Yoga Philosophy and Practice: Part 5 – Sāṃkhya

A yoga history in a mustard seed

by Heather Elton

 

S A M K H Y A

600 – 700 BCE.

 

In Vedic times, the Rishis sang hymns of the Vedas, poetry that describes the rhythms of the universe and the mystical experience attained by recreating those rhythms through chanting. About 800 BCE, the Age of Philosophy began and yogis investigated the world and consciousness through experiential knowledge. The Upaniṣads contain the first murmurings of philosophical inquiry, but are undeveloped as philosophical ‘systems’ because they didn’t undergo the fires of debate, or critique by other schools of thought.

 

It wasn’t until about 600 BCE, just before the time of the Buddha, that Upaniṣadic ideas were condensed into the Sāṃkhya system. And it’s upon the Sāṃkhya system that the different systems of yoga, those that recognised Vedic authority (Vedanta), and others that do not – Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka-materialism, – based their arguments. Sāṃkhya belonged to the latter category and was only much later added to the orthodox canon. For us, it’s important to know that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras uses the Sāṃkhya system as foundation for its philosophical system. Sāṃkhya is a ‘big deal’ and possibly the most important philosophy to emerge out of India.

 

ekaṃ sāṃkhyaṃ ca yogaṃ ca yaḥ paśyati sa

paśyati

Sāṃkhya and yoga are one. He who

perceives this, truly perceives.

Bhagavad Gita 5.5 (trans. Sargeant, 1984)

 

 

 

Sāṃkhya was founded by the sage, Kapila, who is thought to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Patanjali is the incarnation of Vishnu’s snake, Ananta or Adishesha, who supports him as he lies in the cosmic sea of creation. Sāṃkhya was later refined and placed in the form of a text, Sāṃkhya Kārikā,by philosopher, Ishwara Krishna, in the early millennia CE. Both the Sāṃkhya Kārikā and Patanjali Yogashastra have a lot in common. There are six philosophical systems in India, or Darśanas (a way of “seeing” / “knowing”): and Sāṃkhya is one of them.

  • Vedānta – expanding on the mystical Upanishads
  • Mīmāṃsā – elaborations on orthodox Vedic ritual
  • Nyāya – logical theories of knowledge and debate
  • Vaiśeṣika – the “atomist” counterpart of Nyāya
  • Sāṃkhya – catalogues reality as spirit and matter
  • Yoga – practical application of Sāṃkhya theories

 

The Sanskrit word Sāṃkhya means to count, enumerate, classify, or organise. Sāṃkhya is both a psychological system and a philosophical one. It’s a tool to make sense of the material world and our perception and interaction with it. It illuminates the experience of ‘close observation’ and explains who we are, what the world is, and how the cosmos might be structured. Sāṃkhya provides a metaphysical map that can be used to retrace manifestation to its source and presents a world of ‘direct experience’ based on what we experience during meditation. It classifies ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ states of perception experienced through yogic practices and the mystical experience of the Rishis, or sages. Yoga is the method to put these ideas into practice. The intention of the original philosophers is that you go into experiences deeply yourself, have an open mind, but not necessarily accept it because someone else has said so. This experimental approach to philosophy has endured to this day within the yoga tradition.

 

Sāṃkhya is infinitely complex and this article is no more than a cursory overview. It’s important to read the Sāṃkhya Kārikā to understand the subtle aspects. If you find even this essay too challenging, go to the TAKEAWAY at the end of the article.

 

 

M A I N  C O N C E P T S

Sāṃkhya is a dualist philosophy with no creator God. The main purpose is to remove three kinds of suffering (internal, external, and supernatural) and attain liberation (Kaivalya). At the heart of Sāṃkhya is the relationship between Purusha (Spirit | True Self | Pure Consciousness) and Prakriti (Nature | Matter) and when they become ‘entangled’, when spirit becomes involved with matter, the endless cycle of Samsara manifests and with it Duḥka (suffering).

 

duḥkhatrayābhighātājjijñāsā tadabhighātake hetau ।

dṛṣṭe sāpārthā cennaikāntātyantato’bhāvāt ॥ 1 ॥

Because of the injury from the three kinds of

suffering, there is a desire to know that in the means

of removal. If that is [considered] useless [because

there exists] perceptible [means], it is not so. There is

no existence [of the perceptible means of removal]

based in permanency and completeness.

-Verse 1. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvara Krishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

Sāṃkhya dismisses Vedic methods as a means to end this pain and considers ritual, imbibing in soma, etc. to be ineffective. Vedic animal sacrifice, in particular, is considered impure. Because the success of Vedic ritual depends on continued practice, this makes permanent relief impossible. It’s only through ‘discriminative knowledge’ – being able to discern between the Manifest (Prakriti) and the Unmanifest (Purusha) – that liberation will occur.

 

Sāṃkhya states that all of Manifest reality can be explained through 25 major principles (tattvas). 24 belong to Prakriti, and the 25th is Purusha. Of the ones belonging to Prakriti there is: Mula Prakriti (Unmanifest State), Buddhi/Mahat (Intelligence), Ahamkara (I-maker/Ego), and Manas (mind) which include the five instruments of cognition (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching), the five instruments of action (speech, hands, feet, anus, and genital), and the five gross elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth) that both Manifest and Unmanifest. These are animated by the three Gunas (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas), whose constant interplay manifests and animates the universe and brings impermanence and change.

 

mūlaprakṛtiravikṛtirmahadādyāḥ prakṛtivikṛtayaḥ

sapta ।

ṣoḍaśakastu vikāro na prakṛtirna vikṛtiḥ puruṣaḥ†॥ 3॥

Mula Prakriti is the inanimate principle. Beginning

with Mahat are the seven (mahat , ego, and the five

subtle elements), which are nature and changes. Those

consisting of sixteen (the mind, the five senses, the

five instruments of action, and the five gross

elements) are just change. The Self is not nature, nor

change.

-Verse 3. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvara Krishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

Of the 25 principles of Sāṃkhya philosophy, Purusha and Mula Prakriti are unmanifest. All the other principles are manifest.

 

The Sāṃkhya system is both a psychological system and a philosophical one. It presents a world of ‘direct experience,’ based on what we experience during meditation. Different layers of reality are nested one within another. It’s a tool to illuminate the experience of ‘close observation’ and explains who we are, what the world is, and how the cosmos might be structured. The intention of the original philosophers is that you go into experiences deeply yourself, have an open mind, but not necessarily accept it because someone else has said so. This experimental approach to philosophy has endured to this day within the yoga tradition.

 

The Sāṃkhya system is a path to liberation through a process of ‘disentanglement’, the separation of Purusha (Spirit/Pure Awareness) from Prakriti (Matter). If Purusha can ‘disidentify’ with Prakriti is it able to remain in the Unmanifest state and abide in its own form – independent, as a ‘witness’ of experience. – and succumb to a state of Kaivalya, or liberation. (Sāṃkhya uses the term ‘Kailvalya’ instead of the commonly used ‘Moksha’ at that time.) Sāṃkhya says that we must leave the material world behind.

 

“Samkhya, like all other Indian philosophical systems, aims to offer help in gaining freedom from suffering. In order to do so, it has to analyse the nature of the world in which we live and identify the causes of suffering. Sāṃkhya postulated a fundamental dualism of spirit (Purusha) and matter (Prakriti), and located suffering in a process of evolution that progressively involved spirit in matter.”

Hinduism, A Short Introduction by Klaus Lostermaier,

Oxford Centre for Vaishnava and Hindu Studies

 

Let’s explore further to find out how this metaphysical system relates to yoga practice and the goal of liberation.

 

 

 

 

T H E  S A M K H Y A  U N I V E R S E

Purusha and Prakriti

 

The study of yoga includes the various philosophical views and contemplations that the seers have made over the years through yoga practice, but primarily we study our own immediate experience. So, the Sāṃkhya system is a map to help you observe your own experience very closely, like you do in mediation. The Sāṃkhyan universe starts with what you have, with your own circumstances, the present sensations, feelings and thoughts, and also ends now by the full open observations of those very same things.

 

In a nutshell, Sāṃkhya splits the universe into Purusha (Spirit) and Prakriti (Matter). The two are both eternal and independent of each other in the unmanifested state of Mula Prakriti. Purusha is considered the masculine principle and is associated with pure consciousness. And is known as the ‘seer’ or Witness. Prakriti is the feminine principle – potentiality, mind, matter, and everything that Purusha is not. Prakriti is the ‘seen’, that which is the object of consciousness. Everything we experience in the outer world and in our imagination, including our thoughts and emotions, are Prakriti.

 

“Purusha is unchangeable and inactive, pervading within each individual, inhabiting the physical body in the physical world known as Prakriti. Prakriti, itself, is divided into the Unmanifest, which is the substrate of the world, and the Manifest, which is the unconscious, changing, developing entity, subservient to Purusha.”

Sāṃkhya Kārikā. Iśvara Kṛṣṇa’s Memorable Verses on Sāmkhya Philosophy, with the Commentary of Gaudapādācārya. Translated by Vidyāsudhākara Dr. Har Dutt Sharma, M.A., Ph.D.

 

The Sāṃkhya system uses many metaphors to describe the relationship between Purusha and Prakrit. Yoga teacher and scholar, Richard Freeman, eloquently describes their relationship in his Matrix of Yoga teachings:

 

“The flower is the symbol of Prakriti. The Sun is indiscriminating pure consciousness and simply shines. This causes the flower to open and turn towards the sun. So, the mystical experience that was described poetically in the Vedas, and philosophically in the early Upaniṣads, is expressed in the Sāṃkhya system when the Purusha simply ‘sees’ Prakriti, as Prakriti, simply as creative energy. Whatever we think, feel, or experience through the senses, is Prakriti. Our present experience is Prakriti. In this sense, we stop the process of theorising about experience and come into a raw, direct experience, which is the foundation of the mystical experience.”

 

A few centuries later, Buddha transmitted his teachings simply by looking at a flower. When there is ‘pure observation’ the creative energy unfolds like a flower. Richard Freeman again describes:

 

“In practising a yoga pose, we practice holding the stem of the flower, This central axis is Purusha, which is empty, contentless, pure consciousness. In holding the stem, the petals, which are not only the sensations and elements that comprise our physical body are allowed to unfold in an integrated, highly awakened state, but also the layers of the mind unfold to reveal their emotions, metaphors and techniques without obstruction and we end up as the Buddha simply holding the flower in awe and silence.”

 

The most well-known metaphor, established in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, portrays Prakriti as a dancer and Purusha as a passive male observer. When Prakriti becomes aware that she is being observed as herself, she becomes shy, which is actually her essential nature, and ceases to dance. When she stops dancing Prakriti becomes unmanifested, and in disappearing out of shyness because she’s been seen, Purusha is liberated and simply rests within his own nature.

 

In the unmanifest state of Mula Prakriti, Purusha and Prakriti are separate. Eventually, as the world manifests and we interact with it, Purusha experiences the qualities of Prakriti as its own and the process of ‘entanglement’ and suffering begins. When they separate, activity ceases. Prakrit returns to a state of passive potentiality and Purusha reaches Kaivalya (separation/aloneness), perfect freedom and spiritual liberation.

 

raṅgasya darśayitvā nivartate nartakī yathā nṛtyāt ।

puruṣasya tathātmānaṃ†prakāśya vinivartate prakṛtiḥ

॥ 59॥

Like a female dancer having performed, disengages

from the dance of the theatre just so nature [having

performed] in illumination of the soul, disengages.

-Verse 59. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

Everything that happens in the manifested world is played out in the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti – and is a process of the apparent bondage and liberation of the Purusha. Everything is for the sake of Purusha, and, when the ‘illusion’, or obscuration perpetuated by the Ahamkara (ego) is finally removed through the process of ‘disentanglement’, is seen to be indescribably tender.

 

In the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, Purusha is said to say: It is my thought that there is nothing more delicate than Prakriti who says to herself, “I have been seen.” And never comes into sight of the Purusha. And says the seer, Purusha, “I have seen her.” The other ceases to say “I have been seen,” and though the two are still in close proximity no creation takes place. This is metaphorical for the suspension of thought activity in the deepest samādhi of yoga in which the Purusha realises its own nature and attains Moksha.

 

Understanding the difference between Purusha and Prakriti creates the liberation of the Purusha. The perceiving of Prakriti is ‘experience’ itself and the liberation of Purusha (abiding in its own form) through the process of discernment, is the realisation of what Purusha is not. And what it is not is Prakriti. If Prakriti were to remain imperceptible, then no differentiation could take place. So, they’re ‘coming together’ is the necessary experience for them to occur. The coming together of subjectivity and objectivity.

 

Studying Sāṃkhya, or studying yoga, is essentially the process of simply ‘watching’ things, with such an open mind, and with such attention, awe and appreciation, and without the need to judge and jump to conclusions about what you’re watching. In deep yogic states, when something starts to appear, like a thought arising within consciousness, just as the process and deep feeling of that thought beginning to appear, is ‘seen’, it becomes shy and goes away. So, the process of awareness summarises the entire practice of yoga.

 

 

The 3 Gunas

 

The ground from which our experience unfolds is called Mula Prakriti. Mula = root and Prakriti = creative energy. In this original state, Prakriti is said to be like a clear, bright, empty mirror that simply reflects the pure contentless consciousness that is Purusha. The animating force of the Sāṃkhya universe are the three Gunas. Guna = strand or rope.

 

The three gunas are Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva is associated with principles of light and luminosity and has the power to appear. Rajas is the energy of activity (desire, passion, sorrow). It has the power of motion and the ability to expand and be energetic. Tamas is the quality of stability and inertia (dullness, fixity, darkness, illusion), with the power to resist and reign in the expansive energy. The three of them, together, serve to illuminate, manifest and restrain. They function like a lamp to bring the world of experience into being.

 

The Sāṃkhya Kārikā describes them in Verse 13:

 

sattvaṃ laghuprakāśakamiṣṭamupaṣṭambhakaṃ

calaṃ ca rajaḥ।

guruvaraṇakameva tamaḥ pradīpavaccārthato vṛttiḥ

॥ 13 ॥

Sattva is buoyant and bright. Rajas is desire,

stimulation, and unsteadiness. Tamas, indeed, is

heavy and enveloping. [The gunas] are like a light, the

function is according to the aim.

-Verse 13. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

It’s through the interaction of the gunas that Prakriti’s various forms manifest. All three gunas are in a dynamic tension with each other. They create constant change, evolution and transformation. Everything in the universe that can be experienced is a result of these three energetic threads. When the gunas get out of control, Purusha gets involved with Prakriti.

 

Richard Freeman explains how the Gunas can be felt in yoga practice:

“When we practice yoga, it’s important not to be attached to any particular state, but to maintain equanimity. When we sit down to meditate and we’re not attached to having a ‘good’ practice, that will transform it into a good practice because the very process of observation generates sattva. But if the mind creates an ideal of sattva then you become rajasic automatically. The mystical experience occurs when we see that all experience is simply the three gunas are acting upon the each other. When a happy or sattvic states arises, and then naturally disintegrates into tamasic or dull, we don’t identify with. We’re able to just observe it as the natural state of change. Then when passion arises, or ideas that stir things up, we don’t react, but just see it’s the state of the gunas, and enjoy the process of life happening.”

 

Sāṃkhya provides this framework to investigate the mind, consciousness and perception.

 

 

 

T H E  T A T T V A S

 

In Sāṃkhya’s hierarchical map of Creation, all of Manifest reality can be explained through the various ‘principles’ of the 25 tattvas, and this is what is referred to when Sāṃkhya is said to derive its name from ‘enumeration’ or ‘calculation’. According to the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, all the tattvas emerge from Mula Prakriti (except Purusha), in increasingly less subtle forms as they unfold from the Manifest substrate.

 

The first to emerge from Mula Prakriti is Buddhi | Mahat (discerning intelligence). Ahamkara is the second principle, emerges from Buddhi and is characterised as (Ego | ‘I’- Maker | Self Conceit) and is the principle that creates the Self. From Ahamkara, arises Manas (Mind) and five Buddhindriyas, instruments of cognition that facilitate observation (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching), five Karmendriyas, instruments of action (communication, grasping, locomotion excretion, and reproduction). The Maha Bhutas, or five gross elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth), are derived from the tamasic aspect of Ahamkara, and from them the Tanmātras, or subtle elements (odour, flavour, shape/colour, texture, and sound) unfold. All of these undergo constant states of change, except Mula Prakriti and Purusha.

 

antaḥkaraṇaṃ trividhaṃ daśadhā bāhyaṃ trayasya

viṣayākhyam ।

sāmpratakālaṃ bāhyaṃ trikālamābhyantaraṃ

karaṇam ॥ 33॥

The interior instrument is three in number (buddhi,

ahamkara, mind). The exterior instrument is ten in

number (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and

touching, speech, hands, feet, the anus, and genital) is

called the object of the three (buddhi, ahamkara,

mind). The exterior instrument is in the present time.

The interior instrument is in the three times (past,

present, and future).

-Verse 33. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

Buddhi, Ahamkara and Manas are considered to be ‘interior’ instruments that absorb all objects and act like ‘portal keepers’, to assimilate the various changes in the gunas and process stimuli from the environment, via the instruments of action.

 

sāntaḥkaraṇā buddhiḥ sarvaṃ viṣayamavagāhate

yasmāt ।

tasmāt trividhaṃ karaṇaṃ dvāri dvārāṇi śeṣāṇi ॥ 35॥

From which buddhi together with the internal

instrument absorbs all objects, from that the three

kinds of instruments (buddhi, ahamkara, and mind)

are portal keepers. All the others (the instruments of

cognition and action) are the portals.

-Verse 35. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

The other 10 principles are the ‘exterior’ instruments, function as the ‘portals’, and are the objects of the Buddhi, Ahamkara and Mind. The exterior instruments reside in the present time. The interior instruments reside in the past, present, and future. Together they resemble a lamp, but are different from one another due to the qualities of the gunas, and facilitate the aim of the Self in the illuminated buddhi.

 

ubhayātmakamatra manaḥ saṅkalpakamindriyaṃ†ca

sādharmyāt ।

guṇapariṇāmaviśeṣān nānātvaṃ bāhyabhedācca ॥ 27॥

Here, the mind belongs to both, sense (organs of

cognition) and will (organs of action), based on the

assimilation to the distinctions in the change of the

gunas and the variety based on the division of the

environment.

-Verse 27. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

 

Buddhi | Mahat

Buddhi translates as intelligence, the higher Self, and the awakening principle. It creates ‘context’ to understand our experiences and gives us the ability to discover the real meaning of things. We might not have control over what sensations are presented to us on our yoga mat – tight shoulders or hamstrings, etc. -, but freedom comes from being able to ‘observe’ the content that presents itself intelligently, so we can discover context for what is given. So, through yoga, the Buddhi is purified and doesn’t get stuck in any given content.

 

The Sāṃkhya Kārikā describes Buddhi as such:

adhyavasāyo buddhirdharmo jñānaṃ†virāga

aiśvaryam ।

sāttvikametadrūpaṃ†tāmasamasmād viparyastam

॥ 23॥

Buddhi is effort. Dharma , knowledge, indifference, power is endowed with the quality of sattva [of buddhi ]. The form consisting of tamas [of buddhi ] is the opposite from this (sattva). Buddhi is the capacity for discernment.

-Verse 23. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

Richard Freeman explains in The Matrix of Yoga how Buddhi functions in yoga practice:

The human body can be thought of as a yantra, mandala – designed to capture the mind and take us deeper, and deeper, through its own inner structure and, in the yogic tradition, to eventually allow the mind to see its own nature. Purusha is the passenger, the ‘witness’, who sits at the centre of the of the vehicle, and observes the ceaseless activity that is Prakriti. When Buddhi ‘identifies’ with aspects of consciousness and aspects of the vehicle, we fall into the trap of the Ahamkara – thinking, ‘I am my vehicle.’ Sāṃkhya allows us to appreciate our vehicles as ‘vehicles’. If we don’t become identified with the vehicle, we can use it and then get out of it, having the freedom to leave it behind. The different layers that we experience through our body are layers of an independent machine that we ride around on. This is the origin of the concept of the different sheaths, koshas, that surround pure consciousness.

 

The deep core of the flower of Prakriti contains emotions, aspirations and memories. The surface is that which ends up appearing within the screen of our consciousness and we develop a dynamic system in which the surface moves in such a way that the core is affected and the core is transformed and turns up new material to the surface. Buddhi undergoes continuous awakening and freedom to reframe experience, to understand things in a deeper way. This intelligence is the context maker and has the ability to wake up or move away from a context into another. It is the very principle of freedom and awakening.

 

If there were no Buddhi, then Prakriti would simply be a dream machine and the ability to wake up out of the different fantasies of the mind and ascertain reality would be stopped. Everything we’re actually experiencing, whether it’s an external or internal sensation, is Buddhi. It presents to Purusha the forms of Prakriti. If the mind is distracted, we look through Buddhi and we see ‘things’ without appreciating their interconnected and sacred nature, until through the practice of yoga we appreciate that we are in intimate contact with Buddhi, or the innermost softest layer of the flower of Prakriti.

 

 

A H A M K A R A

Ahamkara is the Ego or, I-maker, and establishes form in the world. It ties pure consciousness with the unconscious -Purusha and Prakriti. When there is a confusion between the two a knot emerges and that’s the ego. Ahamkara runs the intelligence of the Buddhi outwards, or away from pure consciousness. In doing so, the ego attempts to create a false self, or a false Purusha.

 

The ego is still as sacred as any other processes of consciousness and is essential for drawing boundaries around things and keeping us safe. The practice of yoga is intended to be grounding in that, because the intelligence is purified, the ego becomes porous and we’re able to let go of those beliefs that define who we think we are so the mechanical function of the mind begins to work clearly. This allows us to experience transformation and growth. If we pay attention to the feedback from the outside world, and balance it with our desires and the imagination of the inner world, we come into the present moment. And, in witnessing that change, there is a possibility of discovering our true nature.

 

 

Manas

Manas (mind) is the organiser of sensation, the synthesizing faculty that combines sensory phenomena into a coherent conceptual field. We constantly receive information through our senses, our imagination, and as a result create narratives, theories and form opinions about things. The function of manas is to select and filter this information. Manas has two basic functions: Sankalpaand Vikalpa. Kal = imagine. Sankalpa constructs things into a whole and unifies them. Vikalpa divides things up and discards them. Manas accepts and rejects based on the ego function. It’s at this level of Manas that inner ideas and feelings meet the outer world of sense perceptions.

 

 

 

Jnanendriyas (Organs of Perception)

Jnanendriyas, sometimes called Indriyas or Buddhindriyas, are the organs of perception, or sense organs. Ears, Skin, Eyes, Tongue and Nose. They act like doorways between our inner world and external universe. The sense ‘content’ associated with them are sound, tactile feeling, visible form, flavour and fragrance.

 

buddhīndriyāṇi cakṣuḥśrotraghrāṇarasanatvagākhyāni

vākpāṇipādapāyūpasthān karmendriyānyāhuḥ†॥ 26॥

The instruments of cognition are known as seeing,

hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. The

instruments of action are known as the speech, hands,

feet, the anus, and genital.

-Verse 26. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

śabdādiṣu pañcānāmālocanamātramiṣyate vṛttiḥ†।

vacanādānaviharaṇotsargānandāśca pañcānām ॥ 28॥

Among the sense of hearing, etc. of the five

(instruments of cognition) are considered mere

observation. The function of the five (instruments of

action) are speech, seizure, locomotion, evacuation,

and pleasure.

-Verse 28. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

 

Karmendriyas (Organs of Action)

The Karmendriyas are the organs of action that allow us to move away from Self and engage with the outer world. Mouth, Arms, Legs, Anus, Genitals. These facilitate the physical functions of elimination (anus), reproduction (genitals), movement (feet), grasping (hands), speaking (mouth). We speak and experience speaking. When we clasp objects, we have a kinaesthetic experience of them. We move about and experience of motion and proprioception (the body’s position in space).

 

sāntaḥkaraṇā buddhiḥ sarvaṃ viṣayamavagāhate

yasmāt ।

tasmāt trividhaṃ karaṇaṃ dvāri dvārāṇi śeṣāṇi ॥ 35॥

From which buddhi together with the internal

instrument absorbs all objects, from that the three

kinds of instruments (buddhi, ahamkara, and mind)

are portal keepers. All the others (the instruments of

cognition and action) are the portals.

-Verse 35. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

Tanmātras (Subtle Elements)

Tanmatra (tan = subtle; matra = elements). The Tanmātras are subtle sensory data that together form the ‘common ground’ enabling our perception of the external world. Another meaning of ‘tan’ is mother, and ‘matra’ is matter — the mother of matter. The Mother of the universe is the Tanmātras. These five primary sensations are:

  1. Sound (sabdha-tattva)
  2. Touch (sparsha-tattva)
  3. Form (rupa-tattva)
  4. Taste (rasa-tattva)
  5. Smell (gandha-tattva)

The Tanmātras link the sense organs (Ears, Skin, Eyes, Tongue and Nose) to the Mahābhūtas, or five gross elements, and in the process make it possible to have sensory perception of objects and perceive the outer physical world. This creates the biggest obstacle to liberation – duality of self/other, subject/object.

 

tanmātrāṇyaviśeṣāstebhyo bhūtāni pañca pañcabhyaḥ।

ete smṛtā viśeṣāḥ śāntā ghorāśca mūḍhāśca ॥ 38॥

The Tanmātras are the subtle elements (sound, touch,

color, taste, and odor). From those are the five gross

elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth). From the

five are those gross (elements) experienced as calm,

turbulent, and deluded.

-Verse 38. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

Mahābhūtas (Gross Elements)

Mahābhūtas are the five gross elements of matter – space, air, fire, water and earth – and it’s through them that we have the capacity to have tactile sensations. From them the real substance of our experience, unfolds. The Mahābhūtas are seen as interdependent manifestations of the three gunas and unfold out of each other hierarchically, from subtle to gross. Sound is the subtlest and is the first stage of manifestation and is thought to be beyond the reach of an ordinary person. Think of the sound of OM dissolving into silence, or such high frequency that it continues as pure vibration beyond our capacity to hear it. Only a Yogi can have the perception of Tanmātras.

 

  1. Akasha (sky/ether) is the most subtle element as is described as non-obstructive, radiant space. It creates location and extension in space (e., size, direction, etc.) and corresponds with sound (sabdha-tattva). When you listen, you hear space. Ether is perceived by its quality of sound, only. You can hear space but you can’t touch it, see it, taste it or smell it.
  2. Vayu (air) unfolds from Akasha and corresponds to touch (sparsha-tattva). Air describes motion through space and has a distinctive form, a location, and the potential for movement from one location to another. It deals with the process of thought and corresponds to touch. Air is perceived by its qualities of sound with touch. You can feel air and hear it, but you can’t see it, taste it or smell it.
  3. Tejas (fire) unfolds from Vayu as an upward, expanding and opening movement. It corresponds with the sense of sight (rupa-tattva) and gives form and shape to the universe. Fire is perceived by its qualities of colour, feel and sound. You can see fire, feel it and hear it, but you can’t taste it or smell it.
  4. Water unfolds from fire as a downward movement, contracting flow. It gives fluidity andcorresponds with the sense of taste (rasa-tattva). Water is perceived through its qualities of taste, colour, feel and sound You can taste water, see it, feel it and hear it, but you can’t smell it.
  5. Prativi (earth) is the final evolute, the grossest of all, and involves all five senses. Earth gives solidity to an object and obstructs movement and is completely the opposite of the sky. It corresponds to corresponds to smell (gandha-tattva). Earth is perceived by its qualities of odour, taste, colour, feel and sound You can smell earth, taste it, see it, feel it and hear it.

 

The interaction of the organs of perception and the Mahābhūtas creates form and patterns of sensation, and gives the appearance that things are in various stages of solidity. Earth appears solid, water is fluid, fire is light, air can be felt, space is empty. Form appears not only in the outside world as objects, but also in our internal world as psychological states of internal feelings and perceptions. Even your most subtle feeling, or sensation, has its content in these five elements. This idea in Sāṃkhya is a development of the Koshas (5 sheaths) or the Vayus in the Subtle Body.

 

In Yoga Matrix, Richard Freeman describes how to apply the 5 Elements to yoga practice.

 

“Sāṃkhya is a philosophical system that allows you to observe sensation patterns in your body. We can apply the idea of the five elements to our yoga practice when we investigate different types of sensations that arise in meditation and or asana. The element of water is not so much an abstract concept as a sensation of liquidness in your body. This initially involves the sensation patterns of your inner thighs, a deepening of the groins that you feel when you’re relaxed. Through sensations of dropping in various part of the body one can identify with the stability and fixity of the earth element.

In the inner world of the yogi, the pelvic floor is considered to be the earth element (Mula Bandha and Muladhara Chakra) and it’s with awareness that we get a sense of solidity. Having been grounded we also have the ability to focus the mind on a single thing.

 

The element fire is the quality of spreading out, but has the ability to incorporate into your meditation, a great variety of sensations spread out around you. The element air has to do with the sense of touch and condenses around the area of the heart. Touch is associated with skin. Skin is a field of intelligence. If I touch one area, the whole sheath around the body wakes up. The element air has to do with the physical sensations of relationship between things, even muscles. The element Akasha, or space, is the ability to allow sensations to unfold without having to interfere. It’s through the 5 elements that we ground the Sāṃkhya system in our direct experience.”

 

 

The Samkhya Solution to Suffering

 

We’ve now mapped out the 25 Tattvas of the Sāṃkhyan universe, seen how cognition works, how our mind gets drawn to our senses in an outward direction (away from Purusha), and how when our senses grasp sense objects, perception of a material world arises. But perhaps you’re still unsure about what this system, and its set of categories, has to do with yoga practice and the goal of liberation, the abiding of the seer, and Purusha in its own form?

 

According to Dr. Mike Burley (in his presentation on Sāṃkhya as part of SOAS’s Centre for Yoga Studies lecture series), “Sāṃkhya’s ontological system is the theoretical context that supports the practice. The point is to provide an analysis of the constitutive conditions (plus the unmanifest ground) of all possible experience -that is, of precisely those things with which disidentification (detachment, dissociation) must be cultivated by means of yoga practice. Yoga practice is about rigorous control of experience through meditation, establishing the psychological environment in which the gunas can be observed and detached from.”

 

The Sāṃkhya solution to the problem of suffering lies in using its ontological map to rewind the process of cognition. Like early Upaniṣadic thought and ascetic yogi practices that precede it, Sāṃkhya, too, takes the view that the goal of yoga is to diminish suffering and attain liberation by leaving the material world behind. But, in Sāṃkhya, Duḥka (suffering) = Entanglement. To diminish suffering we must ‘disidentify’ with (detach from, realise non-identity with) all the tattvas, plus the unmanifest ground of potential experience – namely, Prakriti.

 

Kaivalya (liberation) can only happen if Purusha disentangles from Prakriti and resides in its own true form. Suffering occurs when Purusha identifies with and is attached to Prakriti’s manifest forms. This happens when the mind is drawn outwards towards the senses, and the Ahamkara (ego) identifies with the subtle content of the mind and diverts us from having deeper insight into the nature of consciousness. We become ‘entangled’ in our stories and memories. At that moment, we are taken away from Purusha -our true nature. If you can witness your thoughts with pure awareness, you see that you’re not your thoughts. Sāṃkhya allows us to experience the manifest world, rewind the process using discernment to differentiate Purusha from Prakriti, see Purusha with pure awareness (without judgment, or interpretation), and then succumb to the unmanifest state of Kaivalya.

 

Kaivalya is attained through the practice of yoga. And, specifically, Pratyahara (mentioned in the Upaniṣads, and much later becomes the fifth limb of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), a process of withdrawing the senses inwards, away from the sense objects, towards our true nature. Through the practice of yoga, our intelligence (Buddhi) is purified and we are able to experience the difference between pure consciousness and the ‘content’ of pure consciousness. This is the point where the seer, by ‘seeing’ that Prakriti is empty of any Self, becomes conscious of its own nature as pure consciousness. We are able to look into own heart, the deep mind, the pulsing creative energy, and see the clear, radiant light of consciousness – Purusha.

 

It’s a process where Purusha, abides (in itself) like a witness, sees Prakriti, who has returned to inactivity because her purpose is complete.

tena nivṛttaprasavāmarthavaśāt saptarūpavinivṛttām ।

prakṛtiṃ paśyati puruṣaḥ prekṣakavadavasthitaḥ

susthaḥ ॥ 65॥

By that (knowledge), the Self, well situated standing

firm possessed of sight, beholds nature, which has

ceased production and discontinued from the seven

forms based on the influence of the aim.

-Verse 65. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

Even though Purusha has ‘seen’ Prakriti and Prakriti has ‘been seen’, the two remain separate.

dṛṣṭā mayetyupekṣakaiko dṛṣṭāhamityuparatānyā ।

satisaṃyoge’pi tayoḥ†prayojanaṃ†nāsti sargasya

॥ 66॥

The Self, indifferent, thinks, “It is seen by me.” The

other, withdrawn, thinks, “I am seen.” Even existing

together (the Self and Nature) in union, there is no

aim of creation of those two.

-Verse 66. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

With the cessation of Prakriti, Purusha separates from the body and all that is material and attains Kaivalya.

prāpte śarīrabhede caritārthatvāt pradhānavinivṛttau ।

aikāntikamātyantikamubhayaṃ†kaivalyamāpnoti

॥ 68॥

When arrived at the dissolution of the body from

one’s own aims in acts and when there is cessation of

Nature, there is attaining both complete and continual

detachment of the soul from matter.

-Verse 68. Sāṃkhya Kārikā of Ishvarakrishna.

Translated by Michael Douglas Neely

 

 

The image of the abiding Purusha and the cessation on the part of Prakriti is the essence of Kaivalya. When we can discern between pure consciousness, and everything else that contributes to our experience of the world, the result is the dissolution of the ‘experiential content’ itself, and it’s in that moment that liberation occurs. In the Sāṃkhya system, yoga is not about union. It’s a process of separation or isolation (Kaivalya).

 

The Sāṃkhya system is very important and had significant influence on the yoga practice. The Mahabharata mentions Sāṃkhya, in the Moskadharma sections of the Bhagavad Gita. It weaves its way into Buddha’s non-dual view of the world (which we’ll see in the next chapter). For us, it’s important to know that Patanjali used the Sāṃkhya system as a foundation for his own school of thought. Yoga Sutras retains the dualist view and the term ‘Kaivalya.’ Both Buddhism and Patanjala Yoga agree that liberation the state of pure consciousness without content.

puruṣa-artha-śūnyānāṁ guṇānāṁ-pratiprasavaḥ kaivalyaṁ svarūpa-pratiṣṭhā vā citiśaktiriti ॥34॥

puruṣa-artha=aim of the Purusha; śūnyānāṁ=devoid of; guṇānāṁ=of the three gunas; pratiprasavaḥ=re-absorption; re-mergence; kaivalyaṁ=final liberation; svarūpa=in real or own nature; pratiṣṭhā=establishment; vā=or; citiśaktiriti=of the power of pure consciousness॥34॥

Ultimate liberation is when the gunas, devoid of any purpose for the purusha, return to their original [latent] state; in other words, when the power of consciousness is situated in its own essential nature.

– Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 4.34. Translation Edwin Bryant.

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T A K E A W A Y 

  • 600 – 700 BCE. Sāṃkhya was founded by the sage, Kapila, who is thought to be an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Sāṃkhya was later refined and placed in the form of a text, Sāṃkhya Kārikā, by philosopher, Ishwara Krishna, in the early millennia CE.
  • Sāṃkhya is considered to be ‘the’ yoga philosophy, and was influential on other philosophical systems that followed, including Buddhism. For us, it’s important to know that Patanjali used the Sāṃkhya system as a foundation for his own school of thought.
  • Sāṃkhya is a dualist philosophy with no creator God. It splits the universe into two – Purusha(Spirit or Pure Awareness) and Prakriti (Matter). Purusha is the masculine principle and is associated with pure consciousness. Prakriti is the feminine principle – potentiality, mind, matter, and everything that Purusha is not. Purusha is the ‘seer’ or Witness and Prakriti is the ‘seen’, that which is the object of consciousness and. Everything we experience in the outer world and in our imagination, including our thoughts and emotions, are different form of Prakriti.
  • The most well-known metaphor, established in the Sāṃkhya Kārikā, portrays Prakriti as a dancer and Purusha as a passive male observer. When Prakriti becomes aware that she is being observed as herself, she becomes shy, which is actually her essential nature, and ceases to dance. When she stops dancing Prakriti becomes unmanifested, and in disappearing out of shyness because she’s been seen, Purusha is liberated and simply rests within his own nature.

 

  • Sāṃkhya is a system to make sense of the material world and yoga puts it into practice.
  • The Sanskrit word, Sāṃkhya, means ‘counting’, ‘classifying’ or ‘organising’. The core of the Sāṃkhya system consists of the classification and enumeration of 25 Tattvas or basic ‘principles’ or elements out of which the whole world is manifested. 24 belong to Prakriti, and the 25th is Purusha. Of the ones belonging to Prakriti there is: Mula Prakriti (Unmanifest State), Buddhi/Mahat (Intelligence), Ahamkara (I-maker/Ego), and Manas (mind) which include the five instruments of cognition (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching), the five instruments of action (speech, hands, feet, anus, and genital), and the five gross elements (space, air, fire, water, and earth).
  • These are animated by the three Gunas (Sattva, Rajas, Tamas), whose constant interplay manifests and animates the universe and brings impermanence and change. All material things are combinations of:
    • tamas – is the quality of stability and inertia (lethargy, dullness, heavy, solidity, fixity, darkness, illusion), the basis of stillness with the power to resist and reign in the expansive energy.:
    • rajas – is the energy of activity and unsteadiness (desire, passion, sorrow). It has the power of motion and the ability to expand and be energetic.
    • sattva – is associated with principles of light and luminosity and has the power to appear with a rising and joyful tendency towards integration

 

  • Sāṃkhya’s aim to diminish suffering and attain liberation (Kaivalya). Duḥka (suffering) = Entanglement. Suffering arises when Purusha becomes entangled with Prakriti and loses its ability to be independent – transcendent, shining light of the witness.
  • Ultimately, Sāṃkhya is about disentanglement from Prakriti, to become ‘the witness’. The observer observes, but doesn’t get involved. We must disentanglement from our stories and memories. No interpretation. No judgment. WITNESS your thoughts and understand that you’re NOT your thoughts. Important idea!
  • In the Sāṃkhya system yoga is not about UNION. It’s a process of separation or isolation (Kaivalya).
  • Studying Sāṃkhya, or yoga, is essentially simply ‘watching’ things, with such an open mind, and with such attention, awe and appreciation, and without the need to judge and jump to conclusions about what you’re watching. In deep yogic states, when something starts to appear, like a thought arising within consciousness, just as the process and deep feeling of that thought beginning to appear, is ‘seen’, it becomes shy and goes away. So, the process of awareness summarises the entire practice of yoga.

 

 

Missed the beginning? Start at the top with Part One – A Yoga History in a Nutshell: Introduction

Part 6 on Buddhism is coming soon.


This series of articles in A History of Yoga is intended for students on my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training programs and explores the philosophy and practice of yoga throughout it’s history. Many of the ideas  are inspired by the teachers who have taught Yoga Philosophy on my Yoga Teacher Training programs. Emil Wendel, Jim Mallinson,  Mark Singleton, Ian Baker, John Weddepohl, Daniela Bevilacqua, Matthew Clark, Daniel Simpson and Ruth Westoby. The Hatha Yoga Project and Centre of Yoga Studies at SOAS, and online courses with Seth Powell (Yogic Studies), have also been influential. Gratitude to Richard Freeman who brings the philosophy back to the mat. As always, deep gratitude to my guru, Dzongsar Jamyang Khentsye Rinpoche, for his presence and teachings.  🙏🏽 Any misrepresentations of facts or dharma are totally of my own doing for which I’m sorry.

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