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Sāṅkhya: A Brief Critique

The classical Sāṅkhya contains several contradictions both in the epistemological and in the ontological sphere, despite the claim of its followers that it is a rational system. It does display reasoning in many instances, but also irrationality. The many different texts, which contain this name and early aspects of the system suggest a long line of development from fragments of an earlier more “rational” system. And I suspect the same holds for the other “orthodox” darśanas, Yoga, Vedānta, etc.: they all developed from smaller or larger fragments of an unknown ancient, probably simple system, which we cannot fully reconstruct.

1. The āryā stanzas (*) of the classical text SK (=khyakārikā) do not form a common medium for the formulation and transmission of philosophical ideas. The commoner medium is the śloka or triṣṭubh as in some Upaniads, the Bhagavad Gītā or the Manusmti. Several āryā stanzas are elliptic or given to ambiguity or abstruseness and demand some guesswork on our part – sometimes despite the help offered by later texts and commentators. These are not really sūtras to help a guru teach, like the Yogasūtras of Patañjali, but they are in places just as difficult of approach. All this makes me wonder whether the author, Īśvarakṛṣṇa, was interested more, or as much as, in the poetic form than the philosophical content.

My more intense interest in Sāṅkhya was roused recently, when circumstances led me to write two papers on the subject for Greek non-specialists. Here, I do not intend to write an academic paper. Now, I am aware that many others have focused on the weaknesses in the Sāṅkhya system, like Śaṅkara’s critique in the Brahmasūtrabhāya or modern scholars like B. Kar (2003). However, I had already formed objections on first reading the SK. I was not surprised to read critiques of the system, but I was rather surprised to read glowing accounts of it by some (Larson 1998, Fowler J. 2002, Burley 2007) as indicated by M. Burley’s view that Sāṅkhya is “more internally coherent and soteriologically relevant than other interpretations”. Then, there is Prof Ram Nath Jha’s excellent conspectus of khyadarśana (2009), which gives a full picture of the entire system from the classical doctrine to the later scholiasts, but on the other hand, requires much flicking back and forth to see the references and make sure what is early and what late.

So let me plunge without further chatter into the text.

2. I know that much better minds than mine, more attuned to philosophical investigation, discussion and teaching, have dealt with the more profound issues of duality, contact/proximity of purua and prakti, the plurality of puruas and so on. My objections actually started with the very first two stanzas.

The first stanza assumes that jijñāsā ‘the desire for knowledge’ arises out of the threefold suffering dukhatrayābhigatāt. But is this so? It may be so in very many cases, but as a teacher I have met many students who simply wanted to know more: more about the world and the forces that created, rule and maintain it; more about themselves, what kind of creatures they are what is their true self; where have they come from in this embodiment, what is their function on this planet and whither will they go after death? This positive desire for knowledge does not arise from suffering.

There are existing methods dṛṣṭa ‘perceptible’, we are told in stanza 1, that renders such a desire apārtha ‘useless’. What might they be? We are not told.

In our days, there are the methods of medicine, psychotherapy or psychology, philosophy, religion and many other practices, academic, paranormal, holistic, esoteric and what not, that offer alleviation from bodily and mental pain. I agree with SK that all these offer only temporary relief that suffering recurs and we need something more drastic.

However, the second stanza dismisses the ānuśravika systems as well, i.e. methods and practices given in the scriptures and promoted by revered gurus. It says they have impurity, decay and/or excess and offers a superior method śreyān: this is discriminating the manifest vyakta, the unmanifest avyakta and the knower jña- , who is the puru(puri liñge śeta iti puru‘he who rests in the town of the subtle body’ as the khyatattvakaumudi 55 puts it, though ‘the dawning light’ uas might be a better etymology).

But surely several ānuśravika texts offer precisely this way of discrimination. Bhagavad Gītā recommends explicitly the (discriminating) knowledge of ‘the field and the field-knower’ ketraketrajñayor jñānam, chapter 13.2. And in the same chapter, stanza 23 says “whoever knows thus purua and praki with her guas will not be born again”. An apologist for khya will probably say that khya is mentioned in the Gītā and also some of its doctrines. Too true, but the teaching there is quite different in many important respects. For one, the purua is single, unified, and not many as in the classical system.

3. The plurality of puruas is presented in SK stanza 18. Before this, we are told that both purua and mūlaprakti ‘primordial nature’ are ‘uncreated’ avikti. They are eternal, beginningless, and endless. So creation arises out of and depends upon two principles. What is more, stanza 10 states that prakti (=avyakta ‘unmanifest’) is the opposite of vyakta ‘manifest’. The vyakta is ‘multiple/plural’ aneka and so the avyakta is single.

This is quite extraordinary. We have two eternal principles. This duality must impose limitations on the powers of both. But the khya system gets round this by saying that prakti does everything for the sake of puruṣa (21 puruṣa’s kaivalyartham ‘release in aloness’; 31, 42, 56 the same). So they are not in conflict (as in other dualistic systems of “good/light and evil/darkness”). In fact, they are presented as complementary. Puruṣa is consciousness and prakṛti, as in Plato’s Timaios the hupodochē, is the material basis from which evolves the entire creation.

However, there is an implicit blunder here. Prakti is said to be insentient, non-conscious, and without will or feeling and the like. So it is not likely that she would do anything for anybody unless guided to do so. The only other force that could guide her is purua, but he is totally inactive!

Moreover, there is a very odd aspect here. The puruṣas are many, but mūlaprakti is singular (st10: ‘opposite’ viparita of vyakta which is ‘multiple’ aneka). This is a very odd arrangement!

The puruṣa is pure consciousness, the Witness, Seer, Observer, without any qualities and activity that might produce or influence the diversity observable in the manifest creation. This diversity and variety is produced by the 3 guas constituting the single avyakta (or mūlaprakti or pradhāna). This prakṛti is also infinitely pervasive, inactive and homogeneous/unified (perhaps anavayava ‘without parts’, the opposite of sāvayava ‘composite’ which defines the vyakta in 10). Stanza 11 describes her as trigua and ‘generative/productive’ prasavadharmi.

How can she be inactive yet productive? How can she be homogeneous yet constituted of 3 guas (= qualities/substances/forces/energies)? Yes, the proximity of puruṣa influences her into tension and activity and so she generates the vyakta, which seems to have no specific, independent existence but is a series of tattvas ‘principles/elements’ – like mahat/buddhiahakāratanmātras etc – and all these constitute the emergent creation.

It is a very odd situation. This (=mūlaprakṛti) which is already manifold in having 3 guṇas and is the cause of cosmic multiplicity is said to be one homogeneous unity yet that (=puruṣa) which is wholly outside every aspect of plurality and diversity is multiple!

Equally odd and also defective seems to be the reasoning in stanza 18, whereby the plurality of puruṣas is established – ‘Because of diversity of births, deaths and means/faculties (in life)’ jananamaraakaraānā pratiniyamāt; because of activities (occurring) at different times’ ayugapatpravttebecause of variations in the proportions of the 3 guṇas traiguyaviparyāt.

To my mind these three observations suggest multiplicity not of puruṣas, since puruṣa does not act and has no quality, but of conditions in mūlaprakṛti.

4. I should deal with the conjunction of Puruṣa and Prakṛti, since this is the basic and most important aspect of the system. But before this, I should mention some minor topics.

Other systems like Vaiśeika and Pūrva Mīmā criticise the Sāṅkhya view that the senses are all-pervasive. This Sāṅkhya view is not found in SK, unless it is in spermatic form in 38, where the tanmātras, relating to the senses, are said to be aviśea ‘non-specific’. But the view is certainly found in later Sāṅkhya texts (e.g. Yuktidīpikā 55: Pandeya 1967). Such a tenet is obviously invalid, since our senses would then be unlimited and confused in operation.

Another odd aspect is that of the three guṇas. Again, other systems question the validity of their operation, seeing no adequate evidence for their emergence. Since puruṣa is inactive, argue the Mīmāṃsakas, and the guṇas, which constitute prakṛti, are insentient, they cannot initiate the evolutionary process (Kumar 1983: 164). This could be counter-argued, of course, and three guṇa-like forces can be seen to operate in the world and in man. My objection relates to the absence of one guṇa in some operations or conditions. St 23, e.g., specifies four qualities for the sattvic form of Buddhi (dharma, jñāna, virāga and aiśvarya) and their opposites for the tamasic form, but says nothing about the rajasic aspect!

SK 25 reads:

sāttvika ekadaśaka pravartate vaiktād ahakārāt/

bhūtādeś tanmātra sa tāmasas taijasād ubhayam//

“From modified ahakāra (=ego-principle) proceeds the sattvic group of eleven (=manas, five senses of perception and five functions of action); from (the ego-principle as) bhūtādi ‘tamasic aspect’ proceed the five tanmātras ‘subtle elements’; and both proceed from the taijasa ‘shining, fiery’ (i.e. rajasic aspect of ahakāra).” This is how G. J. Larson and many others interpret this passage (1998: 185, 263).

P. Bahadur interprets: “The sātvic element proceeds from the modification of ahakāra. The tanmātras are constituted of tamas and the organs of action and perception of rajas”. He gives this in his comment on 2.18 of khyasūtra, attributed to Kapila (1978: 108). Others translate one or the other. Both interpretations are plausible, but only one can be right.

5. As has been pointed out by many ancient and modern writers, a very grave weakness is the co-existence of Puruṣa and Prakṛ While I find acceptable the apparent confusion of reflected qualities, whereby the former seems to have the mutable elements of the latter and seems to suffer, I find irrational the whole situation.

The pūrvapakstates that both principles are eternally contiguous, but never in actual, “physical” as it were, contact. Yet at some point in space and time, Prakṛti receives an impulse of some kind from Puruṣa and its 3 constituent guṇas become agitated, lose their equilibrium and begin to manifest in ever-changing new equilibrium in various phenomena that make up the creation. Now, Puruṣa appears to be entangled and in bondage. However, all evolution and all subsequent processes of Prakṛti, as we saw earlier, are performed for the release of Puruṣa (st 58 puruasya vimokārtham). Eventually, by the force of discriminating knowledge through the manifest buddhi (or mahat!), the uninfluenced/indifferent Puruṣa “sees her” (dṛṣṭā mayā ‘she is seen by me’) and Prakṛti acknowledges “I have been seen” (dṛṣṭāham, in st 66) and there is no further evolution or creation – prayojana nāsti sargasya even though the two continue in contiguity sayoga! In fact, a little earlier, st 62 tells us “No one is bound, and released or transmigrates” na badhyate ’ddhā na mucyate nāpi sasarati kaścit!

It is like a clash between husband and wife. She suddenly feels offended or pressed or whatever and glides into various antics, making him feel guilty yet doing it all for his benefit. And then there is reconciliation leading to peace (but no contact!) aikāntika ‘complete’ and ātyantika ‘endless’!

If all this evolution and involution (pravrtti into gross levels and nivtti into the primordial subtle level) is an illusion, then surely the Advaita philosophy presents it infinitely better. Why bother to have this defective system?

If it is “real”, then how does the impulse, the influence of puruṣa, who is totally aloof and inactive, pass onto prakṛti and energizes her into activity? The analogy of the magnet is an absurdity. The magnet has a quality, a force, which we call “attraction”. The puruṣa is supposed to be pure consciousness without any other quality and the prakṛti totally insentient and therefore not sensitive to attraction!

Moreover, this whole phenomenon takes place in infinity and eternity. But as I wrote, since they are two separate entities the one must limit the other spatially at least: Puruis not in Prakti and she is not in him. They don’t even touch. So this influence is impossible.

Also, the phenomenon of evolving creation is in space and time. Naturally, our mind wonders why suddenly prakṛti gets influenced. Why now and not before or later? And why is the release aikāntika and ātyantika ‘final’ now? What guarantee is there that the tension and activity will not start again?

I have seen no answers, no resolution of these knotty problems.

6. Larson’s Classical Sākhya has now become the standard book on classical Sāṅkhya, as formulated in Īśvarakṛṣṇa’s khyakārikā. He not only expounds the system in SK, but also traces with great care its development from ancient most times with painstaking reference to most scholars, who have dealt with the subject.

He writes of this system: “It has developed a technical terminology and offers a unique theory and method of salvation. The classical system represents a synthesis of many ancient traditions in which previously diverse and frequently contradictory doctrines are given a systematic and coherent form. From this synthesis an extremely subtle and sophisticated system of thought emerged… [It] is dealing in a significant manner with some of the most difficult problems of religion and thought” (1998: 154-55).

Although I think Larson has done a very good job of presenting the system and its development in his book, I do not agree at all with his evaluation. As I have already indicated, I find Sāṅkhya a rather inferior system, as others have done before me like Keith (1949), Radhakrishnan (1951), Sharma (1962) et al. And his attempt to refute Shaṅkara’s critique seems to me very weak indeed. The plain fact is that after the initial blunder of postulating two superior co-eternal principles, the system falls into a series of other blunders.

The “unique theory and method of salvation” has, in fact, no practices, whereby an adherent or disciple can advance other than discriminating between the conscious puruṣa and all the manifestations of unconscious prakṛti (the jñāna in stanzas 64, 67). But this is a practice found in the Upanishads and the Gītā – and, of course, Vedānta. With regard to practices, Pataṅjali’s Yoga and also Vedānta are far superior systems.

Back in 1957, in his second Sāṃkhya study, J. A. B. van Buitenen put it very nicely when writing of the concept of ahakāra in the system. He dismisses the notion that at the end of the development of the system we have a “complete and perfect doctrine”. He continues, “the classical doctrine really represents a minority doctrine, remaining after the majority views had been dissolved in Vedānta…” (1957:15).

(*)-Sākhya-Kārikā consists of 72 stanzas written in the āryā meter


 Burley M. 2007 Classical Sākhya & Yoga Taylor & Francis, London.

Jha R N. 2009 khyadarśana Vidyanidhi Prakashan, Delhi.

Kar B. 2003 khya Philosophy … Ajanta, Delhi.

Keith A B. 1949 (1926) khya System London.

1925 The Religion & Philosophy of the Vedas & Upanishads vol 2, (1989) M.B., Delhi.

Kumar, Shiv. 1983 khya Thought in Brahmanical Systems Eastern Book, Delhi.

Larson G J.  1998 Classical Sākhya M. B., Delhi.

Pandeya R C. ed 1967 Yuktidīpikā M.B., Delhi.

Shastri S S S. The khyakārikā (ed & tran) Madras Univ., Madras.

Van Buitenen J. 1956-57 “Studies in Sāṁkhya” I, II, III, The Journal of the American Oriental Society vol 76, vol 77 (1) and 77 (2).

(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2016)

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