The True Meaning of Prakriti in Hinduism

Prakriti

by Jayaram V

One of the major problems we have today is that many educated Hindus understand and interpret Hinduism in English from a western perspective. As a result many important concepts of Hinduism become superimposed with foreign thought, which is not necessarily always correct. The matter is further complicated by western writers having limited knowledge of Hinduism and who are non-practicing Hindus providing a scholarly or historical perspective to the beliefs and practices of Hinduism as if they have an authority on the subject.

For over two hundred years western thought has been superimposed on Hinduism, and its very core concepts have been compromised with western ideas drawn mostly from Abrahamic religions. We have therefore currently a mixed bag of knowledge about Hinduism in which it is difficult to separate facts from fiction, and illusion from reality.

The two realities of existence

One of the concepts that I would like to discuss in this article is Prakriti. Hinduism recognizes two eternal principles, which are mentioned in the Vedas, the Bhagavadgita, the Sutras and several other Hindu scriptures. They are Purusha and Prakriti. They are also known as Brahman and Brahmi, Isvara and Isvari, Father God and Mother Goddess, Siva and Parvathi, Narayana and Narayani. The Gita declares that seated in Prakriti, Purusha manifests the worlds and beings.

In Hinduism you will find different interpretations to their relationship. Some schools of Hinduism consider Prakriti a dependent and eternal aspect of Purusha, which manifests during creation and which is withdrawn at the time of dissolution. Other schools hold that Prakriti is an independent eternal reality, which exists alongside Brahman and participates in creation according to Her own will. There are also many subtle variations in between these two divergent opinions. Prakriti is translated loosely in English as Nature or the natural world, but it does not adequately represent the true meaning of Prakriti. From the study of Hindu scriptures we cab deduce the following eight conclusions regarding Prakriti.

1. Prakriti is the set of eternal, indestructible, and indivisible realities that produce modifications.

2. Maya is the modification of Prakriti. It represents the natural world we experience.

3. Tattvas are the set of eternal and original realities which constitute Prakriti.

4. Asambhuti is the original unmanifested Prakriti in which all are latent.

5. Sambhuti is the manifested Prakriti. It is another name for Maya. It is both a modification and an illusion. It is the Isvari or the Shakti in action.

6. Gunas are the three processes that impart motion and action to Prakriti's modifications.

7. Nature in the English sense of the word represents the modifications of Prakriti, but not Prakriti itself. It is the same as Sambhuti or Maya.

8. Asambhuti or Mula Prakriti is the second eternal principle of existence, next to Unmanifested Brahman in which everything remains in a state of latency.

What is Prakriti?

Prakriti literally means the natural condition or state of anything, or the most original or primordial state of anything that is found in the entire creation. Pra means in the beginning, at the commencement, and kriti means creation, work, composition. Thus Prakriti literally means original and natural. It denotes the state of conditions at the beginning of creation, or the natural state of existence as it was at the beginning of creation. The opposite of Prakriti is vikriti, meaning anything that has been modified, altered from its Natural Prakritic state. Prakriti signifies the original and the eternal, while Vikriti represents its reflection or modification.

Thus, in Hinduism only those that existed at the beginning of creation are natural or Prakritic. The rest are the modifications of whatever that existed naturally at that time. From this perspective, the natural world is not Prakriti but only a manifestation of it. The world emerges from Prakriti as a modification, transformation, or projection. Hence, it is a natural world only in a derivative sense, not in the original sense. For example, a tree is not a natural or original object in the true sense of Prakriti, because it did not exist at the beginning of creation.

What existed originally was the idea or the design of the tree as latent in Prakriti. You never get to see it. The tree that you perceive through your senses manifests as the effect of a cause, the seed. The seed is also not original or natural, since it is arises as a modification of pollen and egg. The pollen and egg are also not original or natural. They are the modifications of the cells from which they originated.

The meaning of Maya

Thus neither the tree, nor the seeds, nor the pollen, nor the eggs represent the original natural state of Prakriti. They are its modifications, projections, or manifestations. The same applies to a human being, who is a modification of the egg and semen, which are in turn modifications of the energy present in the parent bodies.

Everything in creation is a modification of something else. The world is full of these modifications, which together create the illusion of existence just as the light does. Since the world is full of modifications and all the objects in it are produced by modifications and in themselves are subjects to modifications, the world is called unreal (asat) or an illusion (Maya).

Hinduism says that world in which we exist is neither eternal nor original nor natural. It is a projection, modification or manifestation of Purusha and Prakriti. Hence, in reality it is a formation distorted further by our perceptions (vikriti). What we consider in English as the natural world is not natural or original in the true sense of the word Prakriti, but only a modification of what originally existed in the beginning.

Creation can be compared to the light that radiates from the sun. You may say it is the sun, and you can also say it is not the sun. The light is an illusion because it is created by your perception and exists only in your mind as a perception. It is not natural or original in the sense that it appears and disappears intermittently. The light of the sun therefore is an illusion, a transformation, or a modification that is projected by the sun.

The same applies to inanimate objects also. The rivers and mountains did not exist originally. They came into existence from Prakriti as modifications. A mountain is a modification of the earth. A rock is a modification of minerals and clay. None of them fit into the definition of Prakriti because they are derivatives created through the three processes, namely modification, projection and manifestation. Therefore in Hinduism the world is natural only in a limited sense. It is a product of Prakriti, but not Prakriti, just as the light is not the same as the Sun.

Why the world is an illusion

An illusion means something that appears as one but in reality is something else. It is what your mind misinterprets or misunderstands. According to Hinduism, the objects you find in the world are all illusions because they are not what they seem to be. They are modifications of some eternal realities that are hidden and never perceptible to the ordinary mind. It is like you are watching a play and take the actors in it for real. People cannot see the real person behind the actor because the action is so good.

In Hinduism reality (sat) is permanent and always hidden behind the diversity. It is not easily discernible. To see that you must remove the layer of ignorance with which your intelligence is covered. Since plants, animals, humans, and other objects all are not what they appear to be, but modifications of the eternal reality that is hidden, the diversity they represent is called an illusion. It is an illusion, not because it does not exist but because it is not what it appears to be.

Therefore, the expression, the world is filled with Maya, means it is filled with objects that are not what they appear to be. This is the true meaning of Maya, not that the world is unreal like a hallucination. It is compared to a dream because dreams are modifications of the mind. Dreams are thoughts and desires in disguise. The world is Maya in this sense only.

The Real and Original Nature

The question that arises is if the world is an illusion and not what it appears to be, then what is that which appears as an illusion? Who is that person inside that actor who is acting so well that you are deluded into believing that he is real? Our ancient seers contemplated upon this riddle for a long time and finally produced answers. They did it by thinking backwards and reducing the objects, the modifications and the entire creation into their original state.

They reduced trees, mountains, rivers, humans, animals, insects, birds and all other objects into their primordial states or causes and found out that existence was made up of only two eternal realities, Purusha and Prakriti. Both are indivisible, eternal and indestructible. However, while Brahman is immutable and remains unchanged eternally, Prakriti is mutable and undergoes modification to produce diversity. Another major difference is that while Purusha is one indivisible reality, Prakriti represents a set of eternal realities called the Tattvas. The third difference, cited by a few schools, is that while Brahman is an independent reality, Prakriti is a dependent reality.

Hindu scriptures further identify two aspects of Prakriti, Sambhuti, the manifested, and Asambhuti, the unmanifested. Asambhuti is the original Prakriti made up of the realities or tattvas. You do not find it in our world in its original form. It is also called Primordial Prakriti or Mula Prakriti. In the Mula Prakriti everything is asleep. When it awakes at the beginning of creation, all the Tattvas become active in it, in addition to the gunas, and it becomes Sambhuti Prakriti. Maya is a projection of Sambhuti Prakriti. It also remains invisible and hidden in our world behind appearances like the bones inside a body, providing structure and form to the beings and objects. You will see only its effects or modifications through your senses as sense-objects. (Some scholars do consider the subtle part of Prakriti (mind, ego and intelligence) as Asambhuti and the gross part (the sense organs and bodily organs) as the Sambhuti.)

Prakriti Tattvas, Gunas

The Tattvas are the multiple realities that represent Prakriti collectively in contrast to the Supreme Reality of Purusha, which is one and alone. They are indivisible and indestructible in themselves, but subject to modifications and act as the building blocks of creation. What arises from them as modifications is the entire creation, or Maya, the unreal, the modified, or the so called illusion. Scholars and philosophers in ancient India debated about the number of the realities that constituted Prakriti. The Jains believed that there were only nine tattvas. The Samkhyas held that they were 24 and the Saivas believed them to be 36. The following are the most well known tattvas.

  1. Intelligence (Buddhi)
  2. Mind (Manas)
  3. Ego (Aham)
  4. Five subtle senses (Tanmatras)
  5. Five organs of perception (Jnanendriyas)
  6. Five organs of action (Karmendriyas)
  7. Five great elements (Mahabutas), namely earth, water, fire, air, and space.

These 23 constitute the Sambhuti Prakriti. Of them 1,2, 3, and 4 constitute the subtle body (linga sarira) of a being, and the rest, the gross body. Some scholars add the individual Soul (Isvara tattva) and make it 24. These alone, along with the Self (Atman) and the Supreme Self (Brahman) are considered eternal or original realities. The rest are modifications arising from them. Delusion (moha) arises when these modifications are taken for real and mistaken as the eternal reality. The sources of this delusion are ignorance (avidya, egoism, attachments and desires, which result in bondage to Samsara ( the cycle of births and deaths). Apart from the Tattvas, Prakriti has three other eternal realities. They are not included with the tattvas because they act upon the Tattvas and cause the modifications. They are

  1. Sattva: Represents light, pleasure, preservation, selflessness, divinity.
  2. Rajas: Represents light and darkness, pride, creation, self-centeredness, humanity.
  3. Tamas: Represents darkness, cruelty, destruction, selfishness, and sexuality.

By their presence they induce the Tattvas to act in diverse ways and contribute to movement and actions. Thus, the gunas contribute to the movement or behavior in creation, while the tattvas contribute to the diversity.

Creativity and Artificial intelligence and evolution

In western thought there is a clear distinction between natural world and artificial world. For example, human intelligence is natural, while the intelligence we create through computing systems is artificial. In Hinduism the distinction is not so clear. In Hinduism everything that is produced by Prakriti and its derivatives are natural and constitute the illusory world. The human intelligence is a modification of the Tattva called Buddhi. It is purer in the humans to the extent the being is filled with sattva. Whatever that intelligence in a human being produces is also part of the same manifestation of Prakriti. Through their actions and inaction and propelled by desires human beings can modify different aspects of creation and thereby incur karma. Therefore, technically in Hinduism there is no difference between human intelligence and the intelligent forms we create with our ingenuity or creativity. The same applies to everything that we create either physically or mentally. They are the modifications we create with our knowledge and intelligence. You may even say, they are secondary modifications, or modifications of the modifications created by Prakriti. Both are derivatives in the ultimate sense from the realities of Prakriti, and as mere appearances contribute to the illusions we experience. It appears that Prakriti uses human intelligence also as her instrument to facilitate and promote the aims of creation and evolution. We cannot say that the so called artificial intelligence we create is not a modification of Prakriti or different from our intelligence, because she is its ultimate source and the material to create it also comes from her. Mostly likely the next level of intelligence will emerge out of our intelligence either biologically or mechanically or both and continue the work of Prakriti as the source for further diversity, illusion and activity.

Conclusion

Let us summarize below the concepts we have discussed thus far.

1. Purusha: The Eternal Supreme Reality

2. Prakriti: The original or latent state of creation.

3. Asambhuti: The Unmanifested Primordial Prakriti.

4. Sambhuti Prakriti: The manifested, original, eternal, indestructible, indivisible but mutable set of realities known as tattvas.

5. Maya: A modification of the Sambhuti Prakriti that appears to the senses as real.

6. Tattvas: The set of Realities that constitute the Sambhuti Prakriti.

7. Gunas: The triple Realities that provide motion and dynamism to the Tattvas.

8. Vikriti: The modified Prakriti. It is the perceptual world, we experience through our senses, which is distorted by our perceptions, desires and expectations.

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