Clarifications Regarding Purusha and Prakriti In the Understanding of Karma


There is a passage in the Upanishads, relevant to the discussion of rebirth and karma, which raised a question in the mind of one of the students of Sri Aurobindo’s text Rebirth and Karma. The Upanishad refers to “mind, leader of the life and body”. The student wonders how the mental being can take on this central role when it is part of the manifested lower nature of body, life and mind.

Sri Aurobindo clarified that the Upanishad referred to the “manomaya purusha” and not mind in the sense of the instrumentation of nature we commonly consider to be “mind”. There is a distinction of the concepts of “purusha” and “prakriti“. The first is the witness consciousness, not acting but providing support and sanction. The second is nature, which acts. In this case, the Upanishad is referring to the purusha. It specifically is referring to human beings as essentially being led by their characteristic as mental beings; while animals, for instance, would be led by their characteristic as life beings, in Upanishadic terms “pranamaya purusha“.

The Taittiriya Upanishad in the Brahmananda Valli goes through an extensive review of the issue, as it successively refers to a series of ever more subtle inner selves that inform and control the more external forms. There is a self of matter, which is then informed by a self of vital energy. This in turn is informed by a self of mind. The sequence continues beyond that inner self of mind. The issue here, however is not related to the matter, life energy or mind that makes up the instrumental being in nature, but an essential inner self that provides the basic “way of being” or characteristic of the being controlled by that “self”.

Sri Aurobindo discusses this issue: “It is described as manomaya by the Upanishads because the psychic being is behind the veil and man being the mental being in the life and body lives in his mind and not in his psychic, so to him the manomaya purusha is the leader of the life and body,–of the psychic behind supporting the whole he is not aware or dimly aware in his best moments.”

He goes on to explain that the manomaya purusha guides the human nature (prakriti) consisting of the instrumental mind, life and body. Similarly in the animal world, it would be the pranamaya purusha (the essential consciousness of the vital life energy) that would be the leader or guide for the animal nature consisting of instrumental life and body.

It is this level of subtlety and detail that has made a complete understanding of the processes and significance of Karma so mysterious and difficult to follow throughout mankind’s attempts to get an overview of it.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 2, Question and Answer: A Clarification, pp. 160-161, <a href=”; title=”Rebirth and Karma”></a&gt;

The Supramental Consciousness Is Key To Transcending the Limitations of Mind, Life and Matter

The mental, vital and physical levels of consciousness are fundamentally limited by their basis in division and fragmentation. They see and categorize their understanding in a way that emphasizes the separateness of the forces at work and the consequences. This makes it impossible to understand the action of Karma in any comprehensive way, as such an understanding requires an integrating vision that can both see the parts and the whole of which they are elements.

Sri Aurobindo elucidates this point: “The secret reason of man’s failure to rise truly beyond himself is a fundamental incapacity in the mind, the life and the body to organise the highest integral truth and power of the spirit. And this incapacity exists because mind and life and matter are in their nature depressed and imperfect powers of the Infinite that need to be transformed into something greater than themselves before they can escape from their depression and imperfection; in their very nature they are a system of partial and separated values and cannot adequately express or embody the integral and the one, a movement of many divergent and mutually non-understanding or misunderstanding lines they cannot arrive of themselves at any but a provisional limited and imperfect harmony and order.”

To the extent that we can develop any kind of harmony of interaction, it is based on the action of the secret influence of the higher supramental consciousness which holds the whole in its vision while simultaneously recognising the role and place for each of the disparate parts. “That force and knowledge is the self-possessed supramental power and will and the perfect and untrammelled supramental gnosis of the Infinite. It is that which has fixed the precise measures of Matter, regulates the motive instincts and impulsions of Life, holds together the myriad seekings of Mind; but none of these things are that power and gnosis and nothing therefore mental, vital or physical is final or can even find its own integral truth and harmony nor all these together their reconciliation until they are taken up and transformed in a supramental manifestation. For this supermind or gnosis is the entire organising will and knowledge of the spiritual, it is the Truth Consciousness, the Truth Force, the organic instrumentation of divine Law, the all-seeing eye of the divine Vision, the freely selecting and generating harmony of the eternal Ananda.”

And it is from this standpoint that the entire process of rebirth, and the action of Karma can finally be integrated and understood, both in the individual lines of action of each level of consciousness and in the complex interaction that provides the framework for the evolutionary journey of the soul through time, space and circumstance in the manifestation of the secret meaning of existence.

Sri Aurobindo, Rebirth and Karma, Appendix 1, The Tangle of Karma, pp. 158-159,