Nandini Iyer -- USA 

Theosophy NI 4 Nandini 4

Nandini Iyer

[Note from the editor: It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I can present a sublime academic essay entitled  “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, to all the readers of Theosophy Forward, worldwide. The author, Nandini Iyer, was not only a remarkable woman, but also an outstanding teacher and theosophist. Although the essay is  rather long, I felt that it deserved to be released in Theosophy Forward  the e-Magazine, as one complete publication only, in order to maintain clarity and compactness. I must thank Kim Miller, Carolyn Dorrance, Tanja Cowell, John Powers, Jonathan Colbert and Pico Iyer for their enthusiastic support. Without them this publication would not have been possible. JNK]


This article argues that the opposition between Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta is not an irrevocable either/or dichotomy. The claim that it is necessary to choose one and only one system need not be accepted, and this is so also with regard to their apparently irreconcilable metaphysical and ontological truth-claims. Both Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta have their theoretical strengths and weaknesses. Each has its advantages and provides useful starting points in, and connecting links with, the everyday world of the ordinary person. Each offers a relatively coherent and insightful view or explanatory system dealing with matters of ultimate concern, and each attempts to answer the questions that inevitably arise for any individual engaged in a spiritual quest. The article concludes that in the final analysis, we cannot expect any conceptual metaphysical system to be able to express the Absolute Truth or reveal to us the infinite mysteries of the ineffable, indescribable Ultimate Reality.


It is customary among students and scholars of Indian philosophy to regard the metaphysics and ontology of Samkhya-Yoga and of Vedanta (especially Advaita Vedanta) as completely incompatible with each other, as totally contradictory systems. The obvious if simplistic conclusion we are inclined to draw from this is that, accepting the basic laws of logic — the law of (non)-contradiction and the law of excluded middle — one system must be true or right and the other false or wrong. Of course, we are willing to grant, that the one we are inclined to regard as basically true has its difficulties, problems and weaknesses; and equally we may be willing to concede, however guardedly, that the system we reject has its (relative) merits and even insights. But these qualifications and small concessions we reluctantly grant are trivial when compared with our adamant assertions that only one of them can really, ultimately, be right, essentially true.

Such claims to exclusive truth are made vigorously and repeatedly by the different schools of Western philosophy. Efforts to bring together and reconcile different and opposing schools of philosophy, e.g., the attempt by Kant to reconcile rationalism and empiricism, however brilliant, are usually either rejected by each side as somehow distorting or inadequate, or regarded by both sides as interesting and unusual philosophical developments but not really successful solutions to the opposition. This approach to the differences and seeming opposition between trends, movements and philosophical explanations or schools has been generally accepted as appropriate to the study of Indian thought, not only by Western scholars but often even by Indian thinkers. The well-known and frequently noted opposition between the philosophical schools of Samkhya-Yoga on the one hand and Vedanta or Uttara Mimamsa on the other is an obvious case in point.

The point I wish to make in this paper is that the opposition between these two schools is not the irrevocable either/or dichotomy it is usually assumed to be. We need not accept the demand that we must choose decisively, once and for all, between the two, especially in relation to their apparently irreconcilable metaphysical and ontological truth- claims. We do not have to choose one and completely reject the other, and we can do this without being accused of being illogical or irrational; without being called indecisive, weak sit-on-the-fencers; without being derided as fuzzy-minded, unphilosophical syncretists with no comprehension of the strict demands of philosophical principles.

Ancient Indian (especially Hindu) thought has always held, in a variety of contexts, to the view that it is possible for two apparently opposite theories to be both true at the same time, although in different contexts, fields or levels of knowledge, world views, conceptual or categorial frameworks, etc. Indian children are routinely brought up on stories and fables such as that of the six blind men and the elephant and are given simple examples showing, for instance, how even an ordinary material object can be looked at, and described from, six main points of view in space. Each description can be true from its own point of view, however different it is from other equally true descriptions, depending on the spatial location of the perceiver in relation to the object.

We should not dismiss lightly the fact that the six main classical schools of philosophy are traditionally known as “darshana-s” — a term which, roughly translated, means “points of view.” By and large, Western scholarship, while acknowledging that this was the term always used for the six schools, and while conceding that these philosophical schools are not really “schools” of philosophy in the same sense that Western schools of philosophy are, has still paid only lip service to the idea. Perhaps they think the ancient Hindu thinkers simply felt compelled to live up to the all-embracing and indecisive character of Indian thought and life; they covered up their very real differences by saying they were only differing points of view.

The notion of complementary darshana-s, as opposed to that of competing schools of philosophy, needs, I believe, to be taken very seriously. No doubt, the bitter rivalries, cantankerous arguments, exclusive claims to truth and so on that we find among later proponents of these philosophies do seem to belie the original belief in relative points of view. But the basic connotation of darshana still subtly underlies the field of Indian philosophy as well as the Hindu world-view.

This idea of “points of view” is what I wish to apply to the opposition between Vedanta (specifically Advaita Vedanta) and Samkhya-Yoga — schools whose metaphysical doctrines in particular are seen as sharply opposed and mutually incompatible. I am aware that Larson and some other scholars are unhappy about speaking of “Samkhya-Yoga” as if the two could be seamlessly joined together without doing injustice to each of the two; Larson, e.g., disapproves[2] of Dasgupta’s titling a chapter in his classic work on Indian philosophy, “The Kapila and the Patanjala Samkhya (Yoga).”[3] However, while recognizing this as a legitimate critical concern, I propose, for the purposes of this brief paper, to deal with the two together, though obviously not as one two-aspected school. Since I am dealing mainly (though not entirely) with the metaphysics of the two “rivals”, I feel justified in taking this approach. To some extent, of course, epistemology is involved, but epistemology is often metaphysically theory-laden.

One does not in the least have to support any theory that all truths and truth in general are relative in the sense that they are purely subjective, i.e., depending on the viewpoint only of the observer or perceiver. We can allow for some kind of “absolutism” and some sort of objectivism, and yet hold that, to some degree, truths are relative to the world-view of which they are a part, relative to a set of given assumptions and presuppositions, and relative to a conceptual framework which is built upon and around a particular set of categories. Different world-views, conceptual frameworks and category systems can and do overlap; but there may be subtle differences, even in the overlapping, which are easy to overlook. Thus, two systems of thought may seem to share certain important categories, but there may be differences in what exactly these categories mean and imply and what degree of importance they have in their respective frameworks. Or, two different systems of thought may use the same categories and terms but ask very different questions about them. This would involve both the nature and lines of thought from outside the categories, so to speak, to the categories, or starting from the categories they may move outwards towards other ideas. The two lines or directions of thought could change the status and the essential or contextual meaning of a category. Different systems of thought may be built for different purposes and so may look at the same area of knowledge or the same concepts in a different way; they may ask very different questions, for example, about the same facts, phenomena or concepts. A very general term such as “human being” will raise very different questions for the philosopher, for the biologist and for the psychologist. Or the concept of “knowing,” or “perceiving”, or “mind” may be approached and understood very differently by a neurologist, a cognitive psychologist, a philosophical epistemologist. Such concepts are basic, after all, precisely because they are so open- ended and fluid.

Applying this to the opposition between Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta, we could begin by looking at the concepts of purusha and atman. Both terms, in a broad and general sense, refer to the self — the true, real self of each human being. (I am confining myself here to the nature of humanity). The differences are obvious, at least in the later well-defined and developed philosophical systems. In the earlier versions of Samkhya, purusha is referred to as atman and paramatman atman simply in the sense, of course, of a self.[4]  But in classical Samkhya, while the purusha is the true atman of a human being in the ordinary sense of the idea of self, it is not the atman of Vedanta. The purusha-s are separate, individual selves, and have been so from eternity and will remain so for ever. There is no question of their being in reality part of one indivisible spiritual self, as the atman is in Advaita Vedanta. Purusha-s are completely and forever apart. One point of similarity between the Samkhya-Yoga purusha and the Vedanta atman is that each of them is regarded as a sakshin or witness. But it is difficult to understand how purusha can be a witness. Both purusha and atman are pure consciousness and do not need an object to be regarded as such, Indian philosophy having the notion that it is possible to have a pure, contentless consciousness that does not, logically, conceptually, or metaphysically, need an object of which it is conscious in order to be consciousness itself. The Self is not an object of consciousness but always remains a subject-consciousness — unless, as in Vedanta, the Self turns back, so to speak, on Itself in pure self-reflection. But whereas the Vedantic atman is pure consciousness by and in itself, it can also be seen as pure or absolute truth and absolute knowledge, and therefore can also plausibly be regarded as the source of pure intelligence, and therefore is also the source of finite intelligence and of that principle which enables us to know — know in the sense of ordinary subject/object knowledge. Since atman (as identical with Brahman) itself can be, and is, the only possible source of any object of knowledge, we can speak of atman as a knower, as being involved in what we call knowing. Above all, atman, as the pure Self and pure consciousness, is the ultimate basis for self-consciousness, one’s sense of selfhood, the irremovable and irreducible sense that “I am I” — at whatever level that occurs. Indeed, since there is nothing else to know, atman as consciousness is both the knower and the known, subject and object. This is the condition of the individual who has fully realised atman. This condition is also described as the jivanmukta having risen beyond the subject/object dichotomy into the realm of pure Oneness.

The Samkhyan purusha, on the other hand, is pure consciousness and nothing else. Neither intelligence nor knowledge can in any way be ascribed to it. The principle of intelligence and the capacity for knowledge are to be found not in the purusha but in buddhi, which is the primary product or evolute of prakriti. But how can anyone or anything be regarded as a witness if he, she, or it does not possess the capacity to know? Being the witness of something implies a degree of knowledge, or at least the capacity to know — processes and capacities not found in the purusha.[5]

Vedanta finds the substance duality of the Samkhya-Yoga to be totally untenable from a purely philosophical point of view. Vedanta’s objections to Samkhya-Yoga’s metaphysical or ontological dualism are, in general, similar to those found in the Western philosophical tradition, e.g. against Cartesian dualism. “Substance” in philosophy is usually understood as something which is the substratum of all phenomena, on which everything else depends for its existence, but which is itself an independent existence, that which is not a property but that in which properties inhere. The authority of the Upanishads is frequently invoked by Vedanta, and these on the whole affirm the existence of only one independent substance. Vedanta, appealing not only to shruti but also to reason and logic, appeals to the principle of Occam’s razor to insist on the necessary existence of only one substance. In this, Vedanta seems to employ primarily a deductive method. It therefore not only believes in one ultimate “substance” but regards it as the only real existence or independent substance. There cannot possibly be more than one ontological ultimate reality. The manifold of phenomenal existence must, somehow, be explained in terms of, in relation to, or as dependent on, the one substance.

Even if the two ultimate substances of Samkhya-Yoga are not infinite, the problems of a radical metaphysical and ontological dualism remain. Since, by definition, a substance is completely independent of everything else, it cannot be acted upon by, or affect, any other substance. Given the definition of substance, any kind of interaction is not only empirically but logically impossible. This applies to dualism on the cosmic as well as on the individual level. We are all familiar with the difficulties that Descartes faced with his mind-body dualism. Descartes himself was uneasy about his dualism, and did try to explain away some possible misconstructions of it. He says about himself as a thinking self, “I am not lodged in my body like a pilot in a vessel.” But this does not really help, for we want to ask, “Then what is it like?” Samkhya-Yoga’s analogy of the case of the lame man and the blind man is of no greater help. (They are, after all, both men, alike in substance, though with different qualities, and can communicate with and touch each other). And even Yoga’s Ishvara cannot be brought in to help, since he has no power to bring purusha and prakriti together, especially as Ishvara himself is pure spirit, albeit the Mahapurusha. It is interesting that a few later Cartesians were driven in desperation to propose the absurd theory know as Occasionalism.

What we need to remind ourselves of, however, is that Samkhya-Yoga, while concerned of course with ontology, seems to be also concerned with the way the world and its phenomena are essentially seen by the ordinary individual. Our everyday experiences do not point to a unity of any kind. I experience everything essentially as a contrast, a separateness, between myself and other people, and between myself as the observer and knowing subject and the rest of the world as the observed and as the known object. Each of us definitely feels the distinction between mind and body. Samkhya-Yoga addresses itself to this taken-for-granted-by-everyone duality. The system seems to want to produce not only a prescriptive but a descriptive metaphysics as well.[6]

The Samkhya-Yoga assumption of the self is, then, that of everyday experience, that of a self that essentially needs other separate selves and things in order to define itself. In fact, the phenomenal self must have other selves even to know itself as a “self”. To have the basic sense we all take for granted that “I am me”, the existence and presence of other selves as separate is required. It is not only things or objects that I need but also other persons — not just to support my sense of selfhood but even to have the basic feeling of being a self, myself. The subject-object distinction is the ground of our experience of the world, and therefore must necessarily be the ontological assumption on the basis of which philosophical exploration of the self and the world begins.

If we examine a little more closely our everyday experience of “self” consciousness, i.e. the way we look at ourselves, my experience of being me involves being myself and no one else and so is also the experience of being unique. And yet this experience is simply a bare feeling of myself rather than a thought that involves considering myself as a self with certain attributes, properties, qualities that would help as identifying references, or that would distinguish me from other people and for other people. These more complex ways of seeing myself are thoughts, already a step away from the simple feeling of being myself. They would also be more self- consciously reflective thoughts of what kind of person I am, which I might confide to a friend or to a psychiatrist and so on. But they are secondary to the primary, fundamental, direct and non-intellectual awareness of myself that underlies my whole life, throughout all its changes. This utterly simple, basic and universal experience, a non- rational (but not irrational) experience, is what Samkhya- Yoga seems to take extremely seriously and makes the starting point, the basis, of its philosophy and the core of the purusha concept.

When I consider myself as simply being myself as opposed to the other, the universe of others includes not only other persons (purusha-s) but other objects, material objects. What I can have direct (as opposed to indirect) experience of in the case of other people, i.e., the simplest and most basic way in which they are the objects of my subjective perception and experience and understanding, is perceiving their bodies, their facial expressions, their gestures, their observable habits, their speech, etc. So they, too, as objects in my world can, for some purposes, be put in the same class as physical objects and phenomena. After all, I cannot really know what it is or would be like to be another self, devoid of all attributes and qualities, in the same way that I am aware of being myself. We could say that to assert otherwise would involve us in a self- contradiction, since for Samkhya-Yoga the basic fact of being a self, a soul, a purusha is that I am unique and I cannot possibly be someone else. I can, of course, put myself in another’s place or imagine myself (in a limited sense) being someone else in terms of that individual’s qualities, attributes, situations in life, etc., which are merely phenomenal adjuncts of the pure self.

On the basis of this line of thought, Samkhya-Yoga understandably classifies intellects, minds, feelings, the sense of egoism as being not-self, non-purusha, and therefore prakriti. The bhavas therefore are characteristic of buddhi, as are the guna-s. These are what we can understand and know as objects of knowledge, so they are not, and cannot be, part of the purusha. Perhaps it is because when we say we know or understand other people it is similar to (though not the same as) saying that I understand material objects or sensory phenomena, i.e. in terms of their observable qualities and behaviour, that it seems to Samkhya-Yoga natural and logical to say that knowledge, understanding and other cognitive faculties and processes belong to the buddhi, a product of prakriti, and cannot be attributed to, or affirmed in any way of, the purusha. This is not a particularly good line of reasoning; but it is understandable, given Samkhya-Yoga’s assumptions and basic stance, why it would go in this direction.

The teleology and soteriology of Samkhya-Yoga is that, while prakriti is said to manifest itself and involve itself in a complex pattern of evolution, it does this entirely for the sake of purusha, to serve the ends and purposes of purusha. And yet the question as to how or why purusha, if it is initially completely uninvolved with and unrelated to prakriti, gets “involved” (if that is the right word) in the whole process of manifestation, is never answered — in fact, it is hardly raised at all. Another puzzling feature is that, in actual fact, purusha is not really caught up in prakriti.[7] It only appears to be so to the ignorant buddhi. So purusha does not need to be freed. Buddhi, on the other hand, gets enmeshed in avidya, ignorance, and believes itself to be a conscious entity, whereas, being a product of prakriti, it is by definition, by its very nature, incapable of being conscious, even though it is the intellect and is said to be capable of knowing. It is buddhi that needs to be delivered from its own illusions and false beliefs. When buddhi knows that it is completely separate from purusha, the conscious Self, and that it has no consciousness of its own and only reflects that of purusha, it dissolves back into the primordial avyakta prakriti. Purusha is now free. And yet, one wonders — if buddhi is that which is caught in ignorance and buddhi is that which frees itself (without any help from purusha), why is the whole complex deployment of prakriti through differentiation and manifestation, the whole cosmic “dance”, necessary at all? And why, above all, is the process said to be for the purpose and sake of the purusha? The purusha is never truly bound and therefore needs no release. Purusha really cannot even “see” the dance. It is buddhi, not purusha, that is, if anything, released from its ignorance, but it releases itself; purusha can do nothing for it. Interestingly, if one considered the nature of mukti or release in some of the other systems, where it means that the spirit or soul merges back into the universal Oneness, the state of avyakta, the Supreme Spirit, then Samkhya-Yoga offers the opposite view. It is the material buddhi, born of the primordial homogeneity of pradhana or prakriti, that loses its separateness and merges back into the unmanifest from which it came, and purusha is left in its original separateness.

Perhaps this explanation of the “liberation” of buddhi is thought to follow from the doctrine of the oneness of primordial prakriti. And this doctrine perhaps is seen as simply an explanation of the scripturally affirmed doctrine of the dissolution at pralaya back into the One unmanifest reality.[8] If, as is suggested by some scholars, including Larson,[9] some of the early formulations of what later became classical Samkhya were intended to be simple, scientific accounts of the evolution of the material, phenomenal universe, then one can see the thrust and purpose of the Samkhya view. For in that case the soteriological explanation of the ultimate fate of the purusha comes as a kind of postscript or addendum, just as the idea of the purusha itself was probably a later addition.[10]  The Samkhya-Yoga dualism avoids a charge of reductionism, but only at the price of raising other kinds of serious philosophical questions and problems.

The dualism that Samkhya-Yoga affirms is a rather odd and puzzling kind of dualism — not the usual sort of Cartesian mind-body opposition, but the distinction or gap that exists between spirit on the one hand and the psycho- mental-physical self on the other. But again, perhaps this too, can be explained in terms of the whole purpose and point of view of the Samkhya-Yoga darshana mentioned earlier, viz. the practical ordinary-world point of view as the starting point. Since the shruti, especially the Upanishads, repeatedly point out that the true spiritual Self is not to be confused with the mind or the psychological self, it is crucial on the path of liberation to separate the Self and its identity from these aspects as well as from the body. Of course, Vedanta and most of the Upanishads manage to do this without resorting to extreme dualism.

Leaving aside Samkhya for a moment, and considering only Yoga, its essentially practical character has never been questioned, and, in fact, it is because it is so much concerned with practice that it has relied so heavily for its metaphysics on Samkhya theory. At the same time, it has been pointed out by many scholars that, whichever system of Indian philosophy we are looking at, it must always be remembered that, apart from the purely philosophical and intellectual content of any system, there is always the concern with praxis. It does not matter whether that practice involves meditation and other forms of acquiring jnana, devotion, religious ritual, adhering to Veda-prescribed ceremonies, dharma according to the shastra-s, ethical behaviour in its general form (as in the Bhagavad Gita), duties to humanity in general (sadharana dharma), etc. In other words, philosophical systems have their pure metaphysics, ontology, epistemology, logic, dialectics, methods of argument, and so on, but the end or purpose is always soteriological. The salvation of the soul, or, more correctly, the attainment of moksha (or at least supreme happiness of some kind) is the goal. Theoria is not sufficient by itself; salvific practice is also required. These systems disagree sharply regarding metaphysical and ontological theories about the ultimate nature of Reality, God, or even the existence of God; very different views are held about the nature of the soul, the state of moksha — even as to whether it is “attained” or “realised”. They do not agree in their epistemology, or the meaning of causation. And yet they can and do agree often about the general method and means of salvation. The emphasis on practice and the general discipline of Patanjali Yoga, for example, is readily accepted by Vedantins of various sorts as well as by adherents of other orthodox philosophical schemes. They are quite comfortable with the inclusion of Raja Yoga meditation, the yama-s and niyama-s and the general importance given to developing virtues, the practice of dharma and svadharma, pratyahara, the necessity of viveka and vairagya. These are all accepted by the non-Samkhya-Yoga classical systems as crucial in the practice of Hindu sadhana.

How can this apparent paradox be resolved? After all, if two systems disagree about the nature of Reality; if even the ontological status of the world is described in radically different ways — if all this is the case, then how can followers of such diverse views possibly subscribe to the prescription for, or at least the general way of, achieving salvation? But they can accept the general rules for a life of practical spiritual discipline. Here the attitude of the systems seems to be very practical, almost utilitarian — the point is, the overall practical method works.

This is where the idea mentioned earlier about the possibility of a plurality of metaphysical viewpoints co- existing simultaneously becomes relevant. After all, conceptual frameworks of the world are exactly that — conceptual. Each system is a set of claims grounded in certain internally unquestionable assumptions and based on a set of categories seen as the obviously appropriate categories in terms of which reality can be ordered and understood. What is considered as “true” depends on the basic presuppositions we start with. It has been pointed out by contemporary philosophers that what counts as a “fact”, what it means to be “real”, can vary with a framework. Basic terms such as these do not have commonly accepted, hard-and-fast definitions. They are indeterminate, fluid and open-ended. The assumptions we start with and our primary categories are already theory-laden. What we consider to be knowledge or what we claim we know, what we perceive, what we say we experience, are all, to a great extent (but not entirely) relative to our conceptual framework. Kant believed that our perceptions are dependent on our basic categories, our conceptual framework, or what he referred to as “forms of intuition.” We order and organise the world around us through concepts. What we ordinarily call “meaning” is not inherent in “facts,” however we may define them; it lies in the mental and psychological ordering and organising of them and their relation to other elements in our categorial framework. Importance and significance are what we attach to them. So two individuals with different world-views and conceptual frameworks may see the world differently, for each approaches it from his own point of view. Our statements about the world, facts, experiences, are after all, expressed in language, and language is dependent on concepts and their relationships, i.e., conceptual frameworks. Our experiences, and our descriptions of them, are concept- mediated.

From this it follows that two apparently very different views of the world can be held to be true in the context of different conceptual frameworks. We do not necessarily have to say that one is absolutely true and the other absolutely wrong. Of course this does not mean that we should accept any and every description of the world as true, ‘because it belongs to its own conceptual framework.’ As human beings we do have basically common elements in our physiological, mental and psychological make-up. World-views and conceptual frameworks, to be intelligible as points of view, must overlap to a greater or lesser extent. There are certain beliefs and ideas which we could agree to dismiss as false, or at least as very unlikely to be true. No other human being’s view-point could be as totally unintelligible to us as, for instance, that of another species. As Wittgenstein remarks in the Philosophical Investigations, “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”[11]

This acceptance of the category-dependent nature of our descriptions of the world does not imply a complete relativism on all matters. We have seen that it certainly does not imply a wholly subjective view of truth; nor does it mean that no view of the world can be rejected, either wholly or in part, as false. We certainly do not have to accept, e.g., moral relativism.

Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta both believe that the “True Self”, each person’s true identity, lies in that which is the locus of pure consciousness — purusha in the one case, atman in the other. But once again each system approaches it from a different point of view. As pointed out earlier, Samkhya-Yoga chooses to view it essentially from the standpoint of our ordinary, everyday experience of separation between consciousness and matter and of the separation between oneself and others. These experiences are not to be lightly dismissed, and, as we saw, are crucial in helping an individual to examine life more deeply from the point at which he or she stands, without having, from the start, to question radically, and all at once, everything we take for granted and believe in. How would it help to pull the rug out from people’s feet suddenly? And, from the moral point of view, as we saw, Samkhya-Yoga, by not regarding the entire phenomenal world as maya, helps to make the moral life more comprehensible and easier to practise.

Vedanta, by contrast, seems to believe that, to gain spiritual knowledge, we need to begin to walk the path that is ‘like a razor’s edge’ by questioning immediately our whole approach to the world, to life. This does not mean that we will be able to see the invalidity of our usual assumptions and presuppositions, the fallibility of our most cherished ordinary beliefs, all at once. But we should become aware that there is something seriously and radically wrong with our taken-for-granted, ‘common sense’ views of the world, our value system, our ordering of issues, goals and ideals, our principles of living, and the principle of separateness on which we ground our thoughts and behaviour. We may then proceed gradually to straighten out and undo the kinks and knots in our thinking bit by bit. Here Vedanta offers us the consoling doctrine that the world is not completely unreal or non-existent. It is only relatively so. After all, with Brahman as its ground, how could it be completely false or illusory? It is not so much the world itself, as our perception of it, that is the illusion. The doctrine of adhyasa allows us to hope that we can recognise the superimposition and remove it, since we are ourselves essentially the light of the pure consciousness that can dispel the darkness of ignorance and illusion. And further, we are assured that it is not a question of there being a sharp distinction and gap between the lowest (or greatest) level of illusion and absolute, Ultimate Truth or Reality.

The principle of sublation (or subration, as Deutsch calls it),[12]  is at the core of the doctrine of maya and of the doctrine of the attainment of the highest jnana. Larson complains that Shankara creates too sharp a dichotomy between vidya and paravidya, or ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ knowledge, so that the very concept of ‘knowing’ loses meaning. However, at the same time, Larson maintains that in Samkhya ‘salvation-knowledge’ is quite different from ordinary knowledge.[13]  I see very little difference here (as far as the gap or ‘leap’ is concerned) between the systems. Moreover, the Vedantin theory provides, through the process of sublation, by which we go from lower and more limited truths to higher and more general or more inclusive or more universal truths, a more satisfactory explanation of our progress towards the highest knowledge. Besides, the distinction between the higher and lower knowledge is not really between two levels of knowledge in the ordinary sense, but between two different ways of knowing. Higher knowledge is not the sum of all the types of lower knowledge, nor is Absolute Truth the final step in a continuous staircase of relative truth and knowledge, with the second to last step missing. It is knowledge of Brahman- atman, in which the subject/object distinction is transcended. In this sense, perhaps it is true that this kind of knowing is not like ordinary knowledge. We use the word “knowledge” for it simply because we have no other word for it — hardly surprising, considering that higher knowledge is ineffable, indescribable, non-conceptual. It is “knowledge”, if you like, in an analogous or metaphorical sense. After all, isn’t that the point mystics of all traditions have persistently made? That the knowledge of God (as many mystics, especially Christian) would call it, is in a completely different dimension, so that it can hardly even be compared with any kind of ordinary knowledge. As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing puts it, between us and God is the cloud of unknowing which can be pierced only by the dart of love, not by reason. Even Yoga grants that before the highest state of nirbija samadhi is attained, one must pass through an indescribable dharmamegha samadhi. This could not possibly be said of the knowledge or consciousness of anything else.

It is knowledge and love, and being — a puzzling idea to our rational minds. Spinoza was surely very perceptive in calling it “amor Dei intellectualis”.[14]

It is Samkhya-Yoga, I believe, which really takes the higher or salvation knowledge completely out of the boundaries of anything that we can possibly recognise as, or even imagine to be, “knowledge.” It seems to me that knowledge which is possessed by, or is the attribute of, a substance or entity totally devoid of consciousness is a meaningless notion. The concept of knowledge rests upon, is inseparable from, and necessarily demands some connection with, an idea of consciousness. Can we make sense ordinarily, for instance, of the idea of a stone ‘knowing’ something? No. Why not? Because a stone has no consciousness. Alternatively, such a view reduces knowledge (though not consciousness) to a process explainable in terms of a very simple epiphenomenalism. But this, too, is so curious that it is hardly an explanation. Epiphenomenalism, after all, reduces the various aspects of consciousness (including knowing) to physical, chemical, neurological changes, events, processes in the physical brain. But even it does not divorce knowing from consciousness. “Curiouser and curiouser!” as Alice would say. It may be, however, that if we are determined to limit the category of knowledge to our very common-sense notion of a process involving two elements, the knowing subject and the known object (whether the latter belongs to the physical or mental realm), then purusha can perhaps be reasonably understood as not involved with knowledge.

Vedantins would, as we saw, also wish to regard the ‘knowledge’ ascribed to the atman as very different from knowledge, whether rational or empirical, in the ordinary sense of that term. But, as we have also seen, this makes the idea of the True Self as the eternal seer and witness more comprehensible. In this philosophy, too, the True Self is not an agent who acts, but is the source from which the energy of action of the incarnated self is derived. Thus, in the famous Upanishad metaphor of the two birds [15] — the one on the lower branch acting, the one on the higher branch simply witnessing — there is some relation between the two birds, and, most importantly, both doer and witness belong to the same species: they are both birds.

The concept of the True Self being so different in the two darshana-s, we might expect the two views of moksha to be different too — and they are. For Samkhya-Yoga, final release and liberation means kaivalya, the total isolation of each purusha, not only from any possible confusion with prakriti but from every other purusha, liberated or otherwise. The purusha remains what it has, in a sense, always been — a pure, clear, transparent locus or centre of consciousness, untouched, stainless, unknowing, contentless, attributeless, without relation of any kind. It simply is. Above all, it remains wrapped in its simple selfhood, in splendid solitude, unaware of anything, unknowing even of its own selfhood. There is no question of peace, no question of bliss, for happiness and pleasure are bhava-s experienced only by buddhi. In some ways this isolated purusha is somewhat reminiscent of a much later Western philosophical view — Leibniz’ theory of the ‘windowless monad’. Leibniz’ monad, however, although not directly perceiving other monads, nevertheless reflects the universe ‘from its own point of view’ and certainly reflects God, the Supreme Monad, to some degree, and therefore, indirectly, other monads. The Leibnizian monad is also capable of knowledge, perception and apperception. It is not completely cut off from others, and of course there is no dualism of any kind involved here. If motivation to strive for moksha is required and the beginning of the journey has to be in the world as an ordinary individual understands and experiences it, it is hard to see what enticement the Samkhya- Yoga view of moksha the final state, can offer — alone, without happiness, without knowledge, wrapped forever in a cold solitude that would seem to be more a ‘hell’ of loneliness than a ‘heaven’ to be ardently sought. Even if one agreed with Sartre that “Hell is other people,” one would hardly find such a goal, a ‘summum bonum’, particularly appealing.

Here, perhaps, we begin to see the difficulties of the idea of a plurality of selves. Earlier it was suggested that perhaps the reason why Samkhya-Yoga insists on the basic assumption of many separate selves is that this view conforms more readily to our everyday experience of the world as full of many different people, many separate selves. But normally we are quite ready to concede that, while each one of us is unique in some sense, we also have much in common with each other — not merely as physical bodies but as minds or ‘souls.’ Here Samkhya-Yoga makes a radical departure from our ordinary view. For the purusha-s cannot affect or communicate directly either with each other or with the intellect made of prakriti. This in turn entails, as earlier observed, that the connection or relationship is solely between forms of prakriti.

This view begins to skirt dangerously close to solipsism. If all that I, as an intellect and mind, can have direct access to is other people’s bodies and their behaviour, and only indirectly connect with people’s minds and feelings through their speech and outward expressions, through bodily behaviour, movements, changes in appearance, etc., then how do I know with certainty that there is really a purusha whose consciousness is reflected in, and by, evolutes of prakriti? I know only in my own case; with regard to others I can only make inferences with, at best, a high degree of truth probability. We are back with the old problem of ‘the ghost in the machine’ or, as in Wittgenstein’s example, of the beetle in the box.

Now it may be the case that one’s awareness of oneself as a ‘self,’ an identity, is indissolubly connected with the existence of other selves, i.e. other persons. So the existence of other selves is necessary to my sense of self-identity. As a contemporary British philosopher puts it, “If no one else existed, there would be nobody for me not to be.”

Vedanta’s approach is very different from that of Samkhya-Yoga. It may seem to ask the same questions but the questions come from a different point of view, and this changes the nature and point of the questions. Samkhya-Yoga starts with the notion that our ordinary view of each person as a separate person is valid, but it still wishes to follow the shruti tradition of insisting that the true Self is not the body or the persona. Vedanta appears to start with the premise that the dominant theme of the Upanishads, that the true Self is a Universal Self, identical with, or of the same essence as, Brahman the Ultimate Reality, is absolutely true. In that case, our usual, everyday notion of the self as separate from other selves must be mistaken. This makes it clear that while both systems assume that the purpose of the spiritual quest is the discovery, the knowledge, the realisation of one’s true self or identity, from the start each system has a very different conception of what this true self is essentially going to be when it is found. Moreover, Samkhya-Yoga takes empirically based truths very seriously. Vedanta begins with an extreme suspicion of empirical knowledge, even though it does accept anumana as a valid means of knowledge. For Vedanta, any assumption of separation as being real, in connection with either sense phenomena or the self, must be false. Reality cannot lie in the world of, or be defined as, differentiation in any form whatsoever. Reality has to be a perfect oneness, undivided, indivisible.

Thus Samkhya-Yoga takes the ordinary person’s views as essentially pointing in the right direction; Vedanta does not, and develops an elaborate theory of maya, illusion. Even Samkhya-Yoga, of course, has a theory of illusion, but far less elaborate and less all-embracing. In Samkhya-Yoga too, the true self is not exactly what we think it is, since it is not a thinking, knowing self; these are capacities of buddhi, or of buddhi, manas and ahamkara, or the antahkarana, i.e. prakriti, when illumined by the light of the pure consciousness of purusha. The intellect and the mind are not what we take them to be, since they are not possessed of consciousness; and of course, we are also ignorant of the true nature of the phenomenal world since we do not realise that its multiplicity can be traced back to the original unitary matter-principle or prakriti (which therefore in some ways takes over the status of the Vedantic Brahman).

In some sense, the Samkhya-Yoga belief in the validity of ordinary experience and our ordinary idea of the self makes it easier to understand and to take as a starting point for further investigation. At least our ordinary language is not completely misleading. At least we can give meaning to more familiar ways of thinking, perceiving and living. Other people are other people and I am different from you; and yet eventually, of course, Samkhya-Yoga does seem to lead us, starting from familiar ground, to the discovery of the true Self.

The Vedantin would have to admit that not only is his view of reality and illusion far removed from our everyday experience, but too baffling for many people, who may be deterred from the spiritual quest simply by the utterly puzzling Vedantic view of the phenomenal world as illusion. From the point of view of undertaking the long and difficult spiritual journey for the ordinary individual, the level of explanation and ways of approach of Vedanta have other drawbacks. The insistence by Advaita Vedanta on the absolute oneness of atman and Brahman, based on the mahavakyani of the Upanishads such as ‘tat tvam asi’ and ‘aham brahmasmi,’ can lead to a hubris, a false self-confidence and arrogance, and a consequent complacency and lack of effort. After all, if I already am Brahman, where is the need for me to exert myself to attempt to “reach” Brahman? Again, if our world is the world of illusion and relativity, if duality has to be rejected and transcended, there is the temptation to fall into ethical relativism, which is the product of a serious misinterpretation of the maya doctrine. In certain contexts and at a certain level it may be far healthier, perhaps even necessary, to take Samkhya-Yoga dualism as true. In some sense, while we live our ordinary, everyday lives, it is important that we take seriously the spirit-matter distinction. Acceptance of this basic dualism would also enable us to give the necessary and proper weight to the good/evil distinction which could easily get blurred and slurred over through a misunderstanding of Vedanta.

When we take into consideration the view that if the existence and known presence of many persons, many selves, appears to be necessary for me to have a sense of self, and awareness of my own identity, we can see that the Samkhya- Yoga theory makes a great deal of sense and may even be a required presupposition. But is the system making the pluralistic assumption because this is an undeniable fact of our everyday experiences and because there is no other way to give meaning and content to the category of ‘self’ and the concept of a person? If so, it really does not do the job. The presupposition of a plurality of selves does not help Samkhya-Yoga to validate the concept of self-identity. For to do this the individual selves must be able to have some kind of direct contact and communication with each other, and each self or person must be able to know other persons in some sense. (I am here deliberately using the terms ‘self’ and ‘person’ as interchangeable, which in this context and for this purpose is perfectly permissible). But Samkhya-Yoga selves or purusha-s have absolutely nothing to do with each other and cannot communicate directly. Also, for the validity of the argument, persons or selves must be thought of as minds, however we define the nature of ‘mind.’ As Samkhya-Yoga deliberately denies any such identification or connection, it slips down the slippery slope of solipsism and defeats its own purpose. As for its own arguments for an ultimate plurality of selves, Samkhya-Yoga really does not offer us particularly good or valid reasons.

By contrast, Vedanta openly defies and refutes our common everyday experience of many selves. Not only that, but it refuses to acknowledge a radical difference between mind and body. It goes on even further and denies the reality of our universally accepted belief in the reality (substantiality?) of the world around us. It shatters our most cherished assumptions in one fell swoop. Is the comfortably solid world just an insubstantial illusion, life an empty dream? From the start it makes us reluctant to accept such a strange, contrary-to- experience philosophy. It does, of course seek to re-establish the reality of the self and the world, but at a higher, rarefied realm that is hard to accept as a substitute for our old familiar beliefs. In the matter of the unitary nature of the world and the self, Vedanta mainly takes refuge in the authority of the Upanishadic scriptures. It does offer some reasons and arguments in support of its views, but does not ultimately give great importance to them. In fact, Shankara says of Brahman that it cannot be proved by reason since all language, reason and thought have Brahman as their base. It is the ground of everything — ontologically, logically, psychologically.

Gödel’s (uncertainty) theorem has conclusively shown that no formal number system, staying within its own boundaries, can completely prove every truth or formula within it. The original theorem, strictly taken, is meant to apply to formal mathematical systems. Later, it was also applied to formal logical systems. However, some philosophers do apply it, loosely and in a broader sense, to conceptual frameworks or theoretical systems in general. In taking this line, therefore, Shankara is, of course, quite right. No system of thought, conceptual framework, theory or world-view can prove its own basic assumptions while staying within its own boundaries, and Brahman is the base of all possible conceptual frameworks. This is where I think Samkhya-Yoga errs in trying to prove the existence of mulaprakriti and the purusha.

As for atman, once again Shankara takes the right approach in saying that the Self cannot be proved; all one can do is simply say, “It is.” The atman cannot be an object of any thought, except in the paradoxical sense that, for the consciousness of the liberated individual in the state of moksha, the subject/object dichotomy has been transcended, and the Self might be said to be pure Self-consciousness turned back onto itself — the Self contemplating the Self. But this is only a metaphorical use of the term “object.”

Interestingly, long before Descartes, Shankara faced the question of whether one can prove one’s own existence. With greater perspicacity than Descartes he realised that one cannot really consider the cogito an argument, for even in beginning the process of proving one’s existence one is already assuming one’s own existence. “I am” or “I exist” is a performatory utterance, a performative speech act [16] — in saying it I am doing something, viz., affirming and establishing my existence. Even in order to doubt my existence, I must exist.[17]. In so far as the Self is reflected in the world of experience, I would maintain that he does seem to use something akin to the Cartesian ‘Cogito ergo sum’ argument, which possibly could apply to the atman as well. But here, again, what Shankara means is that the supreme atman is the underlying ground of all forms of self-consciousness and of every thought or utterance of the empirical self. In this matter it makes sense to follow Shankara’s approach. In other contexts, however, we might be better off regarding the self as having meaning in a framework involving many real selves. For instance, it would be useful in a purely empirical context, where we are dealing with the question as to how the identity of a phenomenal self is defined or understood in the ordinary, phenomenal world in which we live as incarnated beings. For Shankara, allowing as he does for the relative validity of truths in the realm of maya, there is no need to adopt a subjective idealism.

Clearly, given the ontological and other general metaphysical assumptions of the two darshana-s, it is clear that their view of the nature of liberation, the very meaning of the term moksha, will be different. For Samkhya-Yoga, the purusha, having been ‘released’, so to speak, dwells in a state of kaivalya, total and eternal solitude. The problem with this description is that it is difficult to understand or imagine what it could mean. The purusha while still ‘bound’ could, in principle (if not in practice) be in some sense identified, and distinguished from other purusha-s by the fact of its ‘connection’ (whatever that might be) with individuated adjuncts which are identifiable limited manifestations of prakriti. But once it is released, it has no ‘connection’, and, of course, no attributes, qualities, etc. to provide a referential identity.[18]  It may be unique, but, since with a purusha no uniquely identifying references are possible, how do we identify it as a unique, individual purusha distinct from other quality- less, characteristics-less purusha-s? The Leibnizian principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles shows that there is no way we can meaningfully affirm the existence of any individual purusha; they all simply become an unindividuatable purusha-mass. So while the Samkhya-Yoga view of many purusha-s may serve us well in certain everyday contexts, there are other contexts in which it simply fails to provide us with meaning.

Vedanta provides a very different picture of moksha. When liberation is achieved, the atman can shine in all its glory through the kosha-s or sheaths of the enlightened jivanmukta, to the fullest extent that it is possible for the kosha-s to reflect the light of the atman in the world of maya. When the annamayakosha and the other sheaths have finally been dissipated at death, the atman remains in its purely subjective state of pure saccidananda. The long, dark night of avidya is over and the world of maya has given way to the complete reality and oneness of Brahman. Different schools of Vedanta may vary a little, depending on whether they believe in the absolute identity and equation of atman and Brahman or whether they affirm an identity-in-difference where the atman merges completely into Brahman. One might, of course, say that this undifferentiated reality of Brahman is no more comprehensible or imaginable than the Samkhya- Yoga moksha. To some extent this is true. But at least supreme bliss is attributed to moksha and there is the satisfaction of complete connectedness and identification with all others.

In any case, both descriptions of moksha are, we might say, intellectual, speculative attempts at description. Both systems admit, to some degree, that the highest truths are inexpressible and the ultimate spiritual state is indescribable. But Samkhya-Yoga, by allowing for the phenomenal world to be real and describable, does not seem to subscribe to the view of the complete inability of language to describe what is real. Vedanta flatly asserts that the highest Reality is indescribable (‘neti neti’) and that the Absolute Truth, paramarthikasatya, cannot be expressed in language. So the realisation of oneness with Brahman is also impossible to describe. All we can know is what the rishi-s who have attained the highest truth tell us in the shruti, and even they speak in paradoxes, metaphors, allegories and other non-literal language which is difficult to understand. In the case of Samkhya-Yoga it is also assumed that the state of moksha cannot be described and of course the quality-less purusha cannot be described. But then how do we know that the purusha exists in a state of kaivalya? And since when this state is attained the individual buddhi is dissolved back into prakriti, there is no entity that could possibly know and affirm the purusha’s kaivalya state. It can only be inferred from the original assumption about the nature of purusha.

Since both systems would admit the impossibility of understanding or knowing moksha while still in the realm of maya, we cannot take descriptions of it in the least literally. It is ineffable, indescribable. But then is there any point in trying to make conceptual distinctions between Vedantin moksha and the Samkhya-Yoga account? The Vedantin asserts that atman and Brahman are absolutely one, and therefore nothing exists apart from atman; atman/Brahman alone exists — there is no “other.” Shankara says of the jivanmukta, ‘anyan na pashyati’ (‘he sees no other’ or, ‘no other is seen’). Samkhya-Yoga speaks of the purusha as dwelling alone, unconnected with, unaware of, anything else (though other purusa-s do exist in a similar state). How can we, at our level of maya, affirm any difference between the two kinds of ‘aloneness’?

If the Hindu world-view can allow for a plurality of religious and philosophical systems and models which are acceptable as valid, this is not because Hinduism is, at its core, an entirely relativist or subjective philosophy. It does however believe, on the whole, in the existence of a transcendent divine Reality that is suprarational, ineffable, indescribable — “that from which speech turns back, together with thought, unable to reach it.” The inadequacy of conceptual thought and language in the face of the profound, immeasurable reality of the Divine is implicitly and generally accepted. Given this, all conceptual frameworks, all models — whether expressed in literal or figurative language, in myths and metaphors or visual symbols — must be relative, partial, one- sided representations of the truth. In the light of the general principles and assumptions that underlie Indian thought, it is clear that systems of philosophy as different as Samkhya- Yoga and Vedanta can both be true and valid accounts of reality, each from its relative point of view. Although two such systems may partially overlap, this does not mean that we can reduce one to the other. Their unavoidable differences, even contradictions, do and must remain.

This conclusion is perfectly consistent with the fundamental assumption of both the systems we are considering, viz., that it is impossible to describe Absolute Reality in language. In the case of Advaita Vedanta, of course, this is obvious; and though it may not be quite so explicitly stated in Samkhya-Yoga, it does seem to follow from what is said about purusha and prakriti. If discrimination and intelligence belong to buddhi, how can any conceptual “truths” propounded by the ego-self be anything but relative? Samkhya-Yoga would be forced, by its own presuppositions, to admit that all conceptually and linguistically formulated truths must be relative truths. Plato believes in the One and the world of Archetypal Ideas as real, the world of phenomena being one of images; for Aristotle the phenomenal world is real and there are many substances. Locke believes in an underlying material substance as real, while for Hume, equally an empiricist, there can be no such material substance, but only impressions and ideas. Descartes thinks there are two substances; another rationalist, Spinoza insists on only one. We do not have to view all these systems from a supreme, transcendental and neutral view-point to allow for the possibility that each philosopher makes sense in the context of his own philosophical system, and that each, from a particular point of view may be giving us, on the whole, a ‘true’ picture. Of course we may, even from within a system, see some of its weaknesses and shaky arguments.

To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time varying and yet legitimate, ‘true,’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not, as I have said, necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context-neutral description or account of the world, that is as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant — that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself’, but that we can never directly know this world. Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality — a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth. The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.

I might add here that this acceptance of the relative validity of differing frameworks does not merely point to the rather simple idea, widely accepted by philosophers, that words like ‘object’ have very different meanings, even in ordinary language. It has also to do with the idea that basic words like ‘fact,’ ‘exist,’ ‘real’ have a far greater range of meaning than we see at a superficial level. A ‘fact’ may obviously be seen and interpreted differently, rather in the manner of a trompe l’œil, an Escher drawing, or, very simply, like Wittgenstein’s well- known drawing of the duck/rabbit.[19]

Perhaps even more relevant than the straightforward visual or optical illusion examples is the story, well-known in the philosophy of religion, given by John Wisdom, about the two travelers who come across an empty garden. [20] They both (literally) see the same things — flowers, shrubs, weeds, etc. But each interprets the same scene differently, seeing different connections, patterns, designs (or lack of them) and gives a different significance to the same sets of data. Each version taken by itself is plausible, but the two accounts and their conclusions are quite different, even contrary. When the “facts” to be observed and interpreted are the countless strands and the ever-changing multi-layered panorama of the entire world, life itself, how can any one theory possibly be adequate or complete?

Another perplexing element in such a view of different metaphysical categorial frameworks and contextual relativity is that sometimes a particular theory describing reality or ‘how things are’ may come to be superseded by a newer theory or conceptual structure partially replacing the older. It is not so much that the earlier one is shown to be false, but turns out to be only a partial explanation of the way things are. The later framework or theory is more general, more complete, in the way that Einstein’s General Theory went beyond the Newtonian picture. It is not that Einsteinian physics enables us to have better or truer everyday experiences of the phenomenal world, but that it provides us with a wider and deeper understanding of what the meaning and implications are, for instance, of the concepts of space and time. For example the implications of a space-time continuum model would be different from those of a model with space and time. This may mean we can control our physical environment better and we can build even more sophisticated theories about the nature of the physical universe.

An example of different, perhaps even seemingly contradictory theories about the same phenomenon being both true at the same time, is in the field of quantum physics. Two apparently opposing models, the wave model and the particle model, are both said to be necessary and complementary. Neils Bohr asserted that “A complete elucidation of one and the same object may require diverse points of view which defy a unique description.” [21]  Elsewhere he said that the models of quantum physics are more like poetic metaphors than literal descriptions of the world. It has been argued that both the wave and the particle models are essential, even necessary. Physicists are thought to have developed ‘hunches’ as to which model is the appropriate one to use on different occasions.

There are other theories, models, examples etc., that can be given to point to this puzzling feature of world views — that each of us can accept, and even need, two (or more) very different theories in our unending quest to explain the universe around us. Other relevant theories to explain our acceptance of very disparate theories in different contexts have also been formulated. Wittgenstein had his theory of language-games, although this isn’t quite what we need to understand the complementarity of Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta. Nor is our case one that comes directly under the explanation provided by a theory such as that of a paradigm shift in its strict sense.

Finally, this is where I believe that two basic Vedantin concepts, and the theories built around them, can play a crucial role in understanding better the nature and function of metaphysical frameworks, as well as the idea of context- relative meaning and significance. These two ideas are the concept of adhyasa, or superimposition, and the principle and theory of sublation, which reminds us that all theories of reality and everything we know about the world is only relatively true, and we may, if we are open-minded, suddenly see and understand things at a higher level. The theory of sublation, and the view of the world as anirvacaniya, enable us to see the importance of acknowledging the possibility of higher and higher levels of truth to be attained. The theory of adhyasa leads us inevitably to the fact that when we ‘see’ something, we are always ‘seeing it as,’ i.e., when we ‘see’ we are always interpreting the raw material of our perception. And this is where the misinterpretation occurs; this is the point at which maya comes in. We saw that our assertions about sense-experiences are mediated by our interpretations, which are expressed in terms of our implicitly assumed conceptual framework and its categories. By emphasizing this, Advaita Vedanta points to a crucial feature of our ordinary knowledge. Similarly, Advaita Vedanta’s theory of three main epistemological levels corresponding to three levels of ontology is an extremely constructive tool, intellectually and spiritually. It points to Truth as relating to three levels of being: paramarthika, vyavaharika, and pratibhasika, or Reality, the world of maya that is neither completely real nor completely unreal, and the completely illusory. Above all, Advaita Vedanta admits there is some value to the knowledge of the world. It is not totally useless. It has a relative value. By adding further the principle of sublation, the system allows for degrees of relative truth. This ensures some value to vyavaharika satya and its many levels, and encourages us to engage in critical thought and constructive doubt and questioning at the intellectual and conceptual level. While knowledge of the world of maya is of some value as long as we live in the world of maya, we also, through past experience, realise that we need to rise to higher and higher levels of relative truth, even though the highest level of vyavaharika satya is still only relative truth. For this reason, Advaita Vedanta would have to concede that, by its own reckoning, it cannot be the complete or only truth and that other systems may genuinely have insights to offer. Taking a very general, overall view of the two systems, their starting assumptions, and what seem to be their heuristic aims, we could, perhaps, say that Samkhya-Yoga’s approach appears to be to see the world sub specie durationis, while Vedanta would prefer us to begin immediately to see the world sub specie æternitatis.

Both Samkhya-Yoga and Vedanta have their theoretical strengths and weaknesses; each has its advantages and provides useful starting points in, and connecting links with, the everyday world of the ordinary person. Each offers a relatively coherent and insightful view or explanatory system dealing with matters of ultimate concern, and each attempts to answer the questions that inevitably arise for any individual engaged in a spiritual quest. Proponents of each system make far-reaching claims about the truth of their own view-point and tend to deny the validity of other systems. Each tries to win votes; both seem to insist that we must choose between them, that one cannot accept, even with qualifications, the truth of the other’s insights. But “it ain’t necessarily so.” We do not have to accept that Samkhya-Yoga is completely wrong; we do not have to accept Vedanta is totally untrue. Above all, we do not have to accept that it is necessary to choose one and only one system. In the final analysis, we cannot expect any conceptual metaphysical system to be able to express the Absolute Truth or reveal to us the infinite mysteries of the ineffable, indescribable Ultimate Reality. Perhaps the wisest course would be to agree with Wittgenstein and, admitting the finitude of our intellect, say, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”[22]


Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Edited by Marina Sbisa & J.O. Urmson. 2nd ed. Mass: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Bohr, Niels. Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

Dasgupta, Surendranath. A History of Indian Philosophy. Vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

——.History of Indian Philosophy. Abridged by R.R. Itgarwal & S.K. Jain. Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1969.

Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedanta Reconstructed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1969.

Jacobsen, Knut A. Prakriti in Samkhya-Yoga: Material Principle, Religious Experience, Ethical Implications. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Larson, Gerald J. Classical Samkhya. 2d ed. Delhi: Motilal. Banarsidass, 1979.

Potter, Karl. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975.

Shankara. Brahmasutrabhasya.

Strawson, P.F. Individuals. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

Shvetashvatara Upanishad.

Wisdom, John. ‘Gods’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 45 (1944).

Wittgenstein, L. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. 3rd ed. London: Basil Blackwell, 2001.

——Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., Second impression, 1963.

nandini 5433819 960 720

Nandini Flower


++[1] Excerpt from Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson, ed. by Knut A. Jacobsen, 2005. Reprinted with permission from Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands.

[2] See Gerald J. Larson, Classical Samkhya (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, Second Edition, 1979), p. 36.

[3] Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1963) Vol. I, p. 208.

[4] Ibid., p. 214.

[5] See Larson, op. cit., p. 13.

[6] See P.F. Strawson, Individuals (Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1965), p. 9.

[7] Karl Potter interprets Ishvarakrishna as affirming that the purusha confuses itself with prakriti. See Karl Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1975), p. 108. Dasgupta, however, takes the view that while Samkhya attributes avidya, non-discrimination and confusion, to buddhi alone, Yoga regards the purusha itself as somehow involved in the non-discrimination and confusion. S.N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy: Abridged by R.R. Itgarwal & S.K. Jain (Allahabad: Kitab Mahal, 1969) p. 72.

[8] See Knut A. Jacobsen, Prakriti in Samkhya-Yoga (Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., New York, 1999), p. 181.

[9] Larson, op. cit.

[10] Larson, op. cit.

[11] L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. By G.E.M. Anscombe, 3rd ed. (London: Basil Blackwell, 2001), p. 190e.

[12] Eliot Deutsch, Advaita Vedanta Reconstructed.(Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1969).

[13] Larson, op.cit., p. 204.

[14] Benedict Spinoza, Ethics.

[15] Shvetashvatara Upanishad, IV, 6.

[16] See J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, ed. by Marina Sbisa & J.O. Urmson, 2nd ed. (Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975).

[17] Shankara, Brahmasutrabhasya, II, 3, 7.

[18] See P.F. Strawson, op.cit., Part I, sections 1, 2, and 3.

[19] Ludwig Wittgenstein, op.cit., p. 166e.

[20] John Wisdom, ‘Gods’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, vol. 45, 1944; reprinted in Logic and Language, First Series, Basil Blackwell, 1951.

[21] Niels Bohr, Atomic Theory and the Description of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1934), p. 96.

[22] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus trans. by D.F. Pears & B.F. McGuinness (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., Second impression, 1963), proposition 7, p. 151.


Publisher Koninklijke Brill NV gave kind permission for this publication on Theosophy Forward.

It Ain’t Necessarily So’ by Nandini Iyer. Previously published in “Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson” (pp.99-127). 

Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen. Koninklijke Brill NV, Printed in the Netherlands. 2005. All rights reserved.

Koninklijke Brill NV, in Leiden the Netherlands is the oldest academic publisher in the world. It was founded in 1683. Check out their website here: 



Text Size

Paypal Donate Button Image

Subscribe to our newsletter

Email address
Confirm your email address

Who's Online

We have 214 guests and no members online

TS-Adyar website banner 150




Vidya Magazine