In the philosophy of Sankaradeva, the ‘world’ or the creation (jagat) is not figmental or a product of one’s imagination. The objects of the senses, as also the senses themselves, are real and products of an (initially) undifferentiated mass of material substance known as prakrti, a term which may be translated into English as ‘primal matter.’ It is the primitive matter or the ‘Ur-matter,’ from which all material products evolve. It is thus the ‘mother substance. ’ (It is worthwhile mentioning in this connection that in his Kirttana, Sankaradeva uses the metaphor of the mother for this primal material substance—‘she,’prakrti, is the ‘mother of the creation’ (jagata mava). This is a very apt metaphor because prakrti is indeed the ‘mother substance.’ All material evolutes are ‘her’ ‘children!’)
The Nature of Prakrti (and Also the Other Two Tattvas)
The main reason why we should be reading about prakrti is to know about its nature and to develop within us the discrimination (viveka) between inert substance (jada) and ‘spirit’ or conscious personality (caitanya). Indeed, the awakening of such discrimination is the key to appreciating the need for taking sole-refuge (eka sarana) only in the supreme conscious personality rejecting all other material objects of worship. This is also known as tattva vicara and forms an inalienable part of the complete teaching of Sankaradeva. The Nama Ghosa of Madhavadeva is one text in particular, in the Sankaradeva-ite literature, that devotes a considerable number of its verses in asserting the difference between matter and spirit. The bhakti of Sankaradeva, we must remember, is Vedantic bhakti, rooted in a thorough understanding of the difference between the tattvas.
There are three primary entities (tattvas) in the philosophy of Sankaradeva (we say ‘primary’ because, apart from these three, there may be some other entities such as the knowledge entities): prakrti, purusa and parama purusa. Prakrti, as we have seen, is the technical term for primal matter. It is also known in the Samkhya philosophy as the pradhana. It has yet another name—avyakta (the unmanifested) due perhaps to its extremely subtle nature. Here, since we have brought in a reference to the Samkhya, we might as well make it clear that the Samkhya of Sankaradeva, which we get to see particularly in his rendering of the third book of the Bhagavata, dealing with the creation of the world and the process of material evolution, is not the atheistic Samkhya philosophy. It is the Samkhya of the Bhagavata (and of the Hindu Puranic world, for that matter). It is very much theistic. Here, prakrti works for the welfare or salvation of purusa only at the instance of God, Isvara. Otherwise, it is totally unconscious and a totally unconscious entity cannot possibly formulate any policy (of redemption). Therefore, here, it is the consciousness of Isvara that drives the evolution of prakrti with the ultimate objective of securing the welfare of the purusas. This is a very fundamental difference between the atheistic Samkhya and the (theistic) one of the Bhagavata.
Now, coming back to our discussion, the term purusa refers to pure, conscious personality, unencumbered by any material limitation—when it is so encumbered, it is referred to as jiva. While prakrti is totally unconscious and dead (lifeless), purusa is ever-living and conscious. Prakrti is jada while purusa is caitanya. Another great difference between prakrti and purusa is that while prakrti suffers from modifications and transformation (vikara), the purusa is immutable, suffering from no transformations (avikari). Purusa is everlasting (nitya) and indestructible (avinasi). Although, here, some may point out that prakrti also is everlasting and indestructible in the ultimate sense. This is because, even after the withdrawal of the creation by the supreme pure personality (parama purusa), prakrti continues to stay as the ‘property’ of the Lord, albeit in unactuated form. But, this is true in a sense very different from the one applying in the case of purusa. Purusa is eternal, conscious, feeling, thinking, personality and, quite rightly, the epithet of ‘eternal’ (sanatana) can, in the true sense, only be applied to it (along with, of course, God!).
The third ontological entity, parama purusa, is the highest of the three. It is the supreme entity (parama tattva). Parama purusa, as the name itself suggests, is Krsna, God—the supreme pure personality. He is the Lord of both prakrti and purusa. The former is His tool-substance (sakti) or His property, while the latter is, as it were, His attendant (kinkara).
Both purusa and parama purusa are conscious personalities and hence, essentially similar. As Sankaradeva explains very lucidly in his Bhakti Ratnakara, in the chapter on the difference between jivatma and paramatma, purusa (the essential jivatma) is not different in kind from parama purusa (or paramatma). However, one great difference there certainly is: parama purusa is supremely conscious while purusa is only conscious. The consciousness of parama purusa is uneclipsable while that of purusa is eclipsable. (Purusa is, in the default mode, affected, nay almost crushed, by prakrti (also known as maya); on the other hand, the gunas of prakrti cannot even touch parama purusa.) Moreover, purusa is not the Lord of prakrti; parama purusa is.
One more point regarding these 3 entities needs to be stated: prakrti is one while there is a multiplicity of purusas. Parama purusa is also one. This is again, as scholars point out, a significant departure of the Samkhya from the absolutist Vedanta which is supposed to stand for the numerical unity of not only purusa and parama purusa but also of prakrti and parama purusa (there being one and only one (impersonal) Brahman, bereft of all attributes!)
To close this section, the main differences between prakrti and purusa, which also serve to recapitulate the nature of prakrti, are given below.
|Dead matter (lifeless).||Conscious personality.|
The Evolutands and Evolutes of Prakrti
The actuation of prakrti by parama purusa for the purpose of creating the cosmos (brahmanda) triggers a process of material evolution. This process, which gives rise to a series of evolutands (evolvents) and evolutes (products), is treated in a fairly detailed manner in both the Puranas and the atheistic Samkhya. These evolutands and evolutes are known in the technical literature of the Samkhya by such terms as prakrta, vaikrta and prakrta-vaikrta. To quote from the Samkhya Karika of Isvara Krsna,
Primal Nature is not an evolute; Mahat, etc., the seven, are evolvents and evolutes; the group of sixteen is evolute; the Spirit is neither an evolute nor an evolvent.
Laksmi, the Personification of Prakrti
Figure 1: the Supreme Pure Personality is the Lord of Primal Matter
In order to appreciate fully the philosophy of Sankaradeva, we have also to consider the strategy of personification that is adopted in the Puranic universe of discourse. The entity (tattva) known as prakrti is represented in the Puranas in personified form as ‘Laksmi.’ And as prakrti is under the control of parama purusa, the supreme pure personality (the point made by figure 1), it is for this reason that, in the motifs of the puranic world (figure 2)—whether they be expressed through art or painting, literature or sculpture—we invariably have Laksmi serving always the feet of Visnu (parama purusa). Therefore, Laksmi is only a anthropomorphization. She is not a personality at all! ‘She’ is, in reality, primal matter—the ‘mother-substance,’ from which the entire material creation evolves! And this is the reason why in the theology of Sankaradeva, Laksmi is not worshipped (refer to the preceding discussion on jada caitanya viveka). ‘She’ is recognized for what ‘she’ really is—inert, unconscious substance!
Figure 2: Visnu, the Supreme Pure Personality, is the Lord of Laksmi (Personification of Primal Matter)
An overwhelming majority of the characters of the Puranas, like Brahma and the devas, are, in reality, the personified forms of the various evolutes and evolutands of prakrti (referred to in the previous section). They are the ‘children’ of Laksmi! And therefore, as Madhavadeva rightly points out in the Nama Ghosa, while each of these material ‘personalities’ may pray to Laksmi—prakrti personified—and report to ‘her’, Laksmi, in her turn, must serve and report only to Visnu (parama purusa):
|brahmā ādi devagane nicala sampatti mane
laksmika sevanta tapa kari
laksmio sevanta yāka hena mahesvara visnu
āna kona deva tānka sari
|All the devas—Brahma et al—wishing wealth, immovable,
serve Laksmi, doing austerities.
He whom even Laksmi serves, such a supreme Lord Visnu;
which other deity is equal to Him?
Maya Synonymous with Prakrti
The term maya is used synonymously with prakrti because, by default, it is prakrti that conceals and obscures Isvara.
Parama Purusa Actuates Prakrti
Now, the pure personalities (purusas), due to non-devotion to God, become forgetful of their own spiritual nature, and fall into this prakrti and become dead and extremely matter-like (jada). Parama purusa, being the supremely conscious entity and the Lord of prakrti, out of His own grace (krpa), actuates prakrti to evolve out of itself a microcosm for the purpose of the purusas’ redemption. It is this story of the evolution of the microcosm that forms the cornerstone of the Bhagavata, the text that Sankaradeva chooses as his primary source.
Only Krsna (Parama Purusa) is to be Worshiped, Not Laksmi (Prakrti)
From this discussion, it is clear why Sankaradeva should exhort the purusas to take refuge (sarana) solely in Krsna. This is because, among all the entities of the Puranic universe of discourse, only Krsna is the supreme conscious personality (parama purusa), the others being mere personifications of primal matter (prakrti) and its products. The purusas, too, are essentially conscious (caitanya) and spiritual (non-material) and ontologically superior to prakrti. Therefore, it behoves them to do pure devotion only to parama purusa Krsna and not to prakrti.
 The Samkhya-Karika (Critically edited with Introduction, Translation and Notes), Vidyasudhakara Dr Har Dutt Sharma, M.A., Ph.D., The Oriental Book Agency, Poona, 1933.