Symbolism of Breath (Prana) in Hinduism

breathing prana

by Jayaram V

The archetypal meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of breath (prana) or life energy in Hinduism


In Hinduism breath symbolizes life, energy, life support, movement, purity, fire, soul, divinity, protecting power, source of speech, measure of time, and lord of the senses. In the Vedas breath (prana) is described as the lord of the bodily organs, and next in importance to the soul or Self (Atman). Since it pervades the whole body, it is compared to Vayu (wind God) and Brahman, the all pervading deities.

In the early Upanishads, breath is equated to the Self itself. The very meaning of Atman is that which breathes. The Upanishads affirm that breath is incorruptible, since it is not vulnerable to desires, whereas the other organs such as the eyes and ears are subject to desire and can be pierced with evil. Since it is untouched by evil, breath rescues the deities in the body from mortality by carrying them far beyond the limits of the mortal world and leaving them there. At the time death, it carries all the deities in the body into the mid-region and helps them return to their spheres. The same functions are attributed to the Self (atman) also which is considered the lord of the breath (pranadhipa).

The Upanishads also recognize the superiority of the breath as the source and support of life in the body. It is because breath can exist in the body and keep it alive even if a few organs are missing or not functioning, but if breath itself departs from the body, the organs have no choice but to fall it and rise to the heaven.

Breath is thus not only the lord but the support of all organs. According to Yoga, by controlling the movement of breath through regulated breathing (pranamaya) one can control the mind, the body and their modifications. It is also the first recipient of the food digested in the body, which it channels to various organs according to their share just as the fire god (Agni) distributes the offerings of a sacrifice among gods according to their due share. In the body it travels in five forms and directions, prana, apana, udana, vyana, samana. Prana is also part of the subtle body in the living beings, and the body that is purely made of prana is known as breath body (pranamayakosa).

In the Hindu pantheon, breath is compared to Maruths, the wind gods, Rudras, the storm gods, and Shiva himself, who is described as the lord of the breath (Prananatha or Pranesvara). As the life giver, God is the source of all life energy. When he breathes out, life forms come into existence, and when he breathes in, life forms are withdrawn.

Breath is also a purifier. With the help of breath and regulating its flow through pranayama, you can purify your mind and body and stabilize it. In cultural expressions, breath symbolizes love, loyalty, intimacy and sacrifice. Children are described as the breath of parents. A very close friend is considered similar to one's own breath (pranamitra).

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