The Yoga Sutras and its Supporting Philosophy


This is a note to clarify my thinking on a small part of classical yoga history that comes as a result of reading Gerald James Larson.

Larson has written important reflections on Samkhya philosophy, a worldview that undergirds the Yoga Sutras.

Probably 99% of my readers won’t get excited by this, because I’m just being as scholarly as I wanna be, but a few of you might have lightbulbs go off.

At least, that’s my hope.


THE SAMKHYA “PHILOSOPHICAL” PRAXIS–which consists of enumerating the constituents of reality in order to know the nature of the Self and the Real–was systematized at roughly the same time Hindu yoga was.

Samkhya and classical yoga were twin approaches to existential understanding that shared common terms–they were sister sciences.

There was Samkhya proper (with it’s emphasis on knowing and non-theism) that was eventually clarified by Isvarakrishna, and there was Samkhya-yoga, clarified by Patanjali (with its use of theism and (arguably) Buddhistic methodologies).

Both came into clear form in the early Common Era.

Before that, Samkhya was ambiguous as a system—“unsystemized” if you will—a kind of dispositional metaphysics with only a rough patterning–somewhat like the state of New Age metaphysics today. “Samkhya” was any scheme of “enumerating.” An early example of this is Svetasvatara Upanishad 1:4-5 from c. 500 BCE, with its koan-like statement:

“As a wheel that is one-rimmed and threefold, with sixteen tips, fifty spokes, 20 counter-spokes, and six sets of eight whose single rope is of many forms; that divides itself into three different paths; and whose delusion regarding The One springs from two causes.”

Obviously, this quote points to a mystic reality, but aside from the heterodox yoga traditions that we also find in Upanishadic material, the “yoga” spoken of in some of the Upanishads (and even in the later Puranas) was not that much more pragmatic, somatic, soteriological or practice-oriented than the contemporary philosophical practices of the Greeks–which were rooted in rationality, but had mystical elements, too.

There was a huge emphasis on knowledge, insight, reflection, systematic organization of the objects of knowledge and the means of knowledge, as well as textual self-preparation (as we can see from Yoga Sutras 1:1) in many Brahmanic systems, and they profoundly superseded the Greek systems on these counts.

Yet, enumerative liberational-style practices, of which there were many schools--lokayatam, pancaratram, tatha, etc.–were all “samkhya-esque” but not identical to the Samkhya we know now.

All of them might be called kinds of jnana yoga; they are collectively known as anviksiki.

The generic samkhya systems that preceded the Common Era evolved their practices of ratiocination into the meditative practices.

That is, anviksiki practices evolved not just into Samkhya proper, but also into Classical Yoga.

In a sense it is like the evolutionary progress of the human species. A single human ancestor becomes both Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens. They continue to coexist and perhaps even comingle, but one is superior to the other and eventually wins out.

The early Common Era and—to some degree, the Yoga Sutra itself—is the stage of that comingling and the pre-amble to the winning out of yoga as a practice methodology over the practice methodologies of Samkhya (despite Samkhya’s multifarious philosophical influences in the centuries to come).