Sāñkhya Darśana

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By Swami Harshananda

Sometimes transliterated as: Sankhya Darsana, SAJkhya DarZana, Saaykhya Darshana


After stating his views and defending them with the help of appropriate quotations from the Upaniṣads, Bādarāyaṇa in his Brahmasutras starts his criticisms of other schools with the Sāṅkhya philosophy.[1] While commenting upon the sutra,[2] Śaṅkara[3] has given the reason as to why the Sāṅkhya system was chosen first.

The word he has used is ‘pradhāna-malla-nibarhaṇa-nyāyena’ which means ‘by the maxim of overcoming the chief wrestler’. This word is very significant. If a well-known wrestler overcomes the chief wrestler of the opponents’ group first, it is as good as all the others also being vanquished, even without fighting them. This shows the importance of Sāṅkhya Darśana system.

As per the orthodox accounts, this system was founded by the sage Kapila.[4] The work that has come down to us is the Sāñkhyasutras, which is a late work. It is in six chapters and contains 526 sutras in all. Vijñānabhikṣu[5] has written a commentary on the same which is known as Sāñkhya-pravacana-bhāsya.

The Sāṅkhyan tradition of philosophy was nourished and propagated by Kapila’s disciple Āsuri and his disciple Pañcaśikha. Some sutras of Pañcaśikha are found quoted in the Vyāsabhāsya[6] on the Yogasutras of Patañjali.[7]The complete work has not been found yet. By far, the earliest available and reliable work on the Sāñkhya is the Sāñkhyakārikās of Iśvarakṛṣṇa.[8] It has 70 stanzas in the āryā meter and hence is sometimes designated as Sāñkhya-saptati also. It contains a brief but brilliant and lucid exposition of the doctrines.

This work has two well-known commentaries:

  1. Sāñkhyakārikā-bhāsya of Gauḍapāda[9]
  2. Sāñkhya- tattva-kaumudl of Vācaspati[10]

The Sāñkhyasāra of Vijñānabhikṣu and the Sāñkhyapravacanasutravrtti of Aniruddha[11] are the other works of importance.

Significance of the Name

The origin of the word ‘Sāñkhya’ seems to have been an enigma. Some thinkers derive it from saṅkhyā which implies number and opine that it might have got this name since it enumerates the ultimate principles in creation as 25. Others however think that since it stresses jñāna or knowledge as the only means of liberation and since ‘saṅkhyā’ means jñāna,[12] the word fits in very well with the system.

The Pramāṇas or Methods of Knowledge

Unlike many other systems, the Sāṅkhya accepts only three pramāṇas or valid sources of knowledge. They are:

  1. Pratyakṣa - direct perception
  2. Anumāna - inference
  3. Śabda - testimony

Pratyakṣa

Pratyakṣa is the direct cognition of an object through its contact with a sense-organ, like the eyes seeing a table or the ears hearing the chirping of birds. The first contact may give a general knowledge. This is called ‘nirvikalpaka’ or indeterminate. On closer observation and thinking, the perception gives a clearer idea which is called ‘savikalpaka’ or determinate. On seeing a table, the first reaction is, ‘I am seeing some object.’ Then comes a clearer idea, ‘This is a wooden table with a red cloth spread over it.’ The first is nirvikalpaka-pratyakṣa and the second is savikalpaka-pratyakṣa.

Anumāna

Anumāna or inference is the second source of knowledge. It is gained by seeing some sign first and then inferring the reality behind it. The stock example given by most of the philosophers concludes that there is fire on a distant hill, by seeing smoke rising out of it. Since our previous experience through direct perception has shown that wherever there is smoke, there is fire. Hence, here also we conclude that there is fire even though we do not see it directly. An invariable concomitance between the object seen and the unseen object inferred[13] is a necessary precondition.

Śabda

Śabda or testimony is the third and the last of the pramāṇas. It is the testimony of a reliable person. This is called laukika-śabda or āptavākya. The Sāñkhya, however, does not recognize this as a separate pramāṇa since it depends upon the perception and inference of that reliable person. It is the testimony of the Śruti or the Vedas that the Sāṅkhya philosophy admits as the independent and last pramāṇa. The Vedas give us true knowledge about the super-sensuous realities, which cannot otherwise be known by pratyakṣa or anumāna. The Vedas being apauruṣeya[14] are infallible. They embody the intuitions of the great ṛṣis.[15]

The Prameyas or the Objects to be Known

It adopts the principle of “from the seen to the unseen or from the known to the unknown”. Sāṅkhyan metaphysics has reduced all the realities in our experience to two fundamental and eternal substances. They are:

  1. Prakṛti also called pradhāna and avyakta or the insentient nature, the matrix of all lifeless and unconscious objects
  2. Puruṣa, the being, the conscious self or the soul

The basic argument behind this conclusion is called ‘Satkāryavāda,’ the principle that the effect or kārya pre-existed as sat in the cause[16] before manifestation. For instance, when a pot is prepared out of clay, the pot already existed in the clay, though in a potential form. The main logic behind this is that something can never be produced out of nothing. Applying this argument to the world of our experience where every object is seen to possess three characters:

  1. Pleasure
  2. Pain
  3. Indifference

The Sāṅkhya comes to the conclusion that there must be three basic subtle substances from which these three characters are derived. It calls them as guṇas. Each of these guṇas stands for a distinct aspect of physical reality. They can be delineated as follows:

  1. Sattvaguṇa - It produces pleasure or happiness. Sattva signifies whatever is pure and fine and conduces to the production of knowledge and happiness.
  2. Rajoguṇa - It produces pain and suffering. Rajas is ever active. It is also responsible for desires and ambitions to fulfill which one has to actively work.
  3. Tamoguṇa - It produces neither of the above two. Tamas is stolid and offers resistance. It tends to sleep and inactivity.

These three guṇas always exist together and can never get separated. When these three, which are ever in turmoil as it were, are in a perfectly balanced state, not interfering with one another, though ever active or in perpetual motion within themselves, constitute the prakṛti or pradhāna. In other words, prakṛti is none other than these three guṇas in a state of perfect balance.

Prakṛti is the basic material, primal matter, from which the universe evolves. It is ‘jaḍa,’ it has no consciousness. The puruṣa[17] on the other hand is a conscious entity or the consciousness is his very essence. He is eternal, ever pure, ever detached[18] and all-pervading. There are innumerable puruṣas or souls, as many as the living beings.

Evolution of the World

The creation or evolution of the world has its starting point in the sarnyoga or effective contact between the puruṣa and the prakṛti. The totality of the karmas or unseen deserts of the puruṣas disturbs the balance of the guṇas in prakṛti and sets in motion the process of evolution.

Since prakṛti is jaḍa or lifeless and devoid of consciousness and the puruṣa is asaṅga[19] how can they ever co-operate in this process of creation? Such co-operation is possible only if a blind man and a lame man can team together to come out of a forest, the blind one carrying the lame person who can now direct him on the right road. Another example given by the Sāñkhyas is that of the spontaneous flow of milk from the udder of the mother cow when its calf is nearby.

The process of evolution from prakṛti is as follows:

  • As a result of the guṇas mixing with one another, the first evolute coming out of the prakṛti is the mahat or the buddhi.[20]
  • From that emerges ahaṅkāra.[21]
  • From the sāttvik part of ahaṅkāra evolves the following:
  1. Manas - cosmic mind
  2. Five jñānendriyas - cosmic organs of knowledge like the eyes and the ears
  3. Five karmendriyas - cosmic organs of action like the hands and the feet
  • From the tāmasik part of ahaṅkāra are produced the five tanmātras (subtle elements of earth, water etc.)
  • Again from them evolves the five mahābhutas or gross elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether.
  • In all, including the prakṛti, there will now be 24 cosmic principles or elements.
  • The rest of creation takes place by their permutation and combination, each purusa getting involved with a psycho-physical complex body as per his karma.

Bondage and Liberation

It is interesting to note here that according to the Sāṅkhyan metaphysics the very purpose of the evolution of the prakṛti into this world is to give the purusa one more chance for liberation. Again, it is the same prakṛti and its evolute, the world, that binds him once more.

The main cause of bondage of the purusa and his consequent suffering in the world is aviveka.[22] It is this that is leading him from birth to death or from life to life ad infinitum. The question as to how and when he got into this mess can never be answered, except by stating that it is anādi[23] but sānta.[24] Since aviveka or ignorance is responsible for this bondage, kaivalya or liberation can come only from vivekakhyāti or right knowledge.

‘Khyāti’ means knowledge in the sense of direct experience and ‘viveka’ means separating himself as the purusa, the pure conscious entity, from the prakṛti, the insentient matter. This can be attained by following the eight steps of yoga wherein the purusa or the soul is the object of meditation. The Sāṅkhya Darśana accepts two kinds of liberation:

  1. Jīvanmukti
  2. Videhamukti

The former is attained even while living here, the body continuing to live for some more time, till the prārabdha-karma[25] is exhausted. In this state, the perfect man continues to live in the world though he may not of this world. The final liberation comes after the death of the body, that is why it is called ‘videhamukti’. After this the person will never come back to this mundane world. He will attain the state perfectly free from all the pains and sufferings though there is no experience of bliss. However, since caitanya or consciousness is his essence, he will ever remain in his own state.

References

  1. Sāṅkhya philosophy 2.2.1
  2. Sāṅkhya sutra 1.4.28
  3. He lived in A. D. 788-820.
  4. Bhāgavata 3.25-33
  5. He lived in 16th century A. D.
  6. He lived in A. D. 600.
  7. He lived in 200 B. C.
  8. He lived in 5th century A. D.
  9. He lived in A. D. 700.
  10. He lived in A. D. 840.
  11. He lived in 15th cent. A. D.
  12. Jñāna means samyak khyāyate.
  13. In this example it is the smoke and the fire.
  14. Apauruṣeya is not man-made but divine.
  15. They are the enlightened sages.
  16. Cause means kāraṇa.
  17. Puruṣa means the soul.
  18. Ever detached means asaṅga.
  19. Asaṅga means absolutely unattached.
  20. Buddhi means the cosmic intellect.
  21. Ahaṅkāra means cosmic ego, the principle of individuation.
  22. Aviveka means ignorance, non discrimination between himself as pure consciousness and prakṛti which is jaḍa, the unconscious entity.
  23. Anādi means beginningless.
  24. Sānta has an end.
  25. Prārabdha-karma is the karma that was responsible for starting this life.
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore