by Jayaram V
Akasa means the sky, the space, the one without a body.
It is also used to refer the fifth element, the other four being,
the earth, the air, the water and the fire. It is the stuff of which
gods and celestial beings are made. It is also the stuff of the
souls. It is immortal, indivisible, infinite and indestructible.
It is the finest and subtlest of all the elements. The earth, the
water, the air and fire may be effected by other elements when they
come into contact with each other. But akasa is the purest of them
all. It is beyond the grasp of the senses and untainted by other
elements. Ether acts as the medium through which sound (dvhavni)
travels. It is the medium through which we can communicate with
gods using sound vibrations, caused by the chanting of the mantras
or sacred syllables.
Vedic seers believed in the existence of three worlds, bhur,
bhuva and svar. Bhur was the earth, bhuva was the sky or antariksh,
the middle region and svar was the the highest, the heavenly world
of radiance. It was in the sky that gods displayed their awesome
power. From the sky, they showered the rains, causing vegetation
and floods. At times they sent down meteors and lightning causing
fear and destruction. It was in the sky, Indra, the mighty god fought
with Vrata (dark clouds) and released the cows (waters) for the
welfare of the mankind. For the Vedic people the sky was the meeting
ground between men and gods and also the play ground where they
displayed their awesome power, after which they retired to the svargalok,
their world of radiance, the highest world. The also believed that
after death men ascended to the world of gods and ancestors through
The Vaisheshikas believed that akasa was also a padartha
(something which can be thought and named). Of the six or seven
categories of padarthas they identified1,
they included it under the category of substances
(dravyas) along with eight other, namely earth, water, light, air,
time, space, soul and manas (mind). Of these akasa, time and space
are all pervading. According to the Vaisheshikas, akasa is
not ethereal but a kind of material which is continuous, inactive
(niskriya) and infinite. It is devoid of the qualities of taste,
smell, touch and color, but sound is its distinguishing quality.
The atoms which are small and of which the substances are made of
cannot by themselves come together. They aggregate but not continuously.
If they stand apart from one another and yet form into substances,
it is because they are bound by akasa. It fills the space between
one atom and another and holds them together in their aggregate
form. Akasa is also a kind of substance but it is not atomic in
nature, that is, it is not made of atoms. It is boundless and eternal.
Akasa and space are not one and the same. Akasa fills space. While
Akasa is the material cause of sound, space is the general cause
of all effects.
Akasa reflects several qualities of infinite Brahman. Like Brahman
it is mysterious, formless, boundless, infinite, indestructible,
beyond the mind and the senses and incomprehensible to the ordinary
intellect. It envelops everything and exists in them also. It is
smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest. It is all
pervading and provides nourishment by sending down rain and radiance.
Hence symbolically, Lord Vishnu, as preserver and Supreme Lord of
the universe is depicted as blue in color, which is the color of
the sky. Aditi the mother of all gods and Brahma are also compared
to the sky and extolled in the vedic hymns as boundless beings and
upholders of all.
Suggested Further Reading
1 The six categories
of padarthas identifed by them are dravya (substance), guna (quality),
karma (activity), samanya (commonality), visesa (specificity) and
samavaya (inherence). To these the later Vaisheshikas added abhava