Purusha & Prakriti according to Vedanta

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.

What are the Primary Texts of Advaita Vedanta?

Q: What are the primary texts of Advaita Vedanta?  

A: There are three primary texts of Advaita Vedanta. Together they form what is called the prasthana traya, the “three means” or “three foundations/pillars” of Vedanta.

The first primary text is actually a group of texts called the Upanishads. In turn, the revelations of the Upanishads form the basis of the other two primary Vedanta texts, The Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The Brahma Sutras are an attempt to systematize the teachings of the Upanishads and harmonize their internal inconsistencies. The Bhagavad Gita takes the essential teachings of the Upanishads and puts them into a story form that is easier for people to relate to and learn from.

A note:  There are many Upanishads but the ten most commonly cited by Vedanta are:  Aitreya, Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Isa, Kena, Katha, Mandukya, Mundaka, Prashna and Taittiriya.  These are considered to be the mukhya (primary) Upanishads because they were commented on by Shankaracharya, Advaita Vedanta’s greatest teacher.  Shankara also supposedly commented on the Svetasvatara Upanishad but because the style of this commentary differs from his commentaries on the ten other Upanishads (as well as the style of his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras) it is widely believed to be spurious.  Some, however, claim that the Svetasvatara commentary was originally an authentic work of Shankara but was later heavily re-worked by other authors to arrive at its present form.  As such, it’s still thought of as a useful tool for teaching Vedanta.  But it’s not considered to be a reliable guide to Shankara’s interpretation of Vedanta. 

Another significant Upanishad, despite not being commented upon by Shankara, is the Kaivalya Upanishad.   

Hope that helps – Vishnu

Nisargadatta & Neo-Advaita

S:  Why are the proponents of Neo-Advaita so opposed to the teachings of “traditional” Advaita, i.e., those of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj?

Vishnu: Probably because many modern Advaita Vedanta teachers make it their business to go out of their way to criticize Neo-Advaita (a term created by Advaita Vedantins, not “Neo-Advaitins themselves), as if they fancied themselves to be the great Shankaracharya, riding into philosophical battle to maintain the purity of the so-called tradition.

As a note, Nisargadatta Maharaj, while highly respected by Advaita Vedantins, is not considered to be “traditional” Vedanta, whatever “traditional” may mean (Vedantins can’t seem to agree, although what usually passes for “traditional” Vedanta these days is Vedanta as taught by Swami Dayananda and his disciples). The reason Nisargadatta isn’t considered “traditional” in this sense is that he doesn’t unfold the teaching in a systematic way, using the scriptures of Vedanta (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutra and later works derived from these three such as Upadesha Sahasri) as the framework for his teaching. Nor does he use the method of self-inquriy (atma vichara) contained in those scriptures, which was further developed by teachers such as Shankara.

Nisargadatta, at least in my experience, is actually championed by many so-called “Neo-Advatins.” So as far as I know, most of them are not opposed to his teachings at all.

S:  Thank you for your answer. I have attended meetings with some of the more well known Non-Duality teachers and asked them the same question. None of them gave any credence to the older teachings and practices, even pronouncing outright that to follow them would be completely useless as they miss the point entirely. I asked JN, for example, if his “liberation” was not identical to Nisagardatta’s.  Surely they can’t be separate? He thought my question ridiculous and became visibly irritated by it. The more modern non duality teachers will stress over and over again the uselessness of spiritual practice as a means to enlightenment. You could liken it to the old story of a zen master burning a wooden Buddha to keep warm, but I can’t help feeling that to throw aside the older teachings of Advaita is both arrogant and futile.

V:   You’re welcome S. While I can’t say that Advaita Vedanta is the only way to directly realize the truth of non-duality, it is certainly a very good, time-tested way that worked for me. My teachers always met me exactly where I was at and never dismissed or ridiculed my questions.

Steady Wisdom: 3 Week Progress Check

Steady Wisdom: 108 Verses On Changing My Thinking

DAY 21

When a person gives up all desires as they appear in the mind, happy in oneself alone, that person is said to be of steady wisdom.
– Bhagavad Gita 2:55
Progress Check

After three weeks of doing nididhyasana, I take an honest look at my thoughts and actions and ask myself, “How do I measure up to the scripture’s standard of one established in self-knowledge?”

I might be tempted to say, “I’m the self, not the body-mind!  I’m free of all action and thought so what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?”  From the absolute perspective (paramarthika), I would be right:  I’m not the body-mind so I’m not responsible for what it does nor do its actions reflect on me in any way (how could I be responsible for, or affected by, an illusion?).  But from the empirical perspective of everyday experience (vyavaharika), I would be wrong…for several reasons. 

First, it’s a contradiction.  Why?  Because while I’ll apply the logic of “what does it matter what the body-mind thinks and does?” when evaluating my spiritual progress, I don’t apply the same logic to other aspects of my life.  For instance, when I’m supposed to have a presentation ready for work on Monday morning and I don’t get it done I don’t tell my boss, “I’m not the body-mind, so what does it matter?”  Instead, I apologize and make an attempt to redeem myself (assuming I want to stay employed).  Or when I say something hurtful to a friend, I don’t claim, “I didn’t say anything, I’m the self!”  Rather, I apologize and make amends (assuming I want to stay friends). 

In those kinds of situations, even though I know damn well I’m the action-less self that’s unaffected by the body-mind, I observe the rules of the admittedly illusory world and make corrections to “my” behavior.  And yet, when it comes time to determine whether or not Vedanta is having a positive effect on my mind, I try to wriggle out of making the appropriate changes by claiming it doesn’t matter.  This is simply a misapplication of self-knowledge.  Because if the actions of the body-mind truly don’t matter on any level, then I would disregard all aspects of my life equally.  But I don’t!    

Second, while the scripture denies the reality of the body-mind, it never says to disregard its behavior.  In fact, it says the exact opposite.  Just look at the verse from the Bhagavad Gita above.  Further, no legitimate teacher of Vedanta, from the legendary Shankara down to modern luminaries like Swami Dayananda, ever says that self-knowledge negates the value of good conduct and spiritual living.  They assume that you’re fully committed to dharma (right living) and sadhana (spiritual practice) before you even begin studying Vedanta.  And they expect you to stay committed to dharma and sadhana–even after enlightenment–the same way you stay committed to behaving properly in regard to your friends, family and job.  Why?  Because right living and spiritual practice lead to peace of mind, even for the enlightened. And Vedanta is pointless without peace of mind.   

I may get frustrated at this point, wanting the simplicity of an either/or situation:  Either what the body-mind does is inconsequential or it isn’t.  But unfortunately, because Vedanta isn’t so naïve as to flat-out deny the existence of the world, it’s a both/and situation: What the body-mind does both matters and doesn’t matter.  Because I know I’m the self, it doesn’t matter.  But because knowing I’m the self doesn’t make the illusion of the body-mind disappear, the behavior of the body-mind still matters, at least on the illusory level.  As a discriminating Vedantin, it’s up to me to know the difference between the absolute and relative levels and to apply the correct knowledge in the proper context.   

For instance, when my mind gets angry, I remember that I, the self, am never angry.  From that perspective (the absolute) I understand that the angry mind is not a problem.  But from the relative level I see that anger causes suffering, both in my mind and the minds of others.   I could disregard this situation saying it doesn’t matter (and technically, from the absolute perspective, I’d be right) but by that reasoning it also doesn’t matter whether or not I eat, pay my rent or wear clothes (yet I do those things unquestioningly in order to avoid suffering). 

So remembering that the rules of the relative world still apply on the relative level whether or not I’m enlightened, I work on my mind (if not for my benefit, then I do it for the benefit of others who don’t know, or even care, that I know I’m the self).  The difference is that before self-knowledge, I worked on my mind with anxiety, thinking that I was the mind or that the state of the mind defined who I was.  When the mind was good, I felt good about myself.  When the mind was bad, I felt bad about myself. But now, I tend to my mind without the anxiety of identifying with it, simply because it needs to be done, the same way that I pay my utility bill because it needs to be done. 

The beauty of Vedanta is that it considers both the absolute and the relative levels of reality.  It shows me that I’m the absolute reality so I can tend to the relative level of reality with objectivity.  I know that life is just a play but I keep playing my part.  When the actor known as the body-mind flubs its lines, there’s no reason for concern.  I just hand it the cue card and move on to the next scene.  That’s steady wisdom. 

Read Series Introduction                   

If the idea of the self as consciousness doesn’t help you, don’t use it


Jenny: It is clear we are not different from the totality of existence but it is not clear that all of existence is consciousness.  I can see how my personal ‘world’ (my experience) is only consciousness but the entire universe being consciousness can only be speculation.  I’m not relating to the idea of the world being consciousness.


Vishnudeva: That’s okay.  I could launch into a long winded justification for the idea that the universe is consciousness but truly, if you don’t relate to the idea of the universe being consciousness then set it aside and focus on the existence aspect instead.  This is just fine because Vedanta is not trying to prove that the universe is consciousness (or even existence).  Rather, it simply employs those concepts to point to the fact that the true nature of the universe is non-dual and not limited by the appearance of objects.  And further, that the true nature of the universe is identical with your true nature, that YOU are non-dual and unaffected by the appearance of objects.  Getting to that understanding is what is important, not how you get there.     

So always keep in mind that the teaching method of Vedanta is to temporarily superimpose concepts onto reality that point to the truth.  The superimposed concepts are not the truth they point to, which means they are relative and subject to later negation*Once the concept has served its purpose, you disregard it in the same way that you disregard a finger after it has pointed to a star you were searching for in the sky.  This means the concepts themselves are not what is important so you can use whichever ones make the most sense to you.  I once had a teacher who said (I’m paraphrasing) that you don’t need all of Vedanta’s many teachings to understand who you really are.  You just need the ones that address your particular doubts.  If the consciousness teaching isn’t helping you see that your nature is non-dual and ever-free then don’t worry about it right now and focus on the existence teaching.  You may never need the consciousness teaching or perhaps it will help you later.  For me, the consciousness teaching helped me at the initial stages but the existence teaching is the one that ‘sealed the deal.’  And in the end I gave up both teachings because my true nature is beyond all concepts, “that from which words and the mind turn back, unable to reach.” (Taittiriya Upanishad 2:4:1)   

All my best- Vishnudeva     

*The teaching method I’ve described is called adhyaropa apavada, superimposition and negation.  In his commentary on Bhagavad Gita 13:12, Shankara references it as the method of teaching known to those versed in the tradition.