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Prana: Its History and Nature

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Section 49 of the Upanishads for Awakening

Conscious being

Mastery is the result of evolution. Prana, the universal life force, must be known about and mastered. So: “When it was the turn of Kousalya, he put this question: ‘Master, of what is Prana born; how does he enter the body; how does he live there after dividing himself; how does he go out; how does he experience what is outside; and how does he hold together the body, the senses, and the mind?’” (Prashna Upanishad 3:1).

All these questions are going to be answered subsequently, so the only important point is the referring to Prana as a conscious being–which it is because it is the life of Brahman and therefore is Brahman. The fact that everything is conscious is a clear teaching of the upanishads. Science considers itself extremely bold in cautiously approaching this concept and tentatively postulating it. Those in the West who bravely make the statement as evident fact are those whose thinking has–at least in its ancestry–been derived from the wisdom of India.

The worthy questioner

“To which the sage replied: Kousalya, you ask very difficult questions; but since you are a sincere seeker after the truth of Brahman, I must answer” (Prashna Upanishad 3:2). This I have seen for myself in India. The great saints just will not bother with the idly curious and the hopelessly shallow. But they will gladly speak with those who are seeking the knowledge of Reality. Once I made the mistake of taking a Western spiritual wanderer to meet Maitri Devi, a beloved saint in New Delhi. When he told her he wanted to ask a question she replied in Hindi: “I do not speak English.” When he asked if someone could translate his questions she again responded: “I do not speak English.” So I said to him quietly: “Tell me your question and I will ask it.” For quite some time he would softly tell me his questions and I would ask them–in English!–and she would readily answer through a translator. I appreciated her kindness to me, but I also decided to never again bother her with roamabouts. Other saints I met would do the same–some diplomatically, others not very tactfully.

We should learn from this and question ourselves as to why we seek and study: to eventually reach the knowledge of God, or just to cram more ideas in our head to show how wise we are? Yogananda often spoke of those who had spiritual indigestion from cramming useless philosophy into their minds.

But Kousalya is a worthy questioner, so the sage replies:

Prana in us

“Prana is born of the Self. Like a man and his shadow, the Self and Prana are inseparable. Prana enters the body at birth, that the desires of the mind, continuing from past lives, may be fulfilled” (Prashna Upanishad 3:3).

Just as the cosmos is an extension of the Consciousness that is Brahman, in the same way our individual prana is an extension of our Self (atman). It is inseparable from the Self because it is the Self. This is the authentic non-duality (advaita) of the upanishads, not a negation or denial of either Prakriti or Prana. Seeing them as separate from Spirit and therefore dual, not acknowledging their intimate reality, is the error.

Prana provides the continuity between our present and past lives. It is also the force that enables the continuation of our evolution from past lives and carries us through this present life and future ones as well. Prana truly is Life itself.

This verse also tells us that karma is a matter of the mind, and not some external force. Change the mind and you change the karma–or even dissolve it. It need never extend into our external existence. Working out karma is not a compelling necessity. We are never slaves to karma. We are its creators and its masters, at least potentially. But we have forgotten that fact and lost control of our karma. It must be regained if we would be free.

Its associates

“As a king employs officials to rule over different portions of his kingdom, so Prana associates with himself four other pranas, each a portion of himself and each assigned a separate function” (Prashna Upanishad 3:4). We usually speak of “five pranas,” but there is really only pure Prana and its four modalities. Their functions will be outlined, but first here is the definition of Prana found in our Brief Sanskrit Glossary:

Prana: Life; vital energy; life-breath; life-force; inhalation. In the human body the prana is divided into five forms: 1) Prana, the prana that moves upward; 2) Apana: The prana that moves downward, producing the excretory functions in general. 3) Vyana: The prana that holds prana and apana together and produces circulation in the body. 4) Samana: The prana the carries the grosser material of food to the apana and brings the subtler material to each limb; the general force of digestion. 4) Udana: The prana which brings up or carries down what has been drunk or eaten; the general force of assimilation.

If this is kept in mind the following will be more comprehensible and meaningful.

“The Prana himself dwells in eye, ear, mouth, and nose; the Apana, which is the second Prana, rules the organs of excretion and generation; the Samana, which is the third Prana, inhabits the navel and governs digestion and assimilation.

“The Self dwells in the lotus of the heart, whence radiate a hundred and one nerves [nadis]. From each of these proceed one hundred others, which are smaller, and from each of these, again, seventy-two thousand others, which are smaller still. In all these moves the Vyana, which is the fourth Prana.

“And then at the moment of death, through the nerve in the center of the spine, the Udana, which is the fifth Prana, leads the virtuous man upward to higher birth, the sinful man downward to lower birth, and the man who is both virtuous and sinful to rebirth in the world of men” (Prashna Upanishad 3:5-7).

This final verse is an interpretive translation saying more than is really there. Swami Nikhilananda translates it literally: “And then udana, ascending upward through one of them, conducts the departing soul to the virtuous world, for its virtuous deeds; to the sinful world, for its sinful deeds; and to the world of men, for both.” As you see, there is no mention of a “nerve in the center of the spine,” the sushumna. The nadi of ascending consciousness is spoken of at the end of the Katha Upanishad thusly: “Radiating from the lotus of the heart there are a hundred and one nerves. One of these ascends toward the thousand-petaled lotus in the brain. If, when a man comes to die, his vital force passes upward and out through this nerve, he attains immortality; but if his vital force passes out through another nerve, he goes to one or another plane of mortal existence and remains subject to birth and death” (Katha Upanishad 2:3:16). Here is what I wrote in comment on this verse:

“By ‘heart’ is meant the hub–located in the midst of the upper trunk of the body–of subtle passages known as nadis (here translated ‘nerves’) through which the life force (prana) circulates throughout the gross and subtle bodies, just as the blood circulates from the heart through the veins of the physical body. One hundred of these nadis direct the life force to the life processes of the bodies and are the forces of embodiment. One, unique, nadi, however, rises directly upward from the heart-hub into the head. (This nadi rises from the heart directly into the head–it is not the passage in the midst of the spine.) If at the time of death the departing spirit leaves through that channel, he gains immortality. But if his consciousness attaches itself to any of the hundred other nadis he will be impelled into the subtle worlds that lead inexorably back to incarnation in relativity.

“In every meditation we activate this channel, causing the life force to spontaneously and effortlessly, flow upward into the thousand-petalled lotus in the head toward the divine radiance that shines above and upon the upper levels of the brain-lotus. That Divine Light is the essence of Om, the Life-Giving Word, the Pranava. Then at the end of life, having prepared himself by this practice, sitting in meditation the yogi ascends upward from the body into the realm of immortality.”

Cosmic prana

Since each of us is a reflection of the universe, there is a cosmic pranic arrangement also, so the sage continues:

“The sun is the Prana of the universe. It rises to help the Prana in the eye of man to see. The power of earth maintains the Apana in man. The ether between the sun and the earth is the Samana, and the all-pervading air is the Vyana.

“The Udana is fire, and therefore he whose bodily heat has gone out dies, after which his senses are absorbed in the mind, and he is born again. Whatever his thought at the moment of death, this it is that unites a man with Prana, who in turn, uniting himself with Udana and with the Self, leads the man to be reborn in the world he merits” (Prashna Upanishad 3:8-10).

This final principle is the most important. It is expanded in the Gita in this way: “At the hour of death, when a man leaves his body, he must depart with his consciousness absorbed in me. Then he will be united with me. Be certain of that. Whatever a man remembers at the last, when he is leaving the body, will be realized by him in the hereafter; because that will be what his mind has most constantly dwelt on, during this life. Therefore you must remember me at all times, and do your duty. If your mind and heart are set upon me constantly, you will come to me. Never doubt this. Make a habit of practicing meditation, and do not let your mind be distracted. In this way you will come finally to the Lord, who is the light-giver, the highest of the high” (Prashna Upanishad 3:5-8).

The knowing of Prana: immortality

The importance of knowing the functions of Prana by direct experience–through yoga practice–is summed up by the sage, saying:

“The progeny of him who knows Prana as I have revealed him to you is never cut off; and he himself becomes immortal.

“It was said of old: One who knows the Prana–whence he has his source, how he enters the body, how he lives there after dividing himself five-fold, what are his inner workings–such an one attains to immortality, yea, even to immortality” (Prashna Upanishad 3:11, 12).

For, as the other upanishads declare: Prana is Brahman.

Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Witnessing Self

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Introduction to The Upanishads for Awakening

Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:

The Story of the Upanishads

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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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