Akasa, Ether or The Sky and The Fifth Element

Hinduism Concepts

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 sky.

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.

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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 (non-existence).