The Sankhyakarika is a text in the Sankhya darsana. The title derives from the stylistic form of the work, karika, and the word sankhya, which came to describe the darsana due to its reliance on descriptive enumeration (Radhakrishnan 249). The karika is attributed to Isvarakrsna and must have been composed prior to the sixth century of the Common Era as it was translated into Chinese by the Buddhist monk Paramartha in 560 C.E (Frauwallner 225). Some scholars have placed the work as early as the first century of the common era, but that is, as of this writing, unverifiable (Eliade 367-368). In the context of the literature of the Sankhya darsana, the karika holds a place of prominence as one of the oldest extant texts of any substance (Eliade 368-370), as well as the first Sankhya text in the karika format, which is a type of aphoristic verse (Frauwallner 219-220).
Little can be said about the Sankhyakarika’s author Isvarakrsna, aside from what is stated in the last verses of the karika itself; that he received his teachings from Pancasikha, who received them from Asuri, who in turn received them from the system’s semi-mythical founder, Kapila (Eliade 368). It is also mentioned in a Chinese commentary on the work that Isvarakrsna was a brahmin of the Kausika family (Larson 19).
The system laid out in the Sankhyakarika is considered normative, however it likely presents the summary of Sankhya as it was when the text was written, rather than an innovation, as the text is more of a poetic elucidation of Sankhya teaching than a discourse attempting to prove those teachings (Larson and Potter 149). Stylistically, the Sankhyakarika presents fundamental concepts of the darsana in poetic aphorisms composed in the arya meter, making use of simile and metaphor throughout in order to illustrate points (Larson and Potter 149-150). The Sankhyakarika has been passed down with a variable number of verses, between sixty-nine and seventy-two, though it must be noted that the Chinese commentary of Paramartha refers to the text as the “Golden-Seventy”, although it omits the sixty-third verse (Larson and Potter 150).
The Sankhyakarika follows a logical and orderly format, presenting basic doctrines and then building upon them to create larger networks of concepts, and here some of the content shall be summarized in brief. The Sankhyakarika’s first three verses introduce the darsana by explaining it as a philosophical attempt to escape three kinds of dissatisfaction, while briefly countering initial arguments against the use of philosophy to counter dissatisfaction as well as a preliminary mention of the darsana’s characteristic cosmology (Larson and Potter 151-152). The second section, consisting of verses four to eight, explains the epistemological basis of the system consisting of three pramanas, under which Sankhya includes the other pramanas present in Indian philosophical systems and, through which all knowable phenomena must be proven (Larson and Potter 152-153). These pramanas are: 1) drsta, or perception 2) anumana, or inference 3) aptavacana, or reliable testimony (Larson and Potter 152-153). The third section of the karika consists of only one verse which lays out the Sankhya theory of causality, which relies on material basis for effects as well as the nature of a cause and an effect being essentially the same (Larson and Potter 153). In the two verses composing the fourth section, the concepts of manifest and unmanifest are explained and their attributes are described (Larson and Potter 153-154). The characteristics and activity of the three constituent factors of reality, or gunas, are explained in the two verses of the fifth section; the metaphor of a lamp is used to illustrate their function as a single whole with individual parts (Larson and Potter 154). The sixth section, consisting of five verses, begins the process of inference based on the concept already explained which lays the basis for the dualistic cosmology of the Sankhya darsana (Larson and Potter 154-156). Having established this basis, the two verses of the seventh section explain how the proximity of consciousness and unmanifest materiality acts to produce manifest reality (Larson and Potter 156-157). The next two sections explain the manifestation of the mind and sensory organs, as well as describing their characteristics and activity as constituents of the mental and sensory portions of manifest reality (Larson and Potter 157-159). The gross elements of material reality, or mahabhutas, and the three kinds of aggregate manifestation into which they arrange themselves are described in the tenth section (Larson and Potter 159). The concept of the subtle body which animates living beings is introduced in the eleventh section, which explains it as a kind of blueprint of dispositions which transmigrates through a multitude of material bodies (Larson and Potter 159-160). The nine verses of the twelfth section describe and explain the varieties of predisposition, both innate and acquired, which create the conditions of the temporary bodies in which the subtle body incarnates (Larson and Potter 160-161). The thirteenth section presents groupings of manifest beings based on preponderance of the three gunas, as well as explaining that frustration is natural to the functioning of the subtle body (Larson and Potter 161). In the fourteenth, section there are five verses using similes to describe the reaction of material to the presence of consciousness (Larson and Potter 162) The fifteenth section presents the concept of isolating consciousness from material through the action of the intellect (Larson and Potter 162-163). The final four verses give the Sankhya lineage from Kapila, as well as stating that sixty traditional Sankhya topics have been included in the karika while parables and criticisms of opposing darsanas have been left out (Larson and Potter 163).
The Sankhyakarika has been cited authoritatively since as early as the seventh century of the Common Era up to the present day (Frauwallner 226). There are eight extant commentaries on the karika dating from between the sixth and the tenth centuries of the Common Era, though many have not been dated at this time (Larson 20). The Suvarnasaptati, included in Paramartha’s Chinese translation of Sankhyakarika, may be the oldest having been completed in the mid sixth century of the Common Era (Larson 20). The Sankhyatattvakaumudi of Vacaspati is likely the most recent of the commentaries as Vacaspati Misra is known to have been writing during the ninth or tenth century of the Common Era (Larson 20). For the other commentaries, the dating is less clear and though theories have been advanced based on the evidence available, no consensus has been reached on dating the Sankhyavrtti, the Sankhyasaptativrtti, the bhasya of Gaudapada, the Yuktidipika, the Jayamangala, or the Matharavrtti (Larson 20-22).
Eliade, Mircea (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Frauwallner, Eric (1973) History of Indian Philosophy: Volume I. Translated by V.M. Bedekar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Larson, Gerald James. 1987. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Samkhya.” In Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Volume IV, edited by Gerald James Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, 3-83. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Larson, Gerald James, and Potter, Karl H. 1987. “Isvarakrsna” In Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Volume IV, edited by Gerald James Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, 149-164. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass
Radhakrishnan (1930) Indian Philosophy: Volume II. Edited by H.D. Lewis. New York: Humanities Press Inc.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Laws of Manu
This article was written by: Logan C. Page (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.