Philosophy of Charaka-samhita

by Asokan. G | 2008 | 88,742 words

Ayurveda, represented by Charaka and Sushruta, stands first among the sciences of Indian intellectual tradition. The Charaka-samhita, ascribed to the great celebrity Charaka, has got three strata. (1) The first stratum is the original work composed by Agnivesha, the foremost of the six disciples of Punarvasu Atreya. He accomplished the work by coll...

Cosmology [in Charaka philosophy]

In the philosophical realm, it is mainly the Sāṃkhyas and the Vaiśeṣikas who exemplify two main different models of cosmological enumerations in Indian philosophic tradition. Though Caraka enumerates and defines substance in coherence with the Vaiśeṣikas he gives an evolutionary model of origin of the world which is similar to that of the Sāṃkhyas. This has brought about some sort of contradiction and hence the difficulty remains unsolved.[1] So, before going into the details in Carākāsaṃhitā, it would be better to know what is said about world construction in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika and classical Sāṃkhya to know the real metaphysical stand of Caraka.

We hear little about world construction in the Vaiśeṣika-sūtra and in the Nyāya-sūtra. But, it is seen to be described in Praśastapādabhāṣya and in other later Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika books. However their view point can be summed up as follows. They consider all the nine substances as world constituents.[2] Primarily the nine substances are divided into two groups: eternal and ephemeral. Atoms (paramāṇus) of earth, water, fire, and air and also the remaining five, namely ākāśa, time, space, self, and mind are eternal substances.[3] These irreducible (anāśrita)[4] and imperceptible substances form the ultimate cosmic substrates. They never merge with one another nor do they emerge from one common ground. These atomic forms of earth, water, fire and air are called bhūtas and the effects (kāryas) produced by them are ephemeral substances. When the respective atoms of each one of these bhūtas combine together in a particular proportionthe gross physical elements are produced. Motion is generated in the atoms by the will (iccha) of the God in such a way that two atoms unite together to form a binary atom (dvaṇuka). Three such binary atoms combine together to form a triune. Thus gradually the gross forms of earth, water, fire, and air are created. Since they acquire mahatva (perceptual dimension) they are called mahābhūtas. Thus the gross elements which are the products of the respective atoms of air, fire, water, and earth together with ākāśaconstitute the physical world in the space time continuum.[5] One significant thing to be noted in this connection is that ākāśa is neither created nor destroyed. It is an eternal and ubiquitous substance.[6] The mahābhūtas further combine together to form concrete empirical objects which we cognize and interact. In fact, it is the atoms of the four elements that take part in the creation of the physical world, even though the eternal ākāśa is also a constituent.The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas call the ephemeral substances of our daily acquaintance as whole (avayavī) and their inherent cause as parts (avayava). Whole is conceived as extremely different from its parts though they are its products. This precarious ontological status is being explained on the basis of their cause and effect theory called “āsatkāryavāda”.[7]

The classical Sāṃkhya[8] philosophy, on the other hand gives an extremely different model of world construction. The system posits two entities at the ground level: (1) unchanging self (puruṣa) and (2) changing (pariṇāmi) primordial material (prakṛti) as the ultimate ground of world occurrence, and elaborates a list of twenty-five world constituents in its schematic presentation.[9] Both puruṣa and prakṛti are permanent entities. At the same time the self is accepted as the counter opposite of primordial material. The self is characterised as that which is the condition of neutrality or in otherwords the condition of being separate from all specific experiences as well as that which is the condition of non-agency.[10] It is determinating, subjective, specific, consciousness, and non-product. On the contrary, primordial materiality is non-determinating (aviveki), general (sāmānya), non-conscious (acetana), and productive (prasavadharmi).[11] It is otherwise called the root principle (mūlaprakṛti), the rootless root (amūlaṃ mūlaṃ), the chief (pradhāna) and the unmanifest (avyakta).[12]

Primordial materiality (prakṛti) is constituted by three interwining strands or constituents (guṇas) namely:

  1. the light (laghu) and illuminating (prākāśa) subtle matter of pure thought (sattva),
  2. the prop giving (upaṣṃambhak) mobile (cala) kinetic matter of energy (rajas),
  3. the heavy (guru) and hindering (varaṇakaṃ) matter of inertia (tamas).[13]

All these three are contradictory equiforms bound with one another in a state of equilibrium. It is the unlimited, unconditioned, and all-pervading ultimate cause of the manifold world.

The genisis of the world is not a creation and distruction, but it is an evolution and involution.[14] It is the conversion (pariṇāma) of the primordial materiality. The change is self-becoming and it is explained by the causation theory of satkāryavāda. [15]

The Classical Sāṃkhya theory of world occurrence is based on the notion of the conjunction (samyoga) of prakṛti with puruṣa. The conjunction of prakṛti with puruṣa is for contemplation (darśana) and puruṣa with prakṛti is for liberation (kaivalya). Hence the relative conjunction is effective in lending spirituality to prakṛti and prakṛti its efficiency to the self.[16] Consequently the equilibrium of three strands (guṇas) is disturbed and thus gradually evolves the world. The first evolute to emerge from prakṛti is intellect (buddhi/mahat) which is characterised by reflective reasoning (adhyavasāya).[17] When sattva predominates it attains basic dispositions of virtue, (dharma), discriminative knowledge (jñāna), non-attachment (vairāgya), and control (aiśvarya). Similarly when tamas predominates it is characterized by their opposite predispositions such as sin (adharma) ignorance (ajñāna), attachment (rāga), and impotence (anaiśvarya).[18] From buddhi which contains these predispositions and conditions which provide the frame work of man's fundamental strivings, there arises ego or “I conciousness” (ahaṃkāra). Often one of the three guṇas predominates the other two in a state of subordination. Hence the second evolute, that is, “I consciousness” appears in a three fold form. The first one predominated by sattva is called “the modified” (vaikṛta). The second one predominated by rajas is called “the fiery” (taijasa) and the third one preponderated by tamas is called “the source of elements” (bhūtādi). This distinction is very important because it is through this distinction that the ensuing two-fold manifestation takes place. Thus, there comes forth the thinking mind (manas), the five sense capacities of cognition (pañcajñānendriyas)[19] and five action capacities (pañcakarmendriyas)[20] from the vaikṛtāhaṃkāra. Similarly the subtle elements (pañcatanmātras)[21] emanate from the bhūtādyahaṃkāra. Both these two aggregates are able to manifest because of the capacity for activity provided by the kinetic energy constituent taijasa. Finally the five gross physical elements (mahābhūtas) come from the five subtle elements.[22]

Now let us see how the unfolding of the manifold phenomenal world is described in Carakasaṃhitā. It appears in the first chapter of Śārīrasthāna. There, in connection with the description of the Self, he speaks of twenty-four principles consisting of two groups. Of them the first group consists of eight entities. They are the five physical elements namely, ākāśa, air (vāyu), fire (agni), water (ap), earth (prthivī), the “I consciousness” (ahaṃkāra), “empirical consciousness”.[23] (buddhi), and the unmanifest (avyakta). These eight entities are designated as nature of beings bhūtaprakṛtis.[24] The second group consists of sixteen evolutes (vikāras) namely the mind, the five cognitive sense capacities, five sense capacities of action, and five objects of senses.[25]

Even though the first mentioned eight entities (aṣṭaprakṛtis) are conceived as the basic entities of all beings in general. The unmanifest (avyakta)is counted as the ultimate ground which provides the source of everything and all the other entities evolve from the unmanifest in a vertical way through successive stages.[26]

The unmanifest is considered as the field knower (kṣetrajña) and the remainig twenty-four entities as its field (kṣetra).[27] Due to the complexity of the unmanifest[28] it sometimes manifests and at other times becomes latent as a real possibility.[29] Thus, when manifestation begins, the first evolute that arises from the unmanifest is the empirical consciousness (buddhi). From the empirical consciousness there emerges ego or “I consciousness” (ahaṃkāra). The “I consciousness” gives rise to the five gross physical elements (pañcamahābhūtas). Further proceeds all the other sixteen evolutes (vikāras) namely, the mind, the ten sense organs, and the objects of five senses.[30]

The peculiarity of the emanation of the gross elements is that they evolve in a vertical successive manner which has certain structure of dependence and subordination.[31] Accordingly, first comes ākāśa from “I consciousness”. From ākāśa there evolves air and from air fire takes place. Fire gives rise to water and from water there evolves earth. The theory of successive evolution of the gross physical elements can be traced back to the early Sāṃkhyas. It also invokes the utterance in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad[32] and Manusmṛti.[33] The only difference is that, in the Taittirīya the first evolute ākāśa comes out directly from the Self while in Carakasaṃhitā and in early Sāṃkhyas it is described as springing out from the unmanifest.

Consequent to this successive emanation their possession of qualities is also explained by the accumulation theory. That is, the ākāśa, the first evolute, has only sound. Air, the second, possesses sound and touch. Similarly fire has sound, touch and colour;water has sound, touch, colour, and taste, and earth has all the five qualities: sound, touch, colour, taste, and smell.[34] The very same idea is repeated in Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya [35] and Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha[36] and Vedānta.[37]

The process of the genesis of the world is nothing but the manifestation of the unmanifest and dissolution is its return to the previous natural state of the unmanifest.[38] The periodic evolution is called appearance (udaya) and the latter merging is called dissolution or involution (pralya).[39] Origin and dissolution are recurrent events. It is without a beginning and so it is without an end. It is a cyclical process and so there is no question of a first beginning. At the end of each cycle, the empirical world of diversity returns to the unmanifest, but re-emerges from it again. The visible world thus emerges is called the manifest (vyakta).Each succeeding universe is determined in its character by the preceding one by a kind of causal linkage.

Now it clear that even though Caraka keeps conformity with NyāyaVaiśeṣikas in defining and classifying substance, his cosmological and metaphysical thesis is radically different. Caraka does not give a classification of substance into eternal and ephemeral substances or finite and infinite substances as we see in Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika system. There, in the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika, the static, non evolutionary, irreducible non-derivative atoms of earth, water, fire, air and the eternal ākāśa are conceived as the constituents of the physical world. But Caraka never considers such eternal atomic forms as the ultimate ground of this physical world.[40] For him, the physical elements are only evolutes. The Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikas consider the world as a creation. The created objects are entirely different from its substantial cause. But Caraka never considers the world as a creation. For him it is a change and the change is self-becoming. As such all objects of our experience are only transformations of the substantial cause. In the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika theory the ultimate constituents never merge with one another nor do they emerge from a common ground as we see in the Carakasaṃhitā.

The cosmological speculation in the Carakasaṃhitā is similar to that in the classical Sāṃkhya in the sense that it enlists world constituents in successive stages in a scheme of evolution with certain structures of dependence and subordination. Inspite of this similarity, there also exist some major basic differences.

The differences can be summed up as follows.

1. The classical Sāṃkhya enumerates twenty five world constituents. Caraka enumerates only twenty four constituents. Instead of puruṣa and prakṛti, Caraka envisages the non-dual unmanfest as the ultimate cosmological substrate. So when the classical Sāṃkhya is dualistic, Caraka is monistic in approach.

2. The conception of avyakta as the field knower (kṣetrajña) and all others excepting it as field (kṣetra) is also a fundamental difference with the classical Sāṃkhya.

3. The classical Sāṃkhya recognizes plurality of puruṣas. It is against the monistic conception of Caraka.

4. In classical Sāṃkhya, the underlying reality from which the visible world emerges and to which it returns is prakṛti constituted by the three guṇas. But there is no such conception of prakṛti as the basic stuff of the physical world in the Carakasaṃhitā. In Carakasaṃhitā it is the unmanifest that forms the foundational source of this visible world. Rajas and tamas are conceived as its adjuncts which lead to evolution. There is no reference of sattva in connection with the discription of cosmology. But he recognizes all the three guṇas as constituents of mind.

5. The classical Sāṃkhya speaks of a three-fold division of “I consciousness”? But Caraka gives no such division.

6. Classical Sāṃkhya describes five subtle elements (tanmātras) from which the five gross elements (mahabhūtas). But there is no idea of such subtle elements in the Carakasaṃhitā. The physical elements are construed as direct evolutes of the “I consciousness”. Caraka's cosmological enumeration which comprises of the twenty-four entities includes objects (arthas) also. But they are not found included in the classical Sāṃkhya.

7. The sense organs are conceived as evolutes of modified “I consciousness” in the classical Sāṃkhya while they are considered as the evolutes of their respective gross elements (bhautika).

It may be useful to offer the charts of both the classical Sāṃkhya and Carakasaṃhitā which would give an apparent view of the materials presented to make a comparison.

Footnotes and references:


“........Caraka reveals the fact that he was highly influenced by the Vaiśeṣikas and the Sāṃkhyas. The first conception of the individual proceeds from the stand point of Vaiśeṣika and the last from that of Sāṃkhya. But the difficulty is not still removed”. ODST, p. 100.


See the definition of substance given by Kaṇāda. See supra, p. 91 pṛthvyādīnāṃ navānāmapi....... svātmanyāraṃbhakatvaṃ....., Praśastapādabhāṣya., p. 54; samavāyikāraṇaṃ dravyasyaiva vijñeyaṃ, NSMK, kārikā 23, p. 91.


nitydravyāṇi paramāṇvākāśadīni....”, NSMK p. 93; pṛthivyādicatuṣṭayasya paramāṇavaḥ ākāśādipañcakaṃ ca nityadravyāṇi, Dīpikā, TSA, p. 6.


anāśritatvanityatve ca anyatra avayavidravyebhyaḥ, Praśastapādabhāṣya., p. 56.


For details see Praśastapādabhāṣya., pp.127-129; Dīpikā, TSA, p. 9.


taccaikaṃ vibhu nityaṃ ca, TSA, p. 11.


The asatkāryavadins view that the effect is not pre-xistent in the cause. On the contrary It is a new creation.Vaiśeṣikadarśana., I. i. 10, see Śaṅkaramiśra on ibid., Vaiśeṣikopaskāra of Śaṅkaramiśra., pp. 46- 47; NSMK pp.114-117; KHP, pp. 111-114.


The earliest classical text on Sāṃkhya philosophy is Sāṃkhyakarikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa. “The Classical form has found its final formulation in the Sāṃkhyakārikā, and has never been surpassed and it has remained authoritative for the entire future”. EFW, Vol. I, p. 274;FIC, Vol. I, p. 84.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 3., vide supra, p. 87.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 19.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 11.


Sir M. Monier- Williams, Indian Wisdom, George Allen, London, 1875, p. 62;NTIT, p.193.


sattvaṃ laghu prakāśakamiṣtamupaṣtaṃbhakaṃ calañca rajaḥ guru varaṇakameva tamaḥ pradīpāccārthato vṛttiḥ, Sāṃkhyakārikā, 13. “It is an undifferentiated manifold, an indeterminate continuum of infinitesimal Reals. These Reals, termed Guṇās, may by another abstraction be classed under three heads (1) Sattva....., (2) Rajas..... and (3)Tamas......,” PSAH, p. 3.


The term evolution used here must not be confused with the evolution meant when one speaks of Darwinian or some other forms of biological evolution for the following reasons. “(1) prakṛti does not evolve like the forms of life that biological evolution speaks about, since it is unlike anything dicussed in the biological theory (e.g, the amoeba etc.); (2) prakṛti can scarcely struggle and evolve in any environment, since it itself is the environment; (3) in comparing the evolutes of the Sāṃkhya with those in the biological theory, there appears to be no greater coherence in the later evolutes of Sāṃkhyas whereas there does appear to be in the Darwanian scheme”. T. M. P. Mahadevan, Sāṃkhya Philosophy, unpublished lectures delivered at the Graduate school of Madras University, October, 1951, cited in NTIT, p. 198.


Satkāryavāda of the Sāṃkhya's is just the opposite of Vaiśeṣika's asatkāryavāda. The ninth kārikā of Īswarakṛṣṇa constitute a locus classicus for arguments defending satkāryavāda. The kārikā is translated by Karl H. Potter in the following way. “The effect exists [in the cause] because (1) there is no causing of what is non-existent in the cause, (2) because [when one wants a particular effect] there is grasping of [its] material cause, (3) because everything is not possible, (4) because something which has capacity causes that only of which it is capable, (5) because the cause [of the particular kind] exists.” KHP, p. 107.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 21; The relation of puruṣa and prakṛti is an appearance, but not either of the two.


See infra, p. 125.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 23.


The five cognitive sense capacities are sense of seeing (cakṣuḥ), hearing (śrotraṃ), smell (ghrāṇaṃ), taste (rasana), and touch (tvak).


The five action capacities are those of speaking (vāk), handling (pāṇi), walking (pāda), excreting (pāyu), and procreation (upastha).


The five subtle elements are named sound (śabda), touch (sparśa), colour (rūpa), taste (rasa), and smell (gandha). Even though they are names usually used to designate the specific qualities, they refer to the essence of the mahābhūtas in the evolutionary series.


Sāṃkhyakārikā, 25; see also Vācaspati Miśra on ibid., Sāṃkhyatattvakaumudī of Vācaspati Miśra., p. 187.


In classical Sāṃkhya, buddhi is conceived as a purely material evolute of prakṛti. Its reflective capacity is prodominance of sattba. On the contrary Caraka regards budhi as an evolute of avyakta. Moreover the reflective capaciyt of budhi in Caraka is not because of the presence of sattva but because of the illumination of the conciousness. So budhi described in Caraka is tanslated as empirical consciousness while the usual translation intellect is used for buddhi in classical Sāṃkhya is translated as empirieal consciousness wide buddhi described in classical Sāṃkhya is translated.


"khādīni buddhiravyaktamahaṃkārastathā'ṣṭamaḥ bhūtaprakṛtiruddiṣṭā vikāraścaiva ṣoḍaśa. CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 63.


buddhīndriyāṇi pañcaiva pañcakarmendriyāṇi ca samanaskāśca pañcārthā vikāra iti saṃjñitāḥ. Ibid., 64. Suśruta also accepts this twofold classification. But he calls the first group by the term āṣtaprakṛtis and includes sutle elements (tanmātras) instead of the five physical elements (bhūtas). The scond group is identical with that of Caraka. Suśrutasaṃhitā of Suśruta., Śārīra - sthāna, I. 6.


In Manusmṛti avyakta is described as the universal “Self” which is beyond thought and sense perception and is construed as the source from which the universe evolves. See Manusmṛti., I. 7, p. 6.


“.......iti kśetraṃ samuddiṣṭam sarvamavktavarjitaṃ. avyaktamasya kṣetrasya kṣetrajñaṃṛṣayo viduḥ.”, CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 65.


The complexity is due to the presence of the adjuncts namely, rajas and tamas in the unmanifest. There is no reference of sattva in relation with cosmology. rajastamobhyāmāviṣta-ścakravatparivartate. Ibid., 68. Dasgupta says that avyakta and cetana are one and the same entity. HIPS, Vol. I, p. 214.


vide infra, pp. 178 - 79.


jāyate buddhiravyaktādbuddhyā'hamiti manyate paraṃ khādīnyahaṃkārādutpadyante yathākramaṃ tataḥ saṃpūrṇasarvāṅgo jāto'bhyudita ucyate.', CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I. 66.


Ibid., the vertical order is implied by the word “yathākramaṃ” in the articulation.


“....... tasmāt va etasmādātmanaḥ ākāśaḥ saṃbhūtaḥ. akāśadvāyuḥ. vāyoragniḥ. agnerāpaḥ. adbhyaḥ pṛthivī pṛthivyā oṣadhayaḥ......”, Ta. u., Brahmavalli, ii, 1.


Manusmṛti., I. 75-78, pp. 24-25


teṣāmekaguṇaḥ pūrvo guṇavṛddhiḥ pare pare purvaṃ pūrvaguṇaścaiva kramaśo guṇiṣu smṛtaḥ, CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I.28.


Aṣṭāṅgahṛdaya of Vāgbhaṭa., Śārīra - sthāna, III. 2.


Aṣṭāṅgasaṅgraha of Vāgbhaṭa., Śārīra - sthāna, III, 5.


Vedāntaparibhāṣa of Dharmarāja Adhvarīndra., pp. 157-58;VSS, p. 60.


avyaktād vyaktatāṃ yāti vyaktādavyaktatām punaḥ, CS, Śārīra - sthāna, I, 67.


Ibid., 69.


Caraka has used the word “paramāṇu”. But it is not in the sense of ultimate particular as we see in the Vaiśeṣika. For instance while discussing the organs of the body he says that the smallest unit of the body is paramāṇu which cannot be counted. They are extremely numerous and subtle, Ca, Sa,VII. 17. This is actually the smallest unit of the gross physical element.

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