Talk:Sankhya darsana

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Sānkhya is said to be one of the oldest metaphysical worldviews and philosophies of salvation. The word Sankhya means count, and Sānkhya is called so because it describes the world in an enumerative way. Twenty five principles are enlisted in Sānkhya. In an alternate and more elaborate version, these principles along with their attributes are enlisted as sixty principles. For this reason Sānkhya is also called Shashthi Tantra (meaning the philosophy of sixty principles).

Like the other darsanas, Sānkhya has a concept of bondage (bandha) and liberation (moksha). The lack of discriminative knowledge between Purusha (self or pure consciousness) and prakriti (nature or primal principle underlying matter), is the source of binding (bandha). Gaining the discriminative knowledge and identification with Purusha is the source of liberation (moksha), which is the culmination of evolution. Binding and liberation are for prakriti, and not really for Purusha. They are only superimposed on the Purusha, because of prakriti-Purusha association. The world is not only apparent, but real.

Purusha is asanga-cidrupa, the eternally conscious having no real association. He is the abode of knowledge, but in the liberated state the Purusha's attribute is neither jada (insentient/inert) nor ananda (bliss). Sānkhya affirms multiplicity of Self/Purusha.

Sānkhya upholds parinama vada, which explains the world as transformational/evolutional manifestation of Prakriti. Prakriti, having the three primal attributes of Satva, Rajas and Tamas is the creator and basis of the constantly transforming world. These three primal attributes result in the three primal experiences of beings - sukha (happiness), dukha (grief and pain) and moha (illusion and attachment). For this reason, Sānkhya does not acknowledge an Isvara who presides over the creation (for instance Kapila Sutras 1.92 - IsvaraasiddheH; 5.2 - Naeswaradhishtite phala nishpattiH). Prakriti is Herself the acting and substantive cause of the universe. Thus Sānkhya is a Nireeswara Darsana.


Sānkhya accepts three pramāṇās as the sources and verification of knowledge:

  • Pratyaksha (perception): this is of two kinds: savikalpa (determinate) and nirvikalpa (indeterminate).
  • Anumana or inference
  • Sabda, including sruti and smriti.

It is an Astika Darsana, as it acknowledges Sabda pramāṇā.

The Twenty-five Cosmic Principles

The entire universe is composed of the three primal principles (Purusha, Pradhana and Vyakta) and their manifestations. In the manifest world, there are twenty five principles in all. The enumeration of twenty five principles has sruti-sammata or acceptance of Sruti, from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.17).

The cosmic principles are explained in four groups. The primal nature, mahat (intelligence principle), ahankara (ego), five tanmatras (subtle attributes of the primal elements), eleven senses, five primal elements make twenty four principles. These are part of the world. Twenty fifth principle is Purusha, the eternal self. Including or excluding the Purusha, Sānkhya principles are usually mentioned as twenty four or twenty five.

  1. Mula Prakriti or primal nature: She is eternal, has no source and is the source of the world.
  2. Saptaka (mahat, ahankara and five tanmatras, making seven principles): Mahat is the intelligence principle. This is born from Prakriti. Ahankara is the ego-sense. This emanates from Mahat. The five tanmatras emerge from Ahankara. Tanmatras are the subtle elements. These have source in the primal nature, and in turn are source for the primal elements.
  3. Shodasaka (the sixteen principles): The five primal elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air and sky) and eleven senses make the shodasaka. Six jnanendriyas and five karmendriyas make eleven senses. They emanate from the tanmatras in sequence. Jnanendriyas are the five senses and mind. Karmendriyas are vak (mouth or speech organ), pani (hands), padam (legs), upastha (reproductive organ) and payu (excretary organ).
  4. Purusha/Cetana: All the twenty four principles are acetana or not eternally conscious. The eternal consciousness principle is the twenty fifth, the Purusha or the self.

In the sequence of transformation/evolution of the universe, Purusha is aparinami or the one that never transforms. Primal nature is the primal transformation or manifestation that has no dissolution. She causes all the manifestation (abhivyakta) and transformation. The saptaka both have a source and dissolution, and are in turn source for the shodasaka. Shodasaka are the final transformations that are not source for anything.

The Primal Principles

The cosmic principles of Sānkhya are of three kinds, Purusha, Avyakta and Vyakta.

  1. Avyakta – the unmanifest, primal nature with the three primal attributes. This is jada. Avyakta is also called Pradhana, Maya.
  2. Purusha – the absolute consciousness principle, neither manifest nor unmanifest. This is the Self.
  3. Vyakta – the manifest. This emanates because of the association of Purusha and avyakta. This is the phenomenal world.

Vyakta has six features, in common with Avyakta, that the Purusha does not have:

  • Constituted of three primal attributes (satva, rajas and tamas)
  • Aviveka - lack of discriminative knowledge between emanating principles and the source
  • Vishayatva - having substance
  • Samanyatva - commonality
  • Acetanatva - lack of vision of the eternal consciousness
  • Prasava dharmitva - the inspiration to action

Avyakta has eight additional features that are common to Avyakta and Purusha:

  • Ahetutva - having no causal reason
  • Nityatva - permanence
  • Vyapitva - pervasiveness
  • Nishkriyatva - inaction
  • Anasritatva - not having an abode or base
  • Alingatva - not having gender
  • Niravayavatva - hot having limbs
  • Swatantrya - independence

The aspect that is common to Vyakta and Purusha is anekatva or multiplicity. Avyakta is single and pervasive, and has no multiplicity.


The primal nature, composed of the three primal qualities satva, rajas and tamas, is called Pradhana, Avyakta (the unmanifest), Acetana (the insentient), Mula Prakriti (primal nature) or Maya (the inexplicable, the source of manifestation, ignorance and knowledge). Since She is the originating and first principle of creation, She is called Pradhana or the first principle.

Mula Prakriti acts and manifests with the attributes of phenomenal world such as Mahat (intelligence principle) and Ahankara (ego sense). She does this for the two-fold experience of Purusha – bhoga (worldly) and apavarga (other-worldly). Thus Prakriti is the creator of the world. There is no separate causal being that creates the world with the help of Prakriti (Isvara), but Prakriti is Herself the creator.

As Prakriti creates the phenomenal world, and the beings are veiled from the sentient and eternal consciousness principle Purusha and they realize the Purusha as they go through the various phases of evolution. Thus the ignorance of the beings and their experiences of the phenomenal world are all creations of Pradhana. She is thus the veil of ignorance Herself and is therefore called Maya.


The twenty four principles of universe are qualitative, and cause the three kinds of experiences – sukha (happiness), dukha (grief) and moha (attachment and illusion). These are called sanghatas. Through direct experience, it is known that the varied giving of Mother Nature such as sayana (sleep), asana (seat/posture) and anna (food) are for the pleasure of the beings. There is thus a purpose, a being that experiences the sanghatas for whose purpose they exist. The purpose is the bhokta, the one who experiences or literally the one who consumes the experiences. However all the experiences of the phenomenal world are witnessed and experienced by the various faculties like senses, mind and intellect, which are also part of the phenomenal world. They are all endowed with different levels of consciousness, in as much they are manifest farther from the absolute and hence grosser.

Similarly there should be a witness that experiences the sanghatas like avyakta and the phenomenal creation itself. No element or principle or being that is part of the phenomenal world can be such bhokta or witness. Nor can be the insentient avyakta. Thus there must be a distinct, eternally conscious being that experiences these, whose consciousness goes beyond the faculties of experience of the phenomenal world. Purusha is that bhokta, the witness. The phenomena of the world are to be experienced through consciousness (cetana). Avyakta and the manifestations are as such insentient, and the consciousness of the various faculties of beings should but have a sentient source. Purusha is the sentient source. The source of consciousness of beings, the witness of every phenomenal, is the Purusha, the Self of beings. Intellect is only a faculty of experience and not the being that experiences. The being that experiences through the intellect should be distinct from intellect and other faculties. Without that being, these faculties serve no purpose. That being, is the Self.

Sastras (the Sruti and Smritis in this context) teach about the kaivalya, the state of eternal bliss, peace and liberation. Such liberation is not possible for the faculties like intellect, but only for the being that experiences through these faculties. Thus the one that attains liberation as explained by the Sastras is the Atman, the Self, the Purusha. (Here Sānkhya goes by Sabda pramāṇās).

Multiplicity of Purusha

Beings are diverse, in their capabilities, in their upadhis (faculties of experience). This indeed, is the diversity of Purushas. If Purusha pervading beings is singular, then the birth, death and experiences of all the beings should happen once. A single sentient being cannot assume different sets of faculties with different capabilities and disabilities and undergo different experiences at the same time. Thus Purushas are multiple. Each Purusha experiences bhoga and apavarga, and takes births repeatedly until kaivalya.

Also, if Purusha is singular, the whole creation should happen at once, as if there is a singular witness, all the various manifestations should happen in a sequence and should recoil at once after the singular witness withdraws from indulging in the phenomena. But these phenomena do not happen like that, they happen at different times, some in the pravritti and some in the nivritti form, at the same time, for different witnesses. This shows that there are multiple witnesses indulging in the play as if they are at different phases of the cycle of creation. This can be compared to different men watching stage shows at different places with different frequency at the same time. The multiplicity of the witness of phenomenal manifestations in the different stages of evolution establishes that Purushas are multiple.

The Association of Pradhana and Purusha

Primal Nature has the quality of manifestation, She acts and manifests and transforms. She is insentient. Purusha is sentient but does not act. Therefore the question arises how both result in the experience of the world.

It is possible, and can be explained through the pangvaandha nyaya (the analogy of the association of blind and limping man). If there are two men, one blind man and the other limping, none of them can independently walk. But if the blind man carries the limping man, the blind can walk while the other can direct him on the road, and both can reach their destination.

There is another analogy where two men were riding their chariots, one lost his chariot and the other lost the horse. They both can still complete their journey, if the one who lost his chariot ties his horse to the other’s chariot and they both ride the chariot then. This is called nashtaasva-dagdha ratha nyaya.

The association of Purusha and Pradhana in the cosmic game could similarly be explained, where Pradhana manifests into mahat (intelligence principle), ahankara (ego), antahkarana (mind) and indriyas (senses) whose material cause is Pradhana and consciousness is because of the Purusha.

Consciousness descends into the faculties at different degrees, depending on the extent and the gross-subtle nature of their manifestation.


The first principle to emanate as a result of the association of Pradhana and Purusha is mahat, the intelligence principle. Its nature is knowledge. It is the function of intellect. Intellect analyzes the impressions when senses perceive an object, and through sankalpa and vikalpa (possibilities and alternatives) arrives at the truth of the object.

Intellect acquires different qualities because of the three primal qualities of nature satva, rajas and tamas. The satvic qualities of intellect are dharma (righteousness), jnana (knowledge), aiswarya (bliss, thought of the eternal, urge for and attainment of perfectoion) and vairagya (disinterest and detachment from senses and outward indulgence). By rajas, intellect assumes qualities like iccha (like, passion), dvesha (dislike) and prayatna (effort). The tamasic qualities of intellect are adharma, ajnana, anaiswarya and avairagya. These are the opposites of satvic qualities.

For the evolution of being, satvic qualities of intellect should be attained and tamasic qualities should be given up. Rajasic qualities should be selectively used for this purpose. The righteous nature acquired through the performance of rituals is the means to heaven. Through yoga, meditation and dissolution of mind in the eternally conscious principle, discriminative knowledge between prakriti and Purusha is attained. This discriminative knowledge is the means to liberation. Other qualities of intellect beget binding. The intelligence principle is thus instrumental in binding and liberation of beings.


Ahankara is the “I” or ego sense. This emanates from mahat. Tanmatras, panca bhutas and senses emanate from ahankara. Thus the entire three-fold phenomenal world consisting of mind, life and matter emanates from ahankara. The word ahankara is formed “a”, “ha” and “kaara”. The Sanskrit alphabet begins with “a” and ends with “ha”. “kaara” indicates doing, and the doer/creator. Alphabet is representative of the world. Ahankara is called so, because from it comes everything in the phenomenal world, from the beginning to the end.

Ahankara and mahat are together the knowledge principles. The veil of ignorance gets denser in the principles of creation, in the sequence in which they are created. Thus the mahat, ahankara, tanmatras, antahkarana and senses are decreasingly capable of perceiving the truth. Tarka acknowledges ahankara as the knowledge principle.

Thus the knowledge of entire phenomenal world is possible through ahankara. However, the source of apavarga, the discriminative knowledge between prakriti and Purusha is possible only through the mahat. In other words, the phenomenal nature of things can be known through ahankara, but their true nature can be known through mahat.

Binding and Liberation

Purusha is unattached and eternally conscious. Binding happens through association of Purusha with prakriti due to which the qualities of prakriti are attributed to the Purusha. The first manifestation of prakriti-Purusha association is buddhi or intellect. The consciousness of Purusha and the three primal qualities of prakriti reflect in the buddhi. Buddhi has several qualities, and knowledge is one of them. Through this quality vivecana or discriminative knowledge between prakriti and Purusha is possible. This causes liberation, and other qualities of buddhi such as ignorance cause binding.

Sukha, dukha and moha and the consequent experiences are caused by prakriti to the various upadhis mind, intellect, senses. Because of lack of discriminative knowledge, they appear to be happening to the Purusha. This appearance, is binding. In reality, none of these phenomenal experiences actually happen to Purusha. There is no binding or liberation to the Purusha, nor is the phenomenal world. Purusha does not have, and is not affected by the three primal qualities. Purusha is nirguna. Prakriti has these qualities, She is gunavati. Prakriti and Her manifestations are the purusharthas, meant for the Purusha.

By gaining the knowledge of Sastras and inquiry into the nature of world and oneself, the being overcomes viparyaya jnana (such as “I am there”, “I am this”, “I am that” and “this is mine”) and attains kevala jnana (na-asti, na-aham-me – the knowledge of “there is no phenomenal ‘me’”). From this knowledge the intellect can see the emergence and dissolution of all the seven satvic and tamasic qualities (ajnana, dharma, adharma, vairagya, avairagya, aiswarya and anaiswarya, with the exclusion of jnana, the eighth quality) as the manifestations of prakriti. Through such knowledge the being realizes its true nature to be the true knowledge-consciousness, the truth-consciousness. The manifestations of prakriti are then seen only as appearances over the true nature, and not because of the inherent nature of the being, the self, the Purusha. When the intellect when shines with this discriminative knowledge, the being no more craves for the experiences caused by such appearances, and remains unaffected by those (tatastha). This from the Purusha’s perspective is the “Mayaa drishtaa”.

When the discriminative knowledge arises, when the intellect sees through the veil between the phenomenal and the eternal, the manifestations of Prakriti cease to impress upon the Purusha. Then She too, knowing the Purusha’s non-indulgance in the manifestations of the creation, stops creating further manifestations and impressions. This from the Prakriti’s perspective is “aham drishtaa”.

At this stage, though there is Prakriti-Purusha association, there is no purpose of the world, its manifestations and phenomena. The cause for Prakriti’s pravritti or transformational manifestations is the Purushartha, the Purusha witnessing the whole bhoga-apavarga. Once that purpose is served, Prakriti will herself recoil the manifestations. This recoil is called nivritti.

There is a famous example given to explain this. When a dancer performs an act on a stage, she returns after the dance is complete. Similarly, Prakriti, after She conducts the cosmic game before the Purusha, with Her several phenomenal manifestations for the bhoga of the Purusha in the ajnana-avastha (the pravritti phase or the phase of phenomenal experiences) and exhibiting Her true nature for apavarga in the jnana-avastha (the nivritti phase or the phase of realization and recoil), stops and returns from the play. She appears in different kinds of “dresses” to the Purusha in the phases of veiled vision, and She recoils when She is seen without those veils, undressed. In reality the veil in which the Purusha (through the upadhis) sees the Prakriti as, appears as Her robe, the apparent, manifest or vyakta form. When the veil is gone, when the unveiled, true form of the nature (nija rupa or the avyakta state) is seen by viveka or the discriminative knowledge, no more does She appear, in the veil.

Through this nivritti, the original nature of Purusha, the eternal consciousness, singular knowledge, the liberated state, is achieved. Thus the Purusha sees nature in her various veils in the bound state, and in her true un-manifest form in the liberated state. The Purusha when the intellect acquires tatva-jnana, is liberated. When the discriminative knowledge is not there, the Purusha appears to be bound.

Instruments for Liberation

Tatva-sakshatkara or knowledge of the true nature of world is the source of liberation. This can be gained through tatva-abhyasa or learning and meditation. Sānkhya does not emphasize on the exact method since it is by nature a philosophy. Contemplative state with the intent to know the tatva, is the source of knowledge, which is possible in yoga through meditation and in the jnana marga through sravana, manana and nididhyasana.

Causation in Sānkhya

Parinama vada is the transformation/manifestation model of creation/world. Sānkhya holds parinama vada. It is also called sat-karya vada. According to this, the effect is pre-existent in the cause in the seed-form. Therefore, the effect is substantively non-different from the cause. Effect ensues or becomes apparent when an active cause comes into play.

When a pot is made out of clay, its material cause is the clay. Thus the upadana karana or substantive cause of the pot ever existed even before the pot came into existence. The clay only manifests as pot, as a transformation. That happens when there is a nimitta karana, an active or nominal cause because of which such transformation happens.

Similarly, the substantive cause of the phenomenal world is present in the Avyakta, in the form of satva, rajas and tamas. In fact Avyakta is called so, because it is the substantive cause of the world. The avyakta only manifests and transforms as the phenomenal world, sukha dukha and moha being the manifest experiences of the same. Thus, the essential material of the world is ever existent in the true or sat-form even before the active cause sought to manifest it. This is called sat-karya vada. In asat-karya vada or arambha vada, the material and active cause both come into existence at the time of creation, none of them existed eternally. Here both the causes of creation are in the asat-form before creation. Sānkhya refutes the asat-karya vada or arambha vada, by asserting that the Avyakta is eternal and has no destruction or creation.

Within the broader ambit of satkaryvavada, Sānkhya considers the world to be a parinama or manifestation of the primal prakriti. Hence Sānkhya is said to uphold Parinamavada, which refers to a real transformation or evolution (such as milk turning into curd), as distinct from vivartavada which is an apparent transformation (such as gold appearing as rings as well as bangles).

Since experience of world is in terms of sukha, sukha and moha, there should be a material cause for the world that causes these. Sukha, dukha and moha are manifestations of satva, rajas and tamas. So the cause of the world should be composed of these qualities. Therefore Pradhana should be composed of satva, rajas and tamas. Prakriti is jada, insentient. The principles of phenomenal world exist in the seed or un-manifest form in the Prakriti, and they manifest as transformations of primal nature, in the play of creation-sustenance-dissolution. The play is conducted by Prakriti for the bhoga and apavarga of Purusha.

Shashthi Tantra

Sānkhya is also called Shashthi Tantra, since it explains sixty elements. When the twenty five principles are explained, it is called Sānkhya. If they are expanded further into the sixty principles, it is called Shashthi tantra. Tantra in this context is used as a synonym of Sastra.

The sixty principles consist of ten maulikarthas (fundamental principles), five viparyayas (forms of ignorance), nine tushtis (forms of happiness), twenty eight indriya-asaamarthyas (disability of senses/limbs) and eight siddhis (accomplishments).


These are the fundamental principles, the other principles emanate from these. There are ten maulikarthas or culikarthas.

  • Pradhana-astitva: Existence of pradhana/avyakta
  • Pradhana-ekatva: Singularness of pradhana
  • Pradhana-ardhavatva: Pradhana being the cause of phenomenal world
  • Pradhana-Purusha bheda: Distinction between pradhana and Purusha
  • Purusha-pararthatva: Pararthatva means “meant for someone else”. This is the basis on which multiplicity of Purusha is established
  • Purusha-bahutva: Multiplicity of Purusha
  • Pradhana-Purusha samyoga: Association of prakriti and Purusha
  • Pradhana-Purusha viyoga: Disassociation of prakriti and Purusha
  • Purusha-Seshatva for Pradhana: Non-independence of Pradhana, Her being a Purusha-artha subordinated to the will of Purusha
  • Akartritva for Purusha: Non-active witness nature of Purusha

These are not only important in the sense that they explain the nature of the world, but these are the distinct and unique premises of Sānkhya.


These are the forms of avidya (ignorance) and difficulties of beings. There are five kinds of viparyayas:

  • Tamas – gross consciousness or lack of knowledge
  • Moha – illusion and sense of possession
  • Maha moha – craving and indulgence in senses
  • Tamisra – impatience and anger
  • Andhatamisra – fear of privation or death

In turn each of these is of different kinds. There are 8 types of tamas, 8 kinds of moha, 10 types of maha moha, 18 kinds of tamisra and 18 forms of andhatamisra. They sum up to sixty two kinds of avidya.


Tushti means satisfaction or happiness. A different level of happiness is experienced by beings at different stages in their evolution. Broadly there are two kinds of tushti, bahya (for external reasons) and adhyatmika (inner/spiritual). Adhyatmika tushti is four kinds - prakriti (by nature), upadana (by the happiness brought by detachment through renounciation), kala (when time is ripe, when the being is evolved enough to experience the bliss and knowledge) and bhagya (by divine grace, luck). Bahya tushti is achieved by withdrawing from outward indulgence. Since there are five kinds of sense experiences, withdrawal is also five kinds. Thus there are five kinds of bahya tushti. With four adhyatmika tushtis, there are nine forms of satisfaction.


There are twenty eight kinds of disabilities/handicaps. Eleven of them are indriya doshas (of senses), seventeen are buddhi doshas (of the intellect). There are eight siddhis and nine tushtis. The lack of any of these is a buddhi dosha, a disability of the intellect in the sense that its capability in their presence is lost when they are not there. Thus there are seventeen capabilities the buddhi can gain or get disability of. These are the seventeen possible buddhi doshas.


There are eight kinds of siddhis. They are further classified into gauna and mukhya. Five are gauna siddhis - ooha (knowledge of previous births), sabda (knowledge of the meaning of Vedic word), adhyayana (learning and urge to enlightenment), suhrutprapti (attainment of ardent relationships), dana (having generous and non-accumulative nature). Overcoming suffering and obstacles in adhyatmika, adhi daivika and adhi bhautika spheres are the three mukhya siddhis.

Isvara Krishna's Sānkhya Karikas explain each of the sixty principles of the Shashthi Tantra.

Assertion of the Basic Principles of Sānkhya

Sānkhya uses three pramāṇās, perception, inference and sabda to establish its premises. It applies analogy also, but uses it as part of analysis and inference and does not explicitly mention analogy as a separate pramāṇā.

  1. Existence of Purusha: Inference and Sabda both are applied to assert the existence of Purusha. The need for a purpose and the being to experience the avyakta is the inferential argument following from an analogy with something of direct experience (pratyaksha) – that any experience has a purpose, has someone to experience it. Quoting Sabda to establish the quality of the one that is bound and liberated is verbal testimony. There is no refutation of this done by other Astika Darsanas.
  2. Existence of Pradhana: This is inferential argument. Vivarta vada does not accept a separate pradhana to be eternally existent. Maya is always associated with Brahman.
  3. Singularity of Avyakta, Sanyoga, Viyoga and Seshatva with Purusha: This is inferential argument, has no explicit refutation by any other darsana. However the acceptance depends on the acceptance of the existence of Avyakta itself.
  4. Multiplicity of Purusha: This is inferential argument. This is accepted by the Dvaitists (Madhva darsana). The support offered by Dvaita to the argument was by quoting the Bhagavad Gita (2.12 for instance). Advaita refutes this assertion.
  5. Non-acceptance of Isvara: This argument is based more on the premise of Sānkhya that Prakriti Herself creates the universe and conducts the cosmic play. While Mimamsa does not contest it, Nyaya, Yoga, Advaita and Dvaita have all rejected this premise. They affirm Isvara, a single causal being who pervades all the beings who is associated with prakriti.
  6. Binding and Liberation: It is explained through inference and verbal testimony. That binding and liberation happen, is something all Astika Darsanas agree to. However the difference is in the precise definition they give to liberation. The jnana marga philosophies like Sānkhya and Advaita affirm that realization is by itself liberation.
  7. The Twenty-five Principles: This is established through pratyaksha, anumana and sabda. There is no refutation done on these principles, and is enumeration not only accepted but taken as a valid basis by various other darsanas – Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta. However they all take the count as twenty four excluding Purusha. They do not accept the Sānkhya notion of multiplicity of Purusha and non-existence of Isvara.
  8. The three gunas: The theory of the 3 guna-s - satva, rajas and tamas - is one of the biggest contributions of Sānkhya. The three gunas comprise prakriti, and the triguna concept is widespread not only in spiritual philosophies but the entire realm of para and apara vidyas including traditional theories on food, diet, medicine, etc. The 3 guna-s are the primal attributes or qualities of prakriti from which all the principles of phenomenal world manifest. In the context of consciousness/psychology, the guna-s are often presented as the basis for individual temperaments, with sattva being associated with contemplation and inquiry, rajas with activity and passion, and tamas with inertia and dullness. However, the triguna concept as such is more general and is used in various other contexts. For example, in a physical context, sattva is associated with mind, information and sentience, rajas with energy and tamas with mass. In a dietary context, foods which are said to encourage a keen but unagitated mind are classified as sattvika, those which are said to encourage activity, ambition and passion are classified as rajasika and those which lead to laziness or dullness are classified as tamasika.

Here only Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta based Darsanas are contrasted with Sānkhya. Nyaya and Viseshika are not included, because Sānkhya itself seeks to refute their Arambha/Asat-karya vada.


There are two seers with the name Kapila who are said to author the Sānkhya Sutras. Narayanavatara Kapila gave twenty five Sutras. Vaiswanaravatara Kapila gave the elaborate version with six chapters. Vijnana Bhikshu gave the Bhashya/commentary on these.

There are several commentaries/interpretations on the twenty five sutras of Kapila:

  1. Sānkhya Tatva Vivecana by Kshemendra (he is also called Shimananda)
  2. Tatva Yaadaarthya deepana by Bhaavaaganesha
  3. Sarvopakaarini – this does not mention the author. However this is the text that mentions that the twenty five Sānkhya Sutras are written by Narayanavatara (metaphorical, it means the incarnation of Narayana) Kapila and the 6-chapter Sutra text is authored by Vaiswanaravatara (metaphorical, it means the incarnation of Agni) Kapila.
  4. Sānkhya Sutra Vivaraṇa – author anonymous
  5. Tatva Samaasa Sutravritti – author anonymous
  6. Sānkhya Tatva Deepika by Kesava
  7. Sānkhya Tatva Pradeepa by Kavi Raja Yati
  8. Tatva Mimamsa by Krishna Mitra. This does not directly quote the sutras but speaks of their essence.
  9. Sānkhya Paribhasha – author anonymous. This too, does not directly quote the sutras but speaks of their essence.

The Sutras text given by Vaiswanaravatara Kapila has 527 Sutras. They are organized in six chapters or adhyayas: Vishaya (164 sutras), Pradhana karya (47 sutras), Vairagya (84 sutras), Aakhyaayika (32 sutras), Para mata khandana (130 sutras) and Tantra (70 sutras).

Isvara Krishna, the third level disciple of Kapila commented Sānkhya in 76 Karikas (refer Principles of Pedagogy/Bodhana Sastra for what Bhashya/Karika/Vartika are), these are called Sānkhya Karikas. This is considered the most standard text on Sānkhya after Kapila Sutras, and is actually more popular than the Sutras themselves. Even Adi Sankara in his references to Sānkhya does not quote the sutras, but refers to the Karikas. Gaudapada gave bhashya on the Sānkhya Karikas. Vijnana Bhikshu wrote Sānkhya Sara, a Vartika (secondary commentary) on Gaudapada's bhashya.

Sānkhya in Indian Spirituality

Sānkhya has a very special place in Indian spiritual philosophies and traditions. It is one of the oldest schools, and arguably the basis for all the jnana-marga traditions. Almost all of the schools that came after Sānkhya, Yoga, Vedanta, Mimamsa and Tantra base themselves on some of the most significant contribution of Sānkhya – such as the enumeration of the world, the phenomenal and absolute nature of the world. The classification of eight siddhis, the gauna and mukhya aspects of Shashthi Tantra for instance, along with the other major principles are quoted and taken as bases throughout the Indian traditions, not just the philosophical and ritual traditions but the Puranic literature, Bhakti traditions as well as Tantra.

It was given the central place in the philosophical schools, before the varied schools of Vedanta. Sri Krishna in Bhagavad Gita takes up Sānkhya as the first school. Dvaitists quote the same Sānkhya exposition done by Sri Krishna, to uphold the multiplicity of Self.


On many of the premises Sānkhya quotes Sruti and it establishes the cosmic principles based on the Sruti. Gayatri, said to be the essence of Veda, is said to be a Sānkhya Vidya. The twenty-four letters of Gayatri are said to enumerate the twenty four principles of Sānkhya. By the exclusion and understanding of the nature of these twenty four, it is said, the realization of the twenty-fifth principle, the Purusha, the Self, the absolute is realized (by the “neti” or exclusion law). The Maha Narayana Upanishad says “Sānkhyayana sa gotra” while describing Gayatri.

The very fact that Gayatri mantras are in “vidmahe-dheemahi-pracodayat” form indicates the jnana or knowledge approach of Sānkhya and Gayatri. They all mean meditation for enlightenment of intellect (to gain the discriminatory intelligence or vivecana).


Vedanta accepts the basic Sānkhya premise that atma-anatma vivecana or the discriminatory knowledge between Self and non-self is the source of liberation. The anatma or non-self is called in Sānkhya as the prakriti, and in a more general way in Vedanta by just calling it anything other than Self.


More than any other Darsana, Yoga Darsana is close to Sānkhya. So much so, that they are together called Sānkhya-Yoga and treated as the philosophy-method duo. Yoga provides methods to gain the discriminative knowledge of purusha and prakriti using the underlying Sānkhya philosophy.

Most of the Sānkhya principles, right from the pramāṇās, enumeration of the world, the cause of binding and source of liberation, the state in which knowledge arises and the Parinama Vada, are accepted by Yoga. For instance, Patanjala yoga defines five kinds of kleshas or difficulties that are similar to, and correspond to the viparyayas of Shashthi Tantra. They are avidya (ignorance), asmita (I-ness and sense of possession), raga (attachment), dvesha (hatred or negative attachment) and abhinivesa (fear of suffering). It can be seen that while yoga takes the methodical approach while Sānkhya takes the philosophical approach while describing these. Similarly the buddhi-gunas of Sānkhya are all taken as they are in Yoga.

The most important assertion where Yoga disagrees with Sānkhya is on Isvara. Yoga affirms Isvara. For this reason, Yoga is also called Sesvara Sānkhya (the Sānkhya with Isvara) and Sānkhya Pravacana (the one that teaches Sānkhya). From a philosophical perspective, Yoga is not even treated as a separate Darsana from Sānkhya in many cases. For instance Vyasa after refutation of Sānkhya (Brahma Sutras 2.1.3) just says “etena yogaH pratyuktaH”, implying that the same refutation applies to Yoga also.

Role of Sanyasa

Being a jnana-marga philosophy, Sānkhya prescribes detachment from experiences of phenomenal world and realization of Self. And Sanyasa or renunciation thus becomes a corollary to it, for bringing about the detachment. Yoga takes a different approach of cultivating the detachment through regulated practice. Sānkhya and Uttara Mimamsa based traditions lean more towards the Sanyasa model. However it should be understood that in the context of Hindu society Sanyasa is not a norm, but a stage of life that comes after a full fledged family and social life for the fulfillment of the fourth Purushartha, Moksha. In all the traditions it is usually understood that someone who seeks sanyasa had undergone the necessary training in Sastras, Rituals, had fulfilled his responsibilities in life and then come to seek Apavarga.


The influence of Sānkhya is not limited to the philosophical schools but reflects in many devotional and poetic works in the Indian literature. For instance Ramayana is said to symbolize Gayatri and Sānkhya. The twenty four letters of Gayatri and twenty four thousand verses of Ramayana indicate the twenty four principles of Sānkhya. Rama is the Purusha, Sita the Prakriti. The samyoga, viyoga and seshatva of Rama and Sita are explained through the story of Rama and Sita. The Vedantic jiva-Para symbolism is explained through Hanuman-Rama association. Sundara kanda, the story of Sundara (Hanuman) explains how, having realized one’s true nature one jumps across the sea of happenings (bhava sagara).


Sānkhya also has major influence on the Tantra that developed subsequently. For example, the Saiva Agamas enumerate thirty six principles that are based on the twenty five Sānkhya principles.

Present Day

There are several traditions that developed after Sānkhya, such as the Tantrika, Pauranika, Vedanta and Yoga. All these owe to Sānkhya for the principles they took from it. However, Sānkhya itself remained a philosophy that is studied. While the traditional learning continues to include Sānkhya as one of the darsanas, there is no Sānkhya based sampradaya today. The only major 20th century proponent of Samkhya proper was Swami Hariharananda Saraswati, a Dashanami sannyasi with Samkhyan leanings. It is only indirectly applied through the above traditions. However it is not just a historic interest that makes it part of the philosophies studied. As one of the consistent and comprehensive worldviews it always enjoys place in the canonical Darsanas.