|King Anshuman and Kapila|
The Sankhya system has extensive commentary on epistemology, but its main focus is on metaphysics—it proposes metaphysical dualism in a strictly atheistic sense.
Literally Sankhya means “to count,” and this name has been used because the Sankhya philosophy is designed to enumerate the important principles of the entire universe. The system has also been called Samkhya which means buddhi (mind)—this definition indicates that the philosophy regards rationalism as the suitable approach for gaining knowledge.
In this article, I am focussing on the key tenets of Sankhya metaphysics and Sankhya epistemology.
The Sankhya system proposes that the universe consists of two entities: Prakriti (nature), and Purusa (spirit). Prakriti and Purusa cannot be derived from each other. Here’s description of the Prakriti and Purusa concepts:
The Three Gunas of Prakriti
The principle or the primal entity from which the objective universe gets evolved in its infinite diversity is called Prakriti. Human beings cannot conceive Prakriti through the means of sense perception; its existence can only be known through inference and rationalization. The first and unique cause of the universe, Prakriti constitutes of three gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
Literally a guna means “a quality,” but in this case it means “a constituent” of Prakriti. The different meaning of guna has been used because the Sankhya system asserts that their can’t be any distinction between a substance and an attribute.
An attempt to think of an attribute of an existent being separate from that existent is to indulge in an illegitimate abstraction. The attribute of the existent and the existent are in a complete union, and every material existent represents a concrete union of both.
The three gunas of Prakriti 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 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 is dominant 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 conceived from the idea that when there is an effect their must be an underlying cause. Purusa, the second fundamental element which the Sankhya system acknowledges, is conceived from the idea that every object must point 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 also conceived through inference and rationalization.
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 made out of 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. It says that if everyone had the same Purusa, they would perceive reality in the same way, but that is not the case. Different people perceive the world around them in different ways—their can be agreement or disagreement between them on what reality is like.
Sankhya Theory of Epistemology
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.
According to the Sankhya system, perception is a reliable source of much of the basic knowledge that human beings need to survive. Perception does not lead to creation, and if men pass different judgements of the same object then that is because they impose their subjective ideas on the information that they receive through their sense organs.
But perception will not provide philosophical knowledge. Sankhya school maintains that 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 the conflicts, human beings must practice humility and charity in their interactions with fellow men. People should 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. In other words, 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.
According to the religious texts, Kapila is an eternal being who has existed since the beginning of creation. But the historical evidence suggests that he may have lived in the 6th-century BCE, or the 7th-century BCE. His Sankhya system is the oldest philosophical system in the Indian subcontinent—it has influenced almost every subsequent philosophical system that has emerged in the region.