Purusha and Prakriti

In Indian philosophy, there are two principles that constitute all of reality. They are known as purusha and prakriti. Purusha is consciousness, the mind, the observer. It is the divine masculine, symbolized by the god or deva known as Shiva. This principle is passive: its goal is only to reflect eternally on the feminine principle, prakriti. Prakriti is the active principle, which is nature itself, God made manifest in trees, people, computers, and galaxies. This divine feminine is symbolized by the goddess in all of her forms: Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and so forth. But, in some schools of Indian philosophy, and I am thinking of the Samkhya school, there is a primordial Prakriti, the divine “stuff” out of which worlds are made. I use scare quotes around “stuff,” because the primordial Prakriti is neither material nor immaterial: it has the potential to take form. It holds within it the possibility for all causality, for all of the possibles, including the one that we currently inhabit. For some reason unknown to us, this primordial divinity chose to take form, to become nature as it is made manifest to us. And, to add even more mystery, this primordial divinity chose to become subject to law, to cause and effect.

Shiva with his wife Parvati on traditional Hindu temple, Nuwara Eliya, Sri lanka (Deposit Photos)

We wake up every morning, and, because of gravity, down is still down and up is still up. Not that we understand gravity, because we don’t—not even remotely. There are still many Nobel prizes to be awarded on that front. Somehow giving this force a name—gravity—and having Newton’s laws makes it seem like we understand it. Let’s just flag the mystery here and say that human beings don’t have it all figured out. We need a million more Albert Einsteins and Marie Curies, and then we will still have more to learn. Anyway, we have this sense of continuity, that things will continue to be the way that they have been. Part of this is just a bias towards familiarity, but part of it is also because the universe acts in ways that are continuous with what went before. Nature takes patterns, and we can observe these patterns and make sense of them. We can imagine a completely chaotic universe, but it does not square with our experience in the world.

Let’s go back to prakriti. This divine feminine, this god(dess)-stuff, underlies all of existence. It has taken form as us. We are all part of it. Now, before we get too carried away, we should also know that it pervades trees and grass and landfills. Prakriti has, as it were, delegated some of its powers to us. It (or she) has given us a share in this dance of creation, preservation, and dissolution. Everything comes from Her, and everything returns to Her, but we have this wonderful ability to be able to see and understand as it all happens. We also have the observant nature, which comes to us from the Shiva side of divinity. These two principles are completely reciprocal, always dependent upon one another, always playing this game of hide-and-go-seek with each other. And we are part of the game. We are not being used as chess pieces, because we have actual freedom to do and think as we like.

Because everything arises from prakriti and prakriti remains beneath the appearances, each one of our actions is imbued with divine potential. While the divine substratum has evolved into material form, such that we have the illusion of a separate ego and congress with the elements, the prakriti is not fully effaced or spent. This means that all of our actions take place within prakriti or the divine nature of all reality. Our freedom gains purchase through this divine medium, and nothing that takes place within the mind or in the world fails to leave an impress on this spiritual substance. At the same time, the ripples that we send into the spiritual substance through our actions reverberate through the entire universe, expressing general tendencies that come into fruition, sometimes locally and sometimes at a distance. Many types of activities fall under the general heading of action: feeling, thinking, doing, and willing. All of these activities make an impress upon prakriti, which carries them forward in seen and unseen ways.

On the gross, material level, the “butterfly effect” sends ripples outward, so that the tiniest action impacts thousands of other entities. This effect is less like a chain of causation and more like a web of causation, as each node on the web may be connected to several others. A multiplier effect quickly begins, so that, with each iteration, the initial impress spreads rapidly outward. On a more subtle level, valences of emotion and thought also have collective effects, as in the mob mentality, or, more positively, team spirit. Even beyond the subtle layer, I maintain that even when a thought or intention is not willingly shared with others, it still leaves a nonzero impress on the cosmos. Learning to control and direct our co-creative powers leads to mastery, either in some limited domain or in the entirety of life. If we can learn to use our divinely ordained powers for good, we will have tremendous powers of self-expression and world transformation.

All this time I have said much about the prakriti aspect of the divine nature and little about the purusha aspect of the divine nature. The purusha is the witness, the observer, consciousness itself. It is the passive aspect of the self, bare awareness. We exhaust ourselves through action when the purusha aspect is insufficiently developed. The purusha aspect enables action without attachment, so that I do not become emotionally invested in the results of my action. I am able to stand back and let the effects of my actions accrue without regard to getting this or that specific reward for my actions. I set things into motion, or, better, I allow things to occur through me, without inordinate desire or perturbation. The purusha nature allows for patience, stability, and contentment even in the delay or deferral of the intended result. Much of what we do in meditation is cultivate the purusha nature, so that we do not become exhausted through attachment.

With these two divine principles at work, we can bring things from thought into reality in the world of work. The more we use and understand these two principles, the greater our capacity for transformation of self and world. We must keep in mind at all times that we do not do things on our own but only through the divine agency that flows through us. Nature speaks through our words and works through our hands. Even while working, we do nothing, but purusha-prakriti accomplishes all. We may speak casually about having done this or that as long as we remember that we are instruments for this process that goes beyond ourselves in depth and extent.