“One has to understand the position of prakriti, nature, and purusha, the enjoyer of the nature, and ishvara, the knower who dominates or controls nature and the individual soul. One should not confuse the three in their different capacities. One should not confuse the painter, the painting and the easel. This material world, which is the field of activities, is nature, and the enjoyer of nature is the living entity, and above them both is the supreme controller, the Personality of Godhead.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 13.3 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
Vedic literature presents a deep and rich philosophy. If a person is so inclined, they could read omnivorously and voluminously. The Mahabharata itself contains teachings from many different elevated personalities. These are gurus, or spiritual masters. In the Bhagavad-gita, which is found within the Mahabharata, Shri Krishna explains the importance of a guru and how to tell which ones are bona fide.
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.34)
The self-realized soul can impart wisdom because they have seen the truth; tattva-darshi. They have seen this truth through their own practice, which started under the guidance of another spiritual master. You keep ascending the chain and you eventually reach the origin, which is another way to understand God.
From the mouths of these great souls we find a distinction made between prakriti and purusha. This is an important distinction to know, as sometimes the meanings change based on the context.
1. It means “person”
One of the names for God is Purushottama. There is a sacred land associated with this name; Purushottama-kshetra, which is also known as Jagannatha Puri. Purusha means “person” and uttama means “the best” or “above the mode of ignorance, tamas.” God is the topmost person. This is important to know because if a wise man has approached a guru whose realization of matters spiritual stopped at the impersonal Brahman, the seeker will not learn this. They will think that God is formless and without personality. The name Purushottama says otherwise.
raso 'ham apsu kaunteya
śabdaḥ khe pauruṣaṁ nṛṣu
“O son of Kunti [Arjuna], I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.8)
God is purusha, and so are we. An elevated soul is known as Mahapurusha. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabu was described this way, even though He was only playing the role of a person roaming the earth. Purusha refers to any living thing actually; it doesn’t necessarily have to be a human being. Human effort is described as paurusham, and in the Bhagavad-gita, Shri Krishna says that He is that effort, or ability.
2. It means “enjoyer”
Purusha means a person, and in that context prakriti means “matter.” A person is spirit, and what it is not is matter. Purusha also means “enjoyer,” and in that context prakriti becomes “that which is enjoyed.” This is a good way to understand maya, which is the illusory material energy. Every living thing is purusha, enjoying the dull matter that is around them. As purusha, the living beings are superior, but they fail to realize this since they mistakenly identify with prakriti.
3. Individuals are purusha at the local level
The roles can switch based on the context. For instance, in my home I am purusha over others. I am the one who enjoys, and others are subordinate in a way. The male is the enjoyer and the female the enjoyed. The person at the highest level of government is the enjoyer of the entire society. The rest become prakriti, since they work to support the government. There is the dominator and the dominated.
4. Individuals are prakriti in the largest scope
I am purusha to the prakriti that is my temporary body, but compared to God I am prakriti. I am meant to be enjoyed by Him. This is the natural order of things. Resistance is allowed, but it is futile. Nothing can change the fact. Prakriti in the material world consists of the five gross elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. There are also the three subtle elements of mind, intelligence and false ego.
apareyam itas tv anyāṁ
prakṛtiṁ viddhi me parām
yayedaṁ dhāryate jagat
“Besides this inferior nature, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is a superior energy of Mine, which are all living entities who are struggling with material nature and are sustaining the universe.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.5)
Shri Krishna describes the living entities as a superior prakriti. It is a Divine Energy of His. Of course we don’t know that we are superior. Someone has to teach us. Once we know this, the experience in this world can change quickly. Otherwise we continue to suffer.
5. Shri Krishna is the original purusha
He is the topmost person and also the original, adi purusha. This means that we are forever linked to Him. We are one of His energies. We are shakti, and He is shaktiman. We are energy and He is the energetic. To remain in the company of the powerhouse is the wise course of action. To think ourselves as dominators of the inferior material energy, completely autonomous and with the chance to become the greatest enjoyer, is the very foundation of our troubles. The blueprint for building the spiritual house free of anxieties is to approach a tattva-darshi, learn the complete meanings to purusha and prakriti, and use that knowledge to stay connected with Purushottama in a mood of service.
To jivas minute independence giving,
In material world as purusha living.
Enjoyment of prakriti taking,
But still not the world itself making.
This to Supreme Enjoyer attributed alone,
Purushottama, as topmost person is known.
Purusha locally, different from nature inferior,
In truth coming from Krishna prakriti superior.