Re: [INDOLOGY] query on Sāṃkhya

Johannes Bronkhorst johannes.bronkhorst at
Tue May 28 09:43:36 UTC 2019

Dear Matthew,
In my booklet Aux origines de la philosophie indienne (Gollion: Infolio éditions, 2008), I tentatively propose a historical understanding of the evolution theory of Sāṃkhya. Put briefly, I suggest that a synchronic enumeration of primarily psychological elements came to be reinterpreted in diachronic evolutionary terms that fitted notions of repeated creations. This resulted in the telescoping of two different domains, the one microscopic, the other macroscopic. (pp. 56-58). Once saddled with this tradition, subsequent tradition could not but try to make the best of it, with results that are not always convincing. (p. 78-84; see also pp. 92-94).
I have elsewhere drawn attention (in "The contradiction of Sāṃkhya: on the number and the size of the different tattvas." Études Asiatiques / Asiatische Studien 53(3), 1999, pp. 679-691) to the tendency of Sāṃkhya to understand its evolution in terms of an ever decrease in size in subsequent tattvas. I do not know to what extent this last observation is relevant to your question.
Best wishes,

On 28 May 2019, at 10:28, Jan E.M. Houben via INDOLOGY <indology at<mailto:indology at>> wrote:

Dear Matthew,
Apart from the direction of evolution/emanation (by and large I agree here with Viktoria), another, closely related problem is a (supposed) 'confusion' between 'cosmology' and 'psychology' that has puzzled modern students of Sāṁkhya. Here is a quotation from an article of mine touching on this problem -- especially because of the references to and discussion with Eli Franco and Johannes Bronkhorst which this quotation implies:
“If it is recognized that the range of rationality remains always limited and can neither dispell all irrationality from the perceptual foundations of knowledge, nor that of inherited or adopted conceptual schemes as fundaments of thinking, the association or ‘confusion’ of ‘cosmology’ and ‘psychology’ to which Franco and Bronkhorst have recently drawn our attention, but which troubled already the first Indologists who dealt with Sāṁkhya (Max Müller 1899: 294), may be regarded as primarily a matter of perception – a perception of man and the cosmos as one or homologous, a perception which much of early South Asian myth and ritualism seem to reflect and foster – rather than a matter of deviant or defective reasoning. Attempts in the ‘second flourishing’ of Sāṁkhya and especially those of Vijñānabhikṣu to reorder this ‘confused’ perception, cited by Bronkhorst (1997a, ms. p. 11) as showing that the confusion was indeed there, could then be attributed to a different world perception or world conceptualization rather than to an increase of rationality.”
“’Verschriftlichung' and the relation between the pramāṇas in the history of Sāṁkhya.” Études de Lettres 2001.3: La rationalité en Asie / Rationality in Asia: 165-194.
p. 180-181
So what is your theory?

On Tue, 28 May 2019 at 10:12, Dan Lusthaus via INDOLOGY <indology at<mailto:indology at>> wrote:
Dear Matthew,

A couple of things to consider.

First, scholarship has mostly focused on “classical” Sāṃkhya, i..e., Sāṃkhya-kārikā, etc., but this is already quite late in the development of Sāṃkhya thought, and most of the earlier literature is no longer available, aside from texts that allude to those early Sāṃkhyan models without fully detailing them, such as the Bhagavad-Gītā, Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita, etc.

One clue we get from the Gītā’s treatment of puruṣa and prakṛti is that the radical separation between them characteristic of “classical” Sāṃkhya has not yet set in. Which implies that the version of the 25 tattvas adopted in the Yoga-system may be more in tune with earlier Sāṃkhya on that account than what became codified in the kārikās, etc. (The Mokṣadharma section of the Mahābhāratā, which is considered a late section, offers a 26 tattva model alongside the 25 tattva model, providing a universal self as the 26th, indicating, at the least, that at some point conflicting models were in play). There are a variety of differences between the Gītā’s account and the classical version, such as the classical account treats puruṣa as not only sequestered away from prakṛti is a variety of ways (it has no emotions, etc., which are all on the prakṛti side) while the Gītā’s puruṣa does feel and experience and is active; classical puruṣa is radically passive while the Gītā’s puruṣa has active capabilities, feels pain, etc.; and the classical puruṣa is radically singular (while each individual has its own puruṣa), but the Gītā’s puruṣa is threefold (kṣara puruṣa, akṣara puruṣa, paramātman; cf. BG XV 16-19); and so on. There are also items and lists mentioned in other early texts that they associate with Sāṃkhya but which were  no longer included in the classical system, indicating important aspects of early Sāṃkhya remain obscure to us.

Classical Sāṃkhya, unlike the Gītā, had a problem explaining how puruṣa and prakṛti interacted, and a theory of buddhi, the first tattva engendered by the three guṇas, reflecting the light of puruṣa so as to illuminate the rest of prakṛti. The separation between puruṣa and prakṛti became further reified when western scholars turned them into “spirit” vs “matter”, bringing in distortive baggage that utterly obscured how prakṛti was conceived in Sāṃkhya, and an example of how an eagerness to project familiar models onto alien concepts can obscure what one is observing. To quickly illustrate, which of the following would anyone in the west consider “matter” rather than “mental” or “cognitive”:

intellect, ego, mind, hearing, feeling seeing, tasting, and smelling.

i.e., buddhi, ahaṃkāra, manas, and the buddhi-indriyas.

These are tattvas #3 through 10 of the 25. (#1 is puruṣa, #2 is the three guṇas).

While the effort to attribute higher cognitive function to puruṣa by stripping away prakṛti’s cognitive functions, or the underlying cognitive capacity that animates them was already attempted in later expositions of classical Sāṃkhya in India in a variety of ways, the “spirit” vs “matter” superimposition rendered the model incoherent, and misconstrues how the tattvas relate.

The three guṇas are, at once, psychological, physical, emotional, etc., a tripartitie analogue to the Chinese yin-yang, which permeates the dynamics of everything, from food to medicine to emotional states and everything in between. They are not more material than mental. Their first “evolute,” buddhi = “intellect”, awareness, knowledge - which the Gītā also calls Mahat, “Great One” - is cognitive, not material. The next tattva, ahaṃkāra, the “I-maker”, is psychological, emotional, rationalizing, and poorly understood if considered “matter.” The next tattva, manas, mind, is not treated as “material” in other Indian systems, and here indicates an empirically oriented mental function that “organ-izes” the senses, the cognitive outreach that engenders awareness of the world, of the sensorium. So the buddhi-indriyas open the buddhi-ahaṃkāra-manas continuum like a prism, into the five sensory capacities, the buddhi-indriyas, which are still cognitive rather than material. Only with the next set of tattvas, the sense-organs (ear, physical body [rūpa], eye, tongue, nose) have the tattvas concretized materially. From there comes awareness of sense-fields (sound, tactility, visibles, etc.), considered tanmātras, elementary factors of sense experience, and finally the material components that comprise them, the mahābhūtas (ākāśa [corresponding to sound<-ear<-hearing], wind, fire, water, and earth).

One might compare some of this to the arguments found in Nyāya, etc. for the layers of cognitive capacities, such that a self, over and above mind, etc., is considered ultimately responsible for ’knowing.’

Stepping back from the “history” of the model, it should be evident that this is a phenomenological account of how one progresses from potential cognate abilities to encountering the world. Note, for instance, the five mahābhūtas appear in reverse order from more standard treatments (more commonly earth, water, fire, wind, and when a fifth is included, ākāśa; some Indian systems eventually add consciousness as a sixth).

So just as in Buddhist accounts of pratītya-samutpāda there is a contrast between the pratiloma vs anuloma order — the former being the order of discovering, starting with death, #12, and working down to #1, ignorance, while the latter is the standard order for enumerating the 12 nidānas, from #1 ignorance up to #12, death — implying that thinking through things in reverse causal sequence is illuminating (according to Pali suttas Buddha discovers the links by asking “why is there death?”, and concluding “because there is birth, there is death,” he then asks, “why is there birth?”, interrogating each new link until ferreting out the full 12), the same applies to the 25 tattvas. The three guṇas are hardly self-evident without conceptual analysis and multilevel observations, but taking account of what we sense, and we process our sensations is ever present and open for contemplating. Start with earth = solidity, and work our way up to buddhi, the cognitive capacity to understand, to know, which reveals the guṇas and puruṣa in an understandable manner.

Understood this way, the 25 tattva model makes eminent sense in the order in which it is presented, and it is the spirit/matter superimposition which becomes counterintuitive. I hinted at this way of construing the model in an entry on Sāṅkhya for the Routledge Encyclopedia of International Philosophy (republished in Routledge’s Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy) a draft version of which is online at .

So what is your theory?


On May 27, 2019, at 6:20 PM, Matthew Kapstein via INDOLOGY <indology at<mailto:indology at>> wrote:

Dear Indological colleagues,

One of the peculiarities of Sāṃkhya thought is its unusual theory of "evolution" (though it might better be termed "emanation") which proceeds from the subtle modifications of the mūlaprakṛti to those that are increasingly coarse, namely the organs of sense and of action, and finally to their physical objects. This seems a very odd evolutionary path when we first encounter it and I am wondering if there has been any work that seeks to explain just why Sāṃkhya adopted what to us may seem a remarkably counter-intuitive framework. I do have my own theory about this, but I would not want to publish it if someone else has already come up with a similar idea. I would therefore be grateful for any suggestions you may have concerning scholarship that seeks to explain just why it is that Sāṃkhyaproceeds from top to bottom, as it were, rather than the other way around.

with thanks in advance for your advice about this,

Matthew Kapstein
Directeur d'études,
Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes

Numata Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies,
The University of Chicago
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Jan E.M. Houben
Directeur d'Études, Professor of South Asian History and Philology
Sources et histoire de la tradition sanskrite
École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE, PSL - Université Paris)
Sciences historiques et philologiques
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