mūla-prakṛti

By David Reigle on July 27, 2020 at 1:57 am

This is part of an ongoing glossary of terms relating to the Book of Dzyan.

            The term mūlaprakṛti is used in The Secret Doctrine to refer to one of the two aspects under which the “omnipresent, eternal, boundless, and immutable principle” is symbolized, the other aspect then being referred to as parabrahman. These two terms were adopted from the writings of T. Subba Row as the Advaita Vedānta terms for the two aspects that H. P. Blavatsky had called “absolute abstract space” or “pre-cosmic substance” and “absolute abstract motion” or “pre-cosmic ideation,” respectively. However, this is not exactly what these two terms refer to in Hinduism, and mūlaprakṛti is not really an Advaita Vedānta term.

            The term mūlaprakṛti is defined in The Secret Doctrine as “the root of Nature” (vol. 1, pp. 62, 136), “the Root of all” (vol. 1, pp. 147, 256, 340), “the ‘root-Principle’ of the world stuff and of all in the world” (vol. 1, p. 522), and “the root of Prakriti” (vol. 2, p. 65). The entry in the Theosophical Glossary shows that this is what Blavatsky thought was the literal meaning of the term: “Mûlaprakriti (Sk.). . . . undifferentiated substance . . . Literally, ‘the root of Nature’ (Prakriti) or Matter” (p. 218). This is not the literal meaning of the term, nor can it be. The term is a Sanskrit compound, consisting of mūla, “root,” and prakṛti, “substance, matter, nature.” In order to mean “the root of nature,” the compound would have to be prakṛti-mūla, not mūla-prakṛti.

            The term mūlaprakṛti is a Sāṃkhya term, despite the fact that Subba Row used it as an Advaita Vedānta term, and Blavatsky adopted it as such from him. It occurs in the third verse of the authoritative Sāṃkhya-kārikā. The standard commentary by Vācaspati-miśra, the Sāṃkhya-tattva-kaumudī, glosses it there as: mūlaṃ cāsau prakṛtiś ceti mūlaprakṛtiḥ, which Ganganatha Jha translates as: “it is that ‘Matter’ which is the ‘Root’.” Grammatically it is, and can only be, a karmadhāraya compound, not a tatpuruṣa compound. This is why it cannot mean “the root of substance,” but can only mean “that substance which is the root,” or simply, “root-substance.”

            The term mūlaprakṛti is found only rarely in Advaita Vedānta texts; and when it is, it is used as a synonym of māyā, “illusion,” or avidyā, “wrong knowing.” The term parabrahman that it is paired with in The Secret Doctrine is not much used in Advaita Vedānta texts, since they almost always simply use brahman for the absolute, the one reality, with no need for any qualifying adjective like para, “supreme” or “highest.” Thus, mūlaprakṛti is paired with parabrahman or brahman only like māyā is paired with brahman, as an illusory something that is not ultimately real because it goes away when brahman is realized through right knowing. It is without beginning, anādi, but not without end.

            The idea that root-substance or mūlaprakṛti is eternal, and therefore could be an aspect of the absolute, is a Theosophical idea and a Sāṃkhya idea, but not an Advaita Vedānta idea. Subba Row strongly advocated that matter or substance is eternal in his articles written in response to the Almora Swami, thus giving an esoteric teaching as if it was the standard Advaita Vedānta teaching. Later, however, in his lectures on the Bhagavad-gītā he reverted to the standard Advaita Vedānta teaching, strongly distinguishing mūlaprakṛti from parabrahman as being only the veil of parabrahman. This was copied in The Secret Doctrine several times (vol. 1, pp. 10, 130, 274, 351, 426, 428, 429, 430, 432, 536) as being the true esoteric teaching.

            Subba Row had stated clearly in his first lecture on the Bhagavad-gītā that mūlaprakṛti is not parabrahman, and this was quoted approvingly in The Secret Doctrine (vol. 1, p. 428): “Parabrahmam appears to it as Mulaprakriti. . . . This Mulaprakriti is material to it (the Logos), as any material object is material to us. This Mulaprakriti is no more Parabrahmam than the bundle of attributes of a pillar is the pillar itself; Parabrahmam is an unconditioned and absolute reality, and Mulaprakriti is a sort of veil thrown over it.” Following upon this in The Secret Doctrine (vol. 1, p. 629), Blavatsky tells us to draw a deep line in our thought between the one reality and mūlaprakṛti (vol. 1, p. 629): “. . . the One Reality . . . a true spirit of esoteric philosophy . . . the impersonal, attributeless, absolute divine essence which is no ‘Being,’ but the root of all being. Draw a deep line in your thought between that ever-incognizable essence, and the, as invisible, yet comprehensible Presence (Mulaprakriti), . . .”

            Yet, as one of the two aspects under which the one reality is symbolized, The Secret Doctrine makes it clear that no such distinction can be made: “. . . the ONE Immutable—Parabrahm = Mulaprakriti, the eternal one-root” (1.340). “. . . eternal (Nitya) unconditioned reality or SAT (Satya), whether we call it Parabrahmam or Mulaprakriti, for these are the two aspects of the ONE” (1.69). “Absolute, Divine Spirit is one with absolute Divine Substance: Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti are one in essence. Therefore, Cosmic Ideation and Cosmic Substance in their primal character are one also” (1.337 fn.). “In its absoluteness, the One Principle under its two aspects (of Parabrahmam and Mulaprakriti) is sexless, unconditioned and eternal” (1.18). Blavatsky used these two terms because, following Subba Row’s earlier writings, she thought that this was the Advaita Vedānta teaching: “. . . viewed in the same light as the Vedantin views his Parabrahm and Mulaprakriti, the one under two aspects.” (1.46). This is not the Advaita Vedānta teaching, but it is the Theosophical teaching.

            The term mūlaprakṛti is not used in Theosophy like in Advaita Vedānta, where it is synonymous with māyā, “illusion,” the few times it occurs there. In Theosophy it is used much more like in Sāṃkhya, where it is one of the two eternal cosmic principles, mūla-prakṛti, “root-substance,” and puruṣa, “spirit,” with one fundamental difference. Theosophy teaches a single, non-dual reality, while Sāṃkhya as now known is a dualistic system, although it may not have always been dualistic. Sāṃkhya is regarded as the oldest philosophical system or worldview (darśana) in India, and its founder, Kapila is traditionally known as the “first knower,” ādi-vidvān. There are references to an old Sāṃkhya in which the absolute is brahman, and puruṣa and prakṛti are merely its two aspects, just like in Theosophy. As such, it makes no difference whether one refers to the absolute as spirit or as substance, since they are only two ways of looking at the same one reality.

            Thus we can have the rather surprising statement in the Mahatma letter (#10, chronological #88): “In other words we believe in MATTER alone, in matter as visible nature and matter in its invisibility as the invisible omnipresent omnipotent Proteus with its unceasing motion which is its life, and which nature draws from herself since she is the great whole outside of which nothing can exist.” This does not at all rule out spirit, since the letter is speaking of living substance. It is matter or substance endowed with life or motion, motion which never ceases even during pralaya when the cosmos is out of manifestation. It is this living substance that was referred to in another Mahatma letter as mūlaprakṛti (#59, chronological #111):

“The One reality is Mulaprakriti (undifferentiated Substance)—the ‘Rootless root,’ the . . . But we have to stop, lest there should remain but little to tell for your own intuitions.”

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