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Samkhya Philosophy – Another Golden Age Gone Wrong

gunas by Gustavo Peres

gunas by Gustavo Peres

Samkhya is one of the six main schools of Hindu philosophy. Most agree that it has conceptual roots in the Rig Veda but it is usually attributed to the legendary sage Kapila (circa 6th century BCE).¹

Kapila postulated a fundamental distinction between spirit (purusha) and nature or matter (prakrti). Prakrti has many subcategories but Samkhya is usually called dualistic, meaning that its whole system rests on the basic distinction between spirit, on the one hand, and nature/matter on the other hand.

Kapila believed in the existence of individual souls. He also proposed that material nature has three qualities (gunas) of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.

The three gunas are material but are also associated with different types of consciousness within living beings.

  • Sattva is the highest of the three gunas; it manifests as calmness, light and peace
  • Rajas is neither the highest nor the lowest guna; it expresses itself as excitement, action, passion and force
  • Tamas is the lowest of the three gunas; it induces feelings of darkness, grief, fear and laziness.

Like most philosophical systems with religious overtones, Samkhya enjoyed a sort of primal golden age. According to the belief, the three gunas originally existed in a happy equilibrium but the workings of the spirit threw them out of balance. The inevitable tensions, conflicts, attractions and affiliations arising from their disequilibrium contributed to a process of cosmic and spiritual evolution. This kind of evolution is, for Hindus, much grander and deeper than the Darwinian take on evolution.

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma...

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma. Illustration from Hinduism Today, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like the theory of reincarnation, Samkhya is an imaginative but arguably limited human attempt to understand the godhead, creation and the interaction of time and eternity. My main critique of both samkhya and the idea of reincarnation stems from how they make me feel.

Even in writing this entry, I feel a vibe that differs from the kind of uplifting warmth and love that I experience through the Catholic Mass, especially through the Eucharist. But I can’t demonstrate that to anyone. It’s just a matter of my sensitivity to the numinous and to grace.

So I usually have to rely on intellectual arguments to try to suggest that not all numinosities are the same as grace and that some spiritual experiences, and the theologies that they emerge from, may be preferable to others.²

The idea that I usually talk about is how Hindu philosophy tends to be couched within a one-directional understanding of time. With Samkhya, there is an initial golden age, things go awry and then human history, nay, the history of the cosmos, marches along from past to present. This may take a somewhat circular arc (Hindu philosophy tends to be cyclic) but it’s still one-directional in the sense that creation travels from past to present. Same thing with the belief in reincarnation. A soul starts out at a simple level of consciousness and, through many reincarnations, apparently evolves into higher levels of consciousness. All from past to present.

Today we’re moving past such a simple view of time. Physicists have demonstrated that at the subatomic level, some interactions go back through time. And with relativity theory, we have empirical support that time, actually space-time, is not fixed but a flexible relationship among elements and conditions. So I think it quite possible, for example, that someone in the present could have a backwards ripple effect to someone in the past. Also, someone in the past could have a forward ripple effect on someone in the present, who would exist in the past person’s future.

Cleopatra (1962 novel)

Cleopatra (1962 novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the alleged “past life” some dream about or see in visions could conceivably be caused by something quite different than the dynamic of reincarnation. These people could be connecting with another person in the past—not with themselves in the past, but with another person, another soul.

This may not be quite as glamorous as believing we are the reincarnation of Napoleon or Cleopatra, but in my way of thinking, it’s far more exciting because it opens the door for many intuitive connections, as many as we are meant to experience. And that could be a lot.

It also means that we could possibly connect with people in the future. Or who knows, we might even be able to connect, on some intuitive level, with ourselves in our own future.

Think about it. If we can intuitively connect with people in the past, we are located in the future from their perspective. So the same dynamic should apply to people located in our future and ourselves.³

If by chance this has gotten a bit too complicated or innovative to easily understand, please don’t feel dumb. I myself have had to double check a few sentences because dealing with different time frames as they relate to grammar can get confusing!

Suffice it to say that the belief in reincarnation just doesn’t cut it when it comes to more contemporary theories about the fluidity of space and time. In subatomic physics we’re moving beyond a simple, past to present cosmology, and I think speculative theory about consciousness should begin to take a similar direction—umm, make that, directions. 🙂

¹ Some scholars dispute the idea that Samkhya has Vedic origins. Part of the problem is the sheer time scale involved when trying to decipher its beginnings, transmission and influences.

² For those who insist that all religions are the same, or perhaps that all religions are bogus, this is a challenging issue. Also, I realize that one person’s preference need not be another’s. However, one should hopefully be in a position to compare and make up one’s own mind, rather than be dictated to by ignorance or by political correctness as to what they, themselves experience (which of course is ludicrous at best, oppressive at worst).

³ A complication to this theory arises in that some people believe they can connect with the souls of the dead. So they would connect with souls in an afterlife, not with past souls still living on Earth. Myself, I don’t see why both scenarios could not occur. Even Carl Jung, whom in my opinion was something of a kindergarten student when it comes to spirituality, suggested that the soul exists beyond space and time, and that spirituality somehow collapses space and time. So he may have been unadvanced but was, in my view, heading in the right direction. Later in the day I added this additional consideration at I didn’t want to put it here because, as I said, this was already getting a bit long and involved.



His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada – “My Sannyasa Gurudeva Shrila Bhaktikumunda Santa Goswami” via Flickr

Sannyasa is the fourth Hindu asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male attains spiritual liberation (moksha).

At this stage the Indian sannyasin practices celibacy, renounces all worldly trappings, and pretty much acquires the legal status of a dead person. He either travels about freely, helping others to grow in spiritual matters, or enters a monastery.

Typically a sannyasin is either a follower of Vishnu (or one of Visnu’s incarnations such as Krishna) or Sankara.

Traditionally the sannyasin was predominantly male but today the situation is changing, with women sannyasins increasing in numbers.

The following excerpt from “Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper” outlines several important points concerning the evolution of Hinduism.

Except for the role of the priest, women participate equally in all the activities at the gurukulam. As in all religious traditions, there are stipulations for those who officiate at religious ceremonies. In the Hindu tradition, one of these is that the priest must be a Brahmin male and cogent reasons are given for this. However, the status of a sannyasin (a renunciant) is higher than that of a priest, and women are allowed to be sannayasins, as Michele’s report illustrates in her interview with a white American female sannyasin. And these female sannyasins can assume the role of a guru to a male Brahmin priest.

The precedent for lack of gender discrimination is embedded in the iconography of Hinduism. Most deities, including the deity at Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Lord Daksinamurti, are ardhanarishvara, half male and half female, since the Lord is looked upon as both male and female. In the Vedas, though there are certainly fewer women than men, they are not absent. In the Upanisads there are dialogues on Brahmavidya with women (Maitreyi and Gargi) and there are female rishis (Visvavara and Romasa) composing Vedic hymns (rks).¹

¹ Arsha Vidya Gurukulam’s Response to “Hinduism Here” and Michele Moritis’s Paper

  • “Bhakti Nrsinga Swami receives sannyasa initiation at the Durban Rathayatra 2008”

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The lord Rama portrayed as exile in the forest...

The lord Rama portrayed as exile in the forest, accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sita (Skt: furrow) is depicted in the Hindu Veda as an agricultural deity.

In the puranic epic, the Ramayana, she is Rama‘s wife, and the daughter of King Janaka. Abducted by the demon Ravana to an island in the south (which some believe is Sri Lanka), Sita maintains her fidelity to Rama while he and his half brother, Lakshmana, embark on an arduous journey to liberate her.

When Sita is liberated, Rama is crowned King yet bends to popular opinion at home, which wrongly alleges that Sita slept with Ravana. So Rama doesn’t accept Sita because a ruler’s wife must be above suspicion.

As with many myths, there are at least two different endings to the epic. And both of these alternate endings attest to Sita’s fidelity.

In one variant, Sita is banished to the forest for 15 years to raise her two children and is recalled when public opinion at home cools down.

Declaring her innocence, Sita invokes the Earth Mother as witness. The Earth Mother affirms Sita’s loyalty but swallows her whole, much to the distress of the doubting Rama.

Sreerama's court from where Goddess Earth is t...

Sreerama’s court from where Goddess Earth is taking Sita deep down to earth (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the other variant of the story, Lakshmana kindles a fire (on the request of Rama) and Sita is ordered into the flames. The fire-god Agni arises from the flames and adorns Sita with a crown, proclaiming her innocence. Rama then enters the fire and he and Sita are transported to a heavenly realm where they’ll remain for 14 years, after which time they’ll return to rule the Earth.

According to a Jain version of the tale, Sita is the daughter of Ravana. Not unlike the twist of fate in the story of Oedipus, Sita is abandoned at birth because it has been foretold that she’ll destroy her father’s kingdom.

In contemporary India, Sita is widely regarded as exemplifying the honorable wife and mother. She is also a symbol of purity.

Apparently Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty is set to play Sita in her next film, Hanuman. But this story has been floating around the web for several years with no actual production seen. ¹


Related » Abyss, Hero, Mahabharata

  • Modern adaptation under CC license:

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Closeup of Vishnu, seated in the lotus positio...

Closeup of Vishnu, seated in the lotus position on a lotus. From depiction of the poet Jayadeva bowing to Vishnu, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Trimurti (Skt. three forms) is a Hindu belief that God has three forms or aspects, as expressed in Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.

The belief ties into the larger cosmological belief that the universe goes through repeated cycles of creation, maintenance and destruction. Hence Brahma is responsible for creation. Vishnu maintains. And Siva destroys (to ultimately transform). The cycle continues…

I have seen this particular trinity equated with the Christian trinity. This seems misguided because the two religions differ in many of their key beliefs, concepts and practices.¹

¹ Also, for me, the experience of their respective numinosities differs quite dramatically. See to learn more about how some people view the respective trinities.



Vaisya Caste

English: Pyramid of Caste system in India 한국어:...

Pyramid of Caste system in India (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vaisya is one of the former Hindu castes,¹ characterized by merchants and businessmen.

Members of the Vaisya caste are traditionally associated with karma-yoga, the yoga of action, although it should be noted that in contemporary India a businessperson does not necessarily attach religious significance to his or her work.

The Vaisya caste was generally ranked as the third of four, along with a 5th unofficial group of “outcastes.”

By way of contrast, the merchant class in medieval Japan under the powerful Tokugawa military rulers (1600-1867) was regarded as the lowest class, not the second-lowest or, depending on how one looks at it, third-lowest.

The whole notion of caste was deplored by Gandhi in the 1930s and criminalized in India during the 1950s. Its power over the minds of people has diminished but some arguably backward families still look to ‘appropriate’ caste marriages.

Old Indian Castes by rank

  1. Brahman caste (priests, thinkers)
  2. Kshatriya caste (rajas, warriors, persons of action)
  3. Vaisna caste (merchants)
  4. Sudra (menial laborers, servants)
  5. Unofficial group of Outcastes.

¹ See also and

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Vashist Forest 2 by Paul Evans via Flickr

Vanaprashta (Skt: ‘home in the forest or woods’)

In traditional Hinduism this is the third asrama (Vedic stage of life) in which the male, having fulfilled his matrimonial dharma as a householder, generally retreats to the forest to study the deeper meaning of sacred texts and to become adept at meditation.

Some Hindu texts stipulate that the religious recluse must be a Brahmin, but this view is not universal.¹

Vanaprashta is a difficult path to follow, especially today. Within the changing face of Hinduism the contemporary practice is more a psychosocial rather than geographical withdrawal. Today’s Hindu meditator, whether male or female, may pull back into the deeper aspects of the psyche (and perhaps beyond) without necessarily leaving the household.

Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen,...

Mahatma Gandhi with textile workers at Darwen, Lancashire, England, September 26, 1931. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This shift is made evident in Pauline Kolenda’s ethnographic study conducted in Khalapur, where she notes:

Jivan Mal was a Gandhian. Like Gandhi, he tried to live his life according to the four ashramas, and when we knew him, he was in the third ashrama; he was a vanaprashta one who had retired from ordinary life to devote himself to religion. He explained that he and his wife were “like brother and sister”; he had given up sexual activity. Consistent with his religiosity and his Gandhianism was his strict vegetarian diet, but inconsistent with his Gandhianism was his inability to consort with untouchables, to be near them or to take food or drink from them or with them.²

¹ When I first made this entry at, Wikipedia made little or not mention of Vanaprashta. But it’s caught up. For more details on the life of the traditional hermit, see .

² Pauline Kolenda, “Micro-Ideology and Micro-Utopia in Khalapur: Changes in the Discourse on Caste over Thirty Years,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 32 (Aug. 12, 1989: 1831-1838), pp. 1833-1834. One might ask how such snobbishness could be a sign of positive spirituality and in keeping with God’s will.

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Rig vedic fire offerings – Indian Rituals by Srevatsan Muralidharan

The Veda (or Vedas) are the first group of ancient Hindu sacred books. Max Müller and most subsequent scholars date them to the 13th century BCE.

Ten in all, the Veda form a mandala (circle) of knowledge and are believed by some to represent directly revealed truth and therefore all that is necessary for spiritual liberation.¹

The more recent Upanisads are known as the Vedanta—that is, the end of the Veda.

As hindu-blog points out, however, both the Veda and the Upanisads are based on a longstanding oral tradition which makes precise dating open to debate:

The Upanishads and Vedas were rendered orally and were passed on for generations before being written. Nobody is sure about the actual dates of these texts.²

English: Student learning Veda. Location: Nach...

Student learning Veda. Location: Nachiyar Kovil, Kumbakonam, Tamilnadu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The fact that the Vedas were passed on orally is noted in Wikipedia:

Transmission of texts in the Vedic period was by oral tradition alone, preserved with precision with the help of elaborate mnemonic techniques. A literary tradition set in only in post-Vedic times, after the rise of Buddhism in the Maurya period, perhaps earliest in the Kanva recension of the Yajurveda about the 1st century BCE; however oral tradition predominated until c. 1000 CE.³

Recently, a Sanskrit rock band, “Shanti Shanti” has produced an album called “Veda.”

This CD titled “Veda”, produced by Ganesha Publishing BMI, contains shlokas (hymns) from all four Vedas-Rig-veda, Sama-veda, Atharva-veda, and Yajur-veda, some as old as 1,500 BCE. » Source

¹ From Wikipedia:

They are supposed to have been directly revealed, and thus are called śruti (“what is heard”),[6][7] distinguishing them from other religious texts, which are called smṛti (“what is remembered”). In Hindu tradition, the creation of Vedas is credited to Brahma.[8] The Vedic texts or śruti are organized around four canonical collections of metrical material known as Saṃhitās, of which the first three are related to the performance of yajna (sacrifice) in historical Vedic religion:

  1. The Rigveda, containing hymns to be recited by the hotar, or presiding priest;
  2. The Yajurveda, containing formulas to be recited by the adhvaryu or officiating priest;
  3. The Samaveda, containing formulas to be sung by the udgatar or priest that chants;
  4. The Atharvaveda, a collection of spells and incantations, apotropaic charms and speculative hymns.[9]



Related Posts » Asrama, Asura, Avatar, Avesta, Brahmacharya, Brahmanas, Brahmin, Caste, Dismemberment, Durga, Hinduism, Kama, Krishna, Kshatriya, Language, Manu, O’Flaherty (Wendy Doniger), Rishis, Samkhya, Sita, Sutra, Upanisads, Zoroastrianism