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:

SattvaRajasTamas
PleasurePainDelusion
Buoyancy/StillnessMovementHeaviness
ClarityDistractionObscurity

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!

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