A History of Indian Philosophy Volume 2

by Surendranath Dasgupta | 1932 | 241,887 words | ISBN-13: 9788120804081

This page describes the philosophy of prana and its control: a concept having historical value dating from ancient India. This is the ninth part in the series called the “the philosophy of the yogavasishtha”, originally composed by Surendranath Dasgupta in the early 20th century.

Part 9 - Prāṇa and its Control

The mind (citta), which naturally transforms itself into its states (vṛtti), does so for two reasons, which are said to be like its two seeds. One of these is the vibration (parispanda) of prāṇa, and the other, strong and deep-rooted desires and inclinations which construct (dṛḍha-bhāvanā)[1]. When the prāṇa vibrates and is on the point of passing through the nerves (nāḍī-saṃsparśanodyata), then there appears the mind full of its thought processes (saṃveda-namaya). But when the prāṇa lies dormant in the hollow of the veins (śirā-saraṇi-kotare), then there is no manifestation of mind, and its processes and the cognitive functions do not operate[2]. It is the vibration of the prāṇa (prāṇa-spanda) that manifests itself through the citta and causes the world-appearance out of nothing.

The cessation of the vibration of prāṇa means cessation of all cognitive functions. As a result of the vibration of prāṇa, the cognitive function is set in motion like a top (vītā). As a top spins round in the yard when struck, so, roused by the vibration of prāṇa, knowledge is manifested; and in order to stop the course of knowledge, it is necessary that the cause of knowledge should be first attacked. When the citta remains awake to the inner sense, while shut to all extraneous cognitive activities, we have the highest state. For the cessation of citta the yogins control prāṇa through prāṇāyāma (breath-regulation) and meditation (dhyāna), in accordance with proper instructions[3].

Again, there is a very intimate relation between vāsanā and prāṇa-spanda, such that vāsanā is created and stimulated into activity, prāṇa-spanda, and prāṇa-spanda is set in motion through vāsanā. When by strong ideation and without any proper deliberation of the past and the present, things are conceived to be one’s own—the body, the senses, the ego and the like—we have what is called vāsanā. Those who have not the proper wisdom always believe in the representations of the ideations of vāsanā without any hesitation and consider them to be true; and, since both the vāsanā and the prāṇa-spanda are the ground and cause of the manifestations of citta, the cessation of one promptly leads to the cessation of the other. The two are connected with each other in the relation of seed and shoot (bījāñkuravat) ; from prāṇa-spanda there is vāsanā, and from vāsanā there is prāṇa-spanda. The object of knowledge is inherent in the knowledge itself, and so with the cessation of knowledge the object of knowledge also ceases[4].

As a description of prāṇa we find in the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha that it is said to be vibratory activity (spanda-śakti) situated in the upper part of the body, while apāna is the vibratory activity in the lower part of the body. There is a natural prāṇāyāma going on in the body in waking states as well as in sleep. The mental outgoing tendency of the prāṇas from the cavity of the heart is called recaka, and the drawing in of the prāṇas (dvādaśāñguli) by the apāna activity is called pūraka. The interval between the cessation of one effort of apāna and the rise of the effort of prāṇa is the stage of kumbhaka.

Bhuśuṇḍa, the venerable old crow who was enjoying an exceptionally long life, is supposed to instruct Vaśiṣṭha in vi. 24 on the subject of prāṇa. He compares the body to a house with the ego (ahaṃkāra) as the householder. It is supposed to be supported by pillars of three kinds[5], provided with nine doors (seven apertures in the head and two below), tightly fitted with the tendons (snāyu) as fastening materials and cemented with blood, flesh and fat. On the two sides of it there are the two nāḍīs, iḍā and piṅgalā, lying passive and unmanifested (nimīlite). There is also a machine (yantra) of bone and flesh (asthi-māṃsa-maya) in the shape of three double lotuses (padma-yugma-traya) having pipes attached to them running both upwards and downwards and with their petals closing upon one another (anyonya-milat-komala-saddala).

When it is slowly filled with air, the petals move, and by the movement of the petals the air increases. Thus increased, the air, passing upwards and downwards through different places, is differently named as prāṇa , apāna , samāna , etc. It is in the threefold machinery of the lotus of the heart {hṛt-padma-y antra-tritaye) that all the prāṇa forces operate and spread forth upwards and downwards like the rays from the moon’s disc. They go out, return, repulse and draw and circulate. Located in the heart, the air is called prāṇa : it is through its power that there is the movement of the eyes, the operation of the tactual sense, breathing through the nose, digesting of food and the power of speech[6].

The prāṇa current of air stands for exhalation (recaka) and the apāna for inhalation (pūraka), and the moment of respite between the two operations is called kum-hhaka ; consequently, if the prāṇa and apāna can be made to cease there is an unbroken continuity of kumbhaka. But all the functions of the prāṇa, as well as the upholding of the body, are ultimately due to the movement of citta[7]. Though in its movement in the body the prāṇa is associated with air currents, still it is in reality nothing but the vibratory activity proceeding out of the thought-activity, and these two act and react upon each other, so that, if the vibratory activity of the body be made to cease, the thought-activitv will automatically cease, and vice-versa. Thus through spanda-nirodha we have prāṇa-nirodha and through prāṇa-nirodha we ha ve spanda-nirodha. In the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha , 111. 13.31 , vāyu is said to be nothing but a vibratory entity (spandateyat sa tad vāyuḥ).

In v. 78 it is said that citta and movement are in reality one and the same, and are therefore altogether inseparable, like the snow and its whiteness, and consequently with the destruction of one the other is also destroyed. There are two ways of destroying the citta, one by Yoga, consisting of the cessation of mental states, and the other by right knowledge. As water enters through the crevices of the earth, so air (vāta) moves in the body through the nāḍīs and is called prāṇa. It is this prāṇa air which, on account of its diverse functions and works, is differently named as apāna, etc. But it is identical with citta. From the movement of prāṇa there is the movement of citta , and from that there is knowledge (samvid). As regards the control of the movement of prāṇa, the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha advises several alternatives. Thus it holds that through concentrating one’s mind on one subject, or through fixed habits of long inhalation associated with meditation, or through exhaustive exhalation, or the practice of not taking breath and maintaining kumbhaka , or through stopping the inner respiratory passage by attaching the tip of the tongue to the uvula[8], or, again, through concentration of the mind or thoughts on the point between the two brows, there dawns all of a sudden the right knowledge and the consequent cessation of prāṇa activities[9].

Professor Macdonell, writing on prāṇa in the Vedic Index , vol. 11, says,

prāṇa , properly denoting ‘breath,’ is a term of wide and vague significance in Vedic literature.”

In the narrow sense prāṇa denotes one of the vital airs, of which five are usually enumerated, viz. prāṇa , apāna , vyāna , udāna and samāna. The exact sense of each of these breaths, when all are mentioned, cannot be determined. The word prāṇa has sometimes merely the general sense of breath, even when opposed to apāna. But its proper sense is beyond question “breathing forth,” “expiration.” But, though in a few cases the word may have been used for “breath” in its remote sense, the general meaning of the word in the Upaniṣads is not air current, but some sort of biomotor force, energy or vitality often causing these air currents[10]. It would be tedious to refer to the large number of relevant Upaniṣad texts and to try to ascertain after suitable discussion their exact significance in each case. The best way to proceed therefore is to refer to the earliest traditional meaning of the word, as accepted by the highest Hindu authorities. I refer to the Vedānta-sūtra of Bādarāyaṇa, which may be supposed to be the earliest research into the doctrines discussed in the Upaniṣads. Thus the Vedānta-sūtra, n. 4. 9 (na vāyu-kriye pṛthag upadeśāt), speaking of what may be the nature of prāṇa, says that it is neither air current (vāyu) nor action (kriyā), since prāṇa has been considered as different from air and action (in the Upaniṣads).

Śaṅkara, commenting on this, says that from such passages as yaḥprāṇaḥ sa eṣa vāyuḥ pañca 'vidhaḥ prāṇo pāno vyāna udānaḥ samānaḥ (what is prāṇa is vāyu and it is fivefold, prāṇa, apāna, vyāna, udāna,samāna), it may be supposed that vāyu (air) is prāṇa, but it is not so, since in Chāndogya, 111. 18. 4, it is stated that they are different. Again, it is not the action of the senses, as the Sāṃkhya supposes; for it is regarded as different from the senses in Muṇḍaka, 11.1. 3.

The passage which identifies vāyu with prāṇa is intended to prove that it is the nature of vāyu that has transformed itself into the entity known as prāṇa (just as the human body itself may be regarded as a modification or transformation of kṣiti, earth). It is not vāyu, but, as Vācaspati says, “vāyu-bheda,” which Amalānanda explains in his Vedānta-kalpa-taru as vāyoḥ pariṇāma-rūpa-kārya-viśeṣaḥ, i.e. it is a particular evolutionary product of the category of vāyu. Śaṅkara’s own statement is equally explicit on the point.

He says,

“vāyur evāyam adhyātmam āpannaḥ pañca-vyūho viśeṣātmanāvatiṣṭhamānaḥ prāṇo nāma bhaṇyate na tattvāntaraṃ nāpi vāyu-mātram ,”

i.e. it is vāyu which, having transformed itself into the body, differentiates itself into a group of five that is called vāyu; prāṇa is not altogether a different category, nor simply air. In explaining the nature of prāṇa in II. 4.10-12, Śaṅkara says that prāṇa is not as independent zs jīva (soul), but performs everything on its behalf, like a prime minister (rāja-mantrivaj jīvasya sarvārtha-karaṇatvena upakaraṇa-bhūto na svatantraḥ).

Prāṇa is not an instrument like the senses, which operate only in relation to particular objects; for, as is said in Chāndogya, v. 1.6, 7, Bṛhad-āraṇyaka, iv. 3. 12 and Bṛhad-āraṇyaka , 1. 3. 19, when all the senses leave the body the prāṇa continues to operate. It is that by the functioning of which the existence of the soul in the body, or life (jīva-sthiti), and the passage of the jīva out of the body, or death (jlvotkrānti), are possible.

The five vāyus are the five functionings of this vital principle, just as the fivefold mental states of right knowledge, illusion, imagination (vikalpa), sleep and memory are the different states of the mind. Vācaspati, in commenting on Vedānta-sūtra , II. 4. 11, says that it is the cause which upholds the body and the senses (dehen driya-vidhāraṇa-kāraṇaṃ prāṇaḥ), though it must be remembered that it has still other functions over and above the upholding of the body and the senses (na kevalaṃ śarīrendriya-dhāraṇam asya kāryam, Vācaspati, ibid.).

In Vedānta-sūtra, 11. 4. 13, it is described as being atomic (ami), which is explained by Śaṅkara as “subtle” (sūkṣma), on account of its pervading the whole body by its fivefold functionings. Vācaspati in explaining it says that it is called “atomic” only in a derivative figurative sense (upacaryate) and only on account of its inaccessible or indefinable character (duradhigamatā), though pervading the whole body.

Govindānanda, in commenting upon Vedānta-sūtra, 11. 4. 9, says that prāṇa is a vibratory activity which upholds the process of life and it has no other direct operation than that (parispanda-rupa-prāṇanānukūlatvād avāntara-vyāpārābhāvāt). This seems to be something like biomotor or life force. With reference to the relation of prāṇa to the motor organs or faculties of speech, etc., Śaṅkara says that their vibratory activity is derived from prāṇa (vāgādiṣuparispanda-lābhasyaprāṇāyattatvam, 11.4.19).

There are some passages in the Vedānta-sūtra which may lead us to think that the five vāyus may mean air currents, but that it is not so is evident from the fact that the substance of the prāṇa is not air (etat prāṇādi-pañcakam ākāśādi-gata-rajo-’ṃśebhyo militebhya utpadyate), and the rajas element is said to be produced from the five bhūtas, and the prāṇas are called kriyātmaka, or consisting of activity. Rāma Tīrtha, commenting on the above passage of the Vedānta-sāra, says that it is an evolutionary product of the essence of vāyu and the other bhūtas, but it is not in any sense the external air which performs certain physiological functions in the body

(tathā mukhya-prāṇo 'pi vāyor bāhyasya sūtrātmakasya vikāro na śārīra-madhye nabhovad vṛtti-lābha-mātreṇa avasthito bāhya-vāyur eva)[11].

Having proved that in Vedānta prāṇa or any of the five vāyus means biomotor force and not air current, I propose now to turn to the Sāṃkhya-Yoga.

The Sāṃkhya-Yoga differs from the Vedānta in rejecting the view that the prāṇa is in any sense an evolutionary product of the nature of vāyu. Thus Vijñānabhikṣu in his Vijñānāmṛta-bhōṣya on Vedānta-sūtra, II. 4. 10, says that prāṇa is called vāyu because it is self-active like the latter

(svataḥ kriyāvattvena ubhayoḥ prāṇa-vāyvoḥ sājātyāt).

Again, in 11.4.9, he says that prāṇa is neither air nor the upward or downward air current

(mukhya-prāṇo na vāyuḥ nāpi śārirasya ūrdhv-ādho-vgamana-lakṣaṇā vāyu-kriyā).

What is prāṇa, then, according to Sāṃkhya-Yoga? It is mahat-tattva, which is evolved from prakṛti, which is called buddhi with reference to its intellective power and prāṇa with reference to its power as activity. The so-called five vāyus are the different functionings of the mahat-tattva

(sāmānya-kārya-sādhāraṇaṃ yat kāraṇaṃ mahat-tattvaṃ tasyaiva vṛtti-bhedāḥprāṇāpānādayaḥ; see Vijñānāmṛta-bhāṣya, 11.4.11).

Again, referring to Sāṃkhya-kārikā, 29, we find that the five vāyus are spoken of as the common functioning of buddhi, ahaṃkāra and manas, and Vācaspati says that the five vāyus are their life. This means that the three, buddhi, ahaṃkāra and manas, are each energizing, in their own way, and it is the joint operation of these energies that is called the fivefold prāṇa which upholds the body. Thus in this view also prāṇa is biomotor force and no air current.

The special feature of this view is that this biomotor force is in essence a mental energy consisting of the specific functionings of buddhi, ahaṃkāra and manas[12]. It is due to the evolutionary activity of antaḥkaraṇa. In support of this view the Sāṃkhya-pravacana-bhāṣya, 11. 31, Vyāsa-bhāṣya, ill. 39, Vācaspati’s Tattva-vaiśāradī, Bhikṣu’s Yoga-varttika, and Nāgeśa’s Chāyā-vyākhyā thereon may be referred to. It is true, no doubt, that sometimes inspiration and expiration of external air are also called prāṇa ; but that is because in inspiration and expiration the function of prāṇa is active or it vibrates. It is thus the entity which moves and not mere motion that is called prāṇa[13]. Rāmānuja agrees with Śaṅkara in holding that prāṇa is not air (vāyu), but a transformation of the nature of air. But it should be noted that this modification of air is such a modification as can only be known by Yoga methods[14].

The Vaiśeṣika, however, holds that it is the external air which according to its place in the body performs various physiological functions[15]. The medical authorities also support the view that vāyu is a sort of driving and upholding power. Thus the Bhāva-prakāśa describes vāyu as follows: It takes quickly the doṣas , dhātus and the malas from one place to another, is subtle, composed of rajo-guṇa ; is dry, cold, light and moving. By its movement it produces all energy, regi lates inspiration and expiration and generates all movement and action, and by upholding the keenness of the senses and the dhātus holds together the heat, senses and the mind[16]. Vāhata in his Aṣṭāñga-saṃgraha also regards vāyu as the one cause of all body movements, and there is nothing to suggest that he meant air currents[17]. The long description of Caraka (1. 12), as will be noticed in the next chapter, seems to suggest that he considered the vāyu as the constructive and destructive force of the universe, and as fulfilling the same kinds of functions inside the body as well. It is not only a physical force regulating the physiological functions of the body, but is also the mover and controller of the mind in all its operations, as knowing, feeling and willing. Suśruta holds that it is in itself avyakta (unmanifested or unknowable), and that only its actions as operating in the body are manifested (avyakto vyakta-karmā ca).

In the Yoga-vāsiṣṭha , as we have already seen above, prāṇa or vāyu is defined as that entity which vibrates (spandate yat sa tad vāyuḥ,m. 13) and it has no other reality than vibration. Prāṇa itself is, again, nothing but the movement of the intellect as ahaṃkāra[18].

Prāṇa is essentially of the nature of vibration (spanda), and mind is but a form of prāṇa energy, and so by the control of the mind the five vāyus are controlled[19]. The Śaiva authorities also agree with the view that prāṇa is identical with cognitive activity, which passes through the nāḍīs (nerves) and maintains all the body movement and the movement of the senses. Thus Kṣemarāja says that it is the cognitive force which passes in the form of prāṇa through the nāḍīs , and he refers to bhaṭṭa Kallata as also holding the same view, and prāṇa is definitely spoken of by him as force (kutila-vāhinī prāṇa-śaktiḥ)[20]. Śivopādhyaya in his Vivṛti on the Vijñāna-bhairava also describes prāṇa as force (śakti), and the Vijñāna-bhairava itself does the same[21]. bhaṭṭa Ānanda in his Vijñāna-kaumudī describes prāṇa as a functioning of the mind (citta-vṛtti).

(stray note, somewhere in parahraph below) [22]

Footnotes and references:


Yoga-vāsiṣṭḥa, v. gi. 14.


I have translated śirā as veins, though I am not properly authorized to do it. For the difference between veins and arteries does not seem to have been known.


Yoga-vāsiṣṭḥa, v. 91. 20-27.


samūlaṃ naśyataḥ kṣipraṃ mūla-cchedād iva drumaḥ.
saṃvidaṃ viddhi saṃvedyaṃ bījaṃ dhīratayā vinā
na saṃbhavati saṃvedyaṃ taila-ḥīnas tilo yatḥā
na bahir nāntare kiṃcit saṃvedyaṃ vidyate pṛthak.
v. gi. 66 and 67.


tri-prakāra-mahā-sthūṇam, v 1.24. 14. The commentator explains the three kinds of pillars as referring to the three primal entities of Indian medicine —vāyu (air), pitta (bile) and kapha (phlegm)—

vāta-pitta-kapha-lakṣaṇa-tri-prakārā mahāntah sthūṇā viṣṭambha-kāṣṭhāni yasya.

I am myself inclined to take the three kinds of pillars as referring to the bony structure of three parts of the body— the skull, the trunk, and the legs.


Yoga-vāsiṣṭha, vi. 24. It is curious to note in this connection that in the whole literature of the Āyurveda there is probably no passage where there is such a clear description of the respiratory process. Pupphusa , or lungs, are mentioned only by name in Suśruta-saṃhitā, but none of their functions and modes of operation are at all mentioned. It is probable that the discovery of the respiratory functions of the lungs was made by a school of thought different from that of the medical school.


Ibid. VI. 25. 61-74.


tālu-mūla-gatāṃ yatnāj jihvayākramya ghanṭikām
ūrdḥva-randhra-gate prāṇe prāṇa-spando nirudhyate,
v. 78. 25.


It is important to notice in this connection that most of the forms of prāṇa-yāma as herein described, except the haṭha-yoga process of arresting the inner air passage by the tongue, otherwise known as kḥecarī-mūdrā, are the same as described in the sūtras of Patañjali and the bhāṣya of Vyāsa; and this fact has also been pointed out by the commentator Anandabodhendra Bhiksu in his commentary on the above.


Difference between prāṇa and vāyu, Aitareya, II. 4; the nāsikyaprāṇa, I. 4.

Relation of prāṇa to other functions, Kauṣītaki, 11. 5;
prāṇa as life, II. 8;
connected with vāyu, 11. 12;
as the most important function of life, 11. 14;
as consciousness, III. 2.

Distinction of nāsikya and mukhya prāṇa, Chāndogya, 11. 1-9;
the function of the five vāyus, III. 3-5;
as the result of food, 1. 8. 4; of water, vi. 5. 2, vi. 6. 5, vi. 7. 6;
connected with ātman, as everything else connected with prāṇa, like spokes of a wheel, Bṛhadāraṇyaka, 11. 5. 15;
as strength, ibid. v. 14. 4;
as force running through the suṣumṇā nerve, Maitrī , vi. 21; etc.


Viḍvan-tnano-rañjariī, p. 105, Jacob’s edition, Bombay, 1916.


Gauḍapāda’s bhāṣya on the Śaṃkhya-kārikā, 29 compares the action of prāṇa to the movement of birds enclosed in a cage which moves the cage: compare Śaṅkara’s reference to Vedānta-sūtra, 11. 4. 9.


Rāmānuja-bhāṣya on Vedānta-sūtra, II. 4. 8.


See the Tattva-muktā-kalāpa, 53-55, and also Rāmānuja-bhāṣya and Śruta-prakāśikā, 11. 4. 1—15.


Nyāya-kandall of Śrīdhara, p. 48.


Bhāva-prakāśa, Sen’s edition, Calcutta, p. 47.


Vāhata’s Aṣṭāñga-saṃgraha and the commentary by Indu, Trichur, 1914, pp. 138, 212.


Yoga-vāsiṣṭha,III . 14.


Ibid. V. 13, 78.


Śiva-sūtra-vimarśinī, III. 43, 44.


Vijñāna-bhairava and Vivṛti, verse 67.


See the Nyāya-kandalī of Śrīdhara, p. 48, and also Dinakari and Rāmarūdrī on the Siddhānta-muktāvalī on Bhāṣā-parichcheda, p. 44.

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