Each of us is both Who and What. The Who is simple to define: individualized consciousness or jivatman–individualized Self. The What, on the other hand is quite complex, which is why we have gotten lost in it and confused for lifetimes beyond number. The first step in learning how to undo this dilemma is learning what is keeping it going. For that reason:
“Then Bhargava approached the teacher and asked: ‘Holy sir, how many several powers hold together this body?’….” The word Swami Prabhavananda translates “power” is deva–god. He chose this interpretive translation so we could better understand the meaning of the sage’s words. “…Which of them are most manifest in it? And which is the greatest?’” (Prashna Upanishad 2:1). We need to know who our jailers are and especially who the governor of the jail may be. So:
“‘The powers,’ replied the sage, ‘are ether, air, fire, water, earth–these being the five elements which compose the body; and, besides these, speech, mind, eye, ear, and the rest of the sense organs. Once these powers made the boastful assertion: “We hold the body together and support it.”’” (Prashna Upanishad 2:2).
The five elements (panchabhuta) are forms of cosmic energy which make up the various bodies of the human being, including the five senses. They are not passive, but are living and moving powers. However, Bhargava has asked which powers hold together the body, which itself is formed of the elemental forces. Only one of them is the cohesive force which keeps the others in its magnetic field and enables them to assume form and function within that form. To illustrate this, Pippalada gave him a parable, saying that once all the elements claimed to be the dominant force in the body.
“Whereupon Prana, the primal energy, supreme over them all, said to them: ‘Do not deceive yourselves. It is I alone, dividing myself fivefold, who hold together this body and support it.’ But they would not believe him” (Prashna Upanishad 2:3).
We see from this that the five elements are modifications of the cosmic life, the Prana (Vishwaprana), that although the body seems to be formed only of the five elements, the Prana itself is the underlying substratum as the ocean is to the waves. The body, then, is really nothing but Prana, as is anything else in the realm of relative existence. Even the smallest particle of the cosmos is the Universal Life in manifestation.
Another point is the supposed conversation between the elements. This is not just a device in a fable, but is an indication that since all things are manifestations of Cosmic Life they can take on a seemingly independent life and even consciousness of their own. This is a fundamental trait of Maya, the Cosmic Illusion, one which lies at the root of most confusion and ignorance.
“Prana, to justify himself, made as if he intended to leave the body. But as he rose and appeared to be going, all the rest realized that if he went they also would have to depart with him; and as Prana again seated himself, the rest found their respective places. As bees go out when their queen goes out, and return when she returns, so was it with speech, mind, vision, hearing, and the rest. Convinced of their error, the powers now praised Prana, saying:” (Prashna Upanishad 2:4).
All the elements of the cosmos are rooted in Prana. It is the same with the elements and the senses in the individual’s body complex (for the human being has five bodies corresponding to the five elements). Just as the waves are in total dependence upon the ocean for their very being, so everything cosmic and microcosmic depend upon Prana. Furthermore, the breath (also called prana) is the outermost, physical manifestation of prana. Because of this the yogi unites his inner awareness with his breath in the highest form of pranayama. (See The Breath of Life and Breath Meditation For Christians.)
The powers of Prana
He who controls Prana controls all since Prana is all. Therefore the elements praised Prana, saying:
“‘As fire, Prana burns; as the sun, he shines; as cloud, he rains; as Indra, he rules the gods; as wind, he blows; as the moon, he nourishes all. He is that which is visible and also that which is invisible. He is immortal life.
“‘As spokes in the hub of a wheel, so is everything made fast in Prana–the Rik, the Yajur, the Sama, all sacrifices, the Kshatriyas, and the Brahmins.
“‘O Prana, lord of creation, thou movest in the womb, and art born again. To thee who, as breath, dwellest in the body, all creatures bring offerings.
“‘Thou, as fire, dost carry oblations to the gods; and through thee the fathers receive their offerings. To every organ of sense thou givest its function.
“‘Prana, thou art the creator; thou art the destroyer by thy prowess; and thou art the protector. Thou movest in the sky as the sun, and lord of lights art thou.
“‘Prana, when thou showerest down rain, thy creatures rejoice, hoping that they will find food, as much as they desire.
“‘Thou art purity itself, thou art the master of all that exists, thou art fire, the eater of offerings. We, the organs of sense, offer to thee thy food–to thee, the father of all.
“‘That power of thine which dwells in speech, in the ear, and in the eye, and which pervades the heart–make that propitious, and forsake us not.
“‘Whatsoever exists in the universe is dependent on thee, O Prana. Protect us as a mother protects her children. Grant us prosperity and grant us wisdom.’” (Prashna Upanishad 2:5-13).
Obviously, then, the yogi cannot neglect the cultivation of Prana through pranayama.
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: Prana: Its History and Nature