Student Questions: What Exactly is Puruṣa in Hinduism?

In a lesson this week, I was asked what exactly Puruṣa is. It is described in a course reading as the “Cosmical Man”, which is quite vague. 

My response was that the Puruṣa concept is obscure and whatever it is is referred to in various ways: primordial being, primordial man, immortal, cosmic being, androgynous being, Universal Principle, etc. I promised to provide the student with additional clarity, which is the purpose of this brief article.

The concept of Puruṣa (in Sanskrit, the term means “spirit,” “person,” “self,” or “man”) is discovered in what is called the Purusha Hymn (or Puruṣa-sūkta) in the Ṛgveda. The Ṛgveda contains Indo-Aryan mantras and hymns dating from about 2000-1700 BCE revealed directly to seers called ṛṣi by a higher power. The Ṛgveda is very ancient as it was composed around 1200 BCE.

One significance of the Puruṣa concept is that the Ṛgveda contains the first reference to the varṇa (caste system) and therefore serves as its basis. Noteworthy, however, is that many scholars are convinced that the Puruṣa-sūkta is a post-Vedic interpolation intending to establish divine authority regarding the social divisions established by the varṇa rather than being representative of Vedic society. 

The Ṛgveda indicates that the caste system was brought by the Indo-Aryans into the Indus Valley in northwestern India around 1,600 BCE where and when they merged with the people already living there (this external incursion perspective has been the traditional consensus theory of Indonologists and historians of Hinduism). 

These details aside, what exactly is Purusha? A graphically rich description is provided in the Puruṣa-sūkta,

“A thousand heads has Purusha, thousand eyes and a thousand feet; pervading this earth on every side, he fills all of space and extends beyond it. Purusha is all there has been and will be, so mighty is his greatness that we are but a fraction of his being”.

Several important details emerge: Puruṣa pervades creation suggesting his omnipresence and it is also stated that he extends beyond creation indicating his transcendence. Puruṣa is a great being who exercised creative powers. The universe was created out of the parts of his body,

“He formed the creatures of the air and animals both wild and tame. From him were cattle born, those with two and those with a single row of teeth”.

Mankind was also created as were his bodily functions, sensory organs, mind, and soul. In addition, the moon emerged from Puruṣa’s consciousness. The various natural phenomena in the world emerged from this cosmic being: “The moon was his mind, the sun his eyes, the airs were the breath, the sky was fashioned from his head, the mid–air from is navel, earth from the feet and the airs from the ears; thus were the worlds born”.

It is clearer now that whatever title one uses to refer to Puruṣa, Puruṣa is a very powerful creator being responsible for the reality of the universe and the objects and phenomena it contains. But as the ancient Hindu sacred literatures continued to evolve and expand, Puruṣa was superseded by other various central Hindu doctrines such as Brahman and Ātman, as well as the figures/gods Prajāpati, Brahmā, and Viṣṇu.

References and Recommended Sources

Bowker, John. 2000. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press. 

Leeming, David. 2005. The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. Oxford University Press


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