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Home > Historical, Cultural, and Comparative Studies > Asian Non-Buddhist Traditions > Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and Yoga Schools of Indian Philosophy

Basic Tenets of the Samkhya and
Yoga Schools of Indian Philosophy

Alexander Berzin
June 2004, revised May 2008

Origins

The Samkhya (grangs-can-pa) school of Indian philosophy traces itself from the ancient sage Kapila (Drang-srong Ser-skya), author of The Numbered Items Sutra (Samkhya Sutra). This sutra, however, was compiled only in the fourteenth century CE. The earliest Samkhya text to appear, however, was Verses on the Numbered Items (Skt. Samkhya Karika), by Ishvarakrshna, in the fifth century CE. The main commentary was by Vacaspati, written in the ninth century CE.

The Yoga school began slightly later, at the end of the fifth century CE, with the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali. Its main commentary was by Vyasa, written at the beginning of the sixth century CE. This school shares the basic tenets of Samkhya, but adds to the system the supreme god Ishvara (dbang-po), equivalent to Shiva.

Primal Matter

The Samkhya-Yoga system divides all knowable phenomena into 25 classes (de-nyid, Skt. tattva).

Of the 25 classes of knowable phenomena, 24 comprise all forms of material phenomena (bem-po). They are known collectively as primal matter (gtso-bo, Skt. pradhana) or natural matter (rang-bzhin, Skt. prakrti), which is counted as one of the 24.

Primal matter is made up of three universal constituents (yon-tan, Skt. guna) intertwined like rope. They are the components of primal matter and not qualities distinct from primal matter. The three, in Sanskrit, are:

  • sattva (snying-stobs), referring in different contexts to luminosity, lightness, strength, and pleasure

  • rajas (rdul), referring to activity, motion, and pain

  • tamas (mun-pa), referring to obscurity, darkness, heaviness, and a neutral feeling.

The three universal constituents are in equilibrium. As a whole, then, primal matter or the natural state is

  • permanent, in the sense of being static, unchanging, and eternal

  • all-pervasive

  • the deepest true phenomenon.

Persons

A person (skyes-bu, Skt. purusha), soul or self (bdag, Skt. atman), perceiver (shes-pa), or knower (rig-pa) is the self that Buddhists refute. It is equivalent to mere consciousness and is totally passive. There are a manifold number of individual selves and, as mere passive consciousness, their qualities are that each one is:

  • permanent, in the sense of being unchanging, static, and eternal

  • all-pervasive with the universe

  • partless and so not made up of the three universal constituents like material phenomena are

  • the conscious experiencer of the results of karmic action

  • not the agent of actions, since the body is – a soul cannot do anything since that would mean it changes

  • not the creator of the perturbations of primal matter.

The Perturbations of Primal Matter

The other 23 classes of material phenomena are transfigurations or perturbations (rnam-‘ gyur, Skt. vikara) of the equilibrium of the three universal constituents of primal matter, and are an illusion (sgyu-ma, Skt. maya). They constitute conventional or relative reality. As a whole, the 23 are eternal, but these perturbations constantly change, and are the agents of action. They are what actually do things. The situation is like there is a fabric of primal matter that can neither be created nor destroyed. It seems to be interacting with itself and thus changing all the time, but those changes are only an illusion. Even space and time are merely perturbations of the fabric of primal matter. It is not that space and time are external containers of the fabric of primal matter/energy.

Only souls and primal matter are permanent in the sense of unchanging, and both of them are all-pervasive. Everything else, although also eternal, continually changes. All events and phenomena are eternal in the sense that they exist eternally in unmanifest (Skt. avyakta) forms, and then for a brief moment become manifest. Thus, the results of actions are already present in the causes. Nothing new ever arises.

The perturbations of primal matter happen according to purely mechanical laws of cause and effect. Only the Yoga school says that the god Ishvara causes these perturbations, but only in the sense of being the stimulus for them. Thus, although Ishvara is external to both primal matter and individual souls or persons, Ishvara is not a primal cause that precedes the existence of the other two and creates them by his will. Ishvara, primal matter, and individual souls are all equally eternal.

Samkhya asserts no supreme god or creator. Nor are the perturbations of primal matter caused by persons. They occur, however, because of the mere presence of persons. Eventually, the perturbations lead to persons gaining liberation, but not as an act of will on the side of primal matter. Because of this, all beings will eventually attain liberation.

Mahayana Buddhism says that all beings are capable of attaining liberation and enlightenment, but it is not inevitable that everyone will. Even if someone is surrounded by all the Buddhas and bodhisattvas of the universe, if the person is not receptive and not interested, he or she would not listen to the Buddha’s teachings and would not think about or practice the Dharma.

The Other 23 Classes of Material Phenomena

The 23 classes of material phenomena that are perturbations of primal matter evolve from each other, and thus everything that happens is reduced to changes of matter and energy. The 23 are

The Physical Faculty for Sentience

The physical faculty for sentience (blo, Skt. buddhi) or the mighty one (chen-po, Skt. mahat), the boss, is the physical medium through which a person, as passive consciousness, manifests.

A “physical faculty” is a form of subtle matter or energy. It is not gross matter like some part of a brain is.

The Physical Faculty for Self-Awareness

The physical faculty for self-awareness (nga-rgyal, Skt. ahamkara) derives from the physical faculty for sentience. It allows for a sense of “me” and “mine.”

The next four sets derive from the physical faculty for self-awareness:

The Physical Faculty for a Mind

The physical faculty for a mind (yid-kyi dbang-po, Skt. mano indriya; or simply yid, Skt. manas) both thinks and organizes sensory information. It does not refer to the gross matter of a brain.

The Five Physical Faculties for Sense Perception

The five physical faculties for sense perception (blo’i dbang-po, Skt. buddhindriya) are the physical faculties for

  • eyes (mig, Skt. caksu) to see

  • ears (rna-ba, Skt. shrotra) to hear

  • a nose (sna, Skt. nasika) to smell

  • a tongue (lce, Skt. jihva) to taste

  • skin (pags-pa, Skt. tvac) to feel physical sensations.

These five do not refer to the gross matter of the eyes and so forth, but to subtle forms of matter or energy that allow for the gross matter of the sense organs to perform their functions.

The Five Physical Faculties for Actions

The five physical faculties for actions (las-kyi dbang-po, Skt. karmendriya) are the physical faculties for

  • speech (ngag, Skt. vak) to speak

  • hands (lag-pa, Skt. pani) to take things

  • legs (rkang-pa, Skt. pada) to walk

  • a sexual organ (‘ doms, Skt. prastha) to expel urine

  • an anus (rkub, Skt. payu) to expel excrement.

These five do not refer to the gross matter of the hands and so forth, but to subtle forms of matter or energy that allow for the gross matter of the action organs to perform their functions.

The Five Subtle Elements of Mere Sensory Information

The five subtle elements of mere sensory information (de-tsam, Skt. tanmatra) are the subtle elements of

  • sight (gzugs-kyi de-tsam, Skt. rupa-tanmatra)

  • sound (sgra’i de-tsam, Skt. shabda-tanmatra)

  • smell (dri’i de-tsam, Skt. gandha-tanmatra)

  • taste (ro’i de-tsam, Skt. rasa-tanmatra)

  • physical sensation (reg-bya’i de-tsam, Skt. sparsha-tanmatra).

These five do not refer to external sights, sounds, and so on, but to subtle forms of matter or energy that constitute the visual information and so on that are cognized.

The various subtle elements of mere sensory information are the immediate causes for

The Five Great Elements

The five great elements (‘ byung-ba chen-po, Skt. mahabhuta) are

  • earth (sa, Skt. prthivi)

  • water (chu, Skt. ap)

  • fire (me, Skt. tejas)

  • wind (rlung, Skt. vayu)

  • space (nam-mkha’, Skt. akasha).

Each of the five great elements is comprised of a finite number of distinct ultimately smallest particles (paramanu).

The manner in which the subtle elements of sensory information are the immediate causes for the five great elements is as follows:

  • The subtle element of mere sound information is the immediate cause for the gross element of space.

  • The subtle elements of mere sound and mere physical sensation information together are the immediate cause for the gross element of wind.

  • The subtle elements of mere sound, physical sensation, and sight information together are the immediate cause for the gross element of fire.

  • The subtle elements of mere sound, physical sensation, sight, and taste information together are the immediate cause for the gross element of water.

  • The subtle elements of mere sound, physical sensation, sight, taste, and smell information together are the immediate cause for the gross element of earth.

Cognition, the Internal Agent, and the Subtle Body

In knowing anything, the physical faculty for sentience takes on or assumes the form or aspect of a mental representation of the object. This is similar to the functioning of the subtlest wind in Buddhist anuttarayoga tantra. These representations are like mental holograms and are modifications (Skt. vrtti) of this physical faculty. This is the nonconceptual stage of cognition.

The physical faculty for a mind interprets this mental hologram conceptually and the physical faculty for self-awareness experiences it. Then, the physical faculty for sentience assumes the form of the action to take in response to the cognition.

The combination of these three physical faculties – the physical faculty for sentience, the physical faculty for self-awareness, and the physical faculty for a mind – is called the “internal agent” (nang-du byed-pa, Skt. anta:karana).

In contrast to the internal agent of actions, the person or soul is passive consciousness. Although it is neither the experiencer of the mental representations of objects nor the agent of actions in response to them, it is the consciousness that experiences karmic results through a purely physical faculty for a mind that in and of itself lacks consciousness. A person or soul, then, is like a transcendental self.

The person or soul, however, is not what goes from lifetime to lifetime, since a person can neither change nor do anything. What does pass from one lifetime to the next is the subtle body (Skt. lingasharira). The subtle body is the combination of

  • an individual physical faculty for sentience

  • a physical faculty for self-awareness

  • a physical faculty for a mind

  • five physical faculties for sense perception

  • five physical faculties for actions

  • five subtle elements of mere sensory information.

The gross body in each lifetime is made of different combinations of the five great elements, and that transforms into something else after death.

Liberation

Persons or souls suffer through repeated rebirth (Skt. samsara) due to unawareness (Skt. avidya, ignorance) that the person or soul is not the same as the physical faculty for sentience – the physical medium through which a person manifests. Unawareness is a lack of knowing, not incorrect knowing. It is a fault of insufficient knowledge, not a fault of being confused.

Liberation occurs when a soul gains the full knowledge and understanding that it is not the same as the physical faculty for sentience. With liberation, a person or soul becomes totally disengaged and separate (Skt. kevala, isolated) from primal matter and all its perturbations. Since it is only through a person’s entanglement with a physical faculty for sentience that it experiences anything (suffering, happiness, or any result of karma), a liberated disengaged person is just pure consciousness with no object at all.

Note that the Samkhya position is significantly different from

  • the Jain assertion that the liberated, disengaged soul is omniscient

  • the Nyaya-Vaisheshika position that it lacks consciousness

  • the Advaitya Vedanta assertion that it is in a state beyond being conscious of everything or conscious of nothing.