Purusha (Sanskrit puruṣa, पुरुष) is a complex concept whose meaning evolved in Vedic and Upanishadic times. Depending on source and historical timeline, it means the cosmic man or Self, Consciousness, and Universal principle.
In early Vedas, Purusa meant a cosmic man whose sacrifice by the gods created all life. This was one of many creation theories discussed in the Vedas. The idea parallels Norse Ymir, with the myth's origin in Proto-Indo-European religion.
In the Upanishads, the Purusa concept no longer meant a being or cosmic man. The meaning evolved to an abstract essence of Self, Spirit and the Universal Principle that is eternal, indestructible, without form and all pervasive. The Purusa concept is explained with the concept of Prakrti in the Upanishads. The universe is envisioned, in these ancient Sanskrit texts, as a combination of perceivable material reality and non-perceivable, non-material laws and principles of nature. Material reality, or Prakrti, is everything that has changed, can change and is subject to cause and effect. Purusa is the Universal principle that is unchanging, uncaused but is present everywhere and the reason why Prakrti changes, evolves all the time and why there is cause and effect. Purusa is what connects everything and everyone, according to various schools of Hinduism.
There is a diversity of views within various schools of Hinduism about the definition, scope and nature of Purusa.
Definition and description
Purusha is a complex concept, whose meaning evolved over time in the philosophical traditions now called as Hinduism. During the Vedic period, Purusa concept was one of several theories offered for the creation of universe. Purusa, in Rigveda, was described as a being, who becomes a sacrificial victim of gods, and whose sacrifice creates all life forms including human beings.
In the Upanishads and later texts of Hindu philosophy, the Purusa concept moved away from the Vedic definition of Purusa and was no longer a person, cosmic man or entity. Instead, the concept flowered into a more complex abstraction.
Splendid and without a bodily form is this Purusa, without and within, unborn, without life breath and without mind, higher than the supreme element. From him are born life breath and mind. He is the soul of all beings.
Both Samkhya and Yoga schools of Hinduism state that there are two ultimate realities whose interaction accounts for all experiences and universe - Prakrti (matter) and Purusa (spirit). In other words, the universe is envisioned as a combination of perceivable material reality and non-perceivable, non-material laws and principles of nature. Material reality, or Prakrti, is everything that has changed, can change and is subject to cause and effect. Universal principle, or Purusa, is that which is unchanging (aksara) and is uncaused. The animating causes, fields and principles of nature is Purusa in Hindu philosophy. Hinduism refers to Purusa as the soul of the universe, the universal spirit present everywhere, in everything and everyone, all the times. Purusa is Universal Principle that is eternal, indestructible, without form and all pervasive. It is Purusa in the form of nature’s laws and principles that operate in the background to regulate, guide and direct change, evolution, cause and effect. It is Purusa, in Hindu concept of existence, that breathes life into matter, is the source of all consciousness, one that creates oneness in all life forms, in all of humanity, and the essence of Self. It is Purusa, according to Hinduism, why the universe operates, is dynamic and evolves, as against being static.
Related concepts and diversity of views
The abstract idea Purusa is extensively discussed in various Upanishads, and referred interchangeably as maha-atman and brahman (not to be confused with Brahmin). Sutra literature refers to a similar concept using the word puṃs.
Rishi Angiras of the Atmopanishad belonging to the Atharvaveda explains that Purusha, the dweller in the body, is three-fold: the Bahyatman (the Outer-Atman) which is born and dies; the Antaratman (the Inner-Atman) which comprehends the whole range of material phenomena, gross and subtle, with which the Jiva concerns himself, and the Paramatman which is all-pervading, unthinkable, indescribable, is without action and has no Samskaras.
Theistic schools of Hinduism
There is no consensus among schools of Hinduism on the definition of Purusa, and it is left to each school and individual to reach their own conclusions. For example, one of many theistic traditions script such as Kapilasurisamvada, credited to another ancient Hindu philosopher named Kapila, first describes purusa in a manner similar to Samkhya-Yoga schools above, but then proceeds to describe buddhi (intellect) as second purusa, and ahamkara (ego) as third purusa. Such pluralism and diversity of thought within Hinduism implies that the term purusa is a complex term with diverse meanings.
In one verse of Rigveda, Varna is portrayed as a result of human beings created from different parts of the body of the divinity Purusha. This Purusha Sukta verse is controversial and is believed by many scholars, such as Max Müller, to be a corruption and medieval or modern era insertion into Veda, because unlike all other major concepts in the Vedas including those of Purusha, the four varnas are never mentioned anywhere else in any of the Vedas, and because this verse is missing in some manuscript prints found in different parts of India.
That remarkable hymn (the Purusha Sukta) is in language, metre, and style, very different from the rest of the prayers with which it is associated. It has a decidedly more modern tone, and must have been composed after the Sanskrit language had been refined.
There can be little doubt, for instance, that the 90th hymn of the 10th book (Purusha Sukta) is modern both in its character and in its diction. (...) It mentions the three seasons in the order of the Vasanta, spring; Grishma, summer; and Sarad, autumn; it contains the only passage in the Rigveda where the four castes are enumerated. The evidence of language for the modern date of this composition is equally strong. Grishma, for instance, the name for the hot season, does not occur in any other hymn of the Rigveda; and Vasanta also does not belong to the earliest vocabulary of the Vedic poets.— Max Müller,
The Purusha Sukta is a later interpolation in the Rig Veda. (...) Verses in the form of questions about the division of Purusha and the origins of the Varnas are a fraudulent emendation of the original.
- An example of alternate theory is Nasadiya Sukta, the last book of the Vedas, which suggests a great heat created universe from void. See: Klaus K. Klostermair (2007), A survey of Hinduism, 3rd Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-7081-7, pp 88
- A school of Hinduism that considers reason, as against Nyaya school's logic or Mīmāṃsā school's tradition, as the proper source of knowledge
- Purusha Encyclopedia Britannica (2013)
- Angelika Malinar, Hindu Cosmologies, in Jessica Frazier (Editor) - A Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, ISBN 978-0-8264-9966-0, pp 67
- Karl Potter, Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN 81-208-0779-0, pp 105-109
- Klaus K. Klostermair (2007), A survey of Hinduism, 3rd Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-7081-7, pp 87
- Encyclopædia Britannica. Edition: 11 V. 19 - 1911 page 143
- Patrice Lajoye, "Puruṣa", Nouvelle Mythologie Comparée / New Comparative Mythologie, 1, 2013: http://nouvellemythologiecomparee.hautetfort.com/archive/2013/02/03/patrice-lajoye-purusha.html
- Theos Bernard (1947), The Hindu Philosophy, The Philosophical Library, New York, pp 69-72
- Klaus K. Klostermair (2007), A survey of Hinduism, 3rd Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-7081-7, pp 167-169
- Klaus K. Klostermair (2007), A survey of Hinduism, 3rd Edition, State University of New York Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-7081-7, pp 170-171
- Jessica Frazier, A Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, ISBN 978-0-8264-9966-0, pp 24-25, 78
- Angelika Malinar, Hindu Cosmologies, in Jessica Frazier (Editor) - A Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, ISBN 978-0-8264-9966-0, pp 78-79
- Swami Madhavananda. Minor Upanishads. Advaita Ashrama. p. 11.
- Angelika Malinar, Hindu Cosmologies, in Jessica Frazier (Editor) - A Continuum Companion to Hindu Studies, ISBN 978-0-8264-9966-0, pp 80
- David Keane (2007), Caste-based Discrimination in International Human Rights Law, ISBN 978-0754671725, pp 26-27
- Raghwan (2009), Discovering the Rigveda A Bracing text for our Times, ISBN 978-8178357782, pp 77-88
- Rigveda 10/81 & Yajurveda 17/19/20, 25
- Colebrooke, Miscallaneous Essays Volume 1, WH Allen & Co, London, see footnote at page 309
- Müller (1859), A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature, Williams & Norgate, London, pp 570-571
- N. Jabbar (2011), Historiography and Writing Postcolonial India, Routledge, ISBN 978-0415672269, pp 149-150