The Four Ethers of Sāńkhya Philosophy

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Introduction and Overview

Sāńkhya describes four ethers—vaikhari, madhyama, pasyanti, and para—which are successively deeper descriptions of reality. The understanding of the successive ethers depends on the understanding of the previous ether. In that sense, there are four tiers of causality and each such tier must be fully understood to obtain a complete understanding of material nature. This article attempts to describe these four ethers and their differences. I will begin with the problems of causality in the grossest ether called vaikhari which comprises material objects and use it to develop an understanding of the higher ethers.

The Example of Heat Flow

Let’s start with a simple causal interaction involving a heat transfer. Suppose your hand touches a hot object—e.g. a frying pan. Your skin feels a burn because the pan is hot and your hand is, relatively speaking, cold. In classical physics, we explain this interaction as a one-way flow of heat: the pan is hot, and the hand is cold, so “heat” is flowing from the pan to the hand.

This is, however, not the only way to explain the interaction. For example, we can also say that “cold” is moving from the hand to the pan (because your hand is cold). And yet, classical physics employed the idea that it is not “cold” moving from hand to the pan but rather “heat” moving from the pan to the hand. Note how both explanations are equivalent and you could use either one. So it is only a matter of choice which explanation we use, and all other things should remain unchanged.

One-Way vs. Two-Way Causality

There is, however, another important reason why under classical physics you would suppose that only one of those transactions (either heat from pan to hand, or cold from hand to pan) actually occurs. The reason is that science employs a one-way model of causality in which the cause of an event only lies in the past, and the future is not causally efficacious. If therefore, we say that both cold and heat are moving in opposite directions, then we will violate that assumption because one cause (e.g. heat) is moving from past to present, while another cause (e.g. cold) is moving from the future to the present.

This problem arises because the transaction of heat transfer takes a finite amount of time. If heat has been emitted from the frying pan, then it needs some time to reach my hand. How does my hand “know” that the heat has been emitted from the pan so that it can start emitting the cold towards the pan? The hand will have to have some kind of “foreknowledge” of such emission for the two transactions to occur in parallel. That foreknowledge creates new problems of causality in science.

Science has been averse to a two-way causal model because it seems to imply that we must know the future before we can describe the present, and this clearly seems impossible. How can we know the future when the future hasn’t yet occurred? Many religious philosophies have been averse to this model too because it implies that we have a fixed destiny in the future.

And yet, the model is essential to explain goal-oriented behavior because those goals lie in the future. We aim to reach a state, which is in the future. In a sense, we are being “pulled” by that future state—which we might call a “goal” or a “destiny”—rather than just pushed by the past. The push from the past is not denied, but the pull from the future is also hard to deny.

Two-Way Causality and Free Will

If we deny the pull from the future, then we don’t have free will because we cannot change our goals or destiny. Under this denial, we are completely determined by the past, and whatever happens in the future must be a product of the past. So you cannot change your future because you cannot change the past. To allow free will, we must allow the future to pull just as the past is pushing. The present is a combination of the pull from the future and the push from the past. The combination of push and pull creates a more complex model of causality because we don’t know which of these two will take precedence. But that problem only arises if we believe that the past completely determines the present. If the past only restricts the freedom in the present but does not determine everything that will happen, then the problem doesn’t exist because we can exercise a choice from among the limited alternatives available at present.

Classical physics followed a deterministic model of causality in which the present is completely determined by the past. When atomic theory faces difficulties in determinism we anguish over the incompleteness because we are only thinking about the causes in the past. This incompleteness can be overcome by causes—i.e. pulls—from the future. This pull from the future can include two things: (1) our free choices, and (2) a material “destiny”. We will see later how these two types of pulls have to be reconciled in order to obtain predictive completeness.

Complementary Kinds of Motion

The key point is that if we believe that while touching a hot pan the heat flows from the pan to the hand, then we already know that this model of causality is incomplete. We know that the past restricts the possibilities in the present but does not completely decide the alternatives. To an extent, these alternatives will be decided by a material “destiny” and also by free choices.

This model of causality can be understood better if we say that both heat and cold are flowing, although in opposite directions. The heat is flowing from the hot pan to my hand, and the cold is flowing from my hand to the pan. This is indeed how causality is sometimes described in modern science.

For example, when electricity flows in a wire, the standard explanation is that electrons are flowing from the socket in the wall to the device connected to the socket. There is, however, also an alternative explanation in which an “electron-hole” moves in the opposite direction. For an electron to move, the electron must be “excited” from its current state into a new state, and that leaves a “hole” behind. It is as if I got up from the bed and sat in a chair, and I have left behind a “hole” on the bed.

We can thus ascribe electricity to the electron’s motion from left to right, or to the “electron-hole” movement from right to left. The electron is a negatively charged particle and the hole is a positively charged particle. Just as heat can move from left to right, or cold can move from right to left, the electron too can move from A to B or the “electron-hole” can move from B to A.

The Meaning of Opposite Motions

If you borrow money from a bank, the money moves from the bank to you, but in exchange, the credit moves from you to the bank. Effectively, I am giving a credit to the bank so that the bank can charge me in the future. The money and the credit are opposites of each other, and the credit will be canceled when I return the money back to the bank. This is an effective model to understand causality because it links together two transactions—one that occurs now, and another that occurs in the future.

The current transaction is that you are borrowing money, and the future transaction is that you are returning the money. You return the money because it was borrowed, and the cause of the return lies in the past. When you borrow, you are already headed towards a destiny in which you will return the money. The return in the future is caused by borrowing in the past, and we cannot explain the return just by saying that I gave the money because I had it with me. I must also say that I returned the money because I had it and because I had borrowed it earlier.

If we rely on the fact that some people have money, we cannot explain why some of these people will give the money to a bank and never expect a return, others will give the money and expect a return, while still others will have the money and never give it to the bank. The existence of a physical property—e.g. money in my hands—therefore doesn’t explain the behaviors: e.g. whether I will keep the money, give it to the bank and take it back, give it and not take it back, or give it to someone else. In that sense, the existence of money in my hand—when treated as a physical property—can not explain the outcome, and this becomes the fundamental reason for incompleteness in science.

Your act of depositing money in a bank can be credit or debit. Whether this action has an effect in the future (when it is a credit) or is an effect of something in the past (when it is a debit) can only be known if we correlate the events far into the past or the future. We cannot explain unless we make these correlations, and we cannot correlate if we only rely on the present state.

The Need for Two-Way Causality in Science

In atomic theory, causal interactions occur by the exchange of particles—e.g. electrons or photons. One atom emits an electron or photon, while another atom absorbs it. The problem in atomic theory is that we cannot predict when such an exchange will occur, and which atoms will be involved in this exchange. Therefore, we can explain how a change occurred by attributing it to an electron or photon transfer, after the fact, but we cannot explain why it occurred in the first place, at just that time, or why a certain pair of atoms were involved in that exchange. This problem is manifest in the famous 2-slit experiment when an electron or photon arrives at a detector. The problem is that quantum theory can provide a probability of an electron detection but it cannot predict which electron will arrive when.

Richard Feynman and John Wheeler provided an interesting alternative way to think about this problem in their Absorber Theory which was later used by John Cramer to describe a Transactional Interpretation of quantum theory. The basic idea is that causality is not just from the emitter to the absorber. Rather, there is also a cause flowing from the absorber to the emitter. While classical models of causality insist on a cause existing in the past, the Absorber Theory and the Transactional Interpretations make it possible to think of the cause as also something in the future that moves to the present.

In effect, you can now think of a quantum interaction similar to the action of a person who is depositing money in a bank because he or she had taken a prior loan from the bank. The money you borrowed needs to be returned, and you can return it only if you have the money. However, simply because you have the money doesn’t mean you are going to give it away to the bank. The fact that you are giving them money is thus subject to two conditions: (1) you have the money, and (2) you owe it to the bank.

The fact that you have the money is the cause of the emission. But the fact that you owe the money to the bank is the cause of the absorption. These two causes must ‘entangle’ for the transaction to occur, and therefore you cannot explain the outcome simply based on one of them. You may have the money but not give it to anyone, because you don’t owe them. You may also owe the money, but you may not have it with you. The transaction can occur when you have the money, and you owe it.

Of course, you may have the money and owe it, but you may not want to give it back. Similarly, you may have the money and owe it, but the due date for the return may not have arrived. Also, you may owe the money, and yet not have the ability at present to pay it back. In that sense, the two-way causal model advances the notion of causality but is not a complete solution in itself, and this is the reason why the Absorber Theory and the Transactional Interpretations are still incomplete.

Two-Way Causality in Sāńkhya

We are now ready to discuss the causal model in Sāńkhya, which involves three distinct agents: guna, karma, and kāla, and it will soon become evident why these three are needed.

Karma indicates your debt to the world or things that you owe to others. Karma also indicates the debt that others owe to you, due to which you have the right to acquire material goods. In short, karma indicates our entitlements—or what we are entitled to receive and what we are entitled to give. We are not pure lenders or pure borrowers. Rather, we give to others and we take from others. What we can give to others and what we can take from others is karma. Two instances of this karma must be involved in any transaction—one that is the entitlement to give, and another that is the entitlement to receive. And these two instances of karma must act in opposite directions to each other.

All these entitlements have a due date or the time when the transaction must occur, and this time is called kāla, which is the agency that entangles the giver and the taker. The transaction cannot occur unless the two entities are entangled, just as I cannot return the money to the bank in the dead of the night. I must return the money only during the day—i.e. at a suitable time. I am also not entitled to return the money before the due date, although I continue to owe the money to the bank.

Sometimes, of course, it can happen that I have the money, I owe the money, and the time for the return has arrived, but I just don’t want to return the money. I may want to cheat the bank, or I might have other priorities which I consider more important than returning the money to the bank. My choice also, therefore, plays an important role in whether I want to return the money, but this choice is not entirely free. Our choices are governed by past habits. For instance, I may have the habit of borrowing and not returning, a habit of making promises with no intent to keep them, or other habits which require money so desperately that I am not inclined to return it. These habits are called guna.

The Hierarchy of Causes

The involvement of multiple causes often creates confusion in understanding this causality but significant headway can be made by realizing that these causes are structured in a hierarchy. They are therefore not competing with each other for priority (and we don’t have to wonder which one is more important) because the priority is already predetermined by the hierarchy.

At the top of this hierarchy is kāla or time, which decides when something will happen but not who will do it. Kāla is comprised of events and it only indicates which events will occur but not where they will occur. This causal model is like a script of a play in which the dialogues are defined but the characters who will utter the dialogues are not defined. For instance, kāla can stipulate that a money exchange will occur, but it does not stipulate the givers and takers. The money exchange may occur in different parts of the world, and between different givers and takers, but time doesn’t determine that. It only determines what will happen but not who will do it.

Under the control of kāla is guna or our choices governed by our past habits. For instance, once the dialogues in a play have been defined, we must select some characters who will utter those dialogues. The existence of events itself does not create a play because while being able to predict the order of events, we cannot connect them into trajectories. The meaning or the moral of the play is decided by this succession of events involving a specific character. When something is about to happen, we can choose whether or not to participate in that event. Based on our past habits and inclinations, we can choose to participate in an event or ignore it. Of course, there can be other competing actors who wish to participate too, so simply the desire to participate doesn’t enact the events. Subsequent steps are needed to complete the decision.

The next in line after guna is karma which decides our entitlements or what we deserve. If we are not deserving, we would be rejected from this participation. There can be people who wish to participate but they are not deserving, and only the most capable would be permitted. This entitlement is called karma. A money exchange may be occurring, you may want to give or take money, but do you have the right to participate? The answer to that is karma—which we often call “luck” and which can restrict our possibilities.

An everyday example can help us understand this hierarchy. At the start of an academic year, everyone knows that some students will be enrolled in a college, although we don’t know the specific individuals. This knowledge represents the events created by time—i.e. what will happen, not who will do it. A number of students apply to the college based on their desire to be educated. This desire represents the guna that impels the soul towards an action. The desire to attend the college, however, is not sufficient; one must also be qualified to join the college. A selection process follows and many of the students are eliminated because they are not capable or qualified. The selection by qualification represents karma which eliminates many participants from participation.

Three Kinds of Bodies

Based on the multiple tiers of causality involved, the soul is said to have three kinds of bodies—sthūla (gross), sūkshma (subtle), and kārana (causal). The kārana-sarira or the causal body comprises guna or latent habits and karma or entitlements created over many lifetimes.

Manifested from this kārana-sarira is another body called sūkshma-sarira or subtle body which comprises the senses, the mind, the intelligence, the ego, and the mahattattva.

Beyond the sūkshma-sarira is the sthūla-sarira or the gross body (which we normally call the “body”). This gross body can be perceived by the senses (ear, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose) while the subtle body can be perceived by the mind (thoughts), intellect (beliefs), ego (intentions) and mahattattva (morals).

The Four Levels of Ethers in Sāńkhya Philosophy

Sāńkhya describes the three causal agents—kāla, karma, and guna—as we have seen above, aside from soul and God. Sāńkhya also describes three kinds of bodies—sthūla-sarira, sūkshma-sarira, and kārana-sarira—as seen above. Sāńkhya also describes four ethers called vaikhari, madhyama, pasyanti, and para. Let us now try to understand how all these descriptions fit together and are different ways of describing the same reality.

The topmost ether called para comprises of soul and God. The soul is part of God’s body, and therefore God is the “space” called para in which the soul is “located” as an object. This space is therefore the location of the soul in the material world. The soul is actually not in contact with matter directly because the soul’s position is within God’s body. However, this position itself constitutes the position of material life. The lower three “ethers” of Sāńkhya are used to refer to the three kinds of bodies and their evolution in time. The bodies are produced from guna and their evolution is caused by kāla. Therefore, there are three levels of bodies and three kinds of time. The highest of the three ethers—called pasyanti—is described as the kārana-sarira (causal body). The next higher ether—madhyama—is described as the sūkshma-sarira (mind, intelligence, ego, and morality). Finally, the space called vaikhari is described as sthūla-sarira.

Three of the above entities, namely, God, soul, and time are eternal. Even matter exists as possibilities forever and is therefore eternal. Karma, however, is not eternal, and it manifests as the trajectory of the soul in the material space. This trajectory is produced in two ways. First, time creates events. Second, the event breaks into two parts—i.e. as two sides of the event as seen above in the two-way models of causality. The evolution of time is fixed, which means the events are fixed. Accordingly, the pairwise occurrence of events is also fixed. In that sense, we can say that what will happen is fixed but who will do it is not. Interactions between these objects are described in a “field of activities” comprised of karma. Ultimately, time is fully in control of the universe because it controls what will happen. However, the soul also has its free will expressed through the guna or the three types of material bodies.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Four Ethers of Sāńkhya Philosophy," in Shabda Journal, January 31, 2017,