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Purusha and Prakriti in Samkhya Philosophy: Existential Reflections

This article on Prakṛti & Puruṣa in the Philosophy of Sāṃkhya Yoga is a part of the Yoga Philosophy section of our Guide to Spiritual Yoga for Beginners.

What is Prakriti?

You cannot escape certain terms of your experience.


You live at a certain moment in history, born to a particular set of parents in a particular place. You became a functioning member of your society as you attuned yourself to the demands and norms of particular environments (familial, cultural, linguistic, social, etc.). On a personal level, you find yourself naturally interested in certain things and not interested in others, inclined to want/do/be certain things but not others.


In becoming who/what we are, we inherited and developed a range of habits—constructive and destructive—to help us navigate the world as we attempt to meet our needs/desires for survival, pleasure, recognition, etc. These habits were inherited/developed in contexts that preceded and exceeded us as individuals. There was already a context/background within which you became who/what you are, and there is always already a context/background within which you continue to live your life. There were already terms into which you were required to make sense of and translate your experience. This is a context/background—experience itself—with which you have no choice but to engage as you live your life. And while we certainly can (and do) transform ourselves and our situations, these transformations are in (and of) contexts that we did not determine with our individual will.


Assume you were asked to name a country, any country in the world. In principle, you could choose any country. However, only the names of certain countries would appear in your consciousness; only certain names would even show up as options from which you could select. And you didn’t determine which options showed up. Ultimately, however, you still selected a name; phenomenologically, you still experienced the freedom of choosing, but did so from “within” a determinate situation (which provided the options from which you could choose, but which you did not define).


What is Prakriti? We cannot ever escape certain terms of our situation. Our situation sets the limits within which we are able to engage with reality (and experience freedom). We are always already “in” experience, always already experiencing a self/world, or what we could describe as “inner” and “outer” life—and we can’t turn this off or go to some ‘other place’ from which we can view/understand experience that is “outside” of experience. Furthermore, certain terms “within” our experience are unavoidable. We can’t turn these off or go to some ‘other place’ from which we can view/understand experience that is “outside” of the experience of such things as embodiment, spatiality, temporality, social/cultural/linguistic norms (i.e., other people), embodiment, etc. These terms of our experience are simply not optional, and your ability to do/have/be/think/perceive anything depends on these pre-existing conditions that are not subject to your individual will. These pre-existing conditions constitute the very ground of your individual existence.


And it is not the case that we end up in this situation, but rather we begin here. We’re already (irrevocably) exposed to (and implicated in) a world that precedes us, and we engage in/with this world using the resources that it provides (to which we have attuned ourselves and that we inhabit).


This is the situation in which we find ourselves.

buddha head in tree roots what is prakriti purusha yoga philosophy.jpg realize your freedom in becoming aware of the way(s) in which your awareness is always already determined.

Prakriti and Purusha

What, then, is purusha? And what is the relationship between purusha and prakriti?

Our freedom to perceive/do/think, etc. depends on conditions that precede us, that give us to freedom. Our freedom is, in other words, wrapped up in conditions that precede us. As such, my personal power to have/do/be whatever I choose is just as much the power of these conditions themselves (i.e., the powers made available to me by these very conditions).


These conditions become more available to my freedom as I come to know and understand them and their logic on their own terms, beyond their immediate appearance(s), beyond what they already (happen to) make available to/for me and my current self, which is a kind of desire-based interpretation of my situation. In my habitual absorption in my situation, my self-interest prevents me from seeing that (1) I am, in fact, interpreting my situation, (2) I am making specific assumptions in my interpretations, and (3) I am addicted to interpreting my situation in certain ways. Self-interest—craving, desire—prevents us from seeing reality itself, and how our freedom is already being used/misused.


In other words, you realize your freedom in bearing direct witness to the various ways in which you are determined. This kind of discrimination is not a purely intellectual exercise; it does not consist of simply reading/memorizing a list of the ways in which one’s free subjectivity is constituted by forces beyond its control. On the contrary, it requires direct insight into these determining factors in action—that is, as they function in your habitual engaging in/with the world. It requires directly seeing the how you are determined and produces something like intellectual clarity and emotional stability. This is viyoga, bearing witness to the ways in which you are determined, the objective of samkhya yoga: self awareness that is self-transcendence. 


What remains is not freedom from the (non-optional) terms of our situation—not an abstract, out-of-body, free-floating, spaceless, timeless, mystical existence (or an infinitely extended such experience). What remains is a greater sense of freedom within our determinate situation, and a world more inviting of your will and existence, where you are less bound by destructive, habitual anxieties, compulsions, and/or rumination, (especially) those based on the craving to make oneself infinite and infinitely substantial (and forever free of your existential conditions). What remains is more direct contact with (and more responsiveness to) reality/life itself, the—this—singular happening of experience, the single thing going on within which every event is but a transformation of said (singular) experience, the very ground of your identity, your freedom, and your “self”—the very flesh of your existence.

Further Reading

This article on purusha and prakriti is part of our series of articles on the teachings of yoga philosophy. In our article, What is The Basic Philosophy of Yoga?, we offer a 250-word summary of yoga philosophy. We explore what our inextricably entangled situation means for self-discovery in our article, The Journey of Self Discovery

This article on purusha and prakriti did not offer definitions/explanations of the concepts, purusha and prakriti (such as the common translations of purusha as “self” or purusha as “consciousness” or even purusha as “god”, and prakriti as “nature” or prakriti as “everything that is not self/consciousness” and sometimes even prakriti as “the [manifest] universe”). This article also did not offer a close reading of the samkhya karika (the main philosophical text that develops or yoga sutras. Instead, our existential reflections on purusha and prakriti provide an accessible way into the basic spirit (and “transcendental” aim of) Samkhya philosophy.

For a closer [phenomenological] reading of the Sāṃkhya Kārikā (and the meanings of purusha and prakriti), see Philosopher Mikel Burley’s 2007 book, Classical Sāṃkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience.

For more on many of the existential themes (not purusha and prakriti proper) in this article, please see the work of Canadian philosopher, John Russon. His 2017 article, Freedom and Passivity: Attention, Work, and Language’, is a concise study of attention that illustrates how freedom is implicated in determinacy. For those with little/no experience with the academic study of philosophy, both of the following books by Russon provide a rich treatment of these themes: (1) Sites of Exposure: Art, Politics, and the Nature of Experience (2017, Indiana University Press) and (2) Human Experience Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (2003, State University of New York Press). For those with some background in Continental philosophy, consider either/both of two of his books on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: (1) Reading Hegel’s Phenomenology (2004, Indiana University Press), and/or (2) Infinite Phenomenology: The Lessons of Hegel’s Science of Experience (2016, Northwestern University Press). John Russon’s YouTube contains a number of lectures on these topics.

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