Upanishads are philosophical and spiritual sermons, forming part of the Vedas. Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Munda, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka are the ten most famous Upanishads.
The Prashna Upanishad, along with Mundaka and Maaandukya Upanishad, belongs to the Atharvaved. The word “prashna” means “question”. As the name goes, this Upanishad contains six sections dealing with six questions. Six disciples approach their preceptor- Sage Pippalaad- and pose questions regarding the creation of the creatures, creation of food, praana (प्राण) i.e. life-force, role of deities in the four stages of consciousness, meditation and the existence of the Purusha or the Supreme being.
Due to lack of adequate evidence for chronological orientation, the exact date of the composition of the Upanishads cannot be determined. The Upanishadic age has been placed somewhere between 1200 B.C. and 600 B.C. (R.D. Ranade “A constructive study of Upanishadic philosophy”).
Generally, it is regarded as a work during pre-Buddhist period i.e. around 600 B.C. Opinions regarding this, however, vary. On the other hand, tradition says that the Vedas have come from the mouth of the creator of the world- Lord Brahma at the beginning of the Satya Yuga (the Golden Age). According to this belief, the Vedas (including the Prashna Upanishad) would be more than thirty-five lakh years old.
The Upanishads have a Shanti Pada or a peace invocation at the beginning of the verses. The Upanishads belonging to one Veda have the same invocation. This invocation or prayer is to be recited prior to the study of the Upanishad. This is done with an intention to avert all evil which may fall on the person reading it. The invocation of the Prashna Upanishad is as follows-
ॐ भद्रं कर्णेभिः शृणुयाम देवा भद्रं पश्येमाक्षभिर्यजत्राः |
स्थिरैरङ्गैस्तुष्टुवांसस्तनूभिर्व्यशेम देवहितं यदायुः ||
Om. Bhadram karnebhih shrunuyaama devaa
bhadram pashyemaakshabhiryajatraah |
Sthirair angais tushtuvaamsastanoobhir vyashema
devahitam yadaayuh ||
“Om. O gods, may we hear auspicious words with ears; O Beings worthy of worship, may we see auspicious things with the eyes. While praising the gods with (our) strong limbs, may we enjoy the life-force bestowed by the gods.”
स्वस्ति न इन्द्रो वृद्धश्रवाः स्वस्ति नः पूषा विश्ववेदाः |
स्वस्ति नस्तार्क्ष्यो अरिष्टनेमिः स्वस्ति नो बृहस्पतिर्दधातु ||
Svasti na indro vruddhashravaah
svasti nah pooshaa vishvavedaah |
Svasti nastaarkshyo arishtanemih
svasti no bruhaspatirdadhaatu ||
“May Indra, of increasing glory, bestow prosperity on us; may Pushan, the knower of all, bestow prosperity on us; may Taarkshya, of unobstructed path, bestow prosperity on us; may Bruhaspati bestow prosperity on us.”
Philosophy of the Upanishad
As mentioned before, the Prashna Upanishad deals with the answers of six questions, posed by six disciples to their preceptor sage Pippalaad. These six disciples are-
- Sukesha, the son of Bhaaradvaaja
- Satyakaamaa, the son of Shibi
- Gaargya, the grandson of Soorya
- Kausalya, the son of Ashvala
- Bhaargava of the Vidarbha country
- Kabandhee, the son of Kaatya
All six of them basically sought knowledge of the Supreme Being- the Brahman- by their various questions.
The first question is asked by Kabandhee
Q. Where do all the creatures, which exist in the world, come from?
A. Prajaapati, who was the first being, desired progeny. He contemplated on Vedic knowledge and created a couple- food and praana (the eater of the food). He believed that this pair will produce creatures for him. Another interpretation is that Prajaapati created matter and life-force (प्राण). Everything that is gross and subtle is matter. That which provides energy to this matter is life-force.
The second question is posed by Bhaargava.
Q. How many powers support and illumine the created world and who among them is the greatest?
A. Life-force (प्राण) is the greatest among the powers for, it sustains the bodies and without it, nothing can survive. Life-force is existent in everything. The fire, sun, wind, earth, rain, Indra, Rudra etc. support and run the world. These are nothing but various forms of life-force. All these are under the control of life-force. Life-force is well-established in the three worlds- heaven, earth and the netherworld.
The third question is asked by Kausalya. This question is the most transcendental of all.
Q. How does life-force enter, stay and leave the body? How does it sustain the matter? How is it related to the Self?
A. The life-force is verily born of the Self. When the life-force is attached to the matter (a body), it further allots various praanas to their respective body parts.
Life-force or praana stays within the body and it is said to be divided into five parts-
Praana- It stays in lungs and is inhaled and exhaled through nostrils and mouth
Apaana- It stays in the anus and enables the waste material to descend to the excretory organs.
Samaana- It stays in the stomach helps in digestion by igniting the gastric fire.
Udaana- It stays in the throat region and helps the blood to flow upwards toward the brain.
Vyaana- It stays in the blood vessels and enables the blood flow throughout the body.
The Self is combined with the life-force when it takes birth in a body. Further, when the person becomes fully engrossed in the pleasures of the senses, the embodied self has to take rebirth in the world. This chain goes on and on until one realizes the truth about the life-force and his identity with the Self. When this happens, he becomes immortal and the Self gets separated from the life-force, to merge with Brahman
The fourth question is posed by Gaargya.
Q. Who is it in the person, which sleeps, sees the dreams and keeps him awake?
A. The individual soul, which exists in the beings, is a part of the Supreme soul. In deep sleep, this soul experiences oneness with the Brahman and in this, one does not perceive the sense objects through the sense organs. Just as a bird takes rest on the branches, the soul resorts to the Supreme Self for rest. When a person sleeps and dreams, it is the mind which sees things that are already seen, heard and experienced by the person before. It also sees things that are not experienced or which are non-existent.
The fifth question was asked by Satyakaama.
Q. What is the purpose behind meditating on the sacred word “Aum” (ॐ)?
A. Aum, the first sound, is nothing but Brahman. The word Aum consists of three letters- A, U and M. If a person meditates on A, he takes rebirth after his death very soon. If a person meditates on both A and U, he ascends to heaven after death, but later, once again takes birth on the earth. The aim of the soul is not to take rebirth, but, to mingle with the Supreme Self forever. When a person meditates on all the three syllables A, U and M, he is freed from all his sins and becomes one with the effulgent Brahman.
The sixth question was posed by Sukesha.
Q. Who is this person with “sixteen divine attributes” (षोडशकलपुरुष)?
A. The sixteen attributes are- the five elements viz. earth, fire, water, air and ether; the five life-forces viz. praana, apaana, samaana, udaana and vyaana; the five sense organs viz. eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin; and the mind. All of them are created by the Supreme Self. The person in whom these sixteen attributes arise is within the body of a human being. When these sixteen attributes are compiled in the body, they lose their identity as “the sixteen attributes” and are known as that individual as a whole. They merge in the body of the human being.
The answers given by sage Pippalaad are insightful and have a deep meaning. However, the basic knowledge that this Upanishad indicates is that the whole world is created by Brahman alone. It is this Brahman that resides in every being in the form of the individual self or soul and stays there as a witness to the worldly activities.
- A Constructive Survey Of Upanishadic Philosophy; Dr. R.D. Ranade
- The Principle Upanishads; S. Radhakrishnan
- Eight Upanishads (with the commentary of Shankaracharya); Swami Gambhirananda
- A glimpse On Sruthi; E.T. Sankaran Kutty