by Swami Krishnananda
Sad-advaitaṁ śrutaṁ yat-tat-pañca-bhūta vivekataḥ, boddhuṁ śakyaṁ tato bhūta-pañcakaṁ pravi vicyate (1). In the Chhandogya Upanishad's sixth chapter, Uddalaka instructs his disciple and son Svetaketu and pronounces a great statement, Sad eva, saumya, idam agra āsīd (Chhandogya 6.2.1): “Being alone was.” To understand the meaning of this statement, “Being alone was” (before the creation of this world), we have to conduct an analysis of the involvement of Being in creation through the study of the five elements which are the stuff of this world, the panchbhutas, the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether. A study of the inner constitution of these five elements will also enable us to know what kind of involvement there is of this Pure Being in these five elements. Therefore, for the sake of understanding the true meaning of this proclamation “Existence alone was”, we try now to go into an investigation of the nature of the five elements. This is the subject matter of the second chapter.
What are the five elements? The gross elements are space or sky (akasha), air, fire, water, earth; and the inner constituents are sabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa, gandha. These words must be remembered because they will be coming again and again.
Śabda-sparśau rūpa-rasau gandho bhūta-guṇā ime, eka-dvi-tri-catuḥ pañca guṇāḥ vyomādiṣu kramāt (2). The qualities of these elements are, in respective order: sound, which is the quality of space; touch, which is the quality of air; form, which is the quality of fire; taste, which is the quality of water; and smell, which is the quality of earth. These are the qualities of the five elements.
Only one quality can be seen in space: it can reverberate sound, but we cannot touch it, taste it, smell it, etc. Space can only cause an atmosphere for creating a vibration of sound so, as nothing else is possible there, sound alone is the quality of space. But of air, there are two qualities: air can make sound, and also it can be felt. It can be touched. Sound is the quality of space; sound and touch are the qualities of air. But fire has sound, touch and has form, as we can also see it. And water: we can hear its sound, we can touch it, we can see it, we can taste it. But we cannot taste fire, taste air, taste space, etc. Earth has five qualities: it can create sound, it can be touched, it can be seen, it can be tasted, and it can be smelled. Smelling is the quality of only earth, so that earth has five qualities. Water has four, fire has three, air has two, and space has only one quality. This is the meaning of the second half of the verse: eka-dvi-tri-catuḥ pañca guṇāḥ vyomādiṣu kramāt. Now it is said that certain of these elements make sound, etc. What kind of sound do they make?
Prati-dhvanir viyacchabdo vāyau bīsīti śabdanam, anuṣṇā-śīta saṁsparśaḥ vahnau bhugu-bhugu-dhvaniḥ (3). Uṣṇa-sparśaḥ prabhā-rūpaṁ jale bulu-bulu dhaniḥ, śīta-sparśaḥ śukla-rūpaṁ raso mādhūryam īritaḥ (4). Bhūmau kaḍakaḍā-śabdaḥ kāṭhinyaṁ sparśa iṣyate, nīlādikaṁ citra-rūpaṁ madhurāmlādiko rasaḥ (5).
Prati-dhvanir viyacchabdo. Space does not make sound by itself. It causes refraction and reverberation of sound – an echo. Echo is the sound that is produced by space. And what kind of sound is made by air? It goes whoosh. He has put ‘veees’ here: bīsīti śabdanam. And what is the touch? It is neither hot nor cold. Air has no quality of this kind. It is hot when it is charged with heat; it is cold when it is charged with cold: anuṣṇā-śīta saṁsparśaḥ. And fire can also make sound. When it flames forth, it makes a sound like bhugu-bhugu: vahnau bhugu-bhugu-dhvaniḥ.
And what is the quality of fire? Heat: uṣṇa-sparśaḥ. The touch of fire is heat, and its form is radiance: prabhā-rūpaṁ. And what is the sound that water makes? Bulu-bulu: jale bulu-bulu dhaniḥ. Its quality is cold when we touch it; and its quality is also white. White is the colour of water; and its taste is very sweet. That is why we drink water. What is the sound that earth makes? Kada-kada is the sound it will make if something breaks, something falls. Bhūmau kaḍakaḍā-śabdaḥ: this is the earth sound. And hardness is its touch, and its colour is green, blue, yellow, etc. Varieties are the colours of objects made of earth: citra-rūpaṁ. And its taste – sweetness, bitterness and other things are all qualities of objects, things made of earthly substance. It has also got a smell – a good smell, a bad smell, a fragrance or a very bad odour. These are the qualities of earth, five in number.
There are five qualities in earth, four in water, three in fire, two in air, one in space. This is how we have to understand the manner of the functioning of these elements. Only earth has all the qualities of the original causes from where it has come.
This group of five elements can be perceived only through the sense organs which are correspondingly connected with these elements. And the sense organs connected with these elements respectively are: surabhī tara gaṇdhau dvau guṇāḥ samyag vivecitāḥ, śrotraṁ tvak cakṣuṣi jihvā ghrāṇaṁ cendriya pañcakam (6). Sound can be heard only by the ear, touch can be felt by the skin, form can be seen by the eyes, taste can be felt by the tongue, and fragrance or smell can be received by the nose, through the nostrils. These are the five sense organs.
There is a connection of the sense organs with the five elements. In the Bhagavad Gita there is a statement, beautifully made: guṇā guṇeṣu vartante (Gita 3.28). Qualities or properties of prakriti move among properties of prakriti when any perception takes place. The sabda tanmatra, the potential of sound that is outside in space, comes in contact with the very same tanmatra in the eardrum, and then there is a correspondence between the two and we hear the reverberation of sound.
So is the case with the other sense organs. The corresponding object of sensory perception in each case is respectively the connection between the quality of one particular element in relation to one particular sense organ which is also made up of the same element. So it is as if waves are dashing on waves in the body of the ocean. The element inside in the form of sense organs dashes against, or comes in contact with, the same element outside in objects. So prakriti is perceiving prakriti. Sense organs come in contact with the objects. We generally say, “I am seeing the objects.” It is a confusion of statement. It is not ‘I’. Don't bring that sentence. It is the sense organs that come in contact, as the Bhagavadgita says. The principles of matter constituting outside objects as well as internal sense organs bring about the feeling of these sensations of heat, cold, sound, touch, etc.
Karṇādi golakasthaṁ tacchabdādi grāhakaṁ kramāt, sauksmyat kārayānumeyaṁ tat prāyo dhāved-bahir-mukham (7). These senses are located in certain organs which are physical in their nature. The sense of sight is in the eyeballs. The sense of hearing is in the eardrums, etc. All the senses are subtle forces that are operating through physical media which are called the sense organs. The eardrum does not hear. The eyes don't see. They are only the medium of expression of a force which causes the perception of colour, sound, and the like. These senses cannot be seen with the eyes. As we have studied in the first chapter, these senses of knowledge are constituted of subtle potentials of the sattva guna of prakriti; therefore, sattva not being an object of perception, the senses cannot be seen. They are the perceivers and, therefore, who will perceive them? The eye cannot see itself and the ear cannot hear itself on account of the intense subtlety of these senses, because of their being made of sukshma tattvas – that is, tanmatras.
Tanmatras cannot be seen. They are subtle. They are made of the sattva portion of the cosmic prakriti. Sattva is an equilibrium of force; therefore, it cannot be seen. Equilibrium cannot be seen. Only distraction, objectivity, can be seen with the eyes. Therefore, on account of the subtlety of the senses involved, due to their being constituted of the sattva guna of prakriti, they cannot be seen as we see objects. What is the actual function of the senses? Running outside: prāyo dhāved-bahir-mukham.
They have only one work and, like dogs running here and there, they will never keep quiet. The senses run continuously from morning to night. Right from the time we wake up till we go to sleep, the senses run out and compel our consciousness to lodge itself in things which are other than its own Self. The Atman becomes the anatman, as it were, due to the force of the senses that drag the mind and the consciousness outside in space and time. They are extroverted totally.
Kadācit-pihite karṇe śrūyate śabda āntaraḥ, prāṇa vāyau jāṭharāgnau jalapāne’nna-bhakṣaṇe (8). Sometimes when we close the nostrils and both ears we can hear the internal sound. This is a kind of mudra in yoga, and if we go on doing this for a long time we will hear a kind of subtle vibration-like sound from inside the body; anahata sabda it is called. It is not a sound created by contact of one thing with another thing. It is a sound automatically created by the movement of prana inside. We can hear this by closing the nostrils and the eyes and ears for some minutes.
When the pranas move inside, when the gastric juice is operating, when we drink water or eat food, we can feel some sound. There is an internal sound. We can feel it when we eat or drink, or when the gastric juice is acting or the pranas are moving.
Vyajyante hyāntarā sparśā mīlane cāntaraṁ tamaḥ, udgāre rasa gandhau ca ityakṣaṇā māntara grahaḥ (9). We can see darkness when we close our eyes and press our eyeballs. There is a kind of perception – a perception of not colour, but of absence of colour, just as in sleep there is perception not of anything, but of nothing.
Udgāre rasa gandhau: We can also have taste inside, by belching or hiccough. When we belch, sometimes there is some taste coming up from the stomach. There is also smell – so, taste and gandha both. Ityakṣaṇā māntara grahaḥ. These are the descriptions of the manner in which we can also see the operation of senses inside, apart from their operation outside.
Pañcokty ādāna-gamana visarg-ānandakāḥ kriyāḥ, kṛṣi-vāṇijya-sevādyaḥ pañcasvantar bhavanti hi (10). Whatever we have spoken of just now refers to the senses of knowledge. But there are senses of action also, namely: grasping with the hands, moving with the legs, excretion through the aperture, etc. All the actions such as agriculture, industry, office work also come under these categories of five active organs. Speaking, walking or locomotion, grasping, excretion and generation – these are the external actions. And every other work that we do is included within these five. Even when we do office work, we are only grasping something or moving, etc. So nothing in the world can be outside the purview of these five activities of the five karmendriyas, or active organs, apart from the five senses of knowledge.
The five senses of knowledge give us knowledge of things outside; they cognise things or see things. The five organs of action create movement of varieties, as mentioned; and so we have ten organs – five of knowledge and five of action. Every other activity comes under these. The whole world is nothing but a huge conglomeration, permutation and combination of the activities of these sense organs. They are ten in number. The whole world is this much only – entirely sensory.