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The Cosmic Elements in India An Agenda of Questions

Ashok R. Kelkar


Not being an Indologist and not knowing  Sanskrit I am at best a curious layman full of question. I decided that I could play a limited but useful role in this preparatory seminar by asking questions and looking not only for answers but also for evidence in the texts and other artifacts of the Great Traditions and the Little Traditions that would have a bearing on the answers.

          Instead of cluttering the presentation with question marks, I have a numbered series of propositions to offer, each with a implied question: Isn't that so? The propositions are grouped according to certain perspectives against which the cosmic elements have been viewed. 'India' here stands for ancient and medieval south Asia. The Islamic Tradition has been left out - though not completely.

The Perspective of Cosmology

          Any cosmology worth the name presupposes a certain philosophy of reality in relation to a certain philosophy of understanding. There are to alternate ways of relating these two with two concomitant styles of philosophizing.

1-A. There cannot be a philosophy of reality distinct from a philosophy of understanding. Indeed the former flows from the latter. In philosophizing it pays to be sceptical, reductionist, and parsimonious. In India this style of philosophizing was called philosophy of search (¡nv¢kÀik¢).
1-B. Of course there can be a philosophy of reality distinct from a philosophy of     understanding, Indeed the latter flows from the former. In philosophizing it pays to be boldly speculative, phenomenological, and integrationist. In India this style of philosophizing was called the philosophy of vision (dar¿ana).


Indian cosmology started by asking what the Prime Cause (¡di-k¡ra¸a) (not reducible to others) of the universe is. The two style correspondingly offered two different answers.
2-A. The world (vi¿va) is a universe. The universe comes from atoms (a¸u, p¢tu).
2-B. The world is a universe. The universe comes from a single principle or   Urgrund.


The second answer has been variously elaborated.


2-B.1. Vedic tradition: This was the principal of growth (brahman).
2-B.2. Ëgamaic tradition: This was the principle of energy (¿akti).
2-B.3. Synthetic tradition:
2-B.3-a. This was the principle male and the variable female.
2-B.3-a-1. The constant male and the variable female stand in a joyful union (mithuna).
2-B.3-a-2.  The many potent yet passive males (puruÀas) make it possible for the one active yet latent female (prak¤ti) to become more specific-and-manifest (vyakta). At a certain point the male loses interest in watching (being s¡kÀin) and become free from involvement; and the female loses interest in becoming more specific-and-manifest and desists from it.
2-B.3-b. This was the principle of delegation, the constant 'growth' delegating variable 'energy' to -
2-B.3-b-1. The male power (¢¿vara)
2-B.3-b-2. The female power (¿akti)


Indian cosmology continued with the question as to what the universe was made of or reducible to -


3-A.1. The Universe was reducible to certain  running (or binding) threads (gu¸a namely the thread of essences (sattvagu¸a), the thread of activity (rajogu¸a), and the thread of inertia (tamogu¸a).
3-A.2. The universe was reducible to certain sensible quanta (tanm¡tra), namely, sound (¿abda), touch (spar¿a), visible form (r£pa), taste (rasa), smell (gandha).
3-B. The universal power has created and controlled certain material beings (bh£ta), namely, earth (p¤thiv¢), water (ap), fire (agni) and wind (v¡yu).


In the synthetic tradition the last two answers were married together after adding a fifth member to the second list.


3-C.1. The universe is made of five grossly accessible elements (sth£la-bh£ta, mah¡-bh£ta), namely, earth, water, fire, wind, ether (¡k¡¿a), and five subtly accessible elements (s£kÀma-bh£ta, ¡di-bh£ta), namely, smell, taste, visible form, touch and sound that correspond to them.


In the synthetic tradition (3-A.1), the first of the three answers was also accommodated. 


3-C.2. The animating energy in the universe may be either manifest (vyakta) and uneven (viÀama) or unmanifest (avyakta) and even (sama). When the thread of essence is operative energy tends to go from the unmanifest to the manifest, when the thread of inertia is operative; and energy tends to go from the manifest to the unmanifest.


Note:  (3-C.2) read with (3-A.1) makes one feel tempted to find an analogy between the three threads and, correspondingly, information, energy and matter of modern physics as its three variable primes.

The Perspective of Human History of Ideas

There is an interesting parallel between Greek and Indian cosmology. Was there an Indo-European cosmology? The European order of the first four elements is variable.



The Indo-European cosmology: The Universe is made of four elements:

earth (hot and wet to Greek, heavy and dense to Indians)

water (cold and wet to Greek, cold and soft to Indians)

Fire (hot and dry to Greeks, hot to Indians)

Air (cold and dry to Greeks, light to Indians)


Note: Medieval Europe added ether as the fifth element (quinta essentia) on the authority of Plato, who spoke of the fifth non-limited element. Ancient India added ether as the fifth neutral element.

The parallel extent to their account of the microcosm of the human person. The Greek spoke of the four elements:



Phlegm: the cool temper

Choler (yellow bite): the hot temper

Melancholia (black bile) 


The wind (of the respiratory and alimentary canals)was never added to this list but often considered to be a major variable. The Indians spoke of the three elements (dh¡tu) corresponding to the middle three of the five cosmic elements.


Phlegm (kapha): water: the system of fluids

Choler (pitta): fire: the system of heating

Wind (v¡ta): air: the system of impulses

The first two are also called: coldness (¿aitya), hotness (uÀ¸at¡). (Incidentally, the Arabs came up with a synthetic list: wind, bile, phlegm, blood.) 


5. The Indo-European cosmology: The human person (the body-mind complex) is governed by three elements.

Water: phlegm

fire: yellow bile



Note: The Greek split the fluid system into blood and phlegm, split the heating system into yellow hot bile and black cold bile, and left out air. The Indians recognized two manifestations of bile: hot bile and cold bile.

          The earth was recognized as the inert substratum of the human body by the Indians and the Semitics. The respiratory wind (pr¡¸a, anima, spiritus) was recognized as the animating principle of the human body by the Indian, the Greeks, and the Semitics.

          Speech (¿abda, logos) was recognized by all the three as the animating principle of the universe; the Indians linked it with sound (¿abda, n¡da); the Greeks linked it with musical sound.

          It will perhaps be worthwhile to compare these with the classical Chinese system of elements. (The expression wu hsing is probably better translated as 'five virtues or forces'.) They are usually enumerated as follows:

          Chin (metal, which accepts form by melting and moulding)

          mu (wood, which accepts form by cutting and carving)

          shui (water, which soaks and descends)

          huo (fire, which blazes and ascends)

          thu (earth, which accepts seeds and allows reaping)

It is interesting that air and ether are missing and that metal and wood are present.

The Perspective of the Theory of Art

The animating principle of the universe was also identified with water - j¢vana means both. The powerful image of the monsoon cloud burst on the sun-parched earth, which then turns green, may be at the back of this. Consider also the coupling of the earth (p¤thiv¢) and the sky (dyaus). (Vedic dyaus-pit¤- is cognate with Zeus and Jupiter.)

          Another powerful image is that of vital sap (rasa) rising in the growing plant. The criss-cross semantic links can be shown thus: 




(1)    Juice

(2)    Taste

(1a) (metaphor from 1) animating principle

(2a) (metonymy from 2) enjoyment


Note: The historical link, if any, between (1) and (2) is obscure. But the identity of sound between (1a) and (2a) has been exploited twice. That both (1a) and (2a) are relevant for the theory of art is argued in A. Sankaran, 'Some The-ories of rasa and dhvani', Madras 1926, reprinted New Delhi 1973, chapter 1.


(1a) animating principle of the universe

(2a) enjoyment from contemplating this


Note: Taittir¢ya-UpaniÀad "raso vai saÅ l rasaÆ hyev¡yaÆ labdv¡nand¢-bhavati l"


7-B. rasa

(1a) animating principle of a work of art

(2a) enjoyment from contemplating this

Note: The parallel between 7-A and 7-B was noticed by Jagann¡tha.

The sense (1a) of rasa has also been exploited in Ëyurvedic Pharmacology. There is an interesting parallel between that and the theory of rasa as the animating principle of a work of art.



Ëurvedic Pharmacology:

(1)    material cause (k¡ryin, up¡d¡na): herbal substance

(2)    efficient cause (k¡ra¸a): the active principle (v¢rya)

(3)    animating energy: animating principle of medicinal cure (rasa)


Note: See Su¿ruta cited S.N. Dasgupta, History of Indian Philosophy, pp. 361-62, note.



Theory of the reception of dramatic art

(1)    material cause, story content of the text (k¡vy¡rtha)

(2)    efficient cause, the various bh¡vas in the work

(3)    animating energy, animating principle of art - reception and enjoyment (rasa)


Note: The parallel between 8-A and 8-B was pointed out by D.K. Bedekar (Alocan¡, Delhi, April-July, 1952; reprinted, January-March, 1990).


The Perspective of the Practice of Art

The cosmic elements can appear in the experiential content of literary art and figurative plastic art. In European and Chinese art the elements appear as powerful presence animating the scene -

Earth as mountains, vast expanse of land

Water as sea, flowing water, rain, snow

Fire as destructive fire, hearth fire

Wind as storm


And thus often powerfully affecting the human lives on the scene: giving a turn to events, sympathizing with the emotional upheavals, and so forth.

          In the practice (and the theory attendant on it) of the classical Tamil poetry of the Interior (akam - essentially love poetry), five phases of love (uri) are associated with five kinds of landscape. Thus, anxiety and separation in love is associated with -


the  neytal flower, the plants atumpu, punnai


night fall

seagull, crocodile, shark

wells, sea

selling fish and salt



9. There are three literary traditions in India:
9-A. ¡rÀa poetics (Vedic hymns and the two major epics)
9-B. saÆsk¤ta poetics (Classical Sanskrit literature and theartre and poetry modelled on this)
9-C. pr¡k¤ta poetics (Classical Tammil literature of love, war and bhakti, Buddhist literature in Pali and Sanskrit, Prakrit and Sanskrit poetry with a Little Tradition base such as G¡h¡sattasai or G¢tagovinda, B¤hatkath¡ and other  narrative cycle like Kath¡sarits¡gara, and bhakti poetry).
10. The Cosmic elements play on the whole a supportive rather than a dramatic role in these three traditions, although there are important variations.


Indian figurative plastic art is very much man-centred.


11. The cosmic elements play a minor supportive role in Indian figurative plastic art.


In Indian architecture, the temple is conceived either in the image of Man or in the image of the sacred Mountain. Earth, water, air and light play important constitutive roles in Indian architecture.

In Indian arts of performance (sa´g¢ta, comprising singing, instrument-playing, and dancing) the cosmic elements play at best the role of a model for the technical organization of the medium.

It is hoped that the various hypotheses hypotheses proposed will bear examination, and induce a fruitful reconsideration of received accounts of the subject-matter.


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