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.
of our thoughts are memories. Meditation deals with
memory alone. It is a technique of controlling and fixing
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.
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.
of Psychic Energy
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the two side channels are concerned with normal mental
life, the central main channel called the susumna is
concerned with supersensuous and superconscious experiences.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion (Madras:
Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1971), pp. 299-300.
For Swami Vivekananda's views on this see The Complete
Works of Swami Viviekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama,
1978), vol. 6, pp. 130-31.
The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna
Math, 1974), p. 814.
The Eternal Companion, p. 275.
Complete Works (1977), vol. 1, p. 165.
Complete Works, vol. 6, p. 129.
Cf. Prasna Upanisad, 3.3 and 6.6. Also cf. Chandogya
Complete Works, vol. 6, p. 128.
Complete Works, vol. 1, p. 155.
Ibid., p. 155.
Complete Works, vol.6, p. 129.
1980 Swami Bhajanananda
article originally appeared in Prabuddha Bharata,
a monthly journal of the Ramakrishna Order. Click