The Five Material Elements

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    Ciprian Begu

    Do the five material elements have anything in common with the Greek elements by the same name?

    Ashish Dalela

    Many people think that Earth represents solidity, Water denotes fluidity, Air is the gaseous state, Fire is the plasma state, and all these things exist in the Ether or space. So, they believe that these five elements are actually different states of matter. The only problem is that modern science teaches us that water can be solid (ice), liquid (water), or gaseous (vapor). So, this idea about solid, liquid, gaseous, plasma states doesn’t go very far in the understanding of material elements. For instance, should we call water basically a liquid, and then vapor as mixing of Water with Air? Should we say that when water is frozen, then Water has mixed with Earth?

    The five elements in Sāńkhya are not solid, liquid, gaseous, and plasma. They are rather the objectification of smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound. So, Fire is not plasma; it is rather the objective presence of form and color. The reason we call this element “Fire” is that to define a particular color we have to start with the fullness of color which is white, and then divide it into parts such as red, blue, and green. So a particular color is a part of the fullness of color. At some point in the production of experience, there is the white color from which the individual colors are created. These individual colors are created by hiding some parts. So the fullness of color is “Fire” and the parts of it (produced by hiding certain colors) produce different colors. Both the primordial color of whiteness and the various parts of this whiteness are “Fire”, but if we want to speak more accurately, the “Fire” element in its pristine state is the state of colorlessness.

    Similarly, the element “Earth” is odorlessness, and “Ether” is the sound of silence. These become the foundations for varieties of odors and sounds. In another sense, we can also say that these elements are the axes or dimensions of sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell, and the objects with sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell are the individual positions on that axis or dimension.

    So just like we measure a property called momentum and suppose that there is an axis in nature that represents this momentum, similarly, in Sāńkhya there are five axes for representing the five types of sensations, and individual objects are situated in this five-dimensional space. Each of these dimensions has three further dimensions; for example, when color is divided into red, blue, and green, each of these ideas themselves becomes a dimension. In fact, in modern color theory, we create colors by adjusting values of red, blue, and green, so these are treated as dimensions. In the same way, each individual shade within red, blue, and green, is also a dimension. So this produces an infinite-dimensional space but all of these dimensions can be “fitted” into a three-dimensional space because we don’t see the dimensions; we only see the values.

    Hence, from a phenomenal perspective, there are only three dimensions, but if we try to formulate an explanatory theory we would be required to postulate all these infinite dimensions. Sāńkhya is a method of classifying these infinite dimensions into understandable classes, by which we can progressively understand the different parts of this infinite-dimensional space.

    The Greek theory is based on sensual experience whereas the Sāńkhya theory is based on how these sensations have to be explained by a reality that exists before the sensations.

    Pravin Singhania

    Is it possible that the Greek ideas of 5 elements originated in Saankhya as a learnt and then misunderstood knowledge over time? There is some evidence that at one time The now South Asian area had many students of Greek origin.

    Ashish Dalela

    Yes it is possible but these historical facts are hard to confirm, and even if we confirmed them and the theory of five elements seems meaningless both ideas will be lumped together and rejected. It is better to focus on what this theory is and why it is useful and let people infer who came first. I’m not about to say that this theory of five elements was appropriated by the Greeks!

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