PURUṢA 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 puruṣa therefore overlaps with the development of the concepts of ātman ("self"), brahman ("universal self"), and kṣetrajña ("knower"). The interrelationships among these concepts can be traced through the literature of the Upaniṣads and the epics, in the work of the Buddhist writer Aśvaghoṣa, in the medical work of Caraka, and in the texts of the Sāṃkhya school.
Puruṣa first occurs in the oldest extant book of Vedic hymns, the Ṛgveda (c. 1200 bce). Hymn 10.90 refers to the first man from whose bodily parts sprang the different groups of society (varṇa s) based on the division of labor. In the oldest Upaniṣads (600–300 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 (puruṣa )" (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.1). When puruṣa 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 puruṣa, the first man. Such examples in the case of ātman are found in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.1–10, and in the case of brahman in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 1.4.11–16. Various creation myths described how the "one," desiring to be many, multiplied itself, forming a new creation.
The concepts of ātman and puruṣa as the original entities are first replaced by brahman in a verse of the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad: "In the beginning this world was brahman, one only" (1.4.11). The fully articulated concept of brahman, according to the Upaniṣads, 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 Upaniṣadic teachings was to realize the identity of these two principles through mystical experience.
The concept of puruṣa 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" (Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.3.1).
Change and creation were not the primary functions of the concept of puruṣa; eventually puruṣa took on other functions, while that of creation came to be associated with prakṛti (materiality). Thus, although puruṣa 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 Sāṃkhya school. Together, puruṣa and prakṛti constituted the essential entities of Sāṃkhya. This separation of prakṛti from puruṣa is reflected in the term kṣetrajña.
Kṣetrajña ("knower of the field," i.e., knower of materiality) is a term used to describe puruṣa as consciousness (cf. Maitri Upaniṣad 2.5). A section of the twelfth book of the Mahābhārata called the Moksadharma employs kṣetrajña as a synonym for puruṣa, while the Buddhacarita of Aśvaghoṣa uses kṣetrajña for consciousness in its descriptions of Sāṃkhya teachings (e.g., Buddhacarita 12.20).
The Sāṃkhyakārikā (c. 500 ce) of Īśvarakṛṣṇa, the first extant complete work of the Sāṃkhya school, is regarded as the classic statement on Sāṃkhya thought. According to this work, puruṣa is a contentless consciousness distinct in every respect from materiality. Consciousness (puruṣa ) is, in fact, said to be the exact opposite of materiality or prakṛti (Sāṃkhyakārikā 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" (sākṣin ) of materiality. Consciousness is also the beneficiary of the activities of materiality, and finally, because it is different from all ordinary experience, puruṣa makes this ordinary experience meaningful by being different from it, by being conscious, and by making the experience a conscious experience.
Originally, puruṣa was spoken of as one, just as brahman and kṣetrajña are one. Yet in classical Sāṃhkya puruṣa 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 Sāṃkhya, 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 Sāṃkhya-Yoga teacher Vijñānabhikṣu (sixteenth century) attempted to reconcile the plurality of consciousnesses with the one universal self of Vedantic thought. Vijñānabhikṣu 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 puruṣa is ultimately only a matter of convenience for the purposes of discourse. He thereby effected a conflation of the Sāṃkhya with Advaita Vedānta.
Sāṃkhya shares in pursuing the highest aim, liberation, with most other philosophical and religious traditions. Unlike these, liberation in Sāṃkhya comes from that knowledge whereby one distinguishes between two entities, contentless consciousness (puruṣa ) and materiality (prakṛti ), 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.
A minute analysis of the formative stages of the concept of puruṣa is found in Erhardt Hanefeld's Philosophische Haupttexte der älteren Upaniṣaden (Wiesbaden, 1976). For the beginnings of the development of the concept, see E. H. Johnston's Early Sāṃkhya: An Essay on Its Historical Development according to the Texts (1937; reprint, Delhi, 1974). A detailed study of the Sāṃkhya school is provided in Sāṃkhya: 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, Upaniṣads. (World's Classics. Oxford, 1996).
Edeltraud Harzer (1987 and 2005)