A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of samkhya and yoga in the gita: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the third part in the series called the “the philosophy of the bhagavad-gita”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 3 - Sāṃkhya and Yoga in the Gītā

In the Gītā Sāṃkhya and Yoga are sometimes distinguished from each other as two different paths, and sometimes they are identified. But though the Gītā is generally based on the doctrines of the guṇas, prakṛti and its derivatives, yet the word sāṃkhya is used here in the sense of the path of knowledge or of philosophic wisdom. Thus in the Gītā, 11. 39, the path of knowledge is distinguished from that of performance of duties. Lord Kṛṣṇa says there that he has just described the wisdom of Sāṃkhya and he is going to describe the wisdom of Yoga. This seems to give us a clue to what is meant by Sāṃkhya wisdom. This wisdom, however, seems to be nothing more than elaboration of the doctrine of the immortality of soul and the associated doctrine of rebirth, and also the doctrine that, howsoever the body might be affected and suffer changes of birth, growth and destruction, the self is absolutely unaffected by all these changes; the self cannot be cut or burned; it is eternal, all-pervasive, unchangeable, indescribable and unthinkable.

In another passage of the Gītā, xm. 25, it is said that there are others who perceive the self in accordance with sāṃkhya-yoga ; and Śaṅkara explains this passage to mean that sāṃkhya-yoga means the realization of the self as being absolutely different from the three guṇas, sattva, rajas and tamas. If this is Sāṃkhya, the meaning of the word yoga in this passage (anye sāṃkhyena yogena) is not explained. Śaṅkara does not expound the meaning of the word yoga, but explains the word sāṃkhya and says that this sāṃkhya is yoga, which seems to be an evasion.

Śrīdhara follows Śaṅkara’s interpretation of sāṃkhya, but finds it difficult to swallow his identification of sāṃkhya with yoga, and he interprets yoga here as the yoga (of Patañjali) with eight accessories, but does not explain how this aṣṭāṅga-yoga can be identified with sāṃkhya. It is, no doubt, true that in the immediately preceding verse it is said that, howsoever a man may behave, if he knows the proper nature of puruṣa and of the prakṛti and the guṇas, he is never born again; but there is no reason to suppose that the phrase sāṃkhyena yogena refers to the wisdom recommended in the preceding verse; for this verse summarizes different paths of self-realization and says that there are some who perceive the self in the self through the self, by meditation, others by sāṃkhya-yoga and others by karma-yoga. In another passage it is said that the Sāṃkhyas follow the path of knowledge (jñāna-yoga), while the Yogins follow the path of duties (Gītā, iii. 3). If the word yoga means “association,” as it does in various contexts, then sāṃkhya and sāṃkhya-yoga would mean more or less the same thing; for sāṃkhya-yoga would only mean association with sāṃkhya, and the phrase sāṃkhyena yogena might mean either association with sāṃkhya or the union of sāṃkhya.

It has already been said that, following the indications of the Gītā, 11. 39, sāṃkhya should mean the realization of the true nature of the self as immortal, all-pervasive, unchangeable and infinite. It has also been pointed out that it is such a true realization of the self, with its corresponding moral elevation, that leads to the true communion of the self with the higher self or God. Thus this meaning of sāṃkhya on the one hand distinguishes the path of sāṃkhya from the path of yoga as a path of performance of duties, and at the same time identifies the path of sāṃkhya with the path of yoga as communion with God.

Thus we find that the Gītā, v. 4, 5, says that

“fools only think Sāṃkhya and Yoga to be different, not so wise men,”

since, accepting either of them, one attains the fruit of them both. The goal reached by the followers of Sāṃkhya is also reached by the Yogins ; he who perceives Sāṃkhya and Yoga to be the same perceives them in the right perspective. In these passages sāṃkhya and yoga seem from the context to refer respectively to karma-sannyāsa and karma-yoga. Sāṃkhya here can only in a secondary way mean the renunciation of the fruits of one’s actions (karma-sannyāsa).

The person who realizes the true nature of his self, and knows that the self is unchangeable and infinite, cannot feel himself attached to the fruits of his actions and cannot be affected by ordinary mundane desires and cravings. As in the case of the different uses of the word yoga, so here also the word sāṃkhya, which primarily means “true knowledge,” is also used to mean “renunciation”; and since karma-yoga means the performance of one’s duties in a spirit of renunciation, sāṃkhya and yoga mean practically the same thing and are therefore identified here; and they are both regarded as leading to the same results. This would be so, even if yoga were used to denote “communion”; for the idea of performance of one’s duties has almost always communion with God as its indispensable correlate. Thus in the two passages immediately following the identification of sāṃkhya and yoga we find the Gītā (v. 6, 7) saying that without karma-yoga it is hard to renounce karma ; and the person who takes the path of karma-yoga speedily attains Brahman. The person who thus through karma-yoga comes into union (with Brahman) is pure in spirit and self-controlled, and, having identified himself with the universal spirit in all beings, he is not affected by his deeds.

One thing that emerges from the above discussion is that there is no proof that the word sāṃkhya in the Gītā means the discernment of the difference of prakrti and the guṇas from puruṣa, as Śaṅkara in one place suggests (Gītā, xm. 25), or that it refers to the cosmology and ontology of prakṛti, the guṇas and their evolutes of the traditional Kapila-Sāṃkhya. The philosophy of the guṇas and the doctrine of puruṣa were, no doubt, known to the Gītā ; but nowhere is this philosophy called sāṃkhya. Sāṃkhya in the Gītā means true knowledge (tattva-jñāna) or self-knowledge (ātma-bodha). Śaṅkara, commenting on the Gītā, xvm. 13, interprets sāṃkhya to mean vedānta , though in verse xm. 25 he interprets the word as meaning the discernment of the difference between the guṇas and the puruṣa, which would decidedly identify the sāṃkhya of the Gītā with the Kapila-Sāṃkhya.

The Mahā-bhārata also refers to sāṃkhya and yoga in several places. But in almost all places sāṃkhya means either the traditional school of Kapila-Sāṃkhya or some other school of Sāṃkhya, more or less similar to it: yoga also most often refers either to the yoga of Patañjali or some earlier forms of it. In one place are found passages identifying sāṃkhya and yoga, which agree almost word for word with similar passages of the Gītā[1]. But it does not seem that the sāṃkhya or the yoga referred to in the Mahā-bhārata has anything to do with the idea of Sāṃkhya or yoga in the Gītā. As has already been pointed out, the yoga in the Gītā means the dedication to God and renunciation of the fruits of one’s karma and being in communion with Him as the supreme Lord pervading the universe.

The chapter of the Mahābhārata just referred to speaks of turning back the senses into the manas and of turning the manas into ahaṃkāra and ahaṃkāra into buddhi and buddhi into prakṛti, thus finishing with prakṛti and its evolutes and meditating upon pure puruṣa. It is clear that this system of yoga is definitely associated with the Kapila school of Sāṃkhya. In the Mahā-bhārata, xii. 306, the predominant feature of yoga is said to be dhyāna, and the latter is said to consist of concentration of mind (ekāgratā ca manasaḥ) and breath-control (prāṇāyāma). It is said that the yogin should stop the functions of his senses by his mind, and the movement of his mind by his reason (buddhi), and in this stage he is said to be linked up (yukta) and is like a motionless flame in a still place[2]. This passage naturally reminds one of the description of dhyāna-yoga in the Gītā, VI. 11-13, 16-19 and 25,26; but the fundamental idea of yoga, as the dedication of the fruits of actions to God and communion with Him, is absent here.

It is needless to point out here that the yoga of the Gītā is in no way connected with the yoga of Buddhism. In Buddhism the sage first practises śīla, or sense-control and mind-control, and thus prepares himself for a course of stabilization or fixation of the mind (samādhāna, upadhāraṇa, patitthā). This samādhi means the concentration of the mind on right endeavours and of its states upon one particular object (ekārammana), so that they may completely cease to shift and change (sammā ca avikkhippamānā).

The sage has first to train his mind to view with disgust the appetitive desires for food and drink and their ultimate loathsome transformations as various nauseating bodily elements. When a man habituates himself to emphasizing the disgusting associations of food and drink, he ceases to have any attachment to them and simply takes them as an unavoidable evil, only awaiting the day when the final dissolution of all sorrows will come.

Secondly, the sage has to habituate his mind to the idea that all his members are made up of the four elements, earth, water, fire and wind, like the carcass of a cow at the butcher’s shop.

Thirdly, he has to habituate his mind to thinking again and again (anussati) about the virtues or greatness of the Buddha, the Saṅgha, the gods and the law of the Buddha, about the good effects of śīla and the making of gifts (cāgānussati), about the nature of death (maraṇānussati) and about the deep nature and qualities of the final extinction of all phenomena (upasamānussati).

He has also to pass through various purificatory processes. He has to go to the cremation grounds and notice the diverse horrifying changes of human carcasses and think how nauseating, loathsome, unsightly and impure they are; from this he will turn his mind to living human bodies and convince himself that they, being in essence the same as dead carcasses, are as loathsome as the latter. He should think of the anatomical parts and constituents of the body as well as of their processes, and this will help him to enter into the first jhāna , or meditation, by leading his mind away from his body.

As an aid to concentration the sage should sit in a quiet place and fix his mind on the inhaling (passāsa) and the exhaling (assāsa) of his breath, so that, instead of breathing in a more or less unconscious manner, he may be aware whether he is breathing quickly or slowly; he ought to mark this definitely by counting numbers, so that by fixing his mind on the numbers counted he may realize the whole process of inhalation and exhalation in all stages of its course. Next to this we come to brahma-vihāra, the fourfold meditation of mettā (universal friendship), karuṇā (universal pity), muditā (happiness in the prosperity and happiness of all) and upekkhā (indifference to any kind of preferment of oneself, one’s friend, enemy or a third party).

In order to habituate himself to meditation on universal friendship, a man should start with thinking how he would himself like to root out all misery and become happy, how he would himself like to avoid death and live cheerfully, and then pass over to the idea that other beings would also have the same desires. He should thus habituate himself to thinking that his friends, his enemies and all those with whom he is not connected might all live and become happy. He should fix himself to such an extent in this meditation that he should not find any difference between the happiness or safety of himself and that of others. Coming to jhānas , we find that the objects of concentration may be earth, water, fire, wind, colours, etc. In the first stage of concentration on an object there is comprehension of the name and form of the object; at the next stage the relational movement ceases, and the mind penetrates into the object without any quivering. In the next two stages there is a buoyant exaltation and a steady inward bliss, and, as a result of the one-pointedness which is the culminating effect of the progressive meditation, there is the final release of the mind (ceto-mmutti)— the Nibbāna.

It is easy to see that, though Patañjali’s yoga is under a deep debt of obligation to this Buddhist yoga , the yoga of the Gītā is unacquainted therewith. The pessimism which fills the Buddhist yoga is seen to affect not only the outlook of Patañjali’s yoga , but also most of the later Hindu modes of thought, in the form of the advisability of reflecting on the repulsive sides of things (pratipakṣa-bhāvanā) which are seemingly attractive[3]. The ideas of universal friendship, etc. were also taken over by Patañjali and later on passed into Hindu works. The methods of concentration on various ordinary objects also seem to be quite unlike what we find in the Gītā. The Gītā is devoid of any tinge of pessimism such as we find in the Buddhist yoga. It does not anywhere recommend the habit of brooding over the repulsive aspects of all things, so as to fill our minds with a feeling of disgust for all worldly things. It does not rise to the ideal of regarding all beings as friends or to that of universal compassion. Its sole aim is to teach the way of reaching the state of equanimity, in which the saint has no preferences, likes and dislikes—where the difference between the sinner and the virtuous, the self and the not-self has vanished.

The idea of yoga as self-surrendering union with God and self-surrendering performance of one’s duties is the special feature which is absent in Buddhism. This selfsurrender in God, however, occurs in Patañjali’s yoga, but it is hardly in keeping with the technical meaning of the word yoga , as the suspension of all mental states. The idea appears only once in Patañjali’s sūtras, and the entire method of yoga practices, as described in the later chapters, seems to take no notice of it. It seems highly probable, therefore, that in Patañjali’s sūtras the idea was borrowed from the Gītā, where this self-surrender to God and union with Him is defined as yoga and is the central idea which the Gītā is not tired of repeating again and again.

We have thus completely failed to trace the idea of the Gītā to any of the different sources where the subject of yoga is dealt with, such as the Yoga Upaniṣads, Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtras , Buddhist Yoga, or the Mahā-bhārata. It is only in the Pañca-rātra works that the Gītā meaning of yoga as self-surrender to God is found. Thus Ahirbudhnya-saṃhitā describes yoga as the worship of the heart (hṛdayārādhana), the offering of an oblation (haviḥ) of oneself to God or self-surrender to God (bhagavate ātma-samarpaṇam), and yoga is defined as the linking up (saṃyoga) of the lower self (jīvātmari) with the higher self (paramātman)[4]. It seems, therefore, safe to suggest that the idea of yoga in the Gītā has the same traditional source as in the Pañca-rātra works.

Footnotes and references:


yad eva yogāḥ paśyanti tat sāṃkhyair api dṛśyate ekaṃ sāṃkḥyañ ca yogañ cayaḥ paśyati sa tattva-vit.
vii. 316. 4. Compare the Gītā, v. 5.


Cf. the Gītā, vi. 19, yathā dīpo nivāta-sthaḥ, etc.


See Nyāya-mañjarī, Vairāgya-śataka, Śānti-śataka.


The Ahirbudhnya-saṃhitā, of course, introduces many observations about the nerves (nāḍī) and the vāyus, which probably became associated with the Pañca-rātra tradition in later times.

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