Introduction to Samkhya Philosophy


It is not exactly knows when this philosophy (Darsana) came into existence, what is known is that references of it are given in Jaina and Buddhist texts. Some hints of Samkhya thought is also found in the Upanishad, which may make us postulate a theory of its existence contemporary to some Upanishidic works. It is also argued that Buddha, before enlightment, when he was in search for answers, was a disciple to Samkhya Gurus. The last hypothesis is difficult to demonstrate, due to the lack of historical facts, but we see Samkhya enquiry in Buddhist thought, the main one being: life is sorrow and there is a path to liberation. It is also very interesting to note that the Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, as we know it now, is a system in which results of Upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism are found: the doctrine of permanence of the Upanishads, the momentariness of Buddhism and the relativism of the Jaina.


The true cause must persist through all experience, never-changing; as clay is the always the cause of all clay-phenomena: such as a jug or a plate. Samkhya believes that there can be no creation (production) of a thing whose cause was previously non-existent. Only an existing can produce an existing; how can non-existence create existence if the capability of creation is an attribute of an existing entity? The casual relation cannot subsist between objects essentially different from one another. Causation is creation due to modification. Development is the coming to light of what is latent or hidden, or, as Aristotle would say, it is the transition from potential being to actual being, or, in Hegel’s words, it is the passage from the implicit to the explicit. This theory (conception) of the effect pre-existent in the cause is known asSatkarya-Vada; which is also one of the central features of Samkhya philosophy; in fact the logical explanation of Prakriti’s evolution (everything evolves from Prakriti) is product of satkarya-vada. Development is the coming to light of what is latent or hidden, or, as Aristotle would say, it is the transition from potential being to actual being, or, in Hegel’s words, it is the passage from the implicit to the explicit.

Cause and effect are different states, and so are different from each other. While jar can hold water, clay cannot; but this difference is only practical. The material cause and its effect are one, but practically different, since they serve different purposes. Identity is fundamental, while difference is only practical.

Samkhya gives the following grounds in support of satkarya-vada:

  • The non-existent cannot be the object of any activity. The sky-flower cannot be produced. What is non-existent can never be made existent.
  • If the effect was non-existent in the cause then anything would produce anything, blue could produce red and sugar could produce salt.
  • The effect is of the same nature of the cause. If it wasn’t so then milk could produce rice.
  • Casual efficiency belongs to that which has the necessary potency.

Both Samkhya and Vedanta believe in the theory of satkarya-vada but they interpret it differently. The Samkhya conception is called Parinama-Vada and the Vedanta conception is called Vivartta-Vada. When the effect has a different kind of being from the cause (all production is maya) it is called Vivarta, but when the effect has the same kind of being as the cause it is called Parinama.

The Two

Is man part of nature? We can confidently answer affirmatively. The human mind is a fruit if nature’s creativity: his mind, his body, his emotions and in fact all of its components operate accordingly to internal impulses which he did not determine. His internal life, as much as his experience of the world, is pushed by a constant urge to live and to act according to the spontaneous instinct which nature has designed for him. Life belongs to nature and man is alive because of her. But somewhere in between nature and man there is some connection which we don’t feel comfortable about and questions arise in us.  Is man just one of the many products of nature? Or is there some feature in him which makes him unique? Does nature take everything back into her lap on death? Or is there something in him that does not die because it’s beyond life, beyond nature?

The Samkhya philosophy believes in the duality of reality, which is why it maintains that nature is not the only reality, but there is an essence to man which is beyond death, beyond nature, his spirit. This spirit is known as Purusa, “the person”, “the knower” and Prakriti, “nature”. As life belongs to nature, wisdom belongs to the spirit.


The main contribution of Samkhya to the development of Indian Philosophy is its understanding and conceptualizing Prakriti.

Samkhya believes that the origin of the world and the order of the cosmos do not find origin in unintelligent matter, which cannot itself give an harmonious order to its forms, but in intelligent matter, a matrix of TamasRajas and Sattva, out of which matter and its elements evolve and get aggregated. It is a system of thought which represents the world-as-we know-it to be the result of an evolution; but unlike modern science, they conceive this evolution a development from the higher to the lower; from the mental to the material.

Prakriti is the unmanifested matrix of whatever is manifested in the universe. It exists eternally, neither produced, nor created. Prakriti is the “natura naturans”, the manifested substance out of which the “natura naturata” evolves. This evolution is conceived as an expression ofPrakriti, but not a conscious one. Prakriti is unconscious; its development from dormant mode to a dynamic one is spontaneous. It is like the blossoming of a flower, like the reflection of light, like a girl in love. However beautiful, harmonious and enchanting it appears, the natural creativity of Prakriti is totally unconscious.

Prakriti is not only the word-as-we-know-it but also its cause; it’s the substratum of the elements. Elements are products of the natural dynamism (evolution) of Prakriti and not its cause. Creativity in not an expression of physio-chemical aggregation, but on the contrary, the physio-chemical properties are an effect of Prakriti’s creativity. The nature of the manifested lies in the un-manifested essence, which is its root cause.

So, for the Samkhya, understanding the origin of the world and the order of the cosmos is not to apprehend its elementary compositions but to apprehend the Unitarian dynamism residing in the variety of its effects.

The descending process of Prakriti’s evolution, from the dormant state to a dynamic one, is caused by three internal factors. Their interaction in varying proportion is responsible for Prakriti’s sequential evolution and the different manifestations. These factors are known as ‘Guna’, which is generally translated as ‘quality’. Gunas are not qualities that are apprehendable by the senses, they are that from which senses can be apprehended.


Guna in Sanskrit has three meanings: quality, rope and not primary. Quality for its nature if possessing matter, thus manifestable and definable. Rope for its nature to cling Purusa to Prakriti, making it believe if its existence as matter of thought. Not primary for its existence can only be comprehended by the existence of Prakriti.

The three Gunas are ‘Sattva’, Rajas’ and ‘Tamas’. When the Gunas are in perfect equilibrium, they don’t interact with each other, Prakriti is unmanifested: like an unblossomed flower. It is when the Gunas play with each other and merge together in different proportions that Prakritimanifests itself. The diversity in proportions in which the Gunas fuse together is the cause of the diverse modes of Prakriti’s manifestations. This conception is central to Sakhya: what is apprehended is only the manifestation, the branches, of the original, while the original, the trunk, is in itself un-apprehendable, neither by senses nor by the mind: since both of them are manifestation of Prakriti.

What is higher in the sequential manifestation is seen as more pure, more original, being more the essence, more joyful, lighter: more ‘Sattvika’. What is lower is more concrete, duller, it’s heavy, it’s more burdenful, more material: more ‘Tamasika’.

“Apprehension is Buddhi. Virtue is knowledge, impartiality, dominance are its forms and are manifestation of sattva, tamas manifests opposite properties.”

Samkhya Karika

The third element of Prakriti is ‘Rajas’, which is the energy and the dynamism of the evolutive process. Rajas is the concentration of energy, it’s aggression, it is the will to act, the will to move, its vibration. In the psychological level Rajas represents actfulness, Sattva peacefulness andTamas dullness.

But why do the Gunas play with each other? Why does Prakriti evolve? Does Prakriti have a scope in its evolution? Does it evolve for someone?


As Prakriti is inferred by the substance of the known, Purusa is inferred as the knower of it.

“Every structure has a finality outside itself, and therefore Purusa is (estabilished) because activity of nature exists, and there must be an entity outside her dynamism (outside the influence of the Gunas), there must be a supervisor (for the prception and the activities), there must be an experiencer and an absolute aim”

Samkhya Karika

Purusa is the conscious entity: the knower, the unconditioned principle, the spirit. It is always the subject of knowledge, never the object it. It is not an entity with the attribute of consciousness, it is pure consciousness (Cit).  All psychological states, the mind, the ego, the senses are not attributes of it. Purusa is eternally still, outside life’s activity, unmodified he enjoys the show. He is the spectator of Prakriti’s dance. The cosmic play belongs only to Prakriti, who is at the same time the actor, the stage and the play. Prakriti manifests herself to Purusa (even ifPrakriti is unconscious it does not mean that its activities are aimless, since she is intelligent), who enjoys the show and gets involved with it.Purusa gets so involved in the show that he believes to be one with the show, as if Prakriti and him were different expressions of the same thing. Purusa’s realization of being an independent entity from Prakriti is his liberation.

Prakriti is the sphere of necessity, which is rooled by the balance of three GunasPurusa is the sphere of freedom, which has no ruler and no rule, but is the impartial, dispassionate observer of Prakriti’s dance.


Why would the dancer dance if there were no spectator? For who will she dance? It is for the being appreciated by the spectator that she will dance. It is only for his enchantment that she will dance; it is only for Purusa that Prakriti will dance. Prakriti evolves (manifests) herself only in the presence of Purusa. It is not the contact, which generates the sparkle, it’s the presence: the vibe of Purusa’s presence. It is like love, presence creates vibes, which create sensation; there is no contact, only manifestations of emotions. This vibe creates a disturbance (uncontrolled emotions) in the Gunas and Prakriti evolves.

“Therefore because of the conjunction, the unconscious entities appear as conscious, and the non-participating knower appears as the agent of the activities of the Gunas”

Samkhya Karika

Evolution (Tattvantaraparinama) in Samkhya means development of categories of existence and not mere changes of qualities of substance (physical, chemical and biological). This conception means that: each of the stages of evolution remains as a permanent category of being and crates the platform for the evolution of the succeeding stage without its own destruction or disappearance. Thus the evolutionary process is a creation and differentiation of new stages as integrated in the previous stage (Samsrstaviveka).

“From Prakriti follows Mahat, then Ahamkara and then the group of sixteen  (creator-created) entities and from them the five (gross elements)”

Samkhya Karika

The first evolute of Prakriti is Mahat, also known as Buddhi, and is generated by a predominance of SattvaMahat us the ability to think, all psychological life is an effect of MahatMahat has the attributes of dharma, knowledge, detachment, but it is also has the attributes of ignorance, adharma, attachment. Buddhi is also the ground of all intellectual activities. It has the capability of reflection; in fact it reflectsPurusa as to allude him of his presence in Buddhi and of its attributes of intelligence and consciousness.

The second evolute is Ahamkara, the ego. It is the specific expression of experience defined as ‘mine’. It is because of Ahamkara that the self considers itself the object of knowledge and not the subject of it. According to the predominance of the GunasAhamkara is divided into three categories:

  • Tamasika or Bhutadi: when Tamas is predominant.
  • Rajasika or Taijasica: when Rajas is predominant.
  • Sattvika or Vaikarika: when Sattva is predominant.

From Sattvika Ahamkara the eleven organs evolve: the mind, the five organs of perception (Jnanendriya) and the five organs of action (Karmendriya). From Tamasika Ahamkara the Tanmatras evolve. The Tanmatras are inferred as the non-material substance of the physical elements. They are devoid of space or mass. They constitute the antecedents of the physical elements in the evolution of Prakriti; they are the subtle elements of it substratum.

There are five different Tanmatras: Sabda (sound-potential), Sparsa (touch-potential), Rupa (color-potential), Rasa (taste-potential) andGandha (smell-potential). The Tanmatras are the subtle elements of the gross ones (Mahabhuta). Each of our senses can only apprehend a particular quality, thus the five subtle elements are said to exist in correspondence to the five qualities grasped by the five senses.


Samkhya believes that a combination of precise observation of natural facts along with a deep understanding of their internal significance can disclose to men the features of the highest reality. This highest reality does not disclose itself because man is blind by his own ignorance. It is man’s ignorance of true reality (Tattvajnana) that binds him to Prakriti’s dance; enjoying the drama’s comedy and suffering the pain of its tragedy. Prakriti draws into her dance the psyche of men but she cannot win the spirit. But this freedom is what she loves, and keeps dancing for him. This dance is what the spirit likes and enjoys, it is this sensation and pleasure that binds him to her and he finds it difficult to maintain his consciousness centered in its true personal self. He tends to alienate his awareness by identifying himself with the performances ofPrakriti.

For Samkhya, liberation is the realization of Purusa as a different identity from Prakriti. It is when Purusa realizes and recognizes his freedom, that he transcends her. When Purusa attains liberation the show finishes.

“Just as the dancing girl ceases to dance after having entertained the spectators, so Prakriti ceases to act and evolve after manifesting her real nature to the self”

Samkhya Karika

Liberation does not mean development from the less perfect to a more perfect condition; because if these were acquisitions, they would be subject to time and space, which would not be Mukti but Pseudo Mukti.  Liberation during a man’s life is known as ‘Jivanmukkti’ (emancipation of the soul while living in this body). Mukti at death is known as ‘Videhamukti’, which is liberation of the soul from all bodies, gross and subtle.


The Samkhya darsana is very peculiar and interesting but it is not easily comprehendible by us, modem men. This is due mainly to the fact that: the way we distinguish the reality of knowledge from the knowledge of it is very different from the way Samkhya does. We are accustomed to think that knowledge is a subjective elaboration of the perceived object. We differentiate between a world of reality and a world of consciousness. Samkhya differentiates a manifested from an unmanifeted world, and considers the manifestation a subject matter of experience. The category of reality is not seen as a passive “object” of an inactive person, but as an active entity luring the passive mind into its dynamic modes.

I find the concept of duality in Samkhya very interesting but I don’t believe in the existence of Prakriti and Purusa as different entities. I believe they are two parts of the same face. Duality, for me, is not two different identities or qualities but the manifestation of one in two ways; which is why I interpret liberation in Samkhya not as the realization of the two but as the segregation of the two from their fusion. Fusion for me is the state of being in which Purusa believes to be one with Prakriti. Two identities are completely different from each other if they don’t have any relation between each other. The non-equality creates the diversity. But Prakriti and Purusa have a relation, one does not exist without the other and neither of them can be comprehended without the other; without forgetting that Prakriti evolves only for Purusaand Purusa can allude to be one with Prakriti only if Prakriti exists. It is like the concept of “bad’, which can not be comprehended without the concept of ‘good’.


Indian Philosophy – Radhakrishnan

Nature and Man – Stefano De Santis

A History of Indian Philosophy – Dasgupta

An Introduction to Indian Philosophy – Dutta & Chatterjee

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6 Responses to Introduction to Samkhya Philosophy

  1. Snobster says:

    This conjures up to be the finest write up on Sankhya School I’ve read in an year (and trust me, I’ve read some of them). I’m an under-grad philosophy student and I was wondering if you could do a write-up on Plato’s Republic. Your writing style seems to be very student friendly so it could just help some of us out : )


    • faustoaarya says:


      glad to know you enjoyed the read. i did some work on plato, can’t find it right now but if i do, i’ll surely put it up. where r u doing your studies from?

      • Snobster says:

        I am pursuing Philosophy from Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi, in my second year right now.
        I’ll be following the page for sometime to come. It seems interesting!

  2. faustoaarya says:

    Thanks for all the compliments :), it’s nice to know some of my work is useful to you. I’m a student myself, not anymore in delhi, but i did your same course in your same city… but not being a girl, i did it from Stephen’s. I’ll be slowly putting up my college work online.
    hope the blog and its content keep you interested.

  3. Snobster says:

    Oh! No wonder it was perfect from a point of view of a Philosophy student. Should’ve known that because I don’t come across bloggers everyday, writing about Sankhya Yes, another reason to be following this blog. A big thanks for sharing this : )


  4. faustoaarya says:

    I did not find plato… but i’ll slowly put my work during my second year. not all of it might be complete but might turn out to be useful

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