Reconstructing the Samkhya Yoga Heritage

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In the Beginning…

The roots of Yoga are buried deep in the Samkhya (pronounced song-khya) tradition, and the roots of the Samkhya tradition is buried deep in the Shasti-Tantra, an ancient tantrik text long since lost to antiquity. We do however believe that the origin of the Shasti-Tantra was based on the much earlier ritual hymns or Vedas (3000-1500 B.C.E.) upon which the bulk of India’s philosophies were based. Samkhya is also deeply rooted in the oral teachings or Upanishads contemporary with early Buddhism (600-300 B.C.E.), and it was in those Upanishadic teachings that the word ‘yoga’ first appears in its religious setting.

At that time the word ‘yoga’ was not associated with the physical exercises we normally think of when we hear the word today, but the word ‘yoga’ instead referred to a specific meditation method based on sensory isolation. There is evidence that particular special meditation method existed prior, but had probably become lost and at some point the Buddha rediscovered it. There is also written record ([1]) that he taught his newly rediscovered meditation method to a certain Panchashika, a name that is listed as one of the early patriarchs of the Samkhya lineage, and some of whose disciples are moreover listed as authors of those aforementioned Upanishads that first mentioned the word yoga. An unknown author from the same body then went to great pains to elucidate a formal and very detailed definition of that meditation method, and defined yoga to mean the temporary suspension or arrest of all sensory activity done knowingly and willingly, and at this point we have the formal basis of the Samkhya Yoga tradition.

I Believe…

From a Samkhya-Shastra (Science of Discrimination) viewpoint, people have both a physical body and a soul. First the physical body is born, and the soul is left to experience life vicariously via the proxy of the physical. After practicing the daily-prescribed method of meditation, the soul is then granted its own Life and Life Experiences to augment the physical life experiences. The metamorphosis of the human soul from that of being dependent on the physical body for its existence to being solely dependent on the Cosmic Core of Life upon which everything ultimately depends, either directly or indirectly, is much akin to what the earth bound caterpillar undergoes when transformed into the moth and afterwards more comfortable in the air than on the ground. 

This newly found independent existence for the soul constitutes a second-birth or punar-janman to complement the physical birth, a birth into spirit per se, and once the second birth occurs it continues with or without the continued practice of the meditation that produced it. Thus the second birth establishes a permanent state of Emancipation or Kaivalya for said persona. Moreover, if the soul undergoes the second birth of Kaivalya, and is thus no longer dependent solely upon physicality, when the physical body does eventually succumb to its inevitable end then the soul lives on. ([2])

Treated Like Royalty...

The Samkhya Yoga tradition and its supporters seemed to have especially endeared themselves to royalty and vice versa. All of its primary texts were either written by kings, were sagas of kings, defined the duties of kings, or written in legalese. Its flagship, the Samkhya-Karika (Discrimination in Verse), describes the spiritual body of the persona or purusha and in a vernacular that one would use to define the bureaucracies of a kingdom.

For example, at the center of creation is prakriti, a term also used to describe the inner sanctum of the king’s essential and most trusted ministers. If a minister is worth his mettle he does not need to hear the orders given by king purusha in person, but is able to anticipate the person’s needs beforehand. Thus the persona like the king does nothing but enjoy the kingdom while the ministers or prakriti perform all the necessary duties that keep the kingdom running. In essence the purusha-persona is a mere witness to creation, a creation whose sole purpose for existence is to serve said persona.

The second manuscript of the royal canon is the Yoga Sutras, which is a detailed instruction manual for the unique meditation utilized by Samkhya Yoga and is generously interlaced with legalese from the Manu-Smriti (Laws of Manu). The Yoga Sutras even go so far as to state that it is a ‘deed and legal document’ which today’s culture would recognize as a patent. Although the term ‘legal document’ was undoubtedly meant to be taken figuratively, the instructions are so specific and the concepts so conclusive and that it would be easily enforceable in any court of law.

For more than a thousand years Buddhism and Samkhya reigned unimpeded before they encountered their first ‘bump in the road’, so to speak. A monk named Shankara accused Samkhya of abandoning its religious roots, in part I suspect because of the legal vernacular in lieu of Vedic or even Upanishadic. Because the Samkhya-Karika is also an abridgement of the more expansive fore mentioned Shasti-Tantra, it is also as plausible that Shankara simply did not agree with its editing. Others of that period stated that the Shasti-Tantra was in fact a treatise on yoga, but the word ‘yoga’ was nowhere to be found in the their abridgement. These possible explanations are made more plausible given that Shankara will go on to found a separate tradition and school of thought called ‘Advaita-Vedanta’, whose philosophy is in fact Samkhya philosophy with some of the legalese replaced with vocabulary from Upanishadic sources, waters from which the Samkhya Yoga tradition had originally emerged and may have even actually helped author.

Many of the Samkhya tradition appear to have gravitated to Shankara’s Advaita-Vedanta viewpoint, perhaps because it was little more than an updated Samkhya Yoga philosophy that had reinstated its Upanishadic roots. That at least some advocates of old-guard Samkhya took his criticisms to heart is evidenced some time later, when the abridged text that caused the controversy was reformatted and expanded to include much of the material that had previously been edited out.

A few centuries later came the second ‘bump in the road.’ From about the 12th century C.E. onwards Islam was making military and political inroads into the Indian subcontinent. The conquering Muslims were more than adamant about their religious doctrines centered on Allah, the Supreme Creator. Neither Samkhya nor Buddhism accepted the doctrine of a Supreme Creator, and in point of fact, go to great lengths to discredit those beliefs. What the Muslims considered the sacred and unquestionable revelation in the form of the Koran, both Samkhya and Buddhism would regard as philosophy and fair game in public debate. Moreover, both Buddhism and Samkhya were major cohesive forces in the political-military landscape, and more so than any religious reasons, it was probably this that led to their ultimate demise.

Over the next three hundred years almost everything associated with either Samkhya or Buddhism will have disappeared from India’s soil, beginning in 1199 C.E. with the destruction of a major Buddhist University. The only traditions that survived to practice their traditions openly also remade themselves into an image that was politically correct for the new regime, in that the surviving philosophies were reformatted to support a belief in either monotheism or qualified polytheism rooted in monotheism.

Non-theist systems such as the Samkhya-Shastra or even Advaita-Vedanta that existed prior to the 15th century C.E. were reinterpreted by the surviving traditions, and non-theist doctrines that were too explicit to be reinterpreted were censured as errors. Some followers of the reformed Vedanta will go so far as to denounce even Shankara as a crypto-Buddhist ([3]), and to make that denunciation even though Shankara was in fact Vedanta’s founder ([4]).

While Buddhism was a missionary movement with established centers in Thailand, Tibet and even China that its followers could escape to, and hence their traditions and lineages continue to survive even today, regrettably Samkhya was never a missionary movement. As a result the only surviving remnants we have are those preserved ironically by its protagonists.


During the military carnage and political upheaval, a number of writings appear about yoga beginning with the Yoga Yajnavalkya in the 12th century. This manual spends a great deal of time discussing two principles of breathing mentioned in the Yoga Sutras, but adds the metaphor of a hooded serpent or kundalini as a visualization aid in describing the breath’s passage and behavior. When these principles of breathing are singled out and taken advantage of, meditation burns much more brightly. Over the next two hundred years we have a host of additional Upanishads written known as the Yoga Upanishads which celebrate those two kundalini breathing techniques. Another early instruction manual of this period is the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika which enhances the kundalini breathing techniques with stretching exercises, and it is here that we are introduced to the term ‘raja-yoga’ for the first time which undoubtedly was meant in the sense of ‘bright yoga’ or ‘meditation that shines.’ ([5])

It was obvious that the hatha lore came via Tibet and the Eighty Four Siddhi lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, which I doubt went unnoticed by the new Muslim overlords. Considering the term ‘raja-yoga’ also translates as ‘yoga of the kings,’ I especially doubt that fact went unnoticed either. Fledgling traditions are normally outspoken about themselves and their teachers as they proselytize in search of new members, yet this lineage began by forming itself into clandestine societies whose members were explicitly instructed to perform their rituals in secret. Furthermore, its practitioners were instructed to great length as to how to live an unpretentious lifestyle. This would be sage advice indeed if Samkhya or Buddhist refugees had been numbered among them, or even hardcore Advaita-Vedantins that refused to compromise their non-theistic beliefs.

This underground religious culture may or may not have survived long enough to see the publishing of Gheranda’s Samhita in the late 17th century, an artful blending of Samkhya meditation and hatha lore and which appears to be both original and genuine. Although the text is undoubtedly the product of the same secret underground culture, there is currently no way to determine the date it was actually authored. Even at the time of its publishing it may have been little more than a relic of bygone days and nothing has followed since, even though rumors of an underground religious culture persisted well into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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[1] The Buddha-Carita of Asvaghosha (c. 100 C.E.)


[2] I would like to add here that although the Samkhya tradition was never a missionary movement, its resemblance to Christianity warrants notice.


[3] The quip is attributed to Vyajnana-Bhikshu, a 16th century Vedantin philosopher who is seen by many as spearheading an Indian Renaissance in that many ancient texts were given a rebirth and reinterpreted. On a darker note of course, this could also be seen as an attempt to rewrite history by superimposing newly acquired religious values not expressed in the original.


[4] Some Vedantin sects consider Ramanuja (c. 11th century) the first ‘true’ Vedantin, because he is believed to be the first Vedantin to have accepted Ultimate Reality in the form of a personal Godhead, in contrast to Shankara who openly declared the belief so ludicrous that he refused to even respond to the proposal.


[5] There is an additional reference to an obscure poem by Adi Shankara entitled Yoga Taravali where the term raja-yoga is used in reference to the meditation system of the Yoga Sutras. It is unlikely to be the source of the Hatha Yoga reference to raja-yoga but it does deserve mentioning, especially since over the centuries the term rajayoga does indeed become synonymous with samkhyayoga. I have little doubt that Shankara was playing off the extensive legal vernacular of the Yoga Sutras in the sense of ‘Royal Yoga’ or ‘Yoga of the King’.