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The Sankhya Philosophy of Hinduism

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by V. R. Gandhi, B.A., M.R.A.S. Barrister-at-Law

1. We begin this evening with the Sankhya philosophy. Kapila, the reputed author of this philosophy was probably a Brahmin, Though nothing is known about him. He is the supposed author of two works- the original Sankhya Sutras called (Sankhya Pravachan) and a shorter work called (Tatvsmas). The Sankhya philosophy together with Yoga, Naya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta nominally accepts Veda as its guide. It is the Philosophy of (Sankhya), i.e. enumeration or analysis of the Universe. Sir Monier Williams calls it by the name of synthetic enumeration. Sir William Jones calls it the Numeral Philosophy. It has been partly compared with the metaphysics of Pythagoras, partly in its Yoga with the system of Zeno. Others compare it with that of Berkeley.

2. It starts with the proposition that the world is full of miseries of three kinds- the three kinds of miseries:

  1. (Adhyatmic) due to one's self,
  2. (Adhibhotic ) due to the products of elements and
  3. (Adhidaevic ) due to supernatural causes-and that the complete cessation of pain of theses three kinds is the complete end and object of man. (Trividhasya adhyatmic Adhibhotic, Adhidaevic, roopsay, dukhsay, atyantnivriti atyantPurushrth.)

This doctrine of Sankhya is similar to the tenets held by the Buddhists whose main doctrine is that the world is full of miseries. This is also the starting point of Spinoza. In his work `The Improvement of the Understanding' he says: "After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and facile seeing that none of the objects of my fears contain in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme and un-ending happiness." That is his starting point, just the starting point where the Sankhya starts. He goes on to say: " I thus perceived that I was in a state of peril and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy, however uncertain it might be, as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease when he sees that death will surely be upon him unless a remedy be found, is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, in as much as his whole hope lies therein. All the objects pursued by the multitude not only bring no remedy that tends to preserve our being, but even act as hindrance, causing the death not seldom of those who are possessed by them." He continues: "All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact that our happiness or unhappiness has been made the mere creature of the thing that we happen to be loving. When a thing is not loved, no envy if another bears it away, no fear, no hate; yes, in a world no tumult of soul. These things all come from loving that which perishes, such as the objects of which I have spoken. But love towards a thing eternal feasts the mind with joy alone, nor hath sadness any part therein. Hence this is to be prized above all and to be sought for with all our might."

3. How was such a theory invented? In the West it has always been the case that the peculiar circumstances of the philosopher's life lead him into a peculiar belief, in the East the calm and quiet scenery and bountiful nature lead him to patiently inquire into the mysteries of the universe. Their contemporaries judge them from a false vantage ground. Spinoza in his owns age was denounced as a atheist, profane person, monster. Long afterwards however his works were re-discovered, greedily read, and admired by great poets like Goethe and by ardent and even romantic philosophers like Schelling. The Sankhya system too was considered by its commentators atheistic. But the present generation looks charitably upon it and tries to see some if not all-eternal truths in it.

4. I told you in the beginning that the Sankhya starts with the proposition that the world is full of miseries of three kinds. These are the results of the properties of matter (Prakriti) and not of its correlate intelligence of consciousness (Purush). Matter is eternal and co-existent with spirit. It was never in a state of non-being but always in a state of constant change, it is subtle and insentient. According to this view, Prakriti existed before the evolution of the universe and will continue so to exist for ever, but with time it has so much been changed that the unemancipated (Atma) (soul) is but ill able to comprehend its nature. It has lost its original state and has become earthy. In other words, Prakriti has assumed diverse shapes both gross and subtle.

5. Kapila's theory is strictly a theory of evolution. He says: (Navstuno vstusidhi) -- A thing is not made out of nothings. Avastunobhavat vastusidhirbhavotpatirnav sambhavti It is not possible that out of nothing, i.e. an entity should arise. (Yadyabhavat bhavotpatistarhi karan rupan karyai drishyat iti jagtopyavastusvanlllll ) -- If an entity were to arise out of a non-entity, then since the character of a cause is visible in its product the world also will be unreal. When the Vedantist -the monist or the idealist-tell Kapila, `Let the world too be unreal, what harm is that to us?', he replies : Abadhat adushtkaran.janyatvach navstuutvama- The world is not unreal because these is no fact contradictory to its reality and because it is not the false result of depraved causes (leading to a belief in what ought not to be believed). (Ahuktao rajatmiti gyanai naidan rajatmiti gyanat naidan rajatbadh na chatr naidan bbhavroopan jagditi ksyapi gyanan yain bhavroopbadh syat) When there is the notion in regard to a shell of a pearl-oyster (which sometimes glitters like silver) that it is silver, its being silver is contradicted by the subsequent and more correct cognition that this is not silver. But in the case in question-that of the world regarded as a reality, no one ever has the cognition "this world is not in the shape of an entity", by which cognition if any one ever really had such its being an entity might be opposed. (Dushtkaran.janyatvach mithyaityavgamyatai yatha kamladidoshat peetshankhgyanan ksyachit, atr cha jagatgyanasya sarvaishan srvada stvann doshosti)- And it is held that that is false which is the result of a depraved cause, e.g. someone's cognition of a white conch-shell as yellow, through such a fault as the jaundice which depraves his eye-sight. But in the case in question-that of the world regarded as a reality, there is no such temporary or occasional depravation of the sense because all at all times cognize the world as a reality. Therefore the world is not an unreality.

Again he says: Nasdutpado nrinshrigavt - The production of that which does not already exist potentially is impossible like the horn of a man. Upadananiymat - Because there must of necessity be a material out of which a product is developed. Srvatr srvada srvasanbhvat- Because everything is not possible everywhere and always (which might be the case if materials could be dispensed with). The meaning is this : Srvatr srvasmin Daiichi srvada srvasmin kalai srvanutpatairlokdrshanat - In the world we see that everything is not possible everywhere and at all times. And Shaktasy shakyekaran.at - Because anything possible must be produced from something competent to produce it.

In short, the Hindu philosopher's belief in the eternity of the world's substance arises from the fixed article `Ex nihilo nihil fit,' nothing is produced out of anything. All the ancient philosophers of Greece- who are believed to have borrowed their theories from India-seem to have agreed upon this point. Lucretius starts with laying down the same principal. He says: "It things proceed from nothing, everything might spring from everything and nothing would require a seed. Men might arise first from sea, and fish and birds from earth, and flocks and herds break into being from sky; every kind of beast might be produced at random in cultivated places or deserts. The same fruits would not grow on the same trees but would be changed. All things would be able to produce all things."

6. Sankhya philosophy then starts with an original primordial tattva or eternally existing essence called Prakriti- a word means that which evolves or produces everything else. Some philosophers translate this Prakriti by nature. Certainly, nature is anything but a good equivalent for Prakriti, which donates something very different from matter or even germ of mere material substances. It is an intensely subtle original essence, wholly distinct from soul yet capable of evolving out of itself consciousness and mind as well as the whole visible world. In my opinion it is not even the name for anything which ever existed by itself. For Kapila himself in his work says: Parnparyaipaikatr parinishthaiti sangyamatram

In the manifestation of objects there must be a succession of causes without any end; and in Hindu logic the ruling idea is that you must suppose a point to exist where you should halt and Prakriti is only a halting point; therefore, it is in Kapila's words only a sangyamatram, i.e. merely a name given to the point in question, a mere sign to donate the cause which is the root which must be assumed rootless, merely to conform to the rule of Hindu logic.

7. Let us now see how Kapila defines this Prakriti. It is Satvrajstamasan - Prakriti is the state of equipoise of Satv, Rajas, Tames goodness or passivity, passion, energy or activity and darkness or grossness. These three qualities passivity, activity and grossness- are not qualities in the ordinary sense. Qualities in the ordinary sense are attributes of Prakriti, they are rather the cords which when in a state of equipoise constitute Prakriti. On account of the disturbance of this state of equilibrium the whole world comes out. Kapila says: Prakritairmhan mahatohankar ahankarat panchtanmatran.i ubhyamindrayam tanmatraibhye sthoolbhootani Purush iti panchvinshtirgan. From Prakriti proceeds Mind mehat, from Mind self-consciousness, from self-consciousness the five subtle elements Sthoolbhotani and two sets of organs Indriyas external and internal, and from subtle elements gross elements sthoolbhootani. Thus Prakriti is the first basic primordial essence, and second principal evolved out of it is Mind, from Mind come out the third principal Ahankara, self-consciousness or individuality, from individuality come our five subtle elements and two sets of organs. These five subtle elements are Shabd, Sparsh, Roop Ras Gandha- sound, tangibility, form or color, taste and smell or odour. The two sets of organs are external organs and internal organs. The external organs are again organs of sense and organs of action. The organs of sense are ear, skin, eye, nose, tongue; the organs of action are larynx, hand, foot, and the excretory and generative organs. These ten are external organs. The eleventh is the mind- the internal organ. From the five subtle elements are produced five gross elements- Akash (ether), Vayu (air), Taijas (fire or light), Apas (water), Prithvi (earth). The twenty-fifth is the Purush - the Soul, which is neither producer nor produced but eternal like Prakriti. It is quite distinct from the producing or produced elements and creation of the phenomenal world, though liable to be brought into connection with them.

8. The arguments which Kapila brings forward for the existence of soul as a separate entity, distinct from Prakriti, are these; First, Sanhatprarthatvat that which combined and is therefore discreditable is finally for the sake of some other which is not discerptible. The second argument Trigun.adivipryat Soul is something else than Prakriti because there is in Soul the reverse of the three qualities passivity, activity and grossness. The third argument is Adhishthanach -Soul is not material because of its superintendence over Prakriti (and a superintendent is an intelligent being while Prakriti is unintelligent). The fourth argument is Bhoktribhavat - Soul is not material because of its being the experiencer. It is the Prakriti that is experienced, the experiencer is soul.

What then is the nature of soul? Kapila answers: Jadprkashayogat parkas Since light does not pertain to the unintelligent, light is the essence of soul. The followers of the Vaisheshika system think that intelligence is only an attribute of soul; really it is without quality. It is essentially intelligent. If soul be unintelligent, it would not be a witness of its own comfort in profound and dreamless sleep. He does not agree with the Vedantists when they say that soul is one only for it is eternal, omnipresent, changeless, void of blemish; on the contrary, he says that from the fact [that] when one person is born another dies and a third one becomes old at the same time [it follows that] there is a multiplicity of souls. If soul were one only, when one is born all must be born. Both the Vedantists and the Sankhya are followers of the Veda and in the Veda there are passages like Aikamaivadviteeyan brahm (chhandogyopanishad 6.2.1), naih nanasti kinchan (Vrihadan.ykopnishad 4.4.19) mritio sa mritiomapnoti ye eh nanaiv pashyati (kathopnishad 2.1.10) - Brahma is one without a second; there is nothing here diverse; death after death does he, the deluded man obtain who here sees as if it were a multiplicity. Kapila gives an ingenious interpretation to these passages. He says that his view of the multiplicity of souls is not opposed to the above passages of the Upanisads because those texts refer to the genus of all souls, i.e. to the fact that all souls are of the same nature. On the contrary he says in the Puranas we find passages to the effect that Vamadeva has been liberated, Shuck has been liberated. If soul were one, since the liberation of all would take place on the liberation of one the mention of diverse liberation's would be self-contradictory30.

9. The soul is not considered by the Sankhya bound to matter. It is not bound, nor is it liberated. It is free. It has a delusive semblance of being bound. The nature of the soul is constant freedom and indifference to pleasure and pain alike.

10. These are the basic principals of the Sankhya philosophy. In short, according to its doctrines Prakriti and Purush are enough in themselves to and the idea of a creator is looked upon by the Sankhya as a mere redundant phantom of philosophy.

11. We may now enter into the details of this philosophy. In the first place let us ask Kapila what the motive is for the creation of the universe. He mentions two motives; they might have appeared satisfactory to him but to me his reply is not rational. He says that Prakriti created the universe for the emancipation of the soul which is really though not apparently emancipated or, secondly, for the removal of itself, i.e. for the sake of removing the actually real pain which consists of itself, as his commentator explains it. If the soul is essentially free and essentially light, there was no necessity for Prakriti to interfere with the soul's infinite bliss.

12. Let us examine the other stages of creation. I told you in the beginning that from Prakriti sprang the Great Mind. What is this Great Mind? Kapila says: It is intellect and judgement or ascertainment is its peculiar modification; and Dharma, gyan, Vairagya, Aeshvarya i.e. merit, knowledge, dispassion and supernatural power arise out of it when there is in it a superlative degree of the first if the three qualities, i.e. Satv, purity or passivity. But demerit, ignorance, non-dispassion and want of supernatural power arise out of it when there is in it a preponderance of the other two qualities. From the great principal -the Greet Mind, we were told, is produced Ahankara i.e. self-consciousness. It is what makes the Ego. It is the same as Antakaran i.e. the internal instrument35. We were also told that the eleven organs and five subtle elements are produced from self-consciousness. But there is this distinction that the eleventh organ, the mind proceeds from self-consciousness in which the first quality Satv, purity or passivity- preponderates, while the other ten organs proceed from self-consciousness in which the second quality-activity or passion-predominates, and the five subtle elements proceed from self-consciousness in which the third quality-darkness or grossness- predominates. I have already enumerated the eleven organs. The popular opinion is that the organs are formed of gross elements. But the Sankhya doctrine is that is not so because the Veda does not support that view and we know that Kapila could not assume an attitude of direct opposition to the Vedas. There was another popular opinion about this mind-organ. It was that it is eternal, but Kapila says that none of the organs is eternal because the Vedas say so and because we see that they are destroyed. Further he says that mind is the leading organ while the other ten are kinds of powers. All these organs are mere instruments. As a king even without himself taking an active part becomes a warrior simply by employing an army, so does the soul, although quiescent, through the different organs, become a seer, a speaker, a judge and the like, merely by reason of its proximity with these organs.

There are some special properties belonging to the Great Intellect, self-consciousness and the mind. Attention or thought is the special property of the Intellect, conceit of personality is the property of self-consciousness, and decision and doubt of the mind, while the five airs- known as Pran etc. - are the common properties of all of them. The modifications of the organs are Prman. Vipreya, Vikalp, Nidra, Smriti, evidence, chimera, sleep and memory. Some of them are painful, and others not painful. When these modifications cease to exist the soul comes to a state of self-quiet. The Yoga philosophy has the same doctrine. The very word Yoga means concentration and is defined as the suppression of the modifications of the thinking principal45.

13. We will go still deeper into Kapila's philosophy. We have enumerated in the beginning the principals commencing with Prakriti and ending with Purusa. Prakriti as Prakriti in a state of equilibrium is unable to produce anything. It is only when equilibrium is disturbed that the creation follows. Purush-the soul-itself is neither the producer nor the produced. Whence is the human body created according to this philosophy? Kapila says that out of the remaining twenty-three principals a pair of bodies sthool shreer and Sooksham shreer gross body and subtle body originates. In fact the twenty-three principals act as the seed. out of which the body is produced and the fact that the soul becomes conditioned by the 23 principals is the cause of its going from one body to another in fact the cause of all mundane existence, and this mundane existence continues for each soul so long as it does not discriminate the difference between soul and Prakriti. It should be noted how -ever that according to Kapila's theory the soul is not really fettered by matter, it only has a wrong impression that it is fettered. Really it is quite free. Only it does not realize this fact so long as it is in mundane existence. We come again to the pair of bodies- the gross body and the subtle body. The gross body usually though not always arises from father and mother, while the subtle body is a creation out of the principals. Pleasure and pain belong to the subtle body, not to the gross body. In the beginning of the creation there was but one subtle body which consisted of the collection of seventeen elements-eleven organs, five subtle elements and the Buddhi, i.e. the great intellect the understanding. But through the diversity of actions later on the one subtle body became differentiated into many. The subtle body does not exist independently, It has its tabernacle- the gross body for residing therein. As a shadow or a picture does not stand without a support, so the subtle body at death leaves one gross body and passes into another. It cannot in fact exist independently because its essence is Satvprakash pure light and all luminous ether is seen only as associated with earthy substance. The gross body is a composition of the five gross elements.

14. What aims then are accomplished by the subtle body transmigrating from one gross body to another? Kapila says Gyananmukti. From knowledge (acquired through mundane existence) comes the liberation, i.e. the discrimination between soul and non-soul. Bondage is also one of the aims of this transmigration but it arises on account of misconception. Kapila altogether discards the theory of the efficacy of works as a means of salvation. To him only knowledge is the sole means of liberation. Even meditation is not the direct cause of liberation, though it is useful as secondary cause, for it removes desire, which really hinders knowledge. So it is worth practicing, which can be done by stopping all modifications of the Mind. This is done by dharna asan and Svkarm restrain, posture and the fulfillment of duties. By restrain I mean the restrain of breath by means of expulsion and retention under certain rules. By posture is meant the peculiar position in sitting gives pleasure, and by the fulfillment of the duties is meant by the performance of actions prescribed for one's religious order.64 This meditation can be acquired only through Vairagya and abhyasa dispassion and constant practice. Through meditation knowledge is acquired. But if misconception interferes, bondage will be the result. What is this misconception? It is fivefold Avidya Asmat, Rag, Dvaish and Abhinivaish ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and fear of dissolution. Why should this misconception play its part at all? Simply because the powers called Tushti and Siddhi are impeded and hence arises the disability which cause misconception. Much can be said with reference to these powers of Tushti and Siddhi. But our time will not permit us to go into any details. We shall come to some of them when we shall talk on the Yoga philosophy.

15. There is however one point to which, I should draw your attention. I mean the nature of the Sankhya Mukti the liberation of the soul. His theory is not, as misunderstood by Western orientalists, the theory of absorption. The soul on liberation does not merge into the Universal Spirit or into the Absolute, for in his system there is no such thing as the Supreme Spirit or the Absolute. Not only does he not propound such a theory as the final object but on the contrary he refutes it. He thinks that by merging into the primordial original essence, the Prakriti, the souls will have to rise again and pass through different mundane existence. It is only when the right discrimination of soul and non-soul takes place that there will be the final emancipation of the soul.

16. There is another point to which I should like to draw your attention. The Sankhya philosophy in a large measure supports the nature working under fixed laws without any interference on the part of an extra-cosmic being.

17. But of all his theories, one that has struck me to be the most liberal is the universal salvation theory. He does not restrict the liberation only to the few followers of his philosophy but to others also.

18. So far we have tried to understand the meaning of Kapila's theory. Let us now see if it is consistent and appeals to our reason. In the first place, he says that Prakriti was in the beginning in a state of equilibrium. The three qualities, passivity, activity and grossness, were balanced. What then caused a disturbance in this state of equilibrium? Without external-causes, Prakriti cannot be disturbed. Pursha the soul is action-less, changeless, without any qualities or attributes.

Secondly, the Great Mind and self-consciousness are considered by Kapila to be different form each other. According to him one is the product of the other. And both of them are the outcome of Prakriti, which is really material. Now the Great Mind or Buddhi or intellect is nothing but a phase of consciousness. Self-consciousness-'I am happy ','I am unhappy'- is only a particular instance illustrating that phase and both of them imply knowledge and are but the characters of the soul but can never be the products of primordial material essence.

With regard to subtle elements Kapila says that gross elements are produced from these subtle elements; e.g., from odor comes out earth, from taste water, from color fire, from touch wind and from sound ether. If he means that the gross elements, which we see outside the human or any other gross organic body, are the products of these subtle elements, there is no reason to support it. The external elements we see are as eternal as anything else.

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This lecture is part of the lecture series dealing with the systems of Indian Philosophy delivered by V. R. Gandhi  before American audience of the common people, while he was on his journey to attend the World Congress of Religions held for the first time in the United States of America in 1893 A.D. The text is reproduced with the understanding that it is in the public domain. Please verify the copyright laws of your country of residence before downloading the text.

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