EARTH . . . AIR . . . FIRE . . . WATER . . .
The Great Four Elements
The Stuff Of Life
Man is an animal that questions. All the time. Everything. I like that about him. He wants to know. All the time. It doesn’t really matter what. He wants to understand. In the beginning it was simply to survive. He needed to control his environment. Man against nature. The primal challenge. Man against man came later. But if you were not alive, it was kind of a moot point. Man is a being that has reason, and he uses this to search for and discover situations that impact his life, to question and analyze what he knows, to consider and resolve issues to his satisfaction and benefit from the whole process. Intelligence is not required, per se, and yet reason is essential. As he inevitably found the solutions to survival, as evidenced by our ability to have this conversation today, he slowly turned his attentions, and his mind, to the inward questions about his existence, and his environment. He would one day contemplate numerous questions of life, and nature, and one day, god. But first he had to understand what man was, and what allowed him to live, and what made him ‘ tick ‘. A lot of thought has gone into the contemplation of our existence. The composition of life is particularly intriguing.
In the beginning was the Word, and the word was …… hold on, that’s another story. One of his first quests was to determine what physically constituted man. He looked around to see what was available, and his answer was ….. the elements. They had not the slightest idea exactly what an element was. To the best of my knowledge, as we speak, there are 118 elements known to modern man. To primitive man that was about, we can guess, 118 elements more than he knew about. Whoever ‘ he ‘ was, this was a simple man with simple concepts. But to give him credit, he came up with what was profound in its own simplicity. Man walked the EARTH, and the earth provided much of what was needed for his survival. He knew not the multitude of actual elements that went into the makeup of the earth, but he instinctively knew their value. He could neither see the AIR or the elements that comprise it, but soon enough found out, if there was none, there was no life either. WATER was, of course, indispensable from the very first, superseding all others. And with the discovery of FIRE, he began the mastery of his own universe.
So man began the discussion of the elements with his famous four: EARTH, AIR, FIRE and WATER. Traditionally, historically, philosophically and astrologically, these 4 have survived the evolution of man’s journey of discovery. But man never ceases to question. Many other theories have been created and tested. Some long lived, others lost in the dust of history. Many schools of thought have included a fifth element, AETHER ( also ether ), or space, which is very curious and extremely impressive, since when first introduced, they had no empirical knowledge of ‘ space ‘ and could only deduce that it even existed. The mind of man is a totally cool instrument! Many philosophies and traditions around the world speak of a fifth element. The Chinese and Japanese. The Buddhist and the Greek. Even the Babylonians, not to mention Alchemy. Mind you, they are not necessarily the same five elements, just to keep our attention.
When there is a fifth element, it is considered unique and fundamental. It is usually spiritual or transcendental in nature. Some consider it spirit or soul, certainly worth consideration. The Greeks called it Quintessence, or fifth element. To the Japanese it is Mu, or the void. The Babylonians are in line with all of these, replacing air with wind and water with the sea. Their fifth element is recognized as sky. The Chinese, always looking at things from a unique perspective, also recognize 5 elements, but in addition to earth, fire and water, they have added wood and metal. Medieval Alchemy have evolved different traditions, always with the basic four, sometimes with the addition of aether, and sometimes adding 3 more, Sulphur, Mercury and Salt. Curious, to say the least, but what can we expect from people who believed they could turn lead into gold! And just for the record, this can be done, but at a prohibitive cost that negates any benefit.
Hindu Philosophy has been consistent and comprehensive over time. They have developed a narrative to illustrate and explain their viewpoint. Their belief is that an individual is made up of the 5 basic elements, and that we all return to these basic elements upon our deaths. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, you might say. There is a specific hierarchy to the elements, which is both interesting and insightful. The five great elements ( the pancha mahabhuta ) are Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Aether. The base element is EARTH ( kshiti: the earth/home or bhumi: earth goddess ), which is created using all of the other elements, and can be perceived by us using all of our five senses of taste, touch, sight, smell and hearing. The next element in the hierarchy is WATER ( ap or jala ), perceived by all the senses except smell, since pure water has no scent. This is followed by FIRE ( tejas oragni ), which can be felt, seen and heard. The next in line is AIR ( marut or pavan ), which can only be recognized through our touch and hearing. And finally we have AETHER ( ether or Akasha, ), which is the medium of sound, but is actually inaccessible to all of the senses. It is known as the essence of all things and the first element of creation.
Earth is designated as “north”; Air is associated with “east”; Fire is “south”; Water is “west”, while the fifth element is the “spirit” or the “soul”. The Fifth Element is the “spiritual force” that Earth, Air, Fire, and Water descend from.
Life is fundamental. It is not an element. It is the culmination of them all. It gives meaning. It gives purpose to those elements. Without it we would have nothing to talk about. There would be no one to think the thoughts that we discuss. There would be no questions, and there would be no answers. There would be no path, and no chance of enlightenment. Without it reality ceases to exist. And existence would have no purpose. If the universe has no life or is not in the process of creating that life, it may actually exist but there would be no one to perceive that existence and no one to care, in any case.
Life is a gift.
Enjoy it. Embrace it. Respect it. Protect it. Live it.