A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

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

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

Part 4 - Sāṃkhya Philosophy in the Gītā

It has been said before that there is no proof that the word sāṃkhya in the Gītā means the traditional Sāṃkhya philosophy; yet the old philosophy of prakṛti and puruṣa forms the basis of the philosophy of the Gītā. This philosophy may be summarized as follows:

Prakṛti is called mahad brahma (the great Brahma or the great multiplier as procreatress) in the Gītā , xiv. 3[1]. It is said there that this prakṛti is described as being like the female part, which God changes with His energy for the creation of the universe. Wherever any living beings may be born, the great Brahman or prakṛti is to be considered as the female part and God as the father and fertilizer.

Three types of qualities are supposed to be produced from prakṛti (guṇāḥ prakṛti-sambhavāḥ)[2].

These are

  1. sattva,
  2. rajas
  3. and tamas,

which bind the immortal self in its corporeal body. Of these, sattva , on account of its purity, is illuminating and untroubling (anāmayam, which Śrīdhara explains as nirupadravam or śāntam), and consequently, on account of these two qualities, binds the self with the attachment for knowledge (jñāna-saṅgena) and the attachment for pleasure (sukha-saṅgena). It is said that there are no living beings on earth, or gods in the heavens, who are not pervaded by the three guṇas produced from the prakṛti[3]. Since the guṇas are produced from the prakṛti through the fertilization of God’s energy in prakṛti, they may be said to be produced by God, though God always transcends them.

  1. The quality of sattva, as has been said above, associates the self with the attachments for pleasure and knowledge.
  2. The quality of rajas moves to action and arises from desire and attachment (tṛṣṇā-saṅga-samudbhavam), through which it binds the self with egoistic attachments for action.
  3. The quality of tamas overcomes the illumination of knowledge and leads to many errors. Tamas, being a product of ignorance, blinds all living beings and binds them down with carelessness, idleness and sleep.

These three qualities predominate differently at different times. Thus, sometimes the quality of sattva predominates over rajas and tamas, and such a time is characterized by the rise of knowledge in the mind through all the different sense-gates; when rajas dominates sattva and tamas, the mind is characterized by greed, efforts and endeavours for different kinds of action and the rise of passions, emotions and desires; when tamas predominates over sattva and rajas, there is ignorance, lethargy, errors, delusions and false beliefs.

The different categories are avyakta, or the undifferentiated prakṛti, buddhi (intellect ), ahaṃkāra (egohood), manas (mind-organ) and the ten senses, cognitive and conative. Manas is higher and subtler than the senses, and buddhi is higher than the manas, and there is that (probably self) which transcends buddhi. Manas is regarded as the superintendent of the different senses; it dominates them and through them enjoys the sense-objects.

The relation between the buddhi and ahaṃkāra is nowhere definitely stated. In addition to these, there is the category of the five elements (mahābhūta)[4]. It is difficult to say whether these categories were regarded in the Gītā as being the products of prakṛti or as separately existing categories. It is curious that they are nowhere mentioned in the Gītā as being products of prakṛti , which they are in Sāṃkhya, but on the other hand, the five elements, manas, ahaṃkāra and buddhi are regarded as being the eightfold nature (prakṛti) of God[5]. It is also said that God has two different kinds of nature, a lower and a higher; the eightfold nature just referred to represents the lower nature of God, whereas His higher nature consists of the collective universe of life and spirit[6]. The guṇas are noticed in relation to prakṛti in in. 5, 27, 29, xm. 21, xiv. 5, xvin. 40, and in all these places the guṇas are described as being produced from prakṛti, though the categories are never said to be produced from prakṛti.

In the Gītā, IX. 10, however, it is said that prakṛti produces all that is moving and all that is static through the superintendence of God. The word prakṛti is used in at least two different senses, as a primary and ultimate category and as a nature of God’s being. It is quite possible that the primary meaning of prakṛti in the Gītā is God’s nature; the other meaning of prakṛti, as an ultimate principle from which the guṇas are produced, is simply the hypostatization of God’s nature. The whole group consisting of pleasure, pain, aversion, volition, consciousness, the eleven senses, the mind-organ, the five elements, egohood, intellect (buddhi), the undifferentiated (avyakta, meaning prakṛti existing, probably, as the sub-conscious mind) power of holding the senses and the power of holding together the diverse mental functions (saṃghāta) with their modifications and changes, is called kṣetra. In another place the body alone is called kṣetra[7]. It seems, therefore, that the word kṣetra signifies in its broader sense not only the body, but also the entire mental plane, involving the diverse mental functions, powers, capabilities, and also the undifferentiated sub-conscious element. In this connection it may be pointed out that kṣetra is a term which is specially reserved to denote the complex of body and mind, exclusive of the living principle of the self, which is called kṣetra-jña, or the knower of the kṣetra, or kṣetrin, the possessor of the kṣetra or the body-mind complex. It is said that, just as the sun illuminates this whole world, so does the kṣetrin illuminate the whole kṣetra[8].

It will be remembered that it is said in the Gītā that God has two different natures, one the complex whole of the five elements, ahaṃkāra, buddhi , etc., and the other the collective whole of life and spirit (jlva-bhūta). It will also be remembered that, by the fertilization of God’s power in prakṛti, the guṇas , or the characteristic qualities, which pervade all that is living, come into being. The guṇas, therefore, as diverse dynamic tendencies or characteristic qualities, pervade the entire psychosis-complex of ahaṃkāra, buddhi, the senses, consciousness, etc., which represents the mental side of the kṣetra. Kṣetra-jña, or the kṣetrin, is in all probability the same as puruṣa, an all-pervading principle as subtle as ākāśa (space), which, though it is omnipresent, remains untouched by any of the qualities of the body, in which it manifests itself. It is difficult to say what, according to the Gītā, prakṛti is in itself, before the fertilization of God’s energy. It does not seem that prakṛti can be regarded as being identical with God. It appears more to be like an ultimate principle coexistent with God and intimately connected with Him.

There is, however, no passage in the Gītā by which the lower prakṛti of God, consisting of the categories, etc., can be identified with prakṛti ; for prakṛti is always associated with the guṇas and their production. Again, it is nowhere said in the Gītā that the categories ahaṃkāra, senses, etc., are in any way the products of the guṇas; the word guṇa seems to imply only the enjoyable, emotional and moral or immoral qualities. It is these guṇas which move us to all kinds of action, produce attachments and desires, make us enjoy or suffer, and associate us with virtues and vices. Prakrti is regarded as the mother-source from which all the knowable, enjoyable, and dynamic qualities of experience, referred to as being generated by the successive preponderance of the guṇas, are produced.

The categories of the psychosis and the five elements, which form the mental ground, do not, therefore, seem to be products of the guṇas or the prakṛti. They seem to constitute a group by themselves, which is referred to as being a lower nature of God, side by side with His higher nature as life and spirit. Kṣetra is a complex of both the guṇa elements of experience and the complex categories of body and mind.

There seem, therefore, to be three different principles,

  1. the aparā prakṛti (the lower nature),
  2. parā prakṛti or puruṣa,
  3. and prakṛti.

Prakṛti produces the guṇas, which constitute experience-stuff; the aparā prakṛti holds within itself the material world of the five elements and their modifications as our bodies, the senses and the mind-categories. It seems very probable, therefore, that a later development of Sāṃkhya combined these two prakṛtis as one, and held that the guṇas produced not only the stuff of our experience, but also all the mind-categories, the senses, etc., and the five gross elements and their modifications.

The guṇas, therefore, are not the products of prakṛti, but they themselves constitute prakṛti, when in a state of equilibrium. In the Gītā prakṛti can only produce the guṇas through the fertilizing energy of God; they do not constitute the prakṛti, when in a state of equilibrium. It is hard to realize the connection between the aparā prakṛti and the prakṛti and th eguṇas. The connection, however, can be imagined to take place through the medium of God, who is the fertilizer and upholder of them both. There seems to be but one puruṣa, as the all-pervading fundamental life-principle which animates all bodies and enjoys and suffers by its association with its experiences, remaining at the same time unaffected and untouched by the effects of the guṇas. This naturally presumes that there is also a higher and a lower puruṣa, of which the former is always unattached to and unaffected by the guṇas, whereas the lower puruṣa, which is different in different bodies, is always associated with the prakṛti and its guṇas and is continually affected by their operations.

Thus it is said that the puruṣa, being in prakṛti, enjoys the guṇas of prakṛti and this is the cause of its rebirth in good or bad bodies[9]. There is also in this body the higher puruṣa (puruṣaḥ par ah), which is also called paramātman, being the passive perceiver, thinker, upholder, enjoyer and the great lord[10]. The word puruṣa is used in the Gītā in four distinct senses, firstly, in the sense of puruṣottama, or God[11]; secondly, in the sense of a person[12]; and the Gītā distinctly speaks of the two other puruṣas as kṣara (changeable) and akṣara (unchangeable). The kṣara is all living beings, whereas the akṣara is changeless. It is this higher self (uttamaḥ puruṣaḥ), different from the other puruṣa and called also paramātman , that pervades the three worlds and upholds them as their deathless God[13].

God, however, transcends both the kṣara puruṣa and the akṣara puruṣa and is therefore called puruṣottama[14]. Both prakṛti and the paramātman puruṣa are beginningless. The paramātman puruṣa, being changeless and beyond the sphere of the guṇas , is neither the agent of anything nor affected by the guṇas, though it resides in the body. Prakṛti is regarded as the ground through which all causes, effects, and their agents are determined. It is the fundamental principle of all dynamic operations, motivations and actions, whereas puruṣa is regarded as the principle which makes all experiences of joys and sorrows possible[15]. The paramātman puruṣa, therefore, though all-pervasive, yet exists in each individual, being untouched by its experiences of joy, sorrow and attachment, as its higher self. It is only the lower self that goes through the experiences and is always under the influence of the guṇas.

Any attempts that may be made to rise above the sphere of the guṇas, above attachments and desires, above pleasures and pains, mean the subordination of the lower self to the pure and deathless higher self. Every attempt in this direction implies a temporary communion (yoga) with the higher self. It has already been pointed out that the Gītā recognizes a conflict between the higher and the lower selves and advises us to raise the lower self by the higher self. In all our moral efforts there is always an upward and a downward pull by the higher puruṣa on the one side, and the guṇas on the other; yet the higher puruṣa does not itself make the pulls. The energy of the downward pull is derived from the guṇas and exerted by the lower self. In all these efforts the higher self stands as the unperturbed ideal of equanimity, steadiness, unchangeableness in good or evil, joys or sorrows.

The presence of this superior self is sometimes intuited by self-meditation, sometimes through philosophic knowledge, and sometimes by our moral efforts to perform our duties without attachment and without desires[16]. Each moral effort to perform our allotted duties without attachment means also a temporary communion (yoga) with the higher self or with God. A true philosophic knowledge, by which all actions are known to be due to the operations of the prakṛti and its guṇas and which realizes the unattached nature of the true self, the philosophic analysis of action and the relation between God, the higher self, the lower self, and the prakṛti, and any devotional realization of the nature of God and dedication of all action to Him, and the experience of the supreme bliss of living in communion with Him, mean a communion with the higher self or God, and are therefore yoga.

It is easy to notice here the beginnings of a system of thought which in the hands of other thinkers might well be developed into the traditional school of Sāṃkhya philosophy. It has already been pointed out that the two prakṛtis naturally suggested the idea of unifying them into the one prakṛti of the Sāṃkhya. The higher and the lower puruṣas, where the latter enjoys and suffers, while the former remains unchanged and unperturbed amidst all the experiences of joy and sorrow on the part of the latter, naturally remind one of the Upaniṣadic simile of the two birds in the same tree, of whom the one eats tasteful fruits while the other remains contented without them[17]. The Gītā does not seem to explain clearly the nature of the exact relation between the higher puruṣa and the lower puruṣa. It does not definitely state whether the lower puruṣa is one or many, or describe its exact ontological states. It is easy to see how any attempt that would aim at harmonizing these two apparently loosely-connected puruṣas into one self-consistent and intelligible concept might naturally end in the theory of infinite, pure, all-pervasive puruṣas and make the lower puruṣa the product of a false and illusory mutual reflection of prakṛti and puruṣa.

The Gītā uses the word māyā in three passages (vii. 14 and 15, xvm. 61); but it seems to be used there in the sense of an inscrutable power or ignorance, and not in that of illusory or magical creation. The idea that the world or any of the mental or spiritual categories could be merely an illusory appearance seems never to have been contemplated in the Gītā. It is not, therefore, conceivable that the lower, or the kṣara , puruṣa might be mere illusory creation, accepted as a necessary postulate to explain the facts of our undeniable daily experience. But it is difficult to say how this kṣetra-jña puruṣa can have a separate existence from the para puruṣa (which is absolutely free from the guṇas), as enjoying the guṇas of prakṛti , unless the former be somehow regarded as the result of the functioning of the latter. Such a view would naturally support a theory that would regard the lower puruṣa as being only the para puruṣa as imaged or reflected in the guṇas.

The para puruṣa, existing by itself, free from the influence of the guṇas, is in its purity. But even without losing its unattached character and its lonely purity it may somehow be imaged in the guṇas and play the part of the phenomenal self, the jīva or the lower puruṣa, enjoying the guṇas of prakṛti and having the superior puruṣa as its ultimate ground. It cannot be denied that the Gītā theory of puruṣa is much looser than the later Sāṃkhya theory; but it has the advantage of being more elastic, as it serves better to explain the contact of the lower puruṣa with the higher and thereby charges the former with the spirit of a higher ideal.

The qualities of sattva , rajas and tamas were regarded as the universal characteristics of all kinds of mental tendencies, and all actions were held to be prompted by specific kinds of sattva , rajas or tamas. Mental tendencies were also designated accordingly as sāttvika , rājasa or tāmasa. Thus religious inclinations (śraddhā) are also described as being of a threefold nature. Those who are of sāttvika nature worship the gods, those who are of rājasa nature worship the yakṣas and the rakṣas and those who are of tāmasa nature worship ghosts and demons.

Those who, prompted by vanity, desires and attachments, perform violent ascetic penances unauthorized by the scriptures and thereby starve and trouble their body and spirit, are really demoniac in their temperament. Again, sāttvika sacrifices are those performed solely out of reverence for the scriptural injunctions and from a pure sense of duty, without any desire or motive for any other kind of worldly or heavenly good. Again, rājasa sacrifices are those which are performed for the realization of some benefits or good results or for the satisfaction of some vanity or pride. Tāmasa sacrifices are those which are performed without proper faith, with improper ceremonials, transgressing Vedic injunctions.

Again, tapas also is described as being threefold,

  1. as of body (śārīra),
  2. of speech (vāñmaya)
  3. and of mind (mānasa).

Adoration of gods, Brahmins, teachers and wise men, sincerity and purity, sex-continence and non-injury are known as physical or bodily tapas. To speak in a manner that would be truthful, attractive, and conducive to good and would not be harmful in any way, and to study in the regular and proper way are regarded as the tapas of speech (vāñ-maya tapas).

Mental (mānasa) tapas consists of sincerity of mind, friendliness of spirit, thoughtfulness and mental control, self-control and purity of mind. The above threefold tapas performed without any attachment for a reward is called sāttvika tapas. But tapas performed out of vanity, or for the sake of higher position, respectability in society, or appreciation from people, is called rājasa —such a tapas can lead only to unsteady and transient results. Again, the tapas which is performed for the destruction of others by ignorant self-mortification is called tāmasa tapas.

Gifts, again, are called sāttvika when they are made to proper persons (holy Brahmins) on auspicious occasions, and in holy places, merely out of sense of duty. Gifts are called rājasa when they are made as a return for the good done to the performer, for gaining future rewards, or made unwillingly. Again, gifts are called tāmasa when they are made slightingly, to improper persons, in unholy places, and in ordinary places. Those who desire liberation perform sacrifices and tapas and make gifts without aiming at the attainment of any mundane or heavenly benefits.

Knowledge also is regarded as

  1. sāttvika,
  2. rājasa
  3. and tāmasa.

1) Sāttvika wisdom consists in looking for unity and diversity and in realizing one unchangeable reality in the apparent diversity of living beings.

2) Rājasa knowledge consists in the scientific apprehension of things or living beings as diverse in kind, character and number.

3) Tāmasa knowledge consists in narrow and untrue beliefs which are satisfied to consider a little thing as the whole and entire truth through sheer dogmatism, and unreasonable delusion or attachment.

An action is called sāttvika when it is performed without any desire for a reward, without attachment and without aversion. It is called rājasa when it is performed with elaborate endeavours and efforts, out of pride and vanity, for the satisfaction of one’s desires. It is called tāmasa when it is undertaken out of ignorance and without proper judgment of one’s own capacities, and when it leads to waste of energy, harm and injury. An agent (kartṛ) is called sāttvika when he is free from attachment and vanity and absolutely unruffled in success and failure, persevering and energetic. Again, an agent is called rājasa if he acts out of motives of self-interest, is impure, is filled with sorrow or joy in failure or success, and injures others. An agent is called tāmasa if he is careless, haughty, thoughtless, deceptive, arrogant, idle, procrastinating and melancholic. Understanding (buddhi) is said to be sāttvika when it grasps how a man has to set himself in the path of virtue, how to refrain from vice, what ought and what ought not to be done, of what one has to be afraid and how to be fearless, what is bondage, and what is liberation.

Rājasa understanding is that by which one wrongly grasps the nature of virtue and vice, and of right and wrong conduct. Tāmasa understanding is that which takes vice as virtue and out of ignorance perceives all things wrongly. That mental hold (dhṛti) is called sāttvika which by unfailing communion holds together the sense-functions and biomotor and mind activities. That happiness which in the beginning appears to be painful, but which is in the end as sweet as nectar, and which is the direct result of gaiety of mind, is called sāttvika sukha . The happiness arising out of sense-object contact, which in the beginning is as attractive as nectar, but in the end is as painful as poison, is rājasa. That happiness which arises out of sleep, idleness and errors, and blinds one in the beginning and in the end, is called tāmasa.

So also the food which increases life, facilitates mind-function, increases powers of enjoyment, makes one healthy and strong, and is sweet, resistible and delightful is liked by the sāttvika people. That food is liked by rājasa people which is hot, sour, salt, dry and causes pain and brings on diseases. The food which is impure, tasteless, old and rotten is liked by tāmasa people. All this goes to show that the guṇas, sattva, rajas and tamas, are determinants of the tendencies of, or rather the stuff of, the moral and immoral, pleasurable and painful planes or characteristics of our experience. Sattva represents the moral and supermoral planes, rajas the ordinary mixed and normal plane, and tamas the inferior and immoral characteristics of our experience.

Footnotes and references:


mama yonir mahad brahma tasmin garbhaṃ dadhāmy aham. xiv. 3. I have interpreted mahad brahma as prakṛti, following Śrīdhara and other commentators. Śaṅkara surreptitiously introduces the w'ord māyā between mama and yoni and changes the whole meaning.


  Gītā, xxv. 5.


Ibid. xvm. 40.


Gītā, III. 42, XIII. 6 and 7, XV, 9.


Ibid. VII. 4.


Ibid. VII. 5.


Ibid. XIII. 2.


Gītā, XIII. 34.


Gītā, XIII. 21.


upadraṣṭānumantā ca bḥartā bhoktā maheśvaraḥ paramātmeti cāpy ukto ḍehe ’stnitt puruṣaḥ paraḥ.
xill. :3.


sanātanas tvam purtiṣo mato me.
xi. 18.

tvam ādi-devaḥ puruṣaḥ purāṇaḥ.
xi. 38.

For puruṣottama see ibid. viii . 1, x. 15, xi. 3, xv. 18 and xv. 19.


Ibid. ix. 15, 11. 21 , 11. 60, iii . 4 , etc.


Ibid. xv. 16 and 17.


Ibid. xv. 15 and 18.


Ibid. xm. 20.


dhyānenātmani paśyanti kecid ātmānam ātmanā
anye sāṃkhyena yogena karma-yogena cāpare.
xm. 25.


Muṇḍaka,III. 1. 1 and Śvetāśvatara, 4. 6.

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