inactive and impassive, unaffected by pleasure or pain or any other emotion.   All change, all character belong to prakriti. There does not seem to be any basis for the attribution of distinctiveness to purushas. If each pursusha has the same features of consciousness, all-pervadingness, if there is not the slightest difference between one purusha and another, since they are free from all variety, then there is nothing to lead us   to assume a plurality of purushas. Multiplicity without distinction is said to be impossible.

As a result of the opposed nature of purusha and prakyti, the Samkhya-Yoga metaphysics encounters problems in establishing harmony between empirical and absolute knowledge.

When the Samkhya breaks up the concrete unity of experience into the two elements of subject and object and makes them fictitiously absolute, it cannot account for the fact of experience. When purusha is viewed as pure consciousness, the permanent light which illuminates all objects of knowledge and prakriti as something opposed to consciousness and utterly foreign to it, the latter can never become the object of the former.   The Samkhya cannot get across the ditch which it has dug between the subject and the object.   Unless the subject and object are akin to each other, how can the one reflect the other?   How can buddhi, which is non-intelligent, reflect purusha?   How can the formless purusha which is the constant seer be reflected in buddhi which is changing?   The two cannot, therefore, be absolutely opposed in nature.

No possible relationship can exist between empirical knowledge, which belongs to the domain of prakriti, and the absolute knowledge of purusha. Because they belong to different realms, on the one hand purusha cannot know prakritii and on the other hand, prakriti and all its forms cannot do anything to help liberation.


An attempt to solve this difficulty was made by postulating the fact that prakriti operates instinctively for purusha’s liberation. The Samkhya-Sutra states that “creation works for the sake of purusha, so that it may attain supreme knowledge.” The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali also mentions that prakriti exists only for the sake of serving purusha’s liberation. But in the absence of an external agent who could “inspire” a teleological instinct to prakriti, the difficulty is not solved. Samkhya rejects the existence of a creator god, and Ishvara of the Yoga darshana is not a personal god, but rather a macro-purusha that was never involved with psycho-mental activity or the law of karma, being devoid of any creative abilities.

The teleological instinct of prakriti was illustrated in the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas by the image of a horse that pulls a wagon out of instinct, an act to which the wagon driver is a simple spectator. In the same way, prakriti would conduct purusha toward liberation without any external directive. However, it is omitted in this metaphor that the horse was first trained by the driver before he knew the way home. Samkhya metaphysics does not allow such an external “coach” for prakriti. Another deficient illustration used by the Samkhya followers is that of a blind man and a lame man helping each other on their journey. Neither can this be a valid illustration to symbolize the teleological instinct of prakriti, since both the blind man and the lame man possess intelligence and language, and therefore can cooperate in realizing a common purpose. Such cooperation between purusha and prakriti cannot exist, because they have nothing in common. Therefore, the difficulty generated by the impossible relationship between purusha and the psycho-mental abilities cannot be properly solved. How could intellect help to distance purusha from prakriti, if intellect itself is a category of prakriti?


Personhood is considered to be a product of prakriti’s manifestation, a sum of psycho-mental experiences that cease to exist at the moment of liberation. Instead of the pantheist view of liberation, consisting of an impersonal merging of the self with the Absolute, the Samkhya and Yoga darshanas state that the liberated self remains eternally isolated, devoid of any relation with other purushas and having as the only possibility that of knowing itself. But given the fact that purusha is devoid of any personal attributes, it is hard to grasp what this self-contemplation could mean. As in pantheism, liberation is out of personhood, it does not mean becoming a free person.


The Vedas are expressed in a symbolic language of Mantra, expressing the direct spiritual experiences of the sages. The later Upanishads are profound poems, an outpouring of spiritual revelation, illumination and knowledge where philosophy, religion and poetic expression are one. These revelations are not a dry intellectual enquiry. They are the light of India’s spiritual discoveries. Later, six evolved philosophies came into being, derived from the Vedas and Upanishads, the first of these being the Samkhya philosophy taught by the sage Kapila. In fact, all later philosophies of India were influenced by it. Philosophy at this time was not a purely intellectual pursuit. It was oriented towards the spiritual life and the practice of Yoga. Samkhya and Yoga represent the two wings of knowledge and practice that together give flight to the bird of spiritual experience. Sam means truth and khya means to realize, so truth realization is the goal of Samkhya. Samkhya also means number and it enumerates the 25 cosmic principles that make up the universe. Samkhya guides the seeker towards truth and Yoga gives the practical means to realize and experience ultimate truth. According to Samkhya, belief alone is not sufficient. If truth is knowable, then a means must be available. The universe that we perceive with the senses is only the surface beneath which the subtle cause remains hidden. The subtle cause can only be seen by the insight attained through meditation. So Yoga teaches us how to meditate and gives us the tool to enquire. The 25 cosmic principles enumerated by Samkhya consist of Prakriti, cosmic existence which has 24 principles and Purusha, pure consciousness, making 25. The Seen is Prakriti and the Seer is Purusha. Yoga practice moves us from identification with the Seen to our true identity with the Seer, a state of infinite peace, bliss and freedom. The 24 principles of nature are 1) Purusha; 2) Prakriti; 3) Mahat – cosmic mind; 4) ahamkara – ego; 6-10) five tanmatras –subtle sound, touch, sight, taste and hearing: 11-15) Five sense organs – ear, skin, eye, nose, tongue; 16-20) Five organs of action – mouth, hands, feet, sexual organ, anus; 21-25) five great elements – ether, air, fire, water, earth. This Samkhya system is adopted completely by Yoga, to which it adds ashtanga yoga as its practical method of truth realization. Prakriti consists of three gunas or energy states and all the 24 principles are combinations of these. The three gunas are the factors of bondage. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, the qualities born of material nature, bind fast in the body, O Arjuna.  The mind is satva, the life-force rajas and the body tamas. But rajas (distraction and desire) and tamas (inertia and ignorance) enter into the mind. Yoga removes the rajas and tamas from the mind so restoring the natural state of satva. A satvic mind can discern the truth, reflect and then realise the Purusha, pure spirit. The Yoga Sutra gives three steps to attain the goal of truth-realization: Kriya Yoga (ritual and devotion), Ashtanga Yoga (Yoga practice), and Samyama (focused awareness in meditation). Meditation takes us through 4 stages corresponding to the 24 principles of Nature moving from the gross to the subtle. We begin with our senses and end with unmanifest Nature. Having known the whole of creation, the last step is the realization of the independent, transcendent nature of Purusha. This is called viveka – khyati, knowledge of the difference between Nature and Spirit. So, Samkhya provides the guiding knowledge, Yoga the tool, Samyama.

Kathy Kiefer


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