In the ancient scripture called the Satapatha Bralimana it is written: "Prana is the body of the Self (supreme consciousness)." In other words, prana is the vehicle or the medium of consciousness. In this sense prana can be equated with the Hindu concept of prakriti, meaning the manifest constituents of the universe in the form of matter and energy. From modern science we know that matter is really no more than an expression of energy. As such we can say that prana means energy. This prana or energy, whether it is the mind, body, matter or any form of energy, acts as the medium for carrying consciousness. Without prana, consciousness would be totally unable to express itself in the phenomenal world to manifest myriads of life forms in the universe. Prana is the active aspect of existence and consciousness is the all-pervading, inactive and witnessing principle. For life to exist both must be present.
In other scriptural texts of India there are various other definitions, but all of them point to basically the same concept. In the Chhandogya Upanishad prana is said to be the internal matrix, and vayu (loosely defined as air but actually also meaning life force, energy, wind), the external matrix of energy. In this context we see this as merely a division of the same energy, the prana here being designated as that energy which lies within the body and makes up the mind-body complex at its various levels of subtlety. It is this aspect with which we are interested during the practice of prana-yama.
In tantric and various other scriptures, energy or prana is symbolized by the all powerful divine mother Shakti or Kali and various other goddesses. It is regarded as the feminine aspect of existence, the fertile ground on which consciousness (represented by various gods, notably Shiva) can take root, grow and manifest in the universe. Shakti or prana is the womb of existence. The main theme of tantra is the unification of Shiva and Shakti so that consciousness can express itself perfectly through the medium of energy, prana. Shiva is the sight and Shakti is the eve: Shiva is the hearing and Shakti is the ears. Prana and its control is integral in all these systems, but it is known by different names.
Was the concept of prana known by other cultures and religions? The answer is emphatically yes, for the principle is not manmade; it is a basic aspect of existence. And so it should not surprise us that it is widely mentioned in the various cultures and religions of the world. Let us consider a few examples.
In Christianity much significance is given to the wine and bread served during Holy Communion. There is a great symbolical meaning behind this ceremony though few people realize it. Bread is the bread of life and that is exactly what it symbolizes - energy, prana or the life principle of the universe. Wine symbolizes spiritual enlightenment, the intoxicating bliss of all knowing consciousness. This is why these two items are taken and eaten in the ceremony: their combination represents the unity of the two aspects of existence, namely the union of consciousness with energy.
There are large numbers of other references to prana in the Bible. For example, in Corinthians (10:17) it is said: "For we being many are one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread." Bread here does not mean prana or energy, but means con sciousness. In other words the passage can be read as follows: "For we being many (humans) are really one consciousness and one body (of prana or universal energy), for we are all partakers of that one consciousness." This clearly shows the agreement between yogic, Christian and ancient Indian concepts.
In ancient China the concept of universal energy was prevalent. Instead of prana they called it ki. Like yogic thought, they had a very high and unitive understanding of man and his relationship with the universe. They considered that the whole universe is permeated with energy and that each of us being intimately linked to the universe is a powerhouse of energy. According to the Chinese, the universal energy is comprised of two continually and mutually interacting principles called yin and yang. These create matter and all its transmutations as well as manipulate all the various forms of energy. The manifested universe was seen as a harmonious whole and subject to change through the ceaseless interplay of the complementary and eternally changing yin and yang. Yin and yang can be considered as the negative and positive forces, the two poles of the manifested whole. The energy or prana of the universe is symbolized by a diagram (in yoga we would say a yantra or mandala) in which the yin and yang aspects are depicted as forming the two interdependent and interlocking parts of the whole, each containing within itself the germ or potential of the other. These principles are encompassed or held together by the Tao - Consciousness.
Be careful not to consider this as mere theory. This very concept is utilized in the system of acupuncture, which was practised in China thousands of years ago and continued in present day China. The success of this system of curing diseases depends on the concept of yin and yang. If the yin and yang principles did not have some approximation to the actual situation regarding energy in the universe and in the human body then acupuncture would be incapable of achieving the good results that it does. Even modern materialistic China has had to accept the ancient theory to explain the practical results that they obtain in millions of patients, with a wide variety of diseases.
Throughout history there has been a wide acceptance of the universal energy, prana. Modern science has also postulated that the basic substance of the infinite cosmos around us is energy. In this respect science, yoga and other ancient systems have agreed with each other. It is the nature of prana in the body that has caused disagreement between traditional thought and science; though in very recent research, science is again confirming experimentally what the yogis and ancient sages knew intuitively, namely that the physical body is enveloped and controlled by an energy or pranic body.
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