From WikiEducator

Jump to:navigation, search

(image:comment.gif: Dear Nimrat. This is great. You have done a lot of thinking. I recommend you rename this resource a Key Concept of Indian Philosophy (Sankhya) something that can be easily found, so it doesn't go under My Resource....I have also added it to the category "India", so it can be found among other people's resource. Warm regards --Patricia 04:03, 12 December 2008 (UTC))



The ideas of great thinkers are never obsolete. They animate the progress that seems to kill them. The most ancient fancies sometimes startle us by their strikingly modern character, for insight does not depend on modernity.
Dr S Radhakrishnan


The objective of this resource is to introduce the key concepts of the ancient Indian philosophical school 'Sankhya' along with a brief description of its relevance to contemporary educators

Key points

An introduction to ancient Indian philosophy followed by an explanation of the main ideas of Sankhya. Finally, the educational implications of Sankhya


Indian philosophy has formed the basis of our existence from time immemorial. In all these years, it has offered guidance to generations questing for answers that plague all of humankind. It will therefore not be an exaggeration to say that the darsanas can provide both a validation of as well as guidance for educational practices.

Philosophy in India has been inextricably bound in the lives of the common man through all of known history. This is exemplified best by Mahatma Gandhi’s statement that “My life is my philosophy”. It is axiomatic then that philosophy not only influences education but lays its actual foundations. As Dewey put it, “philosophy maybe defined as the general theory of education”. There is thus a need to examine how various schools of philosophy perceive the process of experiencing and thus learning.

Indian philosophy is concerned with perceiving, discerning, differentiating and then realizing the ultimate reality. Its basis is primarily epistemological - its fundamental concern is that it is only through knowledge that salvation from the misery and pain of human existence is obtained. In all this, it remains firmly rooted in the daily lives of ordinary humans. As Dr Radhakrishnan puts it, philosophy in India developed in response to a need for cold criticism and analysis, not as a creative expression or an extension of religion. It can be said to have its origin in the lives of the common man, in the problems and issues he is faced with, and then to return to it after due enquiry. He states further that it is not mere speculative reflection but a logical enquiry into and criticism of all that concerns humans, based on observation and causal relationships. It is anviksiki or the science of inquiry and not merely atmavidya or intuition.

Although there are various schools of Indian philosophy or darsanas, the most prominent are Nyaya, Vedanta and Sankhya. All these accept the authority of the Vedas, either as sruti (divine revelation) or as smriti (tradition), and are termed as astika or orthodox schools. On the other hand, Buddhism and Jainism do not accept the authority of the Vedas, and are termed as nastik or unorthodox schools.

Some themes are common to all systems of Indian philosophy – firstly, all establish objective norms of reality and truth. Next, all speak of a perpetual cycle of creation, maintenance and dissolution of the world. The end all humans strive for is salvation, which is the extrication of the self from falsehood and sin, the cause of all suffering and misery. This salvation does not necessarily follow death – jivanmukti or liberation in life itself is possible. Death itself is not an end – it is merely another step towards ultimate release from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Responsibility for one’s actions is also stressed. Virtuous behaviour paves the path to salvation – we cannot flee the consequences of our behaviour even after death since we pay for our actions in the next life. The world is full of suffering, caused primarily by ignorance. The only release is through vidya or knowledge, which facilitates insight into truth. And the darsanas are a guide to the acquisition of this realization.

This paper attempts an introduction to Sankhya.


Sankhya, or Samkhya, is one of the six main darsanas or systems of philosophy which draw their essence from the Vedas, thus falling into the category of astika philosophies.

Sankhya, like Nyaya, believes in the multiplicity of souls, while maintaining the dualism of prakriti or the potentiality of Nature and purusa or consciousness. The world is the parinama or transformation of prakriti, which is eternal and all-pervading. While every effect is caused, prakriti has no cause. It is the cause of all effects and is inferred from the latter. The fineness of prakriti renders it imperceptible since objects that are too remote or too near cannot be perceived. Defects of the senses or manas, obstruction of another object or the presence of more attractive stimuli hamper perception. It is this aviveka or non-discrimination between purusa and prakriti which is the cause of all human misery. Prakriti, and therefore its products, including the senses and the intellect, are unable to discriminate between themselves and purusa. Purusa alone can do so, since it is independent of prakriti.


The term darsana is from the root ‘drs’, which means ‘to see’. According to Dr Radhakrishnan, this ‘seeing’ may be:

  • Perceptual observation or inspection of facts,
  • Conceptual knowledge or logical inquiry,
  • Intuitional experience or insight of soul.

Thus, Sankhya may be described as a system of thought not just acquired by intuition and experience but sustained by logical argument.


The Sankhya school of philosophy is attributed to Sage Kapila who is variously said to have been the son of Brahma, an avatar of Vishnu and an incarnation of Agni. The fact is that it may be accepted that an individual called Kapila founded this tendency of thought. Although there is no supporting evidence, the authorship of Samkhyapravacana Sutra and the Tattvasamasa are attributed to him. Although authorities disagree on the exact period, the majority believe that these texts belong to the century preceding Buddha, that is the fifth century BC.

The seeds of the Sankhya philosophy can be found in the Svetasvatara Upanishad, the Katha Upanishad, the Prasna Upanishad and the post-Buddhist Maitrayani Upanishad. Evidence of the acceptance of this school is the mentions of its elements in the Mahabharata, the Bhagvad Gita, the Manu Smriti and the Buddhacarita.


According to some authorities, the word Sankhya comes from ‘samyag akhyate’ which literally means ‘that which explains the whole’. Others believe it originated from the word ‘sankhyaa’ or ‘numbers’ since it divides the universe into 25 principles or tattvas, as will be explained later. Still others believe ‘sankhyaa’ can be translated as ‘enumeration’, ‘calculation’ or ‘discrimination’ since it enumerates the stages of cosmic evolution and its products and further discriminates between the spirit (purusha) and matter (prakriti).


Sankhya can thus be said to lead to discrimination between purusha and prakriti so as to understand the nature of the universe and evolution so as to effect the release of the purusha.



A central theory of Sankhya is the effect exists beforehand in its cause. Cause is defined as the entity in which the effect subsists in a latent form. The argument for this is that:

  1. What is non-existent can never be made existent. According to the Tattvakaumudi, ‘Nahi nilam silpisahasrenapi pitam kartum sakyate’ which means that blue cannot be made into yellow even by a thousand artists. If this were not true, then anything can be produced from anything. Sankhya holds that nothing can be created from or destroyed into nothingness.
  2. The product is not different from that of which it is composed; thus, the effect is of the same nature as the cause.

However, cause and effect are different states and hence distinct from each other. Although the effect is contained in the cause, it needs to be liberated from the causal state. For example, seeds have to be pressed to get oil.

The effect is potentially contained in the cause but this potentiality is not actualized at once.

The cause and effect theory of Sankhya is called Satkaarya vaada or theory of existent causes.



The word prakriti can be said to be made up of
Pra: before or forth
Kriti: creation or to make.
Vyas describes prakriti as ‘the central background of all’.

Argument for prakriti

Sankhya proceeds to prove the existence of the ultimate basis of the empirical universe - the unmanifested or avyaktam prakriti using the principle of causality as follows:

  1. The physical objects of the world are limited in nature. Whatever is limited must be dependent on something else, since if less is contained in the cause, the implication is that something came from nothing. Thus, the finite cannot be the source of the universe since the cause has to be more pervading than the effect.
  2. All objects in the physical world possess certain pervasive characters, indicating they come from a common source.
  3. An active principle manifests in the development of things – evolution implies a principle which cannot be equated with any of its stages. Thus, evolution is larger than its products.
  4. The effect has to differ from the cause; thus, the physical world has to differ from its source.
  5. There is obvious unity in the universe.

This larger reality is prakriti, an immense potentiality corresponding to the Infinite; a universal all-embracing, all-producing Nature.



All living beings have a principle of self-determination which is referred to as soul. Although souls are identical, differences arise due to the nature of the bodies they are confined in since that determines their perception and experiences. Sankhya therefore asserts that purusas exist, who are freed from finite life and are above time and change. Purusa may be defined as pure consciousness. It is unchanging since if it were liable to change, knowledge would be impossible as it would lapse causing the self to miss some experiences. It also does not participate in any activity and has no qualities, since otherwise it would be incapable of emancipation. It is perfect and immutable.

Argument for purusa

Purusa must exist since:

  1. The aggregate of things must exist for another to give them meaning. Gaudapada says that even as a bed exists to facilitate sleep, purusa must exist so that ‘there is a self for whose enjoyment this enjoyable body, consisting of intellect and the rest, has been produced’.
  2. All knowable objects have the three gunas; this presupposes the existence of an entity with no gunas.
  3. There must exist a pure consciousness which coordinates all experiences.

There is a striving for liberation among beings; thus there must exist an entity with qualities opposed to prakriti. Further, purusas must be multiple because of:

  1. different times of birth and death,
  2. different bodies engaging in action, and
  3. different proportion of gunas.

Purusa and Prakriti

Sankhya establishes a dualism between purusa and prakriti, terms which are explained below. Sankhya recognizes the impossibility of deducing purusa or the self from prakriti or the non-self.

  • Purusa: The supreme spirit or atman; the absolute as well as the self-conscious I; the begetter as well as the begotten.
  • Prakriti: According to Sankhya, prakriti is the source of all existence while purusa is the disinterested spectator of the evolution of prakriti; the knower is purusa and the known is prakriti.



The three gunas or qualities, sattva, rajas and tamas, are the elements, factors or constituents of prakriti. All things are composed of gunas, which are inexorably linked, as the strands of a rope. While sattva, the ideal essence all beings strive for, and tamas, the actual setting all beings struggle to get out of, are positive and negative qualities, respectively, tamas refers to the struggle between the two.

Argument for the presence of gunas

The origin of the concept of gunas is psychological. The differences or variety in the world can be traced to the three gunas, which can be said to be psychic states which produce physical and mental evil.


The word sattva is derived from ‘sat’, that which is real or existent. It is the quality by which a thing manifests itself to consciousness; it is the essence or form which is to be realized. Its function is to produce pleasure.


Tamas is the obstacle to the manifestation of sattva. It resists activity and produces a state of ignorance and apathy. It produces sloth.


Rajas is the source of all activity. It leads to feverish enjoyment and restless effort. It produces pain.



In the natural state of prakriti, the gunas are continually changing into one another even in a state of equilibrium or samyavastha. Although these changes do not produce any results if the equilibrium is undisturbed, if there is gunaksobha or disturbance of the equilibrium, then evolution takes place. Thus, the tendency to act is present even if there is no obvious outer activity.

The cosmic process is twofold in character – creative as well as destructive. Creating is the unfolding of different orders from the original prakriti and destruction is their dissolution into the original prakriti. This cycle of development and reabsorption does not have either a beginning or an end. This play or prakriti, referred to as the eternal or cosmic dance, manifests itself in many ways. To the souls in bondage, it evolves into many forms, from the grossest to the subtlest while to the freed, it retraces its steps and resolves into its primeval form.

Argument for evolution

Prakriti evolves and does so under the influence of purusa since the fulfillment of the ends of purusa is the very cause of the manifestation of prakriti in these three forms. Although the emancipated purusa is unaffected by the play of prakriti, it does not stop because purusa are many, and there will always be souls struggling to escape prakriti’s entanglement.

Products of evolution

Mahat, the first product of evolution, is the cause of the entire universe. It is the basis of the intelligence of the individual. It is synonymous with Buddhi which is its psychological counterpart or intellect. Mahat or Great or Brahma is used in a cosmic sense while Buddhi is the mental faculty by which we distinguish objects and perceive what they are. The functions of Buddhi are ascertainment and decision. All other organs function for Buddhi while Buddhi works for the purusa, thus enabling him to discriminate between itself and prakriti, and to experience all existence. Ahamkara, the principle of individuation or self-sense, is the second product of evolution. By individualizing the impressions that come from the outer world, ahamkara endows each spirit with a separate mental background. Its psychological function is abhimana or self-love.

Mahat is to ahamkara as consciousness is to self-consciousness, as potentiality is to manifestation. The former is the logical presupposition of the latter – only when we can distinguish ourselves from objects will we develop a sense of self. The purusa identifies itself with the acts of prakriti through ahamkara. It passes to the self the sensations and suggestions of action communicated to it through the Manas or the instinctive mind, which help in the formation of concepts and decisions. Manas evolves from the sattva aspect of ahamkara.

The panch jnana indriya, the five sense organs or organs of perception, also arise from the sattva aspect of ahamkara as do the panch karma indriya or five organs of action, namely, the hands, legs, vocal apparatus, urino-genital organs and anus.

The panch tanmatras or five subtle elements, the root energies of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell, evolve from the tamas aspect of ahamkara. Through a further preponderance of tamas, the panch mahabhuta or five gross/great substances- namely, ether, air, fire, water and earth- arise from the tanmatras.

According to Sankhya, the panch gyana indriya or five sense organs provide sense data to the manas or mind which translates this data into concepts and decisions. The sense organs are likened to doors and manas to the doorkeeper. Further, knowledge leads to the modification of the buddhi or intellect. This modification of buddhi helps the purusa or self to discriminate between purusa and prakriti. Sources of knowledge are perception, inference and testimony from the scriptures. It should be noted here that the scriptures according to Sankhya are not divine revelation but the work of learned persons which, although trustworthy, is open to questioning.


The metaphysical theory offered by Sankhya is as follows:

  1. Nature of the world: The world is the parinama or transformation of prakriti, which is its cause. While every effect is caused, prakriti has no cause, but is the cause of all effects. It is inferred from these effects.
  2. Nature of prakriti: Prakriti is eternal, all pervading and eternal. It can never perish and therefore could never have been created.
  3. Dualism: Since an intelligent principle or spirit cannot be transformed into matter, which is inanimate, therefore purusa or the soul is separate from prakriti. Prakriti is incapable of producing purusa and purusa is incapable of producing prakriti.
  4. Metaphysical pluralism: There are many souls which will remain individual and isolated even after their liberation from prakriti.
  5. Imperceptibility of prakriti: The fineness of prakriti renders it imperceptible. Objects that are too remote or too near cannot be perceived. Defects of the senses or manas, obstruction of another object or the presence of more attractive stimuli hamper perception.
  6. The three strands: The gunas represent the different stages of the evolution of any object. When all impediments or rajas are removed, sattva or the form of a thing is manifested to consciousness, and this manifestation is brought about by rajas. Thus, according to Sankhya, the supreme principle of the world is a unity with a real opposition of the constituents elements.
  7. Subject and object: Prakriti, and therefore its products, possess the gunas and so are unable to discriminate between themselves and purusa. Purusa alone is subject while the former are objective.
  8. Twenty-five principles or tattvas: Sankhya divides the universe into 25 principles or tattvas, as indicated in the Figure. The 23 principles derived from prakriti are effects. Further, manta, ahamkara and the tanmatra the effect of some or the cause of others, while the panch mahabhuta and the jnana and karma indriya are merely effects. The purusa is neither cause or effect, simply the motive force of the universe.
  9. Atheist philosophy: Independence of the Supreme soul and individual souls is difficult to maintain. Both cannot co-exist. Also, when the function of productivity is assigned to prakriti, God became superfluous. Thus Sankhya philosophy does not subscribe to the existence of a supreme being.
Twenty five principles of Sankhya


The mechanism of knowledge

According to Sankhya, in all knowledge, three factors are involved:

  • The object known or subject matter of reflection
  • The subject knowing or consciousness
  • The process of knowledge or modification of the consciousness to reflect the object

The acquisition of knowledge is possible through the three pramanas or means of knowledge:

  • Pratyaksha or direct sense perception
  • Anumana or logical inference
  • Sabda or testimony from the scriptures

Sources of knowledge

According to Sankhya, buddhi comes in contact with objects through the senses. Cognition is regarded as a function of buddhi and is perceived by the self. Knowledge leads to the modification of buddhi. Generalisation is the result not only of observation of elements but also non-observation of non-elements. Although trustworthy assertion is also a source of valid knowledge, the Vedas are not eternal since they possess the character of effects.


Thus, Sankhya matches modern philosophy in its view of epistemology. To quote Aniruddha in the Vritti, ‘Huge giants do not fall from heaven simply because a competent person says so. Only sayings that are supported by reason should be accepted by me and others like yourselves’.


According to Sankhya, pain and suffering are due to non-discrimination between purusa and prakriti. The supreme good is the realization of the perfection of purusa and all ethical activity leads to this end. Virtuous behaviour and the practice of Yoga are recommended as the means to salvation. According to Sankhya, independence of God (the Supreme soul) and individual souls is difficult to maintain. Both cannot co-exist. Also, when the function of productivity is assigned to prakriti, God became superfluous. Thus Sankhya philosophy does not subscribe to the existence of a supreme being.
Sankhya believes in the universality of suffering which is of three kinds:

  • Adhyatmika or arising from the psychophysical nature of man
  • Adhibhautika or arising from the external world
  • Adhidaivika or arising from supernatural agencies

Further, Sankhya argues against vedic rites involving killing of animals as it violates the law of ahimsa. We cannot flee evil even after death as the same fate pursues us life after life. We are in bondage to prakriti, although purusa’s bondage is mere fiction. Bondage is in the form of cognition of pain. Bondage is caused by non-discrimination between purusa and prakriti. Knowledge and ignorance are the sole determinants of release and bondage. The supreme good is realization of the perfection of the purusa – all ethical activity leads to this end. Freedom is brought about by virtue, the practice of yoga, etc. Wrong knowledge causing bondage includes egoism, desire, hatred and fear. Unselfish activity is an indirect way to salvation. Thus, Sankhya recommends a virtuous life.

Yoga and Sankhya

Discriminative knowledge is possible only when emotional stirrings are subdued and intellectual activities controlled. When the senses are regulated and the mind calm, buddhi becomes transparent and reflects the pure light of purusa. Thus, yoga can be said to be the practical aspect of Sankhya philosophy.


Sankhya has great relevance for contemporary education. If we consider the modern view of education as development, then Sankhya’s postulate that development is only the unfolding of what already has potential existence needs no modification to suit today’s world. Sankhya’s psychological views also reflect modern learning theories. If knowledge leads to the modification of buddhi in the Sankhya system, then modern education aims at the modification of behaviour. If cognition is a function of buddhi or intellect in Sankhya, it is the formation of intellectual structure in modern education. Sankhya’s theory that generalisation is the result not only of observation of elements but also non-observation of non-elements reflects the modern view of concept formation. A deeper study will yield many more similarities. Let us attempt to analyse in detail the implications of Sankhya for modern education:

Aims of education

Sankhya states the ultimate aim as attaining the perfection of purusa through discrimination, leading to its salvation. Thus the aim of education should be to create discerning individuals capable of attaining the perfection that exists within them, as Swami Vivekananda also put it.


The methods are clearly indicated:

  • Thorough study of authorities but keeping an open mind and using reason to validate their theories
  • Experiential learning with maximum involvement of the senses
  • Activity based learning including projects, practical work, etc. enabling the development of observation and logical reasoning


The curriculum will involve the study of all disciplines, with stress on the natural sciences, since to understand prakriti is to discriminate between purusa and prakriti, and the arts, so as to develop an appreciation and understanding of the works of authorities. Physical sciences and the yoga will also form part of the curriculum since Sankhya believes only a healthy and focused individual can attain salvation.


Sankhya recommends a high degree of discipline. One can deduce that it should be self-imposed.

Role of teacher

The teacher is to be a facilitator of the development of the innate potentiality of the child.

Place of student

Since Sankhya believes in the mulitiplicty of purusas, it follows that education must be individualized and child-centred.

Religious and moral education

It can be deduced that religious education will not have much importance but moral education involving the teaching of ethical values will definitely hold a central place in any system of education based on Sankhya.


The philosophic view of Sankhya includes the dualism of purusa and prakriti and the plurality of multiple purusas, each unlimited yet not interfering with the other. Herein lies a lesson for us. We need to understand that both the world and our bodies are temporary and changing, and what lies beyond is abstraction. To know that abstraction is to rid the world of all its maladies. Let us not confine ourselves to just the educational implications of Sankhya but attempt to incorporate its postulate into our own philosophy of life. It is as valid today as it was when Sage Kapila first set out on his scientific query and gave us not merely a philosophy but the fundamentals of modern psychology and cosmology. It might not be an exaggeration to suggest that Einstein’s famous equation
reflects Sankhya’s postulate that nothing comes out of nothing – energy and mass must be interconvertible so that the total energy and mass of the universe are conserved.


  1. Radhakrishnan S. Indian Philosophy. Vol 1. New Delhi: Oxford University Press; 1989
  2. Radhakrishnan S. Indian Philosophy. Vol 2. New Delhi: Oxford University Press; 1989


Work in progress, expect frequent changes. Help and feedback is welcome. See discussion page.

Create a book
Bookmark and Share