Pranamaya Kosha: The Self of Life
Next in the hierarchy of selves within the human being is the Pranamaya Kosha the Self of Life. In the Vedantic psychology, the Life-force is called as Prana. Prasna Upanishad describes Prana in the following words:
“As the bees with the King bee, when he goes out all go out with him and when he abides all abide, even so was it with speech, Mind and Sight and Hearing”.
Key Perspectives: Prana vidya; Horse of the World; Consuming Fire of Desire; hunger that is death; eater eating is eaten; freedom from desire.
The Prana Vidya
Thus Prana in the ancient Indian conception is the Life-force which animates both our physical and psychological being our body, mind and senses. The Pranamaya Kosha is the seat of the Life-force or pranic energy in man which is the source of all power, strength, energy, enthusiasm, dynamism and the realising force. It is the pranic energy which gives the effectuating force to our will and the power and strength to realise our ideas in our inner and outer life. Without sufficient strength in this part of the being all our lofty ideals will remain only as pious and impotent abstractions or sentiments in our thought or feelings and good intentions in our will with no force to put them into practice and make them dynamic realities of life. So, strength in the Pranamaya Kosha is indispensable for effective askesis or Tapas and therefore for success in any endeavour mundane or spiritual. This is the reason upanishadic culture gave great importance to Prana. “As the spokes meet in the Pave of a wheel, so are all things in the Prana established. The Rig-Veda and the Yajur and the Soma and sacrifice and Brahmin hood and Kshathriahood“, thus exalts Prasna Upanishad the glory of Prana.
There are clear indications in the Upanishads that there were in this period in ancient India, great spiritual disciplines centrally based on life-force, Prana-vidyas. There seemed to be an attempt to trace the spiritual source of Prana and to make use of this principle as the path and power for spiritual liberation, immortality and perfection. For example a verse in the Prana Upanishad says “By knowing the origin of Prana, his coming and his staying and his lordship in the five provinces and his relationship to the spirit, one shall taste immortality“.
The Horse of the World
In Brihadaranyaka Upanishad there was a vigorous and powerful imagery of the of the sacrifice of the Horse of the World Aswameda Yajna, which is a magnificent symbol of the universal life-force in all its dynamic mighty and progressive movement. For as we have seen in our earlier discussions on the Vedas, Horse symbolizes force and energy, especially vital force or pranic energy. The Upanishads description of Aswameda Yajna is the symbolic image of the Universal Life-force. Here is the breath-taking and gigantic imagery of the Horse of the World described in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.
“Dawn is the head of the horse sacrificial. The sun is his eye, his breath is the wind, his wide open mouth is fore, the universal energy, Time is the self of the horse sacrificial Heaven is his back and the mid-region is his belly, Earth is his footing, the quarters are his flaks and these intermediate regions are his ribs; the seasons are his members, the months and the half-months are that on which he stands, the stars are his bones and the sky is the flesh of his body; the rising day is his front portion, and the setting day is his hinder portion. When he stretches himself, then it lightens; when he shakes himself, then it thunders; when he urines then it rains. Speech verily is the voice of him. Day was the grandeur that was born before the horse as he galloped, the Eastern Ocean gave it birth. Night was the grandeur that was born in his rear and its birth was in the Western waters.”
The Consuming Fire of Desire
We will not enter into the deeper meaning and interpretation of this Upanishadic image. Interested readers may refer to Sri Aurobindo’s penetrating and insightful exposition of this passage in his writing on the Upanishad. But that which is relevant to our discussion is not this passage but the opening verse of the next Brahmana of the Upanishad which describes the essential nature or law of this great life-force in a significant and profound passage as Asana Mrithya, “Hunger that is Death”.
What is this Hunger that is Death. It is Desire. The predominant psychological motive that drives the pranic force in man is Desire, is in essence an insatiable Hunger or craving of the limited, bound and struggling life-force in man. In fact it is Desire which is the driving force of life even the plant and the animal life. But in this subhuman domain the desire is subconscious. Only in man it begins to become conscious of its own motives and aims. But even in man, in his physical being, desire is mostly half-conscious expressing itself as the physical thirst and hunger for food, sleep and sex; it becomes more conscious in the emotional being as the emotional desire for possession and enjoyment and to love and to be loved. In the higher vital being it becomes the conscious desire for success and achievement, or in other words ambition, – and for creative self-expression. Now we have a fairly clear picture of the nature of Pranamaya Kosha. It is made of emotions and vitality driven by desire with its various motives like the urge for possession, enjoyment, affiliation, achievement, success.
But Upanishad describes Desire as a Hunger that is Death. It means the Desire is contrary to one of the central aims of the Upanishadic culture, Immortality. But why Desire is described as Death? The answer is given in another profound Upanishadic verse: “Eater Eating is Eaten” which means the one who desires, in the very act of consuming his physical, vital or mental food to fulfill his desire is himself consumed in the process. We must note here that “death” here means not only the physical death of the body but the disintegration and exhaustion of the life-force which is essential for effective tapasya, energetic and concentrated effort, that leads to success in whatever domain, material, secular or tapasya.
There are three factors which make human Desire a process of Death. First, in the human being desire is a limited force of the conditioned ego, struggling against the environment and trying to possess, master, enjoy and a mass as much of the universal forces as it can with its available capacity and against the competing egos of others. And second, there is the inescapable law of mutual interdependence and interaction, “eater eating is eaten”, the desire who consumes the food for the fulfillment of his desire become the food for something or someone else. Third factor is the difficult task of maintaining the right balance of energy. The process and the effort which proceed from desire and the fulfillment of desire involves consumption, assimilation and expenditure of energy. If the right balance between them is not maintained it leads to exhaustion and disintegration of the being which means death.
In the language of modern science, we may say that the energy of a limited and conditioned ego, closed to the needs and aims of others and the environment and the universe, exclusively concentrated on itself and the fulfillment of its own desires is subject to the third law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy. This law states that energy in a closed system tends towards a state of increasing disorder along with the flow of Time which means a movement towards disintegration and death. The size of the ego and the force or intensity of desire make no difference to the functioning of the law. The ego may be huge and titanic life that of the great Asuras of the Indian mythology-or of the modern kind like Alexander or Napoleon – making the whole world the object of its ambition or a tiny thing like that of an average man in the street. But big or small, an ego exclusively concentrated on the fulfillment of its own desires is a limited and closed systems and the energy of such an ego is subject to the law of entropy which means disintegration and death.
Freedom from Desire
This is the reason why the Upanishadic thought gave the highest priority to the elimination of desire as the indispensable condition for realising immortality. According to Katha Upanishad this freedom from desire leads straight to immortality, not in some other worlds after the death of the body, but here and now in this human body:
“When every desire that finds lodging in the heart of man has been loosened from its moorings, then this mortal puts on immortality: even here he tastes God, in this human body” (Katha Upanishad II, 3, 14)
The above verse of the Katha Upanishad gives an indication of the spiritual culture of the Upanishad. The method suggested for dealing with desire is described as Kamaha Pramuchayate which means loosening the knots of desire. This suggests a non-ascetic discipline for mastering desire. The phenomenon of desire is a tightening cluth of the life-force- in the form of vital attachment on the object of desire. This clutch of attachment has to be relaxed and loosened by an inner detachment from the object of desire. The panic force has to be persuaded to unloose and “let go” its grip on the object of desire. These objects of desire can be both inner and outer. It can be the gross desire for the outer sense – objects or a subtle attachment for the objects of the inner world like persons, ideas, ideals, emotions, and experiences etc. Every tightening movement of attachment creates a little knot, granthi, in the life-force. Prolonged and persistent indulgence in the many – sided current of desire leads to a thick, complex, tangled and twisted knot in the life-force. This knot has to be first loosened by selfless work dedicated to the Eternal and by inner detachment and finally has to be cut asunder by the sword of spiritual knowledge, insight and understanding. So says Upanishad in the next verse:
“Yea, when all the knots of the heart are rent asunder, even here, in this human birth; the mortal becomes immortal. This is the whole teaching of the scripture“(Katha Upanishad, II,3,15)
Note the significant difference in meaning between kamaha pramuchyathe “loosening of desire” of the previous verse and “grantha prabiduanthe” “cutting the knots” of the next verse. First is an act of renunciation and second is an act of knowledge. Selfless and dedicated action and inner detachment can liberate only the conscious parts of our personality from desire but it can’t do much to unloose the subconscious roots desire. Ascetic suppression of desire can neither unloose the knot of conscious desire nor can it deal effectively with the subconscious roots of desire. It only closes its eyes or tries to escape from the outer objects of desire and pushes the tightening tentacles of desire inward and downward into the subconscious. The ultimate conquest of desire can be achieved only by a spiritual knowledge and will which can penetrate into the subconscious and cut asunder the very roots of the tree of desire or to use the terminology of the Buddhist Yogis extinguish that fire of Tanha, that formless subconscious craving or yearning for life at the nether roots of our being which drives the wheel of samsara. Sri Aurobindo, in his mystic muse Savitri describes with potent force, which comes from living experience, this process of inner spiritual surgery that severes the guardian knot of desire at its very roots.
“A veiled collaboration with the Night
Even in himself survived and hid from his view:
Still something in his earthly being kept
Its Kinship with the Inconscient when it came.
A shadowy unity with a vanished past
Treasured in an old world-frame was lurking there,
Secret, unnoted by the illumined Mind
And in subconscious whispers and in dreams
Still murmured at the mind’s and spirit’s choice
Its treacherous elements spread like slippery grains
Hoping the incoming Truth might stumble and fall
This now he willed to discovered and exile
The element in him betraying God
All Nature’s recondite spaces were stripped bare
All her dim crypts and corners searched with fire
Where refugee instincts and unshaped revolts could shelter find in darkness’s sanctuary
Against the white purity of heaven’s cleansing flame
All seemed to have perished that was undivine;
Yet some minutest dissident might escape
And still a centre lurk of the blend force.
For the Inconscient too is infinite
The more its abysses we insist to sound
The more its stretches, stretches endlessly
Then list a human cry should spoil the Truth
He tore desire up from its bleeding roods
And offered to the goods the vacant place
Thus could be bear the touch immaculate”(2)
And what happens to the life-force and its creative dynanism when the desire is uprooted from man’s life-force ? Will he not loose all the motives for work and action and become in active ? He may achieve inner peace and freedom and realise “conscious immortality” of his soul. But what is the position of his life-force ? Will it not loose all the dynamism provided by desire and will become uncreative and useless for life? The answer is on the contrary. When the life-force is freed from ego and desire – nor by ascetic suppression but by the spiritual process we are describing so far – it becomes potentially much more creative, dynamic and powerful because it is consciously united with the universal life-force. Here again Sri Aurobindo describes further the inner spiritual transformation which follows this uprooting of Desire.
A last and mightiest transformation came.
His soul was all infront like a great sea
Flooding the mind and body with its waves
His being spread to embrace the Universe
United the within and without
To make of life a cosmic harmony
An empire of the Immanent Divine
In this tremendous Universality
Nor only his soul-nature and mind-sense
Included every soul and mind in his
But even the life of flesh and nerve was changed
And grew one flesh and nerve with all that lives
He felt the joy of others as his joy,
He bore the grief of others as his grief
His universal sympathy upbore,
Immense like ocean, the creation’s load
As earth upbears all being’s sacrifice
Thrilled with the hidded transcendent’s joy and peace.” (2)