What is Prāna?

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Sāńkhya divides matter into manas (mind), prāna (life force), and vāk. In the previous post, we discussed the nature of vāk and manas as the relation between word and meaning, or between matter and mind. This post elaborates on the third aspect of matter called prāna. The post discusses the role prāna plays in the motion of material objects, in the creation of bodies, and in the transmigration of the soul. The topic is fairly complex, so reader patience is essential to get through to the end. I will begin with a discussion of the problems of motion in mathematics and physics because grasping these problems is essential to laying the foundation for a different description of motion and change.

Zeno’s Paradoxes of Motion

While motion is all around us, it has been a very problematic idea.

During Greek times, Zeno articulated some paradoxes to describe these problems. One form of the paradox says that if a person has to go from point A to point B, then before he can go to B he must go halfway to B, but before he can go halfway, he must go quarter-way, and before he can go a quarter-way he must go one-eighth the way, and so forth. The sequence 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 … is infinite, but the series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + … converges to 1. If we suppose that space is infinitely divisible, then we must add the above series in order to move, but since the series is infinite, the time required in addition is also infinite. Zeno concluded that it would take an infinite time to go from A to B, which means that motion must be impossible.

Note how the above problem hinges upon the infinite divisibility of space. If space were not infinitely divisible, then the series would terminate at some point, and only a finite time would be needed for adding it. However, we would now be left with another notorious problem, namely, that the sum of the fractional numbers would not add to one (because we remove all numbers in the series after a certain point). That would entail that we can start from A and get close to B, but not exactly B.

The Problem of Object Hopping

If space is not infinitely divisible, then an object has to “hop” from one location to another, which creates a problem of causality: how do we know which point to hop to next? Many of you would have seen games in which a child hops from one box to another. Since you have the choice of hopping to different boxes, to explain the hopping, you need a choice to explain the very next box you hop to. That choice indicates your intention to go someplace, and when such intention is needed to decide each hop, choice is necessary to explain motion.

Now we have an even more formidable problem: when the motion from point A to B involves choices, then we can never establish a necessity that an object would indeed take a path. After all, if there are alternative positions that an object can move into, then the fact that it moves into a particular position is not necessary. Once we lose the necessity, we cannot apply any mathematical law that predicts the next state, and without such a law we lose both predictions and explanations.

Hume’s Critique of Causality

We are now led to what some philosophers call “dustbowl empiricism” which is the view that reality is composed of discrete and unrelated sensations (like dust particles) which cannot be causally connected to each other except through an intention and choice, and this entails a collapse of science.

Incidentally, this was also David Hume’s critique of causality that we only observe the succession of events—e.g. that B follows A—but we cannot insist that B will always follow A—i.e. establish a necessity. Hume’s critique of causality had an enormous impact on Western philosophy—leading Immanuel Kant (often regarded as the greatest philosopher after Greek times) to comment that he was woken from his “dogmatic slumber” by Hume’s critique.

Hume’s critique led to what is now known as the Problem of Induction—i.e. justifying that just because you see A succeed B a certain number of times, how do you know that it will always succeed? This problem has a benign version if we can establish continuity of motion (this was shown in the early 20th century by the works of Cauchy and Weierstrass) because you can then claim that this continuity somehow entails necessity, although you still have the Zeno’s paradox that it would take an infinite amount of time to make any change. The problem truly blows in our face if motion is discontinuous and involves hopping because then we clearly have a problem of causality and necessity.

Two Problems of Motion

While the idea of motion seems fairly straightforward, based on the above we can see two key problems with this idea. First, if the motion is continuous, then it must take an infinite time and effort, and hence can never happen, although we can establish a necessity that it must happen. Second, if the motion is discrete, then we cannot establish a necessity because choices must be involved, and therefore motion can occur but there cannot be a law of motion that definitely predicts the outcomes.

In short, if motion is possible then it is not necessary. And if motion is necessary then it is impossible (because it will take an infinite time). We can clearly rule out the second alternative because it presents a self-contradiction (if motion is necessary then it is impossible). We can, however, work with the first alternative (if motion is possible then it is not necessary) although this entails a collapse of classical determinism in which matter is moving according to laws that are necessary.

The first alternative is now supported by discoveries in quantum theory where space and time are not infinitely divisible and objects must, therefore “hop” from one location to another. As we have seen earlier, quantum theory also entails a collapse of classical determinism because we cannot predict the next state, although we can predict the probabilities of the next state. We are now effectively playing the hopping game that children play where they jump from one location to another, which famously led Einstein to complain that “God does not play dice”.

Classical Determinism vs. Everyday Causality

Classical determinism is incompatible with everyday notions of causality. For instance, you can cure your headache if you consume an analgesic. The fan will stop spinning if you turn the switch off. The bullet will be ejected from a gun if you pull the trigger. Note how all these forms of causality involve an “if” in which an actor must make a choice to consume an analgesic, turn off a switch, or pull the trigger. Since it is not necessary that these things will indeed happen, change is possible but not necessary.

Thus, we are now left with the problem of how to explain the conversion of possibility into reality. Matter, in this new paradigm, must exist as a possibility and something must act on it to convert it into reality. The reality that we observe cannot, therefore, be attributed to either the possibility or the action; rather, it is the combination of possibility and action that creates reality.

Sāńkhya and Everyday Causality

In an earlier post, I elaborated on how Sāńkhya describes matter to exist in manifest and unmanifest states. The unmanifest state of matter is when it exists as a possibility. From this unmanifest state, a manifest state is created by an action. What we can observe—i.e. the manifest state—is thus produced from the unmanifest state, although not deterministically. Rather, the cause of such production is an action.

But how do we describe the unmanifest state? Sāńkhya provides an answer to this question. The answer is that the unmanifest state exists as an idea from which the manifest state is produced as an object. The idea is called manas and the object is called vāk, as we discussed in the previous post. The conversion of the unmanifest manas or idea into the manifest vāk or object is carried out by an action—which is called prāna. The terms manas, prāna, and vāk are therefore technical or scientific terms that denote the three key elements of causality in a completely different notion of causation which is incompatible with classical physical determinism, although compatible both with quantum causality and everyday notions of causation.

The key point is that matter doesn’t necessarily exist as physical objects. It rather can also exist as ideas that cannot be seen, tasted, touched, smelt, or heard. Prāna converts the ideas into symbols of those ideas. For example, the idea “table” in my mind can be converted into the sound “table” through speech. The post I’m writing first exists in my mind as an idea and then is transformed into words through prāna. The ideas are “unmanifest”, as they cannot be sensed. The objects are “manifest”, as they can be sensed. The conversion of unmanifest to manifest is due to an action—prāna.

The Science Underlying “We Are Not This Body”

All religious philosophy begins by asserting that there is life beyond the current material existence. This is often explained by describing two categories—matter and soul. If matter is moving by itself, then there is no necessity for the soul. This is why the soul was evicted from classical physics because the theories were completely able to explain the motion of matter provided we fixed the matter’s initial state. God and the soul were therefore relegated to a choice of deciding the initial state.

With the collapse of classical determinism and the rise of the idea that motion is possible but not necessary, material objects have to “hop” from one state to another. This hopping is like a neon sign in which neon lights successively switch on and off, creating the impression of movement although there is actually no motion. We can also say that “motion” is a phenomenon created through a succession of event instantiation although matter is not moving. Now, the “external world” is not moving objects; it is rather events that appear and disappear.

Quantum theory helps us understand why this is the case. In this theory, all states are always possible, but they are not always real. The possible states are like the switched-off neon lights: although they exist, we cannot perceive them. The possibility is actualized when the light is switched on. The switching on and off lights do not constitute actual motion although they create the impression of motion. In that sense, motion—i.e. all changes in this world—are phenomena and not reality.

These phenomena are created by manifesting and unmanifesting possibilities: some possibilities are manifest while others are unmanifest. Since all possibilities always exist, (although they are not always visible to the senses) the world of possibilities never changes. The fact that I’m sitting in my chair, therefore, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a version of my body lying on the bed. My body is simultaneously on the bed although as a possibility and not reality. The soul’s consciousness is now focused on the body on the chair, and defocused from the body on the bed.

Given that the soul focuses on different bodies one after another—like neon lights going on or off—the soul itself is not moving when the body seems to move from the chair to the bed. Even the individual bodies—e.g. on the chair and on the bed—are simultaneously fixed in their respective states. The appearance of change is created neither by the motion of the soul, nor by the motion of the body, but by the changing relation between a soul and multiple different bodies. The same soul passes through different bodies and “lights them up” one after another. The soul is called dehin (embodied) and the body is called deha and both are fixed. The motion is the changing relationship between the soul and the different bodies. The soul is thus not the body.

Two False Notions About the Soul and the Body

Most people imagine that if there is a soul in the body, then as the body moves, the soul must move along with the body. There are two false notions in this conception of soul and body. First, the body is not moving, because all bodies (on the bed and on the chair) exist simultaneously as possibilities, although they are not perceived by the soul simultaneously; matter is inert in Sāńkhya and it never moves. Second, the soul is also not moving with the body because the soul is always unchanged; rather, the soul only observes the different unmanifest states of matter, and this observation manifests the body. Thus, neither the body nor the soul is moving. The motion is only an experience.

This experience is created when the soul is connected to the different states of unmanifest matter. As we saw above, prāna converts the unmanifest manas (idea) into the manifest vāk (object). Therefore, as the soul is connected to different states of the unmanifest matter, a manifest body is produced by prāna. The connection between the soul and the body is thus prāna and this connection is also the cause of the body in the sense that the connection manifests the body from the unmanifest.

Prāna focuses the soul’s consciousness onto a particular state of unmanifest matter. In the process, prāna also acts on the unmanifest matter to create a manifest body. Neither the body nor the soul is moving in this process. Only the prāna is attaching the soul’s consciousness to different unmanifest matter states, which then produce a slew of increasingly gross forms of matter until the gross body is created.

The Creation of the Universe Through Prāna

The Śrimad Bhāgavatam describes how the universe is created by Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu’s “glance” over unmanifest matter called pradhāna. By this “glance,” Lord Viṣṇu’s prāna is focused on unmanifest matter, which then automatically produces manifest matter. This manifestation begins with mahattattva, and proceeds through other material elements called ego, intelligence, mind, senses, sensations, and sense objects. The “glance” of Lord Viṣṇu involves His “life breath” or prāna and His attention towards pradhāna results in “breathing out” innumerable universes. The notable difference is that He “breathes out” not just from his nose but from all the pores of His body. Each pore of His body is thus a different aspect of His consciousness which focuses on different aspects of pradhāna in order to create innumerable different universes.

The process by which Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu creates myriad universes is therefore also the process by which the soul’s prāna creates their diverse bodies. The primary difference is that the soul only creates one body after another, while Karanodakaśāyī Viṣṇu creates all the universes at once. This difference is attributable to the fact that our consciousness has only one aspect while the consciousness of Lord Viṣṇu has many aspects. Through these aspects, He can know many different things simultaneously, and that’s why He is vibhu. The soul, on the other hand, can only know one thing at a time, and he is thus anu. We are all intimately familiar with the fact that we cannot have multiple thoughts at the same time. Even those who claim to “multi-task” are only rapidly shifting the focus from one task to another, not actually doing them simultaneously. Lord Viṣṇu is different because He can multi-task on innumerable tasks simultaneously. He can therefore see all the material universes at once, but we only see our material bodies one by one.

The essential ingredient for converting the unmanifest to manifest is prāna—the agency that connects the soul to the unmanifest and converts it into the manifest. The prāna thus has two functions: (1) connecting the soul to the unmanifest, and (2) converting the unmanifest into the manifest. As prāna connects the soul to the unmanifest, a variety of layers of matter (mentioned above) are manifest one after another. Each such layer of matter is connected to the previous layer through prāna, and the topmost layer of pradhāna is connected to the soul by prāna. Prāna is therefore not a layer of matter; it is rather the connection between all layers of matter, and also the connection between the unmanifest layer of matter and the soul. Prāna is the reason why all these layers of matter are stuck to each other, and why the soul is stuck to the material world.

The yogi who is able to control the prāna can not only change his bodies but also use the same prāna to become detached from the material world, and eventually transcend all material attachments. Indeed, the control of prāna is said to be the method by which a yogi gives up their material body, accepts a new material body, and finally “transfers” the soul out of the material world. Prāna is the agency by which Lord Viṣṇu creates the material phenomena from the unmanifest, and when He withdraws that prāna all the universal phenomena automatically disappear as the prāna goes back into His body.

Prāna and the Three Śakti

The Vaishnava Tantra describe three śakti of Lord Viṣṇubhūti-śakti, kriya-śakti, and māya-śakti. The bhūti-śakti in the material world is the power of being or what we generally call “I am”. It indicates the role of the living entity in relation to other things. The kriya-śakti is the power of action and constitutes the material body of the living entity. This is the agency by which Lord Viṣṇu translates His will to create, maintain, and destroy the material universes. The well-known trinity of Vedic literature—called Brahma, Viṣṇu, and Siva—who respectively create, maintain, and destroy the universes, are said to be aspects of the kriya-śakti in the Vaishnava Tantra.

Each of these śakti, however, is an energy of God, which means it lies in a state of potential. It does not act unless impelled by the will of God. The conversion of this will into action is mediated by prānawhich is the vehicle for carrying the will of the soul. Thus, the will of the soul is the agent of causality and prāna is the instrument through which the causality is affected.

The Relevance of Prāna to Modern Science

The different states of the body are different bodies and the connection between these bodies is a non-material soul. Thus, a material object does not create continuity between material states. It is rather the soul that experiences the sense of continuity between the different states—e.g. from childhood, to youth, to old age. Bhagavad-Gita describes how the soul transmigrates to a new body, and the process of this transmigration is similar to the process by which the soul changes bodies in this life. As we have seen above, neither the soul nor the body is moving. The movement is the changing relationship between a soul and the different bodies.

The transmigration of the soul is the effect of prāna attaching the soul to a different body, which until then existed in an unmanifest state. As the soul is attached to this unmanifest body, the prāna produces grosser forms of matter. The soul is, therefore, “transported” from one body to another by prāna, but in this transportation, neither the soul nor the body is moving. The motion is simply a new attachment between soul and matter.

Sāńkhya thus offers a radically different explanation of motion. When ordinary phenomena are described in a radically new way, then the transmigration of the soul is also a “motion” like the other motions we perceive at present. The scientific theory that describes the motion of matter correctly will also be a theory that describes the soul’s transmigration. In that sense, the theory of motion—i.e. science—is not different from the fundamental principles on which real spirituality is founded: i.e. that we are not this body, we are, rather, spiritual particles or souls.