Prashna Upanishad


Sage on Mount Gormanta

Sep 08, CANADA (SUN) — The Prashna Upanishad is one of the older, "primary" Upanishads commented upon by Shankara. It is a Mukhya Upanishad, associated with the Atharva Veda, and sits as the fourth in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads. In Sanskrit, "Prashna" means question. The text consists of six questions and their answers, and is structured in the form of question & answer. With the exception of the first and last questions, all other questions are grouped as smaller sub-questions.

As narrated in the beginning of this Upanishad, six students are interested in knowing divinity or Brahman, and they come to the sage Pippalada, requesting that he clarify their spiritual doubts. Instead of answering immediately, Pippalada instructs them to take up penance and Brahmacharya for one year at his asrama. Upon completion of that year, the students will be permitting to ask their questions, and the sage will be obliged to answer.

The pupils asking the questions of sage Pippalada were:

    1. The son of Bharadwaja the Sukesha;
    2. The son of Shibi the Satyakama;
    3. The descendant of Garga the Sauryayanee;
    4. The son of Ashwala the Kausalya;
    5. Bhargava of the country of Vidarbha, belonging to Bhrigu Gotra; and
    6. The son of Katya the Kabandhi

Each of them asked one question of Pippalada, and each of his answers forms a chapter in the Upanishad.

The Questions

The first question is asked by Kabandhi, and it is concerned with the root cause of the universe.

The second question is asked by Bhargava, and it is concerned with the supremacy of vital force of life, or Prana, over other sense organs of the human being.

The third question is asked by Kausalya and is concerned with the origin and functioning of Prana.

The fourth question is asked by Sauryayanee of Garga Gotra, and is related to the dream world of a sleeping person.

The fifth question is concerned with the fruits one gets by meditating on the holy syllable OM.

The sixth and last question is concerned with the Supreme Personality by whom all the known and unknown universe was created, and Who has sixteen vital things (kala) or who is called as Shodasha Kala Purusha.

First Question

The first question asked by Kabandhi puts forth an important issue of spirituality. What is the root cause of this world? In fact, Kabandhi's question is literally, "From where (which root) these people are born?"

Pippalada answers as if the question was asked about the root cause of the world. He says that Prajapati created a union of Prana and Rayi in order to create the world and their intermixing or mating produced all the things in the world. Max Muller has translated this union as 'Spirit and Matter'. The term 'Rayi' can be interpreted as all subtle and gross physical matter, and 'Prana' can be taken as intangible spirit or active life force. Pippalada extols the greatness of Prana, explaining that food represents Rayi (matter); from food, semen is produced; and from semen, people are born.

Second Question

The second question is asked by Bhargava of Vidarbha. It is concerned with the relation between the senses and the Prana in the body. Pippalada explains that Prana is the main sustainer of the body through an example. The question is: "How many divine elements hold the body, which among them the makes body living, and who is great among them?"

In answer, Pippalada says that once space, air, fire (heat), water and earth (gross matter) and speech, mind, eye and ear said in pride that they sustain and hold the body. Then Prana (life force) tells them, "Do not be proud, I hold and sustain the body by dividing myself as five forms". But other divine elements did not believe this. When Prana tried to stand up in anger, all other divine elements also rose along with Prana automatically, just like being pulled up by string, as if when a king bee rises all other worker bees also raise along with it. Then the other divine elements realized who their master is and from who they derive their strength. They start pacifying Prana by praising him.

The rest of the answer tells about the greatness of Prana in the form of praise. Different forms of this Prana are described in the praise. Fire, Air, Indra, Rain, Earth, etc. are explained as being different forms of Prana, who are supporting the outer world in the form of the luminous Sun. Pippalada also instructs that both inner and outer worlds are under the control of Prana.

Third Question

After learning that Prana is the main sustainer of the body and universe, Kausalya, the son of Ashvala, asks the third question about the origin of Prana. The question is: "From whom Prana originates, how does he come into the body, how does he stay by dividing himself, how he leaves the body, and how he supports the outer and inner worlds?"

Pippalada answers that Prana originates from Atman (soul), the way a shadow of the person originates. Prana comes to body by Atman's will. He divides himself into five forms called Apana, Vyana, Udana, Samana, etc., and performs various functions in the body. There are Nadis (subtle channels of energy) in the heart in which Prana in the form of Udana circulates. Through one of the Nadis, Udana carries life to heaven at the time of death if a man has done Punya, to Naraka if he has done Papa, and to earth (the human world) if both (Papa and Punya) are present. Being in the form of sun, Prana gives light to the eyes for seeing, thus he supports the outer world by assuming the form of the sun.

Fourth Question

Asked by Souryayanee Gargya, the fourth question is concerned with the dream world of the human being. The exact question is: "Which elements in the human being actually sleep, which are awake at that time (while sleeping), among these who sees the dream, who feels bliss in it, and in whom all these elements merge as their final destination?"

The following answer is given. The way all sun rays go back into the sun at the time of sunset, so do all the senses of man go back into their master, the Mind. But still the five Pranas (Vyana, Udana, etc.) are awake. The one who sees the dream is the Mind. During dreamless deep sleep, this Mind merges into the Supreme Reality, the Akshara, or Brahman. It is the final refuge of elements. Then, the Self feels bliss.

Fifth Question

The fifth question, asked by Shaibya Satyakama, was: "What fruit does one get who regularly meditates on the holy syllable OM till his/her death? Pippalada answers that OM indicates that Supreme Reality, the Para Brahman, and one who meditates will merge into Para Brahman.

Sixth Question

Finally, the sixth question is asked by Bharadwaja the Sukesha, and it is concerned with the Supreme Personality, by whom all the known and unknown universe was created.


The answers to each of the questions are developed by Pippalada, who provides an elaborate perspective on each matter before him. The language and concepts of the answers are often abstruse and esoteric, but one may get from them glimpses that are rational and perceptive. Thus, in answering the questions on the origin of life, Pippalada starts with the origin of all existence in terms of matter and energy, and develops the answer step by step, till in the last one, which he gives as the most direct and immediate origin of life, the sperm of the species. His answer to the last question is that the ultimate supreme source of all existence is Brahman.


Prashnopanishat (Kannada translation): by Sri Adidevananda, Mysore.


The Sun News Editorials Features Sun Blogs Classifieds Events Recipes PodCasts

About Submit an Article Contact Us Advertise

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved.