[Note: this article is a continuation of our biography of Kapila Rishi.]

Part 1

As we found in our earlier article [see our biography of Kapila], the great founder of the Sankhya Philosophy is said to be the Rishi Kapila, yet the actual life and teachings of this great sage are wrapped in mystery. The Sankhya darsana, as it comes to us today, is at best fragmentary, treating of only a skeleton outline of certain teachings. What we propose to accomplish in Part 1 of this article is an overview of that which may compose Kapila’s teachings, and we will do this in three stages. First, we will briefly examine the teachings related in the Bhagavata Purana. Second we will contrast these with the teachings of Kapila as given in the Mahabharata. And third we will supply suggestions as to the true nature of Sankhya.

First, let us preface our exploration of the Bhagavata Purana1 with one important fact: the Bhagavata Purana is a work of Bhakti-Yoga, of a particular school of Indian thought. It treats of Kapila’s teachings from within that system of thought, and it is the student’s task to uncover his true teachings, if they are to be found there at all.

Following his father’s departure, Kapila’s mother, Devahuti, approaches him with an appeal for teachings on the path of liberation. Hearing his mother’s plea for aid, Kapila, speaking just as Krishna does in the Gita, as the Spiritual Self, relates the way of success:

“The discipline of yoga of relating to the soul for the sake of complete detachment from whatever pleasure and distress, is the ultimate benefit for mankind that carries My approval. Oh pious mother, I will now explain that to you what I formerly explained to the sages who were eager to hear about all the ins and outs of the yoga system. The living being its [state of] consciousness is considered [responsible] for its bondage and liberation. In attraction to the three modes of nature one is materially conditioned, but if one attaches to the soul of the universe [the Original Person], one is of liberation. From the impurities of lust and greed and such, that result from the misconception of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, one is freed when the mind is pure in being equipoised, without distress and pleasure. It is in that state that the person, who pure and transcendental to the material world is not bound and fragmented, does not see himself as someone different but as innerly enlightened. With a mind full of spiritual knowledge, renunciation and connectedness in devotion one is indifferent about one’s material existence, which is then less of influence.” (BP 3:25:13-19)

We find here the same path related by Krishna to Arjuna, the heart of the doctrine of Liberation: attachment to life, to action, to results, the false notion of “I” and “mine,” and the state of consciousness associated with these, is the cause of bondage. This is the heart of Vedanta, whether it be in the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the teachings of Patanjali or Sankaracharya, and Kapila here begins and bases his teachings upon this firm foundation.

But Kapila continues:

“There is no yogic path as auspicious for the perfection of the spirit as the performance of devotional service for the Supreme Lord . . . Any man of knowledge knows that strong attachment constitutes the entanglement of the soul, but that that same attachment for devotees opens the door to liberation. . . .” (BP 3:25:20-21)

Kapila describes here the importance of devotion, or bhakti, making it an initial centerpiece of his teachings to Devahuti, and expanding on it greatly in later verses. It is this emphasis on devotion that marks a fundamental difference between these teachings of Kapila and the teachings of the Sankhya darshana as we have it today (which itself is void of such an emphasis).2 This is an aspect of the teachings of Kapila that are unique to the Bhagavata Purana, a parallel of which may be found in the Bhagavad Gita, chapter 12. This focus on devotion may be seen to culminate in the following verses:

“United in spiritual knowledge and renunciation, yogis free from fear in bhakti yoga take shelter of My feet for the ultimate benefit. The only way for people to find in this world the ultimate perfection of life is to steadily focus their mind in an intensive practice of devotional service to Me.” (BP 3:25:43-44)

Having laid this foundation of devotion, Kapila moves on to describe the “Fundamental Principles of Material Nature.” A few selections may be made to illustrate the heart of the teachings:

“‘I will now describe to you the different categories of reality, knowing which anyone can be released from the [yoke of the] modes of material nature. I will explain that to you about which one speaks as the spiritual knowledge [the jñâna] that cuts the knots [of egoism] in the heart and constitutes the ultimate truth of one’s self-realization. The Supreme Soul, the Original Person is beginningless and is, situated in the beyond of all matter, transcendental to the modes of nature. He can be perceived everywhere as the self-effulgence of the entire creation that is maintained by Him. . . . Nature by means of the modes created the variegated forms of the materially living beings. They in this world being confronted with it, were from the first day on illusioned by it because they [those forms] constitute the covering of their spiritual knowledge. Because the living entity identifies himself with the material action that was brought about by the modes of nature and is other than himself, he unjustly considers himself the doer.” (BP 3:26:1-6)

Here we have Purusha (the “original person”), standing above and apart from Nature (Prakriti) and from the “modes of Nature” (the gunas), which bring about “the variegated forms of living beings.” This is very much in-line with the Sankhya philosophy as related by Ishvara Krishna and others, that has come down to us today.3

Kapila continues:

“The undifferentiated, eternal reality that differentiated in the form of material nature [prakriti] as a combination of the three modes, this cause belonging to the effect [of this material manifestation], is called the primary nature [the primal ether or pradhâna]. That primary nature is known as the basis from which the five gross and five subtle elements, the ten senses of perception and action and the four internal sense departments [of mind, ego, consciousness and intelligence] evolved who together add up to a number of twenty-four.” (BP 3:26:10-11)

And so we have the basis of the Sankhya system roughly as it is known today. Kapila continues on, examining the details of the system, including elucidations on the nature and practice of devotional service, before coming around to the direct subject of bondage and liberation. A full reading of these sections of the Bhagavata Purana is highly recommended.4 The devotional teachings form an essential aspect of Bhakti Yoga, but whether this coincides with the actual teachings of the founder of the Sankhya philosophy is debatable, as we will see. What the student must do now is to compare these teachings with the teachings of Kapila as recorded in the Mahabharata.

Firstly, let us take the dialogue between Kapila and Syumarasmi, as related by Bhishma.5 In this dialogue, Kapila argues the position of “disinterested action” or the path of Renunciation in opposition to the Vedic injunctions for sacrifices aimed at fulfilling certain desires.

Let us begin with the path promoted by Kapila. Two statements may help clarify his position.

“I do not censure the Vedas. I do not wish to say anything in derogation of them. It hath been heard by us that the different courses of duty laid down for the different modes of life, all lead to the same end. The Sannyasin attains to a high end. The forest-recluse also attains to a high end. Both the other two also, viz., the householder and the Brahmacharin, reach the same end. All the four modes of life have always been regarded as Deva-yana ways.” (MB 12:268)

Later he adds:

“The Brahmanas say that that Good Conduct, which is wonderful, whose origin may be traced to very ancient times, which is eternal and whose characteristics are unchangeable, which differs from the practices to which even the good resort in seasons of distress and represents their acts in other situations, which is identical with heedfulness, over which lust and wrath and other evil passions can never prevail, and in consequence of which there was (at one time) no transgression in all mankind, subsequently came to be distributed into four subdivisions, corresponding with the four modes of life by persons unable to practise its duties in minute detail and entirety. They that are good, by duly observing that course of Good Conduct after adoption of the Sannyasa mode of life, attain to the highest end. They also that betake themselves to the forest mode reach the same high end (by duly observing that conduct). They too that observe the domestic mode of life attain to the highest end (by duly practising the same conduct); and, lastly, those that lead the Brahmacharya mode obtain the same (end by a due observance of the same conduct).” (MB 12:270)

This “Good Conduct” is described as that of those of “pure heart,” who follow the path of “self-restraint of Yoga” and Renunciation (of the fruits of action), regardless of their mode of life or of the school of thought to which they subscribe, for elsewhere Kapila states clearly that:

“Whatever again the school of opinion according to which one may conduct oneself, one is sure to attain to the highest end by only observing the duties of self-restraint of Yoga.” (MB 12:270)

Compare this to the verse of the Kapila from the Bhagavata Purana:

“United in spiritual knowledge and renunciation, yogis free from fear in bhakti yoga take shelter of My feet for the ultimate benefit. The only way for people to find in this world the ultimate perfection of life is to steadily focus their mind in an intensive practice of devotional service to Me.” (BP 3:25:43-44)

We may see here what is, on the surface at least, a stark contrast in teaching (though perhaps moreso a stark contrast in the interpretations of such teachings by different schools of Indian thought).

In his dialogue with Syumarasmi, Kapila also puts strong emphasis on the “path of knowledge.”

“Beholding that all the fruits that are attainable by acts are terminable instead of being eternal, Yatis, by adopting self-restraint and tranquillity, attain to Brahma through the path of knowledge. There is nothing in any of the worlds that can impede them (for by mere fiats of their will they crown all their wishes with success). They are freed from the influence of all pairs of opposites. They never bow down their heads to anything or any creature. They are above all the bonds of want. Wisdom is theirs.” (MB 12:269)

“Knowledge assists that man in crossing (this interminable river of life and death) who pursues knowledge. That conduct, however, which men pursue after deviating from the path of knowledge, afflicts them (by subjecting them to the evils of life and death). It is evident that ye are possessed of knowledge and dissociated from every worldly object that may produce distress. But have any of you at any time succeeded in acquiring that knowledge in consequence of which everything is capable of being viewed as identical with one Universal Soul? Without a correct apprehension of the scriptures, some there are, fond only of disputation, who, in consequence of being overwhelmed by desire and aversion, become the slaves of pride and arrogance. Without having correctly understood the meaning of scriptural declarations, these robbers of the scriptures, these depredators of Brahma, influenced by arrogance and error, refuse to pursue tranquillity and practise self-restraint.” (MB 12:269)

Kapila is impressing upon Syumarasmi the importance of not depending wholly on a surface reading of scripture, imparting on him the vital key of cultivating knowledge and understanding. He explains that without understanding, following scripture will not lead to Emancipation, as one will not truly understand what is meant by those scriptures. One must understand, before one can rightly practice Good Conduct, and, we might draw from this that no amount of devotion will lead to Liberation if it is not accompanied by right understanding.

In the beginning Syumarasmi is debating with Kapila, but as the dialogue progresses, he settles into his role of student, seeking answers instead. Finally he asks the central question, that which the entire dialogue has been building towards, and received Kapila’s clear answer:

“Syumarasmi said, ‘You depend upon knowledge as the means (for the attainment of Emancipation). Those who lead lives of domesticity have planted their faith in acts. It has, however, been said that the end of all modes of life is Emancipation. No difference, therefore, is observable between them in respect of either their superiority or inferiority of puissance. O illustrious one, do thou tell me then how stands the matter truly.’

“Kapila said, ‘Acts only cleanse the body. Knowledge, however, is the highest end (for which one strives). When all faults of the heart are cured (by acts), and when the felicity of Brahma becomes established in knowledge, benevolence, forgiveness, tranquillity, compassion, truthfulness, and candour, abstention from injury, absence of pride, modesty, renunciation, and abstention from work are attained. These constitute the path that lead to Brahma. By those one attains to what is the Highest.” (MB 12:270)

The “acts” Syumarasmi is referring to are chiefly the “sacrifices” obediently performed by the followers of the Vedas. But Kapila stresses the importance of knowledge as the highest end. Further, these “attributes of Good Conduct” would seem to form the centerpieces of Kapila’s teachings on the Path.

The dialogue closes with the following important passage:

“Ability to subdue the senses, forgiveness, and abstention from work in consequence of the absence of desire,—these three are the cause of perfect felicity. With the aid of these three qualities, men having understanding for their eyes succeed in reaching that Brahma which is uncreate, which is the prime cause of the universe, which is unchangeable and which is beyond destruction.”

This dialogue portrays what may very well be the core of the practical aspect of Sankhya, the original Sankhya Yoga system of Kapila, which we easily see to be identical with the teachings of Krishna to Arjuna, of the Upanishads, of Patanjali’s Yoga, and so on. It is the core of the ancient path of Liberation.

So much for this aspect. We may now explore what the Mahabharata has to say about the actual knowledge of the Sankhyas.

We find the most remarkable, and, we might say, the most important statement about the teachings and knowledge of the Sankhyas in the words of Bhishma, who is drawn to explain these teachings to his student, Yudhishthira.

Bhishma begins with the following high praise:

“Listen now to what the subtile principles are of the followers of the Sankhya doctrine, having been established by all the great and puissant Yatis having Kapila as their first. In that doctrine O chief of men, no errors are discoverable. Many, indeed, are its merits. In fact, there is no fault in it.” (MB 12:302)

Compare this with the modern version of Sankhya available today and we must see that the two are not identical, for in the common texts and interpretations of the system known today fault is most easily found, by even the amateur student of Vedanta. Because of this, Sankhya has found itself attacked on all sides by superior logic, to the point of seeming surrender. This is seen in more modern Sankhyas being unable to logically rectify the dualistic notion of Purusha and Prakriti given the limitations of their own interpretations.

It is clear that the system referred to by Bhishma, in which no fault can be found, cannot be the same as the system and interpretations commonly accepted today.

Bhishma proceeds, touching on several key notions of the Sankhya philosophy of his day:

“. . . the quality of Sattwa has ten properties, that of Rajas has nine, and that of Tamas has eight, that the Understanding has seven properties, the Mind has six, and Space has five, and once more conceiving that the Understanding has four properties and Tamas has three, and the Rajas has two and Sattwa has, one . . .”

“Vision is attached to form; the sense of scent to smell, the ear to sound, the tongue to juices, and the skin (or body) to touch. The wind has for its refuge Space. Stupefaction has Tamas (Darkness) for its refuge. Cupidity has the objects of the senses for its refuge. Vishnu is attached to (the organs of) motion. Sakra is attached to (the organs of) strength. The deity of fire is attached to the stomach, Earth is attached to the Waters. The Waters have Heat (or fire) for their refuge. Heat attaches itself to the Wind; and the wind has Space for its refuge; and Space has Mahat for its refuge, and Mahat has the Understanding for its foundation. The Understanding has its refuge in Tamas; Tamas has Rajas for its refuge; Rajas is founded upon Sattwa; and Sattwa is attached to the Soul. The soul has the glorious and puissant Narayana for its refuge. That glorious deity has Emancipation for his refuge. Emancipation is independent of all refuge.”

We see here a systematic overview of the Sankhya metaphysics, in the first case beginning from the highest and proceeding to the lowest element (tattva) and then returning, and in the second case beginning from the lower and proceeding upwards to the highest element. In these we may see also a tracing of the overall process of Evolution/Involution, the cyclical descent into material Nature and the return ascent back to the primary spiritual Nature.

From this point Bhishma proceeds with the most pertinent statement, a long exposition on the extent of the knowledge of the Sankhyas, which, though it may not be immediately apparent, we will find to be a keynote in our exploration of Kapila’s teachings.

“Knowing that this body, that is endued with six and ten possessions, is the result of the quality of Sattwa, understanding fully the nature of the physical organism and the character of the Chetana that dwells within it, recognising the one existent Being that live in the body viz., the Soul, which stands aloof from every concern of the body and in which no sin can attach, realising the nature of that second object, viz.; the acts of persons attached to the objects of the senses, understanding also the character of the senses and the sensual objects which have their refuge in the Soul . . . knowing fully the nature of the vital breaths called Prana, Apana, Samana, Vyana, and Udana, as also the two other breaths, viz., the one going downward and the other moving upward indeed, knowing those seven breaths ordained to accomplish seven different functions, . . . understanding also the inauspicious end that is attained, O king, by creatures of sinful acts . . . and the inauspicious wanderings of creatures through diverse wombs, and the character of their residence in the unholy uterus in the midst of blood and water and phlegm and urine and faeces, all of foul smell, and then in bodies that result from the union of blood and the vital seed, of marrow and sinews, abounding with hundreds of nerves and arteries and forming an impure mansion of nine doors . . .

. . . the followers of the Sankhya doctrine who are fully conversant with the Soul, beholding the swallowing up of the Moon and the Sun by Rahu, the falling of stars from their fixed positions and the diversions of constellations from their orbits, knowing the sad separation of all united objects and the diabolical behaviour of creatures in devouring one another, seeing the absence of all intelligence in the infancy of human beings and the deterioration and destruction of the body, . . .

. . . ascertaining the diverse declarations of the Vedas, the courses of seasons, the fading of years, of months, of fortnights, and of days, beholding directly the waxing and the waning of the Moon, seeing the rising and the ebbing of the seas, and the diminution of wealth and its increase once more, and the separation of united objects, the lapse of Yugas, the destruction of mountains, the drying up of rivers, the deterioration of (the purity of) the several orders and the end also of that deterioration occurring repeatedly, beholding the birth, decrepitude, death, and sorrows of creatures, knowing truly the faults attaching to the body and the sorrows to which human beings are subject, and the vicissitudes to which the bodies of creatures are subject, and understanding all the faults that attach to their own souls, and also all the inauspicious faults that attach to their own bodies (the followers of the Sankhya philosophy succeed in attaining to Emancipation).”


In order to see the importance of this statement we must take first an overview. We see here that the Sankhyas are credited with knowledge seemingly of the full process of Evolution, or, rather of Emanation.6 The above statement, in its entirety, will be seen to touch on many (if not all) key points in Cosmogenesis and Anthropogenesis (the evolution of Cosmos and Man). Bhishma is clear that Kapila’s teachings encompassed the very turning of the clockwork of the stars, the full process of birth and death and rebirth and all its causes, the building and developing of forms through evolutionary processes, the details of the elements of Nature, the position of Purusha and Prakriti, the chronology of cyclical periods of time, etc., etc., etc..

This becomes immensely important when we attempt to glimpse the true position of Kapila and the Sankhya doctrine in relation to other Indian systems of thought, and particularly for Theosophists attempting to understand Sankhya in relation to the Wisdom Tradition.

Aside from the teachings given in these two texts, we have little, perhaps nothing, from the actual founder of the Sankhya philosophy, besides perhaps a small outline of the tattvas as found in extant works. The Sankhya Karika continues to hold its place today as the central text of the modern Sankhya darsana, while the Tattva Samasa7 is seen as perhaps the only extant work of Kapila himself, but neither of these do justice to the lofty position ascribed to Sankhya and its followers in the great epic Mahabharata. Here we have that epic describing a vast array of knowledge as belonging to the Sankhyas, and we have Kapila stressing the importance of the path of knowledge.

What then, might be the original position of Sankhya teachings? We may find hints from the pen of H. P. Blavatsky.

“Both Occult and Eastern philosophies believe in evolution, which Manu and Kapila give with far more clearness than any scientist does at present.” (SD II:259)

“The day may come, then, when the “Natural Selection,” as taught by Mr. Darwin and Mr. Herbert Spencer, will form only a part, in its ultimate modification, of our Eastern doctrine of Evolution, which will be Manu and Kapila esoterically explained.” (SD I:600)

And, commenting upon the words of Ernst Haeckel, she hints (in brackets) on the true nature of Kapila’s teachings:

“‘. . . Darwin puts in the place of a conscious creative force, building and arranging the organic bodies of animals and plants on a designed plan, a series of natural forces working blindly (or we say) without aim, without design. In place of an arbitrary act of operation, we have a necessary law of Evolution . . . .’ (So had Manu and Kapila, and, at the same time, guiding, conscious and intelligent Powers)” (SD II:652)

So we have H.P. Blavatsky stating rather plainly that the original teachings of Kapila are, in fact, one and the same as the esoteric (occult) doctrine of the East. From this we may suppose that her work, The Secret Doctrine, which is an attempt to unveil portions of that esoteric doctrine, is in-line with the original teachings of Kapila.


Let us overview our findings thus far, in an attempt to bring these ideas together:

We see at least two, perhaps more, Kapilas in the Indian records.

We have a teaching from the Bhagavata Purana with a distinct bhakti-yoga coloring, heavy on the idea of devotional service, with common interpretations that are largely theistic.

We have another teaching, from the Mahabharata, that takes on the fundamental principle of Yoga and Renunciation, in-line with the teachings of Krishna, the Upanishads, Patanjali, Sankaracharaya, and even Gautama Buddha in many respects.

We have several texts available in modern times that give but a skeleton outline of the tattvas, which we have reason to believe is not the full extent of Kapila’s teachings.

We have a section in the Mahabharata that attributes an incredibly wide array of knowledge as belonging to the Sankhyas, which system seemingly encompasses the entirety of cosmogenesis and anthropogenesis.

We have H. P. Blavatsky and T. Subba Row clearly indicating that the teachings we have today do not represent the original full teachings of Kapila, and furthermore that those original teachings are, in fact, subscribed to by the Occultists.

What then, is the original teaching of Kapila, the founder of Sankhya philosophy, and how does it relate to other Indian traditions and to Theosophical teachings?

A complete answer to these questions may be out of reach in our day, but we can attempt to shadow forth some thoughts for consideration by all sincere students.

First, we may recommend that the student read, in full, the article “Samkhya and the Wisdom-Religion,” by David Reigle, which tackles these difficult questions through an examination of the teachings themselves.

Second, we suggest that the student pursue a study of Sankhya philosophy as it comes to us today in the primary extant works, and from there make comparisons and correspondences with the teachings given by H.P. Blavatsky in her Secret Doctrine.

As we survey the full scope of these ideas and give ourselves to a thorough study of the materials available to us, the picture that begins to emerge (hazy though it may be) is that of a great sage, a profound mind, who systematized and taught the great doctrine of Emanation/Evolution and Cosmogenesis, whose teachings were highly valued by the greatest of sages for generations, but which were eventually lost to the sight of the profane multitudes, and degraded by, might we say “lesser minds” of the Sankhya school, who eventually crystallized the teachings into a highly troublesome dualistic world-view.

We can, however, retrace these steps in our own studies, mirroring the example given above by Bhishma—the teachings have descended into but a fraction of their original, but we may now begin with that which is available to us today and through study begin to ascend upwards towards the heart of the original teachings.


Part 2

Previously, we attempted a brief introduction to the great founder of the Sankhya philosophy, the Sage Kapila. In Part 1 of the current article we explored certain fragments relating to the original Sankhya teachings, which have been covered by a thick veil of time. We will attempt now to give a quick introduction to the Sankhya system as it is known today, bringing in theosophical interpretations to provide additional perspectives on key ideas.

Sankhya or Sāṃkhya, one of the six Darshanas or schools of Indian philosophy, is said to have been founded by the sage Kapila. Traditionally seen as a strongly dualistic philosophy, though not referring to itself as dualistic, it has also been referred to as a “system of analytical metaphysics.” Its principle work is the Samkhya-karika, which has been commented upon by Gaudapada. Sankhya is said to provide the conceptual framework of Yoga school, and the two schools are seen as a complimentary pair.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Book V:4-5, Krishna says:

Children, not wise men, speak of Sankhya and Yoga as different;
he who has perfectly mastered one finds the fruit of both.

The goal that is gained by the Sankhyas, is also reached by the
followers of Yoga; who sees Sankhya and Yoga as one, he indeed sees!

The lofty position of Kapila, the founder of Sankhya philosophy is demonstrated when Krishna, while enumerating the chief divine forms by which he manifests himself, says: “[I am] Kapila the silent, among those who have attained [i.e. perfect saints],” (Bhagavad Gita, Book X:26)

Of Kapila, theosophist Charles Johnston states:

“We cannot speak definitely of the dates either of the Upanishads or of Kapila. We can only say that both certainly belong to a period long before Buddha, and that the Upanishads are much older than Kapila. We can further say, with some confidence, that Kapila’s great contribution to Indian wisdom was the division of life into the two opposing camps of Spirit and Nature: Purusha and Prakriti; and the further division of Nature under the Three Powers of Substance, Force and Darkness: Sattva, Rajas, Tamas.” (Bhagavad Gita, Introduction to Book XIII)

We find that the Sankhya philosophy is taken for granted in the Mahabharata and other ancient texts, and that it was seen not only as a central school of Indian philosophy, but in many ways as the school of Indian philosophy. Over time a fog began to envelop the true Sankhya teachings, until that primary and once-high system devolved into a shell of its former self, becoming hardly more than an intellectual sophistry of illogical dualism. It would seem, if we attempt an overview, that the system has passed into its own Kali Yuga, a dark age in which little, perhaps nothing, of the original teachings is properly understood.

As time progressed the system fell almost entirely out of use, and when the west first began to mine the soil of India for its treasures of philosophy, metaphysics and spirituality there was hardly a soul there to interpret the meaning of the philosophy, and its core texts had falling into disuse, almost abandoned altogether.

With the arrival of the west came renewed interest in Sankhya, even if solely for historical or scholarly ends, and this has led to the unearthing of texts, and comparative study of such texts (see here for more on these developments). We have now a system that had fallen out of use, being once more picked up, dusted off and examined. With the addition of western interest, and particularly with the addition of theosophical literature—which itself examines many core aspects of Samkhya philosophy from a “new” perspective (perhaps not new at all)—we may yet find that the cycle of Samkhya has reached its bottom and is now beginning its ascending arc, which may yet bring it back into the minds and hearts of humanity.


The core of the Sankhya philosophy comprises a treatment of the 25 tattvas, and their complex interrelations, the full-scope of which is a complete system of emanation, by which the Manifest comes to be, out of the Unmanifest.

The pillars of this system are Purusha and Prakriti, or “Spirit” and “Nature.” We may attempt a quick overview of each of these principles, thus:

[1] Purusha: “Man” or Spirit, Self. In the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad (I:4:1), we read: “Atma, Supreme Self, verily, was here in the beginning, having the form of Purusha.” and later (II:5:18): “He, verily, is the Spirit in all strongholds. His name is Purusha, that is, Puri-shaya, ‘he who dwells in the stronghold.’ There is naught that is not enveloped by him, naught that is not penetrated by him.”

In the Sankhya philosophy, the term Purusha is used to indicate what might be called “pure contentless consciousness.” This is contrasted with Prakriti, Matter or Nature, with the pair viewed as “the two primeval aspects of the One and Secondless,” and thus as co-eternal and co-present principles (Tattvas). “. . . in Kapila’s ‘Sankhya’ Philosophy, unless, allegorically speaking, Purusha mounts on the shoulders of Prakriti, the latter remains irrational, while the former remains inactive without her.” (Secret Doctrine II:42)

In his translation of the Prashna Upanishad, Charles Johnston refers to Purusha as “the Spiritual Man” and in the Aitareya Upanishad as the “Heavenly Man”—both terms that he corresponds with the Logos. Other theosophical students likewise intimately associate Purusha with the Logos. H.P. Blavatsky provides this authoritative and perhaps definitive definition:

“The seventh principle (purusha) alone is the divine SELF” (Secret Doctrine II:574)

And,

[2] Prakriti: Nature or Matter. However, physical matter and nature are rather ‘productions’ that Prakriti (Nature in general) brings about.

In the Sankhya philosophy, Prakriti is characterized by three properties, powers or gunas (Sattva, Rajas and Tamas), which may be in perfect equilibrium (unmanifested nature) or ‘disturbed’, the latter resulting in differentiation and giving rise to the universe, or manifested nature.

In Bhagavad Gita, Book VII:4 we read: “Earth, water, fire, air, ether [i.e. the five tanmatras, or subtle elements], mind [manas], thought [buddhi], self-consciousness [ahamkara, egoity]: thus is My nature [prakriti] divided eightfold.” (see also Sankhya Karika, III with Guadapada’s commentary where a sevenfold division is given—the same as above minus manas)

It is thus from Prakriti and the activity of the gunas that are said to derive (or evolute) the entirety of manifested Nature.

In Bhagavad Gita, Book XII:19-23, Krishna explains:

“Know that both Nature [prakriti] and Spirit [purusha] are beginningless; and know that changes [vikaras] and powers [gunas] are Nature-born.

“Nature is declared to be the source of cause, causing and effect; Spirit is declared to be the cause, in the tasting of pleasures and pains.

“For Spirit, resting in Nature, tastes of the Nature-born powers [gunas]; attachment to these powers is the cause of the Spirit’s births, from good or evil wombs.

“The Supreme Spirit, here in the body, is called the Beholder, the Thinker, the Upholder, the Taster, the Lord, the Highest Self.

“Who thus knows Spirit, and Nature with her powers, whatever may be his walk here, such a one enters not into rebirth.”

It is from these two, Purusha and Prakriti, that all else in the Sankhya philosophy originates, and it is this that caused some interpreters to label Sankhya as a dualistic philosophy. However, when we understand the true position of Purusha (neither evolving, nor an evolute) we understand that the system is not, in fact, dualistic, but only seemingly so. All is said to evolute from Prakriti, including the principles of Buddhi and Manas, and thus all relative consciousness has its foundation in “Nature” or “Matter.” Prakriti is said to be either unmanifest or manifest; the former being termed Pradhana. It is explained that Prakriti unmanifest is the perfect equilibrium of the gunas, manifest is the activity or non-equilibrium of the gunas. We may explore the gunas thus:

Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are the three gunas, which may be translated as “Powers of Nature.” In the Sankhya philosophy the gunas are the properties or elements that constitute Prakriti. Sankhya teaches that it is the action of the gunas, first upon each other—i.e. Rajas acting upon Sattva giving rise to Buddhi, thence Ahamkara, Manas, and the indriyas—and second upon that which they evolute—i.e. Tamas acting upon Ahamkara giving rise to the tan-matras and thence the gross elements—that establishes the entirety of manifested Nature.

The gunas are thus also fundamental to Maya (illusion or glamour), as Krishna explains in Bhagavad Gita, Book VII:12-14:

“. . . whatever forms there are of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, know they also are from Me; nor am I in them, but they in Me.

“Entranced by the forms resting on these Three Powers, this whole world recognizes not Me, who am above them, everlasting.

“For wondrous is this Glamour [maya] of mine, formed of the Three Powers, very hard to pass beyond; but they who come to Me pass indeed beyond this Glamour.

The binding nature of this glamour, caused by the gunas, is explained by Krishna in Book XIV of the Gita.

As we see here, it is from the gunas that arise Buddhi and Manas, terms well familiar to theosophical students. But we must add to this another term treated in Sankhya: Mahat. In Sankhya we find all three of these terms explored from a slightly different angle than we do in modern theosophical literature, but again we may try to bring light to the ideas by looking through eastern texts and theosophical literature. Let us continue our exploration:

[3] Mahat (lit. “the Great One”), is variously translated as “Universal Mind,” “Universal Cognition or Intelligence,” “Thought Divine,” “the Intelligent Soul of the World,” “The first principle of Universal Intelligence and Consciousness,” etc., etc.. It has also been referred to as “manifested Omniscience,” and may be viewed as “the first Cosmic aspect of Parabrahm.”

In the Sankhya philosophy, Mahat is viewed as a product of Prakriti (the term being used generally synonymous with Buddhi), or as the “first product” of root-nature (Mulaprakriti or Pradhana), and with others it is nearly synonymous with the Logos. From one perspective Buddhi is said to be the characteristic property of Mahat. In addition, one may view Manas as a “direct ray” from Mahat.

If we were to view the Logos as “Father” and Mahat as “Mother” we would have both the subjective and the objective side of manifestation—Mahat being “of Nature” or “of Matter” and the Logos being “of Spirit,” so to speak. Or in other words, Mahat is “the great Soul, the vehicle of Spirit.”

The following outline of the initial genesis of Cosmos, from the Secret Doctrine, may be of aid:

(1.) The ABSOLUTE; the Parabrahm of the Vedantins or the one Reality, SAT, which is, as Hegel says, both Absolute Being and Non-Being.

(2.) The first manifestation, the impersonal, and, in philosophy, unmanifested Logos, the precursor of the ‘manifested.’ This is the ‘First Cause,’ the ‘Unconscious’ of European Pantheists.

(3.) Spirit-matter, LIFE; the ‘Spirit of the Universe,’ the Purusha and Prakriti, or the second Logos.

(4.) Cosmic Ideation, MAHAT or Intelligence, the Universal World-Soul; the Cosmic Noumenon of Matter, the basis of the intelligent operations in and of Nature, also called MAHA-BUDDHI.
(Secret Doctrine, I:16)

Mahat may be also seen as synonymous with the Nous of Anaxagoras.

Or,

[3] Buddhi (from budh, to awaken): Spiritual, Universal or Divine Soul; also translated as “Wisdom” and sometimes as “intellect.” In his commentary on the Katha Upanishad, Charles Johnston refers to it as “the divine principle which brings illumination.” It is “the faculty of knowledge or intelligence,” the “inner determiner” in Man.

In the same author’s commentary on the Isha Upanishad, he refers to Buddhi as “the active potency and manifestation of Atma,” and later explains that the “divine and mysterious principle which lies behind manifested consciousness, and from which consciousness springs, is, in its unmanifested form, ever unknowable. It is in essence one with Parabrahm, the eternally Unknowable. . . . But while unknowable in its unmanifested form, the divine element is knowable in its manifested form; Atma is knowable when it is revealed as Buddhi.”

“Through the illumination of Buddhi, he [Man] is united with the Logos, this union being Liberation.” (commentary on the Prashna Upanishad, by the same)

In the Sankhya philosophy, Buddhi is the first evolute of Prakriti, or the first manifestation of the gunas. Sankhya teaches that due to cosmic vibration in Prakriti, the equilibrium of the gunas is disturbed, leading Rajas to act upon Sattva, which gives rise to Buddhi.

Then,

[4] Ahankara (Sk.). The conception of “I,” Self-consciousness or Self-identity; the “I,” the egotistical and mâyâvic principle in man, due to our ignorace which separates our “I” from the Universal One-Self. Personality, Egoism. (Theosophical Glossary)

As Gaudapada says (commentary on Samkhya Karika, XXII):

“From that Mahat, the ego is born. . . . From that ego the group of sixteen . . . is produced. That is, the five subtle elements . . . the eleven organs—the five organs of sense [and] the five organs of action [with] the eleventh mind having the characteristics of both (organs of sense and action). This group of sixteen is produced from the ego.”

[5] Manas (lit. “Mind”). In the Sankhya philosophy, Manas stands at the head of the ten indriyas—the five powers of cognition and five powers of action. “Manas is both a power of cognition and a power of action. Assimilation and differentiation are its distinctive functions.” (Nandalal Sinha, preface to Samkhya Philosophy, 1915)

In an article titled “Does Consciousness Evolve: the Answer of the Vedanta,” Charles Johnston explains that:

“The ordinary waking consciousness of the physical self rests, of course, on the perceptions of the five senses, sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, gathered together and governed by two subjective powers, which the Vedanta calls Manas and Buddhi. The meaning of Manas varies [in ancient texts] between feeling and thinking, but its essence seems to be, that it receives the reports of the senses and combines them, reporting to Buddhi, which pronounces judgments on the grouped pictures thus formed and presented to it. . . . The whole of this complex of the senses, Manas and Buddhi is suffused with consciousness, thus forming the self of ordinary waking life.”

Manas is treated from a slightly different perspective in Sankhya texts than it commonly is among theosophical authors, and much light is shed by a study of both.

We come then to the ten [6-15] Indriyas, the “organs of action and sense.” In Sankhya philosophy, the five indriyas of Cognition (jnanendriyas) are the powers located in the Eye, Ear, Nose, Tongue and Skin—or: seeing, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The five indiryas of Action (karmendriyas) are the powers located in the Hands, Feet, Vocal Instrument, the Excretory Organ and the Organ of Generation—or: grasping, moving, speech, elimination and reproduction. At the head of the indriyas stands Manas.

With the addition of the five [16-20] Tanmatras, the “Subtle Elements,” or that which interacts with the five jnanendriyas (“organs of sense”), and the five [21-25] Gross Elements, “Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether (Akasa),” we have the full overview of the twenty-five tattvas.

The Sankhya Karika with Gaudapada’s commentary gives forth the teachings of Sankhya on these, tracing the process of Emanation from the “beginning” to the full flowering of Manifestation.


In the interest of promoting new and enlivened study of Sankhya we have begun to compile texts, articles and reference material on the system. We believe all students of eastern philosophy, and all theosophists, will benefit greatly from even a basic study of the principles of this most ancient of systems. We also believe that much light can be shed on orthodox interpretations of Sankhya by those who have studied these ideas from the unique perspective offered by theosophical literature.

For more on Sankhya, see here.


1. See complete translation by Anand Aadhar Prabhu, http://bhagavata.org/. The details of Kapila’s life and teachings fall primarily within Canto 3, Chapters 25-33.

It may also be worth keeping in mind the following statement on this Purana:

“The Purâna is in duty bound to speak as it does [in regards to Kapila]. It has a dogma to promulgate and a policy to carry out—that of great secrecy with regard to mystical divine truths divulged for countless ages only at initiation.” (Secret Doctrine, II:571)

2. It is this difference (which may be as much a difference of interpretation as a difference of actual teaching) that leads “theistic Vedantins” to view the Kapila of the Bhagavata Purana as “theistic” and the Kapila of modern Sankhya as “atheistic.” See, for instance, Teachings of Lord Kapila: The Son of Devahuti (1977), by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda, page 2, etc.

3. See Kapila’s teachings as recorded in the Bhagavata Purana (3:25-33) in Appendix B of our previous article. Compare these teachings with those recorded by Ishvara Krishna, in the Samkhya Karika.

4. See Bhagavata Purana, 3:25-33.

5. See Mahabharata, 12:268-271.

6. Emanation, the Doctrine of. In its metaphysical meaning, it is opposed to Evolution, yet one with it. Science teaches that evolution is physiologically a mode of generation in which the germ that develops the foetus pre-exists already in the parent, the development and final form and characteristics of that germ being accomplished in nature; and that in cosmology the process takes place blindly through the correlation of the elements, and their various compounds. Occultism answers that this is only the apparent mode, the real process being Emanation, guided by intelligent Forces under an immutable Law. Therefore, while the Occultists and Theosophists believe thoroughly in the doctrine of Evolution as given out by Kapila and Manu, they are Emanationists rather than Evolutionists. The doctrine of Emanation was at one time universal. . . . (H. P. Blavatsky, Theosophical Glossary)

7. See our translation of the Tattva-Samasa, along with Max Müller’s “On the Tattvasamāsa and its place in Sāṃkhya.” The Tattva Samasa is an unusual and likely very ancient summary of Sankhya that differs in significant ways from the later Sankhya system.