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This article is about a school of philosophy. For the statistics journal, see Sankhya (journal).

Samkhya or Sankhya (Sanskrit: सांख्य, IAST: sāṃkhya) is one of the six āstika (orthodox) schools of Indian philosophy.[1][2][3] It is described as the rationalist school of Indian philosophy.[4] It is most related to the Yoga school of Hinduism, and its rationalism was influential on other schools of Indian philosophies.[5]

Sāmkhya is an enumerationist philosophy whose epistemology accepts three of six pramanas (proofs) as the only reliable means of gaining knowledge. These include pratyakṣa (perception), anumāṇa (inference) and śabda (āptavacana, word/testimony of reliable sources).[6][7][8]

Samkhya is strongly dualist.[9][10][11] Sāmkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two realities; puruṣa (consciousness) and prakṛti (matter). Jiva (a living being) is that state in which puruṣa is bonded to prakṛti in some form.[12] This fusion, state the Samkhya scholars, led to the emergence of buddhi ("spiritual awareness") and ahaṅkāra (ego consciousness). The universe is described by this school as one created by purusa-prakṛti entities infused with various permutations and combinations of variously enumerated elements, senses, feelings, activity and mind.[12] During the state of imbalance, one of more constituents overwhelm the others, creating a form of bondage, particularly of the mind. The end of this imbalance, bondage is called liberation, or kaivalya, by the Samkhya school.[13]

The existence of God or supreme being is not directly asserted, nor considered relevant by the Samkhya philosophers. Sāṃkhya denies the final cause of Ishvara (God).[14] While the Samkhya school considers the Vedas as a reliable source of knowledge, it is an atheistic philosophy according to Paul Deussen and other scholars.[15][16] A key difference between Samkhya and Yoga schools, state scholars,[16][17] is that Yoga school accepts a "personal, yet essentially inactive, deity" or "personal god".[18]

Samkhya is known for its theory of guṇas (qualities, innate tendencies).[19] Guṇa, it states, are of three types: sattva being good, compassionate, illuminating, positive, and constructive; rajas is one of activity, chaotic, passion, impulsive, potentially good or bad; and tamas being the quality of darkness, ignorance, destructive, lethargic, negative. Everything, all life forms and human beings, state Samkhya scholars, have these three guṇas, but in different proportions. The interplay of these guṇas defines the character of someone or something, of nature and determines the progress of life.[20][21] The Samkhya theory of guṇas was widely discussed, developed and refined by various schools of Indian philosophies, including Buddhism.[22] Samkhya's philosophical treatises also influenced the development of various theories of Hindu ethics.[5]


Samkhya (सांख्य), also referred to as Sankhya, Sāṃkhya, or Sāṅkhya, is a Sanskrit word that, depending on the context, means "to reckon, count, enumerate, calculate, deliberate, reason, reasoning by numeric enumeration, relating to number, rational."[23] In the context of ancient Indian philosophies, Samkhya refers to the philosophical school in Hinduism based on systematic enumeration and rational examination.[24]

Historical development[edit]

The word samkhya means empirical or relating to numbers.[25] Although the term had been used in the general sense of metaphysical knowledge before,[26] in technical usage it refers to the Samkhya school of thought that evolved into a cohesive philosophical system in early centuries CE.[27] The Samkhya system is called so because "it 'enumerates' twenty five Tattvas or true principles; and its chief object is to effect the final emancipation of the twenty-fifth Tattva, i.e. the puruṣa or soul."[25]


King Amsuman and the yogic sage Kapila.

Some 19th and 20th century scholars suggested that Samkhya may have non-Vedic origins. Richard Garbe stated in 1898, "The origin of the Sankhya system appears in the proper light only when we understand that in those regions of India which were little influenced by Brahmanism the first attempt had been made to solve the riddles of the world and of our existence merely by means of reason. For the Sankhya philosophy is, in its essence, not only atheistic but also inimical to the Veda."[28] Dandekar, similarly wrote in 1968, "The origin of the Sankhya is to be traced to the pre-Vedic non-Aryan thought complex".[29]

Some scholars disagreed with this view. Arthur Keith, for example in 1925, stated, "Samkhya owes its origin to the Vedic-Upanisadic-epic heritage is quite evident,"[30] and "Samkhya is most naturally derived out of the speculations in the Vedas, Brahmanas and the Upanishads."[31]

Johnston in 1937, analyzed then available Hindu and Buddhist texts for the origins of Samkhya, then wrote "the origin lay in the analysis of the individual undertaken in the Brahmanas and earliest Upanishads, at first with a view to assuring the efficacy of the sacrificial rites and later in order to discover the meaning of salvation in the religious sense and the methods of attaining it. Here – in Kaushitaki Upanishad and Chandogya Upanishad – the germ are to be found (of) two of the main ideas of classical Samkhya."[32]

More recent scholarship offers another perspective. Ruzsa in 2006,[33] for example, states, "Sāṅkhya has a very long history. Its roots go deeper than textual traditions allow us to see. The ancient Buddhist Aśvaghoṣa (in his Buddha-Carita) describes Arāḍa Kālāma, the teacher of the young Buddha (ca. 420 B.C.E.) as following an archaic form of Sāṅkhya."[33]

Anthony Warder in 2009, summarizes that Samkhya and Mīmāṃsā schools appear to have been established before Sramana traditions in India (~500 BCE), and he traces Samkhya origins to be Vedic. Samkhya, writes Warder, "has indeed been suggested to be non-Brahmanical and even anti-Vedic in origin, but there is no tangible evidence for that except that it is very different than most Vedic speculation – but that is (itself) quite inconclusive. Speculations in the direction of the Samkhya can be found in the early Upanishads."[34]

Mikel Burley in 2012, writes Richard Garbe's 19th century view on Samkhya's origin are weak and implausible.[35] Burley states that India's religio-cultural heritage is complicated, and likely experienced a non-linear development.[36] Samkhya is not necessarily non-Vedic nor pre-Vedic, nor a "reaction to Brahmanic hegemony", states Burley.[36] It is most plausibly, in its origins a lineage that grew and evolved from a combination of ascetic traditions and Vedic "guru (teacher) and disciples". Burley suggests the link between Samkhya and Yoga as likely root of this evolutionary origin during the Vedic era of India.[36]

Between 1938 and 1969, two previously unknown manuscript editions of Yuktidipika were discovered and published.[37] Yuktidipika is an ancient review and has emerged as the most important commentary on Samkhyakarika – itself an ancient key text of the Samkhya school.[38] This discovery and recent scholarship[37] by Paul Hacker and others suggests Samkhya with well established epistemology, ontology and cosmology existed earlier than previously thought, sometime in the 1st millennium BCE and that many more ancient scholars contributed to the origins of Samkhya in ancient India, than were previously known. However, almost nothing is preserved about the centuries when these ancient Samkhya scholars lived.[37] Larson, Bhattacharya and Potter state that the newly discovered literature hints, but does not conclusively prove, that Samkhya may be the oldest school of Indian philosophy, one that evolved over time and influenced major schools, as well as Buddhism and Jainism.[37] These scholars place the earliest references to Samkhya ideas in the Vedic period literature of India (~1500 BCE to ~400 BCE).[38]


Sage Kapila is traditionally credited as a founder of the Samkhya school.[39] However, it is unclear in which century of 1st millennium BCE Kapila lived.[40] Kapila appears in Rigveda, but context suggests that the word means "reddish brown color". Both Kapila as a "seer" and the term Samkhya appear in hymns of section 5.2 in Shvetashvatara Upanishad (~300 BCE), suggesting Kapila's and Samkhya philosophy's origins may predate it. Numerous other ancient Indian texts mention Kapila; for example, Baudhayana Grhyasutra in chapter IV.16.1 describes a system of rules for ascetic life credited to Kapila, called Kapila Sannyasa Vidha.[40] A 6th century CE Chinese translation and other texts consistently state Kapila as an ascetic and the founder of the school, mention Asuri as the inheritor of the teaching, and a much later scholar named Pancasikha as the scholar who systematized it and then helped widely disseminate its ideas. Isvarakrsna is identified in these texts as the one who summarized and simplified Samkhya theories of Pancasikha, many centuries later (roughly 4th or 5th century CE), in the form that was then translated into Chinese by Paramartha in 6th century CE.[40]

Emergence as a distinct philosophy[edit]

In the beginning this was Self alone, in the shape of a person (puruṣa). He looking around saw nothing but his Self (Atman). He first said, "This is I", therefore he became I by name.

—Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.1[41][42]

The early texts of the Vedic period,[43] contain references to elements of Samkhya philosophy. However, the Samkhya ideas had not distilled and congealed into a distinct, complete philosophy.[38] The early, proto-Samkhya phase was followed by early Upanishads, about 800 to 700 BCE, wherein ascetic spirituality and monastic (sramana and yati) traditions came in vogue in India. It is in this period, state Larson, Bhattacharya and Potter, that ancient scholars combined proto-Samkhya ideas with a systematic methodology of reasoning (epistemology) and began distilling concepts of spiritual knowledge (vidya, jnana, viveka), making Samkhya a more emerging, comprehensive philosophy.[44] These developing ideas are found in texts such as the Chandogya Upanishad.[44]

Sometime about the 5th century BCE, Samkhya thought from various sources started coalescing into a distinct, complete philosophy.[45] Philosophical texts such as the Katha Upanishad in verses 3.10-13 and 6.7-11 describe a well defined concept of puruṣa and other concepts of Samkhya,[46] The Shvetashvatara Upanishad in chapter 6.13 describes Samkhya with Yoga philosophy, and Bhagavad Gita in book 3 provides axiological implications of Samkhya, therewith providing textual evidence of Samkhyan terminology and concepts.[47] Katha Upanishad conceives the Purusha (cosmic spirit, consciousness) as same as the individual soul (Ātman, Self).[46][48] The Mokshadharma chapter of Shanti Parva (Book of Peace) in the Mahabharata epic, composed between 400 BCE to 400 CE, explains Samkhya ideas along with other extant philosophies, and then lists numerous scholars in recognition of their philosophical contributions to various Indian traditions, and therein at least three Samkhya scholars can be recognized – Kapila, Asuri and Pancasikha.[37][49] The 12th chapter of the Buddhist text Buddhacarita suggests Samkhya philosophical tools of reliable reasoning were well formed by about 5th century BCE.[37]

Samkhya and Yoga are mentioned together for first time in chapter 6.13 of the Shvetashvatra Upanishad,[47] as samkhya-yoga-adhigamya (literally, "to be understood by proper reasoning and spiritual discipline").[50] Bhagavad Gita identifies Samkhya with understanding or knowledge.[51] The three gunas are also mentioned in the Gita, though they are not used in the same sense as in classical Samkhya.[52] The Gita integrates Samkhya thought with the devotion (bhakti) of theistic schools and the impersonal Brahman of Vedanta.[53]

According to Ruzsa, about 2,000 years ago "Sāṅkhya became the representative philosophy of Hindu thought in Hindu circles",[33] influencing all strands of the Hindu tradition and Hindu texts.[33]

Vedic influences[edit]

The ideas that were developed and assimilated into the classical Samkhya text, the Sāṅkhyakārikā, are visible in earlier Hindu scriptures such as the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.[45][54] The earliest mention of dualism is in the Rigveda, a text that was compiled in the second millennium BCE.,[55] in various chapters.

Nasadiya Sukta (Hymn of non-Eternity, origin of universe):

There was neither non-existence nor existence then;
Neither the realm of space, nor the sky which is beyond;
What stirred? Where? In whose protection?

There was neither death nor immortality then;
No distinguishing sign of night nor of day;
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse;
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden;
Without distinctive marks, this all was water;
That which, becoming, by the void was covered;
That One by force of heat came into being;

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whether God's will created it, or whether He was mute;
Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not;
Only He who is its overseer in highest heaven knows,
Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.

Rigveda 10.129 (Abridged, Tr: Kramer / Christian)[56] This hymn is one of the roots of the Samkhya.[57]

At a mythical level, dualism is found in the IndraVritra myth of chapter 1.32 of the Rigveda.[58] Enumeration, the etymological root of the word Samkhya, is found in numerous chapters of the Rigveda, such as 1.164, 10.90 and 10.129.[57] Larson, Bhattacharya and Potter state that the likely roots of philosophical premises, spirit-matter dualism, meditative themes and religious cosmology in Samkhya philosophy are in the hymns of 1.164 (Riddle Hymns) and 10.129 (Nasadiya Hymns).[57] However these hymns present only the outline of ideas, not specific Samkhya theories and these theories developed in a much later period.[57]

The Riddle hymns of the Rigveda, famous for their numerous enumerations, structural language symmetry within the verses and the chapter, enigmatic word play with anagrams that symbolically portray parallelism in rituals and the cosmos, nature and the inner life of man.[59] This hymn includes enumeration (counting) as well as a series of dual concepts cited by early Upanishads . For example, the hymns 1.164.2 - 1.164-3 mention "seven" multiple times, which in the context of other chapters of Rigveda have been interpreted as referring to both seven priests at a ritual and seven constellations in the sky, the entire hymn is a riddle that paints a ritual as well as the sun, moon, earth, three seasons, the transitory nature of living beings, the passage of time and spirit.[59][60]

Seven to the one-wheeled chariot yoke the Courser; bearing seven names the single Courser draws it.
Three-naved the wheel is, sound and undecaying, whereon are resting all these worlds of being.
The seven [priests] who on the seven-wheeled car are mounted have horses, seven in tale, who draw them onward.
Seven Sisters utter songs of praise together, in whom the names of the seven Cows are treasured.
Who hath beheld him as he [Sun/Agni] sprang to being, seen how the boneless One [spirit] supports the bony [body]?
Where is the blood of earth, the life, the spirit? Who will approach the one who knows, to ask this?

— Rigveda 1.164.2 - 1.164.4, [61]

The chapter 1.164 asks a number of metaphysical questions, such as "what is the One in the form of the Unborn that created the six realms of the world?".[62][63] Dualistic philosophical speculations then follow in chapter 1.164 of the Rigveda, particularly in the well studied "allegory of two birds" hymn (1.164.20 - 1.164.22), a hymn that is referred to in the Mundaka Upanishad and other texts .[57][59][64] The two birds in this hymn have been interpreted to mean various forms of dualism: "the sun and the moon", the "two seekers of different kinds of knowledge", and "the body and the atman".[65][66]

Two Birds with fair wings, knit with bonds of friendship, embrace the same tree.
One of the twain eats the sweet fig; the other not eating keeps watch.
Where those fine Birds hymn ceaselessly their portion of life eternal, and the sacred synods,
There is the Universe's mighty Keeper, who, wise, hath entered into me the simple.
The tree on which the fine Birds eat the sweetness, where they all rest and procreate their offspring,
Upon its top they say the fig is sweetest, he who does not know the Father will not reach it.

— Rigveda 1.164.20 - 1.164.22, [67]

The emphasis of duality between existence (sat) and non-existence (asat) in the Nasadiya Sukta of the Rigveda is similar to the vyakta–avyakta (manifest–unmanifest) polarity in Samkhya. The hymns about Puruṣa may also have influenced Samkhya.[68] The Samkhya notion of buddhi or mahat is similar to the notion of hiranyagarbha, which appears in both the Rigveda and the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.[69]

Upanishadic influences[edit]

Higher than the senses, stand the objects of senses. Higher than objects of senses, stands mind. Higher than mind, stands intellect. Higher than intellect, stands the great self. Higher than the great self, stands Avyaktam. Higher than Avyaktam, stands Purusha. Higher than this, there is nothing. He is the final goal and the highest point. In all beings, dwells this Purusha, as Atman (soul), invisible, concealed. He is only seen by the keenest thought, by the sublest of those thinkers who see into the subtle.

—Katha Upanishad 3.10-13[70][71]

The oldest of the major Upanishads (c. 900–600 BCE) contain speculations along the lines of classical Samkhya philosophy.[45] The concept of ahamkara in Samkhya can be traced back to the notion of ahamkara in chapters 1.2 and 1.4 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and chapter 7.25 of the Chāndogya Upaniṣad.[45] Satkaryavada, the theory of causation in Samkhya, can be traced to the verses in sixth chapter which emphasize the primacy of sat (being) and describe creation from it. The idea that the three gunas or attributes influence creation is found in both Chandogya and Shvetashvatara Upanishads.[72] Upanishadic sages Yajnavalkya and Uddalaka Aruni developed the idea that pure consciousness was the innermost essence of a human being. The purusha of Samkhya could have evolved from this idea. The enumeration of tattvas in Samkhya is also found in Taittiriya Upanishad, Aitareya Upanishad and Yajnavalkya–Maitri dialogue in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.[73]

Buddhist and Jainist influences[edit]

Buddhism and Jainism had developed in Northeastern India by the 5th century BCE. It is probable that these schools of thought and the earliest schools of Samkhya influenced each other. A prominent similarity between Buddhism and Samkhya is the greater emphasis on suffering (dukkha) as the foundation for their respective soteriological theories, than other Indian philosophies.[74] However, suffering appears central to Samkhya in its later literature, which suggests a likely Buddhism influence. Elaide, however, presents the alternate theory that Samkhya and Buddhism developed their soteriological theories over time, benefitting from their mutual influence.[74]

Likewise, the Jain doctrine of plurality of individual souls (jiva) could have influenced the concept of multiple purushas in Samkhya. However Hermann Jacobi, an Indologist, thinks that there is little reason to assume that Samkhya notion of Purushas was solely dependent on the notion of jiva in Jainism. It is more likely, that Samkhya was moulded by many ancient theories of soul in various Vedic and non-Vedic schools.[74]

This declared to you is the Yoga of the wisdom of Samkhya. Hear, now, of the integrated wisdom with which, Partha, you will cast off the bonds of karma.

—Bhagavad Gita 2.39[75]

Larson, Bhattacharya and Potter state it to be likely that early Samkhya doctrines found in oldest Upanishads (~700-800 BCE) provided the contextual foundations and influenced Buddhist and Jaina doctrines, and these became contemporaneous, sibling intellectual movements with Samkhya and other schools of Hindu philosophy.[76] This is evidenced, for example, by the references to Samkhya in ancient and medieval era Jaina literature.[77]

Source material[edit]


The earliest surviving authoritative text on classical Samkhya philosophy is the Samkhya Karika (c. 200 CE[78] or 350–450 CE[53]) of Iśvarakṛṣṇa.[53] There were probably other texts in early centuries CE, however none of them are available today.[79] Iśvarakṛṣṇa in his Kārikā describes a succession of the disciples from Kapila, through Āsuri and Pañcaśikha to himself. The text also refers to an earlier work of Samkhya philosophy called Ṣaṣṭitantra (science of sixty topics) which is now lost.[53] The text was imported and translated into Chinese about the middle of 6th century CE.[80] The records of Al Biruni, the Persian visitor to India in early 11th century, suggests Samkhyakarika was an established and definitive text in India in his times.[81]

Samkhyakarika includes distilled statements on epistemology, metaphysics and soteriology of the Samkhya school. For example, the fourth to sixth verses of the text states it epistemic premises,[82]

Perception, inference and right affirmation are admitted to be threefold proof; for they (are by all acknowledged, and) comprise every mode of demonstration. It is from proof that belief of that which is to be proven results.

Perception is ascertainment of particular objects. Inference, which is of three sorts, premises an argument, and deduces that which is argued by it. Right affirmation is true revelation (Apta vacana and Sruti, testimony of reliable source and the Vedas).

Sensible objects become known by perception; but it is by inference or reasoning that acquaintance with things transcending the senses is obtained. A truth which is neither to be directly perceived, nor to be inferred from reasoning, is deduced from Apta vacana and Sruti.

— Samkhya Karika Verse 4–6, [82]

The most popular commentary on the Samkhyakarikia was the Gauḍapāda Bhāṣya attributed to Gauḍapāda, the proponent of Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy. Richard King, Professor of Religious Studies, thinks it is unlikely that Gauḍapāda could have authored both texts, given the differences between the two philosophies. Other important commentaries on the karika were Yuktidīpīka (c. 6th century CE) and Vācaspati’s Sāṁkhyatattvakaumudī (c. 10th century CE).[83]

The Sāṁkhyapravacana Sūtra (c. 14th century CE) renewed interest in Samkhya in the medieval era. It is considered the second most important work of Samkhya after the karika.[84] Commentaries on this text were written by Anirruddha (Sāṁkhyasūtravṛtti, c. 15th century CE), Vijñānabhikṣu (Sāṁkhyapravacanabhāṣya, c. 16th century CE), Mahādeva (vṛttisāra, c. 17th century CE) and Nāgeśa (Laghusāṁkhyasūtravṛtti).[85] According Surendranath Dasgupta, scholar of Indian philosophy, Charaka Samhita, an ancient Indian medical treatise, also contains thoughts from an early Samkhya school.[86]

Other sources[edit]

The 13th century text Sarvadarsanasangraha contains 16 chapters, each devoted to a separate school of Indian philosophy. The 13th chapter in this book contains a description of the Samkhya philosophy.[87]

Lost textual references[edit]

In his Studies in Samkhya Philosophy, K.C. Bhattacharya writes:

Much of Samkhya literature appears to have been lost, and there seems to be no continuity of tradition from ancient times to the age of the commentators...The interpretation of all ancient systems requires a constructive effort; but, while in the case of some systems where we have a large volume of literature and a continuity of tradition, the construction is mainly of the nature of translation of ideas into modern concepts, here in Samkhya the construction at many places involves supplying of missing links from one's imagination. It is risky work, but unless one does it one cannot be said to understand Samkhya as a philosophy. It is a task that one is obliged to undertake. It is a fascinating task because Samkhya is a bold constructive philosophy.[88]



Samkhya considered Pratyakṣa or Dṛṣṭam (direct sense perception), Anumāna (inference), and Śabda or Āptavacana (verbal testimony of the sages or shāstras) to be the only valid means of knowledge or pramana.[6] Unlike few other schools, Samkhya did not consider the following three pramanas as epistemically proper: Upamāṇa (comparison and analogy), Arthāpatti (postulation, deriving from circumstances) or Anupalabdi (non-perception, negative/cognitive proof) .[7]

  • Pratyakṣa (प्रत्यक्षाय) means perception. It is of two types in Hindu texts: external and internal. External perception is described as that arising from the interaction of five senses and worldly objects, while internal perception is described by this school as that of inner sense, the mind.[89][90] The ancient and medieval Indian texts identify four requirements for correct perception:[91] Indriyarthasannikarsa (direct experience by one's sensory organ(s) with the object, whatever is being studied), Avyapadesya (non-verbal; correct perception is not through hearsay, according to ancient Indian scholars, where one's sensory organ relies on accepting or rejecting someone else's perception), Avyabhicara (does not wander; correct perception does not change, nor is it the result of deception because one's sensory organ or means of observation is drifting, defective, suspect) and Vyavasayatmaka (definite; correct perception excludes judgments of doubt, either because of one's failure to observe all the details, or because one is mixing inference with observation and observing what one wants to observe, or not observing what one does not want to observe).[91] Some ancient scholars proposed "unusual perception" as pramana and called it internal perception, a proposal contested by other Indian scholars. The internal perception concepts included pratibha (intuition), samanyalaksanapratyaksa (a form of induction from perceived specifics to a universal), and jnanalaksanapratyaksa (a form of perception of prior processes and previous states of a 'topic of study' by observing its current state).[92] Further, some schools considered and refined rules of accepting uncertain knowledge from Pratyakṣa-pranama, so as to contrast nirnaya (definite judgment, conclusion) from anadhyavasaya (indefinite judgment).[93]
  • Anumāṇa (अनुमान) means inference. It is described as reaching a new conclusion and truth from one or more observations and previous truths by applying reason.[94] Observing smoke and inferring fire is an example of Anumana.[89] In all except one Hindu philosophies,[95] this is a valid and useful means to knowledge. The method of inference is explained by Indian texts as consisting of three parts: pratijna (hypothesis), hetu (a reason), and drshtanta (examples).[96] The hypothesis must further be broken down into two parts, state the ancient Indian scholars: sadhya (that idea which needs to proven or disproven) and paksha (the object on which the sadhya is predicated). The inference is conditionally true if sapaksha (positive examples as evidence) are present, and if vipaksha (negative examples as counter-evidence) are absent. For rigor, the Indian philosophies also state further epistemic steps. For example, they demand Vyapti - the requirement that the hetu (reason) must necessarily and separately account for the inference in "all" cases, in both sapaksha and vipaksha.[96][97] A conditionally proven hypothesis is called a nigamana (conclusion).[98]
  • Śabda (शब्द) means relying on word, testimony of past or present reliable experts.[7][99] Hiriyanna explains Sabda-pramana as a concept which means reliable expert testimony. The schools which consider it epistemically valid suggest that a human being needs to know numerous facts, and with the limited time and energy available, he can learn only a fraction of those facts and truths directly.[100] He must cooperate with others to rapidly acquire and share knowledge and thereby enrich each other's lives. This means of gaining proper knowledge is either spoken or written, but through Sabda (words).[100] The reliability of the source is important, and legitimate knowledge can only come from the Sabda of reliable sources.[7][100] The disagreement between the schools has been on how to establish reliability. Some schools, such as Carvaka, state that this is never possible, and therefore Sabda is not a proper pramana. Other schools debate means to establish reliability.[101]


While Western philosophical traditions, as exemplified by Descartes, equate mind with the conscious self and theorize on consciousness on the basis of mind/body dualism; Samkhya provides an alternate viewpoint, intimately related to substance dualism, by drawing a metaphysical line between consciousness and matter — where matter includes both body and mind.[102][103]

The Samkhya system espouses dualism between consciousness and matter by postulating two "irreducible, innate and independent realities: puruṣa and prakṛti. While the prakṛti is a single entity, the Samkhya admits a plurality of the puruṣas in this world. Unintelligent, unmanifest, uncaused, ever-active, imperceptible and eternal prakṛti is alone the final source of the world of objects which is implicitly and potentially contained in its bosom. The puruṣa is considered as the conscious principle, a passive enjoyer (bhokta) and the prakṛti is the enjoyed (bhogya). Samkhya believes that the puruṣa cannot be regarded as the source of inanimate world, because an intelligent principle cannot transform itself into the unconscious world. It is a pluralistic spiritualism, atheistic realism and uncompromising dualism.[104]


Puruṣa is the transcendental self or pure consciousness. It is absolute, independent, free, imperceptible, unknowable through other agencies, above any experience by mind or senses and beyond any words or explanations. It remains pure, "nonattributive consciousness". puruṣa is neither produced nor does it produce. It is held that unlike Advaita Vedanta and like Purva-Mīmāṃsā, Samkhya believes in plurality of the puruṣas.[105]


Elements in Samkhya philosophy

Prakṛti is the first cause of the manifest material universe — of everything except the puruṣa. Prakṛti accounts for whatever is physical, both mind and matter-cum-energy or force. Since it is the first principle (tattva) of the universe, it is called the pradhāna, but, as it is the unconscious and unintelligent principle, it is also called the jaDa. It is composed of three essential characteristics (trigunas). These are:

  • Sattva – poise, fineness, lightness, illumination, and joy;
  • Rajas – dynamism, activity, excitation, and pain;
  • Tamas – inertia, coarseness, heaviness, obstruction, and sloth.[104][106][107]

All physical events are considered to be manifestations of the evolution of prakṛti, or primal nature (from which all physical bodies are derived). Each sentient being or Jiva is a fusion of puruṣa and prakṛti, whose soul/puruṣa is limitless and unrestricted by its physical body. Samsāra or bondage arises when the puruṣa does not have the discriminate knowledge and so is misled as to its own identity, confusing itself with the Ego/ahamkāra, which is actually an attribute of prakṛti. The spirit is liberated when the discriminate knowledge of the difference between conscious puruṣa and unconscious prakṛti is realized by the puruṣa.

The unconscious primordial materiality, prakṛti, contains 23 components including intellect (buddhi,mahat), ego (ahamkara) and mind (manas); the intellect, mind and ego are all seen as forms of unconscious matter.[108] Thought processes and mental events are conscious only to the extent they receive illumination from Purusha. In Samkhya, consciousness is compared to light which illuminates the material configurations or 'shapes' assumed by the mind. So intellect, after receiving cognitive structures form the mind and illumination from pure consciousness, creates thought structures that appear to be conscious.[109] Ahamkara, the ego or the phenomenal self, appropriates all mental experiences to itself and thus, personalizes the objective activities of mind and intellect by assuming possession of them.[110] But consciousness is itself independent of the thought structures it illuminates.[109]

By including mind in the realm of matter, Samkhya avoids one of the most serious pitfalls of Cartesian dualism, the violation of physical conservation laws. Because mind is an evolute of matter, mental events are granted causal efficacy and are therefore able to initiate bodily motions.[111]


The idea of evolution in Samkhya revolves around the interaction of prakṛti and Purusha. prakṛti remains unmanifested as long as the three gunas are in equilibrium. This equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed when prakṛti comes into proximity with consciousness or Purusha. The disequilibrium of the gunas triggers an evolution that leads to the manifestation of the world from an unmanifested prakṛti.[112] The metaphor of movement of iron in the proximity of a magnet is used to describe this process.[113]

Some evolutes of prakṛti can cause further evolution and are labelled evolvents. For example, intellect while itself created out of prakṛti causes the evolution of ego-sense or ahamkara and is therefore an evolvent. While, other evolutes like the five elements do not cause further evolution.[114] It is important to note that an evolvent is defined as a principle which behaves as the material cause for the evolution of another principle. So, in definition, while the five elements are the material cause of all living beings, they cannot be called evolvents because living beings are not separate from the five elements in essence.[115]

The intellect is the first evolute of prakṛti and is called mahat or the great one. It causes the evolution of ego-sense or self-consciousness. Evolution from self-consciousness is affected by the dominance of gunas. So dominance of sattva causes the evolution of the five organs of perception, five organs of action and the mind. Dominance of tamas triggers the evolution of five subtle elements– sound, touch, sight, taste, smell from self-consciousness. These five subtle elements are themselves evolvents and cause the creation of the five gross elements space, air, fire, water and earth. Rajas is cause of action in the evolutes.[116] Purusha is pure consciousness absolute, eternal and subject to no change. It is neither a product of evolution, nor the cause of any evolute.[115]

Evolution in Samkhya is thought to be purposeful. The two primary purposes of evolution of prakṛti are the enjoyment and the liberation of Purusha.[117] The 23 evolutes of prakṛti are categorized as follows:[118]

Primordial matter prakṛti Root evolvent
Internal instruments Intellect (Buddhi or Mahat), Ego-sense (Ahamkāra), Mind (Manas) Evolvent
External instruments Five Sense organs (Jnānendriyas), Five Organs of action (Karmendriyas) Evolute
Subtle elements Sound (Shabda), Touch (Sparsha), Form (Rupa), Taste (Rasa), Smell (Gandha) Evolvent
Gross elements Ether (Ākāsh), Air (Vāyu), Fire (Agni), Water (Jala), Earth (Prithvi) Evolute

Liberation or mokṣa[edit]

The Supreme Good is mokṣa which consists in the permanent impossibility of the incidence of pain... in the realisation of the Self as Self pure and simple.

—Samkhyakarika I.3[119]

Samkhya considers ignorance (avidyā) is regarded as the root cause of this suffering and bondage (Samsara). Samkhya offers a way out of this suffering by means of discriminative knowledge (viveka). Such knowledge, that leads to mokṣa (liberation), involves the discrimination between prakṛti (avyakta-vyakta) and puruṣa (jña).[6]

Puruṣa, the eternal pure consciousness, due to ignorance, identifies itself with products of prakṛti such as intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahamkara). This results in endless transmigration and suffering. However, once the realization arises that puruṣa is distinct from prakṛti, the Self is no longer subject to transmigration and absolute freedom (kaivalya) arises.[120]

Other forms of Samkhya teach that Mokṣa is attained by one's own development of the higher faculties of discrimination achieved by meditation and other yogic practices. Moksha is described by Samkhya scholars as a state of liberation, where Sattva guna predominates.[13]


The Samkhya system is based on Sat-kārya-vāda or the theory of causation. According to Satkāryavāda, the effect is pre-existent in the cause. There is only an apparent or illusory change in the makeup of the cause and not a material one, when it becomes effect. Since, effects cannot come from nothing, the original cause or ground of everything is seen as prakṛti.[121]

More specifically, Samkhya system follows the prakṛti-Parināma Vāda. Parināma denotes that the effect is a real transformation of the cause. The cause under consideration here is prakṛti or more precisely Moola-prakṛti (Primordial Matter). The Samkhya system is therefore an exponent of an evolutionary theory of matter beginning with primordial matter. In evolution, prakṛti is transformed and differentiated into multiplicity of objects. Evolution is followed by dissolution. In dissolution the physical existence, all the worldly objects mingle back into prakṛti, which now remains as the undifferentiated, primordial substance. This is how the cycles of evolution and dissolution follow each other. But this theory is very different from the modern theories of science in the sense that prakṛti evolves for each Jeeva separately, giving individual bodies and minds to each and after liberation these elements of prakṛti merges into the Moola prakṛti. Another uniqueness of Sāmkhya is that not only physical entities but even mind, ego and intelligence are regarded as forms of Unconsciousness, quite distinct from pure consciousness.

Samkhya theorizes that prakṛti is the source of the perceived world of becoming. It is pure potentiality that evolves itself successively into twenty four tattvas or principles. The evolution itself is possible because prakṛti is always in a state of tension among its constituent strands or gunas – Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. In a state of equilibrium of three gunas, when the three together are one, "unmanifest" prakṛti which is unknowable. A guna is an entity that can change, either increase or decrease, therefore, pure consciousness is called nirguna or without any modification.

The evolution obeys causality relationships, with primal Nature itself being the material cause of all physical creation. The cause and effect theory of Samkhya is called Satkārya-vāda (theory of existent causes), and holds that nothing can really be created from or destroyed into nothingness – all evolution is simply the transformation of primal Nature from one form to another.

Samkhya cosmology describes how life emerges in the universe; the relationship between Purusha and prakṛti is crucial to Patanjali's yoga system. The strands of Samkhya thought can be traced back to the Vedic speculation of creation. It is also frequently mentioned in the Mahabharata and Yogavasishta.


Samkhya accepts the notion of higher selves or perfected beings but rejects the notion of God. Classical Samkhya argues against the existence of God on metaphysical grounds. Samkhya theorists argue that an unchanging God cannot be the source of an ever changing world and that God was only a necessary metaphysical assumption demanded by circumstances.[122] The Sutras of Samkhya have no explicit role for a separate God distinct from the puruṣa. Such a distinct God is inconceivable and self-contradictory and some commentaries speak plainly on this subject.

Arguments against Ishvara's existence[edit]

According to Sinha, the following arguments were given by the Samkhya philosophers against the idea of an eternal, self-caused, creator God:[123]

  • If the existence of karma is assumed, the proposition of God as a moral governor of the universe is unnecessary. For, if God enforces the consequences of actions then he can do so without karma. If however, he is assumed to be within the law of karma, then karma itself would be the giver of consequences and there would be no need of a God.
  • Even if karma is denied, God still cannot be the enforcer of consequences. Because the motives of an enforcer God would be either egoistic or altruistic. Now, God's motives cannot be assumed to be altruistic because an altruistic God would not create a world so full of suffering. If his motives are assumed to be egoistic, then God must be thought to have desire, as agency or authority cannot be established in the absence of desire. However, assuming that God has desire would contradict God's eternal freedom which necessitates no compulsion in actions. Moreover, desire, according to Samkhya, is an attribute of prakṛti and cannot be thought to grow in God. The testimony of the Vedas, according to Samkhya, also confirms this notion.
  • Despite arguments to the contrary, if God is still assumed to contain unfulfilled desires, this would cause him to suffer pain and other similar human experiences. Such a worldly God would be no better than Samkhya's notion of higher self.
  • Furthermore, there is no proof of the existence of God. He is not the object of perception, there exists no general proposition that can prove him by inference and the testimony of the Vedas speak of prakṛti as the origin of the world, not God.

Therefore, Samkhya maintained that the various cosmological, ontological and teleological arguments could not prove God.

Textual references[edit]

The Sankhya-tattva-kaumudi commenting on Karika 57 argues that a perfect God can have no need to create a world (for Himself) and if God's motive is kindness (for others), Samkhya questions whether it is reasonable to call into existence beings who while non-existent had no suffering.

The Sāṁkhyapravacana Sūtra in verse no. 1.92 directly states that existence of "Ishvara (God) is unproved". Hence there is no philosophical place for a creationist God in this system. It is also argued by commentators of this text that the existence of Ishvara cannot be proved and hence cannot be admitted to exist.[123]

These commentaries of Samkhya postulate that a benevolent deity ought to create only happy creatures, not a mixed world like the real world.[citation needed] A majority of modern academic scholars are of view that the concept of Ishvara was incorporated into the nirishvara (atheistic) Samkhya viewpoint only after it became associated with the Yoga, the Pasupata and the Bhagavata schools of philosophy. This theistic Samkhya philosophy is described in the Mahabharata, the Puranas and the Bhagavad Gita[124]


The Advaita Vedanta philosopher Adi Shankara considered Samkhya philosophy as propounded in Samkhyakarika to be inconsistent with the teachings in the Vedas, and considered the dualism in Samkhya to be non-Vedic.[125] In contrast, ancient Samkhya philosophers in India claimed Vedic authority for their views.[126]

Influence on other schools[edit]

On Indian philosophies[edit]

With the publication of previously unknown editions of Yuktidipika about mid 20th century, scholars[127] have suggested what they call as "a tempting hypothesis", but uncertain, that Samkhya tradition may be the oldest school of Indian philosophy.[127] The Vaisheshika atomism, Nyaya epistemology and Buddhist ontology may all have roots in the early Samkhya school of thought; but these schools likely developed in parallel with an evolving Samkhya tradition, as sibling intellectual movements.[127]

On Yoga[edit]

Yoga is closely related to Samkhya in its philosophical foundations.

The Yoga school derives its ontology and epistemology from Samkhya and adds to it the concept of Isvara.[128] However, scholarly opinion on the actual relationship between Yoga and Samkhya is divided. While, Jakob Wilhelm Hauer and Georg Feuerstein believe that Yoga was tradition common to many Indian schools and its association with Samkhya was artificially foisted upon by commentators such as Vyasa. Johannes Bronkhorst and Eric Frauwallner think that Yoga never had a philosophical system separate from Samkhya. Bronkhorst further adds that the first mention of Yoga as a separate school of thought is no earlier than Śankara's (c. 788–820 CE)[129] Brahmasūtrabhaśya.[130]

On Tantra[edit]

The dualistic metaphysics of various Tantric traditions illustrates the strong influence of Samkhya on Tantra. Shaiva Siddhanta was identical to Samkhya in its philosophical approach, barring the addition of a transcendent theistic reality.[131] Knut A. Jacobsen, Professor of Religious Studies, notes the influence of Samkhya on Srivaishnavism. According to him, this Tantric system borrows the abstract dualism of Samkhya and modifies it into a personified male–female dualism of Vishnu and Sri Lakshmi.[132] Dasgupta speculates that the Tantric image of a wild Kali standing on a slumbering Shiva was inspired from the Samkhyan conception of prakṛti as a dynamic agent and Purusha as a passive witness. However, Samkhya and Tantra differed in their view on liberation. While Tantra sought to unite the male and female ontological realities, Samkhya held a withdrawal of consciousness from matter as the ultimate goal.[133]

According to Bagchi, the Samkhya Karika (in karika 70) identifies Sāmkhya as a Tantra,[134] and its philosophy was one of the main influences both on the rise of the Tantras as a body of literature, as well as Tantra sadhana.[135]

See also[edit]



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  135. ^ Bagchi 1989, p. 10


Further reading[edit]

  • Hulin, Michel (1978). Sāṃkhya Literature. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3447018999. 
  • Chatterjee, Satischandra; Datta, Dhirendramohan (1984), An Introduction to Indian Philosophy (Eighth Reprint ed.), Calcutta: University of Calcutta, ISBN 81-291-1195-0 
  • Eliade, Mircea (1969), Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Bollingen Series LVI (second ed.), New York: Bollingen Foundation, Inc, ISBN 0-691-01764-6 
  • Müeller, Max (1899), Six Systems of Indian Philosophy; Samkhya and Yoga, Naya and Vaiseshika, Calcutta: Susil Gupta (India) Ltd, ISBN 0-7661-4296-5 
  • Zimmer, Heinrich (1951), Joseph, Cambell, ed., Philosophies of India, Bollingen Series XXVI, New York: Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-01758-1 
  • Weerasinghe, S.G (1993), The Sankhya Philosophy; A Critical Evaluation of Its Origins and Development, New Delhi: South Asia Books, ISBN 81-703-0361-3 
  • Kambhampati, Parvathi Kumar (1993), Sankya – The Sacred Doctrine (First ed.), Visakhapatnam: Dhanishta, ISBN 81-900-3323-9 

External links[edit]