Qualities and Quantities of Being (Vaisheshika and Samkhya)

India has a very ancient spiritual tradition that has somehow survived the usual ravages of time. Partly because it has had periodic revivals, partly geography.

Within that tradition are 6 systems of philosophy designed to gain complete knowledge. If you’ve explored Indian ideas much, you’ve probably heard of Yoga, Karma, and Vedanta.

Some have taken these systems as separate beliefs, pitting one against the other. This is the habit of many philosophies, to find the “one truth” rather than seek how truth evolves. For example, some posit that Samkhya is godless and thus denies the existence of God. However, this is seeing incorrectly, like seeing the limbs of yoga as separate steps. Samkhya is simply the study of quantity and becoming, not source. Source is without quantity.

1) Nyaya is correct procedure for study
2) Vaisheshika studies something’s special qualities
3) Samkhya studies the components, quantity
4) Yoga studies means of knowing (paths)
5) Karma Mimansa studies the field of action
6) Vedanta or Uttar Mimansa is the end of knowledge, the absolute and it’s relationship to the above.

I talked about Yoga here and have discussed Karma and Vedanta in various articles. Today I wanted to outline Vaisheshika and Samkhya.


Vaisheshika outlines 8 fundamental qualities of all things or objects. The first 5 you’ll recognize as the base “elements” much like in the philosophies of the Greeks, Chinese, Alchemists, Tibetans, and more. In fact, it is an almost universal concept because the subtle elements can be directly experienced.

However, in this case, they are used to define qualities rather than components. Although this is a study of differences, they are more easily found if you study what things have in common rather than what makes them different.

1 – Earth (Prithivi)
2 – Water (Apas)
3 – Fire (Tejas)
4 – Air (Vayu)
5 – Space (Akasha)(or ether)
6 – Time (Kala)
7 – Direction (Dik)
8 – Soul (Atman)

This article started as an application of Vaisheshika to the evolution of consciousness. However, the model I ran into turned out to be invalid on close examination. But it’s still useful to lay the ideas out. You can see the above qualities show up in various places in Samkhya.


Samkhya defines the components. Samkhya means number, so is the quantitative study. It has 25 components, but many are derivations of the others. It also illustrates the origin of some of the qualities above. It’s best not to see them as linear stages but rather as interactive. Also, remember we’re talking more principles or essences here, not physical objects.

1 – Purusha – cosmic spirit, the one soul
2 – Prakriti – Nature
It arises as the 3 gunas – sattva (balance), rajas (kinetic), and tamas (inertia)
Attention of Purusha causes nature to stir and the gunas to go out of balance.
3 – Buddhi or Mahat – intellect, taking a direction
4 – Ahamkara – individualization of Mahat, I-ness or ego. A wave on the ocean of Prakriti, seeing itself as unique.

5 – Manas – cosmic mind, the object of Ahamkara, individuation is defined.
Note that Ahamkara does not create mind. Mind is more the evolution of Intellect with which Ahamkara interacts. The object and subject. Mind is the evolution of the field in which differentiation occurs. Ahamkara causes the sense of a me in the person if one is identified with the shallow sense of self.

This subject-object dynamic is defined with 3 aspects – the observer, the process of observation, and the object or observed. The observer side gives rise to the senses through the sattva guna of Prakriti. Observation gives rise to the “organs of action” via rajas. The observed gives rise to the subtle elements with tamas or inertia.

Each of these values divides into 7 due to the 7 forms of energy (chakras) I’ll be discussing this in another article. But because only the first 5 have manifest values, only 5 manifest. Thus we have 5 senses, 5 actions, and 5 elements.

6 – 15: The 10 Indriyas
or tentacles – 5 senses and 5 organs of action.
These can be seen as 5 ways of experiencing the world and 5 ways of responding. The means for mind to connect with it’s expression. Think of them as energies.
– Power of hearing, touching, seeing, tasting and smelling (sattva) Energy moving through the organs of sense (named below)
– Power of speaking, grasping (hands), moving (feet), reproducing and eliminating (rajas) Energy moving through body.

Note the correspondence of senses and actions – hearing/speaking, etc. When you think about someone, you extend the indriyas in the mind to them, hence tentacles.

16 – 20: 5 Tanmatras, ‘mother of matter’ or essences –
Just as intellect differentiates mind, senses create essences or objects of the senses. (tamas)
The essences and sense may have the same English term but I’ve included the Sanskrit to illustrate they are not the same thing but rather the different ways the energy expresses.

Essence in Sanskrit from sense (Indriya) becomes
Sound shabda hearing (Karna) space
Touch sparsha touch (Sparshana) air
Form/color rupa sight (Chakshu) fire
Taste rasa taste (Rasana) water
Smell ghanda smell (Ghrana) earth

21 – 25: 5 Mahabhutas or ‘elements’
Sustained attention and tamas guna, inertia, cause physicality and gross manifestation. The essences blend to become elements. It is not directly one to one (see below)

Element Sanskrit dominated by quality
Space Akasha shabda (sound) Ether
Air Vayu sparsha (touch) Motion, all Gases
Fire Tejas rupa (form/color) Light, Heat, Color
Water Apas rasa (taste) all Liquids
Earth Prithivi ghandha (smell) all Solids

There are several ways to understand this process.

We can describe each element as containing all tanmatras or essences in seed form with one dominant. Thus, all elements can be smelled, tasted, seen, felt, and heard as they include all essences.

We can also see each element building on the prior ones as it becomes more dense. Air for example contains sound and touch while earth contains all 5. Put another way, From space arises air, from air arises fire, and so forth. Notice how they become increasingly dense.

Another way of understanding this is that observation of the essences causes them to collapse into elements, somewhat like observation collapses the wave in particle physics.

When you experience the essences directly, the senses and essences are less differentiated and you can “feel” music or “taste” green (it’s tart), for example.

Trika is a study that adds further layers, prior to Purusha in Samkhya. I’ve not found that perspective very useful as I would define it differently. I find Shankara’s description of the 3 forms of Maya more accurate. However, it is fair to say Purusha and Prakriti arise from Shiva and Shakti. Shiva and Shakti express their power and create the dream or Maya which produces what is described in Samkhya. Shiva and Shakti are the male and female aspects of God which arises from Awareness aware of Itself, observer & observed.


The 5 essential elements then blend to form the components of the physical world. Remember – our reality arises from the mind through perception. Attention and intention are the key drivers in manifestation. Subject drives objects via perception. This illustrates it in detail.

If you study an older Periodic Table of the Elements from Chemistry, you’ll find they’re in 8 “groups” based on the electron’s outer orbit. (reactivity) These 8 groups are the 8 usual combinations of the 5 subtle elements. You’ll also notice that the elements rule the state of the component – solid, liquid and gas.

You may notice that sound and speaking are associated with space rather than air, but space is an element more like the concept of ether than emptiness. Subtle sounds are heard without air.

These experiences form the basis of a wide swath of understanding – everything from architecture, to medicine, cooking to spiritual practice is influenced by this.

For example, Ayurveda is the ancient science of health. Similar to the idea of the Greek humors, people tend to have a predominant leaning in their body type or dosha. This determines the best diet and routine for balance and what will tend to bring imbalance. Air and Space form the Vata type, Fire and Water the Pitta type, and Earth and Water the Kapha type.

Another example is taste. While rasa is an essence, it’s companion is taste so the elements blend as flavour.
Earth + Water is Sweet, Earth + Fire is Sour, Water + Fire is Salty, Air + Fire is Pungent, Air + Ether is Bitter, Air + Earth is Astringent.

You’ll note they describe 6 tastes. They also recommend you have a little of each in each meal to satisfy the body, dropping the tendency to overeat. You can also use them to balance your body type above.

In the body, the eyes (a sense) are considered the seat of Pitta, a blend of fire and water. Thus the elements express through the senses and the senses through the elements.

I trust this may help explain some terms you’ve run into and how thought becomes form. I’m working on another article on the energy system that may help.

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23 Responses to Qualities and Quantities of Being (Vaisheshika and Samkhya)

  1. Davidya says:

    Sorry it’s a little long. There was no good place to break it up.

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