Thursday, April 3, 2008

How many Purusas? As many as moments?

By Alfred Collins

I have Ph.D.s in both clinical psychology and Indic studies (Sanskrit literature). A clinician an important question in early samkhya is how many purusas there are. Upanisadic atman = brahman thinking might well suggest only one. Nevertheless, in order to account for the fact that we don't all share the same karmic burden or own the same psychophysical personality, samkhya concluded that there are as many purusas as there are sentient beings ("from Brahma to a blade of grass"). These purusas own different endowments but in their essential nature all amount to nothing more than consciousness. In the terms of Peter Pesic (in his book Seeing Double, MIT Press) the purusas are similar to elementary particles like electrons that are the same in all essential respects, and share "identicality." Some Buddhist thinkers (see Matthew Kapstein, Reason's Traces, Wisdom publishers) claim that there is a givenness of self-reference moment by moment that amounts to nothing but the momentary event of consciousness. In a sense there is something like purusa in each moment but a purusa that does not carry over to subsequent moments. Nevertheless there appears to be an "identicality" of consciousness in these moments that is very similar to one that applies between purusas in samkhya. An identity of "nature" between the consciousnesses within different moments seems implied in Buddhist concepts such as the Zen talk of "seeing eye to eye with the Buddha and patriarchs." The essence of liberation in samkhya is to see that the consciousness in all moments of experience is this completely selfless essence, and not an ahamkara (hence the recognition of "I am not" (naham) at Samkhya Karika 64). This is similar to Buddhist realization which also sublates the ahamkara (ego). The apparent difference is that samkhya ends with a permanent purusa and Buddhism with an endlessly repeated experience of momentary consciousness. That repetition is what I call culture, and I have argued that samkhya, rightly interpreted, implies the same thing (paper at AAR/DANAM, 2006).

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