Samkhya Cosmogeny in Asana

©2013 Bruce M. Roger

Introduction to Samkhya Metaphysics

India is a land of diverse opinions and divergent viewpoints. Its culture has been described as a “salad bowl” (as opposed to our “melting pot”) containing many ingredients that remain uniquely distinct within the whole. At the core of this diversity are the six different schools of Indian philosophy. One of its oldest schools, Samkhya,[1] has furnished the metaphysical framework for Patanjali’s school of classical Yoga; influenced the varied schools of Vedanta, as well as Mimamsa — along with its regional theologies of Saivism and Vaisnavism; informed Ayurvedic medical practice; and even stimulated a Buddhist reaction to Hinduism.[2] However, even within Samkhya there have been differing interpretations.

The Bhagavad Gita defined the difference between Samkhya and Yoga: Samkhya is jnana-yoga, the yoga of knowledge. Yoga itself is referred to as karma-yoga, the yoga of action.[3] Although the paths may differ, both lead to the same enlightenment:[4]

BG V.4 Children, not the wise, speak of Samkhya and the path of action as distinct. He who truly lives in one, gains the fruits of both.

Although there are a couple of schools of Indian thought that do not accept Samkhya’s metaphysics, Yoga’s method of direct perception through dhyana (meditation) has always been, and still is, honored and cherished throughout India.

Patanjali’s Yoga Evolution of Prakrti — The Road Map of Consciousness

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti — Yoga St. Louis

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti — from Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna (350 C.E.) & Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (200 B.C.E.)

Samkhya philosophy enumerates 23 categories of matter that evolve from mula-prakrti (primordial matter) — from the most subtle aspects of the mind, to the organs, and, finally, to the most gross basic elements. Using these categories as a “road map,” yoga practice inverts the order of evolution, leading one from the most gross to most subtle aspects of consciousness. [Click on the Yoga Evolution of Prakrti chart to the left to enlarge it.]

Samkhya philosophy is dualistic: Evolution is predicated upon purusa (the individuated soul, or Self) coming into contact with prakrti (unevolved matter). Purusa, although “ever-wise, ever-pure, and ever-free,” is solely a “witness,” and is unable to act on his own.[5] Prakrti, on the other hand, is not the Self, and thus requires purusa for it to become manifested.

Isvarakrisna, in his Samkhya Karika, described purusa as “lame” and prakrti as “blind.” They depend on each other — ultimately for the “sake of purusa[6] to both see mula-prakrti (“root of – prakrti”) and discover his own true nature.

Vyutthana Citta

Vyutthana Citta

Although not all schools of yoga have accepted the aim of isolating purusa as the way to discover one’s true nature,[7] it has been the primary purpose of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga over the last couple of millennia. In India, understanding one’s own nature has always been the key to stilling the mind and relieving distress. Our first inquiry, “What is the cause of my stress?” leads us to then ask, “Who suffers?” Because Patanjali has indicted the ignorance of the vacillating mind, the final question arises, “Who am I — Self (purusa) or non-Self (prakrti)?” Yoga practice then gradually reveals, by the process of elimination, what we are not, “Neti, neti! (Not that, not that!) — until only purusa remains.”[8]

Yoga practice depends on two principles: abhyasa, which is the discipline of stilling the mind, and vairagya, the detachment from desire.[9]

I feel that abhyasa and vairagya are analogous to prakrti and purusa: Abhyasa corresponds to prakrti, which acts for the benefit of purusa, which is “lame.” Vairagya adopts the impassive witnessing and detached indifference of purusa, which observes as the Seer. Both abhyasa and vairagya must act in concert for purusa to illuminate every part of the body and mind, which brings wisdom, purity, and freedom.

Practically speaking, when we lack detachment, fear limits us; it then becomes impossible to observe, and hence evaluate, the results of our actions. We’ll address this more fully in the discussion of the evolutes.

Synonyms for the universal and individuated soul in yoga.

Synonyms for universal and individuated soul in yoga.

Purusa may be described as a catalyst, rather than a “creator.”[10] In that sense, one may compare prakrti to an actor inspired to perform well in a dramatic role only if being watched by an audience, purusa. In turn, when the audience (purusa) identifies with the actor (prakrti), the actor becomes a “projection” of the audience.

Patanjali cites the misidentification of purusa with prakrti as the cause of suffering.[11] In our drama analogy, it is as if an audience member (purusa) becomes a participant, and feels what the character (prakrti) experiences, in the play. However, this conjunction also provides an opportunity for purusa to understand his own true nature and to become “liberated.” Thus Patanjali states the purpose of existence:

PYS II.23 The conjunction of the Seer with the seen is for the Seer to discover his sva-rupa (“Self-form;” own true nature).

Nirodha citta

Nirodha citta

Liberation through realization of one’s svarupa (own nature) corresponds to the conclusion of the play in our drama analogy, wherein the audience (i.e. purusa) experiences the same “liberation.” Having been engrossed in the play, each member of the audience has experienced the drama vicariously in order to learn something about himself even though he never actually acted in the play. But the subject of the play is of secondary importance. Each audience member, like purusa, will most importantly realize that he was never actually more than a witness, unbound by the drama occurring onstage.


The underlying concept of the Samkhya-Yoga school of thought is that change is temporary even though there is a permanent underlying state, prakrti (matter). It’s the equivalent of our contemporary notion, “Nothing is created; nothing is destroyed. It only changes state.” That’s why prakrti becomes manifested. Only its appearance is modified.

Sat-karya-vada posits that the potential effect (karya) lies inherent, or preexistent (sat), in the cause.[12] For example, a clay pot is “caused” by the clay, the effect being the “pot.” The clay itself only holds the potential effect of becoming a pot. It could also become a tea cup, a piece of jewelry, or just remain in the earth. But when the potter, the agent of action, molds the clay into a pot, it becomes more “particularized,” while its “cause,” the clay, remains underground. The pot is the final product or effect.[13] The terms “particularized” and “final product” are translations of visesa, a specific Sanskrit term used by Patanjali to denote the end stage of evolution that will be discussed in Stages of Evolution of Prakrti.

In Samkhya every possible effect pre-exists in its underlying cause, prakrti. The final form of a clay pot is comprised of the mahabhutas (five elements) — it is mostly earth, with a lot of water, and not much fire, air, or space. Similarly, one’s body is also comprised of the mahabhutas stemming from the tanmatras (subtle elements), which emerged from the ahamkara (ego). Denser bones are more earthen, soft tissue more fluid, nerves more fiery, and lungs more airy. Joints and organs require space and alignment to function correctly.[14]

In Yoga, all the various body functions are, likewise, derived from the mind:

Evolution: Organ / Element
Involution: Effect is absorbed into its
Preexists in its source…

mahabhutas (five elements)

tanmatras (subtle elements)

jnanendriyas (five organs of sense)

karmendriyas (five organs of action)

manas (mind)


ahamkara (ego)


ahamkara (ego)


buddhi (intellect)

The involution of these cascading levels of preexistence, from gross to subtle, may be retraced by reading the Yoga Evolution of Prakrti chart in the inverted order, from bottom to top.

These relationships between the mind, organs, and elements are key to understanding how to practice yoga: When the mind turns inward, the intelligence of the buddhi is able to flow freely in the limbs and trunk,[15] It’s almost as if the saying, “Put your mind in your… back thigh,” is redundant; the mind is the source of the thigh!

Samkhya’s sat-karya-vada is, by no means, universally accepted: Other schools of Indian thought reject a single underlying substrate, like prakrti, and rely on a select number of discrete causes. Buddhism rejects any underlying substrate at all.[16] Advaita Vedanta posits that change itself is illusory and not even “real” — like the mistaken perception that a rope is actually a snake.[17]


Substituting consciousness for the clay pot, Patanjali attributes the transformation of consciousness to dharma – laksana – avastha parinama (potential state – character – most-refined state).[18] This constant change in parinama (state) reflects the never-ending change of the gunas sattva, rajas, and tamas (intelligibility, activity, stasis). In Samkhya the elements, organs, and mind are all guna-parinama-visesa, specific modifications, or transformations, of the gunas.[19] The thesis that the gunas are always in flux obscures their permanence; they are neither born, nor die.

Briefly, the concept of the gunas is, arguably, the most influential contribution of Samkhya to Indian philosophy. The gunas are like strands of multicolored rope that, when woven together, form the “cord” of prakrti, matter, that tethers purusa to the body.[20] The Bhagavad Gita states that the Soul (Brahman) is bound to the body by sattvic happiness and knowledge (jnana); by the rajasic fruits of work (karma); and by tamasic ignorance, laziness, and excessive sleep.[21] The Samkhya Karika uses another analogy: the gunas function for the sake of purusa, “like a lamp” — the wick, oil, and flame jointly producing light.[22]

The gunas simultaneously convey two levels of meaning: Sattva is both the experience of pleasure and goodness, as well as the illumination that triggers the evolution of prakrti. Similarly, rajas is pain and passion, as well as activation; tamas is indifference and dullness, as well as stasis.[23]

In any transformation, dharma is the characteristic, or potential state, as in the clay analogy. Laksana is the temporal state, quality, or refinement — like forming the lump of clay into a pot on the potter’s wheel. In the avastha, final state, the clay pot is fully refined. But here is where the clay pot analogy loses its usefulness and becomes confusing: although the pot may be very beautiful and functional, it still remains a gross, inanimate object.[24]

In contrast, yoga practice begins here, by refining the gross form of the body, which leads to increasing subtlety. As we say in Iyengar yoga, “By the body, for the mind” — which signifies turning inward, or “involution” as the purpose of practice.[25] The only way to reclaim the pot analogy is to cite its dissolution as the end of involution:

When I was a young man, after drinking chai tea at the Indian train station from a crude clay cup, the cup was meant to be then thrown on the ground, where it would be crushed, to become, once again, clay dust.

Similarly, upon dissolution of the buddhi into mula-prakrti,[26] the gunas return to their latent inactive state. Unfortunately, however, the clay analogy does not address the interstitial stages of involution. That, too, will be subsequently addressed in Stages of Evolution of Prakrti.

Whereas the outgoing mind seeks the excitement of rajas, the body inclines towards tamas, stasis. Yoga practice uses two tools to tame rajas and reinvigorate tamas: prana (life force) and prajna (awareness).[27] Prana and prajna sensitize and purify prakrti, and infuse it with the intelligence of the buddhi, which is naturally more sattvic.[28] In the avastha, final, state, the fully refined body and mind become completely sattvic.[29] This is the reverse path — involution, from effect back towards cause, and from gross to subtle.

If the effect is back pain, we must retrace our steps from effect to cause to discern what actions caused it. This will reveal how an imbalance, or the lack of leg, arm, or trunk support caused pain. Once the incorrect action is recognized, it may be altered or refined to change the effect, and relieve suffering. Then sattvic clarity and tranquility are restored.

Stages of Evolution of Prakrti

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti — from Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna (350 C.E.) & Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (200 B.C.E.)

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti

Patanjali describes prakrti evolving in four stages, and the last stage, visesa, is the most perceptible to us. Vyasa’s lengthy commentary on the following sutra explains these four stages in terms of sat-karya-vada and guna-parinama. The order of the sutra conveys involution, from the fourth stage to the first:

PYS II.19 The stages of the gunas are visesa (distinguishable), avisesa (non-distinguishable), lingamatra (differentiable), and alingani (non-differentiable).

Stage I is alinga; (undifferentiated, without “mark”), Patanjali’s synonym for the eternal primordial state of prakrti. Samkhya calls it mula-prakrti (“root of” – prakrti). It is avisesa (non-particularized). Although the three gunas exist, mula-prakrti is absolutely stable because there is no movement or action. Patanjali’s synonyms for the gunas, prakasa (brilliance), kriya (action), sthiti (stability), remain in a balanced state;.[30] Mula-prakrti may only be inferred by its effect, mahat, which is produced in Stage II.[31]

Siva Linga at Virupaksa Temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka (ca. 740 C.E.) Photo © Linda G. Swaty, 2011.

Siva Linga at Virupaksa Temple, Pattadakal, Karnataka (ca. 740 C.E.) Photo © Linda G. Swaty, 2011.

Stage II is linga-matra; (differentiated “with a mark only”)[32]: The existence of mahat, the universal intelligence, is revealed when first rajas begins to vibrate, then sattva, and finally, tamas. Mahat is “the great one” that is the germ of the vast universe. Mahat is also the source of prana.[33] Because it is a-visesa, non-distinguishable, Geeta S. Iyengar compared it to when a woman is pregnant but not “showing.”[34] In Yoga, which is not as symmetrically categorized as Samkhya, the buddhi (individuated intelligence) is a part of citta that evolves from mahat; Samkhya makes no such distinction between the universal and individuated intelligence.

Stage III is avisesa (non-specific or non-particularized), which is both a product of and a producer of evolutes. It is comprised of the primarily sattvic ahamkara (“I-maker;” ego) and the tamasic tanmatras (subtle elements). In Samkhya, ahamkara pulls its sattvic intelligence from mahat.[35]

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

Stage IV is visesa (distinguishable or particularized), which doesn’t produce any further evolutes. It is comprised of sattvic manas (mind), the sattvic jnanendriyas; (“organs of sense”), the sattvic karmendriyas; (“organs of action”), and the tamasic mahabhutas (“five great elements”) — the final sixteen products of prakrti.[36] The jnanendriyas; and karmendriyas refer to the functions of the organs. The concrete structure of a human being — the organs, muscles, and bones — are comprised of the mahabhutas.[37] Because the mahabhutas are primarily tamasic material elements, they are incapable of reflecting intelligence. Thus they are labeled insentient matter.

Let’s apply the evolution of prakrti to the practice asana:

Tadasana corresponds to the avisesa, universal, mahat, “the great one” from which springs the “entire universe” of asana. Because “the effect lies inherent in the cause” according to sat-karya-vada, every other asana exists within this Tadasana. There are a multitude of visesa, particularized, asanas, and Tadasana can teach something important about each one of them.

Although the lift of the back thigh is avisesa, barely “distinguishable” in Tadasana, it is visesa, very “distinguishable” in Uttanasana. Because every pose exists in a subtle form in Tadasana (in this analogy), Uttanasana reveals the smallest amount of rajas beginning to “vibrate” in the Tadasana back thigh. Uttanasana has left its samskara, its mark.

Similarly, the balancing of Vrksasana lies inherent in Tadasana:

Within Tadasana there is a subtle fear of falling. Although we fail to remain entirely stable on our two legs, it is avisesa, not very “distinguishable.” However, balancing on the middle of the heel in Vrksasana is visesa, very “distinguishable.” The subtle fear of falling is a sign of ahamkara, the ego that fears for its very own preservation.

Evolutes of Citta

Patanjali’s term citta (what we informally refer to as “mind,” or what B.K.S. Iyengar translates as “consciousness”[38]), is like a “fluid enveloping”[39] three interactive functions: buddhi (intellect), ahamkara (ego), and manas (mind). In Samkhya they respectively function as “determination,” “self-awareness,” and “explication.”[40] In addition, citta is “more subtle” than its contents.[41] Samkhya differs; it treats each as a distinct metaphysical layer: ahamkara evolves from the more subtle buddhi, and manas evolves from the more subtle ahamkara.[42]

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti — from Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna (350 C.E.) & Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (200 B.C.E.)

Yoga Evolution of Prakrti

Therefore, in my Yoga Evolution of Prakrti chart I have given pride of place to citta as a “container” of buddhi, ahamkara, and manas. My primary reason is to remain loyal to its categorization according to Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar.[43] I feel that it also addresses a significant issue brought up by Guruji Iyengar that is ignored by Samkhya: citta is the microcosmic counterpart that corresponds to the macrocosmic mahat.[44] However, once one accepts the concept of an integrated citta of these three functions, one forsakes the tidy categorization of Samkhya: buddhi as linga-matra, ahamkara as a-visesa, and manas as a visesa are all of three entirely different stages of evolution. This will subsequently be discussed as part of Samkhya’s counterpart — antahkarana, conscience. I await further clarification of this.

1.   The first and most subtle evolute of prakrti is the sattvic buddhi, the intelligence. Buddhi (√budh = to be aware of) is characterized by the functions of judgment, discrimination, ascertainment, and will. It is lucid and tranquil. The function of buddhi is “certainty leading to action,” adhyavasaya.[45] It is the source of our sattvic bhavas (“fundamental strivings”) of dharma jnana viraga aisvarya (virtue, knowledge, non-attachment, sovereignty).[46] The negation of these are the tamasic bhavas that lead the buddhi to engage in worldly pursuits. Buddhi lacks the self-awareness of its ahamkara evolute.[47]

2.   The second evolute of prakrti, ahamkara (aham + kara: I + maker),[48] evolves from the buddhi. Because Samkhya does not distinguish between mahat and buddhi, universal and individuated consciousness, it asserts that ahamkara evolves from mahat, as opposed to the buddhi function contained within citta.[49]

Samkhya’s ahamkara approximates Patanjali’s asmita, characterized by the functions of self-awareness and self-identity, but there are some important distinctions. Asmita is more subtle than its product, ahamkara. Edwin Bryant describes ahamkara as “the cognitive aspect that processes and appropriates external reality from the perspective of the individuated self, or ego — through the notion of ‘I’ or ‘mine.’” It distinguishes between the subject and object, knower and known.[50

Nirodha citta

Nirodha citta

If the outward-facing ahamkara binds its manas evolute and the organs in Samkhya, then the inward-facing asmita prevails as the inner face of the mahat that reflects the light of purusa in Yoga. Yoga considers it the site of the first false conjunction of purusa and prakrti, Self and non-Self.[51] Asmita is the false sense of “I-am-ness,” the assumption that the reflection itself of purusa in the mirror of mahat (or buddhi, depending on the commentator) is actually the Self.[52] Despite this misperception, B.K.S. Iyengar has described asmita as the “unsullied state of ‘I-consciousness’” that is “the innermost state of being, nearest to [purusa].”[53]

As B.K.S. Iyengar has pointed out, the interface between asmita, “I-ness,” and “what is not me” is the body. Thus, there is an inherent obligation to care for the body since one cannot live without it. Moreover, each body necessitates its own awareness: the pleasure and pain, memory, desires, and experiences collected by the manas and organs are accumulated by, and give shape to, ahamkara.[54]

 Ahamkara directs one’s endeavors either towards the spiritual pursuit of purusa, or towards misidentification with the external world of prakrti. When misidentified with the external world, ahamkara becomes proud and arrogant. Over time this misidentification even extends to ahamkara itself: one begins to perceive ahamkara, the small-s self, for the true, capital-s, Self. Yoga practice reverses this:

“… when ego is quiescent, [citta] senses the reality of the Soul [purusa], and the light of the Soul expresses itself through the translucent [citta].”[55]

Yoga practitioners are beset with a paradox — practice uncovers suffering that seems to relieve future pain. Recognition of ahamkara’s arrogance and fear will help relieve the aversion to pain. It’s a three-step process:

a. Although we are hardwired to instinctively seek pleasure and avoid pain, merely avoiding painful experiences prevents learning. The challenge of yoga practice is converting ahamkara into an asset that helps us bear pain. But forbearance alone is only a beginning, not an end.

b. In order to learn from pain, we must relax “any unnecessary tension” — especially in the jaw, diaphragm, and eyes. This relaxation response arises from the buddhi. Else, how can we resolve the ongoing argument within: When my rajasic mind urges, “Yes!” and my tamasic body resists, “No,” who wins?”

c. Buddhi allows us to discriminate. Using ahamkara’s collection of memories and experience, as well as the senses, organs and elements, we observe, “If I stamp my heels down in Uttanasana like I did in Tadasana, and lift up my leg muscles, my hamstrings hurt me less.”

As a result of the leg kriya, action, to “ground” the heels, corresponding to the earth element, ego immediately feels less threatened by what Iyengar yoga terms “the fear complex.”[56] Then ahamkara, unconstrained by the fears of the small-s self, becomes quiet. The lack of fear frees us to access the intelligence of the buddhi. Awareness, prajna, and its cohort prana, are then able to freely flow in the hamstrings and elsewhere.[57]

When we are no longer subject to ahamkara’s fear, we feel calm and unburdened. Following the dictates of the buddhi, which is only reflecting the light of the capital-s Self, we feel reassured that we are “doing the right thing.”

3.   The third evolute of prakrti is manas (mind), the sattvic evolute of ahamkara. Manas is the seat of the emotions, likes and dislikes, and information. It receives, categorizes, and transmits information to and from the jnanendriyas (five sense organs) and karmendriyas (five organs of action) — through which we interact with the external world — and the buddhi.

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

Yoga categorizes manas as a visesa. Similarly, Samkhya also describes it evolving from ahamkara, along with the senses, organs, and subtle elements. But there is more than one way to categorize manas, and it’s categorization is more ambiguous than first appears: Samkhya also groups manas collectively with buddhi and ahamkara (it’s source) as the antahkarana (“internal organ”).[58] This suggests that the “vertical” separation of manas and ahamkara, as well as buddhi and ahamkara, is less distinct than at first glance, and that Samkhya’s threefold antahkarana is the equivalent of Yoga’s citta.[59]

The characterization of manas as both part of the Samkhya antahkarana, and the external organs supports the thesis of B.K.S. Iyengar that describes manas as serving a dual role in Yoga: When manas, drawn by the jnanendriyas to engage with worldly objects, becomes entangled with the senses, it acts as the external mind, or eleventh sense. When the manas is disciplined in yoga — connected with the citta in samyoga — it integrates (samyama) with the internal organs (buddhi, citta, and ahamkara), and is transformed into the internal mind.[60]

The tendency of manas to be outgoing manifests in various ways, such as extroverted student behavior in class, or an excessive need for validation. It can also happen internally when the mind gets caught up in, and moves with, the motion: grounding the frontal heels in Tadasana is forgotten when raising the arms up in Urdhva Hastasana.

Antahkarana as Conscience

The term antahkarana, as used in Yoga, often has a more subtle and important meaning than merely signifying Samkhya’s threefold grouping of buddhi, ahamkara and manas. Antahkarana is conscience. B.K.S. Iyengar describes it:

“conscience… embodies ethical and moral principles…. [It] helps cultivate citta, and directs it to perform right actions.”[61]


“Conscience is the source of [citta], intelligence [buddhi], and mind [manas]… and ego [ahamkara].[62]

In Light on Life, B.K.S. Iyengar has pinned antahkarana to a location to clarify its function. Antahkarana is “an independent arbiter, the witness of the witness.” As the lens [i.e. the inner face of buddhi] that faces purusa, it is less likely to be tainted than the outward-facing lens, which is in contact with the senses.[63] Because “conscience (antahkarana)… dwells next to the soul, [it] perceives the world as One, and not as a battle for survival.”[64] Conscience is uncompromising. When conscience is pricked,

“conscience tells us to do the harder thing, because it is always pulling us towards unity, towards wholeness…. When conscience is flawless, it “is the voice of our soul.”[65]

Manas and the Visesas

Because B.K.S. Iyengar has accepted manas grouped with the other aspects of the citta, he has consequently shown both the karmendriyas and jnanendriyas evolving from manas rather than ahamkara.[66]

The five jnanendriyas (jnana = knowledge + indriya = organ; the organs of sense perception) include the ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose. The karmendriyas (karma = action + indriya = organ; organs of action) consist of the organs of speech, arms, legs, excretion, and reproduction. As stated previously, these signify the functions of the organs, and not the actual organs themselves. In Iyengar yoga, we extend the definition of karmendriyas to include the muscles and bones, with the skin as the corresponding organ of perception.

Manas must coordinate the karmendriyas and jnanendriyas in asana to establish equipoise.

A common mistake in Trikonasana is to take the head forward and allow the eyes to lead the pose. If the eyes are seduced by their objects, it leads manas astray. When the legs have abdicated their supporting role as karmendriyas, the support function devolves to the eyes, or even the tongue, which are entirely unsuited to perform the task because they are jnanendriyas (sense organs). As a result, if the student dutifully “takes the head back” as instructed without the appropriate use of the legs, she falls backwards.

Here’s another example of the necessity of coordinating the senses and organs in asana:

If you try to first lift the head towards the ceiling when pushing up into Urdhva Dhanurasana, lifting the pelvis becomes almost impossible — a common mistake in the beginning. This is “leading with the senses.” When the head follows the eyes and the clenched jaw, it robs the arms and legs of strength, and ego impedes buddhi’s power of discrimination.

Ahamkara & the Elements

Ahamkara produces the tanmatras (five “subtle elements” — sound, touch, form, taste, smell) which subsequently “solidify” to produce the mahabhutas (five “great elements” — space, air, fire, water, earth that comprise the objective external world).[67]  For example, the first tanmatra, sound, produces the first mahabhuta, space, which, in turn, is perceived by the first jnanendriya, the ear. Reading horizontally across the bottom of the Yoga Evolution of Prakrti chart reveals these correspondences. Similarly, the first two tanmatras, sound and touch, produce the second mahabhuta, air, which is perceived by the second jnanendriya, the skin, and so on….

The texts show three different ways to chart the tanmatras:

1.   In the Yoga Evolution of Prakrti chart I have shown the tanmatras evolving from ahamkara. This is in accordance with Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna XXV and Vyasa’s Bhasya on PYS I.45.[68]

2.   Vyasa’s Bhasya on PYS II.19 differs: it portrays the tanmatras evolving directly from mahat.

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti

3.   In the Samkhya Evolution of Prakrti, following the commonly accepted scheme, I have shown the tanmatras evolving from ahamkara, but parallel with the emergence of manas, the five senses, and the five organs.

Because Samkhya is a composite system, this is one of its inexplicable anomalies. Like manas, Larson has described the tanmatras as “ a bridge between the internal and the external, or between the individual and the world; they come into contact with, and generate, the external world.”[69] As a cause of the external world, it seems logical that the tanmatras would qualify more as avisesas than visesas (final products).[70] I assume that’s why Vyasa categorized tanmatra as avisesa, and mahabhuta as visesa. As with the anomaly of how to categorize the collective antahkarana, I await further clarification.


This article is dedicated to my family. To my wife, Linda, who has   contributed to my understanding of these complex issues by enthusiastically discussing it with me every day for the last couple of months. To my daughter, Sara, may it help you navigate not only the rigors of yoga, but also the challenges of life. And to our youngest child, Aaron, I know that you have absorbed the talk about yoga around the dinner table because of how much you value ethical principles.

I have tackled this subject for several reasons.

First, while sitting with my daughter at RIMYI during a Guru Purnima address, I tried to convey to her with brief intermittent comments how Guruji’s address adhered to a rhetorical sequence. Following a statement of purpose, he then usually starts his explanation by citing the evolutes of prakrti from PYS II.18-19, which are explained in detail by Vyasa’s commentary — which itself is based on the Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna. I subsequently realized that my understanding of evolution was based on paraphrases of the commentaries, but not upon any close reading of the commentary itself. I wanted to find out what the original commentary actually said to help fill in the gaps of my understanding.

Secondly, to establish authenticity, I reviewed Vyasa’s commentary word-by-word for sutras II.17-23 using translations of Hariharananda and Swami Veda Bharati. However, because they are of a different lineages, I had to adjust their interpretations to remain loyal to Guruji Iyengar’s point of view.

Unavoidably, the scope of this article grew over time in response to student questions. Not only do Samkhya and Yoga interpret the sequence of evolution a little differently, there are variations within each. Also, fundamental concepts — like “yoga as union” — that reflect the monistic viewpoint of Vedanta needed to be explained both within their own context as well as in comparison to Yoga. Nevertheless, in order to maintain the flow of the article, these differences are only briefly explained in the footnotes.

Third, only upon close examination did I begin to understand in more depth how Guruji distinguishes between such English translations as “self” and “Self.” Rather than contribute to the confusion — especially when a capital letter may be omitted in a transcript — I have chosen to rely on the original Sanskrit terms — ahamkara and purusa — which convey completely different categories of existence.

It is my hope that the Isvara & Purusa and Yoga Evolution of Prakrti charts will help clarify some of the South Asian concepts, such as manifestation, and macro-microcosm relationships. Regrettably, graphic charts suffer the same reductionist limitations as analogies because words and thoughts cannot always accurately portray experiences. In order to sufficiently simplify these charts, I have had to gloss over some of the differences that have been explained in the text and footnotes. My approach has been to avoid emphasizing these differences that, while certainly important to scholars, are not a priority for yoga practitioners.

I began practicing yoga at age twenty-nine to become more healthy; I persevered because its breadth and depth offered more than just physical health. My practice has been richly rewarding, and continues to become increasingly so. May this short summary of the Samkhya-Yoga map of consciousness deepen your practice.

With gratitude for the teachings of Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar and for the interest of my students in sharing this path of yoga —

Bruce M. Roger

September 3, 2013


Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, SUNY Press, 1983.

Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.1, Honesdale: Himalayan Institute, 1986.

Swami Veda Bharati (nee U. Arya), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol. 2, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2001.

Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators, New York: North Point Press, 2009.

Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy Vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1932.

Georg Feuerstein, Yoga, The Technology of Ecstasy, Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. Author transcription. See summary on separate blog post.

B.K.S. Iyengar, Yaugika Manas, Know and Realize the Yogic Mind, Mumbai: Yog, 2010.

B.K.S. Iyengar & The Dalai Lama, Paths to Happiness, timeswellness: New Delhi.

Geeta S. Iyengar, Yoga Odyssey [Pasadena, CA]: Asana 5-11-01, 9.30 – 1.15 PM; Yoga Philosophy 5-13-01, 7.30 – 9.30 PM. Author notes.

Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979.

A. Parthasarathy, Choice Upanisads, Vedanta Life Institute, Bombay, 2001.

Winthrop Sargeant, The Bhagavad Gita, SUNY Press, Albany, 1984.

Dr. Mani Dravid Sastri (translator), Brahmasutra-bhashyam: Adhyasa bhashya of Sankara Bhagavatpada. Downloadable pdf.

Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna, Brief translation.

Samkhya topics, Scholarly discussion with reference list.

Swami Sharvanand (translator), Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1920. – Swami Sharvanand [Sanskrit-English].pdf Downloadable pdf.

Swami Swarupananda, Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Advaita Ashrama, 1926.

Swami Virupakshananda (translator), Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna with The Tattva Kaumundi of Sri Vacaspati Misra, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1995. Downloadable pdf

[1]          Samkhya dates as early as 400 B.C.E., and is based on the ancient Vedas.

Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 96-99; 252

Samkhya philosophy derives its name from the term prasankhyana, “discrimination.” Patanjali refers to this as viveka khyati, or the wisdom that comes from dharma mega samadhi, the “raincloud of virtue” cited in PYS IV.29.

[2]          Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators, 2009. P. xxvi

           Bryant has cited Gerald Larson’s proposition that Yoga is a merger of both Samkhya and the Abhidharma school of Buddhism. [p. 508] In this vein, refer to B.K.S. Iyengar & The Dalai Lama: Paths to Happiness, timeswellness: Lecture Demo 11-20-10 PM, New Delhi [YouTube video].

[3]         BG III.3 In the beginning (of creation) I proclaimed a twofold path of devotion in this world: jnana yoga for (followers of) of Samkhya and karma yoga for the yogins.

[4]         BG V.2 Both renunciation and the Yoga of action lead to freedom: of these, the Yoga of action is superior to the (mere) renunciation of action (unaccompanied by knowledge).

[5]       Isvarakrisna Samkhya Karika XIX Because purusa is the opposite (of the unmanifest)… [and] is a witness, isolated (kaivalya), indifferent, Seer (drasta), and inactive.

[6]          ISK XXI: Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 174

for the sake of purusa: translation of purusa-artha as in ISK XXXI. It is a deeper meaning than the mundane interpretation of “aims of life” that are dharma-artha-kama-moksa (duty-wealth-pleasure-liberation).

[7]          Until the recent resurgence in the popularity of Patanjali’s astanga yoga in the West, Vedanta has reigned as the most popular school of Indian thought for a millennium. Vedanta is based on the Upanisads (1000-600 B.C.E.), the philosophical portions of the ancient Vedas. Sankara’s (d. 820 C.E.) non-dualistic advaita Vedanta emphasizes the union of jivatma and paramatma (the individuated soul and the universal soul). (Having always been considered united, their separation is regarded as “unreal.”) In the West, this concept of union as the goal of Vedanta has been often confused with the isolation of purusa as the goal of Yoga. But union isn’t even the goal of all Vedantists: A competing school of dualistic dvaita Vedanta, founded by the South Indian Vaisnavite Madhvacarya (d. 1317 C.E.) in Udupi (on the Konkan coast in what is now western Karnataka), contends that paramatma is Isvara, a creator God, who is entirely independent of His created world, which includes individual jivatmas and matter.

Many Indians do not have any problem reconciling these different approaches, such as praying to Lord Visnu as part of a family tradition, while personally practicing Yoga. Reflecting the diversity of Indian culture, Yoga has never been narrowly defined as a “Hindu” practice. In fact, many of B.K.S. Iyengar’s Bombay students were Parsis. Today, along with Parsis, Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Jews, and Muslims all attend yoga classes at RIMYI in Pune.

[8]          Neti, neti is from Sage Yajnavalkya (ca. 850 B.C.E.) in the Brihad-Aranyaka Upanisad IV.5.15. It signifies a method of Vedic analysis often used in Vedanta that negates all worldly experiences until nothing remains but the eternal Self — which is not definable.

[9]          PYS I.12 Practice (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya) are the means to still the movements of consciousness.

[10]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 173

[11]        PYS II.17 The cause of pain is the identification of the Seer with the seen and the remedy lies in their dissociation.

PYS II.20 Though the Seer is pure, he appears to see things through his agent, the buddhi, and is carried away by its influence, losing his identity.

Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 93: Relief of suffering in Samkhya was deeply influenced by Buddhist thought.

[12]        ISK IX

[13]        Swami Veda Bharati (nee U. Arya), Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol. 2, Motilal, 2001. p. 60-64

Who is the agent that form the pot? ISK XX states that buddhi is the agent, acting through the gunas, although not all schools agree. Yoga self-consciously avoids claiming that the pot was “created;” the cleverness and artistic judgment of the potter is not viewed as “creation.” The function of the gunas will be explained in the next section on Guna-parinama, followed by an explanation of buddhi in Stages of Evolution of Prakrti..

[14]        Joints and organs require space and alignment: See blog post What is Alignment? Transcending Duality Through Asana

[15]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. +16:20-21:50 Author transcription. See also the Dasgupta reference in the footnote comparing buddhi and prana cited in Stages of Evolution of Prakrti.

[16]        Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators, 2009. P. 324

[17]        Dr. Mani Dravid Sastri (commentator), Adhyasa Bhashya of Sankara:

This example is derived from Sankara’s Adhyasa Bhashya on the Brahma Sutras. Adhyasa is the superimposition of one reality upon another due to misconception. Driven by fear, the observer superimposes a snake on the rope, and consequently only the snake is “known.” This corresponds to avidya (ignorance), or the mistaken notion that body, mind, and organs are the Self (Brahman) — even though they are not. Just as the illusory snake can only be removed by knowledge of the rope, so must mistaking non-Self for Self be rectified through vidya (knowledge) of the non-Self. Self (Brahman) can only be defined by negation, as has been stated in the Introduction to Samkhya Metaphysics, and attributed to Sage Yajnavalkya in a prior footnote.

[18]        PYS III.13 Through these three phases [nirodha, samadhi, ekagrata parinama], cultured consciousness is transformed from its dharma (potential) state towards laksana (further refinement), and avastha (the zenith of refinement). In this way, the parinama (transformation) of elements and organs (including mind) takes place.

[19]        ISK XXVII

[20]        As summarized in the Gita Bhasya by Adi Sankaracarya and Anandagiri’s tika, the gunas bind the soul to the body, making it appear that the soul itself, not the body, undergoes change.

[21]        BG XIV.05-08

[22]        ISK XIII

[23]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 163-64 There is speculation that Plato’s Dialogues (ca. 400-350 B.C.E.) were influenced by Indian guna theory.

[24]        the pot… remains a gross, inanimate object: lacking the conjunction of purusa and prakrti, it lacks the ability to reflect and the ability to liberate purusa.

[25]        The Sanskrit word for involution is ni-vrtti marga, negation-of-vrtti path, which leads to vrtti nirodha, vrtti restraint, cited in PYS I.2.

[26]        PYS IV.34 Kaivalya (is the result of the fulfillment of the) purusarthas (and the transcendence of the) gunas. Through involution, (they return to their source and) citisakti [the power of consciousness] svarupa-pratistha (is established in her own natural piety).

[27]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. +28:05-32:05 Author transcription.

[28]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Yaugika Manas: Know and Realize the Yogic Mind, Mumbai: Yog, 2010. P. 19

[29]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Astadala Yogamala Vol. 8, Allied, 2010 P. 134-135

[30]        PYS II.18 Prakasa, kriya, sthiti, elements, and organs exist eternally to serve the Seer, for enjoyment or emancipation.

[31]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 164

Siva Revealed in Siva Linga, Tamil Nadu (ca. 1000-1200 C.E.): Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Bruce M. Roger, 2013.

Siva Revealed in Siva Linga, Tamil Nadu (ca. 1000-1200 C.E.): Asian Art Museum, San Francisco. Photo: Bruce M. Roger, 2013.

[32]       Linga is a sign of something, just as smoke is a sign of fire. In Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Siva, the Siva linga is a two foot high stone shaft that represents the jyotir-linga, the infinite shaft of light that extended from the heavens to the nether world.

[33]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 208

Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy Vol. 1 Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 1932. p. 262: In lieu of prana as the life force, Samkhya has allocated that function to the spread of buddhi throughout the body. The Vedantic vayus, too, have been attributed to operations of the “buddhi… performing life-functions and sense-functions of the body.”

Swami Sharvanand (translator), Mundaka and Mandukya Upanishads, Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1920. P.11-12; 30-31: For instance, Mundaka Upanisad I.1.8 (ca. 600 B.C.E.) cites Brahman (synonymous with purusa) as the source of prana. But, Vedantic commentators qualify it as sa-guna, “with-guna,” Brahman, the equivalent to prakrti. When combined with “food” [prakrti] it produces prana, manas, “truth” [refers to II.1.3 mahabhutas and sarva-indriyani, all organs], worlds, and endless actions. Like Samkhya’s purusa, nir-guna (“without-guna”) Brahman is pure awareness, and unable to produce anything, such as an object of perception.

[34]        Geeta S. Iyengar, Yoga Odyssey [Pasadena, CA]: Asana 5-11-01, 9.30 – 1.15 PM. Author notes.

[35]        Geeta S. Iyengar, Yoga Odyssey [Pasadena, CA]: Yoga Philosophy 5-13-01, 7.30 – 9.30 PM. Author notes.

[36]        VB II.19 Mahabhutas (gross elements) are, respectively, the visesa (particularized) evolutes of the avisesa (universal) tanmatras (subtle elements). Similarly, the buddhi-indriyas (jnanendriyas), the karmendriyas, and eleventh [organ], manas, are the visesa evolutes of the avisesa evolute of asmita. These are the sixteen visesas (diversified productions) of the gunas.

[37]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 187

[38]        Some commentators argue that only purusa is conscious. Without purusa, citta is unconscious and unaware.

[39]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. P. 46

B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. +16:20-21:50 Author transcription: This fluidity is in keeping with the flow of prana and prajna in asana practice: “prana sakti, mano sakti, and vijnana sakti are substances that flow… within the banks of skin in asana.”

[40]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 189

[41]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. +37:00 Author transcription.

[42]        ISK XXII-XLII describe the evolutes. See the subsequent discussion about antahkarana, Samkhya’s collective term for the threefold buddhi, ahamkara, and manas.

[43]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. Table 9, P. 124

[44]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. P. 46

B.K.S. Iyengar has borrowed from different schools to establish common ground rather than emphasize differences.


[46]        ISK XXIII Of the sattvic bhavas, only spiritual jnana leads to liberation.

[47]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 184, 192.

[48]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Yaugika Manas: Know and Realize the Yogic Mind, Mumbai: Yog, 2010. P. 14:

B.K.S. Iyengar has distinguished between the hyphenated “aham-akara” (the “I-form”) as the physical form of the jivatman, individual soul, whose purpose is to commune with purusa — the capital-S “Self,” as well as the objects of the world, versus the non-hyphenated “ahamkara” (the “I-maker”) which actually is the small-s “self” that has a false form that impersonates purusa.

Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 185:

According to Larson, the Sanskrit particle kara (“making”) may also designate the indeclinable word or sound “omkara.” I believe this conveys a cosmological significance corresponding to the term purusa-kara, “purusa-embodied,” that we recite in the Patanjali invocation.

[49]        The Samkhya Karika of Isvarakrisna XXII – XXXVIII describes ahamkara evolving from mahat, and both manas and the organs evolving from ahamkara.

[50]        Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators, 2009. P. li

[51]        Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.1, Himalayan Institute, 1986. P. 38-39, 239.

[52]        Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.1, Himalayan Institute, 1986. P. 38-39, 237-40.

[53]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. P. 9

[54]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 118-121

[55]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 121

[56]        the fear complex: PYS II.9 Abhinivesa (attachment to life) is found even in wise men.

[57]        When prana and prajna flow evenly throughout the entire body, ahamkara dissolves and only purusa remains…. which is samadhi in asana.: B.K.S. Iyengar, Prana & Prajna in the Yogic Path: 2013 Guru Purnima Address, RIMYI, Pune 22 July 2013. +28:05-32:05 Author transcription.

[58]        ISK XXXIII Antahkarana (“internal organ”) is three-fold. The external is ten-fold, and is known as the context of the three-fold. The external functions in the present. The abhyantara karana (internal organ) functions in three times (past, present, future).

[59]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 96-103; 179-80: The “horizontal” emergence of the tanmatras from ahamkara recalls the tripartite creation from an original principle in the earliest Upanisads; “vertical” emergence stems from the middle-period Upanisads.

[60]        As in ISK XXXIII, B.K.S. Iyengar splits manas between both citta and the organs:

B.K.S. Iyengar, Yaugika Manas, Know and Realize the Yogic Mind, 2010. page 48- 50

[61]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. P. 121

[62]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. P. 12

[63]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 178

[64]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 250

[65]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, Emmaus: Rodale Press, 2005. p. 179

[66]        B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, HarperCollins, 1993. Table 9, P. 124

Both Isvarakrsna [ISK XXVII] and Vyasa’s [VB II.19] commentary on Patanjali have described manas, karmendriya, and jnanendriya as direct evolutes from ahamkara.

[67]        tanmatras  subsequently “solidify”: Pandit Usharbudh Arya, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Vol.1, Himalayan Institute, 1986. P. 33.

[68]        Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali, 1983. p. 102:

Hariharananda Aranya has interpreted in his Basvati on PYS I.45: “The subtler form of tanmatra is ahamkara, and the still subtler form of [ahamkara] is the… linga-matramahat-tattva.”

[69]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 188

[70]        Gerald Larson, Classical Samkhya, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1979. P. 188: Larson has cited that in earlier texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita and Moksadharma sections of the older epic Mahabharata, the mahabhutas function in place of the tanmatras. The remaining five evolutes, which were subsequently omitted from the Samkhya Karika, were objects of the senses.

4 thoughts on “Samkhya Cosmogeny in Asana

  1. Pingback: Provenance — Where Does Yoga Asana Come From? | Yoga St. Louis Blog

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