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What exactly are Prakriti and Purusha?

I came across the term Prakriti while reading the Shiva purana and searched to understand the true meaning of it, but there are a lot of mixed views and opinions on both the terms.

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    You'll encounter many interpretations on the subject while studying various philosophies. Feel free to choose what you find convincing.
    – Swapnil
    Jan 13 at 14:00
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I shall answer this question with respect to the Trika System:

Purusa : Siva through Mayasakti which limits his universal knowledge and power becomes Purusa or the individual subject. Purusa in this context means every sentient being. Purusa is also known as anu in this (Kashmir Shaivism) system. The word anu is used in the sense of limitation of the divine perfection.

Prakriti: While Purusa is the subjective manifestation of Siva, Prakriti is the objective manifestation.

Shiva Sutras, Yoga of Supreme Reality by Jaideva Singh, Tattvas of the Limited Individual, Pg xxvi.

Further, different schools of thought have different conception of the term. Sankhya believes that Prakriti is one and universal for all the Purusas. Trika (Kashmir Shaivism) believes each Purusa has a different Prakriti. Prakriti is the matrix of all objectivity.

Pratyabhijna Philosophy of the Trika School further clarifies that Prakriti is the Santa Sakti of Siva, and her constituents sattva, rajas and tamas, which are held in perfect equipose are only the polarization of Siva's saktis of jnana, iccha and kriya respectively. Therefore unlike the Sankhya school, there is perfect non-dualism.

Purusa is the experient (bhokta) and Prakriti is the experienced (bhogya).

Siva Sutras, Yoga of Supreme Reality by Jaideva Singh, Pg. xxvii.

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  • This post answers very well.
    – user22667
    Jan 13 at 16:54
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    – Adiyarkku
    Jan 14 at 4:11
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These concepts come from the Samkhya darshana. Samkhya is one of the six Astika Darshanas of thoughts in Sanatana Dharma (the others being Yoga, Nyaya, Vedanta, Mimamsa and Vaisheshika). In the Samkhya tradition there is purusha and there is prakriti, and these two are separate. Purusha is the Self, pure consciousness. Prakriti is that which is created. It is nature in all her aspects.

Samkhya philosophy holds that purusha is pure consciousness, and prakriti is unconscious. Prakriti is everything that is changing. Prakriti is not just the physical aspects but includes everything including our thoughts, memories, desires, and even our intelligence. Purusha, pure and distant, is beyond subject and object. Purusha simply just is awareness/consciousness.

However, unlike in Abhramic religions, purusha did not create prakriti. They are always separate. Consciousness is purusha and everything else transient is prakriti. There is no creator God (Ishvara). This is where the Samkhya philosophy differs from Yoga, which is another darshana.

Then, how is creation described in Samkhya? The prakriti consists of three gunas, perfectly in balance called mula-prakriti, which is the natural foundation. The first thing to appear out of this is mahat, the great principle, followed by Ahamkara etc. See the table in this website. Liberation is reversing the process and understanding we are purusha and rejecting prakriti as unreal.

As discussed in the book, Samkhya Karika: with Gaudapadacarya Bhasya,

Purusha is sentient, infinite and unchanging. Prakriti is insentient, finite and exists in ever-changing forms. With proper knowledge and repeated practice, we can change our habits of thought and realize the underlying constancy of Purusha.

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The best understanding of what Prakriti (and Karma definition) comes from a book called "Karma Rahasyam" in Tamil by Swami Ramasukdas which is based out of the "Two birds perched on tree..." Upanishadic statements. Here goes from the pg.5 on that book... " There are two entities called Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is unchanging. Prakiriti, on the other hand always keeps changing. When Purusha has a intimate relationship with Prakriti, then all of Prakriti's actions, called Kriya, becomes Purusha's Karma. Due to that intimacy, something called Thadatmium happens between them. That is, they become one losing the 'I'm separate' feeling. Once Thadatmium happens, there is a longing for newer things, nature's things. That feeling is called mamtha.This Mamtha causes wish for things that the 'One' entity do not own. This wish is called Kamna. So, when you have Thadatmium + Mamtha + Kamna together, all the Kriya that causes change is called Karma.

When Thadatmium ends, since Purusha becomes separate, all the Karma becomes Akarma and stops at just being a Kriya. Such Kriya will not have any fruit or results. Prakriti uses the bodies for Kriya and hence that body is called Kariya Sharira. ". This is again based on Gita 4-18, 3-27, 13-29.

The two birds anecdote in various upanishad mentions that the observer bird does not partake in actions of the second bird that keeps eating the fruit or result of kriya. The first bird is the Unchanging Supreme consciousness or Nirguna Brahman, the second bird is Action /Kriya endowed and is also a consciousness( came out of the split of the first one) called the Saguna Brahman, the sound endowed Brahman in space, Vis A Vis, Prakriti.

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