Purusha and Prakriti in Samkhya Philosophy: Existential Reflections
The following existential reflections on prakṛti, puruṣa, and our existential situation are being updated.
YOGA: PURUSHA + 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 populate 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).
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 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.
VIYOGA: 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 just what they already (happen to) make available to/for me and my current self. 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.
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/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 only thing going on, the All, the very ground of your identity, your freedom, your “self”—the very flesh of your existence.
The Role of Other People in Self Awareness focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. Given our existential situation, Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life discusses what it a “meaningful” life might look like from a yogic perspective, and The Yoga of Anxiety Relief discusses the two central components of a yogic approach to addressing our personal stress and anxiety. The Yoga of Yoga articulates the general problem of suffering/anxiety in yoga and Desire, Self-Consciousness, and Ahaṃkāra: Phenomenological Reflections focuses the problem of desire and ego in spirituality. The Anxiety of Inner Lack discusses our (foundational) desire to rid ourselves of the feeling of incompleteness. An article in two parts, What is Phenomenology? provides a heuristic introduction to phenomenology. Part I defines phenomenology, and Part II discusses the experience of doing phenomenology. Yoga: A Phenomenological Approach outlines the subject matter and general method of traditional yoga philosophy.
The themes in this article recur throughout the work of Canadian philosopher, John Russon (and few have been able to articulate these themes better than he has). 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). His YouTube Channel contains a number of lectures on these topics.
For a closer reading of the Sāṃkhya Kārikā and its relationship to phenomenology, see British Philosopher’s Mikel Burley’s 2012 book, Classical Sāṃkhya and Yoga: An Indian Metaphysics of Experience.
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