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Samkhya, also Sankhya, (Sanskrit for "Enumeration") is one of the orthodox or astika schools of Indian philosophy that recognizes the authority of the Vedic scriptures. It is regarded as the oldest of the orthodox philosophical systems in Hinduism, predating Buddhism. Samkhya postulates that the universe consists of two eternal realities: Purusha (souls) and Prakriti (matter or nature). The Purushas are many and conscious but are devoid of all qualities—they are the silent spectators of prakriti. Prakriti is composed of three gunas (dispositions): sattvas, rajas, and tamas (steadiness, activity, and dullness). As a result of the intertwined relationship of purusha and prakriti, when the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed the world order must evolve. Liberation (kaivalya) consists of the realization that purusha and prakriti are indeed different. Sankhya deeply influenced the Hindu Raja Yoga school of philosophy, and they are sometimes referred together as Samkhya-Yoga school. The philosopher Kapila is traditionally considered to be the founder of the Sankhya school, although no historical verification is possible. The definitive text of classical Sankhya is the extant Sankhya Karika, written by Ishvara Krishna, circa 200 C.E.

Since its philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two eternal realities: Purusha and Prakrti, it is therefore a strongly dualist philosophy. However, there are differences between the Samkhya and other forms of dualism. In the West the fundamental discussion is about mind/body dualism, whereas in Samkhya it is between the self and matter (the latter incorporates most of what Westerners would normally refer to as "mind"). Samkhya was originally not theistic but, in confluence with its offshoot Yoga, it developed a theistic variant.


The original founder of the Samkhya system of philosophy is Maharishi Kapila but none of his writings have survived. Indeed, very little historical data is known about Kapila's life. He is said to have lived around 500 B.C.E., and tradition has it that Gautama Buddha studied the Samkhya system before his "awakening," putting Kapila's birth at least before that time. Kapila is also mentioned by Krishna in the Bhagavadgita as the greatest of all perfected beings, which could possibly move the date back further still:

Of all trees I am the banyan tree, and of the sages among the demigods I am Narada. Of the Gandharvas I am Citraratha, and among perfected beings I am the sage Kapila. (Bhagavad Gita 10.26)

Kapila's teachings are quoted extensively within the Srimad Bhagavatam especially:

  • "My appearance in this world is especially to explain the philosophy of Sankhya, which is highly esteemed for self-realization by those desiring freedom from the entanglement of unnecessary material desires. This path of self-realization, which is difficult to understand, has now been lost in the course of time. Please know that I have assumed this body of Kapila to introduce and explain this philosophy to human society again." (3.24.36-37)
  • "When one is completely cleansed of the impurities of lust and greed produced from the false identification of the body as "I" and bodily possessions as "mine," one's mind becomes purified. In that pure state he transcends the stage of so-called material happiness and distress." (3.25.16)
  • "The Supreme Personality of Godhead is the Supreme Soul, and He has no beginning. He is transcendental to the material modes of nature and beyond the existence of this material world. He is perceivable everywhere because He is self-effulgent, and by His self-effulgent luster the entire creation is maintained." (3.26.3)
  • "The glory of the Lord is always worth singing, for His glories enhance the glories of His devotees. One should therefore meditate upon the Supreme Personality of Godhead and upon His devotees. One should meditate on the eternal form of the Lord until the mind becomes fixed." (3.28.18)


The Sankhya school accepts three pramanas (valid means of knowledge) in its system of epistemology. These pramanas are:

  • Pratyaksha - direct sense perception
  • Anumana - logical inference
  • Sabda - verbal testimony

Sankhya also has a strong cognitive theory built into it; curiously, while consciousness/spirit is considered to be radically different from any physical entities, the mind (manas), ego (ahamkara) and intellect (buddhi) are all considered to be manifestations of Prakrti (physical entity).


Samkhya maintains a radical duality between spirit (Purusha) and matter (Prakrti). All physical events are considered to be manifestations of the evolution of Prakrti, or primal Nature (from which all physical bodies are derived). Each sentient being is a Purusha, and is limitless and unrestricted by its physical body. Samsara or bondage arises when the Purusha does not have the discriminate knowledge and so is misled as to its own identity, confusing itself with the physical body—which is actually an evolute of Prakriti. The spirit is liberated when the discriminate knowledge (viveka) of the difference between conscious Purusha and unconscious Prakriti is realized.


The most notable feature of Sankhya is its unique theory of Cosmic evolution (not connected with Darwin's evolution). Samkhyan cosmology describes how life emerges in the universe. Sankhya theorizes that Prakriti is the source of the world of becoming. It is pure potentiality that evolves itself successively into twenty four tattvas or principles. The evolution itself is possible because Prakriti is always in a state of tension among its constituent strands known as gunas (Sattva (lightness or purity), Rajas (passion or activity), and Tamas (inertia or heaviness). The strands of Sankhyan thought can be traced back to the Vedic speculation of creation. It is also frequently mentioned in the Mahabharata and Yogavasishta. The evolution of primal Nature is also considered to be purposeful—Prakrti evolves for the spirit in bondage. The spirit who is always free is only a witness to the evolution, even though due to the absence of discriminate knowledge, Purusha misidentifies with Prakrti.

The evolution obeys causality relationships, with primal Nature itself being the material cause of all physical creation. The cause and effect theory of Sankhya is called Satkaarya-vaada (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.

The evolution of matter occurs when the relative strengths of the attributes changes. The evolution ceases when the spirit realizes that it is distinct from primal Nature and thus cannot evolve. This destroys the purpose of evolution, thus stopping Prakrti from evolving for Purusha.

The twenty-four principles that evolve are:

  • Prakriti - The potentiality that is behind whatever that is created in the physical universe.
  • Mahat - first product of evolution from Prakriti, pure potentiality. Mahat is also considered to be the principle responsible for the rise of buddhi or intelligence in living beings.
  • Ahamkara or ego-sense - second product of evolution. It is responsible for the self-sense in living beings.
  • Manas or instinctive mind - evolves from the sattva aspect of ahamkara.
  • Panch jnana indriya or five sense organs - also evolves from the sattva aspect of Ahamkara.
  • Panch karma indriya or five organs of action - The organs of action are hands, legs, vocal apparatus, urino-genital organ and anus. They too evolve from the sattva aspect of Ahamkara
  • Panch tanmatras or five subtle elements - evolves from the Tamas aspect of Ahamkara. The subtle elements are the root energies of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell.
  • Panch mahabhuta or five great substances - ether, air, fire, water, and earth. This is the revealed aspect of the physical universe.


The Samkhya school of Indian Philosophy had a significant impact on Hindu thought for a variety of reasons:

  • First, it deeply influenced the practice of Raja Yoga, which absorbed the Samkhyan concepts of Purusha and Prakriti. Indeed, the relationship between Purusha and Prakriti is crucial to Patanjali's yoga system, and the two philosophical schools are closely aligned.
  • Second, the Samkhyan idea of three strands (gunas) present in all matter influenced other schools of Hindu thought. Eventually, the gunas found its way into Hinduism's most popular scripture, the Bhagavadgita, thus gaining widespread acceptance among the Hindu masses.
  • Third, the Samkhya school is significant because it provided an explanation of how the universe evolved into being, offering a cosmology arising from the interaction of Purusha with prakriti. Curiously enough, the Samkhya school did not provide any detailed methodology concerning how to achieve the discrimination between Purusha and Prakriti, which is one of the reasons that Samkhya became aligned with the techniques of Yoga.
  • Fourth, Samkhya challenged the hegemony of the monistic schools of thought by arguing that the ontological ground of being is dualistic. In this way, Samkhya opposed the schools of Vedanta Philosophy that stated Consciousness/Brahman is the cause of this world. Sankhya denies that vehemently as the material world that is insentient cannot originate from a sentient element. The Samkhya school offers a sharp contrast to the monism of the Upanishads and thereby illustrates that not all of Hindu philosophy is monistic in nature.
  • Finally, Samkhya is also notable as an atheist school of Hindu philosophy, which underlines the importance of the Vedas in the Hindu criteria of orthodoxy. There is no philosophical place for a creator God in the Sankhya philosophy; indeed, the concept of God was incorporated into the Sankhya viewpoint only after it became associated with the theistic Yoga system of philosophy.

It should be noted that even though Samkhya is a dualistic philosophy, there are differences between the Samkhya and other forms of dualism. In Western philosophy, dualism usually refers to the distinction between the mind and the body. In Samkhya, however, it is between the self (purusha) and matter (prakriti), and the latter incorporates much of what Western thought would normally refer to as "mind." This means that the Self, in Samkhya, is more transcendent than "mind." It is sometimes defined as 'that which observes' and the mind is the instrument through which this observation occurs.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Kapila, Maharshi and Peter Freund (eds.). Samkhya Sutras of Maharshi Kapila. Maharishi University of Management Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0923569235
  • Larson, Gerald James. Classical Samkhya: An interpretation of its History and Meaning. Motilal Banarsidass, 2001. ISBN 978-8120805033
  • Sinha, Nandalal. Samkhya Philosophy. Munshiram Manoharlal, 2003. ISBN 978-8121510974

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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