Verse 33: Internal, External & Time

Verse 33 has become a favorite of mine. Initially it was for its take on time. But, as I was reviewing it and preparing it for publication I felt drawn to the subtly implied teaching it holds around internal and external.

The idea that captured my attention was the notion that “the ten external organs are the objects of the three internal organs.” This was not initially clear to me. This is partly due to my unique history and relationship with language.

When I was eight years old my family moved from Israel to the USA for five years. I left the USA (returning to Israel) before fully ingesting English grammar. I returned to Israel to join the other kids who had already ingested Hebrew grammar. I had neither and to this day do not have a good theoretical grasp of grammar in any language. Both English and Hebrew are intuitive languages for me. I don’t have an intuitive grasp of ideas such as nouns, verbs, subjects, objects, pronouns, etc (and I would struggle to even make that list in Hebrew). This also makes it difficult for others to explain to me another language (like Romanian), because the explaining usually relies on grammar itself.

So I struggled to understand what does it mean that one thing is an object of another thing (and I suspect that this isn’t just me and my predisposition towards language, I suspect that language itself is less concrete and way more slippery if you really put your mind to it). The way I resolved it was working from the outside in.

I started with the ten external organs-of-sense (see verse 26) and pondered what “their objects are.” I had an intuitive sense of that. If I am holding an apple, the apple is the object of my grasping, touch, sight and smell. The apple is the object of my ten external organs-of-sense. It is the thing to which they are applied and that they experience. This is WHY the ten are referred to as “external organs of sense.”

Now I could move inside. The three internal organs (Mahat – Intelligence, Ahamkara – I-am-ness and Manas – Mind) experience the ten external organs-of-sense similarly to the way the ten external organs-of-sense experience an apple. The ten external-organs-of-sense are the objects of the three internal organs. My mind never interacts with an apple. My mind interacts with the sense-organs that interact with an apple. This is WHY the three are referred to as “internal organs of sense.”

After carefully ingesting this I was left with a curious experience of internal and external that feels simultaneously intuitive and elusive. The elusive quality seems to be my mind clinging to an oh-so-familiar notion of physical interiority and exteriority. That physical notion hasn’t held up well over time, yet it is still a familiar and intellectually compelling idea. I feel (at least for now) better held by a notion of an “internality” that includes the three internal organs that experience the ten organs-of-sense and an “externality” that only the ten organs-of-sense can experience. I am left with an experience of self that is both clear (well bounded) and permeable (boundless).

This reframed notion of internality and externality and the three “internal organs” and the ten “external organs” is what gives rise, according to this verse, to time itself. The “present time” is an experience that arises when the three internal organs operate together with the ten external organs. A sense of “present” arises when the three internal organs unite with the taste-organ-of-sense (see verse 30 about how cognition occurs) as I bite into the apple. A sense of “past” arises when, as I bite into it, I think about the wonderful apple I had yesterday. A sense of “past and future” arises when the three internal organs operate separately from the ten external organs that always operate in the present. The notions of “past and future” are themselves based on inference (see verse 5) from previous experiences during which the the three internal organs did operate together with the ten external organs.

Time is therefore not an explicit principle in Samkhya. It is an emergent outcome of the relationships between the three internal organs and ten external organs.

Verse 32: Ten Special Objects

Verse 32, to use the terminology of the previous verse, describes how the activation of the”army of 13 organs” leads to cognition. the first part of the verse seems straightforward and describes how some are responsible for seizing, others for illuminating and others for sustaining. 13 (organs) are divided into 3 (seizing, illuminating and sustaining).

The 2nd part of the verse tripped me up. The notion that everything that is seized, illuminated and sustained is made up of “ten special objects.” First, given the unfolding nature of the text, the “ten special objects” are only mentioned and not elaborated (and, once again, the commentaries attempt to glimpse into the future did not help). Then there the number 10 re-appears … so my mind was trying to figure is this ten the same as the previous ten (objects-of-sense) or a different ten … and it is a different ten how do these other ten divide into 3 … until, finally, I was able to shed the complexity and ingest the simplicity of what is being said:

  1. Everything I experience, is seized, illuminated and sustained (and that is what cognition is).
  2. Everything I experience (that is seized, illuminated and sustained), is made up of ten special objects (which will be described later in the text).

I just now looked at the commentaries again and even after having found a peaceful resolution of this verse, they, for some reason, seem to make things sound more complicated then they are … and there is a part of my thinking that gets turned on by this promise of elaborate complexity. I don’t know why that is (neither the commentaries tendency nor mine). Part of it could be an ambiguity in interpreting the original Sanskrit (I’ve started studying Sanskrit grammar, but I am not sure I will find better direct clarity in this lifetime). But part of it, I suspect, is some kind of modern, so-called-enlightened cultural bias that demands that ideas be granted some kind of amplified intellectual aura. For me these tendencies (both personal and collective) create obstruction and confusion.

Verse 31: Is there a benevolent orchestrator?

Verse 31 asks how the coordination of the organs-of-senses described in the previous verse occurs?

How is it that the grass grows in time for a cow to graze so that it can produce milk to feed its calf? It is so tempting to point to another thing, a unifying principle, a god perhaps, some benevolent intelligence that orchestrates this dance of life.

But Samkhya, a philosophical system, has been building up over 30 verses up a rigorous metaphysical ground that does not include a conscious benevolent creator:

  1. Spirit has been acknowledged as an inactive witness (see verse 19)
  2. Conscious choice has been described as an illusion (see verse 20).
  3. It has been argued that Spirit & Nature come together because need each other (see verse 21)
  4. And the purpose of their union is their ultimate separation (also verse 21)

… and this purpose is what gives all of experience, the entire dance of Primordial Nature (Prakrti), direction. Nature isn’t really concerned about feeding calves. Nature is concerned with creating experiences that can be witnessed … by the cow, the grass, the calf … and me … because when I witness the cow grazing and the calf feeding from the cow I am being gifted with an invitation to notice the quality of witnessing itself within me … and maybe … just maybe … one day I may come around to asking: what is witnessing? … so that the purpose of the unification of Nature and Spirit may be fulfilled.

Verse 30: Cognition & the Gunas

Verse 30 is the first in a set of verses that explore the what, how & why of sensing and cognition. It is also an opportunity to finally share something I’ve been holding onto for a long time.

I’ve visited the first part of the text numerous times over the past decade+ of my life. I’d make an attempt at the text and get stuck somewhere around verse 10. I made numerous such attempts. As a result, I’ve visited verse 5 many times. And so, a long time ago I encountered this in the commentary:

It is cognition resulting from the operation of Buddhi. On the modification of the senses apprehending objects, when there takes place the subdual of the tamas of Buddhi, there takes place predominance of sattva- this is variously known as cognition, sense modifications, and knowledge.

Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna by Swami Virupkshananda

Something about this statement caught my attention even though I wasn’t able to wrap my head around it. It is presented in the commentary like an after-thought (just another sentence in a long stream of sentences in dense small-font pages) but feels to me like a profound statement. I kept coming back to it, but for a long time, I had to just wonder about it and let it be.

This piece of commentary stands out in my mind as a clear example of the commentaries violating the unfolding wholeness of the text by relying on concepts that have not yet been introduced. The Gunas are discussed in verses 12, 13 and 14. Buddhi is discussed in verses 22 and 23. And now, in verse 30 cognition itself is finally introduced. Yet this statement, which builds upon all of these insights, is presented matter-of-factly in verse 5.

This statement is referencing the fluctuation of the three Gunas, and so, in order to make sense of it, it may be helpful to recollect some of the interwoven interpretations of the three Gunas:


So, I can now attempt to make sense of this commentary:

  1. According to Samkhya everything that is manifest is a fluctuation of the three Gunas.
  2. External objects are fluctuations of the Gunas.
  3. So are the ten organs-of-sense and the three internal organs.
  4. Therefore, contact betwen the organs-of-sense and external objects, is a meeting of Guna fluctuations.
  5. While the eye may be sensitive to form or color, it is Mahat (Discerning Intelligence) that “sees” and for that to happen it needs to team-up (see verse 29)with Manas (mind) and Ahamkara (the I-Principle).
  6. This “involvement” of Mahat implies activity and activity implies a dominance of the Rajas guna.
  7. In this fluctiation of the Gunas, Rajas subdues Tamas. This activity (of Rajas) subdues the obscurity (of Tamas).
  8. This interaction between Rajas and Tamas creates the conditions for Sattva to dominate.
  9. This dominance of Sattva (stillness, clarity) is cognition.

I continue to be in awe of this statement. It feels like I can chew on it endlessly. It simultaneously sheds practical light on the dance of the Gunas and demonstrates, with startling conciseness and precision, what cognition is and how it arises from this dance of the Gunas … and the commentator dropped it in verse 5 … and never mentions it again!

Verse 29: Prana

Verse 29 discusses what the mind does. It does so by applying a pattern (that will be applied again in future verses): it places the mind in context. The context, in this case, is the framing of internal organs and external organs with the mind being one of the three internal organs.

This feels to me like a significant pattern. It seems to avoid a direct dictionary-like definition. The verse itself does not mention mind. Instead, the verse feels to me like an invitation to step back and look at the bigger picture that has been building up in previous verses – to see “mind” in context:

  1. Discerning Intelligence was established in verse 23.
  2. The I-Principle was established in verse 24.
  3. The ten objects-of-sense were established in verse 26.
  4. Mind was established in verse 27.

Now, the verse seems to imply that in order to understand what mind does, I need to step back and see the bigger picture … to see where mind sits as a member of the three internal organs in relation to the ten external organs.

The second part of the verse presents the word Prana. It is a central tenet in Yoga (and Ayurveda) and here it appears for the first time in this fundamental philosophical text. Its centrality is also touched on in the verse itself: Prana is what the three internal organs have in common, they exist when Prana is present and cease to exist when it is absent. Yet Prana itself is not one of the 24 principles of Samkhya. I am left wondering why that is.

Verse 28: Resonance

Verse 28 feels like a resting verse – fairly straightforward. The first part speaks about the knowing object-of-sense and how each one responds to unique kinds of objects. The second part specifies what each action object-of-sense does.

The verse feels a bit like a repetition of verse 26, which, to me, seems strange given the conciseness and density of the text. In sitting down to write this journal entry I wondered about this and so revisited the commentaries to see if I missed anything. This led me on a journey of reflection and some writing that I ultimately decided not to publish because I found that my thoughts were reaching from a seed that is planted in this verse into the realms of future verses where it will be nourished and sprout.

What did shimmer for me in this verse was the notion that:

  1. If the knowing objects-ofsense are fluctuations of the Gunas (see verse 27).
  2. And if each knowing object-of-sense perceives unique kinds of external objects (eg: the “eye”percieve only “form”).
  3. And if the external objects that are perceived are also fluctuations of the Gunas (see the word vṛtti).
  4. Then this seems to imply that “sensing” is some kind of correlation or resonance between internal and external Guna fluctuations.

When I reflect on “sensing” from within my western mechanistic mindset I lean towards a paradigm in which external things enter the body through senses: eg: light enters the body through the eyes or sound through the ears. The notion of resonance points my thoughts towards a different sensing paradigm: a paradigm of resonance. The eyes resonate with form: an external fluctuation of the Gunas resonates with a similar or matching (or perhaps complementary?) fluctuation of the Gunas inside. In this paradigm sensing is a shared fluctuation – a resonance. In this resonance paradigm, no physical thing needs to move into or enter another physical thing but rather two related physical things resonate when they are near each other – less like objects, more like fields.

This reflection feels like an invitation into a mental shift that is both appealing (because it feels like a bright and spacious expansion) and a bit frightening (because it feels like I am losing a grip on something I assumed was firm and trustworthy).

Verse 27: Mind and Matter

Verse 27 makes two distinct statements. Verse 26 described ten out of the eleven special objects that arise from a Sattvic Ahamkara (see verse 25). So, first, verse 27 accounts for the eleventh special object: mind (Manas). Then verse 27 tends to the question of how is it possible that such a diversity of special objects (five knowing objects-of-sense + five action objects-of-sense + mind) arise from a single source – Ahamkara? The answer it points to is (once again) the Gunas (see verse 12 and verse 16).

Something about the coupling of these two statements (in one verse) caught my attention. It seems to speaks directly to a prominent question in modern scientific and philosophical thinking: mind versus matter. In a mechanistic scientific view, everything is a complicated machine made up of parts. This view proves to be challenging when it comes to consciousness. If the basic building blocks (eg: atoms) are not conscious how does a collection of atoms come to have consciousness? In this context, this verse feels like a gentle whisper of wisdom (perhaps even foresight?) passed down through the ages.

In Samkhya, consciousness has been attributed to Spirit (see verse 11) and accounts for the fundamental experience of witnessing. Everything else, including mind (which is NOT the source of consciousness), is produced by Primordial Nature (Prakrti – see verse 15 ) in conjunction with Spirit (see verse 21). Primordial Nature itself is an eternal dance of the three Gunas. It follows that everything that is produced by Primordial Nature is also a dance of the three Gunas (see casualty in verse 9). Therefore, according to Samkhya, mind and matter are of the same essence – an eternal fluctuation of the Gunas … of Rajas, Tamas & Sattva … movement, heaviness & stillness … activity, obscurity & clarity …. suffering, delusion & pleasure.

In Samkhya the question of mind versus matter seems to be dis-solved. Our scientific microscopes have zoomed in so far that we’ve seen beyond atoms and what we’re finding seems to challenge the mechanistic view itself. It seems that atoms are mostly space, a realization that may dis-solve the notion of physical matter. And, within that space, it seems that there is some kind of underlying quantum reality of ever-shifting potentials that are somehow directly tied to the act of observation itself … the manifested potentials are affected by the witness!

Verse 26: Grasping

Verse 26 will mark the completion of the first year of publishing Samkhya verses here on the website. I am using this as an excuse to try something else in this journal entry.

As I was preparing verse 26 for publishing, I engaged with drawing and painting verse 32. I started (as I always do) by reviewing my summary of the verse and found a loose end that was not clear to me. This happens sometimes. There are loose-ends in my comprehension which I left open, hoping (and trusting) that they would sort themselves out over time. I went back to the sources and after some time, some clarity found me and I felt ease arising.

But the energy of stuckness (Tamas!) persisted and manifested again when I sat down to author a generative drawing sequence. I felt mechanistic and uninspired. When this happens I don’t fight it. I either step away to do something (to give the process space and time) or surrender into the stuckness. This time I surrendered into it. I just held my head and stared at the screen (for writing) and paper (for doodling) before me.

Out of nowhere, a song came into my mind and I observed my attention drift into it. I decided to listen to it, to a live version, to fill the room with it and immerse myself inside it. It touched something inside me. The lyrics met me in a new way, in a different context. They sent me back to a specific place and time. A place of pain, power, relationship, surrender, rest, and heaviness. An ending that did not, at the time, appear to lead to a new beginning.

That song led to another, a more recent song by the same artist. This one has touched me deeply every time I’ve listened to it for the past couple of years … and it did so this time too … to tears, as it usually does:

Connected and touched I turned back to the screen and paper. A clear generative sequence appeared. Shapes started forming on the paper and immediately started to transform and unfold, asking to be changed, evolved and grown. The opposite of stuckness. When the drawing or painting take on a life of their own I feel relieved. The tension of a feeling that I need to figure out what to do was replaced by a light feeling that something was happening through me.

As I write and edit this journal entry I realize that in the present moment verse 32 is more alive in me than verse 26. So I looked back into verse 26 and noticed something I hadn’t noticed before about the relationship between the two verses. Verse 32 speaks directly to the contemplation on “grasping” I stumbled into in verse 26. And so, coming back to the present, I find my reflection on “what is grasping?” transforming into “what does the grasping and what is grasped?”

Verse 25: The Sensing and the Sensed

Verse 25 seems concise and straightforward. Once again the Gunas are referenced to explain how different kinds of things come into being.

In this verse, two sets of special objects are described as arising from Ahamkara (“I-am-ness”). When Ahamkara is dominated by Sattva (buoyancy/illumination) a set of 11 special objects arises. When Ahamkara is dominated by Tamas (heaviness/obscurity) a set of 5 subtle elements arises.

In order to share a thought that is alive in me in relation to this verse I have to, yet again, violate the unfolding sequence by pointing to what is to come but has not yet arrived. Now that this has happened a couple of times here in the journal entries, I resonate with the temptation that probably led to this occurring in the commentaries.

This is also how the two paintings of verses 24 and 25 became siblings. When I started painting verse 24 I had already studied verse 25 and so it was already pulling me in the unfolding of the painting. At some point in the drawing process, I became aware of the pull. I revisited the summaries and confirmed that the essence of verse 25 had crept into the verse 24 drawing process. I then chose to extract and set aside the essence of verse 25 from the verse 24 painting and to allow the core of verse 24 to inform the verse 25 painting. And so, it seems that I have defacto upheld the unfolding sequence in the summaries and paintings but have elected some over-reach to creep into these journal entries.

The leap into future verses reveals that the 11 Satttvic special objects are going to be the organs-of-sense. In an experience of “smelling a flower” there is a sensing and a sensed. What this verse points to is that the sensing (via the organs-of-sense that will be explained later) is a that-ness that has a “lighter” quality and the sensed is a that-ness that has a “heavier” quality … and that they share an underlying quality of “movement”.

This reflection grips me. It has been with me for almost a year and it continually evokes in me both a sense of clarity (Sattva) and vagueness (Tamas). I wonder about Tamas as a metaphysical source of gravity – that which gives a sense of stable physicality by appearing as mass – a flower that emits a smell. I wonder about Sattva as a source of still presence without which the experiencing of “smelling the flower” would not be possible.

When the flower and I are near to each other there is already a potential for the experience, it is, in a way, already present. For it to become a conscious experience there needs to be a quality of stillness. If I am distracted or absent-minded it may be as if the flower is not there (even though it is). Inner stillness is required for me to notice and direct attention to the flower that beckons to me through the sense of smell. Outer stillness is also required for the flower to find me. If I am in a field at the edge of the forest with many plants producing many aromas the whole experience (sound, sight, touch, smell, taste) may dominate my experience and I may not find the flower. If I am in a kitchen trying to smell the flower while an aromatic meal is being cooked I may also not be able to connect with the flower. And so Sattva is required, an inner and outer stillness for there to be a “smelling the flower.” In such a way the dance of Sattva & Tamas seems to make possible the smelling and the smelled.

Verse 24: Self Center

Verse 24 introduces Ahamkara – the notion of “I-am-ness.” It can be tempting to translate Ahamkara as ego, but I feel that the word ego carries too much western psychological mechanistic baggage. “Ego” feels too narrow for Ahamkara.

I am thinking of a large boulder rolling down a mountain. It crushes plants, it crashes into other rocks crushing them into smaller rocks, it free falls and lands on another large rock outcropping, and some pieces are chipped away from it forming new smaller rocks that begin their own journey down the mountain, and eventually, it settles somewhere in the valley at the foot of the mountain. Whatever gives the boulder its “that-ness” that is Ahamkara.

I am thinking of a pond on an early misty morning. It has a stream running into it and a stream running out of it. The surface of the pond water can barely be seen because of all the mist. I look at the soil I am standing on at the edge of the pond. It is so moist that my weight upon it squeezes water out of it. It is almost impossible to separate the pond from its environment, but there it is: a pond. Whatever gives the pond its “that-ness” that is Ahamkara.

Every cell in my body has a “that-ness.” Every molecule has a “that-ness.” Every blade of grass has a “that-ness.” Every raindrop and every snowflake has a “that-ness.” Does every thought have a “that-ness”? Does every relationship have a “that-ness”?

Just like the boulder, pond, snowflake, and molecule, there is a “that-ness” around which I am formed. It is where my notion of “self” originates.

Amahkara seems like an inevitable effect of Discerning Intelligence (Mahat – verse 23). For discernment to have any meaning there needs to be a “this and that” that can be discerned. Ahamkara is the source of individuation – the source of “this and that”.

Ahamkara plays a key role in the Samkhya tree of causality:

  • It is the only special object caused by Discerning Intelligence (Mahat).
  • All the other special objects of Samkhya emerge from it.
  • It directly causes 16 special objects .

Ahamkara can seem like a source, as if I am “self” and everything revolves around that. However, that illusion is revealed by placing Ahamaka in context. Ahamkara is caused by Discerning Intelligence which in turn is caused by the conjunction of Spirit & Nature. When the context is forgotten, Ahamakara can indeed seem like “self-centeredness.” However, in context, the illusion of “self-centeredness” is replaced by an awareness of “self” as a center.