Praśna Upaniṣad is one of the three Principal Upaniṣads belonging to Atharva Veda; we have already seen two, Māṇḍūkya and Muṇḍaka. Praśna in Sanskrit means question; this Upaniṣad is fully set in question-answer format and hence the name. In this Upaniṣad six seekers ask one question each and Ṛṣi Pippalāda (पिप्पलाद) answers them all. We discuss these answers in this article, which is the eighth in the series. Unique features of this Upaniṣad are, first, its precision in the postulations on the origin and existence of beings and second, its psycho-spiritual expositions on the power of human will power in attaining desired objectives.

Six seekers who approached Ṛṣi Pippalāda for instructions on the nature of Brahma were Kabandhī Kātyāyana, Bhārgava Vaidarbhi, Kauśalya Aśvalāyana, Gārgya Saurāyaṇī, Satyakāma Śaibya and Sukeśā Bhāradvāja. Pippalāda asked them to wait for one more year in penance, abstinence and faith and then ask questions as they like; he assured to answer them all, so far as his knowledge permits. Accordingly they came after one year and asked one question each, which the Ṛṣi duly answered. The verses in the Upaniṣad are identified by the question number and the verse number; for example, ‘2.4’ refers to verse four of the second question. Now let us see what the questions were and what the Ṛṣi said in reply.


The first question was asked by Kabandhī; he asked, “Esteemed Sir, whence are these beings brought forth?” (“भगवन्, कुतो ह वा इमाः प्रजाः प्रजायन्ते – Bhagavan, kuto ha vā imāḥ prajāḥ prajāyante?). Pippalāda answers thus:

“प्रजाकामो वै प्रजापतिः स तपोഽतप्यत स तपस्तप्त्वा स मिथुनमुत्पादयते, रयिं च प्राणं च इति, एतौ मे बहुधा प्रजाः करिष्यत इति || 1.4 ||

prajākāmo vai prajāpatiḥ sa tapoഽtapyata sa tapastaptvā sa mithunamutpādayate rayiṃ ca prāṇaṃ ca iti; etau me bahudhā prajāḥ kariṣyata iti. (1.4)

Word meaning: prajākāmaḥ- desirous of prajās (subjects, beings); vai- indeed; prajāpatiḥ- Prajāpati; sa- he; tapoഽtapyata- did Tapas; tapastaptvā- having done Tapas; mithunam- pair; utpādayate- produced; rayi- Rayi (physical energy or matter); ca- and; prāṇa- Prāṇa (the sustaining vital energy); iti- namely; etau- these two; me- to me; bahudhā- variously; prajāḥ kariṣyata- will produce prajās; iti- (thinking) that.

Verse meaning: Being desirous of prajās, Prajāpati did Tapas; through Tapas he produced the pair consisting of Rayi and Prāṇa. He wished that they would produce for him various prajās.

The verse says about the origin of beings. It is stated that beings were not directly produced by Prajāpati; instead, only a pair consisting of Rayi and Prāṇa, was produced by him. From this pair all beings evolved. Prajāpati produced the pair through Tapas, which is only intense and persevering exercise of will power. Prajāpati is the personified masculine form of the principle of Brahma. We know that Brahma is Puruṣa – Prakṛti combine, which according to Bṛhadāraṇyaka 1.4.4 and Muṇḍaka 1.1.8, is the source of all beings. In the pair produced, Rayi is physical energy or matter; it should evidently come from Prakṛti only. The other is Prāṇa which is the vital force that sustains the matter and therefore it should come from Puruṣa whose principle is SAT-CHIT-ĀNANDA (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss) (vide also 3.3 below, wherein it is stated that Prāṇa originated from Ātmā). Being the sustaining force, Prāṇa must be a contribution of the SAT part of Puruṣa. In living beings which have a working respiratory system, Prāṇa facilitates the activity of CHIT (Consciousness) also. We will see its details in the discussions that follow under other questions.

It was an ancient practice of spiritual thinkers to relate spiritual lessons with objects and phenomena in the world, often personifying principles and attributes. Lord Brahmā is verily the personification of the principle of Brahma (Brahman in English). Lord Śiva represents auspiciousness achieved by elimination of Kāma. His third eye is the eye of knowledge; the opening of the third eye indicates attainment of knowledge, in the light of which all Kāma(s) are destroyed and peace and immortality are achieved. Following this practice, Prāṇa is related with sun and Rayi with moon in verse 1.5. It is also stated therein that everything here, whether gross or subtle, comprises of Rayi only. We see the same idea in Bṛhadāraṇyaka 1.4.3 (अयं आकाशः स्त्रिया पूर्यत – ayaṃ ākāśaḥ striyā pūryata; the ether is filled by woman- woman here indicates Prakṛti). We can find further elaboration of this idea in verses 1.6 to 1.8.

In a similar manner, Prajāpati is related with Year; Rayi and Prāṇa that emerged from him are presented as Dakṣiṇāyana and Uttarāyaṇa respectively. Dakṣiṇāyana is the southern movement of the sun from its northern-most point of reach and Uttarāyaṇa is the reverse northern movement to the northern-most point. Dakṣiṇāyana thus represents a descent and Uttarāyaṇa an ascent. Uttarāyaṇa is considered auspicious in India for the reason that the country gets maximum sunlight during the period; remember that sun represents Prāṇa as mentioned above and is therefore the symbol of sustenance and enlightenment. In the subsequent verses, Prajāpati is related with Month and also Day and Night (ahorātra); in the case of Month, Prāṇa is the white fortnight and Rayi the dark fortnight and in the other case, Day is Prāṇa and Night is Rayi. In all these, the message is that Prāṇa is brilliance and Rayi is the opposite.

Now let us come to the second question. Bhārgava Vaidarbhi is the questioner here. He wants to know: how many gods (Devas) support the prajās; which among these illumine (prakāśayati – प्रकाशयति) them and which of these is the most excellent one (variṣṭha – वरिष्ठ)? See Pippalāda’s answer below:

“आकाशो वा एष देवो वायुरग्निरापः पृथिवी वाङ्मनश्चक्षुः श्रोत्रम् च ते प्रकाश्याभिवदन्ति वयमेतद्बाणमवष्टभ्य विधारयामः” || 2.2 ||

ākāśo vā eṣa devo vāyuragnirāpaḥ pṛthivī vāṅmanaścakṣuḥ śrotram ca te prakāśyābhivadanti vayametadbāṇamavaṣṭabhya vidhārayāmaḥ (2.2)

Word meaning: ākāśaḥ- Ākāśa (ether); vā- verily; eṣa- this; devaḥ- Deva; vāyuḥ- Vāyu, air; agni- Agni, fire; āpaḥ- Jalam (water); pṛthivī- Bhūmi (earth); vāk – Vāk (speech); manaḥ- Manas; cakṣuḥ- eyes; śrotram- ears; ca- and; te- they; prakāśya- having illumined; abhivadanti- declare boastfully; vayam- we; etad- this; bāṇam- body; avaṣṭabhya- having seized, having entered; vidhārayāmaḥ- support, maintain.

Verse meaning: These Devas are Ākāśa, Vāyu, Agni, Jalam, Bhūmi (these are Panchabhūtas or the five basic elements constituting the universe) and also Vāk, Manas, eyes and ears. Having illumined the body, they boastfully declared thus: we maintain the body from within.

The Devas enumerated here boast that they maintain the body; but their claim is false. To know the truth, we have to read the next verse also. See it below:

“तान् वरिष्ठः प्राण उवाच मा मोहमापद्यथ अहमेव एतत् पञ्चधा आत्मानं प्रविभज्य एतद्बाणमवष्टभ्य विधारयामीति तेഽश्रद्दधाना बभूवुः” || 2.3 ||

tān variṣṭhaḥ prāṇa uvāca mā mohamāpadyatha ahameva etat pañcadhā ātmānaṃ pravibhajya etadbāṇamavaṣṭabhya vidhārayāmīti teഽśraddadhānā babhūvuḥ (2.3).

Word meaning: tān- to them; variṣṭhaḥ prāṇa- Chief Prāṇa; iti uvāca- said thus; mā- don’t; mohamāpadyatha- get deluded; aham- I; eva- alone; etat- this; pañcadhā- in five parts; ātmānaṃ pravibhajya- dividing myself; etadbāṇamavaṣṭabhya- having entered this body; vidhārayāmi- maintain; te- they; aśraddadhānā- unbelieving, doubting, incredulous; babhūvuḥ- became.

Verse meaning: To them the Chief Prāṇa said thus: ‘Don’t get deluded; I alone maintain this body, having entered it and dividing myself into five parts’. Hearing this, they became doubtful (they didn’t believe it).

Thus, in verses 2.2 and 2.3 two conflicting claims are presented, one by Prāṇa and the other by the remaining Devas. The ensuing portion of the answer (verses 2.4 to 2.13) is devoted to establish the superiority of Prāṇa. It is said in 2.4 that when Prāṇa prepared to leave the body, others also felt like leaving the body, just as bees following their queen. Thus Prāṇa showed them all that he was superior. Having the doubts dispelled they praised him a lot and requested him not to go out. They also requested him to protect them as a mother would protect her child. This description about establishing the superiority of Prāṇa and about other Devas praising him is seen in verses 5.7 to 5.15 of Chāndogya Upaniṣad also. The purpose of this description is only to assert that Prāṇa is the lone sustainer of the physical existence represented by Rayi.

The third question was asked by Kauśalya Aśvalāyana; he wanted to know: “Where does this Prāṇa originate from? How does he come to this body? How does he perform there, having divided himself (into five parts)? How does he go out? How does he support the body and also the world outside?”

Pippalāda answered thus:

आत्मन एष प्राणो जायते यथैषा पुरुषे छाया एतस्मिन् एतदाततं मनोकृतेन आयाति अस्मिन् शरीरे || 3.3 ||

ātmana eṣa prāṇo jāyate yathaiṣā puruṣe chāyā etasmin etadātataṃ manokṛtena āyāti asmin śarīre. (3.3)

Word meaning: ātmanaḥ- from Ātmā; eṣa prāṇo- this Prāṇa; jāyate- originate; yathā- just as; eṣā- this; etasmin puruṣe- on this person; chāyā- reflection; etad- that; ātataṃ- spread out; manokṛtena- by an act of mind, as willed, by thought; āyāti- comes; asmin śarīre- on this body.

Verse meaning: Prāṇa originates from Ātmā. On a person it spreads like a shadow. It comes to this body by the will (of Brahma).

It is said that Prāṇa originates from Ātmā. We saw in verse 1.4 that Prāṇa originated from Brahma. Further, we know that Brahma is Puruṣa-Prakṛti combine, wherein Puruṣa is Ātmā himself and Prakṛti is his power to manifest variously; for Ātmā is called Puruṣa when Prakṛti is invoked. Thus, the present statement is only a clarification of verse 1.4. The significance, however, is that it specifically relates Prāṇa with Puruṣa whereas Rayi is related with Prakṛti by default. In question 1, Prāṇa has been presented as the power that sustains the physical existence. Prāṇa is therefore to be understood as the sustaining power of Puruṣa. Secondly it is said that Prāṇa spreads all over the body like a shadow. This must be understood as pervading of the sustaining power of Puruṣa in the bodies.

In the next three verses how this shadow (Prāṇa) spreads in the body is described. But, before going to those verses, we may consider the statement in this verse that Prāṇa entered the body in exercise of will power. This exercising of will must have been made by Brahma as it was Brahma’s desire to have praja(s).

Now, we may see how Prāṇa distributes itself in the body. The Chief Prāṇa assigns different parts of the body among the other four other Prāṇas to manage, just like an emperor entrusts territories under him with various officials to govern (verse 3.4). Verses 3.5, 3.6 and 3.7 give us the details; see them, one by one, below:

पायूपस्थेഽपानं चक्षुः श्रोत्रे मुखनासिकाभ्यां प्राणः स्वयं प्रातिष्ठते मध्ये तु समानः एष ह्येतद् हुतमन्नं समं नयति तस्मादेताः सप्तार्चिषो भवन्ति || 3.5 ||

pāyūpastheഽpānaṃ cakṣuḥ śrotre mukhanāsikābhyāṃ prāṇaḥ svayaṃ prātiṣṭhate madhye tu samānaḥ eṣa hyetad hutamannaṃ samaṃ nayati tasmādetāḥ saptārciṣo bhavanti. (3.5)

Word meaning: pāyu- organ of excretion; upastha- organ of reproduction; apānaṃ- the Apāna; cakṣuḥ- eyes; śrotam- ears; mukha- mouth; nāsikā- nose; prāṇaḥ- Prāṇa; svayaṃ- himself; prātiṣṭhate- dwells, stays; madhye- in the middle; tu- but; samānaḥ- the Samāna; eṣa- he; hi- indeed, etad- this; hutam- digested; annaṃ- food; samaṃ- equally; nayati- distributes, leads; tasmāt- from it; etāḥ saptārciṣaḥ- these seven flames; bhavanti- originate; arise.

Verse meaning: In the organs of excretion and reproduction, the Apāna dwells, whereas the Chief Prāṇa himself is in charge of eyes, ears, mouth and nose. In the middle is Samāna which distributes the digested food equally to all parts of the body. It is because of this that the seven flames arise.

We have seen that Prāṇa exists in the body, having divided itself into five. These five divisions are the Chief Prāṇa, Apāna, Samāna, Vyāna and Udāna. These are only nominal, functional divisions of Prāṇa, each of which supports the existence of the part of the body under its charge. This verse says about the first three divisions. Apāna is in charge of the organs of excretion and reproduction. The Chief Prāṇa looks after eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Going by the description, Samāna must be in control of the cardio-vascular system. The seven flames arising out of the distribution of food are the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth; these are called flames because they glow only when food is burnt (हुत) or digested and also they are instrumental in grasping things.

The next verse says about Vyāna. See the verse below:

हृदि ह्येष आत्मा अत्रैतदेकशतं नाडीनां तासां शतं शतं एकैकस्यां द्वासप्तति द्वासप्तति प्रतिशाखानाडीसहस्राणि भवन्त्यासु व्यानश्चरति || 3.6 ||

hṛdi hyeṣa ātmā atraitadekaśataṃ nāḍīnāṃ tāsāṃ śataṃ śataṃ ekaikasyāṃ dvāsaptati dvāsaptati pratiśākhānāḍīsahasrāṇi bhavantyāsu vyānaścarati (3.6)

Word meaning: hṛdi- in the Heart; hi- indeed; eṣa- this; ātmā- Ātmā; atra- there; etad- this; ekaśataṃ- one hundred and one; nāḍīnāṃ- nerves; tāsāṃ ekaikasyāṃ- to each of them; śataṃ śataṃ- hundred each; dvāsaptati dvāsaptati pratiśākhānāḍīsahasrāṇi- seventy two thousand branch nerves for each; bhavanti- exist; āsu- in them; vyāna- Vyāna; carati- moves.

Verse meaning: Ātmā is indeed in the Heart, wherein there are one hundred and one nerves; to each of them there are one hundred branch nerves. Each of these branch nerves has seventy two thousand further branches. Vyāna moves in these nerves and branches.

The fact of Ātmā being in the Heart (or in the inner-most chamber) is seen repeatedly asserted by the Upaniṣads (Chāndogya 3.14.3 & 8.3.3, Kaṭha 2.20, Muṇḍaka 3.1.7, Śvetāśvatara 3.11, 3.13 & 4.17) and also by Gīta (verses 13.17, 15.15 & 18.61). In the study of verse 8.3.3 of Chāndogya we have seen an explanation for the phrase ‘Ātmā is in the Heart’. It was required in that article to understand the phrase thus: ‘The subtlest physical form of a living being is a cell. It contains some physical features and also the coded information on genetic qualities and on hereditary traits. It also contains the energy of consciousness which reads and interprets this information and also motivates physical functions in furtherance thereof. This pure consciousness is the CHIT part of the Ātmā and the physical part wherein it is situated is the Heart. As the cell multiplies and grows into a full-fledged being, this Heart also develops into its matured form and along with it a net-work of nerves is also established, through which Ātmā pervades the entire physique of the being. Therefore, Ātmā is not exclusively located in the Heart, though it is stated, ‘Ātmā is in the Heart’. Even otherwise, the SAT part of Ātmā is already there pervading throughout the being, supporting its physical existence’.

The present verse gives an indication of what the Upaniṣads consider as Heart; it is where the nerves are connected. This according to human anatomy is Thalamus which is described as a switchboard of information. The word Thalamus has a Greek/Latin origin and it means inner chamber. The Sanskrit word ‘hṛd’ (हृद्) also means interior chest. So, when we say Ātmā is in the Heart, we should understand the Heart as indicating the inner chest where nerves are connected, which is Thalamus, not the heart of blood circulation. This Heart is thus the information exchange for receiving and disseminating information all over the body. The location of this Heart of consciousness or Thalamus is such that it is in line with the middle point between eye-brows (भ्रूमध्य – bhrūmadhya) and also with the upper-most point of nose (नासिकाग्र – nāsikāgra). (nāsikāgra is not the lower tip of the nose as many wrongly understand). The common point of bhrūmadhya and nāsikāgra is where we are required to concentrate our attention during meditation. This requirement is because of the realisation that the centre of consciousness, of the light within us, lies just behind it. Further, this point is apparently the location of the mythological ‘Third Eye’, the eye of knowledge or enlightenment. Opening of this eye means attainment of the true knowledge resulting in quelling all Kāma. This is what Lord Śiva did to Kāmadeva who is considered as the embodiment of Kāma; Śiva opened his third eye and then, Kāmadeva was reduced to ashes.

The presence of 101 nerves in the Heart is also seen mentioned in Chāndogya 8.6.6 and Kaṭha 6.16. Here it is stated that for each of these 101 nerves there are 100 branches, each of which in turn has 72000 sub-branches. The total number of nerves thus come to 72,72,00,000 or 727.2 million. Each nerve naturally consists of many nerve cells or neurons. According to modern Neurology the number of neurons in a human body is about 100 billion.

Imagine a small tree, uprooted and held upside down, with it root system facing upward. Then imagine the nervous system of a human being. Do you see any similarity between the two? Yes, they are similar in appearance. The tuft of nerves going upwards from Thalamus can be compared with the root system of the tree and the nerves spreading downwards to the body represent the trunk and branches of the tree. Please recall verse 6.1 of Kaṭha Upaniṣad wherein Brahma is visualised as such a tree.

Now, we may see what Udāna is. Let us go to verse 3.7.

अथैकयोर्ध्व उदानः पुण्येन पुण्यं लोकं नयति पापेन पापं उभाभ्यामेव मनुष्यलोकम् || 3.7 ||

athaikayordhva udānaḥ puṇyena puṇyaṃ lokaṃ nayati pāpena pāpaṃ ubhābhyāmeva manuṣyalokam. (3.7)

Word meaning: atha- now, ekayā- by or through one (of them); ūrdhva udānaḥ- the upwardly oriented Udāna; puṇyena- by good deeds; puṇyaṃ lokaṃ- virtuous world; nayati- leads to; pāpena- by bad deeds; pāpaṃ lokaṃ nayati – leads to evil world; ubhābhyām- by both; eva- indeed; manuṣyalokam- human world.

Verse meaning: The upwardly oriented Udāna works through one (of the hundred and one nerves). It leads to virtuous world if the deeds done are good and to evil world if the deeds are bad; if the deeds include both good and bad, then it leads to human world.

The implication is that one of the main nerves going upwards is controlled by Udāna; it is through this nerve that the information, which guides beings in accordance with their deeds, passes through. Therefore, it is evident that this nerve connects the Heart with the Antaḥkaraṇa; it is a hotline between the two, presumably in addition to those maintained by Vyāna. One ancillary indication in this verse is that the human world consists of good and bad; the other two worlds, the virtuous and the evil, are included in it and we experience either of the two depending upon our deeds. Good and bad deeds are distinguished by the nature of impact they make on the existence of the world; the deed that makes a positive impact is good, otherwise bad. In other words, a good deed is that which is in conformity with the eternal principle of SAT-CHIT-ĀNANDA and the opposite is a bad one. This eternal principle is all-pervading and inviolable; therefore, any attempt to infringe it will meet with repression of such magnitude as would be sufficient to resist the infringement and make up for the damage already done. Therefore, when we do a bad deed, the first and the definite strike occurs within ourselves, making us weak. In contrast, when we do a good deed, we feel the strength within. More conclusive assertions in this regard can be seen in verse 3.10 below.

In the meanwhile, let us see what is said in verses 3.8 and 3.9. Following the practice of relating internal phenomena with outer world, it is stated in verse 3.8 that sun is the external Prāṇa and the Deva in the earth is the Apāna. In 3.9, Udāna is said to be the radiance (Tejas) of sun. The verse is here in full:

तेजो ह वा उदानः तस्मादुपशान्ततेजाः पुनर्भवमिन्द्रियैर्मनसि सम्पद्यमानैः || 3.9 ||

tejo ha vā udānaḥ tasmādupaśāntatejāḥ punarbhavamindriyairmanasi sampadyamānaiḥ. (3.9)

Word meaning: tejas- radiance (of sun), (sun)light; ha vā- indeed; udānaḥ- Udāna tasmāt- therefore; upaśāntatejāḥ- those with weakened radiance; punarbhavam- rebirth; indriyairmanasi sampadyamānaiḥ- owing to senses being united with mind.

Verse meaning: Udāna is the radiance of sun, the Prāṇa; therefore, those with weakened radiance meet with rebirth owing to their senses being united with mind.

If sun is Prāṇa, then sunlight is Udāna; those in whom Udāna is weak will meet with death, because their mind follows the senses. This death or subsequent rebirth is obviously not the physical one; it is, as indicated in the verse itself, the result of being carried away by the senses, which is verily capitulation to Kāma. This verse is effectively explained in Gīta verses 2.60 to 2.63. Verse 2.60 says that the tormenting senses forcibly carry away the mind of even a wise man in spite of his attempts to resist it. According to verse 2.61 one’s perception becomes stable only when he succeeds in controlling the senses. Verses 2.62 and 2.63 describe what happens otherwise; he meets with death. This is the message here.

Next verse carries a very important message; see the verse below:

यच्चित्तस्तेनैष प्राणमायाति प्राणस्तेजसा युक्तः सहात्मना यथा सङ्कल्पितं लोकं नयति || 3.10 ||

yaccittastenaiṣa prāṇamāyāti prāṇastejasā yuktaḥ sahātmanā yathā saṅkalpitaṃ lokaṃ nayati. (3.10)

Word meaning: yaccittaḥ- whatever is there in one’s Chitta; tena- by that; eṣa- he prāṇamāyāti- reaches Prāṇa; prāṇastejasā yuktaḥ – Prāṇa gets connected to (its) Tejas (which is Udāna); sahātmanā- (which) along with Ātmā (consciousness); nayati- leads to; yathā saṅkalpitaṃ lokaṃ – that world which he desires;.

Verse meaning: Whatever there is in one’s Chitta, with that he comes to Prāṇa. Prāṇa then gets connected to Udāna which, along with Ātmā, leads him to the world he desires.

We know what Chitta is; it is the store-house of all information both saved and inherited, all thoughts, perceptions, resolves and all. This verse says that we are led forward as dictated by and in conformity with what our Chitta contains. A person is defined by the contents of his Chitta; for, the stock in Chitta is the source from which a person draws the substance and inspiration for all what he does. The Chief Prāṇa is the one that senses the current thoughts in Chitta; we feel the reflections thereof by the variation in breath modulation. The Prāṇa then conveys what it sensed to Udāna which in turn activates the hotline leading to other components of Antaḥkaraṇa, namely Manas, Buddhi and Ahaṃkāra. As a result of this, the flow of consciousness, the real energy of life, and conveyance of information to these components is toned up, initiating sustained action by them. Manas, being involuntary, follows up with suitable action, even without our periodical interventions conveying specific dictates or consent. Thus, all our faculties are tuned up to function in furtherance of what the contents of Chitta demand. For example, if we love somebody seriously, then the Manas accesses all information from our Chitta as well as from outside which are in favour of such love; it also orients our actions to those directions and materials which would foster such love. Similarly, when we hate, the orientation changes to the opposite direction. Further, when we take a resolve to pursue the path of spiritual enlightenment, the Manas, without our specific instruction or active involvement at every turn, takes us to those sources and actions which further such pursuit. This is how one’s intense will takes him to accomplishment of the objectives. Such involuntary activity of Manas is known in ordinary parlance as the inner guidance. The same thing happens in the case of habitual actions also; our active participation is not needed in fulfilling them. For example, take the case of driving a vehicle; in the beginning we need to attend to each action, the acceleration, breaking, gear changing, etc. But when the details thereof are firmly registered in the Chitta, all these actions are got done without our active involvement; the Mind takes over it all. This in short is what the verse conveys.

In the place of this psycho-spiritual message, conventional interpretations opt to say that the verse is about leading Ātmā to various worlds after one’s death. This interpretation is foolish in the light of the consistent teachings of Upaniṣads which say that Ātmā is all-pervading and free from attachment and smear; these teachings therefore rule out the question of Ātmā moving from one place to another or retaining impressions of any actions to be carried over, after the loss of body. There is absolutely no hint in the verse making such interpretations tenable or warranted. The reason for such misinterpretations is the resort to mythology for understanding the sublime thoughts of the philosophy of Upaniṣads. This approach has over the ages made much havoc in conveying India’s ancient rational philosophy to the aspiring people all over the world in its true spirit. At the core of this unenviable situation is the fact that successive generations of disciples following a common guru simply disseminate the views and understandings of the guru without any change; they don’t burden themselves with the task of original thinking and independent evaluation. These disciples thus precipitate a standstill in terms of time and thought and tether generations of aspirants to the trite and flawed understanding of yore.

Now, let us come to the fourth question. It was the turn of Gārgya Saurāyaṇī. He asked, “Who among the Devas, in this body, sleep, who remains awake, who sees dreams, whose is happiness and on whom all are established?”

We have already seen above in verses 2.2 and 2.3, who the Devas in the body are. The question here is about their functions in the case of sleeping, waking and dreaming states and also in causing happiness and in supporting all. The answer of Pippalāda is given below in brief:

While we sleep, all the Devas in the body become merged into Manas; the meaning is that they all become dormant. Only the fires of Prāṇa are awake then. It is in this state that Manas causes dreams; it causes seeing what has been seen and not seen before, hearing what has been heard and not heard before, enjoying what has been enjoyed and not enjoyed before and experiencing what is real and unreal. When Udāna causes Manas also to become dormant and to be absorbed into pure consciousness, no more dreams are seen; as a result, the body enters into deep sleep state, wherein bliss is enjoyed. In this state, everything rests in the Ātmā – the Pancabhūtas, senses, sense-objects, Antaḥkaraṇas and all. The Ātmā with all these included is obviously known as Puruṣa; we have seen it already. This Puruṣa is the knowing Ātmā in all beings; he too is established in the pure, supreme, immortal Ātmā. He who knows it attains to it and becomes omniscient (verses 4.9 & 4.10).

These teachings in greater details can be seen in Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad.

The fifth question was asked by Satyakāma Śaibya; he wanted to know what world a man who meditates upon the syllable ‘Om’ until death would attain. Pippalāda replied thus:

एतद्वै सत्यकाम परं चापरं च ब्रह्म यदोंकारः तस्माद्विद्वान् एतेनैवायतनेन एकतरमन्वेति || 5.2 ||

etadvai satyakāma paraṃ cāparaṃ ca brahma yadoṃkāraḥ tasmādvidvān etenaivāyatanena ekataramanveti. (5.2)

Word meaning: etat- this; vai- verily; satyakāma- O, Satyakāma; paraṃ- superior; ca- and; aparaṃ- inferior; brahma- Brahma; yat- what; oṃkāraḥ- Om; tasmāt- therefore; vidvān- the learned; eva- surely; etena āyatanena – by this means; ekataram- one of the two; anveti- attain to.

Verse meaning: O, Satyakāma, this ‘Om’ is verily both superior and inferior Brahma. Therefore, the learned attains to either of the two by this means (ie. by meditating upon ‘Om”).

We already know the mutual relationship among Ātmā, Brahma and Om; we studied the details thereof in Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. We have seen what each of the three constituent sounds of Om represent and what a seeker attains by knowing anyone of these sounds and by all together. This verse, together with the remaining verses in answer to the fifth question, presents the same idea in a manner which is rather less in precision and more in mythological coating.

What is referred to as superior Brahma is the undifferentiated Brahma and the inferior is differentiated.

The last question, the sixth one, was asked by Sukeśā Bhāradvāja; he wanted to know about the 16-part Puruṣa. The Sage answered thus:

‘इहैवान्तःशरीरे स पुरुषो यस्मिन् एताः षोडशकलाः प्रभवन्ति’ || 6.2 ||

‘ihaivāntaḥśarīre sa puruṣo yasmin etāḥ ṣoḍaśakalāḥ prabhavanti’. (6.2)

Word meaning: iha- here; eva- indeed; antaḥśarīre- within the body; saḥ puruṣaḥ – that Puruṣa; yasmin- in whom; etāḥ- these; ṣoḍaśakalāḥ- sixteen parts or kala(s); prabhavanti- originate.

Verse meaning: Here, within the body, indeed is that Puruṣa from whom these sixteen parts originate.

In verse 6.4, the Sage enumerates these 16 parts thus: Prāṇa, faith, ether, air, fire, water, earth, senses, mind, food, vigour, Tapas, Mantra, Karma, worlds and names. The idea is that these parts contributing to physical existence have their origin in the Puruṣa; so this Puruṣa is called ‘Puruṣa with sixteen parts’. It is further stated in verse 6.5 that these sixteen parts of the seer merge with the Puruṣa shedding their names and forms and become Puruṣa only, like rivers become verily the ocean, on merging therein.

Having all their doubts thus cleared, the six seekers honoured the Ṛṣi with high esteem and took leave of him. The Upaniṣad concludes by paying obeisance to the great Ṛṣis. When we part with this Upaniṣad, we should retain in mind what Ṛṣi Pippalāda said about the pair of Prāṇa and Rayi, from which the universe evolved; we should also bear in mind his words about how the contents of Chitta dictate and regulate the actions of beings.

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Prior articles in this series:

The Science of the Upanishads – Introduction
The Science of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Science of Chandogya Upanishad
The Science of Ishavasya Upanishad
The Science of Katha Upanishad
The Science of Kena Upanishad
The Science of Mandukya Upanishad
The Science of Mundaka Upanishad
The Science of Prashna Upanishad
The Science of Taittiriya Upanishad
The Science of Aitareya Upanishad
The Science of Shvetashvatara Upanishad
The Science of Upanishads – Conclusion