The study of Samkhya philosophy is important because its metaphysics are pervasive in Indian philosophy. Yoga philosophy in particular is closely related to Samkhya. Therefore understanding Indian philosophy in general and Yoga philosophy in particular requires an understanding of Samkhya philosophy. This article presents an overview of the historical development of the Samkhya philosophy.
Samkhya is one of the oldest and most influential of the six Indian darsanas. According to traditional Indian accounts, the legendary sage Kapila was the first to organize Samkhya thought in a systematic way. According to the Samkhya-Karika, the teaching originated with Kapila, it was passed by him to Asuri, from Asuri to Panchasikha, and through tradition of disciples to Krishna. Beyond that, a few teachers are known.
In the history of western studies of Samkhya philosophy, there have been four interpretations of its historical development:
Dr. Zimmer, in his [I]Philosophies of India[/I], expressed the view that Samkhya is pre-Vedic and non-Aryan in origin. He based his view on observations of similarities between Samkhya philosophy and that of the Jains, which he considered to be remote, aboriginal, and non-Vedic, and also on his observation that Kapila, the traditional founder of Samkhya, falls outside the traditional assembly of Vedic saints and sages.
Max Muller, in his [I]Six Systems of Indian Philosophy[/I], expressed the view that Samkhya and Vedanta developed in parallel and were undifferentiated for a very long time. It was only later that Samkhya and Vedanta became differentiated based on different views of reality
The famous translator Dr. Richard Garbe held the view that Samkhya developed in opposition to Brahmanism, and contains distinctly anti-Vedic and anti-ritualistic attitudes. According to Garbe, the philosophy originally expounded by Kapila was atheistic and dualistic, and remained unchanged throughout the centuries. He maintained that the classical form of the philosophy contained in the Samkhya Karika is essentially the same as that originally passed down from Kapila.
Another group of scholars working in the early twentieth century maintained that Samkhya cannot be divorced from the Vedic and Brahmanical literature. According to them, a pre-classical form of Samkhya existed that was different from that contained in the Samkhya Karika. They believed that the classical form of the philosophy could not have been the work of one man.
Scholars working in the latter half of the twentieth century tended to stress the historical development of the philosophy, favoring the view that the classical form contained in the Samkhya Karika was not the work of one man, but developed gradually over a long period of time. They stress the parallel development of the Samkhya along with Vedanta. They have been able to show convincingly that pre-classical forms of the philosophy existed, and they map out in detail how these earlier schools differed from the classical form. However, in the opinion of this author, the evidence shows that much of Samkhya philosophy developed outside of traditional Vedic and Brahminical circles, and was later adopted and modified by the Vedic thinkers.
Due to the difficulty of dating Sanskrit literature, the history of Samkhya is described not so much in terms of chronological development as it is in terms of the development of thought. The point of reference is the Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrishna, which is considered to be the most orthodox, systematic, and authoritative statement of the philosophy. A form of the thought which is in a less developed state shows itself to be earlier than the systematic form, and a later work will rarely revert to the undeveloped form.
Four Periods of Historical Development
In his [I]Classical Samkhya,[/I] Gerald Larson identified four periods in Samkhya’s historical development:
[li]Ancient Speculations[/li][li]Proto Samkhya[/li][li]Classical Samkhya[/li][li]Later Samkhya[/li][/ol]
This period covers the time when the Vedas and the oldest prose Upanishads were written, and includes the rise of Jainism and early Buddhism. In the literature of this period there is no mention of Samkhya or a Samkhya school, and no single tradition has been identified from which Samkhya could have developed. However a number of concepts have been identified that could have been precursors to the later development of the philosophy. These are believed to have been derived from a variety of sources.
This period, which includes the middle Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Moksadharma portion of the Mahabarata, is arguably the most important period in the development of the philosophy. During this time several pre-classical schools of Samkhya appeared.
At the beginning of this period, represented by the Mundaka and Katha Upanishads, the Samkhya and Vedanta philosophies were undifferentiated. Some distinctly Samkhya thought appeared in the literature, but it was not called Samkhya by name, and there was no mention of a Samkhya school. Following this, the Bhagavad Gita mentions Samkhya by name six times, and also mentions Kapila by name. However in the Gita’s statements of philosophy, Samkhya and Vedanta remained undifferentiated.
By the time of the Santi-Parva section of the Mahabharata, a definite Samkhya school had emerged that was differentiated from the Vedanta and Yoga schools. The Epic school included all of the twenty-five principles found in the classical school, and most of the other important features of the philosophy. In the Epic literature we find the mention of Kapila and references to a vast and ancient literature belonging to the school, outside of the traditional vedic literature. During this time, Samkhya was held in great esteem by the other Epic schools.
Towards the end of the period, we find in the Svetasvatara Upanishad that the Vedic thinkers had adopted the principles found in the Epic schools, while incorporating some modifications of their own. Around this same time, the school known as Sastitantra (sixty topics) developed in parallel with the Samkhya-Yoga school of the Svetasvatara Upanishad. The Sastitantra literature is purported to have been the direct precursor to the Samkhya Karika, but there is some doubt regarding this assertion.
This period saw the emergence of the definite systematic organization of the philosophy in the form of the Samkhya Karika. Two important components of the philosophy first appeared during this time. The first was atheism, in the sense that the classical thinkers explained the working of the world without any reference to a God. All of the previous forms of the philosophy had contained an element of theism. The second was the transcendental plurality of souls. Previous forms of Samkhya had recognized the empirical plurality of souls in manifestation, but had maintained a transcendental unity of souls.
The classical period also includes the various commentaries on the Samkhya Karika. Samkhya was most vigorous during the early centuries of this period, but had begun to decline after around the eighth century A.D., most likely due to the rise of Sankara and Advaita Vedanta.
This period includes the Samkhya-Pravachana-Sutram, along with the commentaries of Anniruddha and Vijnana Bhiksu. The most significant development of the Samkhya-Pravachana-Sutram is the inclusion of the theistic element that was excluded from the classical school, but which had been present in the pre-classical schools. However in the later Samkhya, Isvara is conceived differently from the Isvara of the Epic school, and is closer to, if not identical with the Isvara of the classical Yoga school.
Indian scholars working as late as the early part of the twentieth century believed the Samkhya-Pravachana-Sutram to be the Sastitantra, i.e., the work that the Samkhya Karika is purported to have been based upon. Later scholars have dated the work around the thirteenth or fourteenth century C.E., based primarily on the dates of the commentaries. It is the opinion of this author that a careful comparison of all of the relevant texts might show that the development of thought contained in the Samkhya-Pravachana-Sutram is not as modern as is commonly believed by many scholars today, however such a study has yet to be done.