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I Salute that Prana, the form of time and immortality, the lord of mind which volitionally dwells in the physical body, the abode of Brahma, pervading within.

Hatah Tattwa Kaumudi 1.4.

Prana is one of the most popular Sanskrit terms in yoga philosophy. Also, it is found in all the dictionaries of Indian Languages. Yet it is generally misconstrued and often confused since It has more than one meaning. At the macrocosmic level, it denotes one thing; whereas, at the microcosmic level, it denotes a different thing.

Moreover, it has various implications in various contexts. So a deep insight is needed for the right understanding.

This article fills in as an ultimate guide to confer the right comprehension of the term and provides an intuitive perception of what Indian philosophical texts mean by this term.

Prana Meaning

The Sanskrit term प्राण ( Prāṇā ) has more than twenty meanings. First, let us take some important meanings for better understanding.

  • Breath
  • Soul of human and other beings
  • The cosmic vital force that pervades everything
  • Air
  • Vital Airs found in the body
  • Kundalini Sakthi, the primal power in man
  • A time measurement equal to one-sixth of a Vinadika (One Vindika = 24 seconds). So, a Prana is equal to four seconds.

The simple meaning of Prana is breath. The verb form of Prana is prāṇiti which means to breathe. The other meanings are in some way or other associated with breath. Sometimes, the air we breathe in is called as such. Likewise, it denotes the air that travels inside the body. Also, it is a time measurement equal to four seconds. Here too, you can see the meaning that associates with the breath considering the fact that the time duration for normal inhalation is four seconds.

Similarly, it means the vital air that moves inside Nadis. Likewise, it signifies the Kundalini Sakthi.

Also, it denotes the life energy that resides in the body during the life of a being. Once the Prana left the body, the living being becomes dead. Again, it should be noted that it is associated with breath. This is because death comes when the breath stops. In the same context, it is called a soul or Atman. In the philosophy of Vedanta, Atman and Brahman are one and the same. Some Upanishads call Prana Brahman. In that sense, it also denotes the cosmic vital force.

By broad utilization, the term has come to have these undertones. However, it has a bigger significance and a more noteworthy import.

Then, What exactly is Prana correctly?

Prasna Upanishad comes to our help to make us rightly understand it.

Meaning of Prana as per Prasna Upanishad

Prasna Upanishad is an Indian spiritual text that has been around for at any rate 3000 years. It is in the form of queries and tutelage. It contains six spiritual queries and answers. The six seekers asked Sage Pippalada six different questions.

Whence are these creatures born?

This was the first question. Sage Pippalada replied that Prajapati, the Lord of Creatures, first created the Rayi and Prana thinking that together they would produce creatures in many ways. For better understanding, the term Rayi can roughly be translated into matter and Prana the energy. They have subtler and deeper meanings. However, these translations will give an idea.

The matter here described is both form and formless. For instance, thoughts and ideas are formless matter. The Sun is the source of Prana and the moon is the matter. The sun exists in the form of light in all creatures. In other words, Sun as Prana exists in all creatures as the life force.

The moon has no light of its own. It gets light energy from the Sun. Hence, it is Prana that exists in the moonlight. Moonlight is the life force of the moon. Likewise, it exists in every form and formless matter.

Here, we should understand what the text tries to tell us. The creation has two aspects: matter and energy. It is compared with the moon and the Sun. We know the existence of the moon only when it is energized by the light energy of the Sun. Yet the Sun is the source of light energy. Hence the text calls the Sun is one form of Prana and Moon is the matter.

This is macro-cosmic perspective of what Prana is.

How many deities or Governors support the living being? Who among them enlightens that and which of them is the greatest?

This was the second question posed to Sage Pippalada.

Thenceforth he answered.

These governors are the Ether, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, Speech, Mind, Eye, Ear, and the rest.

Once upon a time, an incredible discussion seethed among these sense organs. All the five sense organs said they stay together and support the body revealing their glories.

Prana, the greatest of them, said, “don’t get deluded. I only hold this body and support it dividing myself into five.”

Yet, they did not believe it.

Prana having irritated started to leave the body. Immediately, others had to leave. When it remained motionless, others had to remain motionless just like when the queen bee starts to leave the hive, others have to leave, and they return to it when she returns. By knowing this, others pleased and praised it.

Prana is the truth behind all forms and formless. Like the spokes in a wheel, everything is fixed by this life energy.

Three Vedas, Spiritual as well as economic activities rest on it.

It alone moves in the womb as a fetus. Also, it is born as a child. It is the best carrier to God. It carries the first oblation to the forefathers.

Again, it is the dynamic principle behind the senses which are the chief governors of the body. Unless energized by this dynamic principle, the body, and the sense organs being the mere matter can not function by themselves.

The vital energy is Lord Indra who is the Lord of all energy, the powerful Rudra, and the Protector Vishnu. Verily, it is the Sun, the Lord of all Life.

Prana causes rain that creates all the food necessary for every being.

This is micro-cosmic perspective of What Prana is.

Whence has this Prana Come?

From where has this come? How does it come into our body? How does it go out?

This was the third query.

It is born out of Atman like a shadow is born of a man. In other words, it is the shadow of Atman or Pure Consciousness.

Like a king who has appointed his governers and instructing them, “Reside here. Look after these villages” Prana appoints other Sub-Pranas to look after the various functions of the body.

Apana looks after the functions of excretion and procreation.

Prana abides in the eye, nose, and mouth and looks after their functions.

In the middle, Samana resides and takes care of the functions like digesting and distributing the food and water.

Vyana resides in the heart where 101 nerves emerge. Each of the nerves has thousands of sub-nerves. totally forming 72000 nerves. Vyana moves in these nerves.

There is one special nerve that ascends. Udana travels in that. It leads us upward the virtuous world by good work, downward to the lower world by sinful acts, and to the world of men by the mixed acts of good and bad.

The Sun is in the eye where Prana resides. The earth at the lower end attracts Apana. In the middle is Samana. The wind is Vyana. Udana is the external fire that moves out from one body to another. It moves along with Prana and Jivatman to another field of activity according to the will of thought.

Key Points in Prasna Upanishad

Prasna Upanishad describes two different facets of Prana.

The Universe has two aspects: matter and energy. The matter is either with form or formless. Matter can not function on its own without energy. Energy resides in the matter. This energy is Prana. This is one perspective.

Prana is the primary factor that is responsible for every function of the body and the sense organs including the mind. Without this vital energy, the body can not exist on its own. This is the other perspective.

Then, Is Prana two-fold?

No. These two perspectives are not two different things. The external as well as internal vital energies are one and the same. Prasna Upanishad thus describes the meaning of Prana.

Swami Vivekananda’s Account of Prana

Swami Vivekananda gave a great explanation to the term in his book Raja Yoga. His explanation will shed more light on its meaning. I give below a brief account by him.

The whole universe is composed of two things. One is Akasa or Ether that has all-penetrating existence. Everything that has a form is evolved out of this Akasa. It becomes air, liquids, solids, plants, and everything that exists. Likewise, It is so subtle and beyond ordinary perception. It is perceivable only when it has become gross and taken form.

At the beginning of creation, there was only this Ether. In the end, everything that is gross and subtle melts into this Ether. In the next creation, everything will form out of this Ether.

By what power is Ether manifested into this universe?

By the power of Prana.

Just as the infinite Ether is the omnipresent-matter of the universe, so is the infinite Prana omnipresent power of the universe. At the beginning and the end, all matter becomes Ether and all forces become Prana.

Everything that we call energy has come out of this Prana. It manifests as motion, gravitation, magnetism, and the like. Also, It manifests as the actions of the body, nerve currents, and thought force.

It is the sum total of all forces in the universe, mental or physical. At the end of the cycle, all the energy or the sum total is in potential form. Otherwise, it is in the mixed form either potential or manifested. Yet the sum total never changes.

In English, Prana is translated as breath. The fault is with the translator. Every part of the body can be filled with this vital force. When you are able to do that, you can control the whole body. This is what Pranayama is.


Still you think Prana is just the breath?

I hope you don’t.

One visible manifestation of the vital force in the body is the motion of the lungs. It causes the breath, not breath causes the motion. As soon as the vital force leaves the body, the motion stops. It is Prana that is behind this motion and breath. Though it is closely related to breath, it is not just breath.

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