PRAKṚTI is a Sanskrit word meaning "nature, origin, progress." As a philosophical concept it refers to one of the two basic principles of the Sāṃkhya school, material stuff, or materiality. Materiality, according to the Sāṃkhya school, is manifest and unmanifest. There are other specific terms for the designation of unmanifest materiality, such as mūlaprakṛti ("original materiality") or pradhāna ("main principle"). Prakṛti is a term designating materiality in both its manifest and its unmanifest forms. The use of this term dates back to the middle group of Upaniṣads, composed in the last centuries bce.
The concept of materiality can be traced to the Vedic creation myths. Although these myths vary, they all take as their starting point the existence of an original being, such as the "first man" (see, e.g., Ṛgveda 10.90). The subsequent development of the concept of prakṛti can be divided into two periods, a creative-formative period and a classical period.
The creative-formative period is well reflected in the Upaniṣads (from c. 600 bce to the first centuries ce) and the Mahābhārata (compiled in the period between the last centuries bce and the first centuries ce). "The first being was alone, and it desired to be many." Such descriptions are numerous in the Upaniṣads. The being that wishes to multiply itself is known by several names: puruṣa, Prajāpati, ātman, and a term of particular note mahān ātman. This "large self" is unborn and yet it exists, as described in, for example, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.22. The mahān ātman next embodies itself in creation. This creation is an expansion of the self, and in its embodiment as creation the self is complete.
The self is aware of itself, as expressed in the phrases "I am!" or "I myself am this creation." This awareness initiates such processes as cognizing, perceiving, and so forth. The self cognizes as if it had different sense faculties. For example, it hears, although it does not have ears. The various processes that the awareness initiates gave ground to the distinction of the different principles (tattva s) as a result of an analysis that required a single function for a single principle.
The Mokṣadharma, the twelfth book of the Mahāb-hārata, calls the first-born the "large one." The "large one" is born on account of its knowledge. But the "large one" is not the only one to whom this function is ascribed. Similarly, here the buddhi (usually translated as "intellect") is considered the creator of the universe. The "large one" and the buddhi are two concepts that overlap from this time.
Such overlapping is prominent in the theory of the evolution of the universe as described in the Mokṣadharma. Here two cosmogonic patterns are presented. In one pattern, as typified by Mokṣadharma 187, the intellect (buddhi ) exists in three bhāva s, later usually known as guṇa s (constituents of materiality). In this pattern of evolution the sequence runs: intellect, then mind, then senses, and so on. The other pattern adds ego and places it between the intellect and the mind, whereby the sequence of evolution becomes intellect, then ego, then mind, and so forth. There is also a difference in how the three bhāva s relate to the intellect. In the first pattern, the three bhāva s are not inherent in the intellect; in the second pattern, the three bhāva s are "psychological" qualities of the individual beings.
The second period in the development of the concept of prakṛti is the classical period. The Sāṃkhyakārikā of Īśvarakṛṣṇa (c. 500 ce) is a product of the classical period. Both patterns of evolution are recorded in the Sāṃkhyakārikā (vv. 24–25). The first pattern involves a diversification of ego into three distinct qualifications which are also ascribed to the guṇa s. In the early descriptions of the evolution theory, they are the three bhāva s.
A version of the second pattern, on the other hand, became the established pattern for the theory of evolution in the Sāṃkhya school (cf. Sāṃkhyakārikā 3 and 22). In this pattern, all principles (intellect, ego, etc.) emerge from the original unmanifest materiality. Evolution starts when intellect emerges from the original unmanifest materiality; this intellect produces ego. From ego several principles emerge: mind, the ten faculties (the five sense faculties and the five action faculties), and the subtle elements. From these subtle elements, the material elements emerge. Hence there are twenty-four principles of materiality. According to the Sāṃkhya school, materiality together with consciousness form the twenty-five principles that comprise the universe.
In both patterns of production, the transformation of the original materiality into twenty-three developed principles is explained by a relation of cause and effect. Since the various principles, which are simply different forms of the original unmanifest materiality, emerge from materiality, the original unmanifest materiality is understood as the cause of the produced principles that become its effects. Since the original materiality is unmanifest, it can be known only through its effects. This theory of causality relies on an effect that is already preexistent in the cause (satkāryavāda ), just as yogurt is latent in milk.
Materiality is distinctly described in two ways, the original unmanifest and the manifest. The Sāṃkhya school postulates a pulsating universe, which means that creation and reabsorption follow one another; at the time of reabsorption, materiality is in a dormant and unmanifest state. During this time, the three guṇa s are in a state of equilibrium. Upon the disturbance of the equilibrium, materiality starts to emerge in varying combinations of the three constituents.
The manifest materiality is characterized as being the opposite of consciousness in the Sāṃkhyakārikā 11. For example, materiality is caused, finite, spatial, active, composite, dependent, undifferentiated, productive, has a substratum, and is formed of three constituents. Although multiple in its transformations, it is only one. Since materiality is nonconscious, it is dependent on consciousness to make the experience of materiality conscious.
Prakṛti, in short, is one of the dual principles of the Sāṃkhya school that finds its origin in Vedic creation myths. Originally the creation began with the first being, which eventually gave up its procreative function, bequeathing it to prakṛti. Thus prakṛti is always connected with the theory of the evolution of the universe.
A detailed exploration of the origins of the concept prakṛti can be found in J. A. B. van Buitenen's three-part article "Studies in Sāṃkhya," Journal of the American Oriental Society 76 (July–September 1956); 153–157, 77 (January–March 1957): 15–25, and 77 (April–June 1957): 88–107. For a succinct study of the development of the concept prakṛti see J. A. B. van Buitenen's "The Large Ātman," History of Religions 4 (1964): 103–114. The most up to date detailed study of the Sāṃkhya school is Samkhya: A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy by Gerald James Larson and Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, the third volume of the Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, edited by Karl H. Potter (Princeton and Delhi, 1987). See also Knut A. Jacobsen, Prakṛti in Samkhya-Yoga: Material Principle, Religious Experience, Ethical Implications. (Delhi, 2002).
Edeltraud Harzer (1987 and 2005)