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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Sankhya

(Sānkhya) Also written Samkhya or Samkhya. Its name literally means “enumeration” and is derived from this system’s analysis of the world into 25 categories, as explained below. Once one of the major systems of Indian philosophy, but now largely without serious proponents, Sankhya has an extremely ancient origin. There are indications of its basic ideas in some of the Upanisads, especially the later ones, and it is explicitly mentioned in the Bhagavad-Gita. Exactly what its earliest ideas are is uncertain; some authorities believe it was originally theistic. But by the time we have written texts, it had become an atheistic dualism. It is reputed to have begun with a sage named Kapila, a view unequivocally supported by Helena P. BLAVATSKY in The Secret Doctrine (see esp. Vol. 2, pp. 571-2). In fact, HPB points out that, of the several persons named Kapila mentioned in the Puranas, only the last, “an Initiate,” was “the author of Sankhya philosophy” (p. 572). She does not, however, give any indication of when he lived. The first text we have is the Sankhya-karika by the fifth century (?) CE philosopher Isvarakrsna. The Sankhya Sutra, which claims to be ancient, cannot have been written prior to the 14th cent. CE.

The most significant aspect of Sankhya is that it is a radical dualism. Matter (termed pradhana or prakrti) is insentient, one, and infinitely divisible; Spirit or consciousness (termed purusa, “person”) is conceived as plural and infinite in number. Since matter is insentient and consciousness alone is sentient, they have nothing in common and cannot interact. But consciousness psychologically identifies itself with matter, hence is trapped in the bondage of transmigration. Like other Indian philosophic systems, Sankhya holds that the universe goes through periodic manifestations and withdrawals; in the latter condition, matter is in a state of equilibrium, hence nothing can occur. At the beginning of manifestation, consciousness casts a glance at matter, which upsets the equilibrium and the process of manifestation begins. Just how this “glance” could affect matter is not explained, however, and was the subject of pointed criticism from the other systems (in which the universe is beginningless, hence one does not need to explain a “fall” into matter — consciousness has always been in bondage according to those systems).

When the equilibrium of matter is upset, it begins a process often called “evolution,” which HPB alleges is a much more reasonable theory than the Darwinian theory of evolution (cf. SD II:259-260 ff), since the latter is purely materialistic whereas Sankhya proceeds metaphysically from the “within” to the “without.” The first evolute from (1) primal matter (called merely prakrti in Sankhya, but usually termed mulaprakrti in theosophical literature) is called alternatively (2) mahat (“great”) or buddhi in Sankhya. From this proceeds (3) ahamkara, a kind of noumenal egoism. And from that, in turn arise (4) mind (manas), conceived of as an inner sense, (5-9) the five sense powers (jñanendriyas), (10-14) the five motor powers (karmendriyas) and (15-19) the five subtle elements (tanmatras). From the latter, are evolved (20-24) the gross elements (bhutas): akasa, air, fire, water, and earth. Add purusa to the enumeration and you get the 25 Sankhya categories. Note that 5-14 are termed “powers” (as the term indriya implies), not sense or motor organs, as they are often mistranslated, since the latter are part of the phenomenal or physical world and are associated with the gross elements. That is to say, even someone, for example, born blind, perhaps the karmic result of some past action, still has the inner power to see, even though the physical organ does not enable the person to exercise that power. The sense-powers are, as related to the gross elements, respectively hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. The motor-powers are speaking, locomotion, grasping, procreation, and evacuation.

Matter is also conceived as having three aspects or gunas (literally “strands”): sattvarajas, and tamas. These are variously translated as “harmony” or “equilibrium,” “mobility” or “excitability,” and “darkness” or “inertia” respectively. It is when there is a preponderance of rajas and tamas that matter evolves out of its state of equilibrium. It is when humans have a preponderance of those gunas that they are in bondage to the cycle of transmigration. Release from bondage occurs when humans so live that the sattva guna is predominant; that attenuates the sense of ego such that purusa disassociates itself from matter, both noumenal and phenomenal. In Sankhya, release is termed kaivalya, literally “isolation,” or apavarga or “completion.” It is a state in which purusa will never again to be bound to matter. But since the activity of consciousness requires interaction with matter, that state would be, essentially, inert (jada). This, too, came under severe criticism from other schools of Indian philosophy. It would make the realized person essentially the same as a stone! Later Sankhya philosophers modified their theory to attribute inherent bliss to purusa, making the final goal more attractive to aspirants.

Sankhya’s path philosophy, i.e., method for attaining release, is basically JÑANA YOGA, though it is not worked out in any detail in Sankhya texts. For the details, one must turn to Yoga, especially the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Despite its general preference for the categories of Advaita Vedanta, The Secret Doctrine makes frequent use of Sankhya categories. It is, therefore, essential to study this system in order to appreciate those references.

R.W.B.

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