The Purusha Principle of Yoga

From the book Yoga and the Sacred Fire by David Frawley

Yoga, the Purusha and the Cosmic Being

One could say that the essence of our humanity is that we are ‘sentient’ beings, conscious entities possessed of feelings and capable of suffering. We cannot accept that human beings are enslaved, experimented on, used for food, killed or tortured or any other such demeaning actions that we might allow for animals. It offends our sensibilities when we see a human being treated as a mere thing or ‘object’. We respect our dignity and inviolability as a conscious ‘subject’. This is because we recognize existence of a consciousness principle in the human person.

We see the human as an independent being, possessing free will and entitled to his or her own life and happiness. We feel that humans should be treated fairly and allowed to live as they see fit, which we refer to as ‘human rights’ in our various law codes. There is nothing inherently wrong with this line of thought except that it does not go far enough. Our mistake is thinking that such a consciousness principle and the rights that go along with it are unique to our species and do not belong to the rest of the universe.

Consciousness is not something that our species owns. It is as universal as light. Some form of consciousness or feeling exists in all beings down to the rocks. However, once we recognize the all-pervasive nature of consciousness then we must treat all creatures ‘humanely’–with a similar care and regard that we would afford a fellow human being. The same consciousness principle that makes us feel human is a universal principle that fills the world with light and allows other creatures to live and move as well.

The universe itself is a person, though without the limitations and prejudices of our human personality. This is what the science of Yoga calls the ‘Purusha’. The Purusha, meaning a person or conscious being, is a Sanskrit term for the Cosmic Being behind the universe, the spirit within all things. The entire universe is a manifestation of the Cosmic Person. This Cosmic Person endows every creature with personhood or a sense of self, not only humans but also animals and ultimately all of nature.

The goal of classical Yoga–as defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the prime ancient textbook of Yoga–is the realization of the Purusha or cosmic being as our true Self.[i] This is a different definition than most people today consider, with the physical image of yoga that has become popular in our culture, but it is the actual foundation of the Yoga tradition. The Purusha or true Self is the ultimate goal of all Vedic practices and all Vedantic philosophy, examination and inquiry. Yoga is a path of Self-realization in the deeper sense of this Cosmic Self, not simply knowing our human self but realizing the entire universe within our own minds and hearts.[ii] Our true Self is the universal Self or Purusha that exists within all nature.[iii] The greater concern of Yoga practice is uniting our limited consciousness with the unbounded infinite awareness that is the Self of all.

This yogic view of the Self is very different than usual views that emphasize the bodily self, the psychological self, or the religious soul as our true nature. Our ordinary view of the bodily self is of an entity that is born and dies along with the body and is as separate from the world as our flesh is from the ground. Our view of the psychological self is of an entity created by our personal history during this physical life. It has the unique characteristics of our upbringing and education along with the particular capacities that we develop through our own efforts, making us different than every other person. Our usual religious view of the soul is of an entity created by God, dependent upon the body and its resurrection, which can perhaps commune with God in some heavenly world but retains its separate identity and cannot become one with that supreme Reality.

In the yogic view, our true individuality is an inner consciousness that unites us with all – not a physical, mental or religious entity that keeps us apart. Our self is mirrored in all the selves in the universe. If we look deeply, we can see that everything in the universe has a personality or spirit within it, whether it is the Sun, the mountains, animals or human beings. Every form in nature from the rocks to the clouds is a face of Consciousness. All faces of all creatures, we could say, are masks of God.

This Cosmic Person exists in an embodied form as the soul within all creatures. We could say that plants and animals are evolutionary precursors of human beings or younger forms of ourselves, people in the making as it were. The Cosmic Person also exists in disembodied forms as the spirit behind the forces of nature. We could say that the Sun and Moon are cosmic, older or vaster forms of ourselves – spiritual powers and personalities. The whole universe is the cosmic human being taking many different appearances and assuming many different functions both individually and collectively as part of its manifold expression.

This view was known to the sages of the Rig Veda, in which the teaching of the Purusha first arose:

The Cosmic Person (Purusha) is all this, what has been and what will be.
From his mind, the Moon was born, from his eye came the Sun. From his mouth arose the powers of fire and lightning. From the wind his breath was born.
From his navel came the atmosphere, from his head Heaven, from his feet the Earth and from his ears, the directions of space. Thus all the worlds were formed.[iv]

The human being is a replica of the greater universe, which itself has an organic structure like the human body. We are an expression of the ‘self-conscious universe’ holding both spirit and nature within ourselves. This means that we exist in all things, not as a separate species but as part of the underlying fabric of awareness. Through the unity of consciousness, the human being is the universe and the universe is a human being. We could say that the material universe is the body of consciousness, while consciousness is the soul of the world.

This Cosmic Person is both man and woman, the Great God and the Great Goddess, both the cosmic masculine and cosmic feminine powers. It is not simply the essence of humanity but the prototype for plants, animals, stars and planets. The Cosmic Person is the universal form, the prime archetype behind all beings, the ‘I behind the I ‘in all creatures.

This Purusha or consciousness principle of Yoga, however, is no mere philosophical concept, theological belief or abstract Absolute. It is the very fire within our hearts that is the light of the entire universe. The Purusha is Jyotirmaya or ‘made of light’. To truly practice Yoga we must begin with an understanding of this being of light as our goal. However, few Yoga students today are aware of the Purusha, much less its connection to fire, though that has always been the key to the inner process and higher experience of Yoga. Most meditators aim at understanding the psychological self, not realizing that our true Self is the cosmic light expressing itself in all of nature, in which our personal psychology gets consumed as an offering in but an instant.

The Human Being as the Creator Awakening in his Cosmic Creation

The Vedas tell us that plants have feelings and animals have minds.[v] Other creatures are also aware. They want to live and experience happiness just as we do. But we humans do have an additional capacity of intelligence that affords us a better potential to know the Reality or Self behind the universe, should we choose to look for it.

Through the human being, the Creator can become consciousness in his own creation. God, the Creator is seeking to manifest through us, so that he can know his own creation from within, with the very creature realizing “I am all” and “I have become this entire universe.”

The Self alone was there in the beginning. There was nothing else that winked. He thought, “I will create the worlds.”
Having created the worlds, he thought. “How can this universe exist without me? How shall I enter into it?”
Having opened the top of the skull and through that means he entered it. He saw the Person (Purusha) as God (Brahman).
Upanishads [vi]

The human being is meant to serve as a vehicle for the entire universe to become self-aware. We are the instruments for God to perceive his creation through the eyes of his creatures. This is the great fulfillment that cosmic intelligence has planned through the long evolutionary struggle. The whole purpose of the evolution of the soul, which is also the evolution of life, is the soul’s creation of a body through which it can realize God or the universal consciousness. This is achieved with the human body, through which we can practice meditation and find God within ourselves.

We are all sons and daughters of God. We are created in the image of God, which is as a power of light and consciousness! We are all meant to become God who is our origin and our home. That Divine Being dwells within us as our true Self, calling us to remember our greater nature as All.

The ancients referred to this Cosmic Person as the ‘Person in the Sun’[vii] as well as the ‘Sun of suns’ and the ‘God of gods’, meaning the consciousness principle inherent in light. The main dwelling for God in the external world is the Sun as the source of light and life. Similarly, God dwells within us as the soul, the source of life and feeling within our hearts, our inner Sun:

The Cosmic Person, the size of a thumb, dwells in the middle of the heart like a flame without smoke. He is the lord of what was and what will be. He is today and he is tomorrow. All this is That!
Upanishads[viii]

Our soul is this ‘fire person’ or being of light in the heart. This is what gives us individuality, character, vitality and creativity. The fire person within us reflects the Cosmic Person of pure light in the Sun and stars.

The human being, therefore, is a link creature between the animal and the god or cosmic being. It is the creature in whom the evolutionary fire is meant to come forth and connect itself with the universal light. Our inner imperative is to become one with the entire universe. We are not meant to rule over the world from the outside. Our task is to embrace the creation from within, according to the supreme power of love that is its true motivating force.

Yet we must remember that this special evolutionary position is not so much a privilege as a duty. To honor it, we must sacrifice our personal desires to the greater universal will. We must recognize the Cosmic Person as our real being and view all creatures as portions of our greater selves. This means to go beyond any mere bodily or mental definition of self.

The Great Equation Revisited

We can extend our original equation of light and consciousness:

Light = Perception = Consciousness = Human Being = Soul = Cosmic Person

The human being is meant to be a being of light. Our human head is like the Sun projecting the light of consciousness through its openings of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Our human heart is like an inner Sun projecting the light-blood of life throughout the veins and arteries of our bodies. Our true humanity is found not in the body, in our genes or in our social behavior but in the light of our soul that can feel oneness with all. Once we are liberated from a merely outward sense of self, our awareness will be as free and radiant as the Sun in the sky.

We are meant to be a walking, breathing, talking form of the entire universe, each one of us with the vastness of a solar system or a galaxy! We haven’t even suspected the great glory and beauty that we can project into the world. The universal being is meant to come to the front and awaken through us, seeing with our eyes, feeling with our hearts and thinking with our minds, remembering its journey from the stars to the Earth and through the entire domain of nature on this planet.

Our true humanity, therefore, does not reside in our mere humanity. Our humanness is a reflection of a Cosmic Person who pervades the entire world. Our true humanity resides in this Cosmic Human Being who cares for the entire universe as his own self. Our highest potential is not merely the scientific or social advancement of our species, but making our species the matrix for the universal being in its advent on Earth.

To realize this higher potential we must give up the arrogance of our species that has not only harmed our planet but also crippled our own inner creativity and awareness. We must honor that same conscious being in all nature from the stars to rocks, plants and animals. We must learn to see our Self in all beings and all beings in the Self as the Upanishads said so eloquently thousands of years ago:

He who sees the Self in all beings and all beings in the Self henceforth has no fear. Where can there be any delusion or sorrow in whom all beings have become himself, for the knowing one who sees only unity?[ix]

We must recognize the human face in the Sun, Moon, mountains and clouds. We must greet the Sun as our Father and the Earth as our Mother, with all the plants and animals as our brothers and sisters. We must recognize that whatever we look at also looks back at us with our own eyes, which are the eyes of our own soul and the eyes of God. Can you see your own face in every form of nature? It is only then that you will really see and all eyes will be yours.


[i] Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I.3.

[ii] Yoga philosophy, based upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy that accepts the authority and insights of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

[iii] The philosophy that the Self is the supreme reality is called ‘Vedanta’ and is the culmination of Vedic thought. There are many modern and ancient books on this teaching from the Vedas to the works of modern sages like Vivekananda or Ramana Maharshi.

[iv] Rig Veda X.90, 2, 12, 14.

[v] This point is discussed in the ancient Aitareya Aranyaka II.3.1, connected to the Upanishad of the same name.

[vi] Aitareya Upanishad I.1.1; III.11, 12, 13.

[vii] Isha Upanishad 6, 7.

[viii] Katha Upanishad 4.13.

[ix] Isha Upanishad 6-7.

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