Sankaracharya’s Commentary about Prakriti and Purusha
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on November 9, 1997)

Swamiji: The problem of prakriti and purusha looks like a very serious problem, but actually it is a simple matter. The way in which people write about it makes it complicated. The same thing is said again and again in various words, in different scriptures and philosophies. In the Isavasya Upanishad, the words vidya and avidya are used. Anyad evāhur vidyayā anyad āhur avidyayā (Isa 10). The Isavasya Upanishad says vidya and avidya are there. By vidya you receive one benefit, by avidya you receive another benefit. I am not discussing the Isavasya Upanishad now. I am coming to some other point.

Ashramite: I think it is from vidya-avidya only, the suffering we are having.

Swamiji: That is because of the misuse of the word avidya. Avidya is wrongly used. Ramanujacharya has found seven mistakes in Sankaracharya’s idea of avidya in his Brahmasutra Bashya. His main point was, “Why do you say that avidya creates this world? It cannot sit in Brahman, it cannot sit in the world, and it cannot sit in the jiva also. So where is it sitting? Therefore, your philosophy is pointless.” Ramanujacharya condemns Sankaracharya, but he doesn’t understand.

Avidya is not a substance; it does not require a place to exist. It is an affliction of the mind. If you ask where the affliction is sitting, do you want a place for that? Suppose a person is ill. Now, where is the illness sitting just now? What will you say? Illness is not a thing. It does not require a place to sit. It is a condition. Avidya is a condition, and a condition does not require a place. So Ramanuja’s criticism has no meaning. Let it go. That is another subject.

I generally never use these words avidya, maya, and so on, in my writings. They are all unnecessary troublemakers. You should not use words which are not explainable.

Now I am coming to another point: prakriti-purusha. Mind and body, God and world, inside and outside, positive and negative, light and darkness – all these are the same as prakriti and purusha, subject and object. Wherever you touch, you will find these two things operating: I and you. The whole universe is made up of I and you, that’s all – yourself and what is not yourself. There are only two things in the universe. What is the relationship between yourself and that which is not yourself? No human being can answer this question. Here is someone sitting. He is not you, and you are not he. Is there any relationship between you two, or is there no relationship? If there is a relation, what kind of relation is it? Is he sitting inside you? Is he sitting outside you? If he is outside, there is no relation. Can you say there is no relation? Then what is it? The idea of ‘not me’ is the bondage. You cannot explain it as either included in you or excluded from you. This object before your mind is not inside the mind. It is outside the mind. If it is outside the mind, your mind cannot get it. If it is inside the mind, there is no need of wanting it. Then what is the meaning of wanting anything? It has no meaning. So all desire is a blunder, actually.

Sankaracharya gave an explanation of a great verse of the Bhagavadgita. Prakṛtiḿ puruṣaḿ caiva viddhy anādī ubhāv api (B.G. 13.19): Consider prakriti and purusha as both beginningless. I read many commentaries on the Gita to find out how two things can be anadi, because if two things are anadi, they will clash with each other. Like Shumbha-Nishumbha, Madhu-Kaitabha, they will be sources of great trouble. Only God can be anadi, so other than God there cannot be something else which is anadi. Yet Bhagavan Sri Krishna says prakṛtiḿ puruṣaḿ caiva viddhy anādī ubhāv api. He has used the word ‘two’. Why should he use the word ‘two’? Already we have found out that when there are two things no relationship is possible.

Sankaracharya’s commentary is very strange. He may be right in what he says, but the way he puts it looks very funny: God does not create things by Himself. Creation requires a conditioning factor. Unless there is a conditioning factor before the sun, there will not be day and night. The sun does not create day and night. If the conditioning factor, which is the movement of the earth, is absent, there will be perpetual daytime. That is to say there will be perpetual creation. Creation is spontaneous. God does not have to think. Automatically the whole universe appears because it is the appearance of His existence. As long as He is, this also will continue, so there will be endless creation.

Gaudapada says in his Mandukya Karika that creation is the svabhava of Ishvara. He is not creating anything. He doesn’t say or think, “Let me create.” What desire has He got? But creation has a beginning and an end, just as day has a beginning and an end though the sun does not have either a beginning or an end. Therefore, you have to explain this creation having a beginning and an end due to the interference of some factor which is other than the existence of God Himself. These are prakriti and purusha. Now, what is prakriti and purusha? It looks like man and woman. The language used is so intriguing that we can misinterpret it. We think that prakriti is a woman, and purusha is a man. It is not like that. Prakriti simply means unintelligent material existence. Purusha is a name for intelligent non-material existence. Consciousness and matter, awareness and its object, this is prakriti and purusha.

Now Sankaracharya’s interpretation is that there is a conditioning factor which limits the nature of creation to a particular characteristic only. With every cycle the nature of creation changes. Yathā pūrvam akalpayat (R.V. 10.190.3) The Rigveda says the Creator created the universe in the same way as He created it earlier. Yesterday there was day, today there is day, and tomorrow there will also be day. There is no difference, but the very movements of the earth change the pattern of the day. One day it is hot, another day it is cold; one day is long, another day is short, etc. These are not done by the sun. He doesn’t create these things. Likewise, though it is true that the same pattern is maintained in creation, the details differ. It is difficult to understand this.

Both Eastern and Western philosophers have accepted that every entity in creation is a pattern. This pattern should be distinguished from the shape of individuals. There is a pattern for a District Collector, but the Mr. so-and-so who is the Collector will be changed. So the post of Collector never changes; it is a permanent thing. Endlessly the Collector will be there. You cannot say the Collector has gone, but the person holding the post has gone. Likewise, you are a pattern, and the pattern is like a mould into which anything can be cast. That mould determines the shape of the thing which is cast into it, like the moulds for making cement blocks for building construction. They can make the block long or short or thick or small or heavy, and so on, according to the size that they need. This pattern called ‘you’ will be there eternally, but the soul inhabiting that pattern will be different. You are a pattern, a structural peculiarity. That structural peculiarity will be permanently there. There will always be Commissioners, there will always be Collectors, there always will be police, there will always be everything, but the soul changes. Today’s policeman is not tomorrow’s policeman, but police can never change.

So creation is involved in two aspects: the maintenance of the pattern, and the change in the soul that is cast into this pattern. In Western circles there is a philosopher called Alfred North Whitehead. You must read his writings. There is not much difference between the height of Western thought and the height of Eastern thought. They are saying the same thing, only in different styles. Whitehead mentions the same thing, that there are patterns. The words used are difficult, so we do not understand the meaning.

Creation is a perpetual action, and only the nature of the patterns change. Eternally there will be this pattern, and only the soul will be different. Tomorrow another soul will enter into this pattern and it will think in a different way, but with the same face, etc.

Ashramite: Swamiji, the name and form is eternal?

Swamiji: Permanent. The mode is permanent; only what is cast into it changes. There is a mould, and the mould is permanent. You can cast gold into it, silver into it, mud into it, cement into it. What does it matter? The thing that comes out is quite different, but the pattern is the same.

Ashramite: Till Self-realisation this will go on – the moulding, casting and remoulding.

Swamiji: Self-realisation is a different thing altogether.

Ashramite: But ultimately the casting will end one day.

Swamiji: It can end just now if you want. In one minute it can end. All the things that I am telling you can end in one minute if only you wake up from this consciousness of there being something. You are always saying, “There is something other than myself.” That is the cause of bondage. Then creation starts, everything starts. But that ‘other than myself’ is seen in dream also. In dream there is me and other than myself, but when you wake up where are they? How much time has it has taken? That is what it is.

Ashramite: Swamiji, but here you feel concreteness of this waking. On this basis I say…

Swamiji: Is there not concrete in dream? You are comparing it with another thing, but why do you compare? Take it as it is. Then you compare this waking with transcendence.

Ashramite: That hold I have not yet got; that is the trouble.

Swamiji: How can you hold the waking in dream?

Ashramite: It is a natural process.

Swamiji: No, it is not natural, it is a karma. The karma is keeping you pressed hard into the dream condition. When that particular karma which is operating as dream is lifted up, it comes to the waking. So here also it is karma only. There is a prarabdha karma which keeps you in the waking consciousness. When that is lifted, you go to the transcendent consciousness. The only thing is, meditation is nothing but the dreamer thinking of waking. The dreamer should deeply think of the waking condition; that is meditation. How will the dreamer think of waking, tell me? For the dreamer, waking does not exist at all. For us also, God does not exist, but it is sitting on your head. Even then, you don’t exercise it. So there is a semi-consciousness. In dream the consciousness is completely blurred. In waking consciousness it is semi-blurred. So there is a possibility of meditating in waking consciousness. The completely blurred dream condition is not suitable. Nor sleep. It is completely obliterated in sleep.

So prakriti and purusha… In Western circles there is a philosopher called Spinoza. He describes prakriti and purusha as space and time. Extension and relation, width, three-dimensional height, width, etc., and procedure or process of movement; there are three dimensions of everything. That is prakriti. Prakriti has got three dimensions: length, breadth, height.

Ashramite: There is no awareness at all?

Swamiji: No, absolutely nothing. And time is the fourth factor. So modern physics says there are four dimensions. For instance, there are three dimensions in a cinema hall. You see a flat surface, yet how does it look like a human being moving about, a three-dimensional man? You see a depth of one mile interior, which doesn’t exist at all, on a flat screen. So if a flat, two-dimensional surface can look three-dimensional, what you call three-dimensional is actually four-dimensional. The fourth dimension is turiya; the three dimensions are waking, dream and sleep.

Hard effort is necessary to think this. Has anybody thought why the flat surface of a cinema screen looks like a big world moving about? Why it is looking like that? Something is wrong in the mode of perception. It is the person’s defect. Otherwise, if you go near the screen, you will not see anything. You keep a distance so that the illusion might be working very well [laughter]. If you go very near the object, it will not look all right. Things look beautiful, but if you go on looking so near, the beauty goes. Even if you smear the whole body with food it won’t help you. It must go in a proper way to the particular place only.

So prakriti and purusha are only the three-dimensional and one-dimensional space-time complex. Without that, creation cannot take place. Therefore, Sankaracharya says there is a point in Bhagavan Sri Krishna saying that both are eternal. Space is eternal; time is also eternal. As long as they are there, creation must take place. If they are not there, no creation takes place. But if you say they should not be there, only Ishvara must be there, then there will always be creation. So this is Sankaracharya’s interesting commentary about prakriti and purusha.

It does not exist, really speaking. It does not exist as an outside body. Your consciousness of there being something other than you is the bondage of your consciousness, and that thing which you call other than you is actually this person who is not other than you. Unnecessarily you are saying he is other than you, and he can as well say the same thing about you also. What do you say? Now, who is the other – you or he? Tell me. You are the object of this person, and he is the object of your person. Now, is he the object or are you the object? There cannot be two objects in perception. So who is the object? Therefore, the whole thing is a blunder. The whole idea of there being somebody outside you is a blunder. So much education and knowledge you have got, but you are making a blunder every minute. You cannot say who this person is, and yet you are talking to him every day.

Likewise is this prakriti-purusha. They do not exist at all, really speaking, just as an object does not exist, and there is only a definition. You can say you are the subject, you can say you are the object. You may say you are prakriti, you may say you are purusha, or you can say you are Ishvara himself. When you give up the idea of your being a subject or object because they are inexplicable things, you transcend them immediately. You will attain to the third element between you both, which is called the adhidaiva principal – adhyatma and adhibhuta.

Ashramite: Is it Hegel’s dialectics also?

Swamiji: I told you the heights of Western thought and Indian thought are the same thing. Hegel is the same thing – that is thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The thesis is that you are a subject, the antithesis is that he is an object, but the synthesis is neither of you. Neither are you a subject nor an object. And what is that synthesis? It is a transcendent consciousness where you accept that you are neither subject nor object. Then immediately illumination takes place so that there is moksha. What else can I tell you? It won’t enter the mind. You do not know who was sitting in front of you; the whole point is that, and yet you think everything is clear.

Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has created this ashram so that you may find time to think of these things. Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj has not created the ashram so that you may eat well and sleep well and wander about anywhere. This is not the purpose for which Swamiji has created the ashram. You could have stayed anywhere and joined any duty, become an official, earned money, had children, and been happy. Nobody objects to that. But Swami Sivanandaji felt there is a higher way of living also. Unless this higher consciousness arises in a person, life is a waste finally. Again and again you are being born and you are dying, etc., so that is why Swamiji created this wonderful atmosphere.

But you have no time. Where has the time gone? You should not complain. Bhagavan Lord Krishna says tasya kartāram api māṁ viddhy-akartāram avyayam (B.G. 4.13): “Though I am doing all the work, I am not really doing all the work. I am doing everything; you cannot lift a finger without Me, yet I have done nothing.” It is like the sun. Without the sun you cannot breathe, you cannot exist, you cannot digest your food. The whole thing will collapse. But the sun does not say, “Let me help this person tomorrow, let me see his health is okay, let me give him air to breathe, and warmth.” The existence itself is action. If existence itself is action, it is karma yoga. But if that action is done for an ulterior purpose, it is binding. So each one of you find out: Are you working for a particular purpose, or it is a spontaneous emanation from your perfection? Then you will not make complaints. You can do any amount of work, yet nothing will happen to you because it is your own being coming out. You are not disliking yourself. You will not be exhausted of yourself. You are exhausted and tired of something else. That is what I was saying: Something else does not exist. Unnecessarily you are thinking that it is somebody else’s work you are doing. If it is somebody else’s work, it will fatigue you. In half an hour you will get tired and say you have too much work, but if it is your work you will never tire. You do not tire of your own field, your own harvest, but will you go to another man’s field and supervise the harvest? Why should you? You will say, “It is a drudgery. Why should I do that?” You can do hard work for your own satisfaction, but you won’t work for another’s satisfaction because again the idea of another has come. The whole point is this.

At the very beginning of the Brahmasutra Bhashya of Sankara is the clash between the I and the you. They are like light and darkness. They can never be reconciled. You can never reconcile yourself with another person because you don’t know who you are. You are the observer of this, but he is the observer of you. Now who is the observer, really? The very first sentence of Sankaracharya’s Bhashya is this clash between the I and the you. Let it go. Now you are blessed.

What can I tell you? Those who have understood what I say may tell those people who have not understood, and explain it in your own language. It requires attention and appreciation of one’s own predicament. You must know your condition: “What kind of man am I? I have come all the way from home. Am I vegetating here? Am I simply preparing for my death? Why should I come here? It is for improving myself so that there will be a field created by Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj that I may not be reborn again into this confused way of thinking.”

Every day you must think this and find time to be alone to yourself. Try to be alone to yourself. You don’t want another man to talk to. Everybody should find one hour at least in which you don’t think anything. For one hour you are absolutely alone. You should not say that you have no time. Either you are doing something for another, or you are sleeping. So in either of them, tamas or rajas is working, and sattva is not working. You don’t want to be alone to yourself. It is boring. When you are alone, you walk to Rishikesh. So again rajas is pushing you.

If this is not properly appreciated, you will suffer as old age comes. Nobody will care for you when you are old. Why should you be in that condition? When you go, go as a gentleman, as a person who has fulfilled your life. When you go you say, “My Lord, I have done everything that is to be done for Your sake.” You have come here to do something for His sake, and you have not come here to do something for your sake because you don’t exist independently. I mention to you again and again this idea of ‘you’ and ‘I’ must go away. Remove this idea of you and I, and then you are a friend of all people – sarvabhūtahite ratāḥ (B.G. 12.4). Hari Om Tat Sat. God bless you.