Samkhya and Yoga in Hinduism and Buddhism

by Jayaram V

The Samkhya and Yoga are two of the most ancient philosophies of Hinduism which profoundly effected the religious thinking and spiritual practices of many ancient traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The Bhagavadgita has many verses and an entire chapter devoted to the teachings of Samkhya and Yoga suggesting to their popularity and importance in ancient times. The philosophies of Samkhya and Yoga were part of the non-vedic traditions of ancient India which existed along with Saivism and Vaishnavism and probably shared many concepts with them, long before they became part of the philosophical schools of vedic religion.

Traces of this integration and their gradual acceptance are discernible in such early works as the Svetasvatara Upanishad, which describes Lord Siva as the Absolute and the Highest Brahman, the Katha Upanishad where we find some principles of Prakriti and Prasna Upanishad which speaks of different state of consciousness. Their integration into Vedism helped the latter develop logical and philosophical depth to counter the challenges posed by many emerging ascetic traditions that were unsparing in their criticism of vedic sacrifices, social inequalities and magical ritualism promoted by it. Both Jainism and Buddhism also responded positively and negatively to Samkhya because of its wide appeal, which resulted in the synthesis of some new ideas and practices that contributed to their subsequent appeal and popularity.

Significance of Samkhya and Yoga

Samkhya and yoga philosophies contributed greatly to the development of religious thought and philosophy in ancient India. Many concepts of modern Hinduism can be traced directly to these two traditions. While Samkhya introduced such concepts as mahat, prakriti, bondage, karma, maya, incarnation of souls, jiva, samsara, tattvas, ahamkara, manas, buddhi, ahamkara, chitta, Yoga contributed the concepts of dhyana (meditation), dharana (concentration), asanas (postures), pranayama (breath control) and pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). The concepts of prakriti, senses, tattvas, attachment, buddhi, purusha are peculiarly Indian and found nowhere else but in every religion that originated in the Indian subcontinent. Largely ignored by the western scholars till recently because Kapila and Patanjali were neither Greek or nor Roman, the contribution of these two philosophical systems to the development of religious thought and spiritual development in the ancient world is unprecedented.

One significant aspect of Samkhya and Yoga is they are complimentary. Yoga accepts the basic tenets of Samkhya with a few exceptions as the basis of the techniques and practices it recommends to liberate the individual beings (jivas) from the bonds of Prakriti. Samkhya deals with the arrangement of the cosmos and how its various constituent parts or elements manifested. Yoga deals with the possibility of their underlying integration and how they could be realigned in the interest of the conscious elements that are situated in it.

The Samkhyavadin presents you with a vision of how you became involved with the material processes of nature while the yogachari provides you with a solution by which you can free yourself from your involvement with nature and connect yourself with your original state of pure consciousness. The concepts and techniques of yoga are the effective solutions to the problems of suffering, bondage and ignorance highlighted by the philosophy of Samkhya. Samkhya speaks of the evolution and yoga of involution. Samkhya speaks of soul's entanglement and enslavement and yoga of its freedom and purity. The two schools thus complement and complete each other. In many ways Yoga is applied Samkhya. Alan Danielou sums up their relationship in the following manner:

The two methods are strictly coordinated and interdependent. They are the instruments of higher knowledge by whcih man is distinguished from other living beings. Yoga is the exploration of ourselves, this special body, this abode, in which our consciousness resides. Yoga seeks to analyze the structures of our interior universe, to study and develop the powers latent in it, and eventually to beyond the barriers of the senses, the limitations of relative time and space that imprison us. The Samkhya enables us to transpose the elements of yoga to the universal plane and to establish correspondence between the macrocosm and the microcosm, between the universal Man (Purusha) and individual man (jiva).1

Antecedents of Samkhya Philosophy

The Samkhya school of thought is based on the teachings of sage Kapila which were preserved in the form of 22 aphorisms by his disciple Asuri in the Tattva Samasa. The actual period of Kapila is unknown. According to some he was the son of Brahma while some believe him to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Mahabharata considers Samkhya and Yoga as very ancient systems, while some historians tend to place him in the century preceding that of the Buddha. The aphorisms of Kapila formed the basis for the work of Panchashika, who composed nearly 60000 verses explaining the concepts of Samkhya which is mentioned in the Chinese Buddhist canon (Tripitaka). Panchashika's disciple was Uluka. He was the teacher of Isvara Krishna who summarized the philosophy of Samkhya in 70 aphorisms in his Samkhya Karika, which is probably the only authoritative ancient text on the subject. In the subsequent times several commentaries were written on the work of Isvara Krishna by both Buddhist and Vedic scholars such as Vasubandhu and Gaudapada. The famous Tamil literary work Manimekhalai also contain information on the Samkhya from the Dravidian perspective.

Antecedents of Yoga Philosophy

The system of Yoga came to us mostly through ancient Saiva traditions and probably a few ancient ascetic traditions that existed in the Indian subcontinent prior to the preeminence of Vedic religion. Almost every religious tradition in India contains some elements of yoga as the means to achieve liberation through physical and mental discipline. Yoga is India's gift to the world just as Buddhism and Hinduism are.

According to the Puranas the knowledge of yoga came to us through Siva, the eternal yogi ever absorbed in deep meditation. The association of Yoga with Samkhya is not accidental. Samkhya itself was an offshoot of ancient Saivism and Tantricism. Some rudimentary form of yoga existed even during the Indus valley period as is evident from the seals of a seated yogi found during the excavations. In the Rigveda we have a hymn on Keshins or the long haired ones who controlled prana or life energy. Yoga as a technical term appears in the Katha, the Taittirya and Maitrayani Upanishads. The yoga of these texts may be different from the ones mentioned in the Yogasutras.2 The Maitri Upanishad speaks of six fold yoga and suggest to the existence of yoga as a body of knowledge at the time of its composition.

The Bhagavadgita is actually a book on yoga and approaches the subject independently from the perspective of Vedanta. Yoga as a means of physical and mental control and concentration was known to Mahavira, the founder of Jainism. The Buddha and his followers practiced it and its knowledge was codified in the early Buddhist sutras. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali which is considered to be oldest text on yoga is assigned by some historians to 2nd Century BC and by some to 5th or 6th Century AD. In all probability, the Patanjali of Yogasutras was a compiler rather than the founder of this ancient system of knowledge which was practiced in ancient India under various guises by different traditions from prehistoric times.

Concepts of Samkhya

A comprehensive treatment 3 of Samkhya philosophy is outside the scope of this article. So we will focus on a few important concepts that are relevant to our discussion.

Means of Knowledge: The means of knowledge (pramanas) are three: perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana) and testimony (sabda). By perception knowledge is gained through direct experience. By Inference knowledge is obtained indirectly through other knowledge because of some valid association. By testimony knowledge is gained through an authoritative source such as a scripture or a long established tradition.

Cause and Effect: The effect is always hidden in the cause. The two are inseparable. Existence can never come out of non-existence. The cause and effect are actually dissimilar states of the same reality. A thing exists in a latent form before it actually materializes. A thing is never really destroyed completely. It appears (udbhava) or disappears (anudbhava) because of a change in its state. Samkhya also accepts the theory of evolution (avirbhava) and involution (tirobhava) of beings and objects that are manifested by Prakriti. The causes are of two types, efficient cause and material cause. Efficient cause is external to the effect and material cause is internal. The effect is usually manifested by a concomitant activity (sahakar-shakti) through phases by the removal of such barriers as place (desa) and time (kala). An effect may arise in three ways from its latent state. The first is by a change in the inherent nature of the thing (dharmaparinama). Second by a change in its quality (lakshana-parinama) and third by a simple lapse of time (avastha-parinama). This is known as the doctrine of latent effect or existent effect (satkaryavada).

Prakriti: Prakriti or the primal nature is the independent, non-intelligent, and primal cause of all material manifestation. While everything else has a cause Prakriti has no cause. It is eternal and without an end. It manifests itself because of the disturbance in the equilibrium of its gunas and produces several principles or tattvas which join together to become objects and beings. Prakriti is a blind force and, according to one branch of Samkhya, neither controlled nor guided by any external agent other than itself. Its processes are more or less automatic or on auto-pilot without any external triggering mechanism such as God. The manifestation of the world and its objects or the blue print of the entire manifest reality is either implicit or hidden or latent in Prakriti and it unfolds gradually through space and time like an idea taking shape on a canvas.

Gunas: Manifestation of the world and beings begins when the equilibrium among the three gunas or qualities (sattva, rajas and tamas) is disturbed. The three gunas are imperceptible. They can be discerned only indirectly through the effects they produce. They are also inseparable and can exist only in association with one another. They are inherent in every product of Prakriti which Prakriti brings out by means of manifestation (prakasa), activity (pravritti) and restraint (niyamana). Sattva is predominant in manifestation (prakasa), rajas in activity (pravritti) and tamas in restraint (niyamana). Sattva produces the effects of goodness, happiness, perfection, beauty, harmony, light etc. Rajas produces the effect of intense activity, egoism, pain, selfishness etc. Tamas produces the effect of apathy, laziness, slowness in action or movement, ignorance, lethargy etc. In their purest forms sattva brings out the purity of thought and intention, rajas the purity of action and continuation and tamas the intensity of obstruction or resistance. In the early part of evolution sattva dominates and in the latter part tamas, while rajas provides the balance and the force of activity for both.

Tattvas: The classical Samkhya school recognizes 24 principles or tattvas which Prakriti brings into play during the process of its transformation or evolution, starting with Prakriti itself in its manifest form and mahat or buddhi. The other 22 principles are ahamkara, manas, five organs or knowledge (gnanendriyas), five organs of action (karmendriyas), five subtle senses (tanmatras) and the five great elemetns (mahabhutas). Of these Prakriti is cause alone. Among the rest some are both cause and effect and some effect alone.

Purusa: The classical Samkhya or at least one dominant branch of Samkhya was atheistic. It does not recognize one absolute Purusha but a multitude of purushas or individual souls who are beings of pure consciousness, eternal, uncreated, unchanging and indestructible. In their purest form they are independent of Prakriti. In its purest state a purusha is not subject to birth and death or bondage and liberation. It is neither the body, nor the mind, nor the senses but exists beyond them as pure consciousness, untouched by any blemish, without qualities and attributes. Unlike prakriti which is non-intelligent and objective, purusha is intelligent, subjective and self aware, witness consciousness. It is the knower where as Prakriti is the known. It is the state of beingness, in contrast to the becomingness of Prakriti. But when it gets involved with Prakriti, it is enveloped by its qualities (gunas) and elements (tattvas) which cloud its true consciousness and subject it to ignorance and suffering.

Jiva and Suffering: A purusha who is bound to Prakriti is called a jiva or being, whose state is a state of bondage in contrast to the state of freedom of the purusha. A jiva is bound by its own physical body and the laws of karma. It experiences three kinds of suffering. They are suffering arising from internal causes (adhyatmika), suffering arising from physical or material causes (adhibhuatika) and suffering arising from fortuitous circumstances (adhidaivika).

Liberation: The way out of this is through right knowledge. When the individual being realizes that its suffering is due to its involvement with Prakriti, it tries to disassociate itself from Prakriti and become liberated. Liberation means shedding the false self and the elements of Prakriti and becoming the true self. Once liberated, a purusha is never caught up with Prakriti again. It continues its eternal existence independent of Prakriti and its mechanism. The state of purusha actually never undergoes any change whether it was involved with Prakriti or not. The suffering is not of the soul but of the false self or ego. The soul continues to remain in its purest and eternal state of bliss consciousness even in the middle of the causative world (samsara) except that it is not self aware or not aware of its bliss consciousness. Neither the mind, nor the senses nor the organs of action can touch it because it is beyond all these. The suffering is therefore not of the soul but of the false self or the ego. In a real sense, liberation actually means disappearance of the limitations of self awareness. A soul may regain its liberation even when it is embodied and may continue to exist for a while in its embodied state even after liberation due to its previous karma. But once an enlightened soul leaves the body it is liberated for ever from the dominance of Prakriti.

Concepts of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras

The Yogasutras of Patanjali is divided into four parts. The first part (samadhipada) deals with attaining samadhi or self-absorption. The second part (sadhanapada) deals with the means of attaining it, The third part (vibhutipada) deals with the supernatural powers or siddhis that come with the practice of yoga and the fourth part (kaivalyapada) deals with the state of liberation. It is not possible to discuss the subject of yoga in its entirety in this article. Presented below are a few concepts that are relevant to the subject matter of our discussion.

God or Isvara: The Yoga philosophy accepts most of the basic tenets of Samkhya with a few differences here and there. It differs from Samkhya mainly in respect of its acceptance of God or Isvara as instrumental in the liberation of the self. It is also specific about the means to liberation, which essentially consists of individual effort and grace of God. Patanjali clearly states that Isvara is the original guru of all gurus and the results of yoga can be attained through devotion to God.

Chitta or the Mind Stuff: The yoga philosophy identifies chitta or the thinking principle with the mahat or buddhi of Samkhya. Chitta is the the seat of soul's entanglement with Prakriti and also its source of liberation. Chitta is not just the mind but a combination of other principles of Prakriti identified in the Samkhya as mahat or buddhi (intelligence), ahamkara (the ego principle), manas (the mind) and the five organs of action (smell, touch, taste, sight and hearing). It is subject to the three gunas or qualities. In its purest state, chitta is all pervading and causative akasa (space) and called karana-chitta. It becomes conscious by the reflection of Purusha in it, in which state it is known as karya-chitta or dynamic chitta. It is the karya-chitta that accompanies the soul to the next birth. The karya-chitta has the tendency to expand or contract depending upon in which body the soul (purusha) resides. At the time of death, karana-chitta leaves the body along with the purusha (soul) to which it is always connected and manifests itself as karya-chitta in a new body, setting in motion new movements depending upon its previous tendencies (pravrittis). The purpose of yoga is to bring the karya-chitta back to its original mode (karana-chitta) bysuppressing the rajas and tamas and disassociating the purusha from the chitta altogether.

Afflictions and Modifications: In its interaction with the sense objects and through the reflection of the self, chitta becomes active and subject to five afflictions and five modifications. The five afflictions are ignorance (avidya), asmita (false identification of the self with the body and the mind), attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and fear of death (abhinivesa). The five types of modifications are (chitta-vrittis), pramana (valid knowledge), viparyaya (false knowledge), vikalpa (imagination), nidra (sleep) and smriti (memory). Suppression of these afflictions and modifications completely from the karyachitta (active mind) is the key to the liberation of soul and therefore the central theme of Yoga.

AshtangaYoga: The self can detach itself from the active mind and and the physical body when the qualities of rajas and tamas are suppressed and sattva or purity alone remains. This is achieved by means of detachment (vairagya) and the persistent practice (abhyasa), over a long period of time, of the eightfold yoga (ashtanga-yoga) consisting of yama (abstentions), niyama (rules), asnana (posture), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawl of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (self-absorption). Samadhi is the state in which all mental modifications cease to exist.

Liberation: In order to be completely free, the chitta should become free from all impurities and modifications caused by the gunas and achieve equanimity.This is possible only through the practice of yoga. The purpose of yoga is not gaining supernatural powers or siddhis, but liberation (kaivalya). It is achieved by overcoming avidya or ignorance through discriminative knowledge (vivekakhyati), the practice of yoga, the guidance of a guru and the grace of God. The siddhis are final obstacle put in the way by Prakriti to keep the soul involved with its material self and therefore not to be taken lightly by an aspirant. There is a price to be paid in using them for selfish or egoistic purpose.

The Samkhya Yoga of the Bhagavadgita

The philosophies of Samkhya and Yoga were popular as early as 1500 BC in ancient India, where as the Bhagavadgita, whose exact date of composition is not clearly known, became popular during the Gupta period (300 - 500 AD) as a consequence of the revival of Brahmanical religion. Technically speaking the Samkhyayoga of the Bhagavadgita is a subtle integration of some important aspects of both Samkhya and the Yoga from a positive and theistic perspective. The concepts of Samkhyayoga presented in the Bhagavadgita are common to many schools and sects of Hinduism and therefore cannot be said with certainty that they were derived directly from these two schools. However, the use of the terms "samkhya" and "yoga" and the inclusion of a whole chapter (Chapter 2) with the same title suggest to the importance given by its author to these two ancient philosophies and their popularity at the time of its composition. The Samkhya Yoga of the Bhagavadgita is theistic without the technicalities of the Yoga and the atheism of Samkhya. There is also a speculation as to whether the Samkhya philosophy was atheistic at all. In all probability there were two schools of interpretation with in Samkhya as in case of Buddhism, one atheistic and one theistic, and the latter seems to have been used as a model by the scholars of Vedanta to base their own arguments. Some concepts of the Bhagavadgita that bear some resemblance to those of the theistic Samkhya and Yoga are discussed below

Atman or soul is indestructible, immortal, unborn, undiminishing, unthinkable, unchangeable and unmanifest. It assumes physical bodies as it undergoes death and rebirth. The body is known as kshetra (field) and the indwelling spirit as kshetragna (knower of the field). The soul in the body is the witness, the guide, the sustainer, the experiencer and the great lord. Seated in the Prakriti, the soul experiences the gunas of Prakriti, develops attachment with them and passes through many lives. Upon death the souls go to different heavens or God depending upon the time of their departure and past karma. Liberated souls go to the highest abode of God. They are forever freed. But those which go the heavens return after exhausting their karma and continue their mortal existence. The approach of the Bhagavadgita does not seem to be monism (Advaita) but qualified monism (Vishishtadvaita).

God is the Supreme Purusha. He is the lord of all beings. He is the actual doer. He is the inner witness, the indwelling soul (adhidaiva) of all beings. He is both manifest (vyakta) and unmanifest (avyakta). He manifests himself through his atma maya. Prakriti is under His control and dependent upon Him. He is not only the efficient cause of the worlds and its beings through his dynamic Prakriti, but also their controller and regulator. He keeps a watch on His creation and incarnates if necessary to set things right. In other words the Bhagavadgita holds creation as an intelligently guided divine process rather than an automated and unintelligent process as suggested by the Samkhya school. At the beginning of creation He brings out all the beings and withdraws them into Himself at the end of creation to be brought out again at the beginning of next cycle of creation.

The Prakriti of the Bhagavadgita is an inseparable and dependent aspect of God fully under His control. It is the material cause (13.20), without beginning, which brings forth the entire creation (both moving and unmoving) under the guidance of God (9.10). The Prakriti of God is two fold, lower and higher. The lower prakriti has eight divisions, earth (prithvi), water (apa), fire (agni), air (vayu), ether (kham), mind (manas), intelligence (buddhi) and ego (ahamkara). The higher prakriti consists of the cosmic soul by which the whole universe is sustained. All beings evolve from this two fold Prakriti by the will of God to whom they will return ultimately. He is also the creator of maya and the triple gunas.

Several types of yoga are discussed in the Bhagavadgita such as samkhya yoga, buddhi yoga, karma yoga, gnana yoga, karmasanyasa yoga and bhakti yoga without going into the technicalities of the ashtanga or eightfold yoga. Buddhi yoga is equanimity of mind. Samkhya yoga is stabilizing the mind in God through restraining the senses. Karma yoga is performing actions with detachment, without seeking the fruit of one's actions. Bhaktiyoga is single minded devotion to God. Gnanayoga is for men of contemplation. By itself gnana yoga is useless but when practiced in conjunction with the karma yoga and bhakti yoga very effective. There is no difference between karma yoga and samkhya yoga and for that matter the supreme state of liberation can be achieved through any one of these yogas.

The techniques of yoga described in the scripture are meant for the purification of the mind and the body and for increasing the quality of sattva. The suggested methods are withdrawal of the senses, discipline of the mind, the body and one's diet and behavior, living in solitude, practicing meditation and concentration of the mind on God and observation of celibacy. Moderation in eating, sleeping and recreation is also suggested (6.16 & 17). The Yogi who practices these and achieves equanimity of the mind is considered superior to the ascetic, to the men of knowledge and the men of motivated action (6.46).

Liberation is possible only when one is able to suppress the two gunas of rajas and tamas, become established in purity or sattva (nitya sattvastha), overcome the pairs of opposites, remain unconcerned about one's own welfare and keep the mind fully under control. Liberation is also achieved through the grace and intervention of God, which can be secured by following the path of bhakti or devotion. Karma does not bind men when actions are performed with detachment and even mindedness without seeking their fruit. Desireless and unmotivated actions lead to liberation. Stability of the mind through mental discipline is also the key to liberation. It can be achieved through meditation, by devoting one's mind, heart and soul to God, by stabilizing one's mind in Him and by completely withdrawing one's senses from the sense objects. Renunciation by itself is not effective, but karmayoga practiced as an offering to God with equanimity of mind and a sense of renunciation towards the fruit of action is the best means to achieve peace in the shape of God realization. Liberation is also attained when one remembers God at the time of death (8.5)

Buddhism vs. Samkhya and Yoga

Some close similarities between Hinayana Buddhism and Samkhya philosophy gave rise to the speculation that Samkhya philosophy was derived from Buddhism or vice versa. However this is not true. Samkhya philosophy is clearly of much greater antiquity than Buddhism and Kapila, the author of Kapilasutras was a predecessor to the Buddha. The references to the Samkhya in some early Buddhist texts such as Brahmajalasutra suggest to their mutual intolerance and rivalry rather than respect and reconciliation. With its emphasis on suffering, denunciation of extreme ascetic practices and vedic sacrifices, karma, non-existence of an absolute God, plurality of immortal souls, the world as a constantly becoming and changing phenomena and manifestation of worlds and beings by Prakriti, the Samkhya philosophy posed a greater challenge and threat to Buddhism in its early days as it held similar opinions in addition to such ambiguous concepts as nirvana (liberation) to anatma (no soul) that was difficult to understand without a paradigmatic shift in one's approach and understanding.

Regarding the connection between Buddhism and Yoga, S.Radhakrishnan points out that the Buddha practiced yoga and that Buddhism introduced many contemplative practices that were common to both Buddhism and Yoga. He writes thus:

"According to Lalitavistara, numberless forms of ascetic austerities were in vogue in Buddha's time. Some of the teachers of the Buddha like Alara were adepts in Yoga. The Buddhist suttas are familiar with the Yoga methods of concentration. The four states of dhyana of Buddhism correspond roughtly to the four stages of conscious concentratin in the classical yoga. According to Buddhism, the possession of the five qualities of faith, energy, thought, concentration and wisdom, enables one to attain the end of Yoga; and the Yoga accepts the view. The Yogachara school of Buddhism openly combines Buddhist doctrine with the Yoga details. The later Buddhist works assume a developed Yoga technique."

In ancient India there were many ascetic traditions which like Buddhism aimed to develop mastery over the mind and the body through various practices. The Yogasutras of Patanjali was an attempt to systematize the knowledge that was derived from many such tradition not one in particular. Following are some similarities between Yoga and Buddhism which does not mean that Buddhism had derived some practices from Yoga or vice versa. The fact is we do not know for sure what the relationship was between the two. Buddha and some of his earlier teachers undoubtedly practiced some form of contemplative Yoga techniques before his enlightenment.

1. Both Buddhism and Yoga aim to end human suffering and bondage but prescribe different techniques and approaches to achieve the same. Yoga aims to end suffering by suppressing the modifications of the mind through the eightfold yoga while Buddhism by the cessation of desires through the eightfold path, of which right mindfulness and right concentration aim to control the mind and purify it through techniques similar to Yoga.

2. Yoga prescribes five kinds of yamas (restraints) which include non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy and not owing possessions. The Buddha suggested five moral rules for right living which include non-injury to animals, not to take what does not belong to one (not stealing), not to speak falsely (truthfulness), not to drink intoxicating drinks and not to be unchaste (celibacy).

3. The Yoga prescribes asana (posture), pranayama (brething exercises) and pratyahara (withdrawl of the senses), dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) for the cessation of mental modification. Buddhism prescribes right concentration and right mindfulness to bring the mind under control and develop equanimity of the mind (samatha bhavana). The anapana sati of buddhism is similar in intent and practice with the pranayama of Yoga.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. While the Gods Play by Alan Danielou, Inner Traditions International Rochester, Vermont, US edition 1987.

2Indian Philosophy, Volume II, by S.Radhakrishnan

3. For more comprehensive treatment of the subject please check the links provided in this articles to Samkhya Yoga

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