Vanity thought #1762. VC – ether, air, fire, water and earth

Link: “Mystic Universe: An Introduction to Vedic Cosmology”.

We got to a chapter I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I bet when we all heard that even in Kṛṣṇa consciousness physical matter is made up of these five elements we thought to ourselves that this needs an explanation. For westerners Bhagavad Gītā is not the first place to hear this “chemistry” and we’ve never taken it seriously before. Not when it appeared in the Bible nor in any other ancient religion of philosophy. The author says that this understanding of ether, air, fire, water, and earth comes from Greeks and they thought that these were the substances making up the world. Greeks also gave these substances forms but never explained how they interact with each other and how the combinations of forms and substances occurred. Perhaps some scholar of Greek philosophy would disagree here but it doesn’t matter. One way or another, we now treat this “science” as extremely naive because we figured out molecules, atoms, electrons and even small quantum particles. Water is H2O, not some primary substance, idiots.

When I heard that Bhagavad Gītā insisted on the same classification I put it aside as something to resolve in the future and, as I learned more about Kṛṣṇa consciousness, as something not important at all. Then I heard a simple explanation and I put my mind at ease and never thought of it again, until now. The explanations was, and I think I’ve typed it up here once already, that even an atom has all these material elements present in it. It occupies space – ether, it has moving electrons – air, it contains energy – fire, it has the force that glues it together – water, and it is made up of particles – earth.

The solution to this ancient dilemma is that Gītā and, I suppose, Bible, too, classify matter differently. It’s a different description of the same thing and based on this description it’s possible to do yoga while “scientific” description gives us processed food and lasers. And now we’ve got to the chapter that offers a more rigorous description of material elements taken from Sāṅkhya. Hooray!

Instead of Greek “substances” material elements in Sāṅkhya are objectifications of sensual properties, which makes them more of a “form” rather than “substance” – if we think of a form as a description of an object. When we describe sensual properties in Sāṅkhya we also create “forms” and they become gross elements.

Just like everything on the semantic tree of the universe these elements are produces by adding details to preceding concepts. Elements are produced from sensual perceptions – sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell. This properties of perception are, in turn, are produced from senses – eye, ear, tongue, skin, and nose. These senses should not be confused with bodily organs in modern science. Senses are produced from the mind, mind comes from intellect and so on. In other words, intellect dispassionately observes all available distinctions but to observe only one selected object mind is born. When more details are added and mind alone becomes not enough to observe the object senses are born. Senses are a wonderful thing but with more details we get sensations, and what are sensations without sense objects? Each material element, subtle or gross, is created by exploring and expanding on the previous one.

We can also describe this process as objectification of meanings. The author here uses an idea of an apple, which is a meaning, and we can comprehend it by the mind. For this meaning to become perceivable, however, it needs a property of being seen, smelled, touched, and tasted. To become seen the apple must have form, color, and size. For the color to be perceivable it must have hue, saturation etc. For hue to be perceivable it needs to be a combination of primary colors such as greed, red, and blue. This is an example of the hierarchical process of objectifying meanings step by step that can be observed even in modern framework.

In Sāṅkhya there’s a different hierarchy, however, which I’ve never heard before even if the words are familiar. The property of being seen, touched or smelled etc is called the “sense” and it has three parts: subjective (ādiatmika), objective (ādibhautika) and their connection (ādidaivika). Subjective part is the ability to sense, the objective part is a corresponding property in objects, and their connection is enacted by karma and time. Together these three produce sensations experienced by the observer.

What we heard is that these words – ādiatmika, ādibhautika, and ādidaivika – describe three-fold material miseries. The transliteration, however, is different – miseries have adhi- in the beginning rather that ādi- as given here. I thought I should mention that to avoid the confusion. The miseries pertain to the same sources – our own bodies, other beings, and demigods/”forces out of our control”.

Further division of the senses produces properties which subdivide each type of sensation. Sight, for example, is divided into hue, brightness, saturation etc. When these properties are further objectified they produce values, like red, blue, and green for color, and at the last step of this subdivision we get gross elements of ether, air, fire, water, and earth. This isn’t very clear but the author mentions tanmātra here, which literally means “form only”, and it includes all the above mentioned subdivisions for all the senses. I understand that abstract concepts like hue or pitch or temperature are part of tanmātra and when tanmātra is given values we get actual matter like ether, air etc. This needs to be contemplated further.

If this is not confusing enough yet, there’s another division of the elements in Sāṅkhya into manas, prāṇa, and vak. Everything described so far falls under vak and it’s the vak that has subjective, objective, and connecting division, which means the property of being seen is different from the ability to see, or that the property of being visible is different from property to perceive the sight. Other senses are divided into ādiatmika, ādibhautika, and ādidaivika, too.

All these properties lie dormant unless activated by prāṇa and senses, therefore, are not the cause of vision but rather prāṇa is. Prāṇa, in turn, is subordinate to manas, or desire for vision without which sight does not become activated. This sequence has already been discussed in the previous post on Vedic cosmology – mind makes choices and prāṇa enacts them, but in this context it’s important to note that our senses perceive not what IS but what WE WANT. There’s no objective physical world out there, as we usually assume. Physical matter – sense objects – are a product of OUR desires instead. And, of course, they are restricted by what we deserved – karma.

The chapter is nowhere near the end and I’ll continue with it next time.

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