Material and Spiritual Natures




Sāñkhya is one of the Six Systems of Vedic philosophy, and Sāñkhya Sūtra is the oldest and most authoritative text on this philosophy. This book translates and comments on this ancient text.

Sāñkhya describes a process of material manifestation in which the world springs from a primordial idea called pradhāna which means “I am the master”. From this idea, many desires for enjoyment called prakṛti are created. From these notions of enjoyment, qualities of greatness called mahattattva are produced. And from the qualities of greatness, many types of egos—entitlement and pride—are created. From these entitlements, beliefs about the world that will prove that the self is the enjoyer are produced. From these beliefs object-concepts, from the object-concepts sense perceptions, and from the sense perceptions the objects that embody these sense perceptions, are produced.

This inverted process that begins in the idea of mastery illustrates how the soul enters the world due to its desire for mastery. As this idea is false, the soul’s efforts to realize mastery are constantly wrecked by nature. Since the foundation of material existence is a false idea, but the wrecking is real, hence, nature is said to be both real and false. Nature is however stated to not be evil, although suffering is real, because nature has a purpose to make the soul realize that the Supreme Lord is the true master. If the soul accepts the Lord as the true master and renounces its desire for mastery, then it is liberated.

The Sāñkhya system of philosophy dwells on the following key topics:

  • The various aspects of the observer—material objects, sensed properties, senses, mind, intellect, ego, the moral sense, the history which exists in the present as the unconscious, and how their combination produces conscious experience. There is simply no other system today that presents such a deep understanding of conscious experience, and in such an integrated manner. The sequence of the manifestation of these elements forms a theory of creation.
  • In this theory, the soul enters the world when it identifies with pradhāna, or the idea of being the boss and master. From the idea of mastery emerges a prakṛti or specific type of desire to be a master. Based on this desire, great qualities—called the mahattattva—are produced as the justification for being the master. Then, from these conceptions of ideality, an ego (i.e., that I’m entitled to enjoyment due to my greatness) is produced. The successive perceptual instruments such as the intellect, mind, knowledge and action senses, and the sense objects are manifest from the ego. In short, the material body is simply the byproduct of a false idea of enjoyment, a desire for a specific type of mastery, the pursuit of great qualities, and the belief that one is great by the possession of these qualities. The mind, senses, and the body are manifestations of the ego, which means a different kind of ego leads to a different body.
  • Liberation is simply described as the renunciation of the idea of mastery, desire for enjoyment, the pursuit of material greatness, and the feeling that one is entitled to acquire all these attributes. The initial step in the path of liberation is detachment from these false ideas. Subsequently, however, detachment alone is described as being an incomplete method to achieve liberation; one also needs a positive conception about the self, which is not the master, not the enjoyer, not pursuing greatness to rationalize mastery, and not feeling entitled to pursue these things. This positive conception of the self—beyond detachment—is described to be devotion to the Lord by which the eternal nature of the soul is discovered.
  • The text delves into the doctrine of Satkāryavāda where one reality manifests from another. Thus, the previous descriptions of how mastery leads to desire, which then leads to great qualities, which then leads to entitlement, are summarized as the next reality manifesting from the previous reality where it was earlier hidden. This doctrine can be understood only when we understand reality semantically—i.e., as concepts. Therefore, the doctrine of Satkāryavāda is technically identical to the semantic view of nature.
  • Over a dozen systems of spiritual practices, which are meant for different classes of people, with varying abilities, interests, and opportunities are presented—both for developing detachment from the material notions of mastery, greatness, desire, and entitlement, as well as understanding the nature of devotion to the Lord. These systems are presented in order, beginning with detachment, followed by knowledge, followed by devotion, which is said to achieve the results of the individual pursuits of knowledge and detachment. Then follow many systems for those who cannot practice devotion, knowledge, and detachment, as methods to prepare for the higher-level process. These include the aśtānga-yoga practice, and the Varṇāśrama system of four social orders and stages of life. Each later system assists all the previous ones.
  • The text discusses how material nature is good and right, and assists in the soul’s upliftment, in contrast to materialism where nature is neither good nor right, or in contrast to voidism where nature is not even true (let alone good and right), or in contrast to impersonalism where nature is certainly not good, although it might in some case be true and right. By treating material nature as good and right, it is established to be divine, not purposeless, inert, or evil—which are the doctrines of alternative philosophies. Since nature is also divine, therefore, the philosophy of pantheism (where nature is itself a divinity) is supported. However, it is also rejected because the soul and God are transcendent to material nature. Thus, three kinds of divinities—soul, nature, and God—are recognized, and because the soul is transcendent to matter, therefore, pantheism is rejected, without making material energy itself non-divine.
  • The discussion ends with the description of the transcendental reality which has qualities similar to material nature, and yet, differs from material nature in many ways. The spiritual body for instance is manifest from within the soul, and is not externally imposed on the soul. The material body is therefore ‘external’, while the spiritual body is ‘internal’. The eternity of the soul therefore entails the eternity of the spiritual body. This body is described to have a voluntary nature—it can produce things based on will, because these things are simply potentials within the soul.

The Yoga system accepts all the tenets of Sāñkhya and elaborates on a few of them—the eight-fold system of meditation along with a few other practices. It also delves deeper into the nature of the chitta, which is the primordial material reality, also called prakṛti in Sāñkhya, from which the body develops. Similarly, the Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika systems acknowledge the five gross elements, the three modes of nature, and provide a detailed description of the process of manifestation of one element from the other. Finally, the Mīmāṃsā system takes the semantic nature of reality from Sāñkhya and develops it into a full-fledged discussion about the nature of meaning, how texts must be interpreted, how language reflects the nature of reality, and how actions are governed by certain principles which change their priorities in different contexts. The Sāñkhya system takes several ideas from Vedānta—namely, the relation between the soul, God, and His Śakti. Therefore, there is a natural progression from Vedānta to Sāñkhya to Yoga to Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, and Mīmāṃsā. There are several common themes, and several unique aspects of each philosophy. No other philosophy, for instance, discusses the nature of the “internal instrument”—i.e., mind, intelligence, ego, and the moral sense—in such great detail. Similarly, no other system of philosophy discusses the detailed steps of creation as Sāñkhya does.

The philosophy of Sāñkhya Sutra is quite different from the philosophy of Sāñkhya Karika, or other atheistic versions of Sāñkhya. These later modifications or adaptations of Sāñkhya successively remove various parts of the full system, and even if they adopt certain principles, by the exclusion of other principles, they create the impression that Sāñkhya is materialistic or atheistic. Given the popularity of these alternative descriptions of Sāñkhya, it is important to understand the source from which they were drawn by minimization and exclusion, to focus on certain limited aspects of matter, while the nature of the soul and God, the paths to liberation, and the nature of the spiritual reality were neglected, and only the study of material elements was taken seriously.

If the Sāñkhya system is studied in its original form—as presented in this text—then we can see how it is a theistic system, although it discusses the nature of matter extensively. Similarly, by seeing the commonalities between the different systems, we can see how the other systems are not contradictory, although they might often emphasize different aspects of reality. The Yoga system for instance delves extensively into the nature of the chitta, while Sāñkhya just recognizes it is as a byproduct of the combination of pradhāna and niyati.

I have endeavored to highlight the connections to the other systems wherever that seems important. It is practically very difficult to cross-reference every single idea in each system of philosophy to the other systems, but it is not difficult for the reader to see these connections as they progress through the text. I sincerely hope that the inquisitive reader will be able to see these connections, because that is the central purpose of these commentaries—to establish that the Six Systems of Philosophy are six aspects of one single tradition.