Samkhya: The Philosophy Behind Yoga




Concept of Atman (Soul) in philosophical systems Analysing Samkhya as a tool to realize nature of Yoga and its practices in context of self realization


Mankind for a long period is struggling with several questions related to life, death and life after death. In philosophical literature we find a plethora of evolving concepts trying to explain this trio through different approaches and metaphors. The mainstream philosophical schools often termed as ‘six systems of thought’ have tried to explain this conflict and one of the basic concept evolved in the process is of ‘Atman’ often translated as ‘soul’ in western tradition. Although remarkable similarities exist in similarities in prevailing meaninings of these terms yet the process involved in evolution of the terms is different. The term ‘Atman’ is described in these six systems differently and the degree of belief in Atman also varies considerable in these systems. It is undoubtedly the first and basic belief in existence of something (living) after leaving the material body and when assumptions about its nature and ways to discover it were explored—a range of belief systems started emerging on the horizon. In other words some philosophies developed by accepting it and others developed through opposing it. Theists glorified this concept through accepting, while atheists rectified it through refutation. One of the fundamental elements which make philosophies distinct and different from each other—at least theoretically— is the nature of belief in this supernaturalism. In course of time this variation shaped the external (ritualistic) nature of religions, sects and sub sects. Now yoga at least as a practice is familiar to a sizable number of humans worldwide and fast becoming a mean for longevity as well as mental and physical well being. It is more and more becoming a ‘practice’ rather than a way of seeing life, based on certain principles established by the founders of this system. Yoga according to Indian philosophy is a dynamic or practicable form of its predecessor called Samkhya. It is the philosophy of Samkhya that in various ways and varying degrees have influenced the systems evolved later and yoga is not an exception to this. Samkhya is worth studying to understand reasons and concepts behind yoga and its practices and also to envision position of self in context of world surrounding us.

Proponent of Samkya was Rishi Kapil, who composed a text called ‘Samkhyasutra’ believed to be the original book of this philosophy. Kapil is mentioned in many of the ancient texts and is said to born as a perfect being and also believed to be the first guru to teach Tantra to his disciple named Asuri.This original text composed by Kapil is lost in antiquity and at present the school depends on ‘Samkaya-karika’ composed by Isvarkrishna in the 5th A.D. as the primary source of this system. This system has influenced most of the philosophical systems of Indian theology and metaphysics, epistemology and so on including the Buddhist ones either developed in India or even beyond. Some of the Buddhist legends mention Kapila as one of the predecessors of Buddha. According to Buddhist traditions a scholar named Parmamartha translated this book around 557-569 in Chinese, known as ‘Hiransptatati’ in Chinese literature.

As described by the great philosopher and second President of India Dr. S. Radhakrishnan about this philosophical system, 'Samkhya undermines the foundations of supernatural religion by substituting evolution for creation. The world is not the act of a creator God, who summoned up by a single fiat of his will a world entirely distinct from himself, but is the product of the interaction between the infinite spirits and ever-active prakrti, or the potentiality of nature- what Plato calls “the receptacle and nurse of all generation.'

It is believed that Samkya is the theory and Yoga is its practical version. A way of realizing the truths envisaged in Samkhya. In modern world when yoga is increasingly becoming a subject of greater research and promotion, there is a need for parallel development of understanding of Samkhya to supplement the theoretical base required to climb the ladders of Yoga. ‘Atman’ much later became firmly established as the undeniable reality in the Shrimadbhagvadgita and after this debate about its different aspects become subordinated to strong beliefs based on authenticity of scriptures. Inspite of Samkhya becoming a relatatively unpopular system of philosophy , it is in best way capable of describing reasons to believe in Atman , nature of Atman and its positioning in the context of ever-changing world perceived by us at different levels of consciousness. It can definitely help to enhance understanding of yogic experience among practioners of yoga by offering clearer understanding of stages of mind (Chitta, according to Samkhya) and its interaction with Purusha (living being, according to Samkhya)

In modern world yoga is fast developing in many ‘types’ and this process is creating different proponents explaining Yoga to their target audience in a adapted manner. In the process of customization and making it a tool for superficial well being, we are at the risk of misunderstanding yoga as a practice (Something just to do) and may miss the eternal principles envisaged in Yoga system of philosophy, which forms the base of one’s understanding of the world around. This understanding of world around us is simplified by Samkhya philosophy modern world when yoga is increasingly becoming a subject of greater research and promotion, there is a need for parallel development of understanding of Samkhya to supplement the theoretical base required to climb the ladders of Yoga. ‘Atman’ much later became firmly established as the undeniable reality in the Shrimadbhagvadgita and after this debate about its different aspects become subordinated to strong beliefs based on authenticity of scriptures. Inspite of Samkhya becoming a relatatively unpopular system of philosophy , it is in best way capable of describing reasons to believe in Atman , nature of Atman and its positioning in the context of ever-changing world perceived by us at different levels of consciousness. It can definitely help to enhance understanding of yogic experience among practioners of yoga by offering clearer understanding of stages of mind (Chitta, according to Samkhya) and its interaction with Purusha (living being, according to Samkhya)

In modern world yoga is fast developing in many ‘types’ and this process is creating different proponents explaining Yoga to their target audience in a adapted manner. In the process of customization and making it a tool for superficial well being, we are at the risk of misunderstanding yoga as a practice (Something just to do) and may miss the eternal principles envisaged in Yoga system of philosophy, which forms the base of one’s understanding of the world around. This understanding of world around us is simplified by Samkhya philosophy acquired by ancient Rishis of India through practice of yogic austerities. Among the prevailing efforts to discover the Self, Yoga has become a prominent system and its commercialism has also grown simultaneously. This market approach is evident in upcoming highly luxurious settings being offered worldwide for well being through Yoga. As long as this approach addresses needs for physical well being only, it cannot be called Yoga. The physical well-being in Yoga is considered only as a mean and not an end itself.It is a mean to remain stable for longer periods required for meditation and various Asanas (postures) and cleaning activities (like Panchakarma and others).

These are only external means of purifying oneself—making one physically and mentally stable. The real Yoga starts after accomplishing these basics. Often by mistake these basic steps of yoga are taken as a ‘Type’ of Yoga, for example Dhyaan (meditation) is one of the eight steps of Yoga but some people refer to it is as a ‘Type’ of Yoga by terming it ‘Dhyaan Yoga’. Similarly many forms are emerging worldwide by adopting and popularizing a single ‘step’ or ‘concept’ from the yoga system. An introduction to Samkhya philosophy can help a lot in understanding the essence of yoga and finding a correct way suitable to individual to be established in framework of yogic life and principles. The Samkhya believes in Gunatrai (three basic qualities of nature, which are Sattwa, Tama and Raja and each of us have a unique combination of these three) and to achieve higher we need to know our composition in terms of these three qualities within ourselves. It can help to discover one’s own strengths and weaknesses and choose a life style that best facilitates our spiritual progress. As mentioned in the Gita




'”The ignorant differentiates between Samkhya and Yoga; not the wise. He who considers the two as integrated has the right insight” According to Svetasvatara Upanisad ‘Brahman (Ultimate reality of cosmos) is to be apprehended by Samkhya-yoga. Mahabharata says ‘There is no wisdom like Samkhya, no power like Yoga’ Samkhya describes Atman not in isolation but in correlation with nature. The viewer (referred as ‘Purusha in Samkhya) and Nature (referred as Prakriti in Samkhya) are not subjected to limitations of time and space. In scientific systems also now time is considered as an entity which is subjected and subordinated to a perceiver. Some of the elements mentioned in Samkhya also attempt to describe ability of Pursha (Consciousness) to position itself beyond the realm of time and space. In yoga this condition is comparable to Samadhi.

In modern times—when everything is becoming a victim of packaging—an effort should be made to make spiritual pursuit more open, multifaceted, refined and experimental. Individual mindsets must get diverse nourishment to reach perfection. It is urged that propagators of Yoga must bring aspirants an insight into complimenting theories as well to better equip them with an understanding of the world that can keep us unbiased and firm on the path to salvation. Samkhya as a single philosophy have influenced probably the largest number of philosophical systems, yet unfortunately it is no more commonly studied by scholars and seekers. Many of its ancient texts are lost and now there is a need to revive this branch of enquiry again for the greater welfare of mankind. Yoga practitioners and seekers of the Self must find ways to rediscover this system and benefit from it.



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