One often comes across the term pradhāna in the śāstras used to denote material nature. Śrī Jīva Goswami examines the definition of pradhāna in the Paramātmā Sandarbha, Anuccheda 111 as follows:
athopādānāṁśasya pradhānasya lakṣaṇam—
yat tat tri-guṇam avyaktaṁ nityaṁ sad-asad-ātmakam | pradhānaṁ prakṛtiṁ prāhur aviśeṣaṁ viśeṣavat || [bhā.pu. 3.26.10]
Now the definition of pradhāna, the upādāna part of māyā, is given: That which consists of the three guṇas, which is eternal, of the nature of cause and effect, and although devoid of manifest attributes is the source of the specific attributes of its effects, is called avyakta (the unmanifest), pradhāna (the preeminent support), and prakṛti (primordial conditionality), (sb 3.26.10)
In other words, avyakta, pradhāna and prakṛti, refer to the same thing, the upādāna part of māyā, consisting of the three guṇas.
But do these different names of the same thing, carry any significance? The answer is ‘yes’. Śrī Jīva Goswami gives the reason for the usage of these distinct terms – they correspond to the three words aviśeṣaṁ, viśeṣavat and sad-asad-ātmakaṁ.
Why pradhāna is called avyakta, prakrti and pradhāna.
i) pradhāna is called avyakta because it is aviśeṣa, or without any distinguishing features. Here aviśeṣam = guṇa-traya-sāmya-rūpatvād anabhivyakta-viśeṣam = because the three guṇas in it are in a neutralized state, it is without manifest qualities. Thus,
pradhāna is called avyakta, because it is without any manifest qualities, owing to the three gunas being in a neutralized state.
ii) pradhāna is called pradhāna, because it is viśeṣavat, inclusive of varieties. Here viśeṣavat = svāṁśa-kārya-rūpāṇāṁ mahad-ādi-viśeṣāṇām āśraya-rūpatayā tebhyaḥ śreṣṭham – because it is the support of its own effects, beginning with mahat which are distinct categories, it is superior to them. Thus,
pradhāna is so-called because it is the support of its own various specific effects, and therefore superior to them all (pradhāna literally means chief or primary).
iii) pradhāna is called prakṛti, because it is sad-asad-ātmaka, that is, of the nature of cause and effect. Here sad-asad-ātmaka = sad-asatsu kārya-kāraṇa-rūpeṣu mahad-ādiṣu kāraṇatvād anugata ātmā svarūpaṁ yasya tat, meaning because it is the cause of all causes and effects starting with mahat, its essential nature is to inhere in all causes and effects.
pradhāna is called prakṛti because it is the cause that inheres in all subsequent causes and effects starting with mahat.
pradhāna is eternal
Interestingly, pradhāna is eternal as indicated in the verse by the word nityam. How is it eternal if it transforms into various effects? The answer is that even after transformation into effects, it continues to exist in the effect as latent cause, and it also maintains its separate existence from the effects. Śrī Jīva Goswami explains that during dissolution, pradhāna remains in its causal state together with its parts, while during creation and sustenance, it remains in unmodified form. In this way, pradhāna is distinct from Brahman because Brahman has no guṇas, and it is distinct from its effects like mahat etc., in that mahat etc. are manifest but pradhāna remains unmanifest. To support his explanation, Śrī Jīva cites a verse from Viṣṇu Purāṇa –
evaṁ ca śrī-viṣṇu-purāṇe—
avyaktaṁ kāraṇaṁ yat tat pradhānam ṛṣi-sattamaiḥ |procyate prakṛtiḥ sūkṣmā nityaṁ sad-asad-ātmakam ||akṣayyaṁ nānyad ādhāram ameyam ajaraṁ dhruvam |śabda-sparśa-vihīnaṁ tad rūpādibhir asaṁhitam ||triguṇaṁ taj jagad-yonir anādi-prabhavāpyayam |tenāgre sarvam evāsīd vyāptaṁ vai pralayād anu || [vi.pu. 1.2.19-21] ity-ādi |
That pradhāna, which is unmanifest and the cause, is called subtle prakṛti by the best of sages. It is eternal and of the nature of cause and effect. It is imperishable, has no other support, is immeasurable, does not become old and is changeless. It is devoid of sound and touch, and remains uncompounded into any form. It consists of the three guṇas, is the source of the universe and is beginningless. [During the dissolution] it is the source into which all generated substances are reabsorbed, and after the dissolution, it pervades everything in the beginning of a new creative cycle, (vp 1.2.19-21)
Pradhāna is the unmanifest state consisting of the three guṇas in a neutralized state. It is known by other names like prakṛti and avyakta. It is eternal, and pervades all causes and effects.