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The Origin of the Universe: A Brief Overview of Sankhya Philosophy

In the last post of our #VEDA101 series, we introduced the "Darshanas," which are six fundamental philosophy systems that arose from the Vedic sciences about 2,000 years ago.

In this post, we’re going to narrow in on the first of six darshanas- Sankhya.


Before we get into all the philosophy terms and concepts, I wanted to begin this article with a personal favorite quote from Isha Upanishad.

It’s a prose written with an attempt to describe the nature of the universe through Sankhya philosophy.

”Om purnamadah purnamidam
purnat purnamudachyate
purnasya purnamadaya

As with anything Sanskrit, there are immeasurable ways to translate it, here are a few possibilities:

“This is full, that is full. From fullness comes out fullness. If you remove this fullness from that fullness, still fullness remains full.”

“This is complete, that is complete. From completeness comes out completeness. If you remove this completeness from that completeness, still complete remains complete.”

“This is still, that is still. From stillness comes out stillness. If you remove this stillness from that stillness, still stillness remains still.”

Why is this quote relevant? Sankhya Philosophy provides a completely unique way of seeing the world by explaining that concept further.

It introduces spherical thinking.

For example, if you take furniture out of a room, what remains is the room minus the furniture. The room is no longer what is was before after taking something from it.

This is linear thinking.

For example, when a mother gives birth to a baby, the baby is complete and the mother is also complete. Just because the baby is born from the mother, does not mean the mother is not lacking something. If anything, she has magnified her splendor. This is spherical thinking.

Another example is the concept of zero- it cannot be taken away from something, but it still remains when everything else is taken away.

Sankya helps us to have a deeper understanding of this spherical concept of impermeable fullness, completeness, stillness, infiniteness, etc.

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The oldest of the six systems, Sankhya translates to “enumeration” or “realization of the truth,” hinting at its reference to the steps of evolution.

(It is also often written as "Samkhya,"or "Sankya/Samkya" without the "H.")

The Sankhya system of philosophy describes how the universe was created, as well as, how it expands, transforms, and eventually comes to an end.

And it does so with 24 building blocks or principles called “Tattvas.”

These building blocks are:

  • Purusha and Prakriti: Consciousness, Matter / the feminine and masculine energy or spirit

  • Mahat: Cosmic intelligence

  • Ahankara: Ego or Individualizing factors

  • Manas: Mind, cognitive action

  • Panchagyanedria: five sensory organs

  • Panchakarmendriya: five action organs

  • Panchatanmatras: five causal elements

  • Panchamahabhutas: five universal elements

If all that Sanskrit goes right over your head, just let it fly on over right now because we’re going to get into each aspect a little deeper right now.

According to Sankhya philosophy, our existence began and was inspired by complete stillness, which it refers to a state of equilibrium between Purusha and Prakriti. Referenced as the originators of existence, or "the original two," Purusha and Prakriti are the representations of masculine and feminine, yin and yang, dark and light, consciousness and matter.

Purusha is considered the primordial consciousness. Primordial describes something that has been around since the beginning of time. Purusha is this conscious ground on which the rest of existence... well... exists. It is the home or abode for everything else to play.

Connected to the concept of masculine energy, Purusha is eternal and omnipresent, imitating passive awareness. Classical teachers would say it is “Neti, Neti,” meaning it is not this and it is not that. Purusha is described as being pure, absolute, indestructible, formless, colorless, odorless, and simply put, lacking any discernable qualities.

Consciousness, however, needs something to be conscious of, and this is where Prakriti comes in. Described as unmanifest, infinite, impure, and dynamic, Prakriti is the source of all physical existence or matter. In other words, it is what the universe is created out of. It is both cause and effect, matter and energy. But, because matter is not conscious, it requires Purusha to animate it, allowing it to also become conscious of itself.

The union of Purusha and Prakriti results in the third building block- Mahat. This is the state in which Prakriti (consciousness) receives light from Purusha (matter), and in turn, sees itself, triggering the beginning of the universe. Literally meaning “the great one,” Mahat is seen as cosmic intelligence, collective awareness, or even the spirit of the universe. Similar to how each individual flame of a candle adds to the overall light of the room, Mahat is a dimension resulting from the collaboration every individual spirit within it... which leads us right into the next Tattva.

While Mahat is the mass awareness the universe has of itself, Buddhi is what we call the individual awarenes each living being can have of themself. Buddhi is our intellect- our power of intelligence that helps us discern truth from lie, right from long, eternal from temporary, conscious from unconscious, etc. It is the key part of our innate natures that allow us to discover and become enlightened by new things, including our higher self. Both Yoga and Ayurveda emphasize the importance of cultivating Buddhi for equanimity, self-realization, and optimal health. When we cultivate Buddhi, we are growing closer and more aware of our mind and body in efforts to tune in and take note of where we can use them more efficiently or nourish them better. It is said that one of the main causes of disease and disharmony is a malfunctioning buddhi (which can be likened to impaired intuition).

And now you're probably wondering "how do I make sure my Buddhi is functioning properly?" Well, the first step would be understanding what rules our Buddhi.

Which leads us right into the next Tattva, Ahankara, aka our Ego. Ahankara controls Buddhi.

And, before we go further, I'd like to point out that the Vedic understanding of Ego is far from the superficial and negative connotation of being “egotistic.” Sankya philosophy describes the ego as being the individual identity that each human being takes on. For example, by calling someone "egotistic," you are essentially using your own ego to differentiate between yourself and that person.

Another way to describe Ahankara is by looking at its literal translation. “Aham” means “I” and “Kara” meaning creation, action, fabrication, and many others. Therefore, Ahankara is our I-maker, I-creator, I-fabrication, etc. It helps you understand what is “you,” and what is not “you,”giving you a sense of identity apart from everyone else, which is necessary for survival.

Without that sense of “I,” we wouldn't be learning the different lessons as an individual person experiencing this individual experience. And even more powerfully, its literal translation hints at the fact that our ego, who we are, isn't fixed or set. It's not a mindset we're born with. It's not reality. Ahankara is a process, it is both the cumulative effect of our divisive thoughts and experiences, and the part of ourself that helps us grow aware of these thoughts and experiences.

In order to understand how our Ahankara manifests in our personality and portrays these divisive thoughts, Sankya darshana breaks Ahankara down into three categories: Rajas, Tamas, and Sattva.

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Though it's not exactly like this, you can see the three categories of Ahankara as a scale between stagnancy and hyperactivity, with a happy medium in the middle. Tamas Ahankara is that stagnant, slow, inhibiting, and heavy aspect of Self. It is grounding, relaxing, and calming when balanced, but can cause confusion, delusion, and lack of motivation in excess.

Rajas, its seemingly polar opposite is related to the easily excited, fiery, and intense self. It is expressive, active, transformative, and motivating, but can quickly turn into chaos, disintegration, and burn out. Often when people discuss Rajas and Tamas, it is in references to their less desirable attributes, however, all three of these Ahankara are necessary for our existence! Where Tamasic energy enables us to take a break, rest, recover, and stay grounded, Rajas provides us with energy, inspiration, and a desire for positive change.

Somewhere in the middle of this make-believe scale, we can find Sattva, the perfect state of balance and purity. Think about how the world is seen and interpreted by a child who hasn’t experienced life’s hardships or been conditioned into certain thought processes yet.. they are light, optimistic, and stable. A true yoga practice strives to gravitate more toward a Sattvic mindset, helping us learn to find peace and acceptance in difficult times.

All three categories of Ahankara then combine with Mahat (the third tattva we discussed) to create various forms of universal existence: the five basic elements in both their manifest and unmanifest forms, as well as, the 11 human sense organs.

The first combination we will discuss results when Mahat merges with all three Ahankara as a collective whole to form the first sensory organ- Manas. Manas literally means “mind,” or more specifically, our mindset and thought processes. Considered as our outer mind, Manas is more of a material attribute than a theoretical experience... meaning we can observe it as a object.

This phenomena can be experienced in practices such as meditation, self-awareness, or even in the moments we have inner dialogue. Manas is essentially a fragmentation of reality based on our conditioning, experiences, traumas, and relationship with Ahankara (ego). Manas is easily influenced by the three aspects of Ahankara.

So now you're probably wondering "okay but how can I develop a better relationship with Ahankara and Manas?" And again, we are lead right into the next Tattva.

Manas is directed by two different sets of five sensory organs. The first set comes into existence when Mahat unites with Sattva Ahankara. What results is the Panchagyanedriya (pancha=five, gyan= sense, driya= organ)- the ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and eyes. These organs give us the power of knowing and obtaining information.

The ears allow us to discern sound. The skin enables us to perceive touch. The eyes help us recognize light. The tongue provides a way to taste. The nose observes smells exuding from Earth.

The five sensory organs are only receptive. They only take in information. They cannot be expressed or acted on without the kid the second set of sensory organs that arise from Sattva’s unification with Mahat- the Panchakarmendriya(pancha=five, karma=action, driya= organ). These are the hands, feet, vocal cords, reproductive organs, and urethra/ anus, which provide us with the power to act on the knowledge we received with our sensory organs (panchagyanendria).

Our hands allow us to grasp objects to touch. Our feet allow us to move under the direction of sight. Our reproductive organs hold the potential for us to reproduce, which is held within water and taste. Our anus and urethra are the eliminatory organs, allowing us to release earth in the form of waste.

While the sensory organs were only receptive, the action organs are only expressive. They do not take in information, they act on it. While the sensory organs are discerning and perceiving, the action organs performing and expressing. The Panchakarmendriya contain the potential for all action in nature and are manifested in different ways based on how we perceive them and the situation via the Panchagyanedriya.

The next Tattva we will discuss results when Mahat merges with Tamas (inertia), causing another two powerful events to take place.

The first event we're going to cover is the generation of the Panchamahabhuta. Pancha means 5 (as we’ve already covered), then “maha” = great and “bhuta” = elements. These five great elements are , or five great elements- space, air, water, fire, and earth; and they are what all forms of matter- both living and nonliving- are made of.

We will get into the five elements in detail in a future post, but to keep it give you a little glimpse:

  • Space (“akasha”) is the primary element of which all the other elements get to play in. It is literally the space around and within us. You can think as big as outer space, all the way down to the space between parts of our body, like our skin, muscles, and bones.

  • Air (“vayu”) is the element that provides movement and breath.

  • Fire (“tejas”) provides light, heat, power, and transformation

  • Water (“jala”) allows for cooling, fluidity, and moisture

  • Earth (“Prithvi”) enables nourishment, building, bulking, and solidity

From the phone or computer you’re reading this on, to the foods you eat and air you breathe, to the pet living in your house and plants outside it- everything is a unique unfolding of these Panchamahabhuta. But similar to how Prakriti needed Purusha to animate it and how the Panchagyanedriya needed the Panchakarmendriya to perform... the Panchamahabhuta require an accompanying Tattva to manifest.

The second event arising from Mahat meeting Tamas is the creation of the Panchatanmatras, or five causative elements. They are sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell... but they are not the actual action of performing these elements. The Panchatanmatras are essentially the unmanifest forms of what the actual five elements, the Panchamahabhuta, are capable of.

They are the basis of which the other attributes of Sankhya philosophy are formed, expressed, and experienced. Giving us the power of will, the tanmatras literally inspire and spark the formation of the world as we see it. They cannot be touched or performed, but experienced subtly.

From the Panchatanmatras and Panchamahabhutas, the rest of the unvierse as we know it is formed- from me to you and every person, animal, plant, and object in between.

Sankya philosophy gives a scientific basis to the Vedic sciences such as Ayurveda and Yoga. As a philosophical expression of consciousness evolving from non-material to material, it helps to explain the origin of our universe- a topic that perplexes the modern day scientist.

Want to learn more?

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From the doshas to the gunas and more, we’re breaking it down for you in layman’s terms.


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