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Vedanta And The Five Elements

What are these elements and where do they come from? The Taittiriya Upanishad provides a concise and clear statement: ‘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.

This is, of course, a very different story from the kind of stories offered by secular sciences. It is possible to look at the origin of the world from an entirely material perspective. There are several competing scientific stories, the Big Bang among them, about how the world as we see it today came about. What becomes at once apparent is that perspective matters. The world we see and the meaning it carries for us depend on our world view. A purely material perspective strips life of any ultimate meaning and purpose. After all, if everything around us is only the result of a Big Bang, or of whichever scientific theory is being advanced, and if life and consciousness — often used interchangeably in modern discourse — appeared accidentally at some point during evolution, then ethics and morality become social values rather than springboards to spiritual freedom and fulfilment.

It is enough to point out that all stories are based on certain assumptions and so long as those assumptions are not questioned, these stories are generally reasonable and persuasive. The assumption in the Vedantic story of the emergence of the five primary elements is that their source is pure Consciousness, and this Consciousness is non-dual and non-material.

To be fair, this assumption is open to question as well. The question, moreover, would have remained unanswered if Vedanta had persisted, like most philosophies, to be intellectually stimulating but not verifiable through direct experience. That did not happen however, since the philosophy of Vedanta has evolved hand in hand with a practice that leads to such an experience, thus confirming its truth and elevating it above mere ‘philosophy’.

It is possible; indeed, it seems almost certain, that the experience of this non-dual, non-material Consciousness preceded the philosophical structure that arose around it. How did the non-dual entity evolve into a world swamped with duality? Vedanta’s answer is: through the five primary elements. How do we know it happened that way? We don’t. Vedanta holds that we don’t even know whether it happened at all. What we do know is that the world we experience now is steeped in duality. Hence, the assumption that its source was non-dual, an assumption that is justifiable because its truth can be verified by anyone through their own experience. As a result of Vedanta practice, if the world is seen to irrevocably merge into the One, then it stands to reason that it must have come — more accurately, appeared to have come — from that One.

SourceExcerpts from article titled ‘Looking Deeply at the Elements’ by Swami Tyagananda published in the January 2010 issue of Prabuddha Bharata Magazine.