Luke Jordan

“We are family”: An sketch on the relationship between Sām khya and Yoga

“Everyone can see we’re together
As we walk on by.
And we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie.
All of the people around us say
‘Can they be that close’?
Let me just state for the record
We’re giving love in a family dose”
– Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”


If you are reading this you are probably aware that behind the glossy, lycra-clad, sweat-free (not my experience!) images of contorted yoga models presented in the popular commerical magazines, Yoga is traditionally considered one of the six orthodox philosophical systems (darśanas) of Hinduism. You may not, however, be aware that within this schema Yoga tends to be coupled with and related to what has long been considered its ‘sister darśana’ – Sām khya.

As hard as you may look on the shelves of WH Smith, however, you will not find any copies of ‘Sām khya Journal’. Nowadays, Sām khya has become the forgotten ‘ugly sister’ of the glamorised and sexier Yoga (itself objectified and reduced to little more than ‘nice asana’). However, if we want to come to a greater understanding of the mystery and allure of Yoga (with a capital ‘Y’!) we cannot do so without a little family analysis. It is from its forgotten sister, Sām khya, that Yoga borrows much of its philosophical charms and nuances. The wardrobe of Yoga’s conceptual accoutrements contains little that is not an older sister’s hand-me-down.

In recent years, Yoga’s closer familial relation has been forgotten as intrepreters and commentators have aspired to read Yoga in terms of the starlet of Indian philosophy – Vedanta. When Vivekananda brought his reformed Hinduism to the world stage at the end of the nineteeth century, mystically-inclined Western audiences fell in love with this (neo-)Vedanta’s simple glamour – the idea that all is one (brahman) and that this is obscured by a veil of illusion (maya). In presenting his reconfigured version of Yoga philosophy, he gave the starring role to this more attractive and romantic set of ideas, while the studious, logical and, perhaps, feared-a-little-dull Sām khya was left looking on from the wings.

Despite this shorning, Sām khya’s influence is writ large in the text of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (YS) itself. Verses 2.15-2.27 are almost a perfect synopsis of Sām khyan ideas and seem as if directly lifted from the pages of the Sām khya Kārika (the Sām khyan ‘bible’). Yoga’s key interpretative concepts of purus$a (consciousness), prakr$ti (matter), the gun$as (the constituents of material nature), among others, are the featured colours of the Sām khyan, rather than the Vedantic, palate. It is little wonder that modern commentators pre-disposed to the popularised reading of Yoga through a Vedantic lens have struggled with the paraiah Sām khya as if it is an unwanted imposter at the philosophical party.

Travelling back in time, however, the evidence reveals who indeed is the imposter. Considered key to unravelling Yoga’s philosophical mysteries, the traditional commentary of the YS by Vyāsa even calls itself an “Explanation of Sām khya” (sām khyapravacana). According to one scholar, there is no evidence of a separate YS text in isolation from this important commentary in its early history. Accordingly we should conclude, he argues, that text and commentary exist together as the complete yogaśastra (teachings of Yoga). Perhaps even Vyāsa and Patañjali might be one and the same! This debate aside, the Daddy-Of-All-Commentaries is most definitely Sām khyan (all is two) rather than Vedantic (all is one) in flavour. Long considered a higher scriptural authority by many, even the Bhagavad Gītā extols the special relationship between Sām khya and Yoga. According to the Lord of the Universe, Kr&s&n&a, (in verse 5.4), “”Sām khya and Yoga are different” the childish declare; not the wise”. Who are we to argue!

In the space given it is perhaps a necessary evil to simplify the relationship between the different schools of philosophical thought (darśanas) for the sake of a clearer sketch. The truth, however, is that their relations, like that among all families and their members, are a little more complicated. That said, let’s imagine the family story goes a little like this… As children, the fledgling philosophical systems grow up together relatively harmoniously in the crêche of a shared understanding inspired by the mystical insights of the Upanis#adic era; as adolescents they spar with each other and define their independence in opposition and relation with each other; and as adults they mature into fully fledged Schools of Thought often in denial of the processes and former familial relationships that have led to their formation.

In short, identities get confused and it can take a little work to unravel the truth of how different schools of Indian philosophy relate to each other. Not least Yoga! As if it was the youngest child it seems to borrow much from its older siblings. We can find traces of Jainism, Buddhism, asceticism and other aspects of Hindu thought blended together like clothes raided from the cupboards of older brothers and sisters. However, sometimes it is the influence of one family member that is most dominant. In the case of Yoga, this is Sām khya. However much it may aspire from the outside to appear like the starlet Vedanta, we can only really understand the heart of Yoga’s ideas when we look at it through Sām khya’s guiding influence.

As family bonds go, Sām khya and Yoga’s is very close. Much as you cannot understand one twin without relation to other, so it goes for Sām khya and Yoga. This is not to say that, like twins, they will not have separate personalities, preferences and proclivities – they do! Sām khya and Yoga, while they share so much, have quite distinct personalities. Sām khya is the reserved yet logical deep thinker, while Yoga is the practical doer. While they may appear separate individuals, they are, like very close siblings, inseparable. As a result, Yoga is being constantly guided in practise by the conceptual, logical insights of Sām khya, while Sām khya is able to work out its conceptual scheme more fully through the experiential revelations of Yoga. Taken together they form a complete picture of theory and practise. Treat them separately and you lose the beauty of the two, like a ‘family jewel’, working together towards their joint goal of the removal of suffering. You might like to imagine them as they do so as sisters in arm, singing as they go… “We are family”

“Living life is fun and we’ve just begun
To get our share of the world’s delights
High hopes we have for the future
And our goal’s in sight
No, we don’t get depressed
Cause here’s what we call our golden rule
Have faith in you and the things you do
…This is our family jewel”
– Sister Sledge, “We Are Family”