Q: What is the relationship between purusha and prakriti in Vedanta?
Vishnu: In Vedanta (specifically Advaita Vedanta), purusha is used as a synonym for atman, one’s true nature. The atman, in turn, is equated with brahman, the true nature of everyone and everything in the entire universe (both seen and unseen). Since atman and brahman are ultimately identical in Vedanta, purusha is brahman.
Prakriti is more or less the equivalent of maya in Vedanta. Maya is viewed a few different ways, depending on which school of Advaita Vedanta you’re asking. Most often, maya is conceived as a power inherent to brahman that makes the impossible possible: it makes the non-dual, formless and attributeless brahman appear to be the universe and all of its inhabitants.
What is their relationship? Well, technically, since Advaita Vedanta says that brahman is one alone, the only reality that exists, then there is nothing for brahman to have a relationship with (since a relationship implies at least two things).
However, when it’s admitted that our everyday experience patently contradicts Vedanta’s claim that brahman is one alone, an explanation needs to be given. That explanation is maya. In this case, maya is not a second thing over and above brahman. Instead, it is a false, seeming or illusory reality that depends on brahman to exist.
A common example given by Advaita Vedanta to illustrate this “relationship” between brahman and maya is that of the relationship between clay and a pot. When you really think about it, a pot doesn’t actually exist. How so? Because when you try to determine what a pot actually is, all you find is clay. Yes, you see a pot. This is undeniable. But where is the reality of the pot apart from clay? If a pot is made out of exactly one pound of clay, when the pot is weighed, does it weigh one pound (for the clay) plus a bit of extra weight to account for the addition of the pot? No. It is still precisely one pound of clay, nothing has been added except a form that is arbitrarily labelled a “pot.” Clay then is the only reality. And the pot is but an appearance with no actual substance, no actual reality.
It can’t be said that the pot is totally non-existent because it can be experienced, as plain as day. But it can’t be said that the pot is totally existent either, since it is nothing other than clay (all you’re really experiencing as a pot is in fact clay). In this way, their relationship is that clay is the reality and the pot is an appearance that has no reality apart from the clay.
It also can’t be said that the pot is totally different from the clay, since the pot is nothing but clay. But it can’t be said that the pot is totally non-different from the clay either, since the pot can’t exist without the clay while the clay clearly exists without the pot. In this way, their relationship is an inscrutable, logical conundrum. It is, to use a Vedanta technical term, anirvaciniya, indefinable. Because how can something be neither different nor non-different from something else? And yet, it is that way.
The relationship between the clay and the pot is similar to the relationship between purusha (brahman) and prakriti (maya). Brahman, like the clay, is the reality, whereas maya, like the pot, is only a seeming “reality” that has no existence apart from brahman. Maya, since it is nothing but brahman is not totally different from brahman. And yet, it is not totally non-different from brahman since it can’t exist without brahman, while brahman exists without maya, seeing as brahman is existence itself. Hence, the relationship is indefinable.
But when it is taken into account that brahman alone exists (despite any appearance to the contrary), the question of relationship is ultimately rendered meaningless, for again, what talk can there be of a relationship between purusha (brahman) and prakriti (maya) if purusha alone exists?
As a note, purusha and prakriti, although they appear in Vedanta texts such as the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, are technical terms more commonly associated with Sankhya, the philosophical system that underlies the practice of Yoga. In that system, unlike Vedanta, purusha and prakriti are considered to be two independently existent realities. Also, in Sankhya, there is supposedly an infinite number of purushas, whereas in Vedanta (as stated above) purusha i.e. brahman is considered to be one alone.