By editor - 22.1 2019


Samkhya is one of the earliest philosophical systems, or orthodoxdarsana born of the Hindu tradition. The word samkhya itself is translated directly as “enumeration” or “calculation,” thought to be referring to the philosophy’s attempt to ‘take account’ of the various components of reality (Rodrigues 143). While its origins are attributed to the ancient legendary sage Kapila, it is generally recognized that it was more likely born out of a variety of amalgamated speculative lines of thought. This historical development of Samkhya is shadowy and difficult to pinpoint, but some of the language and ideas can be found as early as the Rg Veda, although incredibly subtle and more ancestral to the philosophy itself than directly linked (Larson 76). More definitive early beginnings in Samkhya thought can be found in the Upanishads and theMahabharata (Larson 75), and it is not until the late 3rd to 4th century C.E. that the defining classical text, the Samkhya Karika attributed to Isvara Krna, arises. The Samkhya Karika itself is the only extant classic text on the philosophy of Samkhya tradition, but it is clear that its synthesis and the philosophy were well-established and influential long before the Samkhya Karika was thought to be written (Ruzsa 2017).

The Samkhya Karika is a 72-73 verse work in arya meter that explicates the Samkhya philosophy as it stood during its most relevant period in its history (Ruzsa 2017). The content of the original text is relatively undisputed, with only the final two verses, which are absent in some commentaries, suggesting later addition. As these two verses only acclaim the value of the work, this later addition is relatively unproblematic (Burley 24). Otherwise, the content, and subsequent translations of the Samkhya Karika are largely established as they are to be found in most every commentary and discussion prior. The authorship of the Samkhya Karika by Isvara Krsna is also largely accepted, as the consistency of the text, excluding the last two verses, would indicate a single author (Ruzsa 2017).

The structure of the Samkhya Karika text is rather linear, and the divisions used by Gerald James Larson in Classical Samkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning (14) are particularly clear in delineating the path of the work. It begins with a preliminary exposition; in the first verse establishing a three-fold permanent pain suffered by all that cannot be properly relieved through pleasures, medicines, etc. (Virupakshananda 2). This establishment of suffering as a human reality acts as the cornerstone for the entire Samkhya philosophical system outlined from this point forward.

The second verse further elaborates by dismissing Vedic methods as a means to end this pain, as ritual, sacrifice, imbibing in soma, etc. are similarly ineffective. As the text explains, Vedic methods are (most particularly, animal sacrifice) impure and their success dependent on the continued practice of Vedic ritual, which hence makes their relief impermanent. It is at this point that the work then puts forth the main tenant of its philosophy, which follows that the superior method by which to gain freedom from this permanent suffering is through discriminative knowledge of the vyakta (the Manifest), the avyakta (the Unmanifest, both Prakrti) and jna (the Spirit, or Purusa) (Virupakshananda 6). In asserting this, Samkhya is established as a philosophy dualist in nature, distinguishing most distinctively these entities of Purusa and Prakrti.

The two are both eternal and independent of one another, translated as true Self or ‘supreme consciousness’ and Nature or ‘materiality’ respectively (Rodrigues 143). Purusa is unchangeable and inactive, pervading within each individual, inhabiting the physical body in the physical world known as Prakrti. Prakrti itself is divided into the Unmainfest, which is the substrate of the world, and the Manifest, which is the unconscious, changing, developing entity, subservient to Purusa (Ruzsa 2017). The third verse of the Samkhya Karika establishes the final significant focus of the Samkhya philosophy, which is the further division of Prakrti into the seven tattvas (principles of reality, or distinctions) which are created and uncreated, the other sixteen tattvas which are only created, and Purusa as neither created or uncreated, but just existing (Virupakshananda 10).

Verses 4 through 8 of the Samkhya Karika then go on to explain the epistemological basis of the Samhkya philosophy, describing the three modes of knowledge (perception, inference, and valid testimony) and the importance of understanding Prakrti not through perception (or, knowledge through base physical senses i.e. sight), but through inference (or, knowledge through meditation on perception) (Larson 14). It is through these means of knowledge that the work attempts to base itself.

Verses 9 through 14 establish the theory of causation and the ‘doctrine of the Gunas’. This section, following from the attempt to establish the methods of knowledge, further builds the foundation for the philosophical system later on. Verse 9 explains that, being that something cannot come from nothing, the effect of some phenomenon must be the same material as the cause of that phenomenon, and that a specific cause can only produce a specific effect (Larson 167).

Verse 10 asserts that the Manifested (Prakrti) is active, multiform, dependent, and non-pervasive (Virupakshananda 38) and the Unmanifested (Purusa) is the reverse of this. This then establishes that the Manifest (Prakrti) must have a cause. Verse 11 then elaborates on this oppositeness of the Spirit and the Manifest of the Unmanifested further, in that the latter (Prakrti) has the three attributes sattva, rajas, and tamas and the Spirit (Purusa) does not, which hence distinguishes the two from one another. Verse 12 expands on the newly introduced Gunas; they correspond with pleasure, pain, and dullness, and are “mutually dominating and supporting, productive and cooperative” (Virupakshananda 42). The next two verses further describe the Gunas: sattva is buoyant and illuminating, rajas is movement and impulse, and tamas is dark and sluggish (Virupakshananda 45).

The Samkhya Karika then looks to describe the nature of Prakrti. Verses 15 and 16 assert that the Unmanifest (Purusa) is the cause of the Manifest (Prakrti) necessarily, and it expresses its creative power through thegunas in the manifest world. The continual interaction and transformation of this is creates what we see as the phenomenal (physical) world (Larson 166).

Verses 17 through 19 similarly look to describe and explain the nature of Purusa. Purusa exists as an entirely separate entity from Prakrti, and its existence spurs the disruption of the gunas in Prakrti, leading to their interaction and the Manifest world (Virupakshananda 55). This Spirit, or Purusa, must exist because consciousness exists, and Prakrti differentiates itself for the observation of Purusa. Purusa also exists separately because freedom from Praktri exists, and if Purusa did not, freedom from Praktri and subsequently suffering, would not be possible (Larson 169). Verse 18 asserts the multiplicity of the Spirit, arising from the reincarnations of spirit, because of different actions at different times, and because of the different proportions of the gunas. Verse 19 asserts that the Spirit (Purusa) is a “pure witness”, inactive and neutral (Virupakshananda 61). It is further worth noting that this is a significant departure from other Hindu philosophies; the nature of freedom, or kaivalya in Samkhya, is distinct in that the very observing faculty that allows experience in the first place is also that which allows relief from suffering (Larson 171).

It is the association between Purusa and Prakrti from which the world arises, and Verses 20-21 cover this aspect of the Samkhya doctrine. Verse 20 asserts that through the interplay of these two entities, Purusa appears as if it was an agent, and the insentient Prakrti appears intelligent. Creation, according to verse 21, is through the union of these principles, as in the lame man and the blind man cooperating to navigate through the forest (Virupakshananda 63). It is worth noting that Purusa still remains an inactive observer in this relationship, but its presence acts as a catalyst for change and transformation (Larson 173).

Verses 22 through to 38 in Larsons divisions of the text cover the emergence of the principles or tattvas. According to Samkhya, all of Manifest reality can be explained through these various principles. These 25 tattvas or distinct principles described in the Samkhya Karika are what is referred to when Samkhya is said to derive its name from “enumeration” or “calculation”. According to the text, all of these tattvas emerge from Praktri, increasingly less subtle as they unfold from the Manifest substrate (Virupakshananda 65). 

The first of these is the buddhior mahat principle, which characterizing discerning intelligence, or a consciousness of consciousness (Larson 179). Ahamkara is the second principle, which then emerges from buddhi, roughly translated as “I”, or the ego-maker; it is the principle that creates the self (Larson 185). Fromahamkara emerges manas, or the heart-mind. From manas emerges the five buddhindriyas, or sense organs (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching), the five karmendriyas or organs of action (reproduction, excretion, locomotion, appropriation, and communication), and the fivetanmantras, or subtle elements (odor, flavour, shape/colour, texture, and sound) (Rodrigues 144). From the tanmantras, which are developed from the gross, tamasic aspect of ahamkara are the five mahabhuta, or material elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth). All of these apparenttattvas or principles constitute human beings, and the rest of Prakrti (Ruzsa 2017).

Verses 39 to 59 cover a three-fold nature theory of reality based on the above principles established. Verse 39 distinguishes three types of objects: the subtle body, the “body born of parents” or physical body, and the gross elements (everything else) (Virupakshananda 88). The following verses explain the relationship between the subtle body and its relationship with the dispositions and the physical body. Verse 42 compares the subtle body being propelled by Purusa into different roles like that of a performer being propelled into different roles, interacting with the causes in Nature (Virupakshananda 91). Verses 44 through 46 explain the associations between Purusa, Prakrti, and the ‘self’ as the product of Prakrti, and following from this, develop a theory of fifty different principles based on ideas of mental phenomena (e.g. ignorance, contentment, incapacity, etc.) that arise from varied dispositions of the subtle body (Virupakshananda 97).

Verses 48 through 54 further elaborate on these distinctions. Verse 55 reasserts the experience of pain, now within the framework of the subtle body, and verses 56-59 further re-establish the notion of a possibility of release from this pain. The Karikacharacterizes Purusa as an observer of Prakrti, Prakrti acting as a dancer for the entertainment of Purusa. According to Verse 59, Prakrti “ceases to operate after having exhibited herself to Purusa”, which allows for freedom or kaivalya as the ultimate goal of Samkhya philosophy (Virupakshananda 115).

Verses 60 through 69 go on to discuss discrimination and the freedom of Purusa from Praktri. Verse 62 in particular establishes the knowledge that will lead to ‘salvation’ or freedom: or, that while Purusa and Praktri appear as intertwined and bound, Purusa is never bound or held by Praktri- it only appears as such (Larson 204). Liberation from suffering, according to Samkhya philosophy, is the recognition of Praktri as a manifold creation that is bound and then released (Virupakshananda 118). In Verse 64, knowledge of this Absolute and pure truth is developed from the study of the tattvas, and in doing so bases the release of suffering in the permanent knowledge that Purusa is unbound, as opposed to Prakrti (Larson 204). Verses 65 through 69 reiterate the notion of Purusa being freed, continuing to exist, the material Prakrti and Purusa having fulfilled their purposes to one another (Virupakshananda 125).

Verses 70 through 72 go on to conclude that this knowledge is a doctrine imparted by the sage Kapila, and revealed in the above work by Isvara Krsna (Virupakshananda 128-129).


Burley, Mikel (2007) Classical Samkhya and Yoga: an Indian Metaphysics of Experience. New York: Routledge.

Larson, Gerald James (1969) Classical Samkhya: an Interpretation of its History and Meaning. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Ruzsa, Ferenc (2003) “Inference, Reasoning and Causality in the ‘Samkhya-Karika’” Journal of Indian Philosophy 31 (1/3): 285-301.

Ruzsa, Ferenc (2017) “Sankhya” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Virupakshananda, Swami (1995) Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna: with the Tattva Kaumudi of Sri Vacaspati Misra. Mylapore: Sri Ramakrishna Math Printing Press.




          The Sankhyakarika is a text in the Sankhya darsana. The title derives from the stylistic form of the work, karika, and the word sankhya, which came to describe the darsana due to its reliance on descriptive enumeration (Radhakrishnan 249). The karika is attributed to Isvarakrsna and must have been composed prior to the sixth century of the Common Era as it was translated into Chinese by the Buddhist monk Paramartha in 560 C.E (Frauwallner 225). Some scholars have placed the work as early as the first century of the common era, but that is, as of this writing, unverifiable (Eliade 367-368). In the context of the literature of the Sankhya darsana, the karika holds a place of prominence as one of the oldest extant texts of any substance (Eliade 368-370), as well as the first Sankhya text in the karika format, which is a type of aphoristic verse (Frauwallner 219-220).

            Little can be said about the Sankhyakarika’s author Isvarakrsna, aside from what is stated in the last verses of the karika itself; that he received his teachings from Pancasikha, who received them from Asuri, who in turn received them from the system’s semi-mythical founder, Kapila (Eliade 368). It is also mentioned in a Chinese commentary on the work that Isvarakrsna was a brahmin of the Kausika family (Larson 19).

The system laid out in the Sankhyakarika is considered normative, however it likely presents the summary of Sankhya as it was when the text was written, rather than an innovation, as the text is more of a poetic elucidation of Sankhya teaching than a discourse attempting to prove those teachings (Larson and Potter 149). Stylistically, the Sankhyakarika presents fundamental concepts of the darsana in poetic aphorisms composed in the arya meter, making use of simile and metaphor throughout in order to illustrate points (Larson and Potter 149-150). The Sankhyakarika has been passed down with a variable number of verses, between sixty-nine and seventy-two, though it must be noted that the Chinese commentary of Paramartha refers to the text as the “Golden-Seventy”, although it omits the sixty-third verse (Larson and Potter 150).

The Sankhyakarika follows a logical and orderly format, presenting basic doctrines and then building upon them to create larger networks of concepts, and here some of the content shall be summarized in brief. The Sankhyakarika’s first three verses introduce the darsana by explaining it as a philosophical attempt to escape three kinds of dissatisfaction, while briefly countering initial arguments against the use of philosophy to counter dissatisfaction as well as a preliminary mention of the darsana’s characteristic cosmology (Larson and Potter 151-152). The second section, consisting of verses four to eight, explains the epistemological basis of the system consisting of three pramanas, under which Sankhya includes the other pramanas present in Indian philosophical systems and, through which all knowable phenomena must be proven (Larson and Potter 152-153). These pramanas are: 1) drsta, or perception 2) anumana, or inference 3) aptavacana, or reliable testimony (Larson and Potter 152-153). The third section of the karika consists of only one verse which lays out the Sankhya theory of causality, which relies on material basis for effects as well as the nature of a cause and an effect being essentially the same (Larson and Potter 153).

In the two verses composing the fourth section, the concepts of manifest and unmanifest are explained and their attributes are described (Larson and Potter 153-154). The characteristics and activity of the three constituent factors of reality, or gunas, are explained in the two verses of the fifth section; the metaphor of a lamp is used to illustrate their function as a single whole with individual parts (Larson and Potter 154). The sixth section, consisting of five verses, begins the process of inference based on the concept already explained which lays the basis for the dualistic cosmology of the Sankhya darsana (Larson and Potter 154-156). Having established this basis, the two verses of the seventh section explain how the proximity of consciousness and unmanifest materiality acts to produce manifest reality (Larson and Potter 156-157). The next two sections explain the manifestation of the mind and sensory organs, as well as describing their characteristics and activity as constituents of the mental and sensory portions of manifest reality (Larson and Potter 157-159). The gross elements of material reality, or mahabhutas, and the three kinds of aggregate manifestation into which they arrange themselves are described in the tenth section (Larson and Potter 159). The concept of the subtle body which animates living beings is introduced in the eleventh section, which explains it as a kind of blueprint of dispositions which transmigrates through a multitude of material bodies (Larson and Potter 159-160). The nine verses of the twelfth section describe and explain the varieties of predisposition, both innate and acquired, which create the conditions of the temporary bodies in which the subtle body incarnates (Larson and Potter 160-161).

The thirteenth section presents groupings of manifest beings based on preponderance of the three gunas, as well as explaining that frustration is natural to the functioning of the subtle body (Larson and Potter 161). In the fourteenth, section there are five verses using similes to describe the reaction of material to the presence of consciousness (Larson and Potter 162) The fifteenth section presents the concept of isolating consciousness from material through the action of the intellect (Larson and Potter 162-163). The final four verses give the Sankhya lineage from Kapila, as well as stating that sixty traditional Sankhya topics have been included in the karika while parables and criticisms of opposing darsanas have been left out (Larson and Potter 163).

The Sankhyakarika has been cited authoritatively since as early as the seventh century of the Common Era up to the present day (Frauwallner 226). There are eight extant commentaries on the karika dating from between the sixth and the tenth centuries of the Common Era, though many have not been dated at this time (Larson 20). The Suvarnasaptati, included in Paramartha’s Chinese translation of Sankhyakarika, may be the oldest having been completed in the mid sixth century of the Common Era (Larson 20). The Sankhyatattvakaumudi of Vacaspati is likely the most recent of the commentaries as Vacaspati Misra is known to have been writing during the ninth or tenth century of the Common Era (Larson 20). For the other commentaries, the dating is less clear and though theories have been advanced based on the evidence available, no consensus has been reached on dating the Sankhyavrtti, theSankhyasaptativrtti, the bhasya of Gaudapada, the Yuktidipika, theJayamangala, or the Matharavrtti (Larson 20-22).



Eliade, Mircea (1969) Yoga: Immortality and Freedom. Translated by Willard R. Trask. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Frauwallner, Eric (1973) History of Indian Philosophy: Volume I. Translated by V.M. Bedekar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Larson, Gerald James. 1987. “Introduction to the Philosophy of Samkhya.” In Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Volume IV, edited by Gerald James Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, 3-83. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Larson, Gerald James, and Potter, Karl H. 1987. “Isvarakrsna” In Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Volume IV, edited by Gerald James Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, 149-164. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Radhakrishnan (1930) Indian Philosophy: Volume II. Edited by H.D. Lewis. New York: Humanities Press Inc.