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Features | Kapilopadesha


Samkhya Philosophy - An overview


By Swami Tapasyananda


What is Kapilopadesha?


The Bhagavata Purana is essentially a text on Bhakti or love of God. It proudly proclaims its exclusive concern with Bhakti thus: ‘In other scriptural texts, Hari, the eraser of the evils of Kali and the Lord of all, is not described again and again with such devotional exuberance as is done in this Text, the Bhagavata. Through innumerable narratives, in fact through every word in it, the one topic highlighted is the Bhagawan, the One embracing all that exists’ (XII.12.65). Again it says in another context, referring to the accounts given in it of the royal dynasties and to the other narratives, historical or otherwise, described in it: ‘0 great King! I have narrated to you these stories of great men, who after spreading their fame in the world have died and disappeared, only to generate in you discriminative wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. They form only a literary device to drive home those great lessons, and are not the ultimate Truth in themselves. Then, as for that ultimate Truth, it is this: Those who aspire to have pure and undiluted devotion to Krishna should constantly hear about His sin-destroying acts and excellences sung or chanted or discoursed upon by great devotees. Let them hear that alone always’ (XII.3.14-15).


The topic of God-love as treated in the Bhagavata takes two main forms that may be called as Jnana-bhakti and Bhava-bhakti. Jnana-bhakti or love based on a vivid awareness of Divine majesties makes one sink into Him in utter self-surrender and become one with His being through His grace. Bhava-bhakti or sentimental devotion, on the other hand, is based on sense of loving intimacy with Him, analogous to various forms of loving human relationships. It does not seek dissolution in Him but eternal service to Him. While all the narratives of the Bhagavata are meant to illustrate God-love in both these aspects, this is done more directly through the great hymns and discourses with which the narratives are interspersed. Among these discourses the most comprehensive ones are Sri Krishna’s sermon to Uddhava in the eleventh Skandha and Kapila’s sermon to Dévahuti, his mother, in the third Skandha.


The latter sermon, forming the theme of this book, is as charming in its setting as it is in the profundity of the teachings it sets forth. A son instructing his mother in Brahma-vidya is no less romantic than a husband doing the same with his wife in the great Brihadaranyaka episode of Yajnavalkya imparting the knowledge of Brahman to his wife Maitreyi. Kapila, according to Hindu tradition, is an incarnation of Mahavishnu. His father was Kardama Prajapati and mother, Devahuti, the daughter of Svayambhuva Manu. Kardama was a great ascetic, but he had been commissioned by his father Brahma to propagate the species in those early days of the world. So when Manu Svayambhuva, seeking a suitable husband for his daughter Devahuti, approached him, he accepted that offer of a bride and thus he married Devahuti on the stipulation that after the ninth child was born, he would abandon home to resume his ascetic life. He bad nine daughters by Devahuti. In due course he arranged for their marriage.


After having thus fulfilled his duties, he was, according to the old stipulation, about to go forth as a wandering ascetic. Thereupon, Devahuti prayed to him that he should stay on with her for sometime more, until she had a boy born. Kardama agreed, and soon the male child came. That was Kapila.


Kardama was now free to go forth as a wandering ascetic but before he did so, he approached his son, about whose divinity he already knew, and recited a hymn in his praise. As a parting message the son told the father as follows: ‘... I have fulfilled my promise of being born as your son. The object of this incarnation of mine is to distinguish and enumerate the various categories in order that Truth seekers may be enabled to realize the Atman. Distinguishing it from the perishable body-mind combination with which It is confused. ....(111.24.35-37).


Kapila’s birth had been heralded by Divine visions to his parents, intimating that their son was none other than Mahavishnu incarnated to teach mankind the science of the Spirit. Fully enlightened as he was at his very birth, Kapila also wanted to leave hearth and home very early in life, but his mother Devahuti prayed to him that he should do so only after imparting the Saving Knowledge to her. Accordingly Kapila stayed back and began to teach her this recondite subject. We get Kapila’s sermons to his mother Devahuti, interspersed with her questions, in Chapters 25 to 33 of the third Skandha of the Bhagavata Purana.


A Puzzling Philosophical Milieu.


At the start itself his teaching is announced as follows by Shaunaka: ‘In order to reveal the knowledge of the Atman to men, the Lord, though in Himself birthless, embodied Himself by the power of His own Maya, as Kapila, the propounder of the doctrine of Samkhya.’ For a student of Indian philosophy, Samkhya is known as an atheistic doctrine, and it will be a matter of astonishment for him to be told that it required a Divine Incarnation to propound such a godless philosophy. A great Vedantic Acharya like Shankara has inveighed against the Samkhya with all his logical acumen as his Pradhana-malla (principal opponent) in his commentary on the Brahma Sutras. But the student’s astonishment will be greater still to note that the same Acharya is not much concerned in his commentary on the Gita when Sri Krishna calls his doctrine Samkhya in five places (11.39; 111.3; V.4-5; XIII.24 and XVIIL13) and describes it as Vedanta only in one place (V.15). Commenting on the line ‘esa te abhihita samkhye’ (11.39), he interprets ‘samkhye’ as ‘paramartha-vastu-visaye’, i.e. ‘in regard to the Supreme Truth’. In other words, he takes the word ‘Samkhya’ to mean only ‘metaphysical reality’, and not as a reference to the atheistic Samkhya system attributed to Kapila. Yet when he comments on ‘procyate guna-samkhyane’, i.e. ‘it is said in the enumeration of Gunas’ (XVIII. 19), he interprets ‘guna-samkhyana’ as a reference to Kapila’s system, meaning the classical Samkhya of the Samkhya Karika, which is atheistic. Realizing the inconsistency of it perhaps, he immediately adds, ‘This Shastra is a valid source of knowledge about the constituents (Gunas) and the Jivas who experience. Though it contradicts in respect of the non-duality of the metaphysically Real or Brahman, the followers of Kapila are adepts as regards constituents and their operation.’ Without feeling the least puzzled, he unhesitatingly accepts Krishna’s statement in Vibhuti Yoga that among Siddhas (perfect men), he is Muni Kapila (X.26). How could he without any comment accept wholeheartedly an atheistic philosopher as the greatest of Siddhas or perfect men?


The same puzzle will be felt by any one studying this treatise Kapilopadesha, wherein Kapila is described as an Incarnation of Mahavishnu and a teacher of a noble doctrine of God-love and Knowledge. It will be all the more so, if he happens also to be a student of the six systems of Indian philosophy wherein the Samkhya is also included. That system, as depicted there, is based on Ishwarakrishna’s Samkhya Karika, and is noted for its uncompromising dualistic pluralism, absolute realism, and pronounced atheism. As knowledge of this classical Samkhya will be helpful in understanding the relevancy of the Bhagavata Samkhya of Kapila, we shall now deal with the former in brief, and also with what preceded it, namely, the pre-classical Samkhya.


Classical samkhya: prakriti and purusha


The Samkhya system depicts reality as two mutually opposed categories, the subjective and the objective, each of them self-subsisting, eternal, and underivable from the other. This doctrine of uncompromising dualism is historically a reaction to the monistic absolutism of the early Upanishads like the Brihadaranyaka. The subject is called Purusha, a term already familiar from the time of the Purusha-sukta, but conveying an entirely different meaning in the Samkhyan context. The Purusha of the Samkhya is a countless multiplicity of individual centres of pure consciousness, without capacity for any kind of work. He is always a subject, an enjoyer, and a witness, but never an actor. Though individual, each Purusha is Vibhu or all-pervading, but non-contactual with other Purushas and therefore Kevala (alone). Neither the effect nor the cause of anything, the Purusha is attributeless and partless. The existence of such centres of intelligence is inferable, as nature (Prakriti), its insentient opposite, is found purposive in functioning, and purposiveness implies intelligence somewhere.


As opposed to the Purusha, the Subjective Eternal, is Prakriti, the Objective Eternal. Prakriti means the unevolved indiscrete matrix of all (the Avyakrita), inferred as the cause of all the experienced effect conditions or evolutes (the Vikritis) potential in it. It is known by various names as Pradhana (the first category), Avyakta (indiscrete), etc. Though uncaused, eternal, partless, and omnipresent like the Purusha, it is just his opposite in all other respects. It is single,’ insentient, and objective. Productivity or evolution into a multiplicity is its most important feature and function. It manifests, as its evolutes (Vikritis), the twenty three categories, which form the basic substances of which the manifested universe is composed. These evolutes, which are of the nature of effects, are not newly generated but only brought into manifestation from a preexisting causal condition. For the effect is always contained in the cause in an indiscrete state, and evolution means only the manifestation of the already existing entity and not production of anything new (Satkarya-vada).


The Gunas


The productivity or dynamism of Prakriti is born of the GunasSattva, Rajas and Tamas-which form its very stuff. The concept of Gunas is fundamental to the Samkhya philosophy, and the meaning of the word in the Samkhyan context differs widely from its usually understood meanings like attribute, a secondary entity, rope, etc. In the Samkhya, Gunas form both substance and attribute. To make any absolute difference between them is an unrealistic abstraction. It is sometimes said that they are the constituents or component factors of Prakriti, which is misleading, as it gives the idea that Prakriti is either a compound or a receptacle of the Gunas, while actually Prakriti is itself the Gunas, it being in an ontological identity with them. It may then be asked why the concept of the Gunas is introduced at all except it be for confusing the issues? The Samkhya replies: ‘The Prakriti works though the Gunas - avyaktam pravartate trigunatah’ (Karika 16). It may therefore be said that the Gunas are the ‘functional modes’ or ‘dispositions’ of Prakriti. Sattva makes for ‘existence’ or ‘beingness’ of Prakriti, thus asserting the absolute realism o the Samkhya. Rajas is what makes for ‘change-in-itself’. Prakriti is Rajas, and not possessed of it or qualified by it. It asserts the inherent dynamism of Prakriti, just as Sattva, its inherent existentialness. Tamas is that which ‘restrains annihilation through change’, Niyamyata. It is the inherent capacity to restrain the process of change and preserve the identity. Therefore, by means of these dispositions, Prakriti exists (Sattva); existing, it changes (Rajas); and through changing, retains itself (Tamts). These three factors involve each other mutually or reciprocally, and therefore form only the three ‘operational modes’ of Prakriti. To make any absolute ontological distinction among them as when we call them constituents of Prakriti, will be wrong, though one may do so as an intellectual abstraction for purposes of study. They are not to be thought of as three quantities balancing themselves in Samyavastha (state of devolution and equilibrium), or as one or another dominating the rest and upsetting the equilibrium into the state of Vikriti (evolution and productivity). They are the functional forces of Prakriti, each convertible into others and each including in it elements of the others. When they become equally operative, in that state of equilibrium they are called Prakriti or the Avyakta (unevolved), and when in the proximity of Purusha the equilibrium of forces is lost, the Prakriti becomes Vyakta (the evolved).


These three forces, though not qualities in themselves, exhibit in their operative state of productivity, qualities through which they are recognized. Sattva exhibits the physical characteristics of buoyancy and illumination, and the psychological characteristics of pleasure, peace and intelligence. Rajas or change-in-itself is expressed as stimulation and movement, and as the psychological characteristics of qualities like pain and passion. Tamas expresses as the physical characteristics of weight, resistance, inertia, and darkness, and as the psychological expressions like despondency, sloth, ignorance, etc. The Gunas are therefore recognized through their characteristic expressions as evolutes and qualities.


The Functioning of the Gunas


The Gunas are thus the inherent mechanism of Prakriti which keeps it ever dynamic (Rajas), but also ever existent (Sattva) and ever sustained (Tamas) too. When the dynamism is inwardly operative, Prakriti is in a state of balance (Samyavastha) and is called Avyakrita or Avyakta (indiscrete and unevolved). When the dynamism is working outwardly, Prakriti becomes Vyakta or evolved into categories, each category producing the succeeding category or sets of categories. In other systems of Indian philosophy, most of which accept the doctrine of Gunas and Prakriti, there is, unlike in the Samkhya, a place for Ishwara, a God, whose will directs the mechanism of Prakriti to evolve into the universe and to dissolve into the primordial condition in periods of cycles called Srishti and Pralaya. Classical Samkhya however does not approach the problem so much from a cosmological point of view as from the psychological. No God is recognized, as it is an unnecessary presumption according to the classical Samkhya. Purushas, the Subjective Eternals, are centres of consciousness. Proximate to them is the insentient but inherently dynamic Prakriti, the Objective Eternal. According to the classical Samkhya, these two ultimates are sufficient to understand evolution. There is no need for a super-category called Ishwara (God).


The dynamism of Prakriti is not a purposeless mechanical movement. It becomes operative outwardly due to the proximity of the Purusha and for serving the purpose of the Purusha. The Purusha is always separate and different from the Prakriti, but proximity, which is left unexplained, is assumed in order to account for the state of human existence which, being subject to births, deaths, and the intervening experiences, is dominated by suffering. The individual Purushas, who are by nature centres of pure consciousness only, get involved with Prakriti through proximity and the mutual transference of attributes and functions that take place consequently. Though entirely different from each other, the Purusha and Prakriti in union through proximity and mutual transference of attributes by reflection, bring into being the Jiva who is subject to suffering and seeks freedom from the same.


To explain this union between Prakriti and Purusha even when they are separate by nature, the Samkhya philosophers use an analogy. A blind man and a lame man come together. The lame one, by getting on the blind one, can move purposefully towards a destination. The intelligent but inactive Purusha is like the motionless but seeing lame man, and Prakriti, like the moving but sightless blind man. In combination they can subserve an individual or a common purpose - a Purushartha. The Samkhya does not explain why and when this union by proximity between these two entirely different entities came about. It is satisfied to point out that this is the predicamnt in which man finds himself and which necessitates philosophical enquiry. But the mechanism of this linking is explained. It is through the reflection of the Purusha in Buddhi, the first evolute of Prakriti. Being purely Sattvika, the Buddhi is capable of reflecting the pure intelligence that the Purusha is. The Purusha, because of this link or reflection known technically as Linga, falsely identifies himself with all the movements of the reflections of Prakriti, and the insentient Prakriti, which receives the reflection of the Purusha, appears as an intelligent and active body-mind. The Buddhi with the reflection is the subtle body which is involved in the cycle of births and deaths, receiving new bodies with each physical death. This involvement stops only when the Purusha realizes his separateness from Prakriti with which he has falsely been conceiving himself to be one, the link in this identification being the reflection.


The Twenty-four Categories


Now the Samkhya comes forward to liberate the Purusha from this predicament by imparting philosophic wisdom through the analysis of man and his environment, into the various categories of which they are constituted. The very meaning of the word ‘Samkhya’ implies these two functions. Samkhya is interpreted as the pursuit of a discriminative wisdom. Derived from the root ‘Khya’, enumeration, together with the prefix ‘Sam’, it imparts wisdom through the analysis and enumeration of experience into the categories constituting it. The two basic self- existent categories, as we have already shown, are the Purusha and the Prakriti, the subjective factor of consciousness, and the objective factor experienced by consciousness. The Purusha, being inactive and unproductive, always remains as he is, and brings out nothing of himself. But Prakriti, being the dynamic productive factor evolves into twenty-three categories when the equilibrium of the Gunas (the Samyavastha) is lost due to the proximity of the Purusha. Prakriti does so for fulfilling the purpose of the Purusha, namely, to effect his release from her own wiles.


The categories are not produced all at a time, but evolved, each one coming out of the previously evolved one. They are not generated but evolved in the sense that the term is understood in the light of the Satkarya-vada (the theory of the previous existence of the effect). The first evolute to emerge is Buddhi (intellect), and out of it Ahamkara (I-sense) having three bifurcations resulting from the three Gunas of Prakriti - Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. From Sattvika-ahamkara evolves the mind, and the five organs of knowledge (Jnanendriyas); from the Rajasika-ahamkara, the five organs of action (Karmendriyas); and from the Tamasika-ahamkara, the five elements (Bhutas) in their subtle and five in their gross aspects, numbering ten. The subtle aspect of elements is called Tanmatra or Bhutadi. These are sound (Shabda), touch (Sparsha), form (Rupa), taste (Rasa), and smell (Gandha). Out of these Tanmatras evolve the gross elements corresponding to each of them in their respective order - Akasha (sky), Vayu (air), Agni (fire), Ap (water) and Prithvi (earth). Unlike the earlier categories the gross elements are only evolutes and not evolvements, since no new category comes out of them. These twenty-three besides Prakriti constitute the twenty-four body-mind of embodied Purushas and the universe they experience. The object of the Samkhya is to impart wisdom by revealing the distinctiveness of the Purusha, the twenty-fifth entity, from these twenty-four objective categories.


Some Important Features of the Samkhya


There are a few important features in this Samkhyan classification of categories deserving special attention. First, Prakriti, the Objective Reality and the first category of the Samkhya, can never be equated with the energy or matter of the modern scientist. Matter is comparable only to the Bhutas, the last category to evolve from a succession of earlier psychological categories like Buddhi and Ahamkara. Though evolutes of insentient Prakriti, these psychological categories, being predominantly Sattvika, can reflect the intelligence of the Purusha, and therefore appear like conscious entities. But the last of the categories, the Bhutas or material elements, are products of the Tamasa aspect of Ahamkara and are therefore incapable of reflecting intelligence. So they are called insentient matter, but unlike in the modern scientific conception, this view of matter makes matter a product of psychological factors. It is not matter that has evolved mind as some scientists think, but it is just the reverse.


Secondly, in classical Samkhya, the analysis of Prakriti into categories does not seem to have much of a cosmological significance. It is primarily soteriological, i.e. salvation oriented. Prakriti functions for the release of the Purusha. Man finds himself in suffering because of his entanglement in the cycle of birth and death. This in turn is due to the Purusha thinking of himself to be what he is not. Linked with Prakriti by the Linga Sharira (subtle body) he thinks himself to be Prakriti and its evolutes, of which the body-mind is constituted. If the Purusha is to understand what he is, he must first know what he is not, i.e. this body-mind which he mistakenly thinks himself to be. For he must first have an analytical knowledge of what he is not. The analytical study of Prakriti and its evolutes is undertaken by the Samkhya with the sole purpose of giving man this salvation-giving knowledge. This knowledge is gained not by a mere intellectual exercise. It has to become a basic discipline of the Buddhi by which consciousness is able to empty itself of every-thing that is not conscious. This is possible only for one whose conviction in the painfulness and undesirability of life as constituted is total and who is possessed of a deep and unremitting urge to get out of One may say that consciousness without any content is emptiness or Shunyata, but it is an emptiness that reveals everything, including the body-mind, in their separation. A person who has attained to this intuitive apprehension may be in the body but he is not of it. Says the Samkhya Karika: ‘Thus from the repeated study of the Truth, there results the wisdom, “I do not exist, naught is mind. I am not”, which leaves no residue (to be known), is pure, being free from ignorance and is absolute’ (64). On the exhaustion of the quantum of Karma that has brought the body-mind into existence, the Linga Sharira, that links the Prakriti and Purusha, is also destroyed.


The purpose of the evolution of Prakriti, which consists in securing the release or isolation of the Purusha, is thus fulfilled and Prakriti retires. Says the Kárika: ‘The work of Prakriti, namely, the production of categories from intellect down to the gross elements, is for the end of the release of each spirit; this she does for another’s benefit (i.e. the Purusha’s), as if it were her own’ (56). Having accomplished this, Prakriti retires. As the Karika puts it: ‘As a dancer desists from dancing, having exhibited herself to the audience, so does Primal Nature (Prakriti) desist, having exhibited herself to the spirit. It is my belief that there is not any other being more bashful than Prakriti who, because of the realization “I have been seen”, never again comes into the view of the spirit’ (Kàrika 56 & 61).


Thirdly, the classical Samkhya, though a spiritually oriented system, is without any place for God, a Supreme Intelligence who is the controller, the support, and origin of the whole universe. This appears to go counter to most of the spiritually oriented world-views. The Samkhya considers God a superfluous assumption lacking proof. A dynamic Prakriti eternally existing with all effects involved in it (Satkarya-vada) eliminates the need of an efficient and material cause in the form of an Ishwara. The Purushas, the individual centres of consciousness, and the purpose of providing him with experiences that tend to liberate him ultimately, are sufficient to explain the intelligent and purposive functioning of Prakriti. For attaining liberation there is no need for the grace of an Ishwara to intervene. The discriminative wisdom generated by the discipline of the system alone can achieve this.


Pre-classical Samkhya


It is the recognition of the above version of Samkhya philosophy by the great Vedantic Acharyas like Shankara and the refutation of its atheism that has made the student of Indian philosophy consider it as the Samkhya, forgetting that it is only this classical version of the system of thought, which has been the subject of Vedantic criticism. Modern research has however revealed that the Samkhya had a long past when it was indistinguishable from the Vedanta, The Vedic literature, and especially the Upanishadic, has various seed thoughts and doctrines as also terminologies without precise meanings. This provided the intellectual climate required for the emergence of different systems of thought based on the same texts. Basic terms of Indian philosophy like Brahman, Atman, Prakriti, Akshara, etc. which came to have precise meanings in later philosophies, had a long history in the early thought with developing meanings. Thus the clarified and well-defined systems of philosophy like the Samkhya and the Vedanta could have had their origins in the early Vedic thought, whose concepts and terms conveying them assumed widely varying meanings with the development of philosophic thinking.


The concepts of the Purusha, of the Prakriti, of the Gunas, of the evolution of different categories, of life being a vale of sorrows, of the doctrine of Samsara or repeated births and deaths, of gaining freedom from Samsara through spiritual striving, etc. are familiar to the Upanishads, may be with some differences of meaning and they find a place in the classical Samkhya. The Mundaka and the Katha Upanishads, if closely studied, will be found to have much Samkhyan affinities. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad gives clear evidence of the existence of a pre-classical Samkhya that is not distinguishable from Vedantic ideas. In that Upanishad we get for the first time the expression Prakriti, which is also called Maya - a term which in the earlier literatures was known as Brahman, Akshara, Avyakta, and Mahan-atma. The theory of the three Gunas, which bind the Purusha, is adumbrated in this Upanishad in the passage IV.5, where it speaks of the ‘Aja’ (‘female unborn’), red, white, and black in colour, and producing offspring resembling her. The dualism of Purusha and Prakriti is clearly visible, but unlike in the classical Samkhya they are unified in Supreme Being, all-powerful, described as Isha or Deva. Prakriti is called His Yoni (source of creative power) and also as Devatma-shakti (the inherent Power of the Lord). It speaks in the same breath in contiguous passages about Samkhya and Vedanta in expressions like samkhya-yogadhigamyam (the Highest Truth that can be attained through Samkhya and Yoga) and vedante pracoditam paramam guhyam (the Supreme Truth inculcated in the Vedanta). The Upanishad also mentions the name of Kapila, the reputed author of the Samkhya philosophy, although that word is interpreted in commentaries as the ‘golden-coloured one’, the Hiranyagarbha.


Gita Samkhya


The existence of a pre-classical Samkhya, which is both theistic and devotional and therefore indistinguishable from Vedanta, is most abundantly clear from the Mahabharata from its most important sections, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Mokshadharma section of the Shantiparva. Ever since the time of Shankaracharya the Bhagavad-Gita has gained recognition as one of the most important Vedantic texts - in fact as one of the three foundational Vedantic texts (Prasthanatraya). But critical scholars of the text today claim it also to be a pre-classical Samkhyan text. It is interesting to note that Lord Krishna terms the teaching he gives as Samkhya in several chapters. Thus he calls his teaching as Samkhya in five places (cf. 11.39; 111.3; V.4-5; XIH.24; and XVIII. 13), while he refers to himself in a solitary place as Vedantakrit or author of the Vedanta (cf. XV.15). He repeatedly calls his teaching as Samkhya - an obnoxious term in the contemporary philosophical context because of the reputation of the system of that name for its uncompromising atheism, dualism, and realism. Even when Krishna names the Mimi Kapila as one of his Vibhutis (glorious manifestations), Shankara feels no hitch and goes ahead without any comment. But when he comes to the passage ‘procyate guna-samkhyane’ (‘it is said in the science enumerating the Gunas’, cf. XVIIL19), he smells danger and remembers the real Samkhya, his principal opponent (Pradhanamalla) in his commentary on the Brahma-sutras. Considering this as a reference to Kapila’s Samkhya system, he remarks: ‘This Shastra (the Samkhya) is a valid source of knowledge about the constituents or Gunas and the Jivas who experience. Though it contradicts in respect of the nonduality of the metaphysically Real or Brahman, the followers of Kapila are adepts as regards constituents (Gunas) and their operation’


The theory of the unaffected Atman discussed in the second chapter, which is one of the basic teachings of the Gita, is described by the Lord as Samkhya. The doctrine of the three Gunas and the various effects through which they are observed, is perhaps discussed in greater detail here than in any Samkhyan text proper. The distinction between the Purusha and the Prakriti or Kshetrajna and Kshetra, is described exactly as it is in the Samkhya texts. There is, however, one important difference. While in classical Samkhya, Prakriti is of the nature of the Gunas, the Gita describes the Gunas both as constituting Prakriti (Gunamayi), and as born of Prakriti (Prakritijan). It is the power of Ishwara (God).


The categories of Prakriti are reduced to eight in the Gita in place of twenty-four. But all this is done with some basic and fundamental differences from the classical Samkhya, namely, that the Purusha and the Prakriti are the higher and the lower aspects of the Power of Purushottama (the Supreme Purusha), known jointly as the Prakriti, and that the lower Prakriti has power of creation only under the stimulation received from Purushottama, and that the Jiva or the higher Prakriti can gain release only by the grace of the Purushottama. Thus it is found that a pre-classical Samkhya text like the Gita is cent per cent theistic and devotional.


Epic Samkhya of the Mahabharata


The Mokshadharma of the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata contains many details of what may be called pre-classical epic Samkhya, which is theistic but yet different from the Vedanta as also from the classical Samkhya. Bhishma refers to Samkhya as originated by Kapila, whom he calls an Adhyatma-Chintaka, the founder of a spiritual doctrine. Like the classical Samkhya it recognizes twenty-four categories of Prakriti, and the Purusha as the twenty-fifth, but it differs from the former in holding, that there is no ultimacy in the multiplicity of the twenty-fifth as in the classical Samkhya. The Purusha, in association with Prakriti in the creative cycle, seems to be many. But in liberation, with the effacement of the bondage of Prakriti, the separateness of the Purusha is effaced and it becomes the one and only Purusha that exists in the nature of things. This version of Samkhya too is sometimes called Anishwara (without a God), but this is only in the sense that it does not have a twenty-sixth category called God entirely distinct from the twenty-fifth, as was recognized by the Yogins and the Gita-Samkhyans whose leanings are towards the Vedanta.


It is interesting in this connection to note also the difference in the conception of the Jiva between epic Samkhya and the Gita Samkhya. The Gita seems to speak in a divided voice regarding its conception of the Jiva. In Chapter VII.4-5, the Lord speaks of His Prakriti as having two expressions. The first is the unconscious objective Prakriti called Apara (lower) which evolves into the eight categories constituting the universe. The other called Para (higher) is what ‘becomes the Jiva’ (Jiva-bhuta). In what appears to be a little different from this, in Chapter XV.7, he describes the Jiva as His own part (Amsha) and not as an aspect of Prakriti. In Samkhya proper, both epic and classical, Purusha and Prakriti are entirely different categories


Another important respect in which the epic Samkhya as also the Gita differs from classical Samkhya is in that Prakriti in the former cannot be active without the prompting or will of the Purusha. The idea of a God is essential to them. But classical Samkhya, as we have seen, makes dynamism inherent in the Prakriti through the mechanism of the three Gunas. Purusha has no operative part in it. He is only the witness and the enjoyer, but never the actor. His presence has to be accepted because the purposiveness of the evolution of Prakriti cannot be explained otherwise. Prakriti functions in order to liberate the Purusha ultimately from his entanglement brought about by proximity to her. Classical Samkhya scrupulously excludes a God as a superfluous and inconvenient assumption in their way of thinking. Epic Samkhya, however, is entirely different from it, in that the will of the Purusha is necessary to make the Prakriti creative. But this Purusha of the epic Samkhya is not Ishwara, a God, as accepted in the Gita or in all schools of theism. Purusha, free from bondage of Prakriti, is Ishwara, but He becomes a limited centre of intelligence in bondage; He is therefore taken only as the twenty-fifth category and not as the twenty-sixth. This equivocal position of Ishwara in epic Samkhya is one of the steps towards the emergence of atheistic Samkhya of classical times.


Atheistic Theories of Panchashikha


The beginning of the atheistic doctrine into which Samkhya developed in classical times can be found in the Mahabharata, Mokshadharma, itself. The Samkhya philosophy traces its origin from Kapila and its development through a succession of teachers Aruni, Panchashikha, Asita-Devala, Varshaganya, etc. to the classical statement of it in the Samkhya Karika of Ishwarakrishna. What all these teachers taught is not known, as none of them has left any work available today. Ishwarakrishna’s Samkhya


Karika, which was produced between the 3rd and 5th century A.D., is the first extant systematic work on the Samkhya philosophy. It is claimed in it that there was an elaborate literature known as Shashti-tantra on this system by the ancient teachers, and that what Ishwarakrishna has given in the Karika forms a summary of this. No such text as Shashti-tantra is available now, and we have to presume that the Samkhya developed into its later atheistic formulaion from its Upanishadic and epic form in the course of the development it underwent at the hands of these teachers. As for these teachers, we know nothing of Kapila. The name is mentioned in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, but it is interpreted by commentators as the Golden One or the Hiranyagarbha. The Samkhya Sutras, otherwise known as Samkhya Pravachana attributed to Kapila, on which Vijnana Bhikshu wrote a commentary in the sixteenth century, is a much later work originated probably in the fifteenth century, as we find no ancient author referring to it anywhere in their writings. From among these founding teachers of the Samkhya, we get some idea of the trend of thought of Panchashikha as set forth in Mokshadharma section of the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata. We can see from it that he was one of the main thinkers who gave an atheistic trend to Samkhya. Panchashikha accepted a soul, the Purusha, for accounting for man’s sense of a continuing ‘individuality, but the soul is not in itself a conscious entity. Consciousness is a property that originates when the Purusha comes into a conglomerated association with the body-mind and Chetana or psychic efficiency, which are parts of Avyakta or Prakriti, the ultimate ground of the objective world. Being thus a product of the integration of the Purusha with an aspect of Prakriti, consciousness ceases at death. Man suffers because he identifies the Purusha with the conglomeration of body-mind, and considers that conglomeration to be his self. Mukti is got when this identification ceases, and consciousness too ceases with it. The state of Mukti is not one of ultimate destruction or of ultimate Reality. It is indeterminate and indefinable. It cannot be iefinite1y described as a state of consciousness, as consciousness is not an essential characteristic of the Purusha. In bringing about these agglomerations called the body-mind or in identifying the Purusha with such agglomerations, there is no need for a Purushottama or God.


Probable Causes for Divergence from Vedanta


How and why the Samkhya differentiated itself from the Vedanta and developed into an atheistic gospel is only a matter of guess. Religions, including the Vedanta, base themselves on revealed Texts. Their data or fundamental assumptions derive their validity from these Texts. The Vedanta no doubt gives an important place for reasoning, but it-is mainly for elucidating these Texts and bringing out a consistent meaning from them. Of course it is accepted that the scriptural verities are ultimately verifiable through experience if one develops the insight for the same. It is natural that all thinkers would not agree with this outlook but would gradually drift towards reliance on reasoning. This must have happened among the pre-classical Samkhyan thinkers of India also. They separated themselves from scripture- based Vedantins into reason-based thinkers with only a loose scriptural affiliation. This is evident from the very first two verses of Ishwarakrishna’s Samkhya Karika, which says: ‘From the experience of the threefold misery starts the enquiry after the means of surmounting them. If it is said that such an enquiry is superfluous since they can be erased by physically perceivable means, the answer is that this is not so, as there is no certainty or finality in such means. Scriptural means too are inadequate like the perceivable; for it is subject to impurity, destructibility, and surpassability. Different from, and superior to it, there is the means given by the discriminative knowledge of the evolved, the unevolved, and the knower.’ This tendency to downgrade the importance of scripture must have been responsible for the speculative theories of thinkers like Panchashikha and the final termination in atheism. But the Samkhya never rejected the Veda completely unlike the Buddhists and the Jams and so continued to be included among the Astika (orthodox) systems of thought. Besides, the Samkhya brand of atheism never degenerated into the materialism of Charvakas, hedonist, epicurians, and modern naturalists. It always maintained spiritual and soteriological (salvation-oriented) outlook.


Another influence that might have worked on the Samkhya thinkers in this respect might have been the philosophical fashion set by the Buddhist thinkers who developed a spiritual and ascetic view of life without a God or a soul, which are the universal presumptions of all religions and spiritually oriented philosophies. There are some people who cannot stand a theology, but yet find satisfaction only in spirituality and asceticism. It was so then and it is so now too. The Samkhya thinkers along with the Buddhists might have thought that the inconsistencies in their position were not as bad as the inconsistencies in accepting a God.


But Samkhya has continued to develop even after the time of Ishwarakrishna and the criticism of the great Vedantic Acharyas. In the sixteenth century, in the writings of Vijnana Bhikshu on the Samkhya Sutras, it abandoned its atheism and aligned itself very largely with the Vedanta, And it is pointed by Prof. S. S. Suryanarayana Sastri in his Introduction to the translation of the Samkhya Karika that a still later writer Mudumba Narasimha Swami, in his unpublished writing named the Samkhya-taru-vasanta, maintains that there is no radical difference between the Samkhya and the Vedanta.


Bhagavata Samkhya


It is in this context that we get the Bhagavata Samkhya, that forms the subject matter of Kapilopadesha. There are several other brands too of Samkhya like that of Tattva-samasa, of Abirbudhanya Samhita of the Pancharatra school, of the Charaka Samhita, of the Buddha Charita, and of Arada Kalama. Of all these, the Bhagavata Samkhya is of special importance, since it must have been an attempt to restore Samkhya, which had become an atheistic gospel, into its pre-classical condition of a noble spiritual philosophy akin to the Vedanta. The Bhagavata, according to the modern scholarship, must have assumed its present form by the tenth century and it is therefore quite reasonable to think that there is in it an attempt to restore this ancient system of thought to its pristine devotional outlook. That perhaps is the significance of putting these teachings into the mouth of Kapila himself, reputed founder of the system, and is openly described here as an Incarnation of Mahavishnu.


The doctrine is expounded in chapters 24-27 of the third Skandha of the Bhagavata in the form of a conversation between the s-age Kapila and his mother Devahuti. It is apparently dualistic, at least with reference to the creative cycle, but it is monistic when the cycle is over. The Purusha and the Prakriti figure prominently in it as the two fundamental categories. The former is eternal (Anadi), without the Gunas of Prakriti (Nirgun), transcends Prakriti, illumines everything (Pratyag Dharma), self-revealing (Svayam Jyoti), and what integrates everyhing (27.3). Though the Purusha is recognized as transcending Prakriti in verse 27.4, in the very next verse the latter is declared to be a power of the Divine (Daivi) and constituted of the three Gunas (Gunamayi) as distinct from Purusha. It is called Pradhana (the principal category), Avishesha (the indiscrete), Avyakta (unclear), non-effect, Maya, etc. It is imperceptible but it has to be accepted as existing eternally because it provides the basis of all effects, and all distinctions are potential in it.


The Purusha on being casually approached by Prakriti fecundates her by his sportive look. Prakriti is thus stimulated to activity and produces innumerable bodies of wondrous type, constituted of the Gunas. Seeing those creations of Prakriti, the Purusha identifies himself with these bodies and their transformations owing to loss of self-knowledge. Because of this imaginative identification with the ‘other’ (parabhijnanena), the Purusha falls into bondage. Though the Purusha is in reality only the açtionless, free, blissful, and uninvolved witness of the movements of Prakriti, the imaginative identifications makes him feel himself to be the agent and enjoyer, subject to Samsara and its consequent bondage and enslavement. In this complex agent-enjoyer relationship the sense of agency together with the cause and effect relationship is derived from Prakriti whereas the sense of enjoyment of joy and sorrow is derived from the Purusha who really transcends Prakriti.


Prakriti fecundated by the Purusha evolves the twenty-four categories. The categories are as follows in the order of succession: Mahat-tattva (also known as Hiranyagarbha and Vasudeva) with Chitta involved in it; Ahamkara having Sattvika, Rajasika, and Tamasika aspects; Manas from the Sattvika, Buddhi and the ten organs of knowledge and action from the Rajasika and the five Tanmatras and their five gross effects (Bhutas) from the Tamasika aspect of Ahamkara. There are some conspicuous differences in this from the enumeration of categories in classical Samkhya: (1) Buddhi here is only a sub-product of Ahamkara, (2) Mahattattva takes the place of Buddhi as the first of the evolutes, and (3) a category called Chitta not differentiated from Mahattattva is also included in the latter. This is said to be an aspect of Mahattattva in the individual whereas Mahattattva as such is to be considered cosmic.


In addition to these evolutes of Prakriti, an entirely different category called Time is recognized in the Bhagavata Samkhya. It is not an evolute of Prakriti but the Shakti or Power of Ishwara. It is Time that incites the dynamism of Prakriti to take the form of Kalpa (creative manifestation) and Pralaya (dissolution).


It is with the combination of the evolutes of Prakriti of the nature of Gunas (Gunamayi) that the cosmos well as the individual bodies are formed at the beginning of each repetitive cycle of time, starting with Srishti (creation) and ending with Pralaya (dissolution). These creations of Prakriti are what cause identification and infatuation in the Purusha and bring into being the transmigrating Jiva.


The nature of the Jiva as the transmigrating Self is not very clear. In classical Samkhya the Purushas are countless in bondage and in liberation too, and have thus each an eternal identity. In bondage, the Purusha is in imaginative identification with the body-mind (Prakriti) and in liberation this identification goes. Though, his multiplicity remains a fact, he is alone (Kevala) in his own pristine nature. This liberation from the bondage of Prakriti is got exclusively through the discriminative intelligence generated by the Samkhyan analysis of experience. There is no need of God’s grace, as there is no such being in the classical Samkhya. But the position is different in the Bhagavata Samkhya and in the’ Gita Samkhya as well. Following the doctrine as stated in the Kapilopadesha, we have to presume that the Purusha in bondage is a part of the Supreme Purusha (Purushottama) as in the Gita, or a reflection of Him as in the classical Advaita doctrine. This is not however clearly stated in the text. As the teaching of Kapila is predominantly devotional in spite of its Samkhya terminologies, we have to presume that whatever be the source of Jiva or Purusha, he is in bondage different from the Supreme Being, Mahavishnu. But in liberation he becomes one with Him, or if the Jiva prefers, remains an eternal servant of God in realms of Light. Unlike in the Advaita, bondage and liberation are real. Why and how bondage has come about is not attempted to be explained beyond telling that the manifestations of the Gunas of Prakriti infatuated the Purusha by producing in him the suppression of knowledge. But it is clearly accepted that liberation is possible and that it can be attained through devotion - Bhakti, combined with. knowledge or Jnana. It is stated that by devotional pratices, the hook that binds the Jiva to Prakriti is dissolved and then the bondage from Prakriti will never occur again. This is given in answer to the objection of Devahuti to the Samkhya theory that the Purusha and Prakriti coexist eternally side by side in bondage and in liberation. In that case liberation is impossible, and even if ratiocination brings about release, the bondage of Prakriti cannot be prevented from overtaking the Purusha again. Whether Kapila’s answer that Bhakti dissolves the ‘hook’ of bondage, and that the spiritual disciplines practised by the body-mind will destroy that very body-mind just as fire lit with a fuel destroys the very fuel, is adequate, remains an open question. Perhaps no one can answer this ultimate question - how bondage came about and if it came about once, could it not come again even after it has been overcome? The nearest answer is what is given in the monistic doctrine which the Bhagavata Samkhya seems to accept as the last resort. Though bound in the state of ignorance, in liberation the individual spirit or the Purusha is dissolved in the Purushottama, the Supreme Being, and afterwards any question about that Purusha returning becomes redundant.


It was pointed out that the classical Samkhya is more soteriological than cosmological as also utterly non-theological. But the Bhagavata Samkhya is all these three, i.e. it is salvation oriented, it describes creation as a divine act, and it teaches devotion to a personalized conception of the Supreme Being, Mahavishnu. To elaborate upon the last point, it refers to the Vaishnava theology of the Pancharatra when it identifies Vasudeva as the Presiding Deity over Mahattattva, Sankarshana over Ahamkara, and Aniruddha over Manas. Pradyumna, one of the four Vyuhas, is however omitted. The form of Mahavishnu as described in the Vaishnava texts is placed before an aspirant as the object of concentrated and devout meditation. The nine-limbed discipline of Bhakti is advocated. Some of the best descriptions of the genesis, development, and nature of Bhakti contained in the Bhagavata occur in the 25th and in the 29th chapters of this Skandha. Kapila, the teacher of the Samkhya, is himself described as an Incarnation of Mahavishnu.


Importance of Its Cosmological Theory


Its most significant deviation from classical Samkhya consists in respect of its cosmological theories. The classical Samkhya conceived Prakriti as inherently dynamic with its alternating cyclic movement of Kalpa (manifestation) and Pralaya (dissolution) each lasting for aeons eternally. While the movement itself is self- propelled, purposiveness is given to it by the presence of the intelligent. Purushas by its side. Beyond describing the evolution of the twenty three categories from it and giving a general statement that the worlds are formed for the fruition of the Karmas of the Purushas, it does not bother with cosmology.


But the Bhagavata Samkhya outlook is in total disagreement with this. Prakriti constituted of the Gunas is no doubt dynamic but its dynamism is a capacity which can become effective only by the stimulation and energization derived from the will of the Purushottama. Besides, Prakriti is not an independent entity but a power of Ishwara. At every stage of the creative process, the Bhagavata seeks to invoke the will of the Purushottama in it. Thus refuting the classical Samkhyan conception of an independent, self- sufficient, and self-evolving Prakriti requiring for its functioning no Directive Principle, a Purushottama, both transcending Prakriti and immanent in it, is brought into the cosmology of the Bhagavata Samkhya.


This metaphysical idea diverting the Bhagavata Samkhya from the atheistic tone of its classical prototype, is however hidden by the mythological language in which it is clothed. The beginning of the creative cycle is thus described:


The all-pervading Being assumed in a sportive way His own divine Prakriti approaching Him by chance, and then Prakriti began producing numerous offspring of like nature, wonderfully diverse according to the Gunas. This initial movement of Prakriti is also described as set in by Time, which is described as ‘the Bhagavan’s inherent power manifest externally enfolding all beings’. It is also described as a look of the Bhagavan which fecundates Prakriti, i.e. makes its ‘capacities’ evolve and come into manifestation. The evolution of the categories of Prakriti enumerated before is then effected. The categories remain in disjunction and cannot combine into the agglomerations that constitute the universe. Then the Supreme Being along with Kala (Time), Karma, and the Gunas, enters into them. Stimulated by the Lord, the Primordial Categories now combine into the Cosmic Egg, which however remains inert. Then the Great Spirit pierces the Self from within and brings out the various organs that form the Virat Purusha (the Cosmic Man), but he remains inert like a sleeping man. The functions of the various organs with their presiding deities then enter their respective places but that cannot rouse the Cosmic Being. Then the Chaitya (the Principle of sentiency) who is the Kshetrajna (the Knower of the Field as Jiva) enters and the Cosmic Being wakes up.


This mythological account is given in great detail in chapter 26. Its import is that the Supreme Being, the Purushottama who transcends Prakriti and at the same time indwells it, has to be taken into account in the true Samkhya world-view, which was perverted into an atheistic system in later times by the classical Samkhyan thinkers. The Bhagavata Purana, which according to modern scholarship assumed its present form by around the tenth century, has worked various philosophical doctrines prevailing at that time into a shape consistent with its devotional world-view. In Kapilopadesha, one of the most brilliant sections of the Purana, the ancient system of Kapila is sought to be reconstructed as it was taught by its reputed author, who is depicted as an Incarnation of Mahavishnu.




1. Samkhya Karika of Ishwarakrishna, edited and translated by S. S. S. Sastry, University of Madras.

2. The Samkhya System of A. B. Keith, ‘The Heritage of India Series’.

3. Essays on Samkhya by Anima Sen Gupta, Patna University .

4. Samkhya and Advaita Vedanta by G. H. Larson, M/s. Motilal Banarsidass.

5. Classical Samkhya by Anima Sen Gupta, Patna University .

6. Classical Samkhya by G. H. Larson, M/s. Motilal Banarsidass.

7. Theism of Pre-classical Samkhya by Dr. K. B. Ramakrishna Rao, University of Mysore .


(Extracted from the book Kapilopadesha in English by Swami Tapasyananda of Advaita Ashrama (Publication Department) 5, Dehi Entally Road, Calcutta-700 014)