Sankhya philosophy preaches that the universe consists of two entities: Prakriti (nature), and Purusa (spirit). Here’s description of the Prakriti and Purusa concepts:
The Three Gunas of Prakriti
The principle or the primal entity from which the universe is created in its infinite diversity is called Prakriti. Human senses cannot conceive Prakriti—its existence can be known only through inference and rationalisation. Prakriti constitutes of three gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
The meaning of the word “Guna” is “a quality,” but in this case it means “a constituent” of Prakriti. The second meaning of guna is used because the Sankhya system holds that there cannot be any distinction between a substance and an attribute. To think of an attribute of an existent as separate from that existent is to indulge in an illegitimate abstraction. An existent’s attribute and the existent have to be in a complete union, according to the Sankhya system.
The three gunas of Prakriti—Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas—are distinct manifestations and can be conceived as distinct aspects of the existents, but they cannot exist separately from each other. Every existent in the universe has all the three gunas in varying degrees of potency.
Sattva denotes whatever is pure and sublime. Rajas signifies whatever is active. Tamas signifies whatever is stolid and offers resistance. The nature of the existent depends on the guna that is most potent in it—dominance of the Sattva leads to the highest manifestations; Rajas dominates in manifestations marked by change, activity and passion; Tamas dominates the manifestations of the lowest order.
The existence of three gunas does not lead to divisiveness or antagonism in the universe. There is harmoniousness in the working of Prakriti. Just as the flame flickering in a lamp is the result of the cooperation between three distinct entities—the oil, the fire and the wick—the manifestations of Prakriti are the result of harmonious interaction of the three gunas.
The three gunas enter into different existents in varying levels of potency, and lead to the creation of infinite substances which are there in the universe. The Prakriti is omnipresent and complex, and it is constantly moving and changing. Nothing in the physical universe is permanent. Change is a continuous process.
As the Prakriti is capable of producing the human mind and intellect, it can be regarded as a full materialistic explanation of the world.
The Component of Consciousness: Purusa
The concept of Prakriti is derived from the idea that for every effect there is an underlying cause. Purusa, the second fundamental element which the Sankhya system acknowledges, is conceived from the idea that every object points to a subject; in other words, the existence of a non-sentient implies a sentient.
Purusa roughly translates into the element that leads to awareness or sentience. Sankhya proposes that a truly empirical evidence of Purusa is impossible to find, and hence, like in case of Prakriti, the existence of Purusa is conceived through inference and rationalisation.
Both Purusa and Prakriti are eternal and independent of each other. Prakriti is dynamic and complex, whereas Purusa is static and simple. Purusa is passive, whereas Prakriti is active. Creation, as we know it, happens when Purusa and Prakriti cooperate and act as a single entity.
Even though Purusa is omnipresent like Prakriti, its manifestations are confined to limits of the bodies and the internal organs in which it is based. A living organism’s body is created from many parts which are designed to work in perfect harmony so that that the needs of the sentient entity residing in the body, the Purusa, are fully met.
There cannot be a spirit, or soul, without a living organism, or a living organism without a spirit. Prakriti is the medium in which Purusa can manifest itself, but it is not its source. The Sankhya system rejects the idea of a super-soul.
The Sankhya system proposes that there are three sources of knowledge: perception, inference, and reliable tradition. The order of the three sources is important because inference must only be used when it is not possible to gain knowledge through perception, and if both perception and inference fail we can rely on tradition.
Perception does not lead to creation, and is a reliable source of gaining valid knowledge. If men pass different judgements on the same object then it is because they impose their subjective ideas on the information that they receive through their sense organs. However, perception will not provide philosophical knowledge. According to the Sankhya school, inference is the suitable method for philosophical inquiry.
The knowledge that comes to human beings is personal and fragmentary. At best, we can have partial knowledge. But partial knowledge is filled with contradictions and is flawed—it can lead human beings astray and give rise to conflicts.
To avoid contradictions and conflicts, human beings must practice humility and charity in their interactions with fellow men. People must see the world with the eyes of others, just as they see it with their own eyes. The idea of toleration, which is a most fundamental feature in Indian thought, has originated in the Sankhya system.
But if all knowledge is partial and hence imperfect, then the question arises: What is the truth? According to the Sankhya school, truth is the comprehensive knowledge in which one part supplements and corrects the other. Thus complete knowledge is one in which all aspects of the object are clearly understood and there is no room for doubt.
The Sankhya system holds that even with human senses, such comprehensive knowledge is possible by the use of perception, inference, and reliable tradition.