Category Archives: 1. Sankhya

The Samkhya Karika

Samkhya is one of the earliest philosophical systems, or orthodox darsana born of the Hindu tradition. The word samkhya itself is translated directly as “enumeration” or “calculation,” thought to be referring to the philosophy’s attempt to ‘take account’ of the various components of reality (Rodrigues 143). While its origins are attributed to the ancient legendary sage Kapila, it is generally recognized that it was more likely born out of a variety of amalgamated speculative lines of thought. This historical development of Samkhya is shadowy and difficult to pinpoint, but some of the language and ideas can be found as early as the Rg Veda, although incredibly subtle and more ancestral to the philosophy itself than directly linked (Larson 76). More definitive early beginnings in Samkhya thought can be found in the Upanishads and the Mahabharata (Larson 75), and it is not until the late 3rd to 4th century C.E. that the defining classical text, the Samkhya Karika attributed to Isvara Krna, arises. The Samkhya Karika itself is the only extant classic text on the philosophy of Samkhya tradition, but it is clear that its synthesis and the philosophy were well-established and influential long before the Samkhya Karika was thought to be written (Ruzsa 2017).

The Samkhya Karika is a 72-73 verse work in arya meter that explicates the Samkhya philosophy as it stood during its most relevant period in its history (Ruzsa 2017). The content of the original text is relatively undisputed, with only the final two verses, which are absent in some commentaries, suggesting later addition. As these two verses only acclaim the value of the work, this later addition is relatively unproblematic (Burley 24). Otherwise, the content, and subsequent translations of the Samkhya Karika are largely established as they are to be found in most every commentary and discussion prior. The authorship of the Samkhya Karika by Isvara Krsna is also largely accepted, as the consistency of the text, excluding the last two verses, would indicate a single author (Ruzsa 2017).

The structure of the Samkhya Karika text is rather linear, and the divisions used by Gerald James Larson in Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning (14) are particularly clear in delineating the path of the work. It begins with a preliminary exposition; in the first verse establishing a three-fold permanent pain suffered by all that cannot be properly relieved through pleasures, medicines, etc. (Virupakshananda 2). This establishment of suffering as a human reality acts as the cornerstone for the entire Samkhya philosophical system outlined from this point forward.

The second verse further elaborates by dismissing Vedic methods as a means to end this pain, as ritual, sacrifice, imbibing in soma, etc. are similarly ineffective. As the text explains, Vedic methods are (most particularly, animal sacrifice) impure and their success dependent on the continued practice of Vedic ritual, which hence makes their relief impermanent. It is at this point that the work then puts forth the main tenant of its philosophy, which follows that the superior method by which to gain freedom from this permanent suffering is through discriminative knowledge of the vyakta (the Manifest), the avyakta (the Unmanifest, both Prakrti) and jna (the Spirit, or Purusa) (Virupakshananda 6). In asserting this, Samkhya is established as a philosophy dualist in nature, distinguishing most distinctively these entities of Purusa and Prakrti. The two are both eternal and independent of one another, translated as true Self or ‘supreme consciousness’ and Nature or ‘materiality’ respectively (Rodrigues 143). Purusa is unchangeable and inactive, pervading within each individual, inhabiting the physical body in the physical world known as Prakrti. Prakrti itself is divided into the Unmainfest, which is the substrate of the world, and the Manifest, which is the unconscious, changing, developing entity, subservient to Purusa (Ruzsa 2017). The third verse of the Samkhya Karika establishes the final significant focus of the Samkhya philosophy, which is the further division of Prakrti into the seven tattvas (principles of reality, or distinctions) which are created and uncreated, the other sixteen tattvas which are only created, and Purusa as neither created or uncreated, but just existing (Virupakshananda 10).

Verses 4 through 8 of the Samkhya Karika then go on to explain the epistemological basis of the Samhkya philosophy, describing the three modes of knowledge (perception, inference, and valid testimony) and the importance of understanding Prakrti not through perception (or, knowledge through base physical senses i.e. sight), but through inference (or, knowledge through meditation on perception) (Larson 14). It is through these means of knowledge that the work attempts to base itself.

Verses 9 through 14 establish the theory of causation and the ‘doctrine of the Gunas’. This section, following from the attempt to establish the methods of knowledge, further builds the foundation for the philosophical system later on. Verse 9 explains that, being that something cannot come from nothing, the effect of some phenomenon must be the same material as the cause of that phenomenon, and that a specific cause can only produce a specific effect (Larson 167). Verse 10 asserts that the Manifested (Prakrti) is active, multiform, dependent, and non-pervasive (Virupakshananda 38) and the Unmanifested (Purusa) is the reverse of this. This then establishes that the Manifest (Prakrti) must have a cause. Verse 11 then elaborates on this oppositeness of the Spirit and the Manifest of the Unmanifested further, in that the latter (Prakrti) has the three attributes sattva, rajas, and tamas and the Spirit (Purusa) does not, which hence distinguishes the two from one another. Verse 12 expands on the newly introduced Gunas; they correspond with pleasure, pain, and dullness, and are “mutually dominating and supporting, productive and cooperative” (Virupakshananda 42). The next two verses further describe the Gunas: sattva is buoyant and illuminating, rajas is movement and impulse, and tamas is dark and sluggish (Virupakshananda 45).

The Samkhya Karika then looks to describe the nature of Prakrti. Verses 15 and 16 assert that the Unmanifest (Purusa) is the cause of the Manifest (Prakrti) necessarily, and it expresses its creative power through the gunas in the manifest world. The continual interaction and transformation of this is creates what we see as the phenomenal (physical) world (Larson 166).

Verses 17 through 19 similarly look to describe and explain the nature of Purusa. Purusa exists as an entirely separate entity from Prakrti, and its existence spurs the disruption of the gunas in Prakrti, leading to their interaction and the Manifest world (Virupakshananda 55). This Spirit, or Purusa, must exist because consciousness exists, and Prakrti differentiates itself for the observation of Purusa. Purusa also exists separately because freedom from Praktri exists, and if Purusa did not, freedom from Praktri and subsequently suffering, would not be possible (Larson 169). Verse 18 asserts the multiplicity of the Spirit, arising from the reincarnations of spirit, because of different actions at different times, and because of the different proportions of the gunas. Verse 19 asserts that the Spirit (Purusa) is a “pure witness”, inactive and neutral (Virupakshananda 61). It is further worth noting that this is a significant departure from other Hindu philosophies; the nature of freedom, or kaivalya in Samkhya, is distinct in that the very observing faculty that allows experience in the first place is also that which allows relief from suffering (Larson 171).

It is the association between Purusa and Prakrti from which the world arises, and Verses 20-21 cover this aspect of the Samkhya doctrine. Verse 20 asserts that through the interplay of these two entities, Purusa appears as if it was an agent, and the insentient Prakrti appears intelligent. Creation, according to verse 21, is through the union of these principles, as in the lame man and the blind man cooperating to navigate through the forest (Virupakshananda 63). It is worth noting that Purusa still remains an inactive observer in this relationship, but its presence acts as a catalyst for change and transformation (Larson 173).

Verses 22 through to 38 in Larsons divisions of the text cover the emergence of the principles or tattvas. According to Samkhya, all of Manifest reality can be explained through these various principles. These 25 tattvas or distinct principles described in the Samkhya Karika are what is referred to when Samkhya is said to derive its name from “enumeration” or “calculation”. According to the text, all of these tattvas emerge from Praktri, increasingly less subtle as they unfold from the Manifest substrate (Virupakshananda 65). The first of these is the buddhi or mahat principle, which characterizing discerning intelligence, or a consciousness of consciousness (Larson 179). Ahamkara is the second principle, which then emerges from buddhi, roughly translated as “I”, or the ego-maker; it is the principle that creates the self (Larson 185). From ahamkara emerges manas, or the heart-mind. From manas emerges the five buddhindriyas, or sense organs (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), the five karmendriyas or organs of action (reproduction, excretion, locomotion, appropriation, and communication), and the five tanmantras, or subtle elements (odor, flavour, shape/colour, texture, and sound) (Rodrigues 144). From the tanmantras, which are developed from the gross, tamasic aspect of ahamkara are the five mahabhuta, or material elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth). All of these apparent tattvas or principles constitute human beings, and the rest of Prakrti (Ruzsa 2017).

Verses 39 to 59 cover a three-fold nature theory of reality based on the above principles established. Verse 39 distinguishes three types of objects: the subtle body, the “body born of parents” or physical body, and the gross elements (everything else) (Virupakshananda 88). The following verses explain the relationship between the subtle body and its relationship with the dispositions and the physical body. Verse 42 compares the subtle body being propelled by Purusa into different roles like that of a performer being propelled into different roles, interacting with the causes in Nature (Virupakshananda 91). Verses 44 through 46 explain the associations between Purusa, Prakrti, and the ‘self’ as the product of Prakrti, and following from this, develop a theory of fifty different principles based on ideas of mental phenomena (e.g. ignorance, contentment, incapacity, etc.) that arise from varied dispositions of the subtle body (Virupakshananda 97). Verses 48 through 54 further elaborate on these distinctions. Verse 55 reasserts the experience of pain, now within the framework of the subtle body, and verses 56-59 further re-establish the notion of a possibility of release from this pain. The Karika characterizes Purusa as an observer of Prakrti, Prakrti acting as a dancer for the entertainment of Purusa. According to Verse 59, Prakrti “ceases to operate after having exhibited herself to Purusa”, which allows for freedom or kaivalya as the ultimate goal of Samkhya philosophy (Virupakshananda 115).

Verses 60 through 69 go on to discuss discrimination and the freedom of Purusa from Praktri. Verse 62 in particular establishes the knowledge that will lead to ‘salvation’ or freedom: or, that while Purusa and Praktri appear as intertwined and bound, Purusa is never bound or held by Praktri- it only appears as such (Larson 204). Liberation from suffering, according to Samkhya philosophy, is the recognition of Praktri as a manifold creation that is bound and then released (Virupakshananda 118). In Verse 64, knowledge of this Absolute and pure truth is developed from the study of the tattvas, and in doing so bases the release of suffering in the permanent knowledge that Purusa is unbound, as opposed to Prakrti (Larson 204). Verses 65 through 69 reiterate the notion of Purusa being freed, continuing to exist, the material Prakrti and Purusa having fulfilled their purposes to one another (Virupakshananda 125).

Verses 70 through 72 go on to conclude that this knowledge is a doctrine imparted by the sage Kapila, and revealed in the above work by Isvara Krsna (Virupakshananda 128-129).


Burley, Mikel (2007) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: an Indian Metaphysics of Experience. New York: Routledge.

Larson, Gerald James (1969) Classical Samkhya: an Interpretation of its History and Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Ruzsa, Ferenc (2003) “Inference, Reasoning and Causality in the ‘Samkhya-Karika’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 31 (1/3): 285-301.

Ruzsa, Ferenc (2017) “Sankhya” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Virupakshananda, Swami (1995) Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna: with the Tattva Kaumudi of Sri Vacaspati Misra. Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math Printing Press.

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This article was written by: Katelyn Hamm (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


          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.




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This article was written by: Logan C. Page (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Avidya (Ignorance)

Avidya is a Sanskrit word most commonly defined as ignorance. This can be misleading if we think of ignorance as a lack of knowledge. Avidya is not simply a lack of knowledge; it is a lack of  what Hindu philosophers sometimes refer to as true knowledge (Singh 394-395). The knowledge we have of the material world around us, our minds, thoughts, bodies, and emotions is worldly knowledge. Avidya is our mistaken belief that these things make up reality, or our true self (Puligandla 218).  Avidya, then, is not simply ignorance, but spiritual ignorance (Lipner 246). It is ignorance of our true selves and of the true nature of reality (Puligandla 244). “It is no accident that light and the reflection of light are common symbols in Hinduism of vidya and the knowing process, respectively. Avidya is spiritual ignorance, symbolized by darkness” (Lipner 247).

Frequently in literature on Hinduism, avidya is said to be synonymous with, ajnana, prakrti, and maya (Nikhilananda 43). There are fine distinctions that need to be made between these words in order to better understand Hindu literature and philosophy. Ajnana is a Sanskrit word that can also be translated to ignorance or without knowledge. More specifically, without true knowledge, or knowledge of one’s true self. Avidya is also a lack of higher knowledge. Both terms allow for lower, or worldly knowledge. Avidya and ajnana can be used synonymously (Chatterjee and Datta 49).

The Sankhya or Samkhya system of Hindu philosophy is based on the dualistic principles of purusa and prakrti (Singh 75). Purusa and prakrti are separate and distinct. Purusa is pure consciousness, spirit, or self. Prakrti is nature or matter. In Sankhya, prakrti is the cause of our minds, bodies, thoughts, and feelings (Puligandla 115). The elements that make up the universe as well as all the physical properties in the universe are prakrti (Chatterjee and Datta 257).  The air we breathe, sunlight, our physical as well as mental composition are all prakrti. Our bodies and minds, and our interaction with the finite, ever-changing world in which we live cause us to have a perception of ourselves and the world that is not true reality. The way we look, feel, and behave is not the true essence of who we are.  In this way, prakrti is the same as avidya, as these are the causes of our false knowledge, or false sense of reality; our ignorance of purusa, the true self. The only way to know purusa is to rid one’s self of avidya (Puligandla 123).

The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism can be traced to the Upanisads, which are the last part of the Vedas.  Advaita means oneness or non-dualism. It is here that the concept of avidya is explored and tied to the concepts of maya, Atman, and Brahman (Puligandla 244). Unlike the separate and distinct entities prakrti and purusa in the Sankhya system, Atman and Brahman are identical. In Advaita Vedanta, the non-dualism comes from the belief that Atman (the true self) is Brahman (reality, pure consciousness). They are not separate, but one (Puligandla 244). That is to say, we are always Brahman, but because of the delusion caused by maya, or avidya, we are ignorant. Avidya is our ignorance to the fact that we are Brahman. When avidya is extinguished, we recognize Atman, which is Brahman (Puligandla 244).

Maya is most often translated as illusion. Maya is also sometimes referred to as magic, magical power, and even fraud. Much like prakrti, maya presents us with a material or false reality that keeps us from seeing our true self or Absolute Reality (Atman and Brahman) (Deutsch 28-29). “Maya generally signifies the cosmic illusion on account of which Brahman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer of the universe. It is under the influence of avidya that Atman, or Pure Consciousness, appears as the jiva, or individual self. Prakrti is the material out of which the universe is evolved. But Vedantic writers do not always strictly maintain these distinctions” (Nikhilananda 43). So prakrti is to purusa as maya is to Brahman, they are both illusions that keep us from seeing our true self.

Dualist or non-dualist, avidya is what keeps one from seeing one’s true self. Avidya is the cause of samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth that keeps us trapped in a worldly existence (Chatterjee and Datta 18). In order to be freed from samsara, avidya must be destroyed. Samsara is caused by illusion and once the illusion is destroyed, moksa, or liberation from samsara is achieved (Deutsch 75-76). Once you realize that worldly existence is not reality, there is nothing tying you to it. Avidya is the antithesis of vidya, which is the Sanskrit word for knowledge, or insight.       According to all Indian schools of philosophy, humanity’s state of suffering is due to ignorance (avidya) of his true being and nature (Puligandla 22-23). The Upanisads teach that a person’s true being is Atman (Brahman), which is infinite, eternal, and immortal (Nikhilananda 35). But in ignorance (avidya), one identifies themselves with perishable things such as their mind, body, ego, and thereby develop attachments to them and suffer sorrow when they inevitably lose them (Puligandla 22-23).

Buddhism also recognizes avidya, and it is also defined as ignorance. Buddhists believe that there are four Noble Truths. These are: 1) Sorrow/Suffering: All living, sentient beings experience suffering; 2) Origin/Cause: The major cause of suffering is craving or desire for the illusory; 3) Cessation/Ending: The ending of suffering is the ending of the craving that causes it. This ending of craving, which is an ending of the condition of ignorance at its root, is described as nirvana. 4) Path: The Noble Eightfold Path is prescribed in Buddhism as a means of attaining nirvana (Robinson and Rodrigues 192).  The ignorance referred to in the third Noble Truth is avidya, and its cause is also the illusory. In Buddhism, the ending of the illusion is nirvana, or enlightenment. Just as in Hinduism, liberation from samsara comes through the ending of avidya.

The fact that the end of avidya is the path to liberation (moksa), or enlightenment (nirvana) does not mean that these can only be achieved at the end of one’s life or after death. Ideally, it can be achieved in this lifetime and then one can live without the suffering caused by avidya (Puligandla 23). Siddhartha Gautama achieved nirvana in his lifetime and this is how he came to be known as the Buddha (Enlightened one) (Chatterjee and Datta 115).



Chatterjee, S., & Datta, D. M. (1968) An introduction to Indian philosophy. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Deutsch, E. (1969) Advaita Vedanta: A philosophical reconstruction. Honolulu: East-West Center Press.

Indich, William M. (1995) Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Kumar, R., & S. Ram (2007) Hinduism-religion and philosophy. New Delhi: Crescent Publishing Corporation.

Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: Their religious beliefs and practices. London: Routledge.

Murthy, B. S. (1985) The Bhagavad Gita. Long Beach, CA: Long Beach Publications.

Nikhilananda (1963) The Upanishads: Katha, Isa, Kena, Mundaka, Svetasvatara, Praśna, Mandukya, Aitareya, Brihadaranyaka, Taittiriya, and Chhandogya. New York: Harper & Row.

Puligandla, R. (1975) Fundamentals of Indian philosophy. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Robinson, T. A., & H. Rodrigues (2006) World religions: A guide to the essentials. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

Singh, S. P. (2004) Vedic vision of consciousness and reality. New Delhi: Centre for Studies in Civilizations.


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Article written by: Robin Wilcox (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Prakrti: Material Consciousness

The Sankhya Hindu philosophy is one of the six orthodox darsanas (world outlooks). It is considered orthodox because of its adherence to the Vedas and the caste system. In the Sankhya philosophy, prakrti is part of a dualistic philosophy that explains the states of consciousness by listing the components of reality. The Sankhya darsana explains the creation of the world with the intertwining of purusa and prakrti, resembling explanations in the Vedas. The materiality of the world is the workings of prakrti (Larson 167-168). The identification with all material things is what the Sankhya darsana explains as material consciousness. This sense of consciousness cannot be the true self because it is corrupted. Purusa is the true self and can only be achieved when all senses of prakrti are removed. Yoga is applied to the Sankhya darsana to attempt to reach moksa (full liberation) (Burley 36-38).

To list the components of reality that make up the cosmos, Sankhya philosophy begins by dividing pure, real consciousness from the illusion of consciousness that is within all entities of the cosmos. These separate states of consciousness are purusa and prakrti. Purusa is pure consciousness that can only be attained when prakrti returns to it dormant state. To achieve complete consciousness, the Sankhya philosophy promotes the advancement through the different elements of prakrti to realize that the material consciousness is false. Once all false identifications are let go, prakrti is dissolved and purusa is achieved. Reaching the state of purusa is to be free of all false identification (Jacobsen 8).

Prakrti is composed of twenty-three tattvas. Tattvas are elements that can be listed ranging from their coarseness to how subtle they are. As the progression from the coarse tattvas to the subtle ones occurs, the proportions of the three gunas changes (Parrot 60-63). These gunas (qualities) are tamas, rajas, and sattva; each guna is attributed a different set of qualities. The sattva guna is the quality of enlightenment, intelligibility and clarity. The tamas guna is classified as vague and dull, and the rajas guna is passion and activity (Ramakrishna Rao 64-65). Within one’s life, they will experience all three gunas in different proportions. When one is not distracted with the tamas and rajas gunas, the clarity that is the sattva guna is able to dissolve the illusion of consciousness created by prakrti (Jacobsen 8).

The twenty-three tattvas of prakrti can be divided into five categories. The mahabhutas are the coarsest elements; they are; earth, fire, water, air, and space. All materiality of the world is based on these five elements, so the manifestation of prakrti relies on the identification with these elements. The subtle tattvas are what is absorbed through the senses (odor, flavor, texture, sound, shape and color) (Larson 236-237). The tattvas that are necessary for the continuation of material life are the five action tattvas; reproduction, excretion, motion, communication, and accumulation. The five knowledge senses allow one’s ego to identify with the grosser tattvas; these elements of knowledge are the five senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell). These twenty tattvas make up the materiality of the world. Without the identification and connection that one has with these tattvas the manifestation of prakrti would not be able to occur. Because materiality is intertwined with purusa in the creation of the cosmos prakrti is an evitable part of life. The last three tattvas, that compose citta are essential to the separation of material consciousness and the internal liberation that lies hidden amongst the tattvas that are prakrti.

The material consciousness that is made up the twenty tattvas must be combined with of the last three tattvas is called citta. Citta is attributed to the mind and thought; it is the perceived enlightenment of prakrti. Without the mind to identify with the world there is no consciousness, perceived or real. Citta is comprised of three elements manas, anhankara, and buddhi (Larson 236). Manas is the inner agency that persuades one to believe in the material consciousness that is prakrti. Anhankara is one’s ego. The ego identifies with the heavier tattvas making full liberation a difficult concept to believe. Anhankara generates a false sense of self that is based solely on the materiality of the world around (Parrot 70-72).

The buddhi is the subtlest tattva. This part of citta allows one to realize that the manas and anhankara use the grosser tattvas to create material consciousness and that is not its true self. The ability to discriminate between the false sense of self that is prakrti and the ability to gain true consciousness is what makes buddhi the greatest tattva [Buddhi is often referred to mahat, which means the great or highest intelligence]. To achieve purusa, the sattva guna must be in its highest proportion. In this state of clarity one is able to wish to achieve pure consciousness. The awareness that buddhi has of material consciousness allows one to escape from the false identifications made by manas and anhankara. When one stops falsely identifying they are released from prakrti and are able to achieve the pure consciousness that is purusa. Purusa never stopped functioning when prakrti was present; it acted as an observer, waiting for the right moment to be revealed (Sharma 149-153). The Sankhya darsana promotes that advancement through the different elements of prakrti to the so that the identification of the true self is not another false identification. One must experience the material consciousness so that when it is time to identify the true self it will not mistaken it for something else (Ramakrishna Rao 61-63).

When purusa is realized all traces of prakrti disappear. The tattvas engulf into themselves and essentially disappear; this is possible because the Sankhya darsana presents both purusa and prakrti as transcendental, but real entities. When the material consciousness that is prakrti is gone, one is then left with their true self. Liberation is widely known as moksa in Hinduism, but is also referred to as kaivalya in the Sankhya orthodox philosophy. When kaivalya is attained one is fully liberated for all materiality. When one is advancing through the tattvas that make up prakrti it is important that they do not become consumed in them; the ultimate goal is to become liberated from prakrti, not to master living in a world of it. The Sankhya darsana adopts this philosophy while other sects of Hinduism focus on the mastery of the tattvas. Prakrti is escapable if one wishes to find true liberation. Sankhya darsana tells of the difficulty that is prakrti, but encourages and supports that finding one’s true self is much more fulfilling than the materiality of prakrti (Widgery 234-237).



Burley, Mikel (2006) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience. Online: Taylor and Francis.

Larson, Gerald James (1998) Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of Its History and Meaning. London: Motilal Banarsidass.

Parrot, R. J. (1986) “The Problem of the Samkhya Tattvas as Both Cosmic and Psychological Phenomena.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, Vol. 14: 55-78.

Ramakrishna Rao, K.B (1963) “The Gunas of Prakrti According to the Samkhya Philosophy.” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 13, No. 1: 61-71.

Sharma, Chandradhar (1997) A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Widgery, Alban (1930) “The principles of Hindu Ethics.” International Journal of Ethics Vol. 40 No. 2: 234-237.


Related Research Topics

Sankhya Philosophy









Related Websitesṛti


Article written by: Jillian Koenen (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Maya: The Concept of Illusion

Maya is the term for “cosmic/worldly-illusion,” “multiplicity,” “that which is not” within the Hindu religion. Though Maya’s etymology is unclear, we can trace through the ancient scriptures and texts to discover its origin and its myriad of meanings and uses.

In early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda, we see the term is used to represent “intelligence,” (prajna/buddhi) “extraordinary power,” and “deception” (kapata) in its simple and compound forms. This idea was developed and conveyed to humanity by the God Indra, who took on many forms with his Maya or “extraordinary willpower”, in which he did marvelous things that mortal humans could not comprehend. Since his “extraordinary willpower” defies normal human understanding, it is considered a phenomenon and we accept it as a form of “deception” from what we think we know as true, or what we are familiar with (see Shastri 10-11). In other Vedic scripture such as the Atharvaveda, the term has more influence as a supernatural element, portraying Maya as “great illusion” and “magic” in which embodies a person and the world. In the Brahmanas the word is again used for “intelligence” (prajna/buddhi). In the Upanishads, the grand philosophical texts that have been sometimes used to describe the esoteric values of the Vedas as a whole, we see the term expand its illusionary meaning to “cosmic illusion”. The Upanishads also recognize Maya as something the Atman creates and controls, thus being deluded by multiplicity that arises from within the self. There is only one true reality, and all plurality and multiplicity is Maya which the Atman creates. The Sankhya philosophy identifies Maya with Prakrti (primordial matter) as the source of the universe, with the distinct difference that the latter is real. It is the equilibrium of the three qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. (Shastri 29). The Sankhya philosophy tells us that Maya’s influence on humankind is through the use of the three gunas. Maya appeals to our senses, and through the three gunas we become deluded by matter, energy, mass and mistakenly take them to be something on their own.

Maya was conveyed in early Vedic literature, specifically the Rg Veda and Atharvaveda, by describing “the one reality” “Brahman,” and “Atman”. The term is conveyed not through literal use at first, but by the representation of multiplicity, deception or illusion from the one true reality, Brahman. Maya is something that embodies the Atman and deludes it by believing that we are something entirely on it’s own, independent of Brahman. The early story of Svetaketu is a prime example; it shows how after Svetaketu completed his sacred education, he remained conceited, pedantic and opinionated. As this was also apparent to his father, his father asked him firstly whether he learned anything about the unheard being heard, the unseen being seen. Svetaketu failed to respond and asked for his fathers knowledge, his father said, “My son, as everything made of clay is known by a single clump of clay, being nothing more then a modification of speech, a change, a name, while the clay in the only truth” (see Gough 43). Maya embodies Atman and Brahman, and creates an illusion to the cosmic perspective. Knowing the many is being deluded, knowing the one is vanquishing the many. Every atom, molecule, cell, being, planet is all multiplicity from the One. As Indian philosophers say: if we know Brahman, we know all things (Gough 43). In the Upanishads Maya is the appearance that distinguishes all from true reality. He who sees as it were a plurality actually existing is never saved, but is over and over the subject to the pangs of birth and death in this samsara. The conception of Maya exhibits itself in such passages clearly, and yet many do not see it (Shastri 56). A high point of the Upanishads was that the reference to an “other”, which was a broad reference to anything in our daily natural lives, which is in turn multiplicity, was meant to be meaningless because anything that which is multiplied cannot be Brahman or the One. It also perceived that with multiplicity, no one true meaning can exist. For something to exist independently of Brahman would imply that it has another purpose or meaning that Brahman does not, which is false because Brahman is the only true reality (see Shastri 38-39)

The Atman is the ultimate goal and reality in life within the Hindu tradition. The Atman is the true self and the only self. It is said to be waiting just beneath the skin, waiting to be discovered. Maya embodies Atman and deludes the self into believing our natural realms of multiplicity are independent from the self. Not only does Maya’s illusion extend externally, it also confuses humans to recognize with their bodies and their identities, mistaking them as our own and independent from the One true reality. In the Upanishads, Atman is sometimes used to represent the earth, water, wind, men, and the natural world. This unity shows how all beings, elements and things are Atman. Atman can be seen as pure consciousness, unifying your conscious with the one of Brahmans, which is true consciousness. This means that all things exist only so far as they are my consciousness, which is a unity; hence the multiplicity, which seems to exist independent of my consciousness, is not real but only a mere name (Shastri 63). Maya embodies Atman, because all cows, earth, men, wind are portions of our conscious, but Maya confuses our Atman into believing they are entirely creations and beings on their own. This extends into our interaction with people, believing that being is completely independent from you. We believe he is he, she is she, they are they, I am only I, and all I can ever be is I. This is false, we are all Brahman, and we are deluded into seeing and believing plurality. Maya inspires a chain of events that are extremely hard to stop once they have begun. We begin becoming attached to the elements, such as fine metal and jewels, our aesthetics, what makes us unique and individual, where we reside, what we eat, how we are represented, how others think of us, the clothes we where, our status, etc. All these things are brought on by our multiplicity and continuously take us farther and farther away from the true One reality. People who latch onto plurality or multiplicity do not achieve liberation, and will continue the cycle of samsara until their lives are filled with understanding and desire to unify one self.

It is by a multiple concentration that the one self assumes the aspect of a multitude of selves, and it is by a multiple exclusive concentration that it loses sight, in each self, of its identity with the other selves and with the self of all selves. The result is avidya, the great ignorance, the thick veil hiding from us not only our true self but also a broad tangle of subliminal influences both acting on us and exerted by us (Mohrhoff 6).

Avidya is used in Vedic philosophy subjectively to represent the natural form and matter of the world that we perceive, distinguishing self from non-self, and then leading into preferences, likes and dislikes, egoism and more. Avidya is different from Maya because it is referring to the process of not knowing our true self, being ignorant and unwise due to Maya’s illusion, and not representing the illusion itself, only the process of forgetting our true nature. When one discovers his Atman, Avidya is destroyed along with Maya freeing himself from the cycle of samsara and realizing one’s true self.

Moksa or Mukti is the central concept in Hinduism and refers to the liberation from Maya’s illusion, the freedom of the cycle of samsara and the unification with Brahman. Thus all things melt into the original self, as the darkness faints and melts away before the rising sun. Its fictitiously limiting mind with all its modes has been dissolved, and the soul is the Self again; the jar is broken, and the ether that was in it is one with the one and undivided ether, from which the jar once seemed to sever it. The sage has seen the Self, and passed into oneness with it, lost like a drop in water (see Gough 60). Moksha is also known as Nirvana in the other heterodox Indian philosophies such as Buddhism and Jainism. Once a person is liberated, enjoying the glory of enlightenment, they seek to help others also unify with the self. Thus liberated from metempsychosis, but still living in the body, the sage is untouched by merit and de-merit, unsoiled by sinful works, uninjured by what he has done and by what he has left undone, unimplicated in his actions good or evil (Gough 61).

Maya is an extremely crucial and frequently misunderstood concept within Hinduism. Maya is the cosmic illusion which arises from the self’s consciousness which uses the three gunas of nature to delude us from what we truly are, giving us the idea that we are entirely independent and separate from anything else. Maya is multiplicity on every level, from a microscopic level of atoms to the universal size of planets; it is all in some shape or form, a variation and change to the “One” true reality and given its own identity. Maya develops ignorance, termed Avidya, which signifies the descent into the delusion, where we are completely lost from our Atman, even though he is just beneath the skin. Maya encompasses Brahman, therefore it encompasses our whole existence, everything we perceive is a creation of Maya and only with mental fortitude and spiritual willpower may we free ourselves from this ever-repeating cycle of samsara and illusion from the one. Once Maya has faded from our perception and we are finally realizing Atman and seeing the true reality of existence, we have achieved the state of moksa, the highest state of consciousness and existence within most Hindu religions. Maya is the necessary opposite to moksa, for without the delusion, there is nothing for one to realize.


Bhaskar, Roy (2000) From East to West: Odyssey of a Soul. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Books.

Dallapiccola, Anna (2002) Dictionary of Hindu lore and legend. London: Thames & Hudson.

Gough, Edward (1979) The Philosophy of the Upanishads and Ancient Indian Metaphysics. New Dehli: Cosmo Publications.

Johnston, Charles (1912) The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: The Quarterly Book Department.

Morhoff, Ulrich (2007) “The Veil of Avidya” Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.

Shastri, Prabhu Dutt (1911) The Doctrine of Maya. London: Luzac and Co.

Simoni-Wastilla. Henry (2002) “Maya and Radical Particularity: Can Particular Persons Be One with Brahman?” International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 6, No. 1 (April): 1-18.

Sivanada, Sri Swami (2000) The Bhagavad Gita. Himalayas: The Divine Life Society.

Straight, G Carroll (2001) “Quantum Underpinnings of Religious Currents.” The World & I  Vol. 16, No. 1 (January): 154.

van Buitenen, Johannes Adrianus Bernardus (1964) “The Large Atman.” History of Religions Vol. 4, No.1 (Summer) 103-114.

Related Topics for Further Investigation







Rig Veda

Atharva Veda

Vedanta Philosophy

Sankhya System

Jnana Yoga


Three Gunas



Noteworthy Websites:

Article written by: Forrest Freihaut (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.



Sankhya Philosophy

Sankhya Philosophy is best described as a form of substance dualism. This form of substance dualism has a division between consciousness and matter, which is seen as independent from one another and relying on one another at the same time (Schweizer 846). This division is described in several ways, such as: thoughts and feelings versus intellect, nature versus soul, non-eternal versus eternal, non-spiritual versus spiritual, and impure versus pure to name a few (Majumdar 1926a: 255) (Everett 311). The most significant division related to Sankhya Philosophy is between the entity Purusa and the entity Prakriti. The other listed divisions are used to describe or explain Purusa and Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 255).

In order to understand Sankhya Philosophy it is necessary to understand that Purusa and Prakriti are two separate elements of consciousness (Everett 314). However, Purusa and Prakriti are not and cannot be independent from one another. “… Purusa has the power of perceiving, but no power of acting, whereas Prakriti has the power of acting, but no power of perceiving” (Majumdar 1925: 52). This quote describes the guidance versus activity relationship that Purusa and Prakriti share. Moreover, this quote demonstrates the point that Purusa needs Prakriti just as Prakriti needs Purusa. The union between Purusa and Prakriti is required to move through one’s life (Majumdar 1925: 53).

Although Purusa and Prakriti are united, each has distinct features of their own. Prakriti is in reference to objects, matter, all material that includes the mind and body. Antahkarana means inner instrument and refers to the three components of the mind, which is associated with Prakriti. The first component is manas, which means mind. Manas is described as cognition, perception, and low intellect. The second component is buddhi, which means intellect or reason. Buddhi is described as a high level of intellect function that uses intuition, insight, and reflection. The final component is ahamkara, which means ego. Ahamkara is described as what claims ownership and what makes something personal (Schweizer 848). Prakriti alone is subconscious, but is capable of consciousness through the influence of Purusa. This is clarified through an example; “… fire burns only when in contact with a combustible thing…” Prakriti is the fire and Purusa being what makes fire burn (Majumdar 1926b: 56).

Since Prakriti is mostly in reference to the subconscious it is understandable that Purusa is mostly in reference to consciousness. Each individual is thought to have their own Purusa and each Purusa is unique from the next, but all Purusas have similar characteristics (Majumdar 1925: 61). Purusa is described as awareness, intelligence, the subject, the self, and the soul (Schweizer 849) (Everett 311). A look at the features of both Prakriti and Purusa gives further knowledge in interpreting the Sankhya philosophical view of Prakriti and Purusa’s union with each other.

The union between Purusa and Prakriti is additionally explained through the concept of bandha, which means bondage. There are three kinds of pain associated with bondage. These pains are intrinsic, extrinsic, and supernatural. The pains arise from Purusa’s experience with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). Purusa is eternally bound and never separate from Prakriti. Prakriti is emotions, possessions, wants, desires, etc. Purusa is consumed with Prakriti. Purusa is a forgotten self and only identifies itself combined with what Prakriti is. Misery is what results from the delusion of what Purusa identifies itself as (Majumdar 1926a: 254).

According to the Sankhya Philosophy there are different kinds of knowledge. The delusion that Purusa has of what it identifies itself as is due to avidya, which means false knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 255). The false knowledge that Purusa holds is that it needs to separate itself from Prakriti and identify itself as an individual entity. However, separation of Prakriti and Purusa is not possible. What must happen is a modification of one’s view or perspective. This can be achieved through vidya, which is discriminative knowledge or the knowledge of distinction. Vidya can be found through extensive religious training and practices. When vidya is attained it is then possible to see that Prakriti and Purusa are both the same and separate. Furthermore, the relationship between Prakriti and Purusa is relative not absolute (Majumdar 1926a: 266).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa is not perfect. The Sankhya Philosophy comments on the imperfect union by reflecting that things do not begin as perfect, but have the possibility to become perfect (Majumdar 1926b: 63). The goal is to achieve liberation or release. However, liberation or release cannot be achieved through just one life. Liberation and release may be achieved through many lives of true knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259).

The union of Prakriti and Purusa in Sankhya Philosophy view is equal to creation (Majumdar 1925: 57). The creation of this union allows one to move through one’s life. This is done by means of actions and guidance interacting with one another. Prakriti produces deliberate actions because it has the desire to release Purusa, but this is only made possible because Purusa guides Prakriti to do so. However, this is only workable after Purusa has had complete satisfaction of knowledge and enjoyment by Prakriti. Only then can liberation or release come (Majumdar 1925: 55).

Since Sankhya Philosophy considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as creation and a beginning that consists of imperfection, Sankhya Philosophy also considers the union of Prakriti and Purusa as evolution. The perspective of Prakriti and Purusa being referred to as evolution comes from the many experiences Purusa goes through with Prakriti (Majumdar 1926a: 253). As with any other belief system, this philosophy is not different in acknowledging that every experience brings change and growth. The difference, however, is that this philosophy views that change and growth is done through many lives full of many experiences and acquirement of knowledge, not just one life’s worth of experiences and knowledge (Majumdar 1926a: 259). Therefore, according to Sankhya Philosophy, the union of Prakriti and Purusa from creation to liberation or release is a system that evolves through time.


Everett, C. C. (1899) “The Psychology of the Vedanta and Sankhya Philosophies”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 20, 309-316.

Majumdar, A.K. (1925) “The Doctrine of Evolution in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 34 (1), 51-69.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926a) “The Doctrine of Bondage and Release in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (3), 253-266.

Majumdar, A.K. (1926b) “The Personalistic Conception of Nature as Expounded in the Sankhya Philosophy”. The Philosophical Review, 35 (1), 53-63.

Schweizer, P. (1993) “Mind/Consciousness Dualism in Sankhya-Yoga Philosophy”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 53 (4), 845-859.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





The Sankhya Pravachana Sutram

Yoga Sutram

The Sankhya Karika





The Ekadasa Indriya


Noteworthy Websites Relate to the Topic

Written by Lynnette Johnson (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.