Prana and the Self
Since the Vedic period, at least two thousand years before Christ, Self-knowledge has been in India not only the theme of sages and philosophers, but also the highest ideal of kings.
Most of the early Hindu monarchs were, indeed, the great spiritual teachers of the country, although they did not belong to the Brahmin caste. There is a prevailing idea that the Brahmins were the only teachers of spiritual Truth in the beginning, while the duties of ruling and fighting were confined to the Kshatriya or warrior caste.
Yet in the great epic Mahabharata it is told that some of the Brahmins fought battles, commanded the army and showed remarkable powers, courage and ability, though they did not become rulers of the country.
As in the Bhagavad Gita read of Drona and Kripacharya, who were Brahmins by birth, yet who became noted generals, served on the battlefield, and were the teachers of the Kshatriyas in military science as it was known at that time.
On the other hand, we find in the Upanishads and in the epics that the Kshatriyas were the first teachers of the Brahmins in higher spiritual truths; Krishna, Rama, Buddha were all Kshatriyas. The Kshatriyas, being of the warrior caste, were bound by duly to protect the country, govern the nation, fight the enemies and establish the reign of peace, justice and righteousness among the people.
They were entitled, however, not only to become soldiers, commanders of the army and to sit on the throne, but likewise to impart Self-knowledge to all sincere and earnest souls.
The Hindu rulers of those early days were not like the monarchs of today. They regarded life as something that had a meaning, and for them this early existence w-as not worth living until that meaning had been realized.
Even in that early age these royal seekers after truth felt that those who perform the duties of their daily lives without knowing who they are and what they are in reality, are dwelling in absolute darkness. Therefore, after fulfilling their duties as Kshatriyas and rulers of the country, they still found time enough to devote themselves to the pursuit of Self-knowledge.
There was a great Hindu monarch of ancient India, by name Divodasa, who lived in Benares. Benares was the Indian Athens of those days. It was the seat of education, and the center of religion, science and philosophy.
From prehistoric ages it had been the cradle of oriental civilization and culture. Even at the time of Buddha, five hundred years before Christ, it was the stronghold of Hindu philosophy and religion; and Buddha could not have done anything if he had not been able to convince the learned scholars of Benares. Divodasa, this famous and powerful ruler of Benares, had a son, who became renowned by defeating his fiercest enemies.
It is said that he even conquered the Devas, the mythological gods or bright spirits. In the third chapter of the Kaushitaki Upanishad there is a story which describes how this young prince, Pratardana, by his wonderful courage and prowess conquered all the great ones on the human plane and then came to the abode of the ruler of the Devas.
According to Hindu mythology, Indra, the god of Thunder, became the ruler of the Devas through his righteous works and wisdom. Pratardana, the son of the mighty king Divodasa, went to the abode of Indra, dwelling in his heaven, with a desire to conquer him.
He told how he had destroyed his enemies and vanquished the Devas. Indra was somewhat dismayed at the sight of so great a hero, and did not know how he ought to receive him and what he should do to please him.
So, after hearing the description of his powers and victories, Indra said to Pratardana*’I am well pleased with thee and wish to give thee a boon. Choose a boon and I will be happy to grant it to thee.”
The prince answered: “Do thou thyself choose that boon for me which thou deemest most beneficial for a man.” He did not know for what to ask, but he knew that there was something which would be most helpful to all.
Having in his mind the thought that people who are dwelling in ignorance and self-delusion and who do not understand the true nature of Being, ought to have something that would make their life worth living, he said: ‘*Grant me that boon which thou thinkest best for a man.”
Indra replied: “That is not right; thou must choose thine own boon; no one who chooses, chooses for another.” The prince insisted, saying: “The boon chosen by me is no boon for me.” He would not choose because he did not know what would be most helpful to mankind, therefore he left it to Indra.
Then Indra said to him, “I am bound by my promise and I must be true to my words, so I must grant thee the highest boon that would be helpful and useful to all mankind.” “Know me only; that is the highest and most helpful for man. Know me, my true Self.” He meant by this, not his powers, not his glory, but his real Self—that which is signified by all such expressions as “I, me, mine,” and “thou, thee, thine.” He who has known this true Self gains unbounded power.
If he commits any wrong, that wrong does not affect him. The knower of Self is the greatest of all, he is greater than kings, greater than the mightiest emperor; he possesses all the virtues that are described in the Scriptures of the world and nothing can make him fall from the glory of Self-knowledge.
Then Indra praised Self-knowledge by saying: “I have conquered all the demons, I have destroyed those demons who had three heads, one hundred heads. I have done many cruel deeds, but all these horrible acts could not affect me, because I possess the knowledge of the Supreme Self.
Although I have performed many inhuman deeds, yet see my glory, strength, and power; not a single hair of my head has been injured by them.
He who knows me thus is never harmed in his life by any sinful act, neither by theft nor by the murder of his father, mother or a wise Brahmin.
If he is about to commit a terrible sin, the expression of his face does not change.” Thus Indra praised Self-knowledge. He did not mean that the knower of Self should ever perform all such sinful, cruel and inhuman deeds. He wanted to show that the power of Self-knowledge is greater than any other power that exists anywhere in the world; that it purifies the heart and soul of the worst sinner and washes off the most horrible sins that a human being can commit.
The murder of either father, mother, or both, or the revered spiritual master, all these unpardonable sins cannot corrupt the Divine power of Self-knowledge, which purifies the souls of all who possess it.
After praising Self-knowledge, Indra said: "I am Prana, know me as Prana, life. Worship me as the conscious Self, the source of intelligence." Prana is the Sanskrit word for life-force; life and intelligence are inseparable; wherever there is life, there is intelligence in some form or other. "Meditate on me as life and intelligence. Life is Prana, Prana is life; life is immortality and immortality is life."
Here we must understand that life never dies. Life in itself is immortal and indestructible; it cannot change. We do not see life growing from less life. Life in the abstract is always the same whether or not it expresses itself outwardly.
The expressions may vary, but the life-force is one and unchangeable. When we do not see the manifestation of life we say it is dead; but life-force does not die. Very few people can understand this. Where life is, death cannot exist. We may say a child is born, a
child grows, but the h’fe of the child is not subject to growth; if it were subject to birth and growth, it would be changeable, it would be mortal. That which we call life-force is free from birth, decay and death; all these changes take place in the forms through which the immortal life-force manifests itself.
We speak of a child or a plant as growing, but from the very beginning the life-force is the same; the manifestations of some other powers with which life is attended, appear in different ways at various stages of the evolution or growth of the animal or vegetable organism.
"Prana is life, life is immortality; as long as the Prana dwells in the body, so long there is life. By Prana one obtains immortality in the other world." If we know what true life is, and feel that we are one with life and inseparable from it, then we can realize that we are immortal, because life does not die, it does not proceed from non-life.
If we try to trace the origin of life, going back in imagination as far as we can, we shall never be able to discover as its cause non-life or something dead. Life always proceeds from life. It has existed from the beginningless past, and we cannot think of its ever being subject to death or destruction; therefore it is eternal.
But so long as life-force manifests itself through a body, the body appears as living; this is the secondary expression of true life-force. Here we do not think of the life-force or Prana, but of the form which moves and does certain work. He says, “he lived so long,” “His lifetime consisted of so many years, three or four score;” all these expressions, however, signify the secondary manifestation of Prana. Life in its primary sense is immortal. When that Prana or life-force expresses itself, then the organs are alive, the senses perform their functions, the mind thinks, and the intellect acts.
Again this Prana or life-force is inseparable from intelligence; we cannot separate intelligence from the force which makes everything of the universe move. The Self has two powers, which express themselves as intelligence and as the activity of Prana or life-force.
Intelligence is that which is the source of consciousness; there is no English term by which we can express it. It is called in Sanskrit “Prajna.” It cannot be translated as “knowledge,” because knowledge means understanding, which is a function of the intellect; but Prajna refers to the source of all knowledge and consciousness.
Indra continued: “He who knows me as one with life (Prana) and intelligence (Prajna), as immortal, indestructible and unchangeable, has life to its fullest extent on this earth, and after death resides in heaven and enjoys everlasting life.”
Here Indra used the word “Prana” for life-force, but the young prince thought that he must have meant sense-powers, because Prana is also used to signify the power of seeing, hearing, smelling tasting or touching, the power of speech, the powers of seizing, moving, excreting and generating, and
that by which all the organs of the body perform their functions. Therefore, he said: “Some say that all the Pranas or sense-powers become one; for otherwise no one could see, hear, speak, and think, at the same time. After having become one, each of the senses perceives separately.”
Thinking that by Prana was signified the activities of the sense-organs, he wanted to know which of these was particularly meant by Indra. He maintained that although life or Prana was one, still the sense-organs performed their functions separately in succession.
Two sense-perceptions do not occur at the same moment, there must be a minute interval of time between them. For instance, when we see a sight and hear a sound apparently at the same time, proper analysis will show that the one sensation is followed by the other; we cannot have various perceptions simultaneously.
According to the phychologists of ancient India, mind perceives the objects of sensation one at a time. When one sense organ performs its function, others remain quiet; the interval may be infinitesimally small, we may not grasp it with ordinary attention, still they rise in succession leaving between them a very minute interval of time. So the young prince did not understand what particular sense-activity was referred to by Indra. After raising this question, he kept silence.
Indra replied: “It is true that all these senses perform their functions at certain intervals and that each one of them is great; but nevertheless there is another force which is higher than all the sense-powers. That force is preeminent among all other powers.” It is not the power of seeing or hearing that makes us alive. Blind and deaf persons do not see and hear, but still they live. The power of speech does not manifest itself in a dumb man, yet he is alive. A man may live having lost the power of smelling, tasting or touching. Infants and idiots live though deprived of the thinking-power of the mind.
One may not have memory, still one will be called living. All this shows that that which makes one alive is not the same as the power of seeing, hearing, speaking, smelling, lasting, touching or thinking. Again, a man may lose his arms and may not be able to seize anything, still we do not call him dead. The loss of one’s legs or other organs of work does not, as we see around us, destroy the life-force or the Mukhya (higher) Prana.
Therefore, the life-force is distinct from the power of perception or sense-activity. Yet at the same time these sense-organs will not perform their functions if they are separated from the life-force.
The life-force or Mukhya Prana is something independent of the sense-powers, but the sense-powers are dependent upon life-giving Prana. Where life-force is unmanifest , the sense-organs may remain perfect, but there will not be any expression of the sense-powers in the form of perception of sensation. The eye of a dead man may be
perfect, the optic nerve may be in good condition, the brain cells may be in a normal state, but as the life-force is not working in that body, the sense-organs must remain dead, without performing their functions, without producing any sensation. Thus we can see that all the sense-organs remain active in the body because Prana, the source of all activity, is there, and because the life-force governs and regulates all the senses.
Therefore, in the Vedas it is said:
“One should worship Prana, the life-force, which keeps the universe alive.”
If you can understand what that life-force is you have understood the secret of the universe as well as that which keeps you alive. All the scientists, anatomists, and evolutionists are trying to know the nature of that life-force, but have they succeeded? No. Some say it is a molecular attraction, others believe that it is the result of physico-chemical forces; but are they sure of what they say? What progress has science made in her attempt to find out the source of life-force?
Self Knowledge by Swami Abhendanada published 1905