The Evolution of Sankhya

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The Evolution of Sankhya

Sankhya darshana is a distinctive contribution of India to world philosophy. It is a pity that it is not studied globally since it impacts not only metaphysics, but psychology, cosmogony, epistemology and soteriology. And it is one of the singular leaps in human thought that eventually, I believe, led to the flowering of Indic civilization, its world-view, its arts and sciences and its continued uniqueness.

Sankhya as propounded by sage Kapila (although we have no extant works from him) see the Universe as the continued interaction of two principles, the Purusha and the Prakriti. The Purusha is the conscious principle, which is inactive, aware and unblemished. The Prakriti is the principle of manifestation, whether in gross or subtle worlds, and all that is mobile and unconscious.

There are various theories about its original relationship with Vedanta but it seems to be a precursor, or at least a parallel line of thought, to Vedanta. It is considered by some to be the most ancient Indian darshana that combines all the categories of Nyaya and Vaisesika, its precedent philosophies, into its dualistic framework. It comes to us in its most historical and traditional formulation in Sankhya Karika by Ishvara Krsna, with commentaries later from Gaudapada, Vacaspati Misra and Vijnana Bhiksu as being the most important tikakaars.

Sankhya is not only experiential but metaphysical, granular and universal. Prakriti as conceived in its understanding is the eternal, all pervading and uncaused cause, which is subtler than mind and intellect and latent in everything. Prakriti creates mind, buddhi and ego, along with the five bhutas and five tanmatras and the ten senses. Its most important characteristics are that it is unlimited and independent, inherent and unchanged in everything, with same potential in every manifestation, the primal cause of all that exists and of infinite potential in its unmanifest state.

It comprises of three gunas, satva, rajas and tamas, which can only be inferred, and are formless and omnipresent. These three gunas interact in each manifestation, change into one another, with the same principles of interaction in the human body as in the mind and the Universe. Rajas can convert satva into tamas and vice versa; satva can bring rajas into balance. Each guna is part of the whole and has its own significance. None may be eschewed, rejected or ignored.

Sankhya accepts the principle of Satkaryavada, which means that the effect exists in the cause prior to its manifestation or appearance, says Rajmani Tigunait in his ‘Seven Systems of Indian Philosophy’. And it also accepts the proposition of Parinamvada, which implies that the transformation of cause into effect is real, not illusory.

Unlike Charaka, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Buddhism and Jainism, Sankhya does not see Prakriti as comprising of material or subtle atoms but as a subtle cause that is constantly changing in expression. 

This Sankhya, as originally propounded, was dualistic and atheistic. And it was Sri Krishna, as far as we know, who transformed it with his genius into a Theistic, pantheistic and monistic darshana. Sri Krishna widened the connotations of the technical terms of the original Sankhya and turned its enumerative and analytical approach into a part of his synthetic and vast vision.

He saw the description of Prakriti as unconscious to be applicable only to its lower status, the Apara Prakriti. There is yet a higher Prakriti he said, that is conscious, divine, intelligent, wise, nurturing and intimate. And he called this higher status as the Para Prakriti. It is possible that the development of Tantra as a powerful flowering of Indian darshana was influenced by the introduction of the concept of Para Prakriti. For Tantra, as it developed, elevated this higher understanding of Prakriti, as Shakti or the Divine Mother, to be adored and worshipped and considered even more exalted than Shiva.

Sri Krishna also further enumerated the status of Purusha that is involved in lower Prakriti as the Kshara Purusha. The Purusha that frees itself of Prakriti in the individual is that which can never be destroyed or divided, as the primal unit, the Akshara Purusha. Yet, there is an even higher status of the Purusha, the Uttama Purusha, that is universal, that subsumes all the multiple purushas of traditional Sankhya, into a higher unity. That one eternal and pure consciousness that is behind all consciousnesses of the Purushas, the cetanas cetananam of the Upanishads. The Uttama Purusha and the Para Prakriti as the higher stations of the original principles of Sankhya are yet unified in Sri Krishna’s person as the Purushottama, that supreme consciousness that is each and all, transcendent and universal and yet in each smallest atom of existence.

Sankhya and yoga are thus brought together in Sri Krishna’s vast synthesis of the Gita. Sankhya, thus, is a yoga that proceeds by knowledge, as explained by Sri Aurobindo in his ‘Essays on the Gita’. And the intellectual, discriminatory, analytic approach of Sankhya is made inclusive, synthetic and malleable by the great Teacher. This permeation of Sankhya and Yoga into a unity of approach that does not exclude work or bhakti or knowledge is his unparalleled contribution to India.

Sankhya became integral, poorna, and its principles applicable not only in intellectual realms that tended towards sannyasa, a detachment and movement away from the world, but also towards adoration and worship in bhakti and intense engagement of worldly activities as karma yoga. This was a significant achievement of Indian thought with far-reaching consequences towards making life richer and giving us an understanding of life that is not exclusionary but comprehensive and all-embracing.

The final transformation of Sankhya came when Sri Aurobindo took Sri Krishna’s Vedanta forward and brought into it elements of the higher Tantra. When asked to describe his integral or Poorna yoga, Sri Aurobindo called it ‘advaitic in principle and tantric in execution’. He accepted the darshana of the Gita in its entirety and then brought into it the unity and dynamic aspects of Shakti, the Divine Mother, who is the executrix and makes his yoga truly universal and transformative. This introduction of Shakti into the Vedanta of the Gita is not an intellectual exercise but springs from his realization of Brahman in both its static and dynamic aspects and insight into how the Truth-Consciousness shall act on earth plane.

Thus, Sankhya not only became even more poorna, but also an integral part of a more unified darshana, that incorporated all the important darshanas of Indic civilization into a single movement of self-transformation and yoga. And Tantra which had been shunned from Indian society as the leftist path, the vama marga, became established in all its dynamis in our lives as part of its own spiritual evolution.

Sankhya has been modified and adapted over the last few millennia by some of our greatest spiritual figures, widened, expanded and deepened in their own more complete adhyatma. And it is to the credit of the Indian mind that these remarkable transformations have grown seamlessly in its own journey towards greater and greater establishment of truth in life, mind and body.

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