Chapter 2: Pancha Mahabhuta Viveka – Discrimination of the Elements
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 (C.U. 6.2.1): Being alone was. To understand the meaning of this statement that 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, the pancha bhutas—earth, water, fire, air, ether—which are the stuff of this world. 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 now try 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 in some way or other.
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. Space 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, and 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 form, so we can see it. As for water, we can hear its sound, we can touch it, we can see it, and 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 only of earth, and so earth has five qualities. Water has four, fire has three, air has two, and space has only one quality. This is the meaning of eka-dvi-tri-catuḥ pañca guṇāḥ vyomādiṣu kramāt, the second half of the verse. 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 dhvaniḥ, 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. What kind of sound is made by air? It goes whoosh. The word ‘bees’ is used here: bīsīti śabdanam. What is the touch of air? It is neither hot nor cold. Air has no quality of this kind; it is hot when it is charged with heat, and it is cold when it is charged with cold: anuṣṇā-śīta saṁsparśaḥ. Fire can also make sound. When it flames forth, it makes a sound like bhugu-bhugu: vahnau bhugu-bhugu-dhvaniḥ. What is the quality of fire? It is heat: uṣṇa-sparśaḥ. The touch of fire is heat, and its form is radiance: prabhā-rūpaṁ. What is the sound that water makes? Bulu-bulu: jale bulu-bulu dhvaniḥ. Its quality is cold when we touch it, and also its quality is 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 that is made if something breaks, if something falls. Bhūmau kaḍakaḍā-śabdaḥ: This is the earth sound. Hardness is its touch, and its colour is green, blue, yellow, etc. Varieties are the colours of objects made of earth: citra-rūpaṁ. Earth’s taste, such as sweetness, bitterness and so on, are all qualities of objects, things made of earthly substance. Surabhī tara gaṇdhau dvau: It has also got a smell—a good smell, a bad smell, a fragrance or a bad odour. These are the five qualities of earth.
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 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 Bhagavadgita there is a beautiful statement. Guṇā guṇeṣu vartante (B.G 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; 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 the 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 the sense organs dashes against, or comes in contact with, the same element outside in objects. Prakriti is perceiving prakriti. Sense organs come in contact with the objects. We generally say, “I am seeing the objects.” It is a confused statement. It is not ‘I’; it is the sense organs that come in contact—matra sparsa, as the Bhagavadgita calls it. Mātrāsparśās tu kaunteya śītoṣṇasukhaduḥkhadāḥ (B.G. 2.14): 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, saukṣmyāt 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 do not 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, as 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? It is running outside: prāyo dhāved-bahir-mukham.
The senses have only one work. Like dogs running here and there, the senses never keep quiet. They 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—dhāved-bahir-mukham.
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 juices are 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 juices are acting or the pranas are moving—prāṇa vāyau jāṭharāgnau jalapāne’nna-bhakṣaṇe
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 not of 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, and there is also smell, gandha. Ityakṣaṇā māntara grahaḥ. These are the descriptions of the manner in which we can also see the operation of the 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 actions such as agriculture, industry, and office work also come under these categories of the 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, and so on. Therefore, 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 varieties of movement, as mentioned. 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, which are ten in number. The whole world is this much only—entirely sensory.
Vāk-pāṇi-pāda-pāyūpasthair akṣais tat kriyājaniḥ, mukhādi-golakeṣv āste tat karmendriya pañcakam (11). These organs of action are located, as in the case of the senses of knowledge, in certain parts of the body. Grasping is of the hands, locomotion is of the feet, speech is of the tongue, and excretion and generation are of the lower organs. They are forces in the same way as the senses of knowledge are forces, but are lodged in certain parts of the body; that is the physiological system. The physiological system is the location for the action of both the senses of knowledge and the organs of action. They are all situated in the face, the eyes, etc., as it has been already described.
The mind is something very strange. It is different from the sense organs, which give us knowledge and which also act. It is the king. It is Indra. Allegorically explained, the gods are actually the senses. Indra, the ruler of the gods, is the mind.
Mano daśendriyā dhyakṣaṁ hṛt-padme golake sthitam, taccāntaḥ karaṇaṁ bāhyeṣa svātantryāt vinen-driyaiḥ (12). The mind is the ruler of the ten senses. The senses of knowledge and the organs of action are ruled, controlled, directed by the mind: mano daśendriyā dhyakṣaṁ. Where is the mind situated, mostly? In the heart. The mind is actually pervading the whole body, as a light pervades the entire room, yet it has a location, as the light is in the bulb. Though the bulb is the location of the light, it nevertheless pervades the entire room. So is the mind having a temporary location in the heart, but it actually pervades the entire body, as light does.
Hṛt-padme golake sthitam, taccāntaḥ karaṇaṁ: It is called an internal organ. Bāhyeṣa svātantryāt vinen-driyaiḥ: As it cannot operate without the assistance of the senses in respect of objects outside—it cannot act directly in respect of objects without the help of the senses—it is called an internal organ. The senses are the external organs, and the mind is the internal organ. That is why it is called antahkarana.
Antahkarana, the internal organ, generally known as the mind or the psyche, has mostly four functions to perform, called manas-buddhi-ahamkara-chitta. Thinking is a mental process. Intellection is the work of the buddhi. Arrogation, self-affirmation is the work of the ego, ahamkara. Chitta is doing the work of memory. Thinking, understanding, affirmation or arrogation, and remembering are the functions of these four aspects of the internal organ, known as manas-buddhi-ahamkara-chitta.
Akṣeṣvarthār pite ṣvetad guṇa doṣa vicārakam, sattvaṁ rajas tamaś cāsya guṇā vikriyate hi taiḥ (13). When the mind is lodged in the sense organs and it operates through any particular sense at a particular time, it begins to judge the pros and cons of objects outside. “This is something; this is not something. This object is like this; this is not like this. This is the quality of this object; this is the quality of that object.” It begins to argue, ascertain and differentiate values associated with the various things in the world when it operates through the sense organs.
Internally the mind has the properties of sattva, rajas and tamas. Therefore, it modifies itself continuously. The mind is chanchala, as they say. It is very fickle. It is fickle because it is constituted of the gunas of prakriti—sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is very rarely experienced by the mind because if the sattva is really revealed, we will be happy. But how many times in the day are we happy? If we count the minutes of real happiness, we will find that our happiness is so fragmentary, so negligible. Our moments of joy in this life on a particular day are so small that we may say that sattva is practically not operating at all in the mind. We are always distracted, worried, and thinking of something. That is the reason why it is said that mostly only rajas and tamas are operating in the mind, though sattva is also there. Sometimes when we are calm and quiet, we are philosophically minded and very charitable, very good-natured and dispassionate, and at that time we feel happiness inside. So it is not that sattva is not there, but rarely is it manifest. Mostly it is rajas and tamas that are manifest. With these qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas, the mind changes its condition from moment to moment. It is fickle due to this reason.
Vairāgyaṁ kṣāntir-audāryam ityādyās-sattva-sambhavāḥ, kāma-krodhau lobha-yatnau vityādyāh rajaso-tthitāḥ (14). What are the characteristics of the sattva guna? If we are endowed with sattva, how do we behave? Our behaviour under sattva is explained here: dispassion. The more are we sattvic in our mind, the less is the desire for things. Dispassion is vairagya. This is one quality that we will see in ourselves as sattva predominates in us. Forbearance, tolerance, and absence of a sudden reaction to things outside are the qualities of sattva. There is large-heartedness, charitableness, compassion, and a feeling of goodness towards people. Many other qualities are also there. Ityādyās-sattva-sambhavāḥ: They are the qualities manifest in us on account of the preponderance of the sattva guna.
But if rajas is predominant, what happens to us? Kāma-krodhau: Suddenly some desire inside us erupts: “I want this.” And if we cannot get it, we are angry, krodha. First there is desire, and anger follows when there is no chance for the fulfilment of desire. Anger, desire and greed, lobha, are characteristics of rajas. Desire of a passionate nature is called kama. Irascibility, anger, is called krodha. Greed for material wealth, money, land, house, etc., is called lobha. Kama, krodha, lobha—these are the qualities that we reveal in ourselves when rajas predominates. Apart from this, we become very active. Vityādyāh rajaso-tthitāḥ: Very agitated, distracted—we cannot keep quiet even for one minute and are always running about here and there, and are tremendously excited. That is our nature when rajas is predominant.
Ālasyaṁ bhrānti tandrādyā vikārās tamasot thitāḥ, sāttvikaiḥ puṇya niṣpattiḥ pāpot pattiś ca rājasaiḥ (15). When tamas is there, we think like this: “It doesn’t matter. Let us see tomorrow. What is the urgency about it? The day after tomorrow is all right. Why worry? Go slow, go slow.” We will be simply brooding. That is alasya, lethargy. Bhranti is not perceiving things properly, wrongly calculating things, misplacing of facts, misjudgement. All these are qualities of tamas, in addition to actual sleep.
So here it is, how we behave in this world when we are under the subjection of one or the other of these gunas, properties of prakriti—sattva, raja and tamas respectively. If we are sattvicly endowed, we are virtuous and righteous: sāttvikaiḥ puṇya niṣpattiḥ. Good deeds are not possible when we are rajasic in nature. We always do wrong things. When we are in the state of sattva, we have an inclination to do virtuous deeds; we become righteous in our behaviour. But when we are rajasic, we do sinful actions, erroneous deeds: pāpot pattiś ca rājasaiḥ.
Tāmasair-nobhayaṁ kintu vṛthāyuḥ kṣapaṇaṁ bhavet, atrāhaṁ pratyayī karteti evaṁ loke vyavasthitiḥ (16). But in tamas, we do no action. It is a waste of time: vṛthāyuḥ kṣapaṇaṁ bhavet. In rajas, we do something; in sattva, we do something greater. But in tamas, we do nothing, so the author says that in the tamas condition we are really wasting our life.
Atrāhaṁ pratyayī karta. In these characteristics mentioned, through the manifestation of sattva, rajas or tamas, there is a principle inside which says, “I am like this. I am happy. I am unhappy. I am full of desire. I am angry. I am torpid in my mind. I am righteous. I do this action. I do that action.” This principle of consciousness that is asserting these movements through the three qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas is called karta, or the doer of things, the agent of action, ahamkara, ego, intellect, reason, whatever we call it. Intellect, reason and ego all go together. It is the knower, the doer, the assumer of everything into itself. The agency in action is attributable to this particular principle of egoism, and it is associated with the intellect. This is how we have to explain the nature of the sense functions, the organs of action, the properties of prakriti—sattva, rajas, tamas—how they act upon us, and how they are all appropriated into our own personality by a principle in us called ego: kartritva bhavana.
Spaṣṭa śabdādi yukteṣu bhauti katva mati sphuṭam, akṣā dāvapi tat sāstra yukibhyām avadhāryatām (17). We know all the objects of the world are actually physical in their nature. There is no need to argue on this matter. How do we know that objects are material? We can touch them, see them, taste them, smell them, and the like. They are solid substances. That the world is made up of physical matter is something obvious. But how do we know that the sense organs are also made up of the same category of materiality?
As mentioned, we cannot actually perceive the materiality of the sense organs because here, in the case of the senses of knowledge at least, the materiality is of a sattvic nature—rarefied matter. Rarefied matter is sattva, distracted matter is rajas, and stable, fixed matter is tamas. Because of their internality and their constituency being totally inside, we are unable to know that they exist at all. But by inference, we can know that they do exist because if there is no correspondence between the sense of seeing with light, light would not be seen. Inasmuch as there is a possibility of coming in contact with the light, it is necessary to infer that there is a corresponding frequency to the principle of light in our own selves.
So is the case with hearing. We cannot hear every kind of sound. Only a particular frequency of sound can be heard by the eardrums. Similarly, taste—our tongue cannot feel every kind of taste. We are placed in a particular frequency level of the world. High frequency actions cannot be contacted, and low frequency actions also cannot be contacted. Neither can we see heaven, nor can we see hell. We can see only the Earth, because heaven is a high-frequency existence. It is beyond the level of the frequency of our mind and intellect. We do not see hell, because we are superior to it. We see only the middle portion, which is corresponding to the frequency of the objects of the world, the world as a whole. By inference we can conclude that the senses of knowledge and the mind are also constituted of a similar material substance, because similars attract similars; dissimilars repel. The fact of there being such a thing called sensory perception should prove that the senses are also made up of the same categories as the objects themselves. By inference we can know it.
Ekādaśen driyair yuktyā śāstreṇā pyava gamyate, yāvat kiṁcit bhave detat idaṁ śabdo ditaṁ jagat (18). It was mentioned that Sage Uddalaka declared that all this is Pure Being alone: sad eva saumya, idam agra āsīd ekam evādvitīyam. Idam: All this. What is meant by “all this”? The word ‘this’ is explained in this 18th verse. Whatever is cognisable by the senses of knowledge, whatever is contactable through the five organs of action, whatever is conceivable by the mind, whatever can be known through scripture or instruction from a teacher—all this put together, this whole universe of perception and knowledge—is called idam: this. The entire universe of cognition, perception and action—nama, rupa, kriya, prapancha—name, form, action, world, everything, whatever is conceivable, contactable, measurable or worth dealing with in any way whatsoever, is included within this vast inclusiveness, the whole world, jagat, and the term used to demonstrate this vast universe is idam.
This wonderful thing, this whole thing that we see and we can conceive is Pure Existence. This is the instruction of Uddalaka to Svetaketu, the meaning of which is being studied further in the following verses.