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What Is Prakriti?
Don: As I read and reread the books of James and listen to his tapes and reflect on them I hope to “more clearly” understand the teaching and meaning of prakriti and the three gunas. At this point the various terms applied to the word prakriti is confusing to me. Prakriti is defined as “that which can be molded into manifold objects,” “the substance from which objects evolve” and “a subtle inert form of awareness that is capable of reflecting awareness.”
The text says that it is composed of the three gunas (powers/qualities): sattva, rajas and tamas. It also says that prakriti (nature) is Maya when it is pure sattva, that predominant tamas is called prakriti, that it is matter in seed form, that Maya creates prakriti (page 21) and prakriti is the subtle cause of matter and energy. On this latter point, I thought that energy was just a subtler form of matter? Prakriti has also been described as a proxy for ignorance and that it helps explain ignorance.
Sundari: Prakriti is the subtle cause of matter and energy. Therefore prakriti is matter in seed form. It seems conscious because it borrows its light from awareness. The world and all external objects, whether gross matter or subtle matter, are comprised of prakriti. Prakriti has three qualities, the three gunas which reflect the self and seem to conceal it, but do not really conceal the self, because nothing can conceal it.
Pure macrocosmic sattvic prakriti is like a bright, clear mirror, capable of reflecting awareness (pratibimba chaitanya). Macrocosmic sattva is the blueprint for all forms, the entire creation – the eternal truths, forces, laws, jivas, karma, three gunas and five elements. It knows everything. It is not yet mixed with rajas and tamas, it is pure knowledge. It is awareness appearing as the knower. It is an object known to awareness and contains all objects, including energy and space. When rajas and tamas arise, and pure sattva is contaminated, the mirror shatters into innumerable shards. Maya becomes avidya, multi-faceted, diverse, pluralistic, creating all objects sentient and insentient, containing the essence of awareness, consciousness, conditioned by rajas and tamas.
Maya “manufactures” all substance out of tamas – the existence “aspect” of consciousness. If Maya created all substance out of sattva, all rocks could think and talk. Rajas acts on the objects according to their blueprint, creating apparent movement and change, individuality and separation.
The five elements, which in various combinations make up prakriti (nature) are considered inert. Yet we say they are constantly changing, which proves they are not truly real but only appearances. However, anything that is inert cannot change. According to the laws of physics, inert objects will continue at rest or in motion in the same direction until acted upon by an external force. So Vedanta should teach that the world and all its objects, including jivas, can BE changed. But the self alone is real because the self cannot BE changed.
The key idea is prakriti which, in terms of the dream of Maya, does actively evolve. Vedanta provisionally accepts this view but also negates it as the teachings progress. Actually, Maya is consciousness, so it doesn’t evolve, but it looks like it does. If we accept the fact that matter cannot in and of itself change, because it is inert, and therefore it must BE changed, the question then becomes, what changes it? There seems to be only two choices: the self, whose light is reflected through the intellect (buddhi) or the three gunas.
However, the gunas are another name for Maya. So the other possibility is that Isvara operating through Maya uses Maya’s projecting power (rajas) to cause apparent movement and change at the level of pratibasika satyam (jiva sristi). Thus all apparent matter can be changed either externally or internally at this level. However, neither Isvara nor Maya exist at the pratibasika satyam level of “absolute” reality. Therefore the self neither changes nor can be changed.
The issue, which you seem to understand, is satya and mithya. Neither matter nor awareness actually change but they seem to when we view them through our senses, which are in Maya and apparently changing. We don’t know that it is identification with the changing senses that makes the world seem to be changing. And insofar as the dream of Maya is real, it is possible to effect change because prakriti evolves. That’s what the discussion on free will in Chapters II to VI of the Gita is all about. You should read James’ new book on the gunas, The Yoga of the Three Energies, which explains this in detail.
Don: When and where do the three gunas, qualities or powers, come from in the “sequence” of creation? Currently I understand them to be sattva (knowledge of what is possible), tamas (concealing, non-reflecting, density; earlier I said a black hole?), and rajas (projection, action); together they are the attributes or powers of Isvara 2 (awareness and Maya) that create and sustain the world of mithya.
Sundari: I explained this above. There is no time for awareness, so it is very difficult to explain the creation teaching, but let’s assume time existed.
First and always, there is pure consciousness. Secondly, Maya (pure macrocosmic sattva) appears, and awareness plus Maya “becomes” Isvara in the role of Creator. Lastly, matter appears, but macrocosmic sattvic prakriti is present before matter appears. Prakriti is the clear mirror of consciousness, prior to the emergence of rajas and tamas.
As explained, prakriti is the subtle nature or substance of all matter, subtle and gross matter, the blueprint for all forms, existing eternally within Maya. Prakriti does not exist without Maya. There is no point in talking about the difference between them, because prakriti does not mean anything without Maya. They are the same, but they are not.
Isvara associated with Maya is independent of prakriti because Isvara is triguna-atita, beyond the gunas. Prakriti depends on Isvara, not the other way around. And Isvara as pure consciousness gives rise to creation, but is always free of the creation.