Arundhati Katju | Reading Inwards from the Margins: Indic Classical Thought in Nietzsche and Foucault

By Arundhati Katju

In order to demonstrate the genealogy of knowledge they propose, both Nietzsche and Foucault draw upon and refute key elements from Indic philosophy, specifically, mystic practices that contemplate the nature of knowledge and subject-object relations as found in Samkhya and Yoga. On the Genealogy of Morals refers specifically to Samkhya and Vedanta; Foucault’s implicit critique of Samkhya is evident in the Lecture on Nietzsche (“How to think the history of truth with Nietzsche without relying on truth”). By adopting Nietzsche’s evident disdain for Indic ascetics, Foucault appears to have absorbed his attitude towards Samkhya philosophy as well.

My concern is how these critical methods from the European intellectual tradition render Indic classical thought redundant in the contemporary academy. By reading Nietzsche and Foucault without acknowledging how they are both constituted by and in turn constitute the world, without reading Nietzsche against Nietzsche and Foucault against Foucault, as it were, we run the risk of ignoring how this power/knowledge system itself marginalizes other systems of knowledge. Indic classical thought is rendered primitive or naïve, and relegated to the status of an object of study or critique, rather than an epistemological system that can explain the nature of knowledge in its own right. If we hope to use Nietzsche or Foucault to counter the anti-democratic forces of our times, as was expressed during Nietzsche 8/13, we must acknowledge the violence they in turn inflict on non-Western philosophy.

While scholars have commented on Nietzsche and Foucault’s reading of Buddhism, in this note, I concentrate on their treatment of Samkhya. My focus in this essay is not on Vedanta. Unlike Vedanta, Samkhya and Yoga adopt a neutrality towards theism that is more suited to modern political projects. Part I explains the fundamentals of Samkhya and Yoga. Part II examines Nietzsche’s views on Vedanta and Samkhya in the third essay of the Genealogy. Part III examines Foucault’s implicit critique of Samkhya in the Lecture. In conclusion, I ask what a Samkhyan politics and intellectual project may look like in the twenty-first century.

Part I: Samkhya

A Brief Introduction to Samkhya

Samkhya is one of the six darshanas (schools of Indic philosophy).[1] At the heart of classical Samkhya lies a distinction between pursusha, the knower,[2] and prakriti, the material world (both manifest and unmanifest). Prakriti is constituted by the three guna: sattva (lucidity, purity, perception), rajas (heat, speech, fire, action) and tamas (darkness, heaviness, sleep, inaction). The guna are simultaneously physical substances and psychic qualities that are constantly in a state of flux. The interplay between these constitutive elements produces the entire prakriti.[3] The physical world is divided into buddhi (intelligence), ahamkara (ego, self-awareness), and the five tanmatras (subtle elements), followed by manas (mind), five buddhindriyas (sense organs) and five mahabhutas (gross elements).  Intelligence, ego, and the mind are all part of the material world. These evolutes of the material world arise in succession from the proximity of prakriti and purusha. The first evolute of this proximity is buddhi (intelligence), which gives rise to ahamkara (ego, self-awareness). Ahamkara in turn yields manas (the mind) and in turn the constitutive elements of the material world.[4] Unlike Vedanta, Samkhya posits that the world is real and not an illusion. [5]

By contrast, purusha is unconnected with prakriti.[6] It is pure consciousness,[7] independent of experience. Purusha is not made up of the three guna,[8] but is an indifferent spectator, the one who sees.[9] Purusha exists outside of the material world in order to offer the possibility of freedom and release.[10] The doctrine assumes a plurality of purushas. The self here is not a cosmic, divine Self, but an individual self. It is also distinct from the personal self (ego, self-awareness) which is part of prakriti. Instead, purusha stands apart, as an observer.

The magnetic proximity of purusha and prakriti produce the entire material world. Prakriti is inert, but comes to life through its proximity to purusha. But this proximity also allows purusha to realize that it is not prakriti, and thereby achieve liberation from the cycle of birth and death.

The purpose of Samkhya is to eliminate dukha, the suffering that characterizes human existence in the world. This suffering is brought about by the misidentification of purusha with prakriti.[11] The way of salvation lies through viveka (discriminative knowledge) of the difference between purusha and prakriti:[12] eternal, unchanging consciousness is distinct from the constant flux of the material world, including the three forms of the mind (intelligence, ego, and the mind). The Samkhyakarikas next stipulate the three means of acceptable knowledge: drishta (perception), anumana (inference) and aptavacana (reliable authority – both the scriptures and the trustworthy instruction of the line of gurus). Samkhya emphasizes knowledge as the only means of salvation.[13] Jnana, the correct knowledge that can lead to salvation, is one of the bhavas (fundamental conditions of man’s innermost nature).[14]

Unlike Vedanta, which is a nondualistic philosophy contending that the soul can become one with God, Samkhya dualism is a dualism between consciousness and the material world.[15] The goal in Samkhya is not unity between the individual consciousness and God, but liberation from the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth:

Thus, from the study (or analysis) of the tattvas (“principles”), the “knowledge” (jnana) arises, “I am not (conscious); (consciousness) does not belong to me; the “I” is not (conscious)” (and this “knowledge”) is complete because free from error, pure and solitary (kevala).”[16]

Here the “study of the principles” is not just a study of the foundations of the material world, but a radical, intuitive realization that the material world, including the self with which we identify, is not consciousness.[17] While Larson calls this “a condition in which consciousness is no longer consciousness of something…emptied of all content, a kind of translucent emptiness or nothingness”,[18] I would characterize this instead as consciousness that is aware only of itself, like a ball with a mirror on the inside.

Further, Samkhya does not concern itself with origins. According to Larson, classical Samkhya does not focus on how purusha or prakriti originally come about, nor how they come to be proximate to each other.[19] Rather, Samkhya proposes a genealogy of things: the physical world is constituted, in its essence, by man. The entire material world is made up of the same stuff, the gunas, in different combinations, because of which things can transform into one another.

The Yoga Sutras

Yoga is the practice of the theory of Samkhya.[20] The Yoga Sutras, a text sometimes attributed to the grammarian Panini, is a collection of 196 aphorisms on the practice of yoga. It can be likened to a practitioners’ manual on how to achieve the state of highest absorption[21] – objectless concentration that is aware only of itself. While Samkhya focuses on reasoning as a method of isolating the purusha, Yoga focuses on techniques of concentration that provide a practical means of realizing the distinction between purusha and prakriti.

Yoga does not, however, mean only the practice of asana (physical poses) with which it is eponymous today. The Mahabharata and Upanishads do not refer to asana, and the Yoga Sutras devote only three sutras (‘thread’, aphorisms) to physical practice.[22] Rather, yoga is that which stills the activity of the mind (yogas citta vritti nirodhaha).[23] Once the mind is still, the seer abides in its own true nature (tada drastuh swarupe avasthanam).[24] Otherwise, the seer identifies itself with the changing states of the mind (vritti-sarupyam itaratra).[25]

Once all thought has stilled, two states of meditative absorption (samadhi) are possible: samprajnata and asamprajnata samadhi, i.e., samadhi with and without support. YS 1.17 describes consecutive stages of samprajnata samadhi: vitarka samadhi, meditation on an object that is a construct of the gross elements; and vichara samadhi, meditation on the subtle ingredients (for example, the gunas) that constitute the object.[26] Vitaraka and vichara samadhi are further divided, in YS 1:42, into four stages of savitarka and nirvitaraka, and savichara and nirvichara samadhi. These four are ‘sabija samadhi’, i.e. ‘with seed’.[27]

In savitarka samadhi, the mind is completely still and can take on the qualities of whatever is before it,[28] whether the object of meditation, the instrument of knowledge (the sense organs) or the knower. Since the gross and subtle elements all evolve out of citta (intelligence and ego), and the mind is subtle than its evolutes, the mind can penetrate the object by merging with it and gain insights into its deepest nature.[29] (Or as Foucault puts it, as we shall see later, “A=A”). In savitarka samadhi, absorption still involves notions of word, meaning, and idea, although these are now nondiscursive, because all the vrittis of the mind have been stilled.[30] The next level, nirvitarka samadhi, is based on direct perception of the essential nature of the object that transcends words and ideas.[31] Once the mind has been purged of memory, words, and ideas, it is no longer self-reflexively aware of itself as a mind, and becomes one with the essential nature of the object.[32]

Following this, in savichara samadhi, the mind becomes absorbed in the tanmatras, the subtle elements that constitute the object.[33] The yogi still has awareness of space and time.[34] In nirvichara samadhi, the yogi sees that the elements constituting the object transcend space and time to underpin all things at all times.[35] There is absolute lucidity of the inner self,[36] truth-bearing wisdom,[37] and the effects of experience (samskara) cease to arise afresh.[38] In asamprajnata-samadhi, all thoughts cease and only samskara, latent impressions of actions from this and past lives, remain.[39] This is a state beyond the mind, and therefore beyond thought and word.[40] When samskara also come to a halt, the yogi is in nirbija samadhi (without seed). Purusha is now uncoupled from prakriti and aware only of itself.[41]

Thus taken together, Samkhya and Yoga provide both an epistemology of the  material world and the self, together with the method to actualize that knowledge. Contemporary scholarship traces how colonial elites in India participated in the reinterpretation of Indian tradition, including yoga,[42] and how commercialization has divested yoga of its philosophical underpinnings.[43] It can now be repackaged as an esoteric exercise regime that is India’s unique gift to the world. Simultaneously, within the academy, Samkhya is relegated to Indian or Eastern philosophy departments whereas critique is the proper method of unveiling the true nature of things. But this marginalization also has roots in how Western philosophers and critical theorists, like Nietzsche and Foucault, have viewed Indic philosophy and its ability to make epistemological claims.

Part II: Indic Philosophy in Nietzsche

Images of the exotic Orient are always in the background of the Genealogy: camels, fakirs, Brahmins, Pharisees. Nietzsche’s interest in Indic thought is said to emerge from both his engagement with Schopenhauer as well as the rising interest in Indology in Germany during the 19th century.[44] According to Halbfass, Nietzsche paid attention primarily to Buddhist thought, though he also read Vedanta. Halbfass doubts whether Nietzsche studied any of these philosophies seriously. Instead, Nietzsche’s writings on Buddhism and on India reflect the “complexities and idiosyncrasies” of his thought in general.[45] Thus Indic philosophy at times serves to prove Nietzsche’s general ideas about the will to power. For example, he approves of the caste system described in the Manu Smriti,[46] but sees in Buddhism a perfected form of the nihilism that he criticizes in Christian thought as well.[47] Halbfass also suggests that Nietzsche’s negativity towards Buddhism stemmed in part from his deep disagreement with Schopenhauer.[48]

Vedanta and Samkhya in the Genealogy

Nietzsche’s imagined philosopher in the Genealogy is a free-floating universal, drawn equally from the East and West,[49] as well as from different schools of Indian philosophy.  According to Nietzsche, philosophers have had to adopt the ascetic ideal as philosophy would be impossible without an ‘ascetic misconception of itself’.[50] The ascetic ideal consists of a false commitment to chastity,[51] an abhorrence of marriage,[52] and an abhorrence of life.[53] The ascetic priest is likened to a doctor or nurse who, being sick themselves,[54] can direct people’s ressentiment inwards.[55] He attributes the ascetic ideal to a ‘weariness and heaviness’ that has become endemic to all religions.[56]

Although Nietzsche’s purpose is to criticize a Christian and Western world view, his imagined ascetic priest draws freely and indiscriminately on tropes of Indic asceticism. But he does not understand this asceticism on its own terms within the worldview of Indic philosophy. Vedanta and Samkhya are interchangeable metaphors for Nietzsche, which stand in for the aspects of Christianity and Western philosophy that he critiques. He is able to attribute lethargy and renunciation to Christian priests, Western philosophers and Indic ascetics alike:

Firstly, we fight against the dominating lethargy with methods that reduce the awareness of life to the lowest point. If possible, absolutely no more wanting, no more wishing, everything that arouses the emotions and ‘blood’ must be avoided (no eating salt: hygiene of the Fakirs); no loving, no hating, equanimity; no taking of revenge; no getting rich; no working; begging; if possible, no consorting with women or as little as possible of this; in spiritual matters, Pascal’s principle ‘il faut s’abètir’. The result in psychological and moral terms: ‘loss of self’, ‘sanctification’, in physiological terms: hypnotization, – the attempt to achieve for man something akin to what hibernation is for some kinds of animal and what estivation is for many plants in hot climates, a minimum of expenditure of energy and metabolism, where life can just about be maintained without actually entering consciousness.[57]

We see here Nietzsche’s disregard for a highly evolved state of meditative absorption located within a sophisticated theory of materiality:

So we want to pay due respect to ‘salvation’ in the great religions; on the other hand, it is a little difficult for us to remain serious, in view of the value placed on deep sleep by these people so weary of life that they are too weary even to dream.[58]

That Nietzsche has not understood Indic theory fully is obvious from his equation of “the supreme state”[59] of “total hypnosis and silence”[60] with “salvation”.[61] Samkhya is a liberation and not a salvation theory. Purusha is not a savior. Nor is it correct that the “Indian way of thinking” does not regard “salvation” at attainable through virtue.[62] In the Gita, union with God (yoga) may be achieved through bhaktiyoga (the yoga of devotion), karmayog (the yoga of action), gyanayoga (the yoga of knowledge), or samkhyayoga. Finally, Nietzsche attributes the value placed on meditative absorption and the ‘absence of suffering’ to ‘deep depression’.[63] The ascetic ideal offers man a meaning for suffering, allowing man to turn his guilt inwards, and protecting the ‘will to nothingness, an aversion to life…’[64]

This is not an image of Indic asceticism as primitive or backward. The problem for Nietzsche is not that Indians do not have philosophy or that these philosophies are underdeveloped. Rather, Nietzsche that sees Indic asceticism as plagued by the same nihilism or absence of a will to life with which he criticizes Western philosophers. Thus Indic philosophy is not a subject worthy of study in its own right but is deployed instrumentally. Equally, then, genealogy as a method is more likely to unveil the truth (for lack of a better word) of subject-object relations than yogic meditations upon an object and is therefore a better method in the pursuit of knowledge.

Knowledge and Truth in the Third Essay

In this part, I seek to compare Nietzsche’s ideas of knowledge and truth in the Third Essay with the subject-location of purusha in Samkhya. Nietzsche first critiques Schopenhauer and Kant’s idea of the disinterested spectator.[65] Kant considers beauty from the point of the disinterested spectator, whereas Nietzsche posits that the aesthetic problem ought to be viewed through the experiences of the creator. The ‘disinterested spectator’ can be likened to purusha, which despite bringing prakriti into existence nevertheless remains apart from it, being also ‘drshtu’, the seer.

Further, this problem of the subject position from which one understands beauty is intimately connected with sexual interest in the object.[66] Nietzsche considers that Schopenhauer takes this position because he “treated sexuality as a personal enemy”[67] – but this is attributable not only to Schopenhauer’s personal characteristics but also to the fact that “whenever there have been philosophers (from India to England) … there exists a genuine philosophers’ irritation and rancor against sensuality.”[68]  Thus according to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer takes this point of view because of his affinity to the ‘ascetic ideal’, one that Nietzsche has imagined as including Indic ascetics. In Yoga/Tantra, however, brahmacharya, or the stage of celibacy, is the initial stage of a male life. The retention of semen as part of Yogic/Tantric creates the bodily and psychic conditions required for enlightenment. Nietzsche, by contrast, criticizes the ascetic ideal as a false commitment to chastity,[69] abhorrence of marriage,[70] and consequent abhorrence of life.[71] In the words of Michel Hulin, Indian asceticism is the mirror that at once magnifies and distorts Nietzschean nihilism.[72]

Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges at this point. There is no pure subject of knowledge, or ‘knowledge at such’, but only a ‘perspectival seeing, only a perspectival knowing’.[73] Nietzschean knowledge thus brings subject and object closely together. The object is constituted by the subject itself. Thus Nietzschean theories of knowledge also have their roots in an ongoing debate within the European philosophical tradition that engaged key concepts from Indic philosophical thought, whether by embracing or rejecting these. In Samkhya, by contrast, the knower stands apart from the material world, and yet the material world emerges as an evolute of the mind. As we shall see, Foucault engages Nietzsche’s method without engaging this aspect of the context from which Nietzschean genealogy emerges.

Part III: Foucault

Foucault’s engagement with Buddhism has been the subject of scholarly speculation. Uta Liebmann Schaub attempts to explain Foucauldian texts through Western constructs of the Orient, finding elements of Oriental philosophy, religion, and Western esotericism in his texts.[74] Schaub finds an “Oriental subtext” in Foucault, pointing to an “immediate and direct” encounter with the Orient that Foucault both appropriates and conceals.[75] Schaub goes on to argue that Foucault operates a “counterdiscourse that appropriates Oriental lore in opposition to Western strategies of control”.[76]

While Schaub is no doubt correct that Foucault was familiar with the philosophical tradition of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the argument that this philosophical lineage ‘adopted Orientalism as a position from which to criticize Occidental culture’ is overly broad.[77] Schaub characterizes Nietzsche’s critique of European civilization in Beyond Good and Evil and the Genealogy as being influenced by Indian philosophy, particularly Vedanta.[78] But in the Third Essay, Nietzsche clubs Vedanta and Samkhya and subjects them to the same critique as Western philosophy.

Further, Schaub equals Foucault’s rejection of positivisms with Buddhist shunyata and nirvâva, characterizing them as “operating around an empty centre”.[79] Schaub finds that correspondences between Foucault’s writing and Oriental concepts are explained by the “Buddhist subtext” in Foucault.[80] Foucault does not wish to replace one discourse with another, particularly not a Foucauldian discourse. Thus, at the heart of Foucauldian analysis is a silence that Schaub likens to the cessation of the self in Oriental systems of thought that is starkly opposed to the individual subject at the heart of the European Enlightenment.[81]

Although I share Schaub’s finding that there is a subtext of Buddhist – specifically Samkhya – thought to Foucault’s work, this subtext is not as laudatory as Schaub would suggest. Rather, for Foucault, as for Nietzsche, Samkhya stands in for models of Western thought that Foucault seeks to criticize as collapsing knowledge with the will to knowledge.

The Thirteenth Lecture: How to Think the History of Truth with Nietzsche without Relying on Truth

The Thirteenth Lecture can be read as both adopting and rejecting Samkhya. Foucault puts forward two propositions in the Thirteenth Lecture, both of which he draws from Nietzsche: firstly, that knowledge is an invention, secondly, that knowledge does not lie in the unity of the subject and object. Rather Foucault attempts to bring them apart to make it evident that knowledge is a network of relations.

Foucault begins by asserting that knowledge is an invention.[82] It is not inherent in human nature.[83] “The possibility of knowledge arises in the space of interplay where something altogether different is involved: instincts and not reason.”[84] There is something behind knowledge that is irreducible to knowledge.[85] Further, knowledge is not joined to the structure of the world, things are not made to be known.[86] Therefore, ‘knowledge is the result of a complex operation’.[87] Knowledge is actuated by a malicious will to knowledge, that seeks to go behind the surface of things to seek out their inner essence.[88] But in so doing, the thing does not yield its essence but instead ‘gives rise to new appearances’.[89] Instinct, interest, play and struggle are the real nature of knowledge; which places it in opposition to asceticism and objective knowledge.[90] Knowledge is always incomplete because man stands in the way.[91]

Compare this to Samkhya. Contrary to Foucault, Samkhya asserts, firstly, that jnana, or right knowledge, is one of man’s basic instincts. Knowledge is part of the material world, because everything outside of purusha is part of prakriti. Objects do have a true essence (they are constituted of the three gunas) that can reveal itself. In their true essence, they are made up of the same ‘stuff’ – both physical and psychic – as the citta (mind).

But similar to what Foucault finds, or attributes to Nietzsche, the entire material world is an evolute of citta, produced by the proximity of purusha and buddhi, the first layer of citta. While Foucault would characterize this production as a power relation (‘the will to knowledge’), Samkhya postulates this as the creation of the material world itself. Further, Samkhya also postulates ‘something behind knowledge’ – pure consciousness, or the knower.

Further, while Foucault places Nietzschean knowledge in opposition to ‘ascetic knowledge’ – as Nietzsche himself does – Samkhya does not necessarily refute the idea of subjectivity. Instead it reminds us that liberation requires that we move beyond questions of objectivity and subjectivity, and indeed beyond knowledge, objects, and knowers.

Foucault’s second proposition is that “A=A” is a misnomer. Foucault adopts Nietzsche’s critique of “ascetic knowledge”: “It suppresses the point of view of the body…knowledge that wants to be pure.”[92] Knowledge produces the subject-object relation,[93] but consciousness is not at the root of this knowledge.[94]  Here Foucault is not merely saying that knowledge is not conscious or animate. Rather, very precisely:

Thought in Nietzsche is not the phenomenon to which we have immediate access in the form of consciousness; thought is not knowledge that is at once and by the same token the act which knows and the instance which recognizes itself as knowing. Thought is itself only an effect. Thought is the effect of extra-thought, not as natural result, but as violence and illusion.[95]

This mimics Samkhya. Here consciousness is distinct from thought, which latter is part of the material world. Further, again as in Samkhya, thought is distinct from knowledge, and also has the potential of being self-reflective.

It is here that Foucault diverges from Samkhya.  The will to power enables the mark to group objects together, resulting in subjects and objects.  The subject is the point of emergence of the will, the object the point of application of the mark.[96] But there is no consciousness at the heart of knowledge:

This is why Nietzsche stubbornly refuses to place at the heart of knowledge something like the cogito, that is to say, pure consciousness, in which the object is given the form of the subject and the subject may be the object of itself. All philosophies have founded knowledge on the pre-established relation of the subject and the object, their sole concern being to bring subject and object closer together (either in the pure form of the cogito, or in the minimal form of sensation, or in a pure tautology A=A).

Nietzsche wanted to account for knowledge by putting the maximum distance between subject and object, by making them products which are far removed from each other and which can be confused only by illusion. Far from the subject-object relation being constitutive of knowledge, the existence of a subject and an object is the first major illusion of knowledge.

But what does Nietzsche introduce in place of the cogito? It is the interplay of mark and will, of word and will to power, or again of sign and interpretation.[97]

By contrast, in Samkhya, knowledge is the path to the realization of pure consciousness. The first step towards liberation is establishing the relation between the subject and object, or as Foucault puts it, “A=A”. This is akin to the stages of sabija samadhi where the mind uses an object as a prop, later absorbing the qualities of the object, and finally transcending the object in nirbija samadhi. This journey towards knowledge begins by from the body, by recalibrating the gunas to produce sattva, as a material condition required to attain knowledge.

Therefore, Samkhya is grounded in the reality of the material world: unlike Vedanta, neither the subject not the object are illusions of knowledge, as Nietzsche and Foucault would have it. Thus by “all philosophies” Foucault also refers to Eastern philosophy. This may be intentional or it may be a consequence of his adopting Nietzschean models of knowledge.


If Foucault is concerned with ‘how the human being turns himself or herself into a subject’, Samkhya is concerned with desubjectifying citta – freeing citta from the bonds of experience. Understanding the processes by which we become subjects is itself a subjectification that produces samskara and thus furthers cycles of life and death. Thus

“for Foucault, pursuing such self-transparency/rarefaction of the self did not involve the progressive approximation of a state of enlightened vacuity, as it were. Rather, it entailed the approximation of a state of immanent reflexivity, in which decisive action becomes possible, insofar as emotional distraction and/or previous habitual conditioning no longer cloud the mind.”[98]

While Adrian Konik likens this to Buddhist shunyata, critique has evolved into such a stylized, rarified, self-reflective discourse that does not offer an entry point to samadhi.

While Foucault’s thesis that knowledge is the product of the will to knowledge can be likened to Samkhya’s assertion that the objects of the material world are evolutes of the mind, Foucault’s main contention, that knowledge does not rest in the affinity between subject and object but rather that it is a network of relations, contradicts what we have seen is the initial stage of Samkhya liberation. In Samkhya, “A=A” is only an initial stage of samadhi, where the mind still needs the support of the object of meditation. This is followed by stages of meditative absorption where the mind can transcend the object, and finally the mind itself, perhaps transcend even knowledge, till finally purusha is aware only of itself. This liberates the soul from the cycle of life and death.

In comparison, what possibility of liberation does Foucault offer? Although Foucauldian critique can offer a theory of subject formation, what comes next for Foucauldian scholars? Critique carries the danger of becoming a mode of subject formation itself, its own will to knowledge, thus producing its own relations of power and subsequently no doubt its own materiality. I am struck by critique’s current obsession with affect. Although uncovering affect is no doubt a worthwhile exercise: what next? Samkhya posits that all activity in the material world produces samskara – affect, if you will – that the purusha carries with it from one life to the next. Samkhya’s goal is to unburden oneself from the accumulated baggage of living: to understand affect but then to let it go: a set of precise, material conditions that can, through repetition, end the accumulation of experience. How might critique take us further on this path?

I ask not only as a critique of critique but because critical theory is now an important method for the post-colonial to understand itself. From Spivak onwards, there hardly seems to be a corner of the post-colonial academy thinks outside of critique, and Foucauldian critique in particular.

But what are the consequences of adopting this mode of analysis as the mode of analyzing the colonial project and seeking to understand the post-colonial world? A method steeped in a Eurocentric critique of Western philosophy, and considering Indic philosophy as a mere prop? Is it possible to ‘decolonize the imagination’, as Pieterse and Parekh put it, when entry point to the colonial imaginery is firmly grounded within Western philosophy?

The irony of this essay – a text about Indic philosophy, but essentially a debate between white men who may or may not identify that they are writing about Indic texts, set up against other white men interpreting Indic texts – is not lost on me. For Nietzsche, Samkhya – along with camels, fakirs, Pharisees – is an empty signifier to be deployed in his critique of Christianity, Western philosophy, and western forms of knowledge. Foucault for his part sometimes hints towards, and sometimes critiques Indic philosophy, but does not, in this text, transcend initial questions of subject-formation to ask: what next? What after the material world?

Aside from its consequences within the academy, Foucauldian critique also influences how we understand the truth claims of mystic experience itself. As we have seen, Western philosophical thought has rejected an unmediated relationship between the knower and the known.[99] “Common, epistemologically, to these historical, political, economic, sociological and psychological identifications of mediations has been a critique of the traditional model and the insistence on the ineliminability of mediation…the classical claims concerning direct knowledge – associated with the traditional models in philosophy and mysticism – have been sharply criticized as epistemologically naïve.”[100] Prior epistemological assumptions from within the Western philosophical traditions lead us to reject claims of the existence of pure consciousness from within mystical traditions.

What might a Samkhyayoga scholarly project look like? At the outset, it has a political purpose: to reduce the suffering that is yet to come (“heyam dukham anagatam”), but it would also continuously disengage from the fruits of its labours. For the philosopher, Samkhyayoga means awareness that we become the object of our scholarly meditations. But equally, this can lead to scholarly reflection that seeks to move beyond words, beyond speech, and the consequent weight of repetition, towards insight that flows from the body. Perhaps we leave the problem of postcoloniality alone, perhaps move beyond it, and instead to see exactly where we are at this current starting point: atha (this, now, here – the first, auspicious, word of the Yoga Sutras).


[1] For an overview of the six darshanas, see Chandradhar Sharma, A Critical Survey of Indian Philosophy (1960); for a detailed treatment of the historical development of Samkhya and discussion of various commentators, 4 Gerald James Larson & Ram Shankar Bhattacharya, Samkhya: A Dualist Tradition in Indian Philosophy in Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies (1987).

[2] Also referred to as drshtu, the seer.

[3] Gerald James Larson, Classical Sāṃkhya: An Interpretation of its History and Meaning 112 (1979).

[4] Id. at 179.

[5] Compared to the materialism of Samkhya and Yoga, Vedanta proposes a theistic non-dualism where the atman (individual soul) joins Brahman (the highest being). The world is non-existent but nevertheless is not the ultimate reality. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, A Sourcebook on Indian Philosophy 508-509 (1957).

[6] Larson, supra note 3, at 8.

[7] Id. at 11.

[8] Id. at 168.

[9] Id. at 169.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 175.

[12] Id. at 9.

[13] Id. at 124.

[14] Id. at 192.

[15] Id. at 198.

[16] Id. at 204, quoting Karika LXIV.

[17] Id. at 205.

[18] Id..

[19] Id. at 177.

[20] While early texts Samkhya and Yoga are not differentiated and are referred to as “samkhyayoga”, in later texts like the Mahabharata they are distinguished. In particular, Samkhya is characterized as atheistic and Yoga as theistic. Id. at 99, 122.

[21] Katha Upanishad VI. 10-11, cited in Larson, Id. at 99. “When the five organs of perceptional knowledge together wtih the thought-organ are brought to stability, and the intellect does not stir, that they call the highest goal.”

[22] For an account of how yoga came to be associated with physical practice in the 20th century, see Mark Singleton, The Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010).

[23] Edwin S. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition, Translation, And Commentary (With Insights From The Traditional Commentators) 10 (2009) (YS 1:2).

[24] Bryant, supra note 23 at 22 (YS 1:3).

[25] Id. at 24 (YS 1:4).

[26] Id. at 60 (1:17).

[27] Id. at 156 (YS 1:46).

[28]Id. at 142 (YS 1:41).

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 144 (YS 1:42).

[31] Id. at 145 (YS 1:42).

[32] Id. at 147 (YS 1:43).

[33] Id. at 148.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Id. at 157 (YS 1:47).

[37] Id. at 158 (YS 1:48).

[38] Id. at 162 (YS 1:50).

[39] Id. at 70 (YS 1:18).

[40] Id. at 71.

[41] Id. at 164 (YS 1:51).

[42] Elizabeth de Michelis, A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism (2005).

[43] Stephanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (2010).

[44] See for example, Nicholas A. Germana, The Orient of Europe: The Mythical Image of India and Competing Images of German National Identity (2009).

[45] Wilhelm Halbfass, India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding 126 (1988).

[46] Id. at 126. Koenraad Elst has examined Nietzsche’s reliance upon the Manu Smriti, a Hindu social code identified by British colonialists as a textual source of law, to argue that Nietzsche’s anti-semitic views were influenced by his (incorrect) reading of the text. Koenraad Elst, Manu as a Weapon against Egalitarianism: Nietzsche and Hindu Political Philosophy, in Nietzsche, Power and Politics: Rethinking Nietzsche’s Legacy for Political Thought 543 (Herman Siemens & Vasti Roodt, eds., 2008).

[47] Halbfass, supra note 45 at 126, 127.

[48] Id. at 127, 128.

[49] Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (Carol Diethe trans., Keith Ansell-Pearson ed., 2006)”Whenever there have been philosophers (from India to England, to take the opposite poles of a talent for philosophy), there exists a genuine philosopher’s irritation and rancour against sensuality”; see also at 16 (“the yearning for a unio mystica with God is the Buddhist yearning for nothingness, Nirvana – and no more!”).

[50] Id. at 84.

[51] Id. at 80.

[52] Id. at 77.

[53] “The ascetic treats life as a wrong path that he has to walk along backwards till he reaches the point where he starts’ or, like a mistake which can only be set right be action…” Id. at 85.

[54] Id. at 92.

[55] Id. at 93-94.

[56] Id. at 96.

[57] Id. at 98.

[58] Id. at 98.

[59] Id. at 98.

[60] Id. at 98.

[61] Id. at 98.

[62] Id. at 98.

[63] Id. at 99.

[64] Id. at 120.

[65] Id. at 74.

[66] Id. at 75.

[67] Id. at 76.

[68] Id. at 76.

[69] Id. at 84.

[70] Id. at 77.

[71] Id. at 85.

[72] Michel Hulin, Graham Parkes trans., Nietzsche and the Suffering of the Indian Ascetic in Nietzsche and Asian Thought 64 (Graham Parkes ed., 1991).

[73] Nietzsche, supra note 49 at 87.

[74] Uta Liebmann Schaub, Foucault’s Oriental Subtext 104(3) Publications of the Modern Language Associations of America, May 1989, at 306, 306-307.

[75] Id. at 307.

[76] Id. at 308.

[77] Id.

[78] Id.

[79] Id. at 309.

[80] Id. at 311.

[81] Id. at 313-314.

[82] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 203.

[83] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 203.

[84] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 203.

[85] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 203.

[86] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 203.

[87] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 204.

[88] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 205.

[89] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 206.

[90] Lecture on Nietzsche, at 206.

[91] Michel Foucault, Lecture on Nietzsche: How to think the history of truth with Nietzsche without relying on truth in Lectures on the Will to Know: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1970-71 with Oedipal Knowledge 206 (Graham Burchill trans., Daniel Defert ed.).

[92] Id. at 209.

[93] Id. at 210.

[94] Id. at 211.

[95] Id. at 211.

[96] Id. at 212.

[97] Id.

[98] Adrian Konik, Reconsidering Foucault’s Dialogue with Buddhism, 35(1) South African Journal of Philosophy (2016) at 37, 40.

[99] Donald Rothberg, Contemporary Epistemology and the Study of Mysticism in The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and Philosophy 173 (Robert KC Forman ed., 1990).

[100] Id. at 173.

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