Glimpses of Samkhya

In ancient India there existed a school of thought called the Samkhya. For the proponents of this school, man (and woman, and I shall mean both whenever I use the word “man”) can be in one of three states. The first of these is rajas, perhaps the state most common to the majority of us, which involves energy and passion, anxiety and anger, and all emotional and physical states which involve a certain degree of intense activity. Needless to say, modern civilisation is on an overdose of rajas. The second is sattva, which most of us would like to have more, peace and equanimity, rest and relaxation. The last is tamas, which all of us have but may not be aware of. On the physical level, this involves inaction and lethargy. Psychologically, it is repression, inability to face certain emotions and lack of energy.

So what does this ancient Indian philosophy have to do with love and work, or with anything at all? For one, it provides an interesting and simple typology of mental states that one can use to classify one’s stream of consciousness at any given moment. Most of us will notice that we have rajas most of the time – we always feel like doing something. As a species, man is perhaps lucky to have the highest number of possibilities in his activity and the greatest ability to control it and develop it. As a friend once said to me, a cow is more or less a cow. But a man can be Hitler or Gandhi, an aborigine or a civilisation builder. A man called Beethoven composed Ode to Joy and a man sculpted the beautiful Gandhara Buddhas. From one perspective, rajas is our hidden potential, waiting to be actualised to add to the beauty of the world.

So why don’t most of us actualise this gift to a significant degree? Of the various reasons, the purely psychological one is tamas. Something in us keeps our own energies from arising. Perhaps we have known the state of “flow”, when one is lost completely in one’s work, without awareness of even oneself. But such a state comes rarely to most of us. At other times, we work with different degrees of interest, ranging from terribly bored to mildly interested. Something in us keeps our energies from arising and that is tamas. The more we avoid facing the tough issues in our lives, which may be from the past or about the future, we are in the grip of tamas. Why do we avoid certain issues? Because they provoke anxiety. Perhaps we avoid them to such a degree that we are not even aware that those issues provoke anxiety because we have become numb to them, or are not even aware of their existence. This is precisely what Freud discovered when he started to explore the unconscious of troubled Viennese people 100 years ago.

If providence is near, there may be someone who comes along and offers us an emotional relationship in which we can dare to open up and explore ourselves. If this angel does not appear, we are left to self-reflection, which may not be possible for most people unless they are given a kick-start by this special kind of relationship. But if this opening of the repressed contents of the psyche does happen, we learn to accept more of ourselves and see that a lot of good comes along with the bad. New potentials become visible, old ones become clearer and there may be felt a strong urge to live out these potentials. The face of rajas is being revealed.

Now that we have the creative gift of rajas and the static obstacle of tamas behind which it lies, where is sattva ? Not far. Sattva is what arises when the energies lying in the self are spent, when one has expressed one’s potentials to an extent. We have all tasted it as the peace and calm of a hard day’s night and the satisfaction of a job well done. It is the equanimity after all the energy is spent. However, unless cultivated deliberately, sattva is likely to become more and more elusive. A hard day’s night will comprise of worrying about the next hard day instead of relaxing in satisfaction. The way  to cultivate sattva is through reflection and contemplation.

The Samkhya sages thought of sattva as the best of these three qualities of being. Because when sattva dominates, a man learns to see what lies beyond all activity, all the hustle-bustle, all the emotional highs and lows – the realm of that which is not touched by pleasure or pain. A deeper layer of consciousness opens up, which may result in more sattva and more rajas.

So, the above is the philosophy of Samkhya, as understood by me. Tamas as an emotional state is rarely desirable, as far as I can see. Therefore, self-exploration is one of the highest activities a man can take up.

Rajas is what the visible world is made of. The people rushing to work every morning, spending hours at office, going back to their families and friends, joking, laughing, talking, having intimate conversations  – that all is rajas. It broadly goes towards two activities – work and relationships.

Sattva is what reveals to us deeper meanings in life.

Categorising our mental lives like this, Samkhya provides us a  way forward, telling us what states to cultivate and what states to try to work out of. This is the non-theistic side of Hinduism. It offers a simple and straightforward analysis of human life, seen in terms of ever flowing, always fluid nature, the qualities of which are inherent within ourselves.

~ by tdcatss on December 12, 2009.

4 Responses to “Glimpses of Samkhya”

  1. I have never hear of the Samhkya school of thought before reading this post. I definitely need to focus on cultivating certain states. Is creating a balance among the states part of this school of thought? My understanding of what you’ve written is that it is best for one to have a predominance of the Sattva state.

    • Hi H!

      Thanks for your comment. To me it seems that for someone living an active life, Samkhya would propose working hard to actualise your potentials and at the same time taking time off for reflection or meditation, etc.

      Sattva is good but can’t be forced on someone, as far as I understand. It comes when you have worked hard, in a committed way towards one goal, for a substantial amount of time.



  2. Hi Kaif, I have described the Samkhya philosophy in greater detail in my blog (

    None of the 3 gunas are good or bad. All of them have their positives and negatives. The Sattva guna is the most desirable, but it cannot be had in isolation from the other two. The Samkhya system is based on arithmetic : the objective is to climb towards infinity from a finite number. The 3 gunas are the 3 choices that a finite number can have. Infinity itself (what can be called as “God”) needs no choices, but can be visualized with any of the 3 gunas. This gives rise to the Hindu system of trimurti or 3 forms – Brahma (Infinity as the transparent sattva), Vishnu (Infinity as active rajas) and Shiva (Infinity as unchanging tamas)

  3. Dear Kiran,

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t find myself in agreement with what you say:

    None of the 3 gunas are good or bad. All of them have their positives and negatives … This gives rise to the Hindu system of trimurti or 3 forms – Brahma (Infinity as the transparent sattva), Vishnu (Infinity as active rajas) and Shiva (Infinity as unchanging tamas)

    I cannot imagine how being tamasic would be conductive spiritually. There is much to say in spiritual systems, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and also in Vaishnava spirituality, to cultivate a sattvic attitude through habits, restraint, a particular kind of food, etc.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: