Elements

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The Elements, in many philosophies and religious views, are said to be the simplest essential parts and principles of which everything consists. In ancient thought (such as the Greek, Hindu and Buddhist) there is reference to four elements (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire), sometimes including a fifth element or quintessence called Aether or Akasa (space). The Chinese had a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood, which were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the notion of different kinds of material. In the Theosophical literature there is mention to one ultimate element that differentiate in seven, although only four are completely manifested at this stage of evolution.

Elements in Theosophy

The Theosophical view maintains that there are seven fundamental elements in nature, which are differentiations of the one element. These seven elements do not manifest on all the planes simultaneously, but progressively as evolution goes on.

The One Element

In The Mahatma Letters, Master KH writes about one element, which is the homogeneous basis of all:

There is but one element and it is impossible to comprehend our system before a correct conception of it is firmly fixed in one's mind. You must therefore pardon me if I dwell on the subject longer than really seems necessary. But unless this great primary fact is firmly grasped the rest will appear unintelligible. This element then is the — to speak metaphysically — one sub-stratum or permanent cause of all manifestations in the phenomenal universe.[1]

This element is sometimes called Svābhāvat:

You will have first of all to view the eternal Essence, the Swabavat, not as a compound element you call spirit-matter, but as the one element for which the English has no name. It is both passive and active, pure Spirit Essence in its absoluteness, and repose, pure matter in its finite and conditioned state[2]

The one element penetrates the whole space and, in fact, is space itself:

We recognise but one element in Nature (whether spiritual or physical) outside which there can be no Nature since it is Nature itself, and which as the akasa pervades our solar system, every atom being part of itself pervades throughout space and is space in fact, which pulsates as in profound sleep during the pralayas, and [is] the universal Proteus, the ever active Nature during the manwantaras. . . . Consequently spirit and matter are one, being but a differentiation of states not essences.[3]
The great difficulty in grasping the idea in the above process lies in the liability to form more or less incomplete mental conceptions of the working of the one element, of its inevitable presence in every imponderable atom, and its subsequent ceaseless and almost illimitable multiplication of new centres of activity without affecting in the least its own original quantity.[4]
The one element not only fills space and is space, but interpenetrates every atom of cosmic matter.[5]

This one element is the origin of the different elements known by the ancients:

If the student bears in mind that there is but One Universal Element, which is infinite, unborn, and undying, and that all the rest — as in the world of phenomena — are but so many various differentiated aspects and transformations (correlations, they are now called) of that One, from Cosmical down to microcosmical effects, from super-human down to human and sub-human beings, the totality, in short, of objective existence — then the first and chief difficulty will disappear and Occult Cosmology may be mastered.[6]
Metaphysically and esoterically there is but One ELEMENT in nature, and at the root of it is the Deity; and the so-called seven elements, of which five have already manifested and asserted their existence, are the garment, the veil, of that deity; direct from the essence whereof comes MAN, whether physically, psychically, mentally or spiritually considered.[7]
The ancients speak of the five cognizable elements of ether, air, water, fire, earth, and of the one incognizable element (to the uninitiates) the 6th principle of the universe — call it Purush Sakti, while to speak of the seventh outside the sanctuary was punishable with death. But these five are but the differentiated aspects of the one.[8]

Manifestation of the elements

The process of cosmic manifestation proceeds gradually, manifesting six of these elements one after the other. Stanza VI.3 says:

Of the Seven (elements)—first one manifested, six concealed; two manifested—five concealed; three manifested—four concealed; four produced—three hidden; four and one tsan (fraction) revealed—two and one half concealed; six to be manifested—one laid aside.[9]

Mme. Blavatsky applies this sloka to the manifestation of the elements on the lowest plane, one at a time, with the succession of Rounds:

Although these Stanzas refer to the whole Universe after a Mahapralaya (universal destruction), yet this sentence, as any student of Occultism may see, refers also by analogy to the evolution and final formation of the primitive (though compound) Seven Elements on our Earth. Of these, four elements are now fully manifested, while the fifth—Ether—is only partially so, as we are hardly in the second half of the Fourth Round, and consequently the fifth Element will manifest fully only in the Fifth Round.[10]
Occult Science recognises Seven Cosmical Elements—four entirely physical, and the fifth (Ether) semi-material, as it will become visible in the air towards the end of our Fourth Round, to reign supreme over the others during the whole of the Fifth. The remaining two are as yet absolutely beyond the range of human perception. These latter will, however, appear as presentments during the 6th and 7th Races of this Round, and will become known in the 6th and 7th Rounds respectively. These seven elements with their numberless Sub-Elements far more numerous than those known to Science) are simply conditional modifications and aspects of the ONE and only Element.[11]
Four elements only are generally spoken of in later antiquity, five admitted only in philosophy. For the body of ether is not fully manifested yet, and its noumenon is still “the Omnipotent Father—Æther, the synthesis of the rest.”[12]
The succession of primary aspects of Nature with which the succession of Rounds is concerned, has to do, as already indicated, with the development of the “Elements” (in the Occult sense)—Fire, Air, Water, Earth. We are only in the fourth Round, and our catalogue so far stops short.[13]

The ordering of the elements mentioned by Mme. Blavatsky coincides with the degree of their spiritual quality. In a letter to Alfred Percy Sinnett, Mahatma K.H. wrote about:

. . . the principles of earth, water, air, fire and ether (akasa) following the order of their spirituality and beginning with the lowest.[14]

The elements can also be seen as the objective aspect of the seven Dhyani-Buddhas:

“These Brâhmanas (the Rishi Prajâpati?), the creators of the world, are born here (on earth) again and again. Whatever is produced from them is dissolved in due time in those very five great elements (the five, or rather seven, Dhyani Buddhas, also called “Elements” of Mankind), like billows in the ocean. These great elements are in every way beyond the elements that make up the world (the gross elements). And he who is released even from these five elements (the tanmâtras) goes to the highest goal.”[15]

In Hinduism

Hindus believe that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five essential elements (Mahābhūtas) and that upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements of nature, thereby balancing the cycle of nature. These "five great elements" (panchamahābhūtas) are (in order of increasing subtlety):

1- Earth (pṛithvī or bhūmi)

2- Water (apa or jala)

3- Fire (tejas or agni)

4- Air or wind (vāyu)

5- Aether or space (akash).

The five great elements originate from the five tanmatra (subtle essences).

In Buddhism

The element or "dhatu"

The teaching about the existence of one single element, eternal and immutable, is not prevalent within Buddhism, which generally postulates Śūnyatā (emptiness) as the ultimate reality. However, as David Reigle has shown, the Jonangpa school of Tibetan Buddhism holds this teaching. He writes:

The key term in Maitreya's Ratna-gotra-vihhaga is dhātu, or element. It is described in the following important verse:
It is not born, does not die, is not afflicted, and does not grow old, because it is permanent (nitya/rtag-pa), stable (dhruva/brtan-pa), quiescent (siva/zhi-ba), and eternal (sasvata/g.yung-drung). Ratna-gotra-vibhaga or Uttara-tantra, by Maitreya, verse 80.

As noted earlier, this one thing, dhatu or element, may be called tathagata-garbha or Buddha-nature when obscured, and dharma-kaya or body of the law when unobscured.

[16]

See also Dharmatā and Svābhāva (Buddhism)

In Greek philosophy

In Chinese philosophy

Notes

  1. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 67 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 182.
  2. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 65 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 165.
  3. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 65 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), ???
  4. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 67 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 181.
  5. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 67 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 182.
  6. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 75.
  7. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 461.
  8. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 67 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 182.
  9. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 140.
  10. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 140.
  11. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 12-13.
  12. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 461.
  13. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 252.
  14. Vicente Hao Chin, Jr., The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett in chronological sequence No. 67 (Quezon City: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 182.
  15. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine vol. I, (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1993), 571-572.
  16. Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School by David Reigle