How should one interpret Hindu scripture?


One of the signs of the present age is the attitude towards the interpretation
of scripture. “Anything goes” pretty much sums up the modern attitude. Ancient
astika Hindus had their own opinion about the methodology to be used in interpreting scripture. The clearest exposition of this attitude is in the
story about Virochana and Indra in Chandogya Upanishad. A Cautionary Tale

Prajapati in that story proclaims that the Atman is free from evil, free from old age, free from death, free from sorrow and free from hunger and thirst. He
who discovers and understands that Atman attains all the worlds and all the desires. Hearing this the god Indra and the Demon Virochana approached Prajapati so that they may learn the secret of the Atman. The two served Prajapati for thirty two years at the end of which Prajapati asked them the reason for their coming. When he was told the objective of their mission he said that the body that is seen as a reflection is the Atman. Indra and Virochana then left for their abodes and Virochana began to teach this body
equals Atman doctrine to the Demons.

But Indra was not convinced. When the body gets blind the reflection gets blind and when the body ages the reflection, therefore the reflection cannot be the Atman. He returned to Prajapati and voiced his doubt. He then served Prajapati for another thirty-two years. After that Prajapati told Indra that the person one sees in one’s dreams is the Atman. This person does not get blind when the body gets blind nor does this person age when the body ages. His doubts cleared Indra left Prajapati.

But soon fresh doubts began to engulf Indra. The person in one’s dreams is conscious of pain and therefore cannot be the Atman. He returned to Prajapati and served him for another thirty two years. Then Prajapati told Indra that the person in a dreamless sleep is the Atman because the person in a dreamless
sleep feels no pain. With this knowledge Indra left Prajapati.

However he was still not satisfied. The person in a dreamless sleep has no consciousness at all. Such a person is nothing. So how can he be the Atman?
Confused, Indra returned to Prajapati. Prajapati asked Indra to serve him for five more years, thus bringing the total of Indra’s servitude to a hundred and
one years. He then gave Indra the final lesson.

It seems to me that this is a cautionary tale about the interpretation of the
Beware of a simplistic materialistic interpretation of the scripture. However, this is an ancient attitude. Why can’t we modern people
interpret scripture from a materialistic point of view? Surely advances in
science should enable us to better interpret the scripture. I intend to look
at a specific example, the question of Prana, and see if it can be interpreted in a materialistic manner. There is a detailed description of Prana in Prasna Upanishad.

Prana in Prasna Upanishad

Third Question

1. Then Kausalya Asvaiayana asked: ‘Sir, whence is that Prana born? How does it come into this body? And how does it abide, after it has divided itself? How does it go out? How does it support what is without, and how what is within?’

2. He replied: ‘You ask questions more difficult, but you are very fond of Brahman, therefore I shall tell it you.

3. This Prana is born of the Self. Like the shadow thrown on a man, this (the prana) is spread out over it (the Brahman). By the work of the mind does it come into this body.

4. As a king commands officials, saying to them: Rule these villages or those,
so does that Prana dispose the other pranas, each for their separate work.

5. The Apana (the downward Prana) in the organs of excretion and generation; the Prana himself dwells in eye and ear, passing through mouth and nose. In the middle is the Sarnana; it carries what has been sacrificed as food equally
(over the body), and the seven lights proceed from it.

6. The Self is in the heart. There are the 101 nadis (arteries ?), and in each
of them there are a hundred and for each of these branches there are 72,000. In these the Vyana moves.

7. Through one of them, the Udana leads (us) upwards to the good world by good
work, to the bad world by bad work, to the world of men by both.

8. The sun rises as the external Prana, for it assists the Prana in the eye. The deity that exists in the earth, is there in support of man’s Apana. The ether between (sun and earth) is the Samana, the air is Vyana.

9. Light is the Udana, and therefore he whose light has gone out comes to a new birth with his senses absorbed in the mind.

10. Whatever his thought (at the time of death) with that he goes back to Prana, and the Prana, united with light, together with the self leads on to the world, as deserved.

11. He who, thus knowing, knows Prana, his offspring does not perish, and he becomes immortal. Thus says the Sloka:

12. He who has known the origin, the entry, the place, the fivefold distribution, and the internal state of the Prana, obtains immortality, yes, obtains immortality. ‘

What does the above passages of Prasna Upanishad tell us about Prana?

The Upanishad says that the Prana is born of Self (Atman). The next information is that there are other Pranas present in the human body. For example,
there is Apana which helps in excretion. Then there is Vyana which moves in the nadis that branch through out the body. In fact, other literature suggests that there are 10 Pranas, viz,
Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana, Vyana, Naga, Krikila, Kurma, Devadatta, and Dhananjaya. The Naga helps in belching; the Kurma helps in the twinkling of the
eye; the Krikila is known as the cause of hunger; the Devadatta helps in yawning. The all-pervading Dhananjaya does not leave even the dead body. All these Pranas move in all the Nadis where they put on the appearance of life. Prasna Upanishad also makes the astounding claim that knowing Prana leads one
to immortality. Is a materialistic description of Prana possible?

My answer to this question is in the negative. It is not possible to give a
scientific explanation of Prana. If you say that Prana is about breathing in oxygen, then what can you say about Dhananjaya which does not leave even the dead body or about vyana which is present in the nadis of the human body? Have
medical doctors found any evidence of Prana in the physical body? I think not. A purely materialistic approach would have to conclude that the rishis of
the Upanishads had no idea of the human body and I am being polite about it.

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