Prakriti and Purusha

We’ve been having a little bit of fun here contemplating a branch of Hindu philosophy called “Samkhya.” The word Samkhya means “enumeration” or “list” – so it is a categorical, analytical approach to spiritual knowledge. Samkhya is one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy and it is expounded most comprehensively in a treatise called the “Samkhya Karika” from the 2nd century. That text identifies itself as Tantric.

Samkhya concepts are also found throughout the classical literature such as the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. It should be remembered that the enumerative lists of Samkhya, the divisions and categories, are actually tools for the recognition of unity behind diversity.

The main feature of Samkhya is the idea that all reality is composed of two principles, the primordial pair, called Purusha and Prakriti.

Everything in reality is a combination of these two: Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is formless witness – awareness and Prakriti is the ever changing material realm, all the things that are experienced in time. Purusha and Prakriti are essentially the Subject/Object of all experience, known in the Bhagavad Gita as “The field and the Knower of the field.” Understanding and contemplating this essential duality illuminates our Hatha Yoga practice. It is one of those dualities that leads us to the awareness of oneness, which is spiritual liberation.

Prakriti is nature in time: everything which is constantly changing, on the move, temporary. The name of the yoga studio we are in is “Life in Motion Yoga” and isnt it absolutely accurate to say that life itself is constant motion? Scientists now say that living cells are not only moving within themselves but also are continuously migrating, traveling around the organism. And all of nature, even inanimate nature, is composed of the perpetual vibrations of subatomic particles. From microcosm to macrocosm, nature is on the move. That is Prakriti. Yogic seers noticed this and also discerned that there is something permanent, timeless, and unchanging which forms a contrast to all the change, and by which we are able to perceive it. In agreement with physics, they proposed that the unchanging constant is light. It is the eternal, effortlessly aware light of inner Self: Purusha.

It seems that suffering comes from identifying with temporary forms rather than with the eternally witnessing Purusha. (That is sometimes called the “Sarva Sakshi”: the Witness of all.) So as yogis we are doing things to detach our attention from the temporal and to sharpen our discernment of the eternal witness consciousness. Contrary to what is now commonly understood, Hatha yoga is not a practice that is meant to intensify our exhausting identification with the ever-changing body. It is meant to put us in touch with the effortless aspect of ourselves which is beyond time and change.

An analogy of the Purusha/Prakriti principle is found in our experience of going to the movies. As we sit and watch the screen, a drama unfolds in all its variety. We become immersed, emotionally involved, in all the changes the hero or heroine endures. But what illuminates the action on screen is a single, neutral, bright and very powerful light in the projector. The film passing in front of the light is like Prakriti, and the light, is Purusha. The combination of the two projects the drama.

All of yoga concerns the process of turning within to perceive that inner light. Since Purusha is “sukshmati sukshma” (subtler than the subtlest) we work to quiet down the nervous system, cleanse it of distortions, and allow Awareness to reveal itself. If we were at the movies and the action suddenly stopped, we would turn around to find out what the problem was. And in yoga we ‘stop’ or minimize the fluctuating action of the mind, which automatically turns the attention around to the witness of the mind. This is when the Subject becomes the Object – and there occurs the marriage of the two principles.

In Hatha Yoga we consummate this marriage by moving our bodies in a way that promotes the perception of stillness at our core. We are moving to experience inner stillness.

There is something about the poses and the breathing that ‘stops’ the mind, makes it so clear and serene that the pure Self shines through. Spending time in the tranquil company of the Self, which is what meditation is, is an investment that pays off.

We humans suffer because we cling to things that are changing, we want to wrestle them to the ground- to get things to a place where we can say “And they lived happily ever after…” But no, turn your back and events are on the move again, going round and round on the wheel of time. Pleasant/unpleasant; winning/losing; achieving/failing, joy/sorrow… no end to it. Nature’s time is the game-changer. You think everything is the way it’s going to be? No it isnt. Boom! She changes everything. These are the changes that drive our adaptation and evolution. To manage the changes adroitly, we develop our identity with the neutral witness. The flow from one pose to another is an expression of this skill of staying centered while coping with transitions.

One of my favorite quotes from the Guru Gita states: “Just as fragrance is natural in a flower, or coolness in water, heat in fire, so is the Self eternal.” (V. 117)

This quote implies that you can sense the eternity of the Purusha, the inner Light. Yoga is getting down to the business of tasting it for your self. No one else can do this for you. Recognizing your own eternal aspect, finding the Purusha, is what is meant by mystics when they speak of “obtaining immortality.” When i come into a yoga class, i am looking to obtain immortality. Is that too much to ask? No! It is our birthright and the promise of Yoga.

But instead people come to learn to stand on their heads or to go from a downward dog to a handstand. Why? To amaze their friends at cocktail parties?

The great 13th century poet saint, Jnaneshwar, who died when he was only 21, described Purusha and Prakriti as two primordial lovers, “Shiva and Shakti”, who are creating the Universe with their interaction. Here is an excerpt from his poem, Amrit Anubhava : The Nectar of Self Awareness.

Amrit Anubhava

I offer homage to the god and the goddess
The infinite parents of the world

The lover out of boundless love has become the beloved
Out of love for each other they merge and part for the joy of being two
From endless time they have lived this way in union and in bliss
Without the goddess he is not and because of him she exists
Embarrassed by his formlessness and her own graceful form
She adorned him with a universe of myriad names and forms…

It is God alone in every form, the male and the female, Shiva and Shakti
From the union of these two the universe has come to be

Two lutes, one note
Two lamps, one light
Two eyes, one sight
Two lips, one word
Two hearts, one love
In this way these two create one universe.
The lover out of boundless love has become the beloved…

Jnaneshwar here has a Tantric hint for us: we can marry the mind and her constant changes, through love, to the inner Witness: make them a couple who delight in each other. Let the mercurial, changing mind constantly adore the inner Light with the oblation of mantra. Let the moving, changing body adore the inner Self with the oblation of asana.

So we will weave our practice today within the frame work of Purusha and Prakriti. In a way, this is simply a schematic upon which to pour out our love and awe of creation, a way to join in the ecstasy of the primordial lovers.

There is of course, a lot more to explore here, including the division of Prakriti into three qualities, or “gunas” known as Satva, Rajas and Tamas. You can read about these in the Bhagavad Gita and we will be discussing them in the ensuing weeks…

But for the next hour, with every breath, with every posture or attitude we assume, lets see if we can zero in with love on the timeless Purusha illuminating the action. Starting now, becoming one with the Witness, lets relax … and enjoy the show.

June 29th, 2009

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