XVIII. Hinduism: The Sankhya School

Hinduism is a religion of great internal diversity. Six ancient and divergent philosophical schools are acknowledged as orthodox. One of these, Sankhya, is neither theistic nor pantheistic. Like Jainism, Sankhya teaches that primordial matter and the individual soul are both uncreated and indestructible. The soul may be liberated by knowing the truth about the universe and by control of the passions. In some texts, Sankhya denies the existence of a personal supreme deity, and in any case, any concept of deity is regarded as superfluous and potentially self-contradictory, since the working of karma governs man’s affairs up to that point where he himself can determine that he should seek liberation. The four goals of Sankhya are similar to those of Buddhism: to know suffering, from which man must liberate himself; to bring about the cessation of suffering; to perceive the cause of suffering (the failure to discriminate between soul and matter); and to learn the means of liberation, namely, discriminating knowledge. Like other schools, Sankhya teaches the karmic principle: rebirth is a consequence of one’s actions, and salvation is escape from the cycle of rebirths.

Like other schools, Sankhya teaches the karmic principle: rebirth is a consequence of one’s actions, and salvation is escape from the cycle of rebirths.

Sankhya embraces a form of dualism. This is not the Christian dualism of good and evil, but a radical distinction between soul and matter. Both are uncreated, infinitely existing items. The world results from the evolution of matter. The soul, however, is unchanging. The soul suffers because it is in captivity to matter, yet this captivity is an illusion. Once the soul is aware that it is not part of the material world, the world ceases to exist for that particular soul, and it is free. According to Sankhya theory, matter undergoes evolution, dissolution and quiescence. In evolving, matter produces intellect, individuality, the senses, moral character, will, and a principle which survives death and which undergoes transmigration. By being connected with soul, the physical organism becomes a living being. Only in this connection is consciousness realised: neither matter on its own nor soul on its own is conscious. Although the soul is a vitalizing element, it is not itself the life which ends in death, nor is it life which is transmitted from one existence to another. Although it does not itself act or suffer, the soul reflects the suffering that occurs, much as a mirror reflects. It is not the intellect, but is an infinite and passionless entity. Souls are innumerable and distinct from one another. The goal is for the soul to free itself from illusion and so from captivity. Once liberated, the condition of the soul is equivalent to Nirvana in Buddhism. Such liberation might occur before death, and the task of the liberated one is to teach others. After death, there is a possibility of total liberation without threat of rebirth.

Sankhya makes no objection to belief in popular divinities, but these are not part of its operative order. It is knowledge of the universe which produces salvation. In this sense, control of the passions, and not moral conduct, is central. Good works can produce only a lower form of happiness. Nor is sacrifice efficacious. The subordination of morals to a place of lower value than that of knowledge, and the derogation of good works amount to distinct differences from the demands of Christianity and represent a different form of religiosity. Neither ethics nor rituals are of great importance to the Sankhya scheme of things. Here, too, there is evident a sharp contrast with Christianity, in which ethics and rituals constitute, albeit in differing degrees in different denominations, vital parts of the overall system of belief and worship.

XIX. Diversity among Religions: Polytheism