Prashna Upanishad

Prashna Upanishad is in ब्राह्मण Brahmana part of Atharva Veda (Shaunak branch) while Mundaka Upanishad is in मन्त्र Mantra part of the same Veda. Prashnopanishad is the elaboration of verses in Mundakopanishad, but traditionally it is studied before Mundakopanishad; it starts with the anecdote of six ऋषि rishis (seers) - all well versed in Vedas but interested in Absolute Self-Realization - going to Rishi Pippalad who they thought would guide them correctly. Rishi Pippalad asks them to remain in his ashrama for a year observing spiritual disciples such as ब्रह्मचर्य brahmacharya (celibacy), तपस्या tapasya (austerities) etc. After a year they are allowed to ask questions; each rishi asks a question and gets appropriate reply from Pippalad. These six प्रश्न prashnas (questions) and their answers form the content of the Upanishad.

We present here the notes taken from the audio talks by Revered Ramananada Saraswati on Prashnopanishad. The talks also take into consideration the Bhashya of Shankaracharya and the Tika of Anandagiri. (The original text for the Upanishad can be downloaded from sanskritdocuments.org)

* Question I
* Question II
* Question III
* Question IV
* Question V
* Question VI

Question I Top

First question is asked by Rishi Kabandhi also known as Katyayan: From what are all these beings born?

The question is about all the phenomenal names and forms and it also indirectly points to the result obtained by those who are कर्मनिष्ठ karmanishtha (seeking higher spheres of existence and devoted to scriptural rites and worships). The answer explains the process of evolution of phenomenal universe and its beings; it also explains various spheres of existence available for beings desirous of them. A true spiritual aspirant one who wants to break free from the phenomenal universe and merge in Absolute Reality gets a clear idea of the limiting and ephemeral nature of all these spheres of existence by the answer to this first question.

Rishi Pippalad replies: in the beginning of कल्प kalpa (cosmic cycle), प्रजापति prajapati - one who had practiced scriptural rites and meditations in previous cosmic cycle and hence had the necessary knowledge - evolved as हिरण्यगर्भ hiranyagarbha (golden womb, Lord of all beings). Then He did तपस्या tapasya i.e. He deliberated on the knowledge which he had practiced in last cycle. From that He created the couple of रयि rayi (matter) i.e. सोम soma (moon) or अन्न anna (food) AND प्राण prana (energy) i.e. सुर्य surya (sun) or अत्ता atta (eater) thinking that they will create all other beings. Thus prajapati Himself became rayi (gross) and prana (subtle); the distinction between the two being of inferiority and superiority only.

Subtle absorbs gross hence subtle is भोक्ता bhokta (eater/enjoyer) and gross is भोज्य bhojya (food/enjoyed), but when distinction is not made on the basis of superiority/inferiority then all may be termed as gross/food since everything in the universe is absorbed by something else. Similarly sun pervades every direction or in other word prana (energy) manifests as vital force in all beings hence everything may be termed as subtle/eater. Those who have realized Brahman know the sun as their own Self.

Now how does the pair of sun and moon produce all beings? The combination of days and nights - produced by sun and moon - constitutes a संवत्सर samvatsar (year); thus year is identical with the couple of prana (sun) and rayi (moon). Also during a year the sun moves in उत्तरायण uttarayan (Northern Course) for six months and in दक्षिणायन dakshinayan (Southern Course) for six months. Those who desire progeny and heaven from performance of scriptural rites go to heaven called पितृलोक pitriloka (world of Manes) or चन्द्रलोक chandraloka (Lunar Sphere) i.e. a world which is result of rayi (food/gross) part of Prajapati (Lord) through the path of Southern Course; and after exhausting their merits return back to earth. While others who perform scriptural rites with worship, meditation, austerity, celibacy etc. go to सुर्यलोक suryaloka (Solar Sphere) or ब्रह्मलोक brahmaloka (highest sphere of existence) i.e. a world which is result of prana (eater/subtle) part of Prajapati (Lord) through the path of Northern Course; and unlike the previous ones they do not return back to earth. The performers of rites sans worship can not enter brahmaloka. Thus Southern Course and Northern Course are rayi and prana, while the year which constitutes these two is verily Prajapati.

Similarly मास maas (months) - which are parts of a year - are also Prajapati; कृष्णपक्ष krishnapaksha (dark fortnight) and शुक्लपक्ष shuklapaksha (bright fortnight) are identical to rayi and prana respectively. Those who are devoted to scriptural rites sans worship perform their sacrifices in dark fortnight i.e. their outlook being gross, it is always krishnapaksha for them and others devoted to rites and worship together, perform their sacrifices in bright fortnight i.e. their outlook being subtle, it is always shulkapaksha for them. Further days and nights are also Prajapati, दिन din (day) being prana part and रात्रि raatri (night) being rayi part. Those people who mate with their wives in daytime loose prana (energy) while those who mate at night and in proper season are considered as good as celibates. Next, food is Prajapati and it further becomes रक्त rakra (blood), वीर्य virya (semen) etc; from semen प्रजा praja (gross forms) are formed.
Thus answer to first question is completed with the explanation of process of Prajapati (Lord) becoming successively rayi, prana, samvastar, uttarayan, dakshinayan, maas, shulkapaksha, krishnapaksha, din, raatri, anna, virya, praja.
Those married couples who follow the vow of Prajapati i.e. who are truthful, austere, devoted to scriptural duties etc. go to Lunar Sphere i.e. world of forefathers while ब्रह्मचारी brahmachari (celibates), वानप्रस्थ vaanaprastha (forest-dwellers), and भिक्षुक bhikshuk (monks) who perform work with worship - and unlike householders are devoid of crookedness of mind - go to brahmaloka i.e. the highest sphere of existence.

The answer to this question should create dislike in the minds of spiritual aspirants for any form of limited existence in any sphere and they should devote themselves to Self-realization alone.

Question II Top

In Mundaka Upanishad it is mentioned that knowledge is of two types: पराविद्या para vidya (higher knowledge) and अपराविद्या apara vidya (lower knowledge); out of these two the lower knowledge consists of कर्म karma (scriptural rites/sacrifices) and उपासना upasana (worship/meditation). The karma part is explained in the संहिता samhita portion of the Veda and now the upasana part is elaborated in second and third questions of Prashnopanishad.

In answering the first question it was explained that prana (vital force/energy) is Prajapati (Lord) and bhokta (eater/enjoyer); now this fact is to be explained in relation to particular body, because the spiritual aspirant, who developed dispassion for phenomenal universe on hearing answer to first question, needs concentration of mind to reach the goal of Self-realization. And for this the aspirant has to understand the importance of prana, so the second question is asked by Bhargav (also known as Vaidarbhi): How many deities sustain this praja i.e. the body? Among them how many illumine the senses (of action and knowledge)? Also which one is the chief among them?

The answer given by Rishi Pippalad is: space, air, fire, water, and earth are the deities that form the body; senses of knowledge (eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin), senses of action (hands, legs, speech, organs of generation and excretion), and mind are the gods that claim pre-eminence over the body. But it is prana that is of highest importance among all. Prana is verily sun, moon, cloud, indra, rudra, air, fire, earth, food, gross, subtle, support of all Vedas and castes, father, mother, senses, Lord of all names and forms.
Thus prana - the main vital force is glorified variously so that the spiritual aspirant can concentrate on prana knowing its importance.

* Process of mind purification and dawn of Supreme Knowledge:

शास्त्रीय कर्म shastriya karma
(scriptural,duty bound, and moral work or self-less work)
goes against
Personal राग raag and द्वेष dwesh
(attachments and hatred)
this leads to   
एकाग्रता ekagrata,
अन्तर्मुखता antarmukhata (inwardness)
abhyasa (practice) and
upasana (worship)
results in
चित्तशुध्दि chittashuddhi
gives the mind   
(ability to acquire Knowledge)
ज्ञान-वृत्ति उदय
jnana-vritti udaya
(dawn of Supreme Knowledge)
Conclusion: बुध्दि buddhi (intellect) or विचार vichara (cogitation)
by itself can not cut ego. निष्काम कर्मयोग nishkam karmayoga
(self-less work) is necessary in order that buddhi become
capable of acquiring Supreme Knowledge.

* Main obstacles to Self-Knowledge (ज्ञान-प्रतिबन्ध jnana-pratibandha):

विषयासक्ति vishayasakti
(attachment to sense-objects)
(lack of conviction)
बुध्दिमान्द्य buddhi-mandya
(dull intellect)
Remedy: discrimination and restrain Remedy: study of scriptures Remedy: self-less service

Question III Top

The prana that is glorified in answer to the second question is to be understood properly so that it can be meditated upon i.e. it can be worshiped by spiritual aspirant. For this reason this third question is asked by Kausalya (also known as Aashwalayan): From where is this prana born? How does it come into this body? How it dwells in the body by dividing itself? How does it depart from the body? How does it support cosmic and individual body?

Rishi Pippalad replies: Prana is born from Self; how? Just as shadow of a person is seen similarly this prana is shadow of Self in body and it comes in body due to activities of the mind. In the body it divides itself variously to carry out different functions: in organs of excretion it operates known as अपान apaan while in the eyes, ears, nose area it acts itself primarily; it circulates the food eaten throughout the body by acting as समान samaan; thus all the functions of senses (of action and knowledge) are carried out by prana. It acts as व्यान vyaan when it covers the whole body through a network of nerves; the number of total nerves is 72,72,10,201 and this is calculates as:

Main 101 nerves in heart region = 101
The main 101 nerves have 100 branches each 101 x 100 = 10100
These 10100 have 72000 sub-branches each: 10100 x 72000 = 727200000     
Total = 727210201

Vyaan's position is at bone-joints & critical points in body and it is also in between apana and prana; thus it is responsible for works that require physical effort.
Out of the 10 main nerves mentioned above one nerve known as सुषुम्ना sushumna goes upward from heart. At death prana acting as उदान udaan moves through sushumna and carries the soul to heaven if merits are predominant or to hell if sins are predominant and to human birth on earth if merits and sins are even.

Prana with its subdivisions explained above corresponds to आध्यात्मिक aadhyatmik (individual aspect) and now as an answer to the remaining part of third question, prana in its आधिदैविक aadhidaivik (cosmic aspect) is explained as: Sun is verily external prana, Earth is verily external apaan, general Air in space is verily external samaan, particular Air everywhere is verily external vyaan and general तेज teja (luminosity) everywhere is verily external udaan. Hence after death when body is still warm for some time, it indicates that the soul has not yet fully discarded it; and when soul - along with all pranas and senses - leave the body completely, it becomes cold and stiff. At that time all the senses and mind merge in prana known as udaan which in turn carries the soul to next body; the next birth is determined by the thoughts in mind at this time. Whatever an aspirant has practiced throughout his/her life will rise in his/her mind at the time of death. Swami Vivekananda says:

'... the soul migrates and manufactures body after body, and each thought we think, and each deed we do, is stored in it in fine forms, ready to spring up again and take a new shape. When I look at you a wave rises in my mind. It dives down, as it were, and becomes finer and finer, but it does not die. It is ready to start up again as a wave in the shape of memory. So all these impressions are in my mind, and when I die the resultant force of them will be upon me. A ball is here, and each one of us takes a mallet in his hands and strikes the ball from all sides; the ball goes from point to point in the room, and when it reaches the door it flies out. What does it carry out with it? The resultant of all these blows. That will give it its direction. So, what directs the soul when the body dies? The resultant, the sum total of all the works it has done, of the thoughts it has thought. If the resultant is such that it has to manufacture a new body for further experience, it will go to those parents who are ready to supply it with suitable material for that body. Thus, from body to body it will go, sometimes to a heaven, and back again to earth, becoming man, or some lower animal.'

Anybody who realizes this nature of prana as explained in this answer achieves following result while alive: his/her line of progeny consisting of children, grandchildren etc. remains unbroken; after death he/she becomes one with cosmic prana and thus achieves immortality.

Question IV Top

In first three questions, spiritual aspirant developed dispassion from phenomenal universe and transmigration cycle, then knowing the importance of prana meditated on it and thus achieved concentration and purity of mind. Such an aspirant is fit to hear about the ultimate Truth hence next three questions are started.

In Mundaka Upanishad (verse II.i.1) it was stated that all phenomenal objects issue forth from the Immutable Truth like sparks from fire and then merge back into It again. How these objects come from Truth, how they merge again into It, and what are the characteristics of this Immutable Truth - these are to be elaborated in answer to this fourth question which is asked by Gargya (also known as Sauryayani): Which are the organs that go to sleep in this पुरुष purush (person)? Which keep awake in him? Which deity experiences dream? To whom occurs happiness? In whom do all get merged?

The first two parts of the question point to waking state, third to dream state, fourth to deep-sleep state, while the last part is about तुरीय turiya (Transcendental Fourth) i.e. the substratum of Pure-Consciousness-Bliss for all three states.

Rishi Pippalad answers: When sun sets, it absorbs all its rays into itself and when it rises, all its rays are again dispersed; similarly in sleep, all the senses are absorbed into mind and their functioning stops; then at waking time the senses again come out of the mind. When man/woman sleeps, prana with its five sub-divisions remain awake in the body; mind goes to dream state and from dream it goes to deep-sleep state with the help of udaan. In dream state, mind experiences its own glory with impressions from waking state and by itself becoming the seen, unseen dream entities, and enjoyer. In deep-sleep mind is in close proximity to the Self and thus gets flooded by It's light, this results in peace and bliss in entire body; body-senses-mind being inactive in this state, the nature of Self is non-dual Pure-Consciousness-Bliss. Just as birds return to the tree that provides them lodging, the senses, sense-objects, mind, thoughts, and all that is experienced in waking and dream states return to Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Self in deep-sleep.

It has to be understood that the experience of the three states (of waking, dream, and deep-sleep) is due to ignorance of Self and because of the limiting adjunct of mind, otherwise the Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Self remains always unaffected. Due to mind, the Self appears as doer, enjoyer, seer, hearer, cogitator etc. and on merging of mind in Absolute Self, the limited appearance of 'self' and 'world' vanish. One who realizes this true Self becomes infinite, all-knowing, and 'enters in' all beings i.e. becomes the Self of all.

Question V Top

In Mundaka Upanishad (verse II.ii.4) it was stated that the ॐ aum is 'bow', conditioned self is 'arrow', and Pure Self (Brahman) is the 'target'; here in fifth question this is elaborated by pointing out the way to reach Absolute Brahman via ब्रह्मलोक brahmaloka (highest phenomenal sphere of existence) by means of meditation on aum.

Fifth question is asked by Shaibya (also known as Satyakaam): the spiritual aspirant who practices प्रणवोपासना pranavopasana (worship of/meditation on aum) till death, which sphere of existence does he/she conquer?

Spiritual aspirant who tries to realize his/her true Self as Pure-Consciousness-Bliss has to restrain his/her outgoing tendencies and has to concentrate mind on Truth; this concentration of mind can be with the help of some mantra or pure ॐ aum. Here the question is about such an aspirant who has concentrated his/her mind on aum throughout life and his/her journey after death.

Rishi Pippalad replies: ॐ aum is verily अपर apara (lower/qualified) and पर para (higher/absolute) Brahman; through the worship of aum, an aspirant attains to either of them. Lower Brahman points to brahmaloka while higher Brahman is infinite Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Reality. One who meditates only on the first letter of aum (अ A) attains human re-birth and is endowed with virtues like austerity, celibacy etc. Meditation on first letter implies that the aspirant worships the gross, waking state aspect of the cosmic Self. One who meditates on second letter of aum (उ U) i.e. on the subtle, dream-state aspect of cosmic Self attains सोमलोक somaloka (sphere of Moon) and after a while returns back to human plane. And one who meditates on aum as the symbol of Supreme Self with all three letters of aum (अ A, उ U, म M) in mind, becomes free from all sins and attains to the highest sphere of existence i.e. brahmaloka or Hiranyagarbha; and from there to Absolute Brahman.

While meditating on ॐ aum if it's three letters are meditated upon separately and devoid of their connection to Brahman then the meditation is not able to result in immortality; but if the three letters are joined together pointing to Brahman alone and related to three states of consciousness (waking, dream, deep-sleep) then the aspirant does not get affected by anything. The aspirant realizes the unity of three states with ॐ aum and also with substratum of all three states i.e. Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Self; thus the aspirant becomes Self, one with entire universe; then who can deviate him/her and where?

* In Mandukya Upanishad, the three letters of aum were indicated to represent waking, dream, and deep-sleep states and silence after the three letters of aum (अमात्रा amaatraa) was indicated as substratum Pure-Consciousness-Bliss. The process was of discrimination and knowledge; no worship or meditation was enjoined there. Here in the fifth question of Prashna Upanishad, aum is described as a symbol for worship of Supreme and thus the path towards Supreme Knowledge through brahmaloka.

Question VI Top

In Mundakopanishad (verse II.i.3) it was mentioned that from Absolute Brahman proceeds प्राण prana (vital force), मन mana (mind), इन्द्रिय indriya (senses), and five elements; this is elaborated in the sixth question asked by Sukesha (also known as Bharadwaaj): Where is the पुरुष Purusha (Supreme Person) with sixteen limbs (षोडशकला shodasha-kalaa)?

It was mentioned earlier in answer to third question that prana emerges out of the Self and during deep-sleep, the entire phenomenon - mind, prana, senses, external world - merges back in Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Self. Realization of this Self gives the spiritual aspirant final liberation and infinite peace & bliss. Now the question is where to find this Purusha?

Rishi Pippalad replies: the Purusha with sixteen limbs is present here in this body. Here it is to be understood that the Purusha (Supreme Self) though mentioned as within body, is not limited by the body. The Self is infinite and can not be taken as having any limbs or parts. Just as all pervasive space is found to be enclosed in a pot, so also the infinite Self can be found within body. Also because of the experience of cogitation, vision, motion etc. (उपलब्धिनिमितत्वात् upalabdhinimitattvat), the Self is thought to be within the body.

The sixteen parts of the Self, that were referred to, are now described in order.
The Purusha deliberated: 'As a result of whose departure shall I rise up? And as a result of whose continuance shall I remain established?' Then He created prana and from prana, श्रध्दा shraddha (faith), space, air, fire, water, earth, senses, mind, and food. From food He created vigour, self-control, mantra, karma, and लोक: lokah (phenomenal worlds); and names for beings in those worlds. These are the various कला kalaa (parts) of the same Purusha and are fixed on Him as spokes are fixed on the nave of chariot wheel. These parts appear from Purusha and then merge back into Him as rivers merge into ocean. One who realizes this Truth i.e. one who realizes the emergence, continuance, and dissolution of phenomenal universe in Supreme Self, becomes immortal as he/she realizes his/her identity with this infinite Pure-Consciousness-Bliss Reality.

Thus rishi Pippalad explained the Self to these six disciples and said, 'I have known the Supreme Brahman thus far. There is nothing beyond this'. The disciples understood the Truth and worshipped him by bowing down and saying, 'You indeed are our father as you have ferried us across ignorance to the other shore. Salutations to the Great Seer, Salutations to the Great Seer.'

   | ॐ शान्ति: | ॐ शान्ति: | ॐ शान्ति: |
| Om Peace | Om Peace | Om Peace |