Alara Kamala – Buddha’s Teacher

Alara Kamala – Buddha’s Teacher

The Buddha was born to a King and Queen in ancient India and was raised in such a way as to shield him from the suffering of life.  At his birth, a seer predicted that he would either become a great king or a holy man so the King and Queen went to great lengths to ensure that he would become the King and continue the family dynasty.

Despite all of their efforts, Siddhartha managed to convince his charioteer to let him see the outside world. On these chariot rides, he saw an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a holy man (sramana).  These sights greatly disturbed him and he would reflect upon what he had seen.  Eventually this led him to leave his palace life as well as his wife and infant son Rahula in order to become a holy man.

In this article I will be exploring one of the philosophies and meditation practices that Siddhartha learned during his six years of studying various methods which were practiced by holy men of his day.  I think there is a lot that we can learn about philosophies that had an impact on Buddhism.

Alara Kalama


After Siddhartha left home to lead the life of a holy man, he could not find a teacher that could teach him the cause and the cessation of suffering.  Then he heard of a teacher named Alara Kalama, he travelled to Vesali, the capital of Vidaha kingdom to seek him out.

Alara Kalama was a teacher of an early version of the Samkhya school which itself dates back to the 500BC.  He taught a system similar to Yoga and taught meditation to many in Vesali including to the young Siddhartha.

The Samkhya attempted a synthesis of the teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads.  Samkhya is one of the six astika (orthodox) schools of Hindu philosophy.  It is most related to Yoga.

Samkhya evolved into a more cohesive philosophical system in the early centuries CE, but was founded by the sage named Kapila who predated the Buddha.

Samkhya Beliefs

Samkhya does not acknowledge a Creator or any act of creation (apart from the implied principle of continuous creation).  The existence of God or supreme being is not considered relevant in Samkhya (nor is it in Buddhism). This means that Samkhya is an atheistic philosophy (not to be confused with anti-theists who go out of their way to disprove the idea of God).

The word Samkhya means “to enumerate” is called so because it enumerates 25 Tattvas or “true principles” that make up all of existence.

Samkhya teaches a strongly dualistic philosophy with the universe consisting of two realities purusha (consciousness) and prakriti (matter).

Purusha = pure awareness and metaphysical consciousness; the Cosmic Self

Prakriti = the primal matter with three different innate qualities (Gunas) whose equilibrium is the basis of all observed empirical reality.  This is similar to the Hindu concept of maya, which teaches the illusory nature of the world.  The Gunas are broken down as follows:

  1. Rajas Guna (creation) – associated with concepts of energy, acitivity, ambition, and passion, so that depending on how it is used, it can either have a supportive or hindering effect on the evolution of the soul
  2. Sattva Guna (preservation) – People who are of a sattvic nature and whose activities are mainly based on sattva, will tend to seek answers regarding the origin and truth of material life. With proper support they are likely to reach liberation. Encompasses qualities of goodness, light, and harmony.
  3. Tamas Guna (destruction) – associated with inertia, darkness, insensitivity. Souls who are more tamasic are considered umbued in darkness and take the longest to reach liberation.

When the three gunas are in equilibrium, the universe remains unmanifested.  But when this equilibrium is disturbed and becomes unbalanced, the material world unfolds into manifestation.  All of the 23 tattvas (true principles) from Buddhi on down unfold out of Prakriti, while Purusha remains completely separate and unchanging.

1 Purusha (Transcendental Self/Universal Self)
2 Prakriti (primordial material)
3 Buddhi (intellect; discriminatory faculty)
4 Ahamkara (ego, consciousness of self)
5 Manas (mind)
6-10 The five sense-organs (hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, smelling)
11-15 The five motor-organs (speaking, holding, moving, procreating, eliminating)
16-20 The five subtle elements (sound, touch, form, taste odor)
21-25 The five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether)

This fusion between Purusha and Prakriti leads to the development of Buddhi (“intellect”) and Ahankara (ego consciousness) which leads to the emergence of the mind, the senses, and elements.

Kaivalya or LiberationAlara Kamala

The aim of the Samkhya school is to use meditation and yogic techniques to bring oneself to a realization of purusha, the principle of consciousness, as independent from mind and body.   The emphasis is on the attainment of knowledge vidya or jnana as necessary for salvific liberation, moksha.

According to the Yogattatva Upanishad (16-18), “Kaivalya is the very nature of the self, the supreme state.  It is without parts and is stainless.  It is the direct intuition of the Real-existence, intelligence, and bliss.  It is devoid of birth, existence, destruction, recognition, and experience. This is called knowledge (jnana).”

Alara Kalama specifically introduced Siddhartha to a state of mind called the “sphere of nothingness” (Pali akincannayatana) which he equated to the idea of Kaivalya.

The teachings of Samkhya are also as a means to remove avidya, that is, ignorance or misleading/incorrect knowledge about oneself and the universe which causes suffering.

The cause of this suffering is associated with a failure to discriminate between Purusha and Prakriti. The Samkhya approach to liberation involves examining how perception operates, in order to reverse the world-generating process and allow Pure Consciousness to be released from its bonds.


It remains that Samkhya was one of the first philosophies that he was drawn to as a young ascetic.  It’s interesting that he was drawn to the atheistic interpretation of the Hindu Upanishads, which indicates that he was questioning the notion of a Creator God early in his life.

Although Alara Kalama believed that he had reached liberation (kaivalya or moksha), still Siddhartha found that he was no nearer to attaining his goal of putting an end to suffering.  It is said that Siddhartha was able to recite the Samkhya teachings perfectly and became proficient with them very quickly.  So eventually Siddhartha was considered to be the successor to Alara Kalama who asked him lead his students.  But the Buddha did not accept the invitation to teach and left him seeking a new teacher.

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2 Responses to Alara Kamala – Buddha’s Teacher

  1. Margaret says:

    I am often struck by the similarities between the teachings of Christ and the philosophies of Buddha. Would you agree? To me Buddhism is a peaceful caring philosophy and if we all followed his teachings it would be a beautiful world to live in. The same things could be said about the teachings of Christ. I think the problem with all religious philosophies is that most people are selective and choose to obey only some of the teachings. Do you think this will ever change? I have enjoyed reading your post and learning about the history and evolution of Buddha.

    • Ian H says:

      Hi Margaret,
      Yes, the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha are similar in many ways. I think both use different language and contexts to point to the same truths especially when it comes to morality.

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