This article is written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
I have mentioned earlier that in the 1970s Sri Krishnamacharya stopped teaching for a short while and asked his long standing students to study under his sons. I was asked to study yogasanas with Desikachar, whom as we all know was an excellent teacher. One day at the end of the class he said that he was going to start studying Samkhya Karika under his father. We had just completed studying Yoga Sutras with our teacher. My mind was already highly charged with the unusual thought process contained in the Sutras. I demurred. Desikachar continued and said “Father said that I should find out if Ramaswami would be interested” I said immediately yes and then joined the class the next day with Desikachar. I did not have time to get a book (Sankhya Karika books were not easily available and one had to order from a few publishers in the north to get a copy). Desikachar was kind enough to gift a copy of the text with Gaudapada’s commentary in Sanskrit with no translation in Tamil or English. I still have that copy.
Sri Krishnamacharya taught the text relying on Gaudapada’s commentary word by word, verse by verse along with Gaudapada’s commentary. The study of the text took about one year. We used to meet once or twice a week for an hour. At the end I realized why he was keen to teach this text to us. It made a lot of the yoga sutras accessible. Even though he had a degree in Samkhya called Samkhya Siromani (crest jewel) he was able to come down to the non scholarly students like us. I had read some books on sankhya karika by scholars and academicians and used to be overawed by their scholarship, but Krishnamacharya while capable of engaging scholars in an intellectual debate was able to breathe a lot of life into this rather abstruse text. I think all students of yoga who want to study or have studied yoga sutras may do well to consider having a look at all the Samkhya Karika verses. The author Isvarakrishna is considered to be an avatara of Kalidasa, an outstanding Sanskrit poet. Many people who study Ayurveda, vedanta philosophy, find it necessary to study Samkhya. I do not know Buddhism but I have heard that HH Dalai Lama once mentioned that Samkhya would be a very useful text.
Each verse in Samkhya Karika is important as every sutra in the Yoga sutras is. It is perhaps the first vedic philosophy to proclaim the immutability of the Atman or Self which is considered to be pure consciousness. It clearly distinguishes between the ego which is commonly but erroneously considered to be the Self and the Atman or Purusha which should be called the Self. Even though there are differences among the three nivritti sastras, Samkhya, yoga and vedanata, in the nature of the Self they are in agreement even as they agree on the need to find a way to terminate the vicious cycle of repeated transmigration but differ on the unity or multiplicity of the selfs.
One of the outstanding features of Samkhya is the clear enunciation of the steps of creation of the Universe from the primordial mula prakriti. It is very interesting to see that according to them evolution took place in two streams from the mulaprakriti, the subjective and the objective streams, the microcosmic and the macro cosmic evolution. Life force is considered a vritti or activity of such a subtle body created in the microcosmic stream. It differs distinctly from the commonly held view that the first living organism, a single cell bacterium, evolved a long time after the original blast. Samkhya is the forerunner of the thesis that consciousness is distinct and different from, and not a product of, matter as is normally presumed. It also lays down the framework of the powerful, even the contentious theory of transmigration, a corner stone of the vedic teachings. Its thesis is that a creature is made of several layers, a subtle body– primordial body– called the linga sarira, then the genetic body made from the parents called the matru-pitruja sarira (the embryonic Body) and then the physical or bhuta sarira made from the five gross elements. It also postulates the theory of the difference in the experiences of different beings due to the karma/dharma which gets accumulated, the bundle of karmas being responsible for ceaseless transmigration. It is perhaps the most logical explanation of the theory of transmigration.
As the name indicates Samkhya (samyak khyapayati) attempts to throw light on all one should know to transcend the otherwise endless migratory nature of the mundane painful existence . Correct knowledge of the 25 tatwas that make up the evolved universe and the distinctly different purusha, the pure consciousness, with which one should identify oneself as the real self is the means of overcoming permanently and definitively the threefold dukkha or pain/sorrow most creatures experience most of the time in the innumerable lives. Thus it is known as a nivritti-sastra or a body of knowledge that removes (nivritti) dukkha or pain/sorrow. While Samkhya lays down the theoretical framework for duhkh nivritti, Yoga details the steps one has to take for such achievement. Vedanta harmonizes the few inconsistencies and the three vedic sibling philosophies are thus known as nivriti satras by old timers.
Samkhya also details the need to develop a right attitude or pratyaya to take the path of nivritti. It recognize these pratyayas in the context of permanent release from duhkha, the goal of Samkhya and the other nivritti sastras. The first pratyaya referred to is viparyaya or the wrong convictions is an unhelpful state of mind. Patanjali refers to as the conviction which is not based on truth (a-tad-rupa-patishtam). Holding on to wrong conclusions or dogma even in the face of overriding considerations against one’s beliefs is viparyaya, like the earth is flat or the body is the self . The second pratyaya that is not conducive to the permanent relief of duhkha or pain and sorrow is tripti or complacence. Taking no corrective action but hoping everything will be ok in course of time, or nature will take care of everything, luck and chance will do it or resigning to fate completely will come under this category of pratyaya. According to Samkhyas it will only perpetuate avidya and so will not deliver from the three fold pain of samsara.
The other unhelpful pratyaya is asakti or infirmity. Physical, physiological and mental weaknesses impede the aspirant in the spiritual progress. Then what is the helpful pratyaya? Samkhyas call it Siddhi pratyaya. How can one attain the spiritual goal? Dana or dispassion and purity of mind is one. Then svadhyaya or study of the appropriate texts is another helpful aspect of siddhi pratyaya. Sabda or study with a competent teacher is another helpful aspect of siddhi and then suhrit prapti or association with others who are also spiritually inclined and of course analysis and deep contemplation (uha). Then constant vigilance to avoid and overpower the basic causes of the threefold misery. In a similar vein. Patanjali talks about helpful and unhelpful cittavrittis which includes pramana or correct knowledge and viparyaya or wrong conviction, two opposite citta vrittis. Patanjali divides all the chittavrittis as helpful (aklishta) and unhelpful/harmful crittis (klishta )
Samkhya is said to be a vedic philosophy. How so?
The Mahanarayana Upanishad is the last chapter of Yajur veda. There is this beautiful mantra which succinctly describes the essential tenets of Samkhya. It is a colorful narration
ajamekam lohita suka krishnam
Bahvim prajam janayantim sarupam
There is one without birth (beginning) made of three colors (gunas) of red (lohita/rajas), white (sukla/satva) and black (krishna/tamas). It produces numerable objects similar in nature (consisting of the three gunas). There is a second one again without birth (a beginning) which interacts with and experiences the various products of the first (and is in bondage). Then there is the third one again without a beginning which keeps aloof from all the products of the first (prakriti) and hence is in Freedom.
This explains the nature of prakriti of three gunas, the individual self in bondage and the third an individual self completely free or in kaivalya. The whole purpose of samkhya is to help the innumerable individual selfs in bondage to attain freedom from the endless involvement with prakriti.
The Bhagavat Gita explains the basic tenets of Samkhya in the beginning itself if you consider the first chapter as just the preamble. According to several acharyas the main purpose of the Gits is to emphasize that the real self is consciousness immutable and all the concerns about oneself is misplaced.