Next Article in Journal
Metamorphosis and the Shang State: Yi 異and the Yi ding[fang]
Next Article in Special Issue
Saints, Hagiographers, and Religious Experience: The Case of Tukaram and Mahipati
Previous Article in Journal
Benjamin’s Profane Uses of Theology: The Invisible Organon
Previous Article in Special Issue
Sacred Music and Hindu Religious Experience: From Ancient Roots to the Modern Classical Tradition
Article Menu
Issue 2 (February) cover image

Export Article

Open AccessArticle
Religions 2019, 10(2), 94;

Religious Experience without an Experiencer: The ‘Not I’ in Sāṃkhya and Yoga

Alaska Neuro/Therapy Center, 615 E 82nd Ave. #102, Anchorage, AK 99518, USA
Received: 2 January 2019 / Revised: 22 January 2019 / Accepted: 24 January 2019 / Published: 2 February 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Religious Experience in the Hindu Tradition)
Full-Text   |   PDF [289 KB, uploaded 3 February 2019]


“Experience” is a category that seems to have developed new meaning in European thought after the Enlightenment when personal inwardness took on the weight of an absent God. The inner self (including, a little later, a sub- or unconscious mind) rose to prominence about 200–300 years ago, around the time of the “Counter-Enlightenment” and Romanticism, and enjoyed a rich and long life in philosophy (including Lebensphilosophie) and religious studies, but began a steep descent under fire around 1970. The critique of “essentialism” (the claim that experience is self-validating and impervious to historical and scientific explanation or challenge) was probably the main point of attack, but there were others. The Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin, et al.) claimed that authentic experience was difficult or impossible in the modern capitalist era. The question of the reality of the individual self to which experience happens also threatened to undermine the concept. This paper argues that the religious experience characteristic of Sāṃkhya and Yoga, while in some ways paralleling Romanticism and Lebensphilosophies, differs from them in one essential way. Sāṃkhyan/Yogic experience is not something that happens to, or in, an individual person. It does not occur to or for oneself (in the usual sense) but rather puruṣārtha, “for the sake of [artha] an innermost consciousness/self”[puruṣa] which must be distinguished from the “solitude” of “individual men” (the recipient, for William James, of religious experience) which would be called ahaṃkāra, or “ego assertion” in the Indian perspectives. The distinction found in European Lebensphilosophie between two kinds of experience, Erlebnis (a present-focused lived moment) and Erfahrung (a constructed, time-binding thread of life, involving memory and often constituting a story) helps to understand what is happening in Sāṃkhya and Yoga. The concept closest to experience in Sāṃkhya/Yoga is named by the Sanskrit root dṛś-, “seeing,” which is a process actualized through long meditative practice and close philosophical reasoning. The Erfahrung “story” enacted in Sāṃkhya/Yoga practice is a sort of dance-drama in which psychomaterial Nature (prakṛti) reveals to her inner consciousness and possessor (puruṣa) that she “is not, has nothing of her own, and does not have the quality of being an ‘I’” (nāsmi na me nāham). This self exposure as “not I” apophatically reveals puruṣa, and lets him shine for them both, as pure consciousness. Prakṛti’s long quest for puruṣa, seeking him with the finest insight (jñāna), culminates in realization that she is not the seer in this process but the seen, and that her failure has been to assert aham (“I”) rather than realize nāham, “Not I.” Her meditation and insight have led to an experience which was always for an Other, though that was not recognized until the story’s end. Rather like McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” the nature or structure of experience in Sāṃkhya and Yoga is also its content, what religious experience is about in these philosophies and practices. In Western terms, we have religious experience only when we recognize what (all) experience (already) is: the unfolding story of puruṣārtha. Experience deepens the more we see that it is not ours; the recognition of non-I, in fact, is what makes genuine experience possible at all. View Full-Text
Keywords: religious experience; Erfahrung; Erlebnis; seeing; being seen; I; not I; Sāṃkhya; Yoga; puruṣa; prakṛti; puruṣārtha religious experience; Erfahrung; Erlebnis; seeing; being seen; I; not I; Sāṃkhya; Yoga; puruṣa; prakṛti; puruṣārtha
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited (CC BY 4.0).

Share & Cite This Article

MDPI and ACS Style

Collins, A. Religious Experience without an Experiencer: The ‘Not I’ in Sāṃkhya and Yoga. Religions 2019, 10, 94.

Show more citation formats Show less citations formats

Note that from the first issue of 2016, MDPI journals use article numbers instead of page numbers. See further details here.

Related Articles

Article Metrics

Article Access Statistics



[Return to top]
Religions EISSN 2077-1444 Published by MDPI AG, Basel, Switzerland RSS E-Mail Table of Contents Alert Logo copyright Steve Bridenbaugh/UUA
Back to Top