Prakriti and Purusha: Mother Nature and Father Consciousness

As part of the Gita’s process of acting as compendium of Vedic philosophy, it includes an introduction to the concepts of Prakriti (Mother Nature) and Purusha (Father Spirit).

Mother Nature/Prakriti is said to be the reason for agency (cause and effect), and relates to physics, action, nature, attributes, gunas (ignorance, passion, and purity), and is mechanical. It’s also called “the field” (kshetra), where good and evil acts (karma) are reaped and sown.

BG 7:5 says that Apara-Prakriti is lower, non-sentient nature and causes the body and senses, and Para-Prakriti is higher, sentient  nature–that is, living beings (jivas); the Gita says that this dual (higher and lower) nature is the womb of all beings, and in 7:7 Sri Krishna equates himself with Nature, saying that all beings are like beads in a rosary.

While Prakriti relates to the physics, Father Spirit/Purusha–sometimes called consciousness–relates to the ethics. Purusha is the cause or reason for experiencing joy and suffering (sentience), the witness, consenter, supporter, enjoyer, and point of view. In BG 13:22, Purusha is said to be “transcendent”. In general, the Gita detaches Spirit from the body as a beholder, consenter, sustainer, experiencer, Lord, and higher self. In BG 13:33, Purusha is said to be like the sun, as it illumines the whole field-body.

It seems that Purusha is the subject (the Knower of the field or body), and Prakriti is the object (the known, the field). BG 13:26 says that both animate and inanimate beings or things are born from the union of the knower and the known, but it is unclear how even non sentient beings can arise from sentient ones. When a chemical exchange happens and creates new things, we do not need to envision a sentient being involved in the creation of the new thing. What observation would this have been based on?

The main difference between this aspect of Vedic philosophy and Epicurean philosophy is that we see Purusha (sentient beings) as part of nature, not above it or separate from it. In his Letter to Herodotus, Epicurus says that the soul can act on other bodies, ergo it is real–but it is part of Prakriti/Nature, not separate from it. Perhaps this artificial division serves the purposes of evaluating the science of self, the science of the soul, in the Vedic tradition. In the Gita, Purusha causes joy and sorrow (feeling), whereas Prakriti causes the body and the senses. In Epicurus, all these faculties are in the canon and are all caused by Prakriti/nature.

Material nature and the living entities should be understood to be beginningless. Their transformations and the modes of matter are products of material nature.

Nature is said to be the cause of all material activities and effects, whereas the living entity is the cause of the various sufferings and enjoyments in this world. – BG 13:20-21

The Gita does recognize that Purusha (Spirit) is within Prakriti (Nature), experiencing things, and can become attached and entangled, but this belief serves the doctrine of reincarnation. The doctrine of the gunas, or modes of material existence, seems to indicate that all actions are performed by Nature only, and seems to treat sentient beings as puppets hanging from Nature’s strings.

BG 13:19 says that Purusha and Prakriti are both beginningless, whereas in Epicurean philosophy only Prakriti (nature) is without beginning, and sentience is an emergent property of matter–however if all of nature is beginningless and cyclical, then it could be argued that sentience also always existed. It is easier for mortals to fathom eternity in the future than to imagine eternity in the past.

This separation of Purusha (spirit, consciousness, sentience) from Prakriti (Nature) also allows for the Platonization of spirit. BG 13:31 says that the atman (self) is “free from attributes“. How can something exist, be real, and at the same time be free from attributes? In what way would it then exist? This seems to confuse and obscure the nature of sentience and selfhood rather than clarify it. Elsewhere, in BG 2:17, it says that the spirit is indestructible, and later that the spirit can’t kill or be killed (verse 19), that it is unborn (verse 20) and doesn’t perish, and even that it is unmanifest (ergo, non-existent). None of these claims find evidence in nature. It is more honest to say that sentience is an emergent property of bodies, rather than invent baseless supernatural theories.

Yajna (Sacrifice) and Sentience

O best of the Kuru dynasty, without sacrifice one can never live happily on this planet! – BG 4:31

It is impossible to better oneself or achieve any standard of excellence without sacrifice and effort–whether in education, or work, or interpersonal relations. But the Gita’s concept of sacrifice is vast, and the concept itself serves as a metaphor: we may, for instance, sacrifice our senses in the sacred fire of self-control (BG 4:26). The Gita says that, in a spiritual life, sacrifices are performed in order to gain insight and wisdom, and that therefore wisdom itself is the supreme sacrifice (BG 4:33).

Vedic sacrifice (yajna) rituals are offered in a fire (Agni) altar. Anyone who has studied Ayurveda (the medicinal traditions of India) knows that the stomach in our bodies is considered a sacrificial altar–whence the concept of “fire in the belly“.  The food we eat is a sacrifice to ourselves and to our bodies. It is consumed in the altar of the belly, and from there it goes on to nourish the entire body. In BG 4:29, we learn that–like a machine that consumes fuel–we may sacrifice cool in-coming breath (prana) in the warm out-going breath, and vice-versa. The word prana (breath) is often used liberally as meaning “vitality”, but it is also a sacrifice.

How does this relate to Purusha and Prakriti? Unlike inert nature, sentient nature requires sacrifices, nourishment, in order to preserve its vitality. We may live days without food, but only minutes without prana/the energy that we get from breath. Other beings (like algae and plants) may require sunlight. Others may require the consumption of prey–but all living beings, without known exception, must eat or consume some energy source to survive. And so sacrifice is therefore a natural feature of Purusha (sentient nature) that sets it apart from inert nature.

If this principle is understood clearly, we will see that it is unnatural to sacrifice the living for the sake of the non-living, to sacrifice the health and happiness of sentient beings in the altar of imaginary beings, or in the altar of ideologies or isms. It is only natural that sacrifices properly belong to living beings–like when we offer a feast on the 20th of the month to our dear friends.

Further Reading:

Continuing to demystify the Origin of Consciousness – How Unaware Things Became Aware

Rebel in the Soul: An Ancient Egyptian Dialogue Between a Man and His Destiny

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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