Nature is Pregnant with Possibility – The Doctrine of Satkāryavāda

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I’m currently translating the original text of Sāñkhya Sūtras composed by Sage Kapila, and it discusses the doctrine of Satkāryavāda, and its distinctions with other philosophies. This discussion is important for those interested in understanding Sāñkhya. While the full translation and commentary on the text will take some more time, I thought it might be useful to reproduce some of it here.

Topic 40

सत्कार्यवाद निरूपणं

satkāryavāda nirūpaṇaṃ

The Description of Satkāryavāda


Sutra 1.111

वादिविप्रतिपत्तेः तदसिद्धिरिति चेत्

vādivipratipatteḥ tadasiddhiriti cet

vādi—the wise; eva—in this way; pratipatteḥ—describe; tat—of that (prakriti); siddhiriti—the doctrine; cet—know.



The wise describe the doctrine of that (prakriti) in this way; know that.



The term ‘sat’ means eternal, and ‘kārya’ means effect. So, the doctrine of Satkāryavāda states that the effect eternally exists within the cause (prakriti) and is manifest from it. Thus, everything that is visible in nature originally existed within the cause (prakriti). Alternately, nothing new is ever created, although it is manifest or unmanifest. For example, if we see a new building that wasn’t previously visible, it is not something that did not previously exist. Rather, it exists eternally as a possibility within prakriti, and is manifest from it. The observed changes are thus the conversion of a possibility into reality.


Sutra 1.112

तथाप्येकतरदृष्ट्या एकतरसिद्धेः नापलापः

tathāpyekataradṛṣṭyā ekatarasiddheḥ nāpalāpaḥ


tathā—thus; api—also; ekataradṛṣṭyā—one-sided vision; ekatarasiddheḥ—one-sided attainment; na—not; apalāpaḥ—denial or rejection.



Thus, with one-sided vision also one-sided attainment; this is not a denial or rejection (of the other side).



The doctrine of Satkāryavāda holds that the effect is immanent in the cause and emerges from it. This means that the cause is sufficient to produce the effect. This is a one-sided view of causality because to determine a cause, we must have both sufficiency and necessity. To say that X is a sufficient cause of Y, we can say that Y exists within X. But that doesn’t mean that Y doesn’t also exist in some other Z, which could also be a cause of Y. Thus, Satkāryavāda establishes the sufficiency of the cause, but not the necessity of the cause. To get necessity, we must have the reverse directional causality—i.e., from the effect to the cause, to say that no other cause could be the cause of this effect. That would establish the necessity in addition to sufficiency. The claim here is that we are only trying to establish the one-sided condition of causal sufficiency.

We can illustrate this problem by an example. Suppose that a child is born from a mother’s womb. The condition of sufficiency would say that the mother is fully capable or sufficient to produce the child. But it is not necessary that the child be born from a specific mother. We could speculate: “Maybe the birth of this child from this specific mother is an accident. Maybe the same child could have been born from another mother”. This speculation entails the idea that there are other potential causes that could have equally well produced the effect. For instance, we could say that the world could alternatively be produced by something other than prakriti. This sutra states that we are not trying to refute the idea that there could be alternative causes of the world—i.e., that prakriti is necessary for the world. We are just trying to establish sufficiency.


Sutra 1.113




trividha—three-fold; virodhāpatteśca—also the counterarguments.



Also, there are three-fold counterarguments (against Satkāryavāda).



These counterarguments are discussed and refuted in the next topic. While a three-fold counterargument is noted here, actually five such viewpoints are noted in the next topic. The first two of these arguments fall into a ridiculous category, which is completely false. The next three arguments are plausible but not accepted by Satkāryavāda. The three-fold positions against Satkāryavāda refer to the last three positions. The ridiculous arguments are that something comes out of nothing automagically, or that something comes out of nothing based upon some rules (e.g., the laws of modern science). The plausible arguments are— (1) matter is an energy that can take any form, (2) a desire converts energy into a form, and (3) the combination of the capable (person) and the capacity (matter) creates an effect. They are all contrary to the Satkāryavāda doctrine in which the effect eternally preexists in the cause and is manifest from it. The prakriti in Sāñkhya philosophy is the feminine energy of the Lord. She is fully capable of producing everything, but She produces it based on God’s will. The prakriti is not inert, or unconscious; She rather has a subordinate will.

Thus, something doesn’t come out of nothing, because it preexists in prakriti. There is no rule which is constantly being applied to produce something new because things are working by Sakti’s will. Likewise, everything is not possible always; rather matter grows through many stages of manifestation. A desire converts energy into a form, but it is not merely desire; there is an objective capacity that exists eternally in prakriti. Finally, there is a combination of a capable person (God) and the capacity (God’s Sakti), but that combination is the Sakti doing something based upon God’s will. It is not a sexual union without which the creation would be impossible (e.g., a man or woman alone cannot create a child, and a sexual union is needed; but such is not the case for prakriti since the prakriti is fully capable of creating, but She creates by God’s will). We arrive at this nuanced view by considering all that is against Satkāryavāda.


Topic 41



The Abrogation of Asatkāryavāda


Sutra 1.114

नासदुत्पादो नृशृङ्गवत्

nāsadutpādo nṛśṛṅgavat


na—not; sat—that which is eternal; utpādo—being produced; nṛśṛṅgavat—just like a man’s horn (i.e., that which is ridiculously impossible).



That which is not eternal (i.e., temporary) being produced just as a man’s horn (i.e., that which is ridiculously impossible comes into existence).



The creation of that which did not previously exist is here compared to a man’s horn. Generally, animals have horns, but men do not. So, this sutra sarcastically criticizes this doctrine of something being created without a previous existence or possibility as a man suddenly growing a horn. When animals that can have a horn are born, the horn doesn’t exist. The horn subsequently grows in the animal. At birth, the horn exists in a state of potentiality but manifests subsequently. This potentiality doesn’t exist in the men, so they don’t grow horns. Thus, the doctrine of something being created out of nothing is rejected; if something is visible, there must be a preexisting potentiality that may be invisible, but it exists eternally as a potential, which is subsequently manifest.


Sutra 1.115




upādāna—that which is produced; niyamāt—due to a rule.



That which is produced (from the cause) due to a rule.



Here is the example of a classical physical scientific causality is taken. In Newton’s theory of motion, for example, the next state of a particle is determined by the previous state, based on some rule—Newton’s gravitational law. The next state doesn’t preexist in the cause, but the rule produces the next state. The logical question is: Who computes the rule? In scientific theories, for example, there must be a computer or calculator which computes the effects of these rules on a continuous basis. A rule cannot be automatically implemented; even if we define the rule universally, it must still be continuously computed. But we don’t know of a universal computer that computes all such rules. So, how are these rules causing the emergence of the effects from the causes?


Sutra 1.116

सर्वत्र सर्वदा सर्वासम्भवात्

sarvatra sarvadā sarvāsambhavāt


sarvatra—everywhere; sarvadā—always; sarvāsambhavāt—everything is possible.



Everywhere, always, everything is possible.



When the rule-based causal explanation fails in science because the effect doesn’t seem to follow rules—e.g., the same cause can produce many effects, and the same effect can be produced by many causes—then, one might resort to the idea that everything is always possible everywhere. Modern scientists, for example, postulate that some reality randomly emerges out of a ‘quantum vacuum’. The ‘quantum vacuum’ is therefore just some energy, but the form taken by this energy is not fixed. The same energy can potentially take any form, and hence anything can be created from an energy vacuum anywhere, anytime, because those effects are simply the alternative forms of the latent energy.

Similarly, the theory of evolution in biology postulates that things come out of nature due to random mutations. According to evolutionary theory, a new species of life does not preexist as a possibility (as the doctrine of Satkāryavāda would say). Rather, without a rule, some new things are created due to random mutations, because every type of mutation is always possible, everywhere. Why the mutation occurs cannot be explained, which is why it is called ‘random’.

Satkāryavāda would counterargue that everything is not possible everywhere and all the time. Rather, certain things are possible, but when they become possible, they are easily and naturally manifest. For example, instead of saying that new species are created by random mutations, Satkāryavāda would state that the possibility for the species emerging becomes prominent in prakriti. When that possibility is not prominent, we cannot create it. Thus, for example, at the moment, dinosaurs cannot be created, even though they are possible. If all things were always possible, then dinosaurs could be created now. So, why did nature produce giant lizards in the past, and not presently?


Sutra 1.117

शक्तस्य शक्यकरणात्

śaktasya śakyakaraṇāt


śaktasya—the result of the capable or the powerful user; śakya—possibly; karaṇāt—the instrument.



Possibly the result of the capable use of the instrument (i.e., matter, by the powerful user).



Then there are those who attribute the manifestation of new things to some magical power that is so capable that it can produce anything from anything. This view is demarcated from the previous views, namely, something coming out of nothing, something happening due to a rule or law, and everything being possible everywhere. A good example of this doctrine is the ex-nihilo creation in Christianity in which God creates the world due to His infinite power. A similar type of doctrine is the Design Argument approach to explain the creation in which God’s power is used to design the universe. Along with the arguments about something coming out of nothing, something happening due to a rule or law, and everything being possible everywhere, this argument is also bundled with those that are against the Satkāryavāda view.

We can say that in Satkāryavāda the possibility preexists in nature itself. Therefore, a beautiful flower is not the result of the design of a designer. It is rather a property of matter itself. However, that property exists in prakriti eternally and is sometimes manifest. Thus, all inventions, theorems, scientific theories, technologies, etc. are preexisting in prakriti eternally. We are not the ‘creators’ or ‘inventors’ of these things; we are simply ‘discovering’ them.


Sutra 1.118




kāraṇabhāvācca—also the desire being the cause.



Also, the desire being the cause.



Finally, the fifth idea that is contrary to Satkāryavāda is noted here as the ability of our desire to produce something new. This is similar to everything is possible everywhere, with one limitation, namely that the effect is not produced due to randomness (as in the previous case), but due to our desire. This idea is employed in John von Neumann’s interpretation of quantum theory in which a ‘choice’ selects a possibility from the infinite sea of possibilities. The distinction is that the choice lies in the observer, and the possibility is matter. Thus, a soul-matter separation is necessary for this doctrine to be true.

We can illustrate the contrast to Satkāryavāda as follows. Suppose we say that that a knife is just a material instrument, and it can be used to either cut vegetables, or tighten a screw, or hurt somebody. All these differences in effects are simply the byproducts of our desire, and they don’t exist a priori in the knife itself. The Satkāryavāda doctrine would instead say that the knife internally holds all these possibilities eternally, and they are occasionally manifest. So, in the former case, the desire creates an effect from the knife, and in the latter case, the desire manifests a preexisting possibility from the knife. The Sāñkhya claim is that the possibility of being used to cut vegetables, to tighten a screw, to hurt somebody, and infinite other use cases, are objectively present in the knife. Our desire only ‘selects’ one of these possibilities, and doesn’t ‘create’ them.

But, at this juncture, the question arises: if our desire is manifesting something from prakriti, then our body must stop working when we go to sleep, because obviously at that time we are not making any choices. So, how can prakriti keep digesting food, the body can keep breathing, etc. even when we don’t make a choice? And the answer to that problem is that prakriti is itself capable of producing the possibility because there is an innate choice within prakriti. So, the prakriti is not inert material ‘stuff’. She is rather a conscious person.

Thus, without rejecting the matter-soul distinction, we must now say that there is a desire by which things are happening, but that desire in the soul is being fulfilled by the desire in the prakriti to allow the soul to enjoy the material world. Likewise, nature produces the world based on Her desire but directed by God’s desire. Hence, the power of God’s will need not be rejected, but that will power is not the only cause. Finally, everywhere, always, everything is possible is not rejected, but it is also subject to the will in God and His Sakti.