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DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F010-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Considered one of the oldest classical Hindu schools by Indian tradition, Sāṅkhya is most famous in Indian philosophy for its atheism, its dualist model of puruṣa (passive, individual consciousness) and prakṛti (nonconscious, cognitive-sentient body) and its theory that effects pre-exist in their cause. In its classical formulation the puruṣa-prakṛti model is analysed into twenty-five components (tattva) intended to encompass entire metaphysical, cognitive, psychological, ethical and physical worlds in terms of their embodiment as individual constituents and the creative and interpretive projection of those worlds as experience by and for individuals. Both the world and the individual, in other words, are considered a phenomenological refraction and projection of the underlying and constitutive components of the conscious body.

Falsely identifying with the cognitive and sensory components of prakṛti (which according to orthodox Sāṅkhya performs cognitive and sentient operations, but is bereft of consciousness; puruṣa alone is conscious), Sāṅkhyans believe themselves to be the agents of their actions, rather than recognizing that actions are processes lacking any selfhood. Sāṅkhyans claim that liberation from the suffering of repeated rebirths can only be achieved through a profound understanding of the distinction between puruṣa and prakṛti. The latter is not abandoned after liberation, but continues to operate, observed with detachment by puruṣa. However, according to some versions of Sāṅkhya, prakṛti eventually becomes dormant. Puru ṣa and prakṛti both are considered to be eternal and to have no beginning. Since liberation is achieved through knowledge, Sāṅkhya stresses the importance and efficacy of knowledge over ritual and other religious endeavours.

Sāṅkhya is cognate to saṅkhyā, meaning ‘to count’ or ‘enumerate’. Thus Sāṅkhya seeks to enumerate the basic facts of reality so that people will understand them and find liberation. Basic Sāṅkhyan models and terms appear in some Upaniṣads and underlie important portions of the epic Mahābhārata, especially the Bhagavad Gītā and Mokṣadharma. No distinct Sāṅkhyan text prior to Īśvarakṛṣṇa’s Sāṅkhyakārikā (c.350–c.450) is extant. It enumerates and explains the twenty-five components and a subsidiary list of sixty topics (ṣaṣtitantra), which are then subdivided into further enumerative lists. Most of the subsequent Sāṅkhyan literature consists of commentaries and expositions of the Sāṃkhyakārikā and its ideas, which continued to be refined without major alterations well into the eighteenth century. Sāṅkhyan models strongly influenced numerous other Indian schools, including Yoga, Vedānta, Kashmir Shaivism and Buddhism.

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. Sāṅkhya, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F010-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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