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Tattvas in Samkhya


Samkhya (sometimes Sankhya, often translated as “enumeration” or “perfect declaration”) is one of the schools of classical Indian Philosophy – and possibly, one of the earliest. It is thought to have developed from dualist teachings in the Upanishads. It has been a strong influence in the development of Yoga and it is possible that it was studied by the Buddha. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras also shows traces of Samkhya influences. The most well-known Samkhya text is the Samkhya-karika of Isvarakrisna.

Samkhya is characterised by a reliance on traditional doctrine and a form of rational enquiry into the nature of reality and human existence. Samkhya is often presented as nontheistic, as opposed to Yoga, which is theistic.

Purusha and Prakriti

The Samkhya doctrine is basically dualist, regarding the universe as consisting of two eternal and distinct realities – Purusha (Consciousness) and Prakriti (material existence). Purusha is sometimes referred to as the “Transcendental Self” or Eternal Witness. It is absolute, independent, and – above all experience – unknowable.
Prakriti – “The Seen” – is matter – unconscious and transient; composed of the three gunas – that which multiplies.

Everything in the world – all physical events, all experiences – comes from Prakriti. This includes self-consciousness, intellectual activity and emotions. Everything in the universe (with the exception of Purusha) is composed of varying degrees of the three “primary strands” – the Gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is illuminating, Rajas is activating, and Tamas imposes limitations and restrictions. These three qualities are continually transforming, and are inseperable from each other.

Purusha (as “Pure Consciousness”) cannot create anything of its own accord. It is only when Purusha ‘witnesses’ Prakriti that the world comes into being and things are presented to consciousness. The union (samyoga) of these two principles is mutually beneficial: Purusha is given something to “see” and Prakriti gains the illumination of consciousness.

The Tattvas

In the Samkhya doctrine there are 25 Tattvas:
1. Purusha (Transcendental Self)
2. The uncreated (unmanifest) Prakriti (primordial nature)
3. Mahat/Buddhi (intellect)
4. Ahamkara (ego, consciousness of self)
5. Manas (mind)
6-10. The five sense-organs
11-15. The five motor-organs
16-20. The five subtle elements
21-25. The five gross elements

Tattvas 3-25 evolve from primordial nature. All of the Tattvas account for the totality of the unverse as a whole, and each individual human being.

The Antahkarana & the Powers


Buddhi is the principle of reflective discrimination. It is through the activity of Buddhi that all things are known, classified or understood. One might say that it is Buddhi’s “task” to distinguish between Purusha and Prakriti.

The Bhavas

In Samkhya, the Buddhi is divided into bhavas – states of being which are illustrative of particular modes of action. The bhavas are sattvic or tamasic: thus Virtue (dharma), Knowledge (jnana) Nonattachment (viraga) and Power (aishvarya) are sattvic bhavas, and Nonvirtue (adharma), Ignorance (ajnana), Attachment (raga) and Weakness (anaishvarya) are tamasic bhavas. These states pervade one’s sense of selfhood, and shape the individual’s perception of the world, and the kinds of actions that one pursues as a result. For example, a predominance of the raga bhava would result in the constant pursuit of personal desires, whilst a predominance of viraga bhava would result in non-attachment and contentment. Of the Sattvic bhavas, it is Discriminative Knowledge (jnana) which is considered to be that which leads to liberation. Whilst notions of bondage and liberation are concepts of the intellect, the jnana of nonattachment to the body, the sense-experiences, or the mind, the individual becomes gradually aware of the knowledge of the True Self (i.e. the Purusha) and is freed from confusion and false identifications.


Ahamkara (“I-maker) is the sense of subjective selfhood – that which interprets the activities of the three gunas in a way that understands the “I” as the agent or origin of an experience, i.e. “this is my experience.” From the Ahamkara springs the desire to experience the five sense-objects. From the establishment of Ahamkara, its further evolution of takes two forms – the production of Manas and the Tanmatras. Out of Manas is formed the five Buddhindriyas; the sense-powers of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, smelling, and the five Karmendriyas; the action-powers of speaking, grasping, walking, excreting and generating. It is with these ten powers that Manas is able to gratify the desires which arise out of the Ahamkara. Also from the Ahamkara arise the five Tanmatras or qualities of subtle matter: sound, touch, form, taste and smell, which are in turn, the essences of the five Bhutas (gross) or visible elements: Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth.

Buddhi, Ahamkara and Manas are collectively referred to as the “inner organ” – the Antahkarana. Predominately Sattvic, they determine how the world will be seen.

The groups of five-powers, tanmatras and Bhutas are related to each other as follows:

Sense-Power Action-Power Tanmatras Bhuta
Hearing Speaking Sound Space
Touching Grasping Touch Air
Seeing Walking Form Fire
Tasting Excreting Taste Water
Smelling Generation Smell Earth


Suffering (caused by ignorance – the ground state of the human condition) is associated with a failure to discriminate between Purusha and Prakriti. The bound self identifies itself with the body and its constituents, such as Manas and Ahamkara. Liberation occurrs when one realises that one is distinct from, and not restricted to physical matter. It is the curiousity of the Purusha for experience that leads to the identification with the limitations of Prakriti and thus causes bondage. The Purusa is sometimes likened to an observer who, enchanted by a beautiful dancer, cannot take his eyes off the performer. The Samkhyan approach to Liberation involves examining how perception operates, in order to reverse the world-generating process and allow Pure Consciousness to be released from its bonds.

Some thoughts

I have, heretofore, tended to pass over the tattva “system” due to the way I’ve often seen it presented – as rather dry, abstract categories of “spiritual” hierarchy. However, it seems immediately clear from looking at the Samkhyan presentation of the tattvas that this is a human-oriented schema – one in which the world is not understood as something seperate to human existence. The Samkyhan Tattvas schema is not so much a sequence of “cosmic creation” as is often presented, but rather, an account of the formation of conscious experience.

This is a view proposed by Dr. Mikel Burley; see The Relevance of Sâmkhya Metaphysics to Yoga Meditation (PDF, 32kb) he contends that, for example, the 5 Bhutas or so-called “gross elements” are not mind-independent physical objects, but qualities as experienced by an individual subject.

The Kid in the Sweetshop

An analogy I’ve come up with to illustrate the Tattva process is the Kid in the Sweetshop. A kid goes into a sweetshop for the first time – this is the conjunction of Purusha with Prakriti. Before him is arrayed a dazzling splendour – one of those WOW! moments. The dazzling splendour of the sweetshop is made up of things. “There’s that! And that! And oh, look, that!” This is the activity of Buddhi – the discriminating facility. The kid “realises” that all those things are different – and seperate to him (i.e. not self). It’s at this point that the Ahamkara comes into play as the kid thinks “I want that! And I want that! And that!” Simultaneously, the mind – Manas – draws the kid’s attention to the (perceived) external world through the capacity to make sensory distinctions (smells, sights, tastes, etc.) and the capacities for action (speech, grasping, etc.)

It’s through the interaction of the sense-capacity and the objective sense that gives rise to knowledge of that sense. When an object excites the senses, Manas arranges the sense-impressions, the Ahamkara makes it self-referential, and the Buddhi forms the concept. The Antahkarana makes claim to the objects of the world, identifying with the desired objects and rejecting the undesirable ones, so leading to the pursuit of that which is desired and the avoidance of that which is rejected – thus leading to pleasure and pain.

This is a natural process, but, according to Samkhya, its because of the predominance of tamas (intertia) and rajas (activity) and the intense attachment to the objects of the world, that the Antahkarana loses its capacity for “right discrimination”. The answer, therefore, is to examine one’s thought-processes in order to develop the proper attitudes towards the objects of the senses – in order to extricate oneself from the constant agitations of the mental complex (desire, anger, disappointment, attachment, etc.).

In Samkhya, consciousness becomes authentic when claims of “I, mine or me” no longer intrude. An example of this might be that of a piano player who, asked to focus on how his fingers dance over the keyboard, loses the ability to play fluently. For the player’s hands to work, the mind has to be stilled.

Now, because of being overcome,
he goes to confusedness,
he sees not the blessed Lord,
the causer of action,
who stands within oneself.
Borne along and defiled by the stream of gunas,
unsteady, wavering, bewildered, full of desire,
distracted, this one goes to the state of self-conceit
In thinking ‘This is I’ and ‘That is mine,’
he binds himself with his self,
as a bird does with a snare.
Maitreya Upanishad