A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 1

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1922 | 212,082 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of the khandhas: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the fifth part in the series called the “buddhist philosophy”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 5 - The Khandhas

The word khandha (Skr. skandha) means the trunk of a tree and is generally used to mean group or aggregate[1]. We have seen that Buddha said that there was no ātman (soul). He said that when people held that they found the much spoken of soul, they really only found the five khandhas together or any one of them.

The khandhas are aggregates of bodily and psychical states which are immediate with us and are divided into fiveclasses:

  1. rūpa (four elements, the body, the senses), sense data, etc.,
  2. vedanā (feeling—pleasurable, painful and indifferent),
  3. saññā (conceptual knowledge),
  4. saṅkhāra (synthetic mental states and the synthetic functioning of compound sense-afīfections, compound feelings and compound concepts),
  5. viññāna (consciousness)[2].

All these states rise depending one upon the other (paṭicca-samuppanna) and when a man says that he perceives the self he only deludes himself, for he only perceives one or more of these. The word rūpa in rūpakhandha stands for matter and material qualities, the senses, and the sense data[3]. But “rūpa” is also used in the sense of pure organic affections or states of mind as we find in the Khandha Yamaha, 1. p. 16, and also in Saṃyutta Nikāya , III. 86. Rūpaskandha according to Dharma-samgraha means the aggregate of five senses, the five sensations, and the implicatory communications associated in sense perceptions (vijñapti).

The elaborate discussion of Dhammasaṅgaṇi begins by defining rūpa as

cattāro ca mahābhūtā catunnañca mahābhūtānam upādāya rupam

(the four mahābhūtas or elements and that proceeding from the grasping of that is called rūpa)[4].

Buddhaghoṣa explains it by saying that rūpa means the four mahābhūtas and those which arise depending (nissāya) on them as a modification of them. In the rūpa the six senses including their affections are also included.

In explaining why the four elements are called mahābhūtas, Buddhaghoṣa says :

“Just as a magician (māyākāra) makes the water which is not hard appear as hard, makes the stone which is not gold appear as gold ; just as he himself though not a ghost nor a bird makes himself appear as a ghost or a bird, so these elements though not themselves blue make themselves appear as blue (nīlam upādā rūpant), not yellow, red, or white make themselves appear as yellow, red or white (odātam upādārūpam), so on account of their similarity to the appearances created by the magician they are called mahābhūta[5].”

In the Saṃyutta Nikāya we find that the Buddha says,

“O Bhikkhus it is called rūpam because it manifests (rūpyati); how does it manifest? It manifests as cold, and as heat, as hunger and as thirst, it manifests as the touch of gnats, mosquitos, wind, the sun and the snake; it manifests, therefore it is called rūpa[6].”

If we take the somewhat conflicting passages referred to above for our consideration and try to combine them so as to understand what is meant by rūpa, I think we find that that which manifested itself to the senses and organs was called rūpa. No distinction seems to have been made between the sense-data as colours, smells, etc., as existing in the physical world and their appearance as sensations. They were only numerically different and the appearance of the sensations was dependent upon the sense-data and the senses but the sense-data and the sensations were “rūpa.” Under certain conditions the sense-data were followed by the sensations. Buddhism did not probably start with the same kind of division of matter and mind as we now do. And it may not be out of place to mention that such an opposition and duality were found neither in the Upaniṣads nor in the Sāṃkhya system which is regarded by some as pre-Buddhistic.

The four elements manifested themselves in certain forms and were therefore called rūpa; the forms of affection that appeared were also called rūpa; many other mental states or features which appeared with them were also called rūpa[7]. The āyatanas or the senses were also called rūpa[8]. The mahābhūtas or four elements were themselves but changing manifestations, and they together with all that appeared in association with them were called rūpa and formed the rūpa khandha (the classes of sense-materials, sense-data, senses and sensations).

In Saṃyutta Nikāya (ill. 101) it is said that

“the four mahābhūtas were the hetu and the paccaya for the communication of the rūpakkhandha (rūpakkhandḥassa paññāpanāya). Contact (sense-contact, phassa) is the cause of the communication of feelings (vedana); sense-contact was also the hetu and paccaya for the communication of the saññākkhandha; sense-contact is also the hetu and paccaya for the communication of thesaṅkhāra-kkhandha. But nāmarūpa is the hetu and the paccaya for the communication of the viññānakkhandha.”

Thus not only feelings arise on account of the sense-contact but saññā and saṅkhāra also arise therefrom. Saññā is that where specific knowing or conceiving takes place. This is the stage where the specific distinctive knowledge as the yellow or the red takes place.

Mrs Rhys Davids writing on saññā says:

“In editing the second book of the Abhidhamma pitaka I found a classification distinguishing between saññā as cognitive assimilation on occasion of sense, and saññā as cognitive assimilation of ideas by way of naming. The former is called perception of resistance, or opposition (patigha-saññā). This, writes Buddhaghoṣa, is perception on occasion of sight, hearing, etc., when consciousness is aware of the impact of impressions ; of external things as different, we might say.

The latter is called perception of the equivalent word or name (adhivachānā-saññā) and is exercised by the sensus communis (mano), when e.g.

‘one is seated...and asks another who is thoughtful: “What are you thinking of?” one perceives through his speech.’

Thus there are two stages of saññā-consciousness, 1. contemplating sense-impressions, 2. ability to know what they are by naming[9].”

About saṅkhāra we read in Saṃyutta Nikāya (ill. 87) that it is called saṅkhāra because it synthesises (abhisañkharonti), it is that which conglomerated rūpa as rūpa, conglomerated saññā as saññā, saṅkhāra as saṅkhāra and consciousness (viññāna) as consciousness. It is called saṅkhāra because it synthesises the conglomerated (sañkhatam abhisañkharonti). It is thus a synthetic function which synthesises the passive rūpa, saññā, saṅkhāra and viññāna elements. The fact that we hear of 52 saṅkhāra states and also that the saṅkhāra exercises its synthetic activity on the conglomerated elements in it, goes to show that probably the word saṅkhāra is used in two senses, as mental states and as synthetic activity.

Viññāna or consciousness meant according to Buddhaghoṣa, as we have already seen in the previous section, both the stage at which the intellectual process started and also the final resulting consciousness.

Buddhaghoṣa in explainingthe process of Buddhist psychology says that

“consciousness (citta) first comes into touch (phassa) with its object (ārammaṇa) and thereafter feeling, conception (saññā) and volition (cetanā) come in. This contact is like the pillars of a palace, and the rest are but the superstructure built upon it (dabbasambhārasadisā).

But it should not be thought that contact is the beginning of the psychological processes, for in one whole consciousness (ekacittasmiṃ) it cannot be said that this comes first and that comes after, so we can take contact in association with feeling (vedanā), conceiving (saññā) or volition (cetanā); it is itself an immaterial state but yet since it comprehends objects it is called contact.”

There is no impinging on one side of the object (as in physical contact), nevertheless contact causes consciousness and object to be in collision, as visible object and visual organs, sound and hearing; thus impact is its function ; or it has impact as its essential property in the sense of attainment, owing to the impact of the physical basis with the mental object.

For it is said in the Commentary:—

“contact in the four planes of existence is never without the characteristic of touch with the object; but the function of impact takes place in the five doors. For to sense, or five-door contact, is given the name ‘having the characteristic of touch’ as well as ‘having the function of impact.’ But to contact in the mind-door there is only the characteristic of touch, but not the function of impact.

And then this Sutta is quoted

‘As if, sire, two rams were to fight, one ram to represent the eye, the second the visible object, and their collision contact. And as if, sire, two cymbals were to strike against each other, or two hands were to clap against each other; one hand would represent the eye, the second the visible object and their collision contact. Thus contact has the characteristic of touch and the function of impact[10]’.

Contact is the manifestation of the union of the three (the object, the consciousness and the sense) and its effect is feeling (vedanā)', though it is generated by the objects it is felt in the consciousness and its chief feature is experiencing (anubhava) the taste of the object. As regards enjoying the taste of an object, the remaining associated states enjoy it only partially.

Of contact there is (the function of) the mere touching, of perception the mere noting or perceiving, of volition the mere coordinating, of consciousness the mere cognizing. But feeling alone, through governance, proficiency, mastery, enjoys the taste of an object. For feeling is like the king, the remaining states are like the cook.

As the cook, when he has prepared food of diverse tastes, puts it in a basket, seals it, takes it to the king, breaks the seal, opens the basket, takes the best of all the soup and curries, puts them in a dish, swallows (a portion) to find out whether they are faulty or not and afterwards offers the food of various excellent tastes to the king, and the king, being lord, expert, and master, eats whatever he likes, even so the mere tasting of the food by the cook is like the partial enjoyment of the object by the remaining states, and as the cook tastes a portion of the food, so the remaining states enjoy a portion of the object, and as the king, being lord, expert and master, eats the meal according to his pleasure so feeling being lord expert, and master, enjoys the taste of the object and therefore it is said that enjoyment or experience is its function[11].”

The special feature of saññā is said to be the recognizing (paccabhiuud) by means of a sign (abhiññānena). According to another explanation, a recognition takes place by the inclusion of the totality (of aspects)— sabbasaṅgahikavasena. The work of volition (cetanā) is said to be coordination or binding together (abhisandahana).

“Volition is exceedingly energetic and makes a double effort, a double exertion.

Hence the Ancients said

‘Volition is like the nature of a landowner, a cultivator who taking fifty-five strong men, went down to the fields to reap. He was exceedingly energetic and exceedingly strenuous; he doubled his strength and said  “Take your sickles” and so forth, pointed out the portion to be reaped, offered them drink, food, scent, flowers, etc., and took an equal share of the work’

The simile should be thus applied: volition is like the cultivator, the fifty-five moral states which arise as factors of consciousness are like the fifty-five strong men; like the time of doubling strength, doubling effort by the cultivator is the doubled strength, doubled effort of volition as regards activity in moral and immoral acts[12].”

It seems that probably the active side operating in saṅkhāra was separately designated as cetanā (volition).

“When one says ‘I’ what he does is that he refers either to all the khandhas combined or any one of them and deludes himself that that was ‘I.’ Just as one could not say that the fragrance of the lotus belonged to the petals, the colour or the pollen, so one could not say that the rūpa was ‘I’ or that the vedanā was ‘I’ or any of the other khandhas was ‘I.’ There is nowhere to be found in the khandhas ‘I am[13]’.”

Footnotes and references:


The word skandha is used in Chāndogya, II. 23 [trayo dharmaskandhāh yajñah adhyayanam dānam) in the sense of branches and in almost the same sense in Maitrī, VII. 11.


Samyutta Nikāya, ill. 86, etc.


Abhidhammatthasaṅgaha, J. P. T. S. 1884, p. 27 ff.


Dhammasaṅgaṇi, pp. 124-179.    


Atthasālini, p. 299.


Saṃyutta Nikaya , ill. 86.




Dhammasaṅgaṇi , p. I24ff.


Buddhist Psychology, pp. 49, 50.


Atthasālini, pp. 108; translation, pp. 143-144.


Atthasālini, pp. 109-110; translation, pp. 145-146.


Ibid. p. hi ; translation, pp. 147-148.


Saṃyutta Nikāya, III. 130.

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