Sep 27, 2023
Sep 27, 2023
Tiptoeing into the Prasna and other Upanishads
to Seek Mundane Answers for Primeval Questions
Of the ten major Upanishads, one of the most significant I consider is the Prasna Upanishad that delineates, in an easy question-answer mode, the Vedic concept of creation of the universe and the relationship of man with what is generally projected as the Ultimate Reality or Brahman. It indeed does not have a mahavakya to add to its luster as in the cases of Chandogya (Tat Tvam Asi), Mandookya (Ayam Atma Brahma), Brihadaranyaka (Aham Brahm Asmi) and Aitareya (Prajnanam Brahma). But that does not in any way lessen the importance of Prasna which many commentators consider as an extension to or detailed exposition of what is discussed in Mundaka about creation of this world.
Mundaka occupies a pride of place among the Upanishads in the sense that some commentators found in it spiritual gems that could light the path for the faithfuls seeking moksha, or realisation with the Ultimate Reality. But what is mentioned in Mundaka is well expostulated in Prasna. Hence the importance of the latter.
Prasna in everyway meant Pippalada, the hermit who, according to the scriptures, was an embodiment of spiritual knowledge and wisdom. It was to a sarvagna like him that six neophytes, including son of sage Bharadwaja and son of King Shibi, had come to ask some fundamental questions about the creation of the world. But Pippalada did not feel like entertaining them forthwith. Knowledge does not come easily. One has to strive for it, doing much hard work. So even to ask their questions Pippalada wanted them to do extreme tapas for one year and then pose the questions. And he did not have the intellectual arrogance (that he once had) of an acknowledged sarvagna as he modestly said he would answer if he knew the answer. Needless to say the knowledge seekers came back to him after a year of brahmacharya and intense meditation.
Who was Pippalada? The circumstances of his birth were as strange, or weird, as the circumstances of his acquisition of such enormous knowledge. According to Padma Purana, Pippalada was born to sage Dadhichi and his wife Suvarcas. Dadhichi happened to agree to be the custodian of many celestial weapons entrusted to him by Indra when the Devas’ war with Asuras was over. But when for a long period Indra did not turn up to claim them and the weapons were in the process of losing their divine power, Dadhichi dissolved them in water and drank the concoction. When much later Indra, about to wage a war with Vritasura, came to claim the weapons, Dadhichi said they were all inside his body and so he was sacrificing himself in a funeral pyre to enable Indra to make a fresh set of powerful weapons from his bones. Indra’s invincible weapon, Vajra, was so made from his backbone. (Incidentally, Dadhichi’s pre-eminent act of self-sacrifice is honoured by the Indian Army whose ultimate bravery award, Param Vir Chakra, is shaped in the form of Indra’s Vajra. In 1988 India Post also honoured Dadhichi by issuing a special stamp carrying a line drawing image of the sage).
Suvarcas was away when Dadhichi died and when she returned she was so crestfallen that she wanted to immolate herself. But then an asariri, celestial voice, was heard, informing her that she was pregnant. She immediately took a sharp stone to cut open her abdomen and remove the foetus which she placed at the base of a pippala (peepul) tree before jumping into a pyre. The child, known thereafter as Pippalada, raised himself on peepul leaves, even as the trees obtained amrith for him from the god of trees, Moon.
The questions that the young sages asked were indeed questions that we would have asked ourselves as they were perennial in nature. How did the world come into being, how are we created etc. And Pippalada in his infinite wisdom, of course circumscribed by limitations of knowledge of the times, gave detailed answers to each of the questions.
The first question came from Kabandhi son of Katya. How are the many creatures of the world created? Pippalada made a lucid explanation of various aspects of creation. He said the creator of creatures, Prajapati, when desirous of creation, first made two aspects, matter and energy, for the purpose of creation of various living beings. The Sun was the energy or Prana of the whole cosmos and Moon, the matter, called Rayi. It was the union of prana and rayi, or energy and matter, that caused the emergence of various living beings in this world.
The second question came from Bhargava of Vidarbha who wanted to know who were all the deities who support living beings. Who lights up the senses divided as karmendriyas and buddhindriyas? Pippalada told him that when prana enters a body it divides into many aspects to do different functions of the body. The panchabhutas constituting the body, that is akash, vayu, agni, jalam and prithvi, karmendriyas like speech, mind, sight and hearing, and njanendriya, intellect, are the deities in control of the body.
Pippalada drew the analogy of a bee-hive to explain the relative importance of all these ingredients of prana. When each of them thought he was the main support for the edifice of the body, the varishta prana, that is the main prana or the breath, told them that there was no meaning in their self-important postures as he was in control. The other prana ingredients just ignored him. To put them in their places the varishta prana appeared to leave the body, when all the others had necessarily to follow suit. When varishta prana returned to its former place, the other pranas also returned along with it, because they did not have an independent existence. Pippalada likened varishta prana to a King Bee, saying that like a swarm of bees always following the King Bee (madhukara rajanam) wherever it went, other pranas had to follow the main prana. (It is interesting to note that during the Vedic period the lead bee in a hive was considered as a male, though we now know that it is the Queen Bee that is at the centre of a hive).
The third questioner, Kausalya Asvaiayana, wanted further clarifications on prana. Where does prana come from, how does it it enter the body and when does it leave? Pippalada said prana came from Atman (the Supreme Self or the Ultimate Reality). It does not have an independent existence, as it is part of the Atman. Just like a man’s shadow moving along with him, prana moves with Atman. He explained the five divisions of prana within the body, prana, apana, udana, vyana and samana, and explained their functions. Pippalada spoke of a lotus bud shaped organ, heart, within the body, connected to various parts through a huge network of arteries, veins, capillaries, naadis. To each channel in this network is connected 72,000 nerve centres. Vyanan is the vayu in charge of this network. Of the 101 naadis from the heart, one named sushumna goes up to the brain. The vayu named udanan is in charge of it, to control body functions from the feet to the brain..... Pippalada went on like this in his explanation, combining human physiology and spirituality with utmost ease and precision.
The other questions related to dreams and dreamless state of the human mind, to the primordial sound Aum, and to the Absolute, the questioner asking where it can be found. Pippalada’s answer to the last question was that Brahman or the Absolute was in everything and that it manifested through the human body. The human body was just a projection of that which originated from Brahman.
The importance of Prasna, for me, is that Pippalada holds forth that Prana is the air we breathe, which he describes as varishta prana or the main prana. Once it enters human body prana manifests as five aspects to deal with different, specific functions of the body like breathing, metabolism, cleansing, reproduction etc.
If prana is air and air envelops the earth, the prana-atman relationship can well be taken to mean the relationship between the life force within us and the life force in the atmospheric air. Scientists have analysed that 96.5 per cent of human body consists of just four elements, Oxygen (65 per cent), Carbon 18.5 per cent), Hydrogen (9.5 per cent) and Nitrogen 3.5 per cent. Other trace elements like Calcium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sulphur, Sodium, Chlorine and Magnesium take up the remaining 3.5 per cent. The importance of oxygen in sustaining life cannot be over-emphasised. There will be no life without oxygen, which accounts for two-thirds of the human body. Through respiration this oxygen is transported to all cells in the human body, nourishing them and helping chemical processes like metabolism.
Where do get our oxygen requirement? From the atmospheric air which contains 78 per cent Nitrogen and 21 per cent oxygen, the remaining one per cent taken up by other gases. The world population depends on this this 21 per cent of the atmospheric air for its sustenance.
The Upanishads say Atman or Paramatman, or Brahman, and the individual self are one and the same. The mahavakyas Tat Tvam Asi (Thou art That), Aham Brahm Asmi (I am Brahman) and Ayam Atma Brahma (Atma is Brahman) also proclaim the same. On a rudimentary, logical level can’t they be taken to mean Breath, as Prana, and the Oxygen rich atmospheric air are one and the same?
One of the great upanishadic conundrums is the shanti mantra of the Brihadaranyaka and Isavasya Upanishads:
Om purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate
purnasya purnam adaya
Om shantih shantih shantih
It means, roughly, That is Full, this is Full. The Full proceeds from the Full. After the Full comes out of the Full, the Full remains Full.
I am very much tempted to take this conundrum to look at Breath as Prana, that is Atman, and the Life Force in the atmospheric air, that is Brahman. Today ’ s world population of 800 crore people have, constantly, every second of the day and night, a lungful air from the atmosphere, inhaled and exhaled. Does this enormous volume ever cause any depletion or change in the volume of the atmospheric air? Never. The Fullness of air remains, even after the Full is taken out of the Full, the Full remains Full.
Om purnam adah purnam idam....
More by : P. Ravindran Nayar