By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Prasna Upanisad, PraZna Upanisad, Prashna Upanisad
Origin of Praśna Upaniṣad
This Upaniṣad has been assigned to the Atharvaveda. The Mundaka Upaniṣad which also belongs to the same Veda, has been called ‘Mantra’ and this Upanisad as ‘Brāhmaṇa’ by Śaṅkara.
Contents of Praśna Upaniṣad
Considered as an ancient and authoritative scripture, it has been listed among the ten major Upaniṣads. Since it is in the form of six questions and their answers, it is called ‘Praśnopanisad’ or even ‘Satpraśnopanisad’. The total number of verses is 67 all in prose.
Six sages once approached the venerable sage Pippalāda with the sacrificial fuel in hand as per the prescribed traditional mode of approaching the spiritual teacher and expressed their desire to know Brahman from him. These six sages were:
Pippalāda advised them to live in his house for a year, doing tapas or austerity and observing brahmacarya. After completing their probation, they could approach him with their questions and doubts.Having complied with his directions, they returned to him. Kabandhī was the first to ask:
‘O Venerable one! From where are all these creatures born?’
Pippalāda’s reply may be summarized as follows:
- Prajāpati, the Lord of creation, desirous of offsprings, performed tapas and brought out of himself a pair, the rayi and the prāṇa, which pair would produce the creatures on his behalf.
- Rayi is matter and prāṇa is the sentient spirit. Rayi is identified with the moon and prāṇa with the sun. The sun and the moon together are responsible for the creation.
- Pippalāda describes the two paths by which human beigns go to the higher worlds in accordance to their deeds. They are:
- Those who are devoted to iṣṭāpurta will go to the pitṛloka by the latter path. However they have to return to this world after exhausting their religious merits.
- Others devoted to tapas, brahmacarya and vidyā will go to the Ādityaloka by the former and will not return to this mundane existence.
- Pippalāda compares the saihvatsara to the month with its dark and bright fortnights and the day with its day and night divisions to Prjāpati.
- Even anna or food is Prajāpati because it is out of the semen, the product of food, that people are born.
- Prajāpati is the origin of all beings.
Second ChapterIt has 13 verses. The Second praśna or chapter starts with the question of Bhārgava:
Sir, how many devas (gods) are supporting this body? Who is illumining it? Among them who is the best?
In reply Pippalāda declares that:
- It is prāṇa that is actually supporting the body.
- He narrates a brief story as to how the sense-organs like the eye or the ear claimed superiority but were silenced. When the enraged prāṇa moved as if he was getting up, all the other organs too were forced to rise up from their locations. It was like the queen bee rising, forcing all the ordinary bees also to rise. Then all the senses, understanding prāṇa’s superiority started hymning to him.
- In this hymn, prāṇa has been praised not just as the Self, the master of the body, but as the Supreme Self, Prajāpati himself. He is fire, sun, rain, Indra, Vāyu, the earth, in fact, the Supreme concept of time.
- He briefly narrates the creation of God.
- God is Parameśvara or Rudra.
- He it is that receives all oblations given in sacrifices.
- In this body, it is he who functions as the sense-organs.
- They request him to protect them just as a mother protects her children.
Third ChapterIt has 12 Verses. Now, it is the turn of Kausalya to question Pippalāda. His question concerns the prāṇa or the vital energy working inside the body. His questions are:
Whence is this prāṇa born? How does he come into this body? How does he distribute himself and establish himself? In what way does he depart? How does he support the external world? How does he support what is inside oneself?
The sage's answers can be summarized as follows:
- In the previous section though prāṇa’s nature and greatness were described, his essential nature as the highest truth and his functions were not. They are now being delineated.
- The Prāṇa is born or manifested from the Atman.
- He comes into the body effortlessly like a shadow following a man, when the jīvātman enters it.
- He appoints the five functional prāṇas even as a king appoints his officers and apportions their duties.
- The five prāṇas and their functions are:
- Prāṇa - Breathing and activating the eyes and the ears
- Apāna - Excretion
- Vyāna - General diffusing of air inside the body
- Udāna - Taking the jivātman out of the body at the time of death
- Samāna - Equitable distribution of the essence of food all over the body.
- There are 101 nāḍīs or tube-like structures for the flow of prāṇic energy in the region of the heart.
- The udāna takes the jivātman through one of them, the suṣumnā, to either meritorious worlds or hell or back to the human world, depending on the karma of that individual whether good or bad or mixed.
- Aditya or the sun is the external aspect of prāṇa who is also supporting the power of the eye inside.
- The earth, the sky, the light and the air are the external aspects respectively of apāna, samāna, udāna and vyāna.
- At the time of death, in whatever way the mind of the dying person works, the chief prāṇa takes him to the world appropriate to him.
- The section concludes with a eulogy of the person who has mastered the knowledge of this prāṇa.
Fourth ChapterIt has 11 verses. Now Sauryāyaṇi questions Pippalāda:
In this puruṣa or body what is it that sleeps? What is awake? Between these two, who sees the dreams? Who enjoys happiness? In whom are all united and dissolved?
In answer to these questions sage replied that:
- When the sense-organs with their experiences become one with the mind, a person is said to be sleeping.
- Even then, the five prāṇas are fully awake since they continue to function under the general guidance of the mind.
- Mind or the jivātman, the individual Self closely associated with it gets all the dream experiences.
- However, when this mind or the jivātman with the senses withdrawn into itself is merged in Brahman in deep sleep there are no dreams.
- He lived in A. D. 788-820.
- All these are the disciplines of studenthood.
- Tapas is austerity in the form of intense concentration on the process of creation as done in his previous existence.
- Iṣṭāpurta means Vedic rituals like the Agnihotra and public utility works like digging wells.
- Pitṛloka means the world of manes.
- It means austerity.
- It means continence.
- It means contemplation on the deities.
- It means the world of the sun.
- Saihvatsara is the year with its two parts, the southern and the northern solstices.
- It refers to Paramapuruṣa or the Supreme Being.
- It means the individual Self.
- It means his own different aspects or parts.
- It means secondary.
- It refers to outside.
- It refers to outside.
- It is compared to the five Vedic fires like gārhapatya by the Upaniṣad.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore