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Saturday, January 14, 2023

Subjective and Objective Classification of the Five Elements


From the objective point of view, this world is made of earth, water, fire, air, and space (which includes time) according to the Samkhya philosophy. These are classified as panca bhutas – five gross elements. What I missed was that this system looked at the world from subjective point of view also. We can perceive only what our sense organs can recognize. That includes sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Therefore, the classification includes gross elements as emanating from these five principles, which are called panca tanmatras.

The panca bhutas or gross elements are evolutions of the panca tanmatras, which are subtle.  Panca tanmatras carry or the source of the sensations which are perceived by the sense organs and made known to the mind and through the mind to the consciousness.

Starting with space (akasha) considered to be the first gross evolute, it is apprehended by its characteristic which is vibration or sound, and the corresponding organ is the ear. Next comes air (vayu) with its characteristic of contact which is apprehended by touch and its corresponding organ skin. Then comes fire (agni) which can be seen with a form and color.  The corresponding organ is the eye. Water is (apaha) the next gross element whose characteristic is fluidity, and which can carry taste. The tongue is the corresponding organ. Finally comes smell and its corresponding gross element the earth (prithvi).

Mind is given a special place as another sense organ since it is needed to perceive the messages coming through the sense organs. Beyond these are the sense of self/ego and then buddhi or awareness. Interestingly, consciousness is considered as separate from all the other faculties of the mind because without it we will not be aware of this world, or our lives or our mind. Consciousness is the subject, witness, and illuminator.

It is important to note that the five sense organs mentioned above are drawn towards the external world by nature. The mind has to control these pulls before it can turn inwards.

A related point is that controlling the senses and controlling the sense of ego and possessions (I, Me, and Mine) are considered essential steps in meditation and spiritual enlightenment according to the Indian and Buddhist philosophies.

A similar idea is expressed in Christian writings also. Kierkegaard says that one has to reach a state of despair in one’s spiritual struggle to destroy one’s ego. Only then can one find God. This is not much different from the Indian point of view – one must destroy ego before inner realization.

It is interesting that the Upanishads, which preceded the Samkhya philosophy, mention only three (and not five) elements as fundamental. However, all later writings including Bhagavad Gita, Vedanta and the puranas seem to have accepted the five elements of Samkhya system as their foundation.

Vedic texts start by saying that in the beginning there was only One, one without a second.  Going further, to explain how that One became many, Prasna Upanishjad (1:4) and Satapata Brahmana 2:2:4:1 say that the One desired progeny. This suggests that a desire was born in that One. Desire is a thought and obviously thought is essential before something can be created! Thus starts the chicken-egg dilemma.

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