By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was published in the November, 1980 Prabuddha Bharata.
Knowledge originates in two ways. One is direct perception in which the senses receive energy from the external world. The other is memory, which is the result of the sprouting of samskaras or latent impressions of past experience lying buried in the mind. Just as a tape-recorder when played back reproduces the original sounds, so also latent impressions in the mind when activated recreate the original experience.
Most of our thoughts are memories. Meditation deals with memory alone. It is a technique of controlling and fixing memory.
Every form of work needs the expenditure of energy. Memory is also a kind of work. It needs energy to activate the samskaras. What is the power that activates latent impressions? Prana or psychic energy. Where does this psychic energy come from? From the inexhaustible reserves of the mahat or cosmic mind. Just as physical energy comes from the physical universe around us, so also psychic energy comes from the vast mental universe. The way this inflow of prana is regulated and manipulated within the mind determines the mental condition of the person.
In studying mental life two factors are to be taken into account: samskaras and the prana which activates them. Even when the samskaras are good, if the movement of prana is defective, the mind becomes either restless or dull and thus unfit for meditation. But if the samskaras are bad, control of prana is of very little use. In meditative life both samskaras and prana are important. The nature of samskaras and how they change into vrittis, and the related mental transformations were discussed earlier. Now we take up the role of prana in psycho-dynamics.
Prana has two aspects: the cosmic and the individual. Here we are concerned only with the latter. In the individual there are three main pathways for the movement of prana which are situated in the subtle body. These are the two narrow side-channels called ida and pingala and the central larger one called susumna. In normal life only the ida and pingala remain active. Every time you think, a little prana moves along these side channels rousing the samskaras. In meditation also only these two channels are involved.
In ordinary thinking only a small quantity of psychic energy is utilized. The rest of the prana lies “coiled” or dormant as a store of reserve energy called the kundalini. The central main channel called the susumna is meant to carry the kundalini. But in the vast majority of people the susumna remains closed or inactive, and hence the major portion of the psychic energy remains untapped. Along the susumna are situated six special centers called chakras described as lotuses.
Prana mediates between the mind and the body. It is through prana that the mind exercises control over the body. A good deal of psychosomatic disorders are caused by the faulty movement of prana. By regulating the flow of prana through the exercises of hatha yoga, the yogis keep their body healthy. Here our interest is only in the effects of prana on the mind.
Normal mental life depends upon the activity of the ida and the pingala. When they work in harmony the mind remains alert, when they are overactive the mind becomes restless, when they slow down the mind becomes sluggish. Finally, when their activity totally stops, the mind enters into deep sleep. Again during dreaming the channels become active.
Every time we think or imagine something, a little prana flows along these channels and activates the samskaras. When both the channels are clear and working harmoniously, the mind remains calm and there is a steady flow of thoughts in it. This is the condition necessary for meditation. But owing to conflicts, strong desires and other internal and external causes, the two channels seldom work in harmony: one will be more active than the other. An irregular working of the ida and pingala results in irregular thinking and restlessness.
The working of these two side channels seems to be coupled to biorhythms. Scientists have found astonishing cases of periodicity—often called “biological clocks”—in the physiological activities of plants and animals. In human beings, blood pressure, body temperature, metabolism, sleep, etc. have been found to follow a cyclic pattern known as biorhythm. Most of these are daily cycles but some are monthly. These rhythms affect the mind profoundly. In some people the peak of mental alertness and work efficiency is reached early in the morning and decreases as the day advances; others hit the peak at noon or night. Studying this phenomenon at a deeper level, yogis have found that it is related to the movement of prana and the activity of the ida and the pingala. During the sandhya (the junction of day and night) these two channels work in harmony and the mind then attains a natural calmness.
These channels can be controlled and harmonized through pranayama. The lung is one of the few organs under the control of both the voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. By voluntarily controlling the breathing, one gains control over the autonomous nervous system and, through that, the ida and the pingala. When the prana is controlled, the sprouting of samskaras will be reduced and the mind becomes calm. The same effect can be obtained through intense devotion, self-inquiry or the rhythmic repetition of a mantra. In fact, rhythmic japa may be regarded as “verbal pranayama” which is as effective as physical pranayama—though slower, but safer than it. Says Swami Brahmananda: “Practice japa, and your breathing will become finer and finer, and you will gain control of the vital energy in a natural way.1
Prana goes up through the ida and comes down through the pingala, thus forming a closed circuit. The ida acts as the negative current and, in yogic terminology, is described as the female or lunar current. The pingala acts as the positive current and is described as the male or solar current. Normal mental life—conscious and unconscious—is maintained by the energy supplied by these currents, a part of which is also used up in physiological activities. A major cause for the drain of prana is sex. It is impossible to make the mind calm or practice intense meditation as long as sex is active. When brahmacharya—celibacy—is observed, more psychic energy gets stored at the base, more energy is made available for higher mental life and more energy flows into the brain. This extra energy, which is transmuted sex energy, is called ojas. It imparts a new retentive and grasping power to the brain known as medha. More important, it adds to the spiritual reserves of the aspirant and ultimately enables him or her to gain supersensuous perception.2
The ida and the pingala go up spirally, alternating from left to right and from right to left, forming a loop around each chakra. They originate from the common center of muladhara at the base of the spine, but at the top their ends are free. However, there are three points called granthis or knots where they seem to anastamose or conjoin. These knots, which act as barriers to the free flow of prana, represent three levels of psychophysical life. The first knot is below the navel and is called brahma-granthi. When the flow of energy is restricted to this region, instinctive drives like hunger, thirst and sense pleasure dominate the mind. The second knot is below the heart and is called vishnu-granthi. This is the region of the emotional life of man. The third knot is below the eyebrows and is called rudra-granthi. This is the area of intellectual activity.
When lower desires and appetites become strong, prana gets as it were short-circuited at the first knot, and very little energy reaches the higher centers. When the mind becomes restless it usually activates the lower centers first. Even when a person does not consciously indulge in sensual pleasures, a restless mind is enough to rouse the lower centers, especially the sex-center. If one wants to be freed from the attack of lower thoughts, the first step is to attain a deep calmness of mind. A calm mind is the best safeguard against evil thoughts.
The second step is to activate the higher centers. Deep studies and thinking stimulate the higher centers. Intense prayer and meditation lift up more psychic energy through the ida and the pingala to higher centers, and thus make the lower centers less active.
The three granthis restrict human life to instinctive, emotional and intellectual levels. Spiritual life lies beyond these three levels. Therefore, an important task before the spiritual aspirant is to loosen these knots and make the ida and the pingala function smoothly. When instinctive drives, emotional conflicts and intellectual obsessions are overcome, the two side channels become clear for the free flow of prana. Only then can the aspirant detect and deal with the susumna.
If the two side channels are concerned with normal mental life, the central main channel called the susumna is concerned with supersensuous and superconscious experiences.
Along the susumna lie six chakras or centers usually represented as lotuses with varying number of petals. Each chakra is a center of higher (supersensuous) consciousness and acts as a door to a new world of experience. Each petal of the lotus stands for a particular psychic power available at each center. The whole phenomenal existence consists of worlds within worlds and, in order to attain each world, we must attain a particular level of consciousness. The chakras are these levels of consciousness. These doors open only when the full force of kundalini strikes them. Without the awakening of kundalini, the chakras and the supersensuous world that they open to remain unknown.
The six chakras, arranged in an ascending order from the base, are muladhara (4 petals), svadhisthana (6 petals), manipura (10 petals), anahata (12 petals), visuddha (16 petals) and ajna (2 petals). According to Sri Ramakrishna, these chakras correspond to the seven bhumis or worlds mentioned in the Vedas: bhuh, bhuvah, svah, mahah, janah, tapah, satyam. They may also be taken to represent the five kosas or sheaths mentioned in the Upanisads.
As already mentioned, before the awakening of the susumna the side channels must be purified and made to work in harmony. Along with this the loss of energy through restlessness and passions must be checked, and more energy must be lifted to higher centers through prayer, worship, meditation and other forms of spiritual practice. Energy lifted to higher centers gets transmuted into spiritual energy called ojas and gets stored at the base. This is true sublimation. When this process is carried on for some time, perhaps for several years, the awakening of the susumna takes place.
In books on Yoga and Tantra special exercises are described which are said to be capable of awakening the kundalini quickly. But if the mind is not purified and the psychic system not made ready, this premature awakening may lead to mental and physical disorders. Nor are such exercises necessary. There are other safer traditional forms of spiritual practice which are equally effective. Sri Ramakrishna assures us that intense prayer alone is enough for the awakening. “One’s spiritual consciousness is not awakened by the mere reading of books. One should also pray to God. The kundalini is roused if the aspirant feels restless for God.”3 According to Swami Brahmananda japa, meditation and constant remembrance of God are the best means for spiritual awakening. In reply to a question he says: “According to some there are special exercises by which the kundalini can be awakened, but I believe it can best be awakened by the practice of japa and meditation. The practice of japa is specially suited to this present age; and there is no spiritual practice easier than this, but meditation must accompany the repetition of the mantra.”4
When the susumna opens it becomes the main channel for the flow of energy. In advanced stages of awakening, energy is completely withdrawn from the ida and the pingala which become inactive. When this happens, the person loses physical consciousness and all vital functions slow down. In deep sleep also the ida and the pingala remain inactive but then the susumna remains dormant. This is the basic difference between deep sleep and higher samadhi from the standpoint of Yoga.
It is important to keep in mind the relationship between kundalini and consciousness. Pure consciousness belongs to the Atman, the witnessing self. According to Yoga philosophy, Purusa as pure consciousness is totally different from prakriti. Prana is the power animating prakriti, and kundalini is only the individual aspect of this prana lying dormant in ordinary people. The Tantras, however, look upon prakriti only as a shakti or power emanating from chit or consciousness. Kundalini, according to this view, is a higher, refined aspect of cit-shakti known as intuition.
There are three main views about intuition in Indian philosophy. The Samkhya-yoga view is that it is the removal of rajas and tamas from the buddhi, which is the determining faculty. Similar to this is the Advaita view, which regards intuition as the removal of veils covering the Atman. A second view, held by the Tantras, is that intuition is the awakening and growth of a dormant power known as kundalini. There is a third view which may be regarded as a reconciliation of the first two views. According to this view, held by Visistadvaita, intuition is the gradual expansion of consciousness, which follows the progressive removal of karma samskaras from the mind.
The concept of kundalini and the three channels is only one of the several ways of understanding mental life. There are other ways of picturing mental life. Patanjali in his Yoga aphorisms has discussed almost everything about the mind and its functions without mentioning the kundalini or the three channels. Nor do the major Upanishads and the Gita contain clear references to them, though some of the minor Upanishads discuss them in detail. In the recorded experiences of innumerable saints in the East and the West also there is no indication of kundalini.
This, however, does not invalidate the principle of kundalini power. One may use electricity in heating, lighting or in running a machine without bothering about the generation and transmission of electricity which are the concern of only the electrical engineer. In the same way, it is possible to use and control the mind without caring to know its hidden energy distribution system. When kundalini awakens, it does not go up like a rocket with a terrific explosion. Except in the case of a few, who follow the path of Yoga, its action is not detected and can only be inferred from the experience it produces. Says Swami Vivekananda: “Thus, the rousing of the kundalini is the one and only way of attaining divine wisdom, superconscious perception, realization of the Spirit. The rousing may come in various ways, through love for God, through the mercy of perfected sages, or through the power of the analytic will of the philosopher. Wherever there was any manifestation of what is ordinarily called supernatural power or wisdom, there a little current of kundalini must have found its way into the susumna.”5 What is really important is the attainment of higher spiritual intuition. It does not matter whether one understands this as the awakening of kundalini or not.
Recent researches in para-psychology, Kirilian phenomenon, acupuncture, bio-energy, etc. have lent greater credence to the theory of prana and the three channels. One major difficulty about kundalini is its location. According to medical science, the brain is the controlling center of all physiological activities, whereas the base of the spinal column where the kundalini is supposed to reside could be surgically removed without impairing the normal physiology of the body. But it is interesting to know that the region corresponding to the base of the spine is the seat of vital activities in the embryo. In the gastrula stage of the embryo this region is known as the “dorsal lip” or “primitive knot.” The nerve cord (as well as the notochord) originates here and grows forward as a tube, the anterior end of which bulges into the brain. The brain takes over charge only later on.
The Vedic sages saw every object in the universe informed and animated by the life-principle prana, which they visualized as agni or fire. All life-activities were believed to be done by prana. For that reason, before taking food it was offered to prana (pranahuti). At least twice a day everyone practiced pranayama or breath control. The body was looked upon as the first means of practicing religion (sariram adyam khalu dharma-sadhanam). In other words, there was an integral psychophysical approach to spiritual life.
The integration of the forces of body and mind is one of the significant characteristics of Indian spirituality. Effort and struggle are no doubt unavoidable in spiritual life. But at least a part of the aspirant’s difficulties comes from the wrong understanding of his or her energy system. This creates a wrong attitude towards the body. If the body is treated only as the seat of passions, a burden on the soul, a stumbling block on the path to God, and hence as something to be punished or fiercely dealt with, then it will only add to the troubles he or she already has. The body must be given its proper place in sadhana.
Says Swami Vivekanada, “How to transcend the senses without disturbing health is what we want to learn.”6 This is precisely what Yoga teaches. Yoga treats the personality as one whole and tries to harmonize the functions of the body, mind and spirit. It is a unified discipline in which every value from bodily health to superconscious experience finds its respective place.
This integration of the forces of the body and mind is achieved by controlling prana. This is based on the insight that though a living being consists of different layers—the physical body, unconscious mind, subconscious mind, conscious mind, etc.—there is one energy system, the prana, running through all these. Hence prana is also called the sutra or thread. There is of course the Atman behind all this; it provides the static base. Prana provides the dynamic unity, though prana itself originates from the Atman and is connected to it like spokes to the hub in a wheel.7 Says Swami Vivekananda, “Mind is the great instrument for using prana. Mind is material. Behind the mind is the Atman which takes hold of prana. Prana is the driving power of the world and can be seen in every manifestation of life. The body is mortal and the mind is mortal, both being compounds, must die. Behind all is the Atman which never dies. The Atman is pure intelligence controlling and directing prana.”8
Health is a state of the body and mind in which prana flows freely and harmoniously through the systems. When this flow is disturbed, disease results. Swami Vivekananda says, “Sometimes in your own body the supply of prana gravitates more or less to one part; the balance is disturbed, and when the balance of prana is disturbed, what we call disease is produced.”9 The so-called faith healing, Swamiji points out, is actually effected by prana. “There is a mistake constantly made by faith-healers: they think that faith directly heals a man. But faith alone does not cover all the ground. . . It is by the prana that real curing comes. The pure man who has controlled prana has the power of bringing it into a certain state of vibration, which can be conveyed to others arousing in them a similar vibration.”10
Even love, according to Swami Vivekananda, is a manifestation of prana. He says, “The last highest manifestation of prana is love. The moment you have succeeded in manufacturing love out of prana, you are free. It is the hardest and the greatest thing to gain.”11 In human love prana is directed towards other people; in bhakti, prana is directed towards God. Either way, love is a flow, a giving, a sharing of the very essence of life. From a saint or a sage love in the form of prana radiates in all directions and elevates the minds of all who come into touch with it. When you love you give, similarly when you are loved, you receive the prana of others. Even if the other person lives hundreds of miles away, his or her love can sustain and enrich you. When the flow of love is broken, unhappiness results. That is how at least half the unhappiness in the world is caused. Through love one overcomes sorrow. Love is an important factor in establishing harmony not only between human beings but also within every person. And since meditation is impossible without inner harmony, spiritual aspirants should pay particular attention to the problem of love.
We thus see that prana is a universal energy principle governing every kind of life activity. Part of this energy is utilized in physical work and another part in mental work. The rest is stored up as a reserve force known as the kundalini. It is not necessary for the average spiritual aspirant to know the complex, and often contradictory, details about kundalini. But he or she should have some understanding of prana, for ignorance in this field could create many obstacles.
Meditation is not an exercise restricted to a small part of the mind. It involves not only the whole mind but also the whole body. When you concentrate your conscious mind, your unconscious mind and nervous system and all parts of the body feel its effect. That means concentration affects the whole energy system. Concentration need not be on higher things; in fact it seldom is. When a person is watching a movie or listening to a song or when a person is roused by anger or greed, she or he is in a state of high degree of concentration.
There are two problems arising form lower types of concentration. One is that it dissipates psychic energy. Physical work and exercise normally involve only the use of energy received from food and are necessary for health. But worry, strong feelings and restlessness dissipate psychic energy. The second problem is that every time we concentrate, we create a new channel for the flow of prana within ourselves. As a result prana tends to flow in that way, and thus a habit is created. The channels created by wrong concentration produced by hatred, selfishness and greed are not straight. Wrong concentration creates eddies and whirlpools in the mind and body which obstruct the free flow of prana.
Meditation is higher concentration—concentration on a higher reality beyond body and mind. By its sheer power and magnitude it clears the eddies and whirlpools within. Moreover, meditation takes one to the core of one’s being, the very source of prana, and thus restores the psychic-energy balance. In other words, it counteracts the bad effects of wrong concentration knowingly or unknowingly practiced in day-to-day life.
1. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1971), pp. 299-300.
2. For Swami Vivekananda’s views on this see The Complete Works of Swami Viviekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1978), vol. 6, pp. 130-31.
3. The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1974), p. 814.
4. The Eternal Companion, p. 275.
5. Complete Works (1977), vol. 1, p. 165.
6. Complete Works, vol. 6, p. 129.
7. Cf. Prasna Upanisad, 3.3 and 6.6. Also cf. Chandogya Upanisad, 3.13.1.
8. Complete Works, vol. 6, p. 128.
9. Complete Works, vol. 1, p. 155.
10. Ibid., p. 155.
11. Complete Works, vol.6, p. 129.