The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation


by Jayaram V

Hinduism owes a great deal to the Samkhya school of thought. According system of philosophy that India has produced." It exerted profound influence on many scholars in ancient India, China and, according to some, even Greece. We find ample references to this school of thought in many ancient religious scriptures including the Bhagavadgita and some Upanishads such as the Svetasvatara Upanishad and the Maitrayani Upanishad. Though it originally began with an atheistic note on the nature of creation and existence of God, some of its notable concepts and ideas were gradually absorbed into the main stream of Hinduism and Buddhism with suitable modifications.

According to the Samkhya philosophy, the source all reality and experiences is Prakriti or nature. In its pure original forma, it is the unmanifest (avyaktam), primal resource, the sum total of the universal energy. Prakriti is without a cause, but the cause and source of all effects, "the ultimate basis of the empirical universe". Through a process of continuous evolution, it gradually manifests its latent potentials and effects into various forms, energies and elements in different planes of reality. Though it is the cause of all causes, it does not have any control on the Purusha or the individual soul without qualities and movement. The creative process (Shristi) begins, when Purusha, joins Prakriti and becomes established in it. Out of this process evolve 24 principles, which are:

  • Mahat: the great principle (1)
  • Buddhi:the discriminating, reasoning and causative intelligence (2)
  • Ahamkara:the ego-principle (3)
  • Manas:the mind or the sixth sense (4)
  • Panchendiryas:the five sense organs (9)
  • Five karmendriyas: the five organs of action (14)
  • Five tanmatras: the five subtle elements (19)
  • Five Mahabhutas:the five gross elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether)(24)

These are the evolutes. The Mahat (the Great One), is the first to emerge in this process of evolution. The Mahat is Prakriti or the primordial nature in its dynamic aspect. From the Mahat evolves buddhi and Manas. Buddhi is the principle of intelligence or the discriminating awareness and Manas is the mind stuff consisting of pure consciousness. From Buddhi evolve ahmkara or the feeling of individuality and separation and the five tanmatras of sound, touch smell, form or color and taste.

The rest of the principles arise from from Manas, which are the five senses, the five organs of actions and the five gross elements.These are the 24 evolutes and together with the Purusha (individual soul) who joins with Prakriti to initiate this process, the number becomes 25.

As one European commentator pointed out, Samkhya is "the most significant system of philosophy that India has produced." Its popularity in ancient India can be gauged from the fact the epic, the Mahabharata, Manusmriti, the Puranas and the Bhagavad gita describe its main features though with some variations and sometimes without making a direct reference to this school.

The Samkhya school was founded by Kapila, who lived in very ancient times, even before the composition of some of the principal Upanishads such as the Svetavatara, Katha, Prashna and Maitrayani Upanishads. A comprehensive treatment of the subject can be found in an ancient scripture called the Samkhyakarika, ascribed historically to Isvarakrishna, who probably lived in the third century A.D. This scripture became more prominent with a commentary written on it by Gaudapada, who is probably different from the Gaudapada of Mandukyopanishad and who lived around 8th Century A.D.

The greatness of Samkyha lies in the fact that the evolution of life on earth is depicted not as miracle work of God, but as a creative process passing through different phases of change and transformation.

Infact the original Samkhya did not accept the idea of an Absolute Principle or God behind creation. The individual soul or Purusha is the eternal principle which joins with Prakriti, another eternal principle to establish its presence in the material world. The individual soul is immortal. It exists prior to the emergence of other principles and will continue to exist even after the rest disappear.

The Bhagavad gita picks up the basic aspects of Samkhya, but adds the principle of Supreme Self or Universal Purusha as the cause of all creation.

According to the Bhagavad gita, the Purusha enters the Prakriti and manifests the entire creation. At the human level, the purusha is compared symbolically with a man and the Prakriti with a woman. At the microcosmic level a union between the two indeed leads to the creation of a new being, which can be compared to the Hiranyagarbha (the golden embryo) at the microcosmic level.

The concept of Prakriti as the source of material evolution, probably led to the popularity of the worship of Mother Goddess and led subsequently to the emergence of Tantricism during the post Gupta perod.

Impact on Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism

In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism we find traces of Samkhya philosophy. While we cannot say authoritatively, for we have no evidence, that they derived these concepts from the Samkhya school, we cannot fail to notice some striking similarities such as the Jain and Buddhist concepts of the aggregates and the denial of an efficient and primary cause as the source of creation. It is possible that these divergent paths reflect the turmoil and confusion of the times in which they took share and man's earliest and intelligent effort to make sense out of an overwhelmingly enigmatic nature of the material universe.

In some respects, the Yogasutras of Patanjali is both an extension and an exposition of the Samkhya school. The Samkhya yoga of the Bhagavadgita is but a subtle refutation of the basic premise of the Samkhya philosophy with regard to Brahman or the supreme Purusha as the primary and efficient cause of the creation. But interestingly, it accepts many other concepts of the school such as the division of the gunas, the bondage of the souls, relationship between prakriti and individual souls, the release of the souls through the practice of yoga and discipline and so on. It also prescribes bhakti marga or the path of devotion as a more effective means of salvation than the pure jnana marga (path of knowledge) of the Samkhya type schools and the pure karma marga (path of action) of the materialistic and atheistic schools. Several schools of Saivism and Vaishnavism integrated many concepts of the Samkhya school without compromising their stand on the principle of the Absolute first cause. In one sentence we can say that Hinduism added the principle of Brahman to the principles of Samkhya school and made it an invaluable philosophy in our search for truth.

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