78. The True Meaning of Samkhya Yoga in the Bhagavadgita

Samkhya Yoga

The Samkya Yoga Chapter contains the Summary of the Bhagavadgita

by Jayaram V

Notes: I have translated the Bhagavadgita twice. The first one was a loose translation. The second one was a word to word translation with a detailed commentary. I am currently working on a revised edition with even more in-depth commentary. The commentary is however different from what you will find here. In this section I will share with you my thoughts about the knowledge, philosophy and wisdom of the Bhagavadgita as I understand it from my perspective. Jayaram V

Summary: Why the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita is called Samkhya Yoga and what it truly means

Many people who study the Bhagavadgita are familiar with the second chapter named Samkhya Yoga (or Sankhya Yoga). They may know that it contains a brief summary or overview of the entire scripture. However, they may not be aware why it is called Samkhya Yoga and its true meaning and correlation with the other yogas which are found in the scripture. Many scholars (including this one) translated it as “The Yoga of Knowledge,” and its leaves one wondering, if it is the yoga of knowledge what jnana yoga is and how it is different form samkhya yoga. To avoid the confusion, it is probably appropriate to translate it as the Yoga of Self-knowledge rather than Yoga of Knowledge. In my second edition of the Bhagavadgita translation, which I am currently working on, I appropriately changed it. In the following discussion, I will explain why it should be.

The Samkhya Yoga of the Bhagavadgita is not the same as the Samkhya and Yoga philosophies or Darshanas of Hinduism. However, it is structured on the same lines and has many similarities also with the two schools. The original Samkhya and Yoga are essentially rational philosophies and do not acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being or the Supreme Lord. They only acknowledge the existence of numerous individual selves (atmans), which are eternal, all-pervading, constant and indestructible. In contrast, the Bhagavadgita acknowledges the existence of the Supreme Being who is the lord, controller and creator of all, and who is not only responsible for our births and deaths but also for our liberation. He is also the controller and upholder of Dharma, and nothing happens without his will including our liberation. Only through supreme and exclusive devotion to him (ananya bhakti) and qualifying for his approval (anugraha) and mercy (prasada) we will ever attain liberation.

It is true that the second chapter contains the summary of the entire teachings of the Bhagavadgita. It is because the whole of the Bhagavadgita is a treatise on Samkhya Yoga only. Lord Krishna’s teaching can be divided into two parts, Samkhya and Yoga. The Samkhya part deals with the nature of Purusha (the Self and or the Supreme Self 1), Prakriti and Jiva. The jivas are the sum of these two or three entities (individual Self, Supreme Self and Prakriti). They exist in them in their own dimensions and make possible life upon earth. Thus, the jiva is unique in the whole creation because in them the three supreme realities of Creation come together and coexist. I do not intend to go into the rigmarole of whether the individual Self and the Supreme Self are different or the same. For the purpose of this discussion, I will mention them separately while I do not know where exactly the truth lies.

Now, let us focus on how Samkhya and Yoga help us understand these three entities (Purusha, Prakriti and Jiva) and their relationship. Through the knowledge of Samkhya, we gain the understanding of the distinction between them and realize our true purpose, which is oneness or union with the Self (and or) the Supreme Self in us. The Yoga part deals with the various means (yogas) through which that union or oneness is attained. Thus, the second chapter of the Bhagavadgita is essentially a summary of the entire scripture. The name Samkhya Yoga should not be mistaken for a yoga system like karma yoga, jnana yoga or sannyasa yoga. The Samkhya part deals with the knowledge of the Self, and the Yoga part encompasses all the yogas or the paths or the techniques by which liberation is attained and which Lord Krishna taught to Arjuna.

This becomes self-evident when you observe how the second chapter itself is composed. For example, in the early part of the chapter, from verses 16 to 30, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna the distinction between the Self (Purusha) and the body (Prakriti), and how unlike the body which has a beginning and an end, the Self is indestructible and eternal. From verses 31 to 38, he explains to him the importance of practicing duty (Dharma), why it should not be shunned, and how it should be practiced. In verse 38, he briefly states how the Yoga (which is the generic name for all the yogas) should be practiced. He then sums up in verse 38 saying, “Treating alike the dualities such as happiness and sorrow, gain and loss, victory and defeat you shall prepare to fight. Then, you will not incur sin,” in the next verse (39) he says, “This teaching (which has been) imparted to you (so far) is Samkhya; but (now) listen to the wisdom of Yoga, O Partha, endowed with which you will be released from the bondage of action.” In other words, he said that in the next part he would deal with Yoga, which, as we can see now, is not about a specific yoga but the generic Yoga which represents all the yoga systems which he included in his teaching.

Thus, broadly speaking, the first part of the second chapter (roughly up to verse 38) deals with Samkhya or the knowledge of the Self, and the second half (from verse 41 to the end) covers the various means (yogas) to attain liberation. While speaking of its merits, he says in the verse 40, “In this, there is no loss of effort, no harm. Even a little of this dutiful practice can save one from the great fear.” What he meant was that the knowledge of the Bhagavadgita (samkhya) and its practice (yoga) would always incrementally lead the sadhaka in the right direction towards liberation. Even if he stumbles on the path or leave it in the middle, no harm will come to him.

It is not the same with worldly knowledge or worldly actions. For example, if you do not know how to fix a car, you will not be able to start it. If you are a farmer and only do a little farming, you will not have a good harvest. However, gaining a little knowledge and doing a little practice of the Bhagavadgita will not harm you in any way. Even a little knowledge and little practice will help you if not now, later. The Lord himself gave this assurance in the verse 40. Thus, you can be confident that no harm will arise if you ignore it or practice it imperfectly or inconsistently or incompletely. On the contrary, if you succeed in practicing it even a little (svalpam), it can you save from the fear of bondage or death or the suffering which arises from them.

These words should be encouraging for any initiate who wants to study the Bhagavadgita and puts its knowledge (samkhya) to practice (yoga), without worrying about the consequences. It is comforting even for worldly people who may not be ready for the spiritual practice. If they study the Bhagavadgita and practice it even a little, they will still be better off than not practicing it at all. By practicing jnana, karma and sannyasa yogas while performing their household and professional duties they can live freely without feeling anxious about death, rebirth or samsara. If they cannot achieve liberation, they can still hope for a better life in the next birth and continue their journey.

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Suggestions for Further Reading

Ref: 1. I am using “and or” to represent both the schools of Advaita and Dvaita. According to the former, the Self or the Supreme Self is one and only. The rest is an illusion including the appearance of different selves in different bodies. According to the later, the individual Self (Atman) and the Supreme Self (Brahman) are eternally different and represent different realities.

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