The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya, A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy

The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya, A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy


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ISBN-13: 9780691604411
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #842
Pages: 690
Sales rank: 855,801
Product dimensions: 10.00(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.50(d)

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Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies

Samkhya, A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy

By Gerald James Larson, Ram Shankar Bhattacharya


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07301-9



I. Proto-Samkhya and Pre-Karika-Samkhya

The term "samkhya" means "relating to number, enumeration, or calculation." As an adjective, the term refers to any enumerated set or grouping and can presumably be used in any inquiry in which enumeration or calculation is a prominent feature (for example, mathematics, grammar, prosody, psychology, medicine, and so forth). As a masculine noun, the term refers to someone who calculates, enumerates, or discriminates properly or correctly. As a neuter noun, the term comes to refer to a specific system of dualist philosophizing that proceeds by a method of enumerating the contents of experience and the world for the purpose of attaining radical liberation (moksa, kaivalya) from frustration and rebirth.

These three dimensions of meaning in the word "samkhya" are not simply synchronic distinctions but indicate as well the diachronic or historical development of the word in the ancient period. That is to say, in the ancient history of South Asian culture there appear to be three identifiable phases of development of the term "samkhya" that roughly correspond to these three basic meaning dimensions. These can be briefly characterized as follows:

(I) Intellectual inquiry in the oldest learned traditions of ancient India (from the Vedic period, ca. 1500 before the Common Era [B.C.E.], through the Mauryan period in the fourth and third centuries B.C.E.) was frequently cast in the format of elaborate enumerations of the contents of a particular subject matter — for example, the principles of statecraft as preserved in Kautilya's Arthasastra the principles of medicine as preserved in the Carakasamhita and Susrutasamhita, and so forth. The Vedic corpus itself exhibits this tendency as do traditions of law (nitisastra) and politics (rajadharma), and it is in such environments that one finds some of the early references to samkhya. Kautilya, for example, refers to samkhya as one of three traditions of anviksiki. The notion of anviksiki in these ancient contexts means something like the enumeration of the contents of a particular subject matter by means of systematic reasoning. The practice of anviksiki is not really "philosophy" in our usual senses of the term; it is, rather, a kind of general "scientific" inquiry by means of the systematic enumeration of basic principles. Such enumerations appeared in a variety of intellectual subject areas, including phonology, grammar, statecraft, medicine, law, cosmology, and iconography, and the compilations of these subject-area enumerations sometimes came to be called tantras" (meaning a scientific work, and synonymous with such terms as "sastra," "vidya", and so forth). Moreover, certain stylistic rules or "methodological devices" (yuktis) came to be accepted in composing scientific works — for example, a brief statement of a position (uddesa), a lengthy exposition of a position (nirdesa), an etymological explanation (niwacana), the proper order or sequence in enumerating a subject (vidhana), and so forth. Kautilya's Arthasastra provides a list of such methodological devices, and the author illustrates how his work uses the various methodological devices, thereby establishing that his treatise is a scientific work. The medical texts (Caraka and Sutruta) are also scientific works in this sense and likewise provide lists of methodological devices. This may well explain why the later technical Samkhya philosophy is frequently referred to as a tantra, and it helps in understanding the reasons why the long introduction to the Yuktidipika (the most important commentary on the Samkhyakarika), contains a detailed discussion of the methodological devices essential for any systematic inquiry. In this oldest period, however, it is undoubtedly an anachronism to interpret references to samkhya, anviksiki, or tantra as themselves completed or distinct systems of thought, as some older scholars have suggested (Garbe, for example). It is more plausible to interpret these references in a much more general sense as the first and groping attempts at systematic thinking, which proceeded by determining and enumerating the components of anything (whether it be the components of the human body, the components of the sacrificial ritual, the components of the heavens, or the components of grammar).

(2) A second phase in the development of the term "samkhya" begins from the period of the oldest, pre-Buddhistic Upanisads, ca. eighth or seventh centuries B.C.E., and can be traced through traditions of the early ascetic spirituality in South Asia, namely, the various monastic (sramana and yati) groups, the early Jain and Buddhist movements, and so forth, reaching a culmination in the sorts of speculative thinking one finds in the Moksadharma portion of the Mahabharata, in the Bhagavadgita, and in the cosmological descriptions of the oldest Puranas (or, in other words, reaching into the first centuries of the Common Era). If in the oldest period the term "samkhya" could refer generally to any enumerated set of principles (in an environment of anviksiki for the sake of constructing a scientific work), in this second period the notion becomes linked to a methodology of reasoning that results in spiritual knowledge (vidya, jñana, viveka) that leads to liberation from the cycle of frustration and rebirth. It is possible, of course, perhaps even likely, that in the oldest period the term "samkhya" in its general sense of intellectual enumeration was applied on occasion in contexts of meditation and religious cosmology — the enumerations in Rg Veda I.164, X.90, or X.129, or the enumerations of the parts of the body or the breaths in the Atharva Veda or in the Brahmana literature would suggest as much — but there is little doubt that it is primarily in this second period that "samkhya" becomes a prominent notion in those environments in which meditation, spirititual exercises, and religious cosmology represent the crucial subject matters.

The archaic ontology of Chandogva Upanisad VI.2-5, for example, with its emphasis on primordial Being (sat) in its tripartite manifestations as fire (red), water (white), and food (black), correlated with speech, breath, and mind, probably foreshadows the later Samkhya ontological notions of prakrti, the three gunas, and the preexistence of the effect. On one level, of course, this kind of reflection echoes older Vedic notions (for example, some of the number sequences and symbolism of RV.X.164), but, on another level, it represents a transition to later formulations such as those in Svetasvatara Upanisad — for example, "The One unborn, red, white, and black...." (Svet. Up. IV.5), and "Two birds, companions (who are) always united, cling to the selfsame tree ..." [Svet. Up. IV.6-7) — a text in which the older Vedic symbolism is clearly present and yet a text in which the terms "samkhya" and "yoga" are actually used. Gosmological speculations such as these are combined with elaborate descriptions of yogic experience in such texts as Katha Upanisad, Moksadharma, Bhagavadgita, and Buddhacarita. The same sorts of speculation are used in the medical literature (Carakasamhita and Susrutasamhita), and the hierarchical ordering of basic principles (tattva) is given a cosmological turn with respect to the periodic creation and dissolution of the manifest world in Manusmrti and in most of the oldest Puranas. Certain characteristic notions become associated with Samkhya, but throughout the period Samkhya is primarily a methodology for attaining liberation and appears to allow for a great variety of philosophical formulations. Edgerton has expressed the matter well: "Any formula of metaphysical truth, provided that knowledge thereof was conceived to tend towards salvation, might be called Samkhya. ... It appears, then, that Samkhya means in the Upanisads and the Epic simply the way of salvation by knowledge, and does not imply any system of metaphysical truth whatever."

On one level, Samkhya as a methodology for attaining salvation by knowing carries further many of the older cosmological notions of the oldest Upanisads as set forth in Chandogya Upanisad VI, and so forth. On another level, Samkhya as a methodology for attaining salvation by knowing carries further the various psychological analyses of experience that first appear in the oldest Upanisads and then become dominant motifs in Jain and Buddhist meditation contexts and in such later Upanisads as Katha and Svetasvatara. The enumeration of basic principles in a hierarchical order is a fundamental aspect of the methodology, but the precise number of enumerated items varies widely. In some passages seventeen basic principles are enumerated;9 in other passages twenty; or twenty-four; or the later, standard listing of twenty-five are enumerated. On occasion the highest principle is the old Upanisadic brahman or atman, or, again, the highest principle is God (isvara). In some contexts the Samkhya methodology implies a monistic perspective, in others a theistic or dualist perspective. Throughout the period, however, a characteristic terminology and a recurrent set of intellectual issues begin to develop around the methodology: reflections about a primordial materiality (pradhana); enumerations of psychic states or conditions (bhavas, gunas) that can be construed psychologically and/or cosmologically ; analyses of the various aspects of intellectual experience in terms of intellect/will (hereafter translated simply as "intellect") (buddhi), egoity (ahamkara), and mind (manas); speculations about the nature of the inner self (purusa) in terms of a cosmic Self (atman) or the self in the body or in the manifest world (jiva, bhutatman); elaborations of the five sense capacities [indriya) correlated with the five gross elements (bhuta), the five action capacities (kaimendriya), and the five contents or "objects" (visaya) of the senses; and a general polarity between subjectivity and objectivity in terms of "the knower of the field" (ksetrajña) and "the field" (ksetra). Clearly there is a system (or systems) in the process of developing, but the focus in this second period is rather on the process or methodology itself and not on the contents that result from the process.

In contrast to methods of spiritual discipline (yoga) that emphasize posture, breathing, recitation, and ascetic practices (tapas), samkhya is the intellectual or reasoning method. The follower of samkhya is one who reasons or discriminates properly, one whose spiritual discipline is meditative reasoning. This is probably the sense of the term "samkhya" in the compound samkhya-yoga-adhigamya ("to be understood by proper reasoning and spiritual discipline") in Svetasvatara Upanifad VI. 13. It is probably also the sense meant in the twelfth chapter of Asvagho sa's Buddhacarita, in which reference is made to older spiritual methodologies studied by Gotama the Buddha prior to the discovery of his own unique method of meditation. Regarding the specific contents of this reasoning methodology, J.A.B. van Buitenen has offered the following comment:

There must have existed scores of more or less isolated little centres where parallel doctrines were being evolved out of a common source. Occasional meetings at pilgrimages and festivals, reports from other and remote asramas brought by wandering ascetics, polemic encounters with other preachers must have resulted in a laborious process of partial renovation and conservation, more precise definitions of doctrines and eclecticisms, readjustments of terminology, etc. At this stage to credit these little centres with the name "schools" is to do them too much or too little honor. ... Most of the process must elude us necessarily, but we stand a better chance of recovering the little that is left by allowing for the greatest diversity, rather than the greatest uniformity of doctrine.

In the Moksadharma portion of the Mahabharata various names of ancient teachers are associated with these developing traditions, including Kapila, Asuri, Bhrgu, Yajnavalkya, Sanatkumara, Vasistha, Suka, Asita Devala (or Asita and Devala), Vyasa, Janaka, and Pañcasikha. Some of these names can be traced back to the older Upanisads, and many of them also appear in the later Puranic literature. Three of them are frequently referred to in the later technical philosophical literature as important precursors of Samkhya philosophy, namely, Kapila, Asuri, and Pañcasikha. The Samkhyakarika and its commentaries refer to Kapila and Asuri as the founders of the philosophical system and to Pañcasikha as a teacher who greatly expanded or revised the original teachings. Unfortunately, all three teachers are lost to antiquity. References to Kapila and Asuri are brief and largely eulogistic, and the situation is not much better with Pañcasikha. Fragments here and there are attributed to a certain "Pañcasikha," and Pañcasikha on occasion is referred to as the author of a massive treatise in verse on Samkhya philosophy called Sastitantra. The views attributed to Pañcasikha in the Moksadharma, however, appear to be clearly different from the views that can be pieced together from the fragments, suggesting that there was more than one Pañcasikha or that the name Pañcasikha was a revered name in the tradition to which a variety of views were ascribed. Moreover, the claim that Pañcasikha is the author of the Sastitantra is contradicted by other references that attribute authorship of Sastitantra to Kapila or to a certain Varsaganya. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that Pañcasikha was a revered teacher of samkhya in the sense that has been indicated in this second period, that is, samkhya not yet as a fixed philosophical system, but as a general methodology of salvation by knowing or reasoning. It is also reasonable to suppose that practitioners of samkhya in this sense represent various kinds of ancient lines of teachers (guruparampara) that traced their lineages to archaic figures such as Kapila and Asuri (in much the same fashion as Jains and Buddhists claimed archaic precursors for their traditions).

What is missing in all of these environments, however, is a critical appreciation for the need to argue for or establish an intellectual basis for these speculative intuitions. Reasoning, to be sure, is being used, but it is a reasoning not yet distinguished from the immediacy of personal experience and the accumulated heritage of ritual performance and priestly wisdom. There is, of course, some groping for independence and a growing recognition that thinking itself may be a unique human activity that can exert its own identity against the established and received ordering of things. The very fact that much Upanisadic speculation appears to have been developed in princely (rajanya) or warrior (ksatriya) circles (as opposed to priestly groups) and that the early independent ascetic movements (Jains, Buddhists, and so forth) were especially successful among the newly emerging commercial classes in towns where commerce and a monied economy were developing, certainly suggest that thoughtful persons were in need of new and independent ways of thinking and behaving. Moreover, that the political consolidation achieved under the Mauryans appears to have been legitimized by a notion of dharma and a theory of the state that owed more to Jain and Buddhist paradigms than to older Vedic models is also symptomatic of changes that were occurring in other areas of intellectual life. Similarly, the rise of devotional and theistic movements (the Krsna cult, and so forth) in the last centuries before the beginning of the Common Era is an additional symptom of a broadly based cultural need to develop new and different patterns of intellectual formulation. Many of these tensions and changes come together intellectually in the Bhagavadgita, and it is surely no accident that the so-called "philosophy" of the Gita is little more than a potpourri of Upanisadic speculation, cosmological and psychological samkhya reasoning, Jain and Buddhist ascetic motifs, varnasramadharma as karmayoga, tied together with an apologia for early Vaisnava bhaktiyoga — a potpourri that confuses a modern reader almost as much as it confused Arjuna.


Excerpted from Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies by Gerald James Larson, Ram Shankar Bhattacharya. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • CONTENTS, pg. vii
  • PREFACE, pg. xi
  • 16. GAUDAPĀDA – 23. BHOJARĀJA, pg. 209
  • NOTES, pg. 623
  • INDEX, pg. 661

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