Sankhya philosophy, one of the oldest and most influential of the six systems (darshans) of Indian thought, has had a profound impact on the beliefs, values and concepts used in the practice of yoga. At the time of the Buddha, Sankhya philosophy revealed a detailed map of the universe to serve as a guide towards realizing the unitive state, the ultimate goal of yoga. Sankhya philosophy divides the universe into 25 distinct yet related principles called tattvas. The tattvas are guideposts to orient ourselves within the map and to see what we experience as separate concepts are truly part of a larger whole. Acknowledging and understanding these tattvas refines our discrimination, affirms our consciousness and brings us towards self-realization. Patanjali drew heavily upon Sankhya philosophy in the development of his Yoga Sutras, and many of the practical methods and techniques of yoga rest on Sankhya’s philosophical foundations.
The fundamental distinction in Sankhya philosophy is the separation of Brahman (oneness of all elements in the universe) into two distinct parts: Purusha (pure consciousness) and Prakriti (nature, primeval matter). Samsara or bondage arises when Purusha enters into a state of advidia (not knowing), loosing its identity and confusing itself with the physical body – which is seen as a distinct evolute of Prakriti. Purusha becomes liberated when the discriminate knowledge of the difference between conscious Purusha and unconscious Prakriti is realized.
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These 25 elements were further simplified into two other maps of the body-mind-spirit: the three Shariras (bodies) and the five Koshas (sheathes). These both identify layers within our experience, which correlate with each other and the tattvas. The Shariras and the Koshas are both used to draw one’s awareness inside, traveling from the physical, to the energetic and casual bodies, towards the very essence of our being, which Sankhya tells us is Brahman, pure undivided oneness. This moving from the physical to the subtle deeper experiences of the body is an important tool in the practice of meditation and inner contemplation.
While the dualism apparent in the Sankhya system soon became incongruent with further developments in yogic philosophy, Sankhya’s core concepts became ingrained into yogic teachings as well as into other Indian systems of science, art and knowledge. Sankhya’s core concept of seeing all aspects of the created world as having the same essence remains an important realization to remove fear, separation and suffering and to lead us towards a state of experienced oneness.