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PURUA is a Sanskrit word meaning "person" or "a man." Throughout Indian intellectual history the term has acquired the independent meanings of "the first man, self," and "consciousness." The development of the concept of purua therefore overlaps with the development of the concepts of ātman ("self"), brahman ("universal self"), and ketrajña ("knower"). The interrelationships among these concepts can be traced through the literature of the Upaniads and the epics, in the work of the Buddhist writer Aśvaghoa, in the medical work of Caraka, and in the texts of the Sākhya school.

Purua first occurs in the oldest extant book of Vedic hymns, the gveda (c. 1200 bce). Hymn 10.90 refers to the first man from whose bodily parts sprang the different groups of society (vara s) based on the division of labor. In the oldest Upaniads (600300 bce), the term still refers to the first man, whose essence is entirely self (ātman ): "In the beginning this world was just a single self (ātman ) in the form of a man (purua )" (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 1.4.1). When purua first came into existence he became aware of himself and exclaimed, "Here I am" (1.4.1).

Both ātman and brahman inherited the function of creation from the original purua, the first man. Such examples in the case of ātman are found in Bhadārayaka Upaniad 1.4.110, and in the case of brahman in Bhadārayaka Upaniad 1.4.1116. Various creation myths described how the "one," desiring to be many, multiplied itself, forming a new creation.

The concepts of ātman and purua as the original entities are first replaced by brahman in a verse of the Bhadārayaka Upaniad: "In the beginning this world was brahman, one only" (1.4.11). The fully articulated concept of brahman, according to the Upaniads, refers to the cosmic entity, an omnipresent self that holds the whole universe within itself. It is this universal self (brahman ) that is a counterpart to the individual self (ātman ). The aim of many of the Upaniadic teachings was to realize the identity of these two principles through mystical experience.

The concept of purua cannot be uniformly understood as self or consciousness. In its development it underwent such functional transformations that at times it took on opposing functions. This development can be seen, for example, in the description of brahman as having two aspects: "There are, indeed, two forms of brahman: the tangible (mūrta ) and the formless, the mortal and the immortal, the moving and the motionless" (Bhadārayaka Upaniad 2.3.1).

Change and creation were not the primary functions of the concept of purua; eventually purua took on other functions, while that of creation came to be associated with prakti (materiality). Thus, although purua served at one time as the foundation of the whole universe it was also instrumental in establishing materiality, an opposing concept set forth by the Sākhya school. Together, purua and prakti constituted the essential entities of Sākhya. This separation of prakti from purua is reflected in the term ketrajña.

Ketrajña ("knower of the field," i.e., knower of materiality) is a term used to describe purua as consciousness (cf. Maitri Upaniad 2.5). A section of the twelfth book of the Mahābhārata called the Moksadharma employs ketrajña as a synonym for purua, while the Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoa uses ketrajña for consciousness in its descriptions of Sākhya teachings (e.g., Buddhacarita 12.20).

The Sākhyakārikā (c. 500 ce) of Īśvaraka, the first extant complete work of the Sākhya school, is regarded as the classic statement on Sākhya thought. According to this work, purua is a contentless consciousness distinct in every respect from materiality. Consciousness (purua ) is, in fact, said to be the exact opposite of materiality or prakti (Sākhyakārikā 19). For example, consciousness is uncaused and is not itself a cause; it is eternal, without space, without motion, without complexity, without substratum, without parts, independent, differentiated, and unproductive. The purpose of consciousness is to lend, so to speak, consciousness to materiality at the time of knowledge and thus to justify the existence of materiality.

By its mere presence, consciousness is the "passive witness" (sākin ) of materiality. Consciousness is also the beneficiary of the activities of materiality, and finally, because it is different from all ordinary experience, purua makes this ordinary experience meaningful by being different from it, by being conscious, and by making the experience a conscious experience.

Originally, purua was spoken of as one, just as brahman and ketrajña are one. Yet in classical Sāhkya purua came, like ātman, to be considered plural or many. This plurality of consciousnesses served to explain differences in existence, such as different births and different deaths. If, according to classical Sākhya, there were only one consciousness, it would follow that when any one person attained liberation all individuals would attain liberation at the same time.

Under the influence of the dominant philosophical school of Advaita Vedānta, the Sākhya-Yoga teacher Vijñānabhiku (sixteenth century) attempted to reconcile the plurality of consciousnesses with the one universal self of Vedantic thought. Vijñānabhiku claimed that it is possible for consciousness to be many under certain conditions. This was not to be considered a contradiction to the claim that there is only one consciousness, since, he maintained, the plurality of purua is ultimately only a matter of convenience for the purposes of discourse. He thereby effected a conflation of the Sākhya with Advaita Vedānta.

Sākhya shares in pursuing the highest aim, liberation, with most other philosophical and religious traditions. Unlike these, liberation in Sākhya comes from that knowledge whereby one distinguishes between two entities, contentless consciousness (purua ) and materiality (prakti ), as essentially different things. Isolating (kaivalya ) the two entities from each other is the recognition of this distinction. This is the truth that grants liberation.

See Also

Brahman; Prakti; Sākhya.


A minute analysis of the formative stages of the concept of purua is found in Erhardt Hanefeld's Philosophische Haupttexte der älteren Upaniaden (Wiesbaden, 1976). For the beginnings of the development of the concept, see E. H. Johnston's Early Sākhya: An Essay on Its Historical Development according to the Texts (1937; reprint, Delhi, 1974). A detailed study of the Sākhya school is provided in Sākhya: 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 Patrick Olivelle, Upaniads. (World's Classics. Oxford, 1996).

Edeltraud Harzer (1987 and 2005)