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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Major Upanishads - 8

Praśna Upanishad is from the Atharva Veda. The Sanskrit word Praśna means “question”. The name itself says that this Upanishads is based on questions, six questions to be exact. Six students approach sage Pippalāda and request him to be their guru. He asks them to live with him for one year with discipline (tapas), self-control (brahmacharya) and faith (śraddha) before he starts his lessons. They do, of course. 
The most important lesson for me in this Upanishad is from a passage where sage Pippalada says “yadi vijn͂yāsyaamah vakṣyaamah”, which means “I will share with you what I know”. What humility!  

            The first question is about the origin of everything we see in this universe including life. (“From what, are all these things born?”) Pippalāda says that the Prajāpati (the Lord of creatures) desired progeny and so he “created” a couple! They were prāna (life energy, breathing) and rayi (food). 

It is interesting that prāna also stands for the Sun (therefore the day), Fire, Energy and the eater (therefore Self and Ātman). In gross form it is called Prajāpati and in the subtle form it is Vaiśvānara. Rayi stands for food (the eaten), the moon (therefore, night) and matter. Then it goes on to say that since the sun and the moon are responsible for the cycles of day, they are also called samvatsara (year) and kāla (time).  The metaphor of a chariot as representing Time is seen here also (other places are Gita and Kathopanishad). There are seven horses, as in seven days of the week. The wheels (six for the six seasons as per Indian system) are for the movement of time. The spokes of the wheel are for the twelve months. 

            The second question is “How many deities are there? Who is the first among them?” The answer is “the deities who energize the five elements and the five organs” are the deities. Prāna is the first among them. “It is prāna which burns as the sun, rains as the cloud (Indra) and the source of what all we eat. He is the eater and the eaten. Everything is fixed on Prāna, just like the spokes of a wheel”.  

            The third question is: “How is this prāna born (which implies the many, and therefore how does the one become many), how does the prāna leave and how does it sustain everything?” The words Brahman, Ātman, Prāna and Puruṣa are used interchangeably – rather the same word Prāna is used to stand for all these concepts.  

            Śloka 3:5 lists prāna (out breath ), apāna (in breath ) and samāna (assimilation) as the basis of our lives. This implies “breath” because it says that prāna makes it possible for us to see, hear and smell. The “heart” is imagined to be the location of the breath, from which the absorbed energy spreads throughout the body, through special channels (threads) called nādi. (Please note that Ramana Maharishi says that this metaphorical “heart” is not the same as what we know to be the “heart”) Prāna is distributed throughout the body by 72,000 nādi’s. This spreading is called vyāna. One of these nādi’s travel upwards and it is called udāna. I am sure you recognize these five words when you listen to priests chanting during offering of food in puja.  

When applied to the external universe, prāna is the sun and apāna is the earth. Udāna is energy, luminosity (tejas) and vyāna is space and the air we breath.  

 The fourth question is: “Which one of these aspects of prāna experiences sleep, dream and the state of wakefulness? Which one of these experiences emotions, such as happiness? Which one is the basis and support of all these (mental) states?” 

 Pippalāda says that prāna is responsible for these functions of the mind. In one place prāna is said to be something that “strings” together the sense organs and mental functions. When the sense organs merge into the mind (as in sleep or dream) but the mind itself is not absorbed in its source (namely the Brahman), the Self (Ātman) falsely identifies itself with the various states of the mind. Once the ignorance is removed, the self-effulgent Brahman is naturally manifest.            

            The fifth question is “What is the benefit one gets by meditation on the symbol OM? Which one of the worlds does the meditator reach?” The answer is that OM is the symbol of the Supreme Brahman, superior to the knowledge of the immutable Puruṣa or the inferior Prāna, the first born. (Implication is that there is something beyond both, which can only be indicated by OM) 

            The sixth and the final question is: “Where does Puruṣa exist?” The answer is: “The entire world (universe) gets unified with that immutable (akṣara) Truth called Puruṣa, the all-pervading entity. It is Brahman”.  And what is more, that Puruṣa is right here and now in this body. He is the antarātmin. You have to know Him as an absolute entity (Brahman) by eliminating the parts which “condition” Brahman in our minds. Attention to those parts and conditions lead us to perception of duality.  

In addition to these six questions, there are several comments by Śankara which are interesting. He says that “experience is the nature of the soul or self” whereas “action belongs to the intellect”. He seems to differentiate the awareness of perception and feelings generated by the perception to one division of the mind (manas) and the emotions generated, discriminating function and the will to act to another portion (buddhi or intellect). Together they belong to ahankāra or individuation. 

He also points out that all different philosophies are possible only when duality is the premise. In Unity (advaitam, or no-two) there is no need for discussion. “Since the dualistic theories lead only to conflict, non-dualism alone is true”. To my thinking this is a questionable statement, even though I realize that I am contradicting the great Adi Śankara. I learnt recently (do not remember the exact source) that loyalty to our ancestors do not demand loyalty to all of their notions.