Prana is a Sanskrit word for "life air" or "life force". In China it is known as cchi, in Japan as ki, in Polynesia as mana. It is present all over the universe both in macrocosm (space) and microcosm (bodies of living beings). Its proper flow in our bodies assures their healthy state.
Prana is a subtle material energy arising from rajo guna. It works as an interface between gross and subtle body, enabling all the psychophysical functions (i.e. animation - from Latin "anima"). This sometimes leads to confusion of prana with jiva. Although they are very closely connected, prana is witnessed by the jiva which is floating in prana in the heart cavity. Katha Upanisad 1.3.1 says:
RtaM pibantau sukRtasya loke
guhAM praviStau parame parArdhe
chAyAtapau brahmavido vadanti
paJcAgnayo ye ca tri-NAciketAH
"O Naciketa, the expansions of Lord Visnu as the tiny living being (jiva) and the Supersoul both stay within the cave of the heart of this body. In that cavity the living being, resting on the main prana, enjoys the results of activities, and the Supersoul, acting as witness enables him to enjoy them. Those who are well-versed in knowledge of Brahman and those householders who carefully follow the Vedic regulations say that the difference between the two is like the difference between a shadow and the sun."
Prana's movement leads to jiva's identification with the gross body (SB 4.29.71). Mundaka Upanishad (3.1.9):
esho anur atma cetasa veditavya yasmin pranah pancadha
pranais cittamsattvam otam prajanam yasmin vishuddhe vibhavatyesha atma
"The atomic soul can be perceived by perfect intelligence as floating in the five kinds of life airs (prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana). When the consciousness (that pervades from the soul through the entire body) is purified from the contamination of the five kinds of material airs, its spiritual influence is exhibited."
Prana is one but acts in different ways. Lower pranas control the senses and are under the control of main prana controlled by the Paramatma according to desire and karma of the jiva. Vedanta-sutra, Bhagavata Purana 4.25-28 (serpent analogy), Prasna Upanisad and other scriptures contain elaborate descriptions of prana. Various Eastern healing methods and martial arts work with prana.
Prana is mentioned in many Upanisads as well as Vedanta-sutra. A story in the Chandogya Upanisad describes how the senses had a dispute who among them is the most essential. The ear left for one year, returns and asks the others how they were doing without him. In a similar way the other senses also quit for a while. When the breath (prana = life) gets ready to leave, the other senses all understand that he is most essential. Without breath the body can't live.
Ten pranas ("life airs") - Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana, Vyana, Naga, Krkara, Kurma, Devadatta, Dhananjaya (for definitions see below the commentary to SB 3.6.9) and their actions are mentioned by spiritual masters (acaryas) in their commentaries to Bhagavad-gita 4.27. The life airs circulate in the 72.000 nadis and meridians of the human body.
Prasna Upanisad (translations by Ekanath Das):
3.6 In the heart verily is the Jivatma (soul). Here arise 101 nadis
(subtle pranic channels). Each of them has 100 sub-nadis. Each
sub-nadi has 72.000 branch nadis. The Vyana moves in them.
3.7 But by one of these 101 nadis the up-going Udana leads by
virtue of good deeds to the worlds of the good, by sin to worlds of
the sinful, by both to worlds of the men indeed.
3.8 (The cosmic correspondences are): the sun is the reservoir of the cosmic light or Prana. He rises helping the microcosmic Prana to see objects. The goddess who presides over the Earth (Bhumi) is the cosmic Apana and she helps man by attracting the downwards the apana of the person. The space which is between the Earth and the Sun (antariksa) is the cosmic Samana, (and it helps the Samana inside man). The atmosphere or Vayu is cosmic Vyana (and helps the Vyana inside man).
Paraphrases of Vedanta-sutra by Suhotra Prabhu and corresponding Srimad Bhagavatam verses:
As the elements beginning with ether are manifest by the Supreme Lord, so too is the vital prana (life force). (Vs 2.4.1) SB 2.10.15
As was shown before, 'prana' is a name of the Supreme Lord as well as the name of the life force he creates. In the sruti-sastra, the original prana is addressed in the plural (pranah). This indicates the variegated manifestations of the one original Supreme Lord. (Vs 2.4.2) SB 2.10.36
The plurality of the word pranah cannot be applied to the created life force, because pranah is identified with 'asat.' As was shown before, asat is the state of nonmanifestation after the annihilation of the cosmos. Asat is also a name of the Supreme Lord. Hence pranah cannot refer to material variety. The variety indicated is transcendental. (Vs 2.4.3) SB 2.10.43,44
Speech exists before the cosmic manifestation. Hence prana as the name of the Supreme Lord is a word of that transcendental speech, not the mundane speech of the created world. (Vs 2.4.4) SB 6.16.51
The eleven senses are 'anavah', or atomic in size. They quit the gross body along with the soul, for they are features of the subtle conditioning of the soul. (Vs. 2.4.7) SB 3.26.31, 4.27.70, 4.28.23
It might be falsely argued that if the prana or life force accompanies the soul at the time of death, this prana must have no origin, just as the soul has no origin. But this standpoint is false. Prana is created, as the elements of the universe are created. (Vs 2.4.8) SB 2.10.15
It might be falsely argued on the basis of certain sastric statements that the prana or life force is the material element air (or the vibration of air, the activities of air or a condition of air). But in fact prana is created separately from that element; the scriptures likewise describe their functions separately. It is thus a special kind of air. (Vs 2.4.9) SB 2.10.15-17
It may be falsely argued that the vital prana is itself the individual spirit soul. It is really an instrument associated with the soul for as long as the soul is in material existence. (Vs 2.4.10) SB 11.3.39
The vital prana, being neutral and pervading the whole body, has no particular function like the senses. It is the soul's primary agent for governing the senses. (Vs 2.4.11) SB 4.16.12
Just as the mind is said to have multiple functions, so the prana has five functions. (Vs 2.4.12) SB 4.29.6,7, [mind lodged in sense objects:] SB 11.13.26
It might be falsely argued that the vital prana is all-pervading. Being the agent of the atomic soul, the vital prana is really atomic; thus it leaves the body along with the soul at the time of death. (Vs 2.4.13) SB 4.28.24
The secondary pranas activate the physical senses under the shelter of the vital prana, which is moved by the Supersoul. The pranas do not move themselves, nor are they moved by the devas, nor are they even moved by the individual spirit soul alone. (Vs 2.4.14) SB 7.2.45, 5.20.28
The Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad declares the individual soul to also be a ruler of the pranas by his enjoyment of them, for instance during sleep. The demigods are also rulers of the pranas because they define the activities of the senses. All this is under the supervision of the Supreme Lord. (Vs 2.4.15) SB 3.26.71, 6.4.25
The Supersoul is the eternal controller of the individual spirit souls and the demigods. (Vs 2.4.16) SB 5.11.13-14
The vital prana is not a sense organ, though the subordinate pranas may be taken as such because they move through the apertures of the sensory gates. (Vs 2.4.17) SB 4.28.56-58
In the Vedic description of creation, the vital prana is distinguished from the senses. Therefore it is not a sense itself. (Vs 2.4.18) SB 3.26.54
By the movement of the vital prana, the living entity maintains his conception of the body as the self. Only when the movement of the life air is arrested is the bodily identification submerged in ignorance. Thus is the prana distinguished from the senses, for even if the movements of all the senses are arrested, the bodily identification remains. (Vs 2.4.19) SB 4.29.71
Quotes on prana from Bhagavad-gita and Srimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana):
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego - all together these eight constitute My separated material energies. (BG 7.4)
The first five elements - earth (solid substances), water (liquids), fire, air, ether - are gross material. Three other - mind, intelligence, false ego - are subtle material. Prana is a form of air (also known as vayu, vata, anila etc.). It is not "spiritual" in a sense of being of the same nature as jivatma (soul) which is above these eight elements:
Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature. (BG 7.5)
By further transformation of the mode of passion, the sense organs like the ear, skin, nose, eyes, tongue, mouth, hands, genitals, legs, and the outlet for evacuating, together with intelligence and living energy, are all generated. (SB 2.5.31)
From the sky situated within the transcendental body of the manifesting Maha-Visnu, sense energy, mental force and bodily strength are all generated, as well as the sum total of the fountainhead of the total living force. (SB 2.10.15)
The gigantic universal form is represented by three, ten and one in the sense that He is the body and the mind and the senses, He is the dynamic force for all movements by ten kinds of life energy, and He is the one heart where life energy is generated. (SB 3.6.9)
...The movements of the body are first generated from the heart, and all the activities of the body are made possible by the senses, powered by the ten kinds of air within the body. The ten kinds of air are described as follows: The main air passing through the nose in breathing is called prana. The air which passes through the rectum as evacuated bodily air is called apana. The air which adjusts the foodstuff within the stomach and which sometimes sounds as belching is called samana. The air which passes through the throat and the stoppage of which constitutes suffocation is called the udana air. Aid the total air which circulates throughout the entire body is called the vyana air. Subtler than these five airs, there are others also. That which facilitates the opening of the eyes, mouth, etc., is called naga air. The air which increases appetite is called krkara air. The air which helps contraction is called kurma air. The air which helps relaxation by opening the mouth wide (in yawning) is called devadatta air, and the air which helps sustenance is called dhananjaya air.
All these airs are generated from the center of the heart, which is one only. This central energy is superior energy of the Lord, who is seated within the heart with the soul of the body, who acts under the guidance of the Lord.
The action of the air is exhibited in movements, mixing, allowing approach to the objects of sound and other sense perceptions, and providing for the proper functioning of all other senses. (SB 3.26.37)[joint action of prana and senses]
First of all a mouth appeared in Him, and then came forth the organ of speech, and with it the god of fire, the deity who presides over that organ. Then a pair of nostrils appeared, and in them appeared the olfactory sense, as well as prana, the vital air. (SB 3.26.54)
In the wake of the olfactory sense came the wind-god, who presides over that sense. Thereafter a pair of eyes appeared in the universal form, and in them the sense of sight. In the wake of this sense came the sun-god, who presides over it. Next there appeared in Him a pair of ears, and in them the auditory sense and in its wake the Dig-devatas, or the deities who preside over the directions. (SB 3.26.55)
The woman was protected on all sides by a five-hooded snake. She was very beautiful and young, and she appeared very anxious to find a suitable husband. (SB 4.25.21)
The vital force of a living entity includes the five kinds of air working within the body, which are known as prana, apana, vyana, samana and udana. The vital force is compared to a serpent because a serpent can live by simply drinking air. The vital force carried by the air is described as the pratihara, or the bodyguard. Without the vital force one cannot live for a moment. Indeed, all the senses are working under the protection of the vital force.
The woman, who represents intelligence, was searching after a husband. This indicates that intelligence cannot act without consciousness. A beautiful woman is useless unless protected by the proper husband. Intelligence must always be very fresh; therefore the word apraudham ("very young") is used here. Material enjoyment means utilizing the intelligence for the sake of rupa, rasa, gandha, sabda and sparsa, or form, taste, smell, sound and touch.
The five working senses and the five senses that acquire knowledge are all male friends of Puranjani. The living entity is assisted by these senses in acquiring knowledge and engaging in activity. The engagements of the senses are known as girl friends, and the serpent, which was described as having five heads, is the life air acting within the five circulatory processes. (SB 4.29.6)
Narada Muni continued: What I referred to as the chariot was in actuality the body. The senses are the horses that pull that chariot. As time passes, year after year, these horses run without obstruction, but in fact they make no progress. Pious and impious activities are the two wheels of the chariot. The three modes of material nature are the chariot's flags. The five types of life air constitute the living entity's bondage, and the mind is considered to be the rope. Intelligence is the chariot driver. The heart is the sitting place in the chariot, and the dualities of life, such as pleasure and pain, are the knotting place. The seven elements are the coverings of the chariot, and the working senses are the five external processes. The eleven senses are the soldiers. Being engrossed in sense enjoyment, the living entity, seated on the chariot, hankers after fulfillment of his false desires and runs after sense enjoyment life after life. (SB 4.29.18-20)
When the living entity is in deep sleep, when he faints, when there is some great shock on account of severe loss, at the time of death, or when the body temperature is very high, the movement of the life air is arrested. At that time the living entity loses knowledge of identifying the body with the self. (SB 4.29.71)
[The inhabitants of Sakadvipa worship the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the form of Vayu in the following words.] O Supreme Person, situated as the Supersoul within the body, You direct the various actions of the different airs, such as prana, and thus You maintain all living entities. O Lord, O Supersoul of everyone, O controller of the cosmic manifestation under whom everything exists, may You protect us from all dangers. (SB 5.20.28)
As the different limbs of the body cannot see the eyes, the living entities cannot see the Supreme Lord, who is situated as the Supersoul in everyone's heart. Not by the senses, by the mind, by the life air, by thoughts within the heart, or by the vibration of words can the living entities ascertain the real situation of the Supreme Lord. (SB 6.3.16)
As iron has the power to burn when made red-hot in the association of fire, so the body, senses, living force, mind and intelligence, although merely lumps of matter, can function in their activities when infused with a particle of consciousness by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As iron cannot burn unless heated by fire, the bodily senses cannot act unless favored by the Supreme Brahman. (SB 6.16.24)
In the body the most important substance is the life air, but that also is neither the listener nor the speaker. Beyond even the life air, the soul also can do nothing, for the Supersoul is actually the director, in cooperation with the individual soul. The Supersoul conducting the activities of the body is different from the body and living force. (SB 7.2.45)
O Supreme Lord, You are actually the air, the earth, fire, sky and water. You are the objects of sense perception, the life airs, the five senses, the mind, consciousness and false ego. Indeed, You are everything, subtle and gross. The material elements and anything expressed, either by the words or by the mind, are nothing but You. (SB 7.9.48)
The Supreme Personality of Godhead directly and indirectly knows how everything, including the living force, mind and intelligence, is working under His control. He is the illuminator of everything and has no ignorance. He does not have a material body subject to the reactions of previous activities, and He is free from the ignorance of partiality and materialistic education. I therefore take shelter of the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, who is eternal, all-pervading and as great as the sky and who appears with six opulences in three yugas [Satya, Treta and Dvapara]. (SB 8.5.27)
All living entities, moving and nonmoving, receive their vital force, their bodily strength and their very lives from the air. All of us follow the air for our vital force, exactly as servants follow an emperor. The vital force of air is generated from the original vital force of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. May that Supreme Lord be pleased with us. (SB 8.5.37)
O Lord, you are the original source of Vedic literature. You are the original cause of material creation, the life force, the senses, the five elements, the three modes and the mahat-tattva. You are eternal time, determination and the two religious systems called truth [satya] and truthfulness [rta]. You are the shelter of the syllable om, which consists of three letters a-u-m. (SB 8.7.25)
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