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)

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