What is Classical Sāṃkhya?
Sāṃkhya is one of the most ancient of India’s philosophic traditions and its influence was widespread in Indian thought for centuries. The Sāṃkyakārikā, composed by Iśvarakrṣṇa sometime before the mid-sixth century, is the one and only source text for what has been called ‘classical Sāṃkhya’ (Larson 1979: 4). It is a short text of 73 verses outlining the main philosophical position of the Hindu darśana known as the Sāṃkhya School. While there are many later texts (the vast majority not translated or studied) demonstrating the transformations and development of the School throughout the centuries, most contemporary scholars agree that the Sāṃkyakārikā presents the earliest extant source of the classical Sāṃkhyan position.
The first half of the first verse of the Kārikā reads:
duḥkhatrayābhighātāj jijñāsā tadabhighātake hetau |
“Due to the threefold affliction of suffering,
There is the desire to know the means for its removal.”
Thus the central aim of Sāṃkhya, like the other renouncer traditions of India, is to counteract human suffering. To do this, Sāṃkhya proposes a special type of metaphysical dualism, which asserts the absolute distinction between an infinite number of nodes of pure consciousness (puruṣas) on the one hand, and the phenomenal world (prakrti) on the other. According to Sāṃkhya all psycho-physical processes are systemically interconnected in a causally deterministic phenomenal realm, which we can understand as ‘nature’. However, this natural world only becomes manifest when it reacts to it being ‘witnessed’ by individual nodes of pure consciousness. Each node represents a pure transcendental subjectivity, which is a completely passive observer or ‘witness’ to the phenomenal world. In this regard, while the natural world is considered ontologically real, it manifests in a particularly distinctive way for each node of consciousness. Thus Sāṃkhya may be viewed as asserting a special type of philosophical ‘perspectivism’. According to Sāṃkhya, liberation is attained through the practice of discriminating all the various processes of the psycho-physical entity and disassociating from them as either ‘me’ or ‘mine’. Once all possible phenomena in the field of consciousness are recognized as not consciousness, nature returns to its unmanifest state and the transcendental subject resides isolated (kaivalya) in its own nature; thus liberation from suffering has been obtained.
The ancient philosophy of Sāṃkhya can be applied to modern life in a number of valuable ways. Rather than becoming overly concerned with the metaphysics of the system, Sāṃkhya can be seen as a psychological tool to overcome suffering. Through rigorous philosophical and psychological analysis, a person can learn to detach or disassociate from the psychophysical entity, and realize witness consciousness or what I refer to as transcendental subjectivity. So shall we begin?
YOU are not your bank account; you are not old or young, fat or skinny, good-looking or ugly, tall or short. You are not your personality, your personal history, your wants, desires, hopes, dreams, fantasies, or memories. The psychophysical entity you think you are is not you. It is a part of nature. All of it – bones, blood, organs, brain, thoughts, memories, and personality – is linked inexorably to the laws of physics, cause and effect, and is part of an interconnected web of conditioning by the society, culture and environment in which it is located. But none of this is YOU.
So what are YOU? YOU are the WITNESS. You are a node of pure consciousness; a transcendental subjectivity that is the ‘enjoyer’ of all phenomena. Without this source consciousness there would be no experience at all. All experience is experience from a particular point of view. That point is you. And as the ancient texts assert, “ the eye cannot see itself.” In this case, it is “the ‘I’ cannot see itself.” But this “I” is not your ego; your ego is merely a construct, and it also is a part of the world of nature. You as witness are and always have been free; you have never been bound by any suffering, sadness, depression, or loss.
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