The Philosophy of the Panchadasi
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 2: Discrimination of the Elements

The Properties and Functions of Spatio-temporal Manifestations

The existence of Brahman proclaimed in the scripture, such as the Chhandogya Upanishad, can be inferred even from an analysis of the nature of the physical elements, the Mahabhutas. As Brahman, by itself, is beyond perception, it has to be known by an investigation into its effects. The qualities of the elements beginning from ether downwards, are sound, touch, colour, taste and smell, respectively, as their special features, but each succeeding element in this series has one quality more than the preceding one, so that ether has one quality, air has two, fire three, water four and earth five qualities, the property of each preceding element being carried forward in the succeeding one. It is these qualities that become the objects of perception of the different senses of knowledge. The senses are, again, inferred to exist by their external activities and they really exist in the subtle body, their manifestation being made possible through certain locations in the physical body which we call the Karanas or instruments, while the internal powers are called the Indriyas or senses. The senses cannot see or feel the presence of the substratum of the elements, since it is their substratum, too. They can only come in contact with their manifest qualities. The substratum is to be inferred by way of analysis. The seats of the senses are ear, skin, eyes, palate, nose, tongue, hands, feet, genitals and anus, grasping objects like sound, etc., as stated in the first chapter. They all have a tendency to move outward into the space-time world of objects.

The senses of knowledge and the organs of action are situated in the subtle body and their presence is inferred by the effects that we observe externally in the form of perception and action. They themselves are not perceived, as they are constituted of the subtle elements. The senses, though they usually perceive only external things, do occasionally have internal perceptions, as when we hear internal sounds produced by the Pranas or by gastric fire on our closing ears; feel the sense of touch within while drinking liquids, taking food etc.; have inner vision of darkness on closing the eyes; taste and smell internally when there is an ergot or hiccup. These are certain types of internal perception, though, strictly speaking, all bodily sensations are to be regarded as external perceptions, since even the body is an object in the world. The mind is the ruler over the senses of knowledge and action, because it is capable of synthesising their functions into a harmony, while the functions by themselves are discrete. The mind is supposed to have its seat in the heart, though it pervades the entire body, like the light of a lamp that pervades an entire room though the lamp may be at a particular place in it. The mind is called the internal organ as it is incapable of functioning outwardly, independent of the senses. It is as much bound by the conditioning factors of space, time and causation as the senses are. This is its weakness, but its speciality over the senses is that it can remember things even when they are not perceived, and can bring about the needed synthesis in the perceptual and conceptual activities. The mind considers the pros and cons of the reports made by the senses and decides as to what should be done when a particular sensation or perception is brought to its notice. It functions through the three qualities of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, and changes itself in accordance with the preponderance of one or more of these properties within. It is called Santa (peaceful), Ghora (terrific), and Mudha (torpid), respectively, in the states of Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Virtuous qualities like knowledge and dispassion, forbearance and magnanimity are caused by Sattva. Qualities like desire and anger, greed and activity are the results of Rajas. Lethargy, inertia, confusion and sleep are the modifications of Tamas. Merit accrues in the state of Sattva, sin in Rajas, and nothing at all in a condition of Tamas. The principle within that appropriates and arrogates to itself all these functions and thus gets bound in Samsara is called Ahamkara, the relative agent of all actions in this world.

It is clear that physical objects are material in their nature, from an observation of the fact that they are being perceived externally. We have now to understand that even the powers of the senses are of a similar nature, through scripture and reasoning. The scripture says that the mind is formed of the subtlest essence of food, Prana of the subtlest essence of water, and speech of the subtlest essence of heat. It is also known that there is a relation of Anvaya and Vyatireka between the senses and their elemental objects. The senses and the mind are incapable of perceiving non-physical things such as the celestial spheres or the still higher planes. The senses are correlative with the physical universe, the one being impossible without the other.

This whole universe, which is capable of being known by the powers with which a human being is endowed, whatever one is capable of knowing by reason or scripture – all this, taken together, is referred to by the term ‘Idam’ (This), in the great statement of the Chhandogya Upanishad: Sadeva somya idam agre asit (This was just Existence alone in the beginning). The Universe is created, and so, prior to creation, there was One alone without a second, all variety and form being absent then. Form is the shape of a concrete manifestation, known to the senses or the mind, while name is to be taken in the sense of that determining force within all things, which marks out a particular individuality apart from the others by means of its special constitution or make-up. It is the name-form nexus that determines an individual, and explains the variety of creation. In Brahman no such thing exists. (Verses 1-18)

The Nature of Existence

We have three types of difference: Svagatabheda or difference as between the limbs of one’s own body, Sajatiyabheda or difference of one from another of the same species, and Vijatiyabheda or difference of one from another of a different species. The scripture asserts that Brahman is one without a second, and we cannot conceive of limbs or parts in its universal existence. Existence was prior even to the manifestation of names and forms, and therefore it should be naturally free from names and forms. We cannot conceive of parts within existence, because the differentiation of parts cannot be explained without an assumption of existence. Existence is not different from another existence; as such a reasoning makes no meaning. Nor can we say that existence is different from non-existence, because non-existence has no validity. We cannot think of difference in the Infinite, without limiting it and making it finite. Existence is absolute, and when we say that It is, we have said everything about it, and no adjective or attribute can in any way help us in understanding its real nature. Existence is Brahman. Name and form cannot be considered to be its parts as they subsist on existence.

The state of Pure Existence appears to some as non-existence, inasmuch as it is a negation of all names and forms and the mind finds it impossible to conceive of a thing which has no names and forms. The mind gets stupefied when it is confronted with an indeterminate Absolute, because it is never used to such an experience. It moves fearlessly when it is presented with familiar objects, and is in a state of fear when it finds nothing to hold on, its activities get stilled and tacts confounded when it is lifted to the status of trans-empirical being. The great teacher, Gaudapada, refers to this supreme Yoga of the Absolute as Asparsa-Yoga, or the Yoga of non-contact, which means, a ‘union without a real union’ where the soul’s realisation is not a ‘coming together’ but mere being. It is difficult to approach because of its uncommonness, and the mind dreads it, as it is not familiar with it, having never seen it or known it before. Like a baby that cries in fear when placed in an unfamiliar atmosphere, the mind turns back from the Absolute, unable to reach it and repelled by its stupendous nature. The schools of thought which consider void as the ultimate Reality arrive at such a curious conclusion because of their extreme dependence on inferential logic without the aid of scripture or intuition. They say that void was or is, not knowing that thereby they posit its existence unwittingly. It is impossible even to think or conceive of anything without the presupposition of existence. Denial of existence would mean a simultaneous denial of even the function of thought. We cannot say that the names and forms of the world are characters superimposed on something else, nor that they may have some sort of reality at least temporarily, because these cannot be super-imposed either on existence which underlies them or on non-existence which itself has no meaning, or on the world which is only another name for a large group of names and forms.

In the statement of the Upanishad, ‘Existence alone was’, the words Existence and Was do not denote two different things or even concepts, but convey one and the same meaning, the difference of words being introduced only with a concession to the weakness of human language which consists of sentences with verbs. Thus no kind of duality is intended in the statement, but only the undifferentiated Brahman is asserted.

‘Existence alone was in the beginning’. In this statement the terms ‘in the beginning’ do not imply the non-existence of Brahman at the present time and its presence only prior to creation. The declaration is meant only to make the student understand that prior to the manifestation of names and forms Brahman was undifferentiated. It does not mean that time is existent apart from the Absolute, and we should remember that questions and answers are possible only in the language of duality, and non-dual can never be designated as such-and-such. The teacher has to employ, perforce, the language of the student who finds himself in duality. The truth is that the origin of things, the state of existence, was one which was absolutely changeless, deep and incapable of mental approach in the sense of light or darkness as we know them, impossible to describe, unmanifest to the faculties known to us, something which cannot be said to be either this or that. It is that which remains after every concept is set aside as inadequate, above space, and experienced directly in a state of stillness of mind, rid of all desires. The mind may mistake a sense of voidness for actual realisation of Brahman, but from the fact of its being self-luminous, Brahman should be experienced as a state of doubtless Existence. The student or aspirant should be careful not to get ensnared by the temptations, perturbed by the oppositions, terrified by the states of stagnation, or confused by the various tricks of side-tracking which the mind resorts to at different times in the practice of Yoga. The Atman is the witness of even the ideas of there being no meditation, and it stands above even the modes of Sattva in one’s thought. It is known in non-relational experience or Aparokshanubhava. Existence is not a void or nothingness, for it is known and realised in one’s own being, it is not empty like space, but the plenum of Reality revealed in a state of freedom from desire, as that which is prior to the distractive work of Maya. (Verses 19-46)

As there is the existence of a consciousness behind the manifestation of all thought, there is a pure existence prior to the rise of names and forms as the universe. There is a power in Brahman which is not independent of it, but which can be inferred from the various effects that it produces, in the form of ether, etc., just as we infer the existence of heat in fire by means of its burning capacity. This power is not the same as Brahman, even as heat is not the same as fire. It is possible by certain methods to inhibit the burning power of fire without destroying the fire itself; yet we know that we cannot separate heat from fire at any time. This power of Brahman which is existence cannot therefore be considered to be different from it; else, it would become non-existence. Also, it is not existence in the sense of Brahman; hence essenceless. It is therefore indeterminable in character – Sad-asad-vilakshana – different from what is existence and non-existence. The Vedanta proclaims that in the beginning of things there was neither being nor non-being, but there was an indescribable something which looked like darkness. Even this darkness should have existence as its basis, because, without it, even darkness would not be possible. Even ignorance is something that we superimpose on what is existence. Thus there is no cause for any duality between Brahman and its power, even as there is no distinction between a man and his strength. This power is the same everywhere, but appears to be different due to the difference in the intensity of the manifesting media. We therefore, do not count Sakti or power by itself, nor do we consider it as the same as Brahman. Hence it is Maya which is Anirvachaniya, that which cannot be described in words, nor thought of by the mind, because language and thought are the expressions of Maya itself. It is impossible therefore to investigate its origin, its why and how, because all our faculties of understanding are only its effects. There is no understanding of the cause by the effect. The effect has first to rise to the state of the cause, so that it may know the latter. The mind has to rise to the condition of Brahman in intuition; only then will there be a knowing of what this power is. It is real to the ignorant, indescribable to the rational and non-existent to the Self-realised.

The Sakti of Brahman does not operate in the whole of Brahman. Else there would be no such thing as a possibility of freedom from Samsara. This Maya-Sakti works only in relation to the Jivas who are involved in it, and who regard Brahman as qualified by it in the form of Isvara. For the ordinary understanding, therefore, it is said that this Sakti does not pervade the whole of Brahman, but is only a part of it, as it were. The Vedas and the Smritis assert that creation is as if a mere quarter of the Creator, and three-fourths of Him stand above as the resplendent Immortal Being, transcending creation. It does not mean that Brahman can be divided into parts, for it is indivisible on account of its non-spatial and non-temporal character. What is meant is that this creating power of Brahman is relative to those in bondage, and it is those that are in bondage who seek for an explanation of the cause of this bondage by locating a cosmic causal principle which is unintelligible to them, and which they therefore, call Maya. The explanation of the world being impossible without a discovery of the cause behind it, and because such a cause has to be a cosmic principle in order that it may be able to provide a permanent explanation of the cause of the Jivas in bondage, this principle is associated with the creative Intelligence itself. Thus Maya is not eternal as Brahman is, because it has an end, though no beginning.

It is this Sakti that introduces change in the changeless, as a wall would appear to be variegated due to the paintings on it. (Verses 47-59)

On the Unsubstantiality of the Elements

The first of these changes is the manifestation of Akasa or ether. Akasa has the property of spatiality in addition to existence. We feel that space is, and it has also the quality of distinguishing things by a peculiar feature in it, which we call emptiness. Minus the quality of spatiality and reverberation of sound, space is nothing but existence, which is the same as Brahman. The Sakti which makes the manifestation of Akasa possible brings about also perversion in one’s understanding of the relation between existence and Akasa. Instead of feeling that Akasa is an after-effect and existence is prior, we are apt to think that Akasa is the primary substance and existence is a property associated with it, as when we say ‘Akasa exists’, thus mixing up the two, and making existence a predicate of the subject Akasa. This reversal of understanding is called Bhrama or delusion, which is carried further down into the various errors that we commit in the hundreds of precepts and concepts that we have or cling to in our life.

The perversion of understanding that causes the perception of space as a substance and existence as its property is again reversed into the right knowledge that Existence is the anterior substance and space is incapable of being without existence. It is therefore necessary to undertake a serious enquiry into the nature of space in order that there may not be deluded perception in regard to it. Existence and space differ from each other on account of their different names as well as by the disclosure of their real nature through reasoning. Existence and space are not synonymous terms. Hence they should indicate two different objects. Existence is commonly present even in air and other elements, but not spatiality. Thus the two have to be distinguished. Existence has a greater pervasive capacity than space and hence it should be the substance and space the property. Minus existence, space is nothing. We should not think that spatiality has a value of its own, because it is just another name for emptiness. Space is only an appearance like objects seen in dream, which are contradicted in waking. The differentiated world is contradicted in the experience of Virat, Hiranyagarbha and Ishvara. As genus and the individual, Jiva and its body, qualities and objects are distinguished in ordinary life, existence and space are to be differentiated. It is due to a lack of concentration of mind and certain doubts still lurking in it that one is not able to really feel that existence is the true substance. Concentration is to be practised for a protracted period by the usual methods of Yoga, and doubts have to be removed by right observation and proper reasoning. By meditation, observation and reasoning one comes to realise that existence is not space and space is not existence. To a Jnani or knower, the existence behind space alone is visible, and he does not see any such thing as spatiality or emptiness. In that condition he would rather be surprised to notice that people mistake space for existence. This analysis has to be carried on further in regard to the other elements also, viz., air, fire, water and earth.

The element of air also is to be analysed in the same manner as space. Air occupies a smaller part than space and inherits the quality of sound from space. The features of air are: (1) drying, (2) touch, (3) motion, and (4) velocity. It is felt to be existent; – this is the property of Brahman. It is unsubstantial when it is divested of existence; – this is the quality of Maya. It produces sound; – this is its inheritance from space. Though it is an effect, it is thus likely to be considered an independently real substance. As it has nothing which is not present in the preceding principles, we should regard air only as an appearance. It is existence alone that follows all the elements as a natural concomitant of everything, and space cannot be said to follow in that way. The quality of sound belonging to space follows the elements, but not spatiality. It should not be thought that air is absolutely real just because it is not directly connected with Maya which is the unmanifest qualifying adjunct of Ishvara. The answer is that unsubstantiality does not depend on being manifest or unmanifest, but on the capacity to vanish when divested of existence. Maya is not to be taken in the sense of any real substance that may create duality, but a name given to our inability to explain the relation of appearance to Reality. The existence-aspect of air is Brahman. The other aspects are unsubstantial. Similar is the case with fire, water and earth. Fire, water and earth have their own qualities, together with those of the preceding principles which are their causes in a sequence, but none of these have any intrinsic value when taken independently of existence. They are all a naught, minus existence. It is the earth-element on which existence is superimposed that the physical cosmos is situated. In the cosmos are located the fourteen worlds in which Jivas are placed differently under different circumstances according to their desires and actions. The Jivas are to recognise by this way of analysis that they are bound back to Brahman in their essential being; it is an erroneous feeling that they are widely separated in a spatial universe, an aberration of consciousness and not a fact. Nothing, really, separates one Jiva from another except the imaginary space. There is a real eternity and infinity here and now.

When the unsubstantiality of the elements and their modifications, of Maya and its forms, is properly driven home into one’s mind, the conviction that Brahman-existence is undivided reality gets firmly established. (Verses 60-98)


When existence is differentiated from the physical cosmos that appears as the object of Jivas, it may still appear to them, but cannot affect the indivisible nature of existence, as the water of a mirage cannot wet the desert. Once knowledge arises to the effect that the background of all the elements and their formations, and even of Maya, is the indivisible Absolute, Brahman, it cannot again be shaken by any other experience. Nevertheless, the liberated souls may, through the medium of the body, continue to perform actions as before on account of the presence of certain Sattvika samskaras, but may not get bound, as the ignorance is destroyed. The divergent truths that are indicated in the different schools of philosophy such as the Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, and so on, are to be regarded as having a partial validity from their own standpoints, though none of them is absolutely complete. When there is a rise of divine wisdom, there is also the realisation that everything has a relative value in its own place, and nothing is absolutely wrong, though not absolutely right. When a person gets rooted in the feeling of the oneness of things, he becomes a Jivanmukta, liberated while living. If one is able to establish oneself in this knowledge even at the end of time, one shall attain to the Bliss of Brahman, says the Bhagavadgita. Here, the phrase, ‘at the end of time’ means either the end of ignorance or the end of the body, because it is possible to have divine knowledge even if the body is to linger on due to some past Karmas. It does not matter what the physical condition is of the liberated person at the time of his shuffling of the body. He may be physically healthy or otherwise, may even be temporarily in a state of unconsciousness, but the knowledge which has been once attained will revive itself again when he is placed under different circumstances and regains consciousness, even as what is learnt the previous day is remembered the next day, though it is forgotten in the middle during sleep. The knowledge attained through meditation on the truths of the Vedanta is indestructible. Thus, by a careful analysis of the nature of true existence behind the five elements, and remaining in that state of knowledge at least at the last moment of one’s life, one reaches the state of Divine Bliss. (Verses 99-109)