Category Archives: Sankhya

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.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

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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.


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Article written by: Jillian Koenen (February 2016) 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.

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The Sankhya Pravachana Sutram

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