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An Integral Approach to management and human development based on the spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with an emphasis on its application to various domains of knowledge and life.

The Nature of Matter in Indian Thought – M S Srinivasan

In our earlier discussions on the nature of matter, we have studied in some details.  The discoveries of New Physics in the series of articles, The Nature of Matter in New Physics ending with a conclusive article, Towards an Alternative Paradigm of Matter.  This article examines some of the deeper perspectives of the Indian thought on Matter, perceived by ancient seers of India and also modern Indian yogis like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda, which can throw some luminous glimpses on the deeper or inner nature of Matter and the spiritual source of what we may call as the primal stuff of the world.

The Five States Of Matter

He bore the ripples of the etheric sea;

A primal Air brought the first joy of touch;

A secret Spirit drew its mighty breath

Contracting and expanding this huge world

In its formidable circuit through the Void;

The secret might of the creative Fire….

Its radiance bursting into the light of stars;

He felt a sap of life, a sap of death;

Into solid Matter’s dense communion

Sri Aurobindo


The above verses from Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri gives a vivid poetic description of the Indian concept of matter based on the five primal elements: Ether, Air, Fire, Water, Earth.  This conception may not be exclusivelyIndian.Many ancient thinkers in other parts of the world had similar conceptions of Matter. The modern scientific mind tends to dismiss these conceptions as primitive, without making any attempt to understand the deeper insights behind these conceptions.

This brings us to the question what are precisely these elements called Bhuthas in Indian thought.  They are not in their essence what we see or feel as they are in the outer world.  To understand the deeper significance of these conceptions, we have to get some basic ideas of Indian cosmology.

According to Indian thought, our physical universe is made of two primal principles:  Akasha, Ether or extension of etheric space and Prana, the life-force or the Energy of Life.  Ether is the subtle stuff of which all Matter is made and Prana is the subtle vital force behind all physical energy.  This vital energy vibrating in primal ether or etheric space in various patterns or frequencies creates the five elements in their subtle state which in turn combining together in different forms create the gross elements which make the physical or visible matter. Another interesting concept of Indian physics is that each of these five element contains or made of all the other elements, which means these elements are not distinct and separate things but forms of a deeper unity of matter.

I will not try to compare this Indian conception with that of new physics which we have discussed earlier.  Every scientific theory is a way of looking at things expressed through different concepts and languages.  However, those who are familiar with new physics can see some correspondences, like for example, the dance of Energy behind Matter and the quest for unified field theory in physics.  According to modern physics Matter is nothing but vibration of energy in a four-dimensions space-time continuum.  Indian theory says more or less the same thing in a different language.

Modern physics has discarded the concept of ether and replaced it with space-time or other concepts like “Quantum-field”.  But both the theories say that matter is the result of dance of energies in a vast extension of space.  Ether in the Indian conception is nothing but a limitless extension of space.  Literal meaning of the word Akasha is “sky” and in the Indian theory, this word is used as a symbolic indicator of a vast extension of space.This extension could be made of a subtle substance which could not be perceived by the instruments or mathematical formulation of the modern scientific mind.

Matter, World and Mind

We are now brought to another important question on the nature of matter. Is it entirely material or is there an inner non-material or mental dimension to it.  According to quantum physics, the ultimate unit of matter is a wave-particle or in other words, it is at once a particle and a wave.  But what is exactly this “wave”?  Is it a material wave or something non-material?  Quantum physicists says that it is not a material wave but a “probability wave” or in other words, a mathematical wave of probabilities, something like a crime wave in a city.  Similarly the well-known Heisenller’s principle in quantum physics states that in the subatomic world the very act of observation alters the position of the observer, and what we observe depends on the choice of the observer.  As we have indicated in our earlier series on New Physics, many such new conceptions are discoveries in physics have led some physics to speculate that there may be an element of consciousness in the subatomic nature of matter.

This brings us to another interesting concept of Indian thought. Each of the five elements are associated with a sense of organ or a sensation: Ether with sound or hearing, fire with light, air with touch, earth with smell. We need not go into the rationale behind these associations.

In the ancient systems of thought, what is important is to understand the symbolic suggestions or indicators. It indicates a close link between matter and sensation. As many discerning thinkers all over the world perceived, the world or more specifically the outer world of matter we perceive is nothing but a concrete image in our sensational mind. This doesn’t mean that there is no objective world outside. There may be something or some reality of the world. But what we perceive of this something or in other words what we feel, hear, touch or smell of it, is nothing but a report or an image or an experience presented by our sensation to our mind. And to what extent this report reflect the reality depends on the constitution or capabilities or limitations of our perceiving instruments. We humans perceive a three dimensional world of matter. But the world perceived by a creature which can see only one or two dimension will be very different from our human perception. But the reality of the world may not be confined to the three dimensional world of matter in which we live. There may be other worlds made of something other than earthly matter existing in higher dimensions. Interestingly, according to a school of quantum physics, our three-dimensional universe is only one among many possible universes existing simultaneously in other or higher dimension. But this is the discovery of many ancient seers and occultists who had developed the inner faculties to actually see and live in this higher dimensional realities. The most comprehensive vision of these higher worlds can be found in the cosmology of ancient Vedic seers.

The Hierarchy of Worlds

The Vedic seers perceived a multi-dimensional cosmos with many tiers of worlds at many levels. In this scheme, our material, three dimensional world lies at the lowest level. Beyond the material world and inter-penetrating it, is the world of life-force which is the source of our emotions, desire and vital energy. Just like our material world is made of the substance and energy of matter,this higher world is made of life-force where substance is not hard and rigid like in our material world, but flexible and fluid, and instantly shaped by our emotions, desires and imagination, which assume conscious and living forms, for example, our negative feelings take the form of living, ugly and malevolent entities which can attack others or pounce upon us. Similarly our good, noble feelings take the form of charming and beneficent fairies.

Similarly beyond the vital worlds, and interpenetrating it, are mental worlds which are the source of our thoughts, ideas and ideals. These worlds are made of the substance and energy of mind, where a thought is not an abstraction, but seen, sensed or felt as concretely as a stone in our material world. In this mental world our thoughts and ideas become living mental energies which shape mental substance into concrete mental forms which leads to the mental realisation of the idea.

Here comes another interesting concept of Indian thought on the source of Matter. Swami Vivekandanda says in one of his talks that Akasha and Prana, which we have discussed earlier, are not the whole of matter. Both are expressions of something deeper, higher and subtler which is the “universal thought-force” or “universal Mind “called as “Mahat” in Indian philosophy. Akasha and Prana are expressions of Mahath, universal Mind, which is the world of Mind or mental world which we have discussed earlier. This means Akasha and Prana and the five states of matter are the expression of Ideas in the universal Mind. As we have indicated earlier, an idea in the universal mind is not an abstraction as in our human mind; it is instantly translated into concrete form in energy and substance; idea releases the mental energy inherent in it which in turn shapes the substance. For example in the mental world, Fire is an idea of a fiery ad luminous energy instantly becoming a fiery and luminous substance. Similarly with other states of matter like Ether, Water, Air or solid matter called as “Earth”

Ether is an expansive state of mental space and air, water or earth are circulating, flowing or solid states of metal energy. In other worlds, we may say the states of matter are five states of mental consciousness, energy and substance with a conscious being presiding over it. This is possibly the reason why in ancient India elements like Air or Fire, Vayu or Agni, and large water bodies like riversare imaged as gods and goddesses.

The Spiritual Origin of Matter

However, even universal mind is not the source or origin of matter. Above the world of Mind is the worlds of the Spirit or the Supermind, which is the original creative Consciousness and Power of the World. The nature of the mental world, and the nature of matter in it can give a glimpse of some aspect of the spiritual source of matter because, the ways of the mental world are a mental reflection of the Spirit.

According to Sri Aurobindo, Supermind creates by the power of what he calls as the “Real-Idea”. The entire creation, whatever exists in it and all the fundamental principles of which it is made like Matter, Life and Mind exist as real-ideas in the creative consciousness of the Supreme. Sri Aurobindo calls it as “real-idea” because it is not an abstract idea in the human mind but vibration of the eternal Energy of the Spirit in the consciousness and substance of the Spirit, pregnant with a truth of the spirit or a truth of the world which creates. In the world of Spirit, conception and realisation are not two distinct thing but a single indivisible movement. The idea instantly realises itself in energy and substance. This happens also at a much lesser scale in the mental and vital world. But in the spiritual world it is absolute and perfect.

The idea of Matter is inherent in the attributes of the Spirit. According to Indian spiritual thought, the supreme Spirit or the divine Reality is made of four attributes: Sat which means pure existence or BEness; Chit which is pure consciousness with an inherent creative force, Chit-Sakthi, within it; and Ananda, pure Bliss. These four attributes are not distinct things but are indivisible. Sat is Chit and Chit is Chit-Shakthi and Chit-Shakthi is Ananda. Sat in its essence is the eternal and immutable substance of the Spirit which is the essential “Stuff” of all the world. We may say, looking at the spirit as Sat, that it is an immortal, self-aware and self-luminous and blissful substance with an eternal creative Energy inherent in it. This eternal substance of the Spirit is the source of all other substances, mental, vital and physical, the last one physical or earthly substance is what we call here as Matter. But the vital and mental world are also made of a corresponding substance. This substance extending as and into infinite space is the Akasha or ether of each world, mental, vital or physical. And the Energy, Chit-Shakthi of the Spirit which is the sources of Life, Prana, vibrating in the etheric space or Akasha of each world creates the objects and forms of that world, and the flow of events in Time.

The five states of matter, in their original spiritual essence are perhaps forces or real-ideas of the spirit: ether may be a state of expansive energy; air circulating energy; water, energy in flowing movement; fire, fiery and luminous state of energy; earth, condensed or solid state of energy.

In the spiritual substance of Sat, all these five states of matter are not distinct or mutually exclusive things but exists simultaneously in a state of unthinkable fusion. Interestingly, Sri Aurobindo, in one of his conversations, describes the supramental matter as “at once harder than diamond, and more fluid than air”. This may be difficult to conceive or accept in our rational or logical mind. But in the supramental consciousness these five states of matter are primarily states of consciousness or real ideas vibrating as energy and materialised in substance. And as many mystics have pointed out repeatedly in spiritual consciousness, contradiction of the mind are fused in a higher harmony and unity. We may note here, as we have indicated earlier, according to Indian thought each state of matter, like Air or Fire, potentially contains and made of all the other four.This concept is the result ofan intuitive comprehension of the spiritual source of matter, which reflects in an increasingly diminished scale, in the matter or substance of worlds at the lower level – mental, vital, physical.

We are now brought to another important aspect of the spiritual source of matter. The spiritual matter of Sat is a single indivisible unit of substance. But in the process of creative involution from spirit to our world of matter, the unity of the Spirit in its consciousness, energy and substance, gets veiled and fragmented through a process of ego and division and diversity. The end result is an infinite fragmentation of matter and consciousness—as a atom in matter and separative ego in consciousness. But the unity is only veiled but not lost. The ultimate unit of matter “God-particle” is perhaps a point of the supreme consciousness of the spirit, lost in its own whirl, like for example, when we are performing a repetitive task, sometimes we lose our consciousness and the sense of self in the act. But the infinite unity of the consciousness, energy and substance of the spirit is present behind the atomic point of matter, which can perhaps be recovered through a spiritual discipline. This realisation of the spiritual unity of matter in our bodily or cellular consciousness, feeling our body or the matter in our body as part of the universal unity of the Body or Matter of the Spirit will be perhaps the discovery of future spirituality.

There is one more aspect of Matter which needs to be examined in a spiritual perspective. In our material world, Matter is the objective side of reality whereas consciousness is the subjective aspect of it. We feel Matter as something objective, which we can hold, grasp and enjoy through our sensations. Is there a spiritual truth behind this experience of Matter?

When we examine the spiritual conceptions of creations, most of them talks about a timeless state of divine Reality pregnant with infinite possibilities or divine truths held in a state of absolute subjective identity. Creation is an objectification of some truths within the timeless Reality projected into time and space as a universe. In a more personal perspective, we may say that the supreme divine Being wanted to enjoy himself, or some truths within himself, in an objective manner. He projected them out of Himself and creates the four senses and other organs to possess, grasp and enjoy them objectively. When we look at this state of divine consciousness in the light of Sri Aurobindo’s vision of the Supermind, we may say that it is one of the poises of the Supramental consciousness. In our earthly consciousness our faculties of senses and our sensations are very much differentiated in a mutually exclusive manner in our physical sense organs. But this state of sensation is at the lowest level of our surface being. According to Indian thought, the source of sensations is not the physical organ, but our mind, manas, which is potentially capable of sensing things directly without or independent of the bodily sense organ. Behind our surface being which is trapped within our body, there is a subliminal being which is in direct contact with the universal mental and vital world which we have discussed earlier. This subliminal mind and vital in us is not bound by bodily limitations and therefore has the power of direct sense action. So if we are able to enter into our inner subliminal being, we can perhaps have the experience of this more direct sense-perception by which we can sense through our whole being without the differentiated physical sense-organs

In the mental and vital worlds this undifferentiated sense is perhaps much more free, spontaneous and natural than what we can achieve in our earthly body. In the spiritual or supramental world, we can imagine that sense perceptions reaches a state of absolute and blissful perfection where we can see, touch, taste, smell in a delightful fusion, without loosing the sense of oneness with the object of sensation or enjoyment, feeling what we enjoy as not something outside or different from us but as part of our own self within the consciousness of our self.

There is probably a similar fusion in the substance of matter, where specific qualities of the five distinct states of Matter become indivisible, making it at once etherical, fiery, airly, fluid and hard or solid. When Sri Aurobindo said that the supramental substance will be “harder than diamond and move fluid than air”, he was probably referring to this highest state of Matter where there is a fusion of the qualities of the five states of Matter.



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This entry was posted on June 4, 2019 by in Religion, Spirituality & Philosophy.