The Gita Does Not Accept Sankhya’s Multiple Purushas

Sankhya posited multiple Purushas to solve several issues; the Gita, however, does not accept Sankhya’s solution in this regard and, while it accepts most of the concepts of Sankhya as valuable tools for acquiring and organising knowledge, it provides an alternative view on this major issue.

Sri Aurobindo describes the Gita’s adaptation: “The first important new element we find is in the conception of Purusha itself. Prakriti conducts her activities for the pleasure of Purusha; but how is that pleasure determined? In the strict Sankhya analysis it can only be by a passive consent of the silent Witness. Passively the Witness consents to the action of the intelligent will and the ego-sense, passively he consents to the recoil of that will from the ego-sense. He is Witness, source of the consent, by reflection upholder of the work of Nature….but nothing more.”

“But the Purusha of the Gita is also the Lord of Nature; he is Ishwara. If the act of intelligence of the Will is the act of Prakriti, the source and light of the intelligence are actively contributed by the Purusha; he is not only the Witness, but the Lord and Knower, master of knowledge and will….”

“He is the supreme cause of action of Prakriti, the supreme cause of its withdrawal from action. In the Sankhya analysis Purusha and Prakriti in their dualism are the cause of the cosmos; in this synthetic Sankhya Purusha by his Prakriti is the cause of the cosmos.”

The dualism of the Sankhya eventually breaks down when we begin to consider “first causes”. The Gita’s approach provides a solution that addresses both the issues that Sankhya confronted as well as the “first cause” issue, and is thus, an evolutionary step forward in our understanding of existence. This provides the further developments that the Gita proposes as the teaching develops.

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 70-71,

Sankhya’s View Of Liberation Requires Multiple Purushas

A number of paths of understanding place the idea of “liberation” as the goal of human efforts. There are however different starting points and issues that arise based on variances between one philosophical structure and another. For instance, Mayavada treats the world as an illusion. The seeking for liberation is every bit as much a part of the illusion as those who are bound within the actions of the world. Abandonment of all relation to Nature is the only solution that Mayavada can provide.

Sankhya, grounded in observation and a sense of reality, cannot take this approach, and thus, cannot escape the issue of “what is liberated” and what the implications of that liberation must be. Having determined that “Nature is One”, Sankhya then has to focus on the relationship between the Witness Consciousness (Purusha) and the Nature (Prakriti).

Since the Purusha is defined as a passive witness, Sri Aurobindo points out that the “consent” or the “withdrawal of consent” of the Purusha is actually an act within Prakriti, not an act of the Purusha itself. He identifies this as a process within the Buddhi, the discriminating intelligence and will, one of the 24 principles of nature in the Sankhya system.

“Buddhi has been lending itself to the perceptions of the mind-sense; it has been busy discriminating and co-ordinating the operations of the cosmic energy and by the aid of the ego-sense identifying the Witness with her works of thought, sense and action.” Once Buddhi realises that it need not support this play any longer, the Purusha “…ceasing to be bound, no longer associates himself with the interest of the mind in the cosmic play.” Once this occurs, Prakriti loses its impetus and the 3 gunas fall into equilibrium and inaction.

Here we come to the crux of the problem that Sankhya observed. If there were only one Purusha and one Nature, this realisation would bring the entire universal action to an end; but they observed that one person achieving realisation did not seem to affect the universal action of Nature or the other beings who remained bounded and at work. Thus, they had to conclude that there were multiple Purushas so that the liberation of one of them would not bring the cosmos to an end!

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 69-70,

Sankhya’s Multiple Purushas Experiencing One Prakriti

As an analytical system, Sankhya addresses observable facts and develops explanations to encompass those observations. This led Sankhya to develop, first of all, a dualistic system of Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha, the unmoving, non-acting witness consciousness which reflects the action of mechanical Nature.

It was observed that Prakriti follows a consistent pattern everywhere, and is one encompassing system. It was also noted, however, that the individual experience varied, and this led Sankhya to posit not only the dualism of Purusha and Prakriti, but also a pluralistic system of multiple Purushas.

Sri Aurobindo describes the factors that led Sankhya to adopt this position: “First, actually, we find that there are many conscious beings in the world and each regards the same world in his own way and has his independent experience of its subjective and objective things, his separate dealings with the same perceptive and reactive processes. If there were only one Purusha, there would not be this central independence and separativeness, but all would see the world in an identical fashion and with a common subjectivity and objectivity. Because Prakriti is one, all witness the same world; because her principles are everywhere the same, the general principles which constitute internal and external experience are the same for all; but the infinite difference of view and outlook and attitude, action and experience and escape from experience,–a difference not of the natural operations which are the same but of the witnessing consciousness,–are utterly inexplicable except on the supposition that there is a multiplicity of witnesses, many Purushas.”

Sri Aurobindo points out the logical necessity that eventually was one of the major factors that led to Sankhya’s determination: “The cosmos and its process can be explained by the commerce of one Prakriti with one Purusha, but not the multiplicity of conscious beings in the cosmos.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 68-69,

The Thirteen Subjective Principles of Prakriti According to Sankhya

The 24 principles of Prakriti according to Sankhya are constituted of Prakriti with its 3 modes, plus 10 principles that form the “objective” manifestation (5 elements and 5 properties) and 13 principles that form the “subjective” manifestation. These thirteen are Buddhi (also known as Mahat), Ahankara and Manas, plus 5 senses of perception and 5 senses of action.

The 5 senses of perception are the ones that perceive the 5 properties of the 5 elements, namely “…hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell, which make the five properties of things their respective objects…”

There are also 5 senses of action which “…specialises certain necessary vital functions of reaction by aid of the five active senses which operate for speech, locomotion, the seizing of things, ejection and generation.”

These 10 senses are in their essence tools of the principle of Manas, translated as “mind” which “….is the original sense which perceives all objects and reacts upon them; for it has at once an inferent and an efferent activity, receives by perception what the Gita calls the outward touches of things, bahya sparsa, and so forms its idea of the world and exercises its reactions of active vitality.

Ahankara, or ego-sense, “…is the subjective principle in Buddhi by which the Purusha is induced to identify himself with Prakriti and her activities.” The ego-sense provides “continuity” to the experience as well as a “centralising” action.

Buddhi, or Mahat, is “…the discriminating principle, is at once intellience and will; it is that power in Nature which discriminates and co-ordinates.”

According to Sankhya, all of these subjective principles are part of the mechanical Nature, Prakriti, and are subject to the action of the 3 gunas, or “modes” of Nature.

While we may want to attribute these subjective powers to the Purusha, or Soul, Sankhya disagrees. Sri Aurobindo points out that modern science has come to a similar conclusion when viewing the inherent intelligence in the material world: “Even in the mechanical action of the atom there is a power which can only be called an inconscient will and in all the works of Nature that pervading will does inconsciently the works of intelligence.”

Mental intelligence has basically the same functioning. Sankhya finds a solution to the mystery of how mechanical Nature can seemingly act with conscious will and intelligence. “It is because of the reflection of Prakriti in Purusha; the light of consciousness of the Soul is attributed to the workings of the mechanical energy and it is thus that the Purusha, observing Nature as the witness and forgetting himself, is deluded with the idea generated in her that it is he who thinks, feels, wills, acts, while all the time the operation of thinking, feeling, willing, acting is conducted really by her and her three modes and not by himself at all.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 67-68,

The Sankhya View of the Manifestation of Cosmic Existence

In the Sankhya view, what we experience and recognise as conscious intelligence is not an aspect of Purusha, the unmoving witness consciousness, but rather, aspects of Prakriti, manifest Nature and constitutes one of the 24 principles of creation that Sankhya enumerates. These 24 principles together constitute the objective and the subjective aspects of all existence.

The first of these principles is Prakriti as the basis or substratum of all manifest existence in its undifferentiated form, with the 3 gunas (modes or qualities) as the mechanism of further manifestation.

Next come the 5 primordial “elements” which are the subtle basis of what we know as the external world. They are ether, air, fire, water and earth. Sri Aurobindo reminds us, in this context, that “…it must be remembered that they are not elements in the modern scientific sense but subtle conditions of material energy and nowhere to be found in their purity in the gross material world. All objects are created by the combination of these five subtle conditions or elements.”

The next 5 principles are the “subtle properties of Energy or Matter, sound, touch, form, taste and smell, which constitute the way in which the mind-sense perceives objects.”

Together the five subtle elements and their respective five properties lead to the evolution of the “objective aspect of cosmic existence.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 66-67,

The Sankhya Explanation of the Existence of the Cosmos

Sankhya’s view of existence essentially posits the Purusha, essentially the non-acting, non-moving witness consciousness, and the Prakriti, the active Nature. One key insight which has serious practical application in daily life is the interaction of the 3 modes of energy.

Sri Aurobindo describes them: “For Prakriti is constituted of three Gunas or essential modes of energy; Sattwa, the seed of intelligence, conserves the workings of energy; Rajas, the seed of force and action, creates the workings of energy; Tamas, the seed of inertia and non-intelligence, the denial of Sattwa and Rajas, dissolves what they create and conserve.”

According to the Sankhya view, all action in nature is due to the disequilibrium of these three gunas and their constant interaction. “But when the equilibrium is disturbed, then the three Gunas fall into a state of inequality in which they strive with and act upon each other and the whole inextricable business of ceaseless creation, conservation and dissolution begins, unrolling the phenomena of the cosmos.”

In order for this action to take place, the consent of the Purusha to reflect this action is required. “This reflection and this giving or withdrawal of consent seem to be the only powers of Purusha; he is the witness of Nature by virtue of reflection and the giver of the sanction….but not actively the Ishwara. Even his giving of consent is passive and his withdrawing of consent is only another passivity.”

Because the soul is inactive, it means “…Soul and Nature are the dual cause, a passive Consciousness and an active Energy.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 65-66,

The Essence of Sankhya

Sri Aurobindo provides a succinct overview of Sankhya: “Sankhya is the analysis, the enumeration, the separative and discriminative setting forth of the principles of our being of which the ordinary mind sees only the combinations and results of combination.”

In that sense, it has actually a lot in common with the history of Western science of the last few centuries, although science has focused primarily on matter and material energies, what Sankhya would term “Prakriti”, while Sankhya focuses on the essential principles of life, existence and action, encompassing both the immutable Existence, and the action of Nature (Prakriti).

“…it explains existence not by one, but by two original principles whose inter-relation is the cause of the universe,–Purusha, the inactive, Prakriti, the active. Purusha is the Soul, not in the ordinary or popular sense of the word, but of pure conscious Being, immobile, immutable and self-luminous. Prakriti is Energy and its process. Purusha does nothing, but it reflects the action of Energy and its processes; Prakriti is mechanical, but by being reflected in Purusha it assumes the appearance of consciousness in its activities, and thus there are created those phenomena of creation, conservation, dissolution, birth and life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, sense-knowledge and intellectual knowledge and ignorance, action and inaction, happiness and suffering which the Purusha under the influence of Prakriti attributes to itself although they belong not at all to itself but to the action or movement of Prakriti alone.”

Sri Aurobindo, Essays on the Gita, First Series, Chapter 8, Sankhya and Yoga, pp. 64-65,