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Hindu Understanding of Elements from Taittiriya Upanishad

The Taittiriya Upanishad provides a concise and clear statement regarding elements:

‘From the Atman came space, akasha. From space came air, vayu. From air came fire, agni. From fire came water, ap. From water came the earth, prithivi.’

When these five elements first emerge one after the other, they are extremely subtle and are called tanmatra. They combine with each other to form gross, or more tangible, versions called mahabhuta. It is these gross elements that come together in various permutations and combinations, and the result is the material world.

Amidst all the diversity we come across in life, we will see — if we look deeply enough — unity at different levels. Waves are diverse, the ocean is one. Where we look and what we notice is our choice.

It is possible to see the diverse objects in the material world as waves, and it is also possible to see the world collectively as one huge ocean of matter.

Where does this ocean/wave insight lead us? It tells each one of us that our own physical and mental being is a wave in the cosmic ocean. Everyone else too is a wave in the ocean. Just as each wave differs from every other wave only in name and form, being essentially the same water, our bodies and minds differ only in name and form but are really made from the same elements, which also constitute everything else in the world. The wave is essentially the same as the ocean. The wave freed from its name and form is the ocean. The ocean limited by a name and a form is the wave. The one infinite Being appears as diverse and finite due only to name and form which, in themselves, are unsubstantial.

Source - Prabuddha Bharata January 2010 Issue