Prana is the energy of creation of all life. In this version of the short story from the Prashnopanishad, we get an insightful introduction to the importance of the vital energy. This is followed by our perspective on the story.
Once upon a time, looking everywhere, traveling far and wide, are six seekers of truth and wisdom. After many miles and long journeys, they hear of a great sage who may be able to help them in their quest. They arrive at a hermitage, deep in the forest. The sage asks them to spend a year with him and then ask him whatever they wish. The seekers agree, becoming the sage’s disciples. After a year, one of them asks the sage, “Which Sense is of the greatest importance in sustaining the body?”
In reply, the sage tells them this story.
Once upon a time there were five Senses: Hearing, Sight, Smell, Taste, and Touch. One day as they were sitting around, they talked about all the things they could do. The Senses were somewhat boastful about their abilities and importance and they claimed to be the rulers of the body. Look at us, for we are remarkably special, they claimed! There is no way the body survives without us, they boasted.
Each sense, in turn, showed off its abilities. Hearing filled the space with music that breathed emotion and passion that stirred the soul. Sight matched the music with a breathtaking splendor of swirling, magical forms in exquisite shades of colors. Smell, in a puff of breath, perfumed the expanse with heavenly aromas. Taste, not to be outdone, exhaled out a cornucopia of mouthwatering flavors. Touch made the whole body vibrant with each and every breath, tingling with soft warmth and delicious coolness. They all lavished praise for one other. It was quite a show.
Prana quietly breathed in and out, watching this awesome spectacle. It was simply there, present. With the in-breath, it observed the Senses; with the out-breath, it observed the Senses. After letting the Senses go on for a while, Prana said, “None of you reigns supreme in the body.” No one was listening. The Senses had no time or awareness of anything else. They were completely blind to everything beyond themselves and certainly had no sight of Prana. Prana tried again. The Senses, in their total self absorption, had no attention to spare for Prana. Angered, Prana left.
As Prana left, the sounds, colors, fragrances, tastes, physical sensations, and the mind, all faded and disappeared. The Senses ceased to exist. The Senses had no idea of what happened. As Prana returned, they found themselves and knew that they were. Prana left and the Senses were no longer there. The Senses were suddenly vulnerable and scared.
Prana reappeared and suddenly they were aware of Prana. Like a light switch, they were turned on and off by this vital energy over which they had no control, but the energy had total control over them. With this awareness came the instant realization that they existed because of Prana and that this vital energy was far more powerful than them. They did not rule the body at all in any way. Prana did.
As they bow down in respect, Prana told them, “Dividing myself five times and spreading out in the body, I change my form and create the Senses from myself and thus give life in the body.”
Prana in this story is mahaprana and the five sub-pranas are apana, prana, samana, udana, and vyana. These five subcategories energize various parts of the body and have different functions. Apana exists from pelvis to navel; prana flows from heart to throat; samana moves from navel to heart in the midriff; udana is in the head, arms, and legs; vyana is throughout the body.
As we hear this story, at some level, does something within us, the unthinking part, know the message of the story instinctively? What do we instinctively do when there is a terrible smell? Hold the breath — no breath, no smell. When something tastes terrible, hold the breath! No breath, no taste.
The Senses and the mind are born from Prana, are a manifestation of Prana, and return to be absorbed into Prana. In fact, the Senses and the Mind are absorbed into Prana every night during the phase of deep sleep. Deep sleep is so important to all of us. Without a withdrawal from the unceasing activity of the Senses and the Mind, we feel exhausted and depleted of vitality. If we have a restless night with lots of dreams, the sleep is not refreshing but tiring. Deep sleep is refreshing and invigorating. However, we are not aware during deep sleep.
With meditation though, it is possible to withdraw awareness from the constant chatter of the Senses and the Mind, just be aware of Prana, and experience the same deep relaxation as deep sleep, while being fully aware of it. If we listen carefully, we hear the notes of the music of the breath of life, Prana.