Origins of the Subtle Elements

Origins of the Subtle Elements

His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Compiled by Mohini Devi Dasi

Lord Kapila, an incarnation of Lord Kṛṣṇa, is teaching his mother, Devahūti, about the fundamental principles of material nature. As the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam continues Lord Kapila describes how transformations create subtle elements, beginning here with taste.


The Personality of Godhead, Kapila, continued: My dear mother, now I shall describe unto you the different categories of the Absolute Truth, knowing which any person can be released from the influence of the modes of material nature. Knowledge is the ultimate perfection of self-realization. I shall explain that knowledge unto you by which the knots of attachment to the material world are cut.”

rūpa-mātrād vikurvāṇāt / tejaso daiva-coditāt
rasa-mātram abhūt tasmād / ambho jihvā rasa-grahaḥ

rūpa-mātrāt—which evolves from the subtle element form; vikurvāṇāt—undergoing transformation; tejasaḥ—from fire; daiva-coditāt—under a superior arrangement; rasa-mātram—the subtle element taste; abhūt—became manifested; tasmāt—from that; ambhaḥ—water; jihvā—the sense of taste; rasa-grahaḥ—which perceives taste.

By the interaction of fire and the visual sensation, the subtle element taste evolves under a superior arrangement. From taste, water is produced, and the tongue, which perceives taste, is also manifested.

PURPORT: The tongue is described here as the instrument for acquiring knowledge of taste. Because taste is a product of water, there is always saliva on the tongue.

kaṣāyo madhuras tiktaḥ / kaṭv amla iti naikadhā
bhautikānāṁ vikāreṇa / rasa eko vibhidyate

kaṣāyaḥ—astringent; madhuraḥ—sweet; tiktaḥ—bitter; kaṭu—pungent; amlaḥ—sour; iti—thus; na-ekadhā—manifoldly; bhautikānām—of other substances; vikāreṇa—by transformation; rasaḥ—the subtle element taste; ekaḥ—originally one; vibhidyate—is divided.

Although originally one, taste becomes manifold as astringent, sweet, bitter, pungent, sour and salty due to contact with other substances.

kledanaṁ piṇḍanaṁ tṛptiḥ / prāṇanāpyāyanondanam
tāpāpanodo bhūyastvam / ambhaso vṛttayas tv imāḥ

kledanam—moistening; piṇḍanam—coagulating; tṛptiḥ—causing satisfaction; prāṇana—maintaining life; āpyāyana—refreshing; undanam—softening; tāpa—heat; apanodaḥ—driving away; bhūyastvam—being in abundance; ambhasaḥ—of water; vṛttayaḥ—the characteristic functions; tu—in fact; imāḥ—these.

The characteristics of water are exhibited by its moistening other substances, coagulating various mixtures, causing satisfaction, maintaining life, softening things, driving away heat, incessantly supplying itself to reservoirs of water, and refreshing by slaking thirst.

PURPORT: Starvation can be mitigated by drinking water. It is sometimes found that if a person who has taken a vow to fast takes a little water at intervals, the exhaustion of fasting is at once mitigated. In the Vedas it is also stated, āpomayaḥ prāṇaḥ: “Life depends on water.” With water, anything can be moistened or dampened. Flour dough can be prepared with a mixture of water. Mud is made by mixing earth with water. As stated in the beginning of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, water is the cementing ingredient of different material elements. If we build a house, water is actually the constituent in making the bricks. Fire, water and air are the exchanging elements for the entire material manifestation, but water is most prominent. Also, excessive heat can be reduced simply by pouring water on the heated field.

rasa-mātrād vikurvāṇād / ambhaso daiva-coditāt
gandha-mātram abhūt tasmāt / pṛthvī ghrāṇas tu gandhagaḥ

rasa-mātrāt—which evolves from the subtle element taste; vikurvāṇāt—undergoing transformation; ambhasaḥ—from water; daiva-coditāt—by a superior arrangement; gandha-mātram—the subtle element odor; abhūt—became manifest; tasmāt—from that; pṛthvī—earth; ghrāṇaḥ—the olfactory sense; tu—in fact; gandha-gaḥ—which perceives aromas.

Due to the interaction of water with the taste perception, the subtle element odor evolves under superior arrangement. Thence the earth and the olfactory sense, by which we can variously experience the aroma of the earth, become manifest.

karambha-pūti-saurabhya- / śāntogrāmlādibhiḥ pṛthak
dravyāvayava-vaiṣamyād / gandha eko vibhidyate

karambha—mixed; pūti—offensive; saurabhya—fragrant; śānta—mild; ugra—strong, pungent; amla—acid; ādibhiḥ—and so on; pṛthak—separately; dravya—of substance; avayava—of portions; vaiṣamyāt—according to diversity; gandhaḥ—odor; ekaḥ—one; vibhidyate—is divided.

Odor, although one, becomes many—as mixed, offensive, fragrant, mild, strong, acidic and so on—according to the proportions of associated substances.

Mixed smell is sometimes perceived in foodstuffs prepared from various ingredients, such as vegetables mixed with different kinds of spices and asafoetida. Bad odors are perceived in filthy places, good smells are perceived from camphor, menthol and similar other products, pungent smells are perceived from garlic and onions, and acidic smells are perceived from turmeric and similar sour substances. The original aroma is the odor emanating from the earth, and when it is mixed with different substances, this odor appears in different ways.

bhāvanaṁ brahmaṇaḥ sthānaṁ / dhāraṇaṁ sad-viśeṣaṇam
sarva-sattva-guṇodbhedaḥ / pṛthivī-vṛtti-lakṣaṇam

bhāvanam—modeling forms; brahmaṇaḥ—of the Supreme Brahman; sthānam—constructing places of residence; dhāraṇam—containing substances; sat-viśeṣaṇam—distinguishing the open space; sarva—all; sattva—of existence; guṇa—qualities; udbhedaḥ—the place for manifestation; pṛthivī—of earth; vṛtti—of the functions; lakṣaṇam—the characteristics.

The characteristics of the functions of earth can be perceived by modeling forms of the Supreme Brahman, by constructing places of residence, by preparing pots to contain water, etc. In other words, the earth is the place of sustenance for all elements.

PURPORT: Different elements, such as sound, sky, air, fire and water, can be perceived in the earth. Another feature of the earth especially mentioned here is that earth can manifest different forms of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. By this statement of Kapila’s it is confirmed that the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Brahman, has innumerable forms, which are described in the scriptures. By manipulation of earth and its products, such as stone, wood and jewels, these forms of the Supreme Lord can be present before our eyes. When a form of Lord Kṛṣṇa or Lord Viṣṇu is manifested by presentation of a statue made of earth, it is not imaginary. The earth gives shape to the Lord’s forms as described in the scriptures.

In the Brahma-saṁhitā there is description of Lord Kṛṣṇa’s lands, the variegatedness of the spiritual abode, and the forms of the Lord playing a flute with His spiritual body. All these forms are described in the scriptures, and when they are thus presented they become worshipable. They are not imaginary as the Māyāvāda philosophy says. Sometimes the word bhāvana is misinterpreted as “imagination.” But bhāvana does not mean “imagination;” it means giving actual shape to the description of Vedic literature. Earth is the ultimate transformation of all living entities and their respective modes of material nature.

nabho-guṇa-viśeṣo ’rtho / yasya tac chrotram ucyate
vāyor guṇa-viśeṣo ’rtho / yasya tat sparśanaṁ viduḥ

nabhaḥ-guṇa-viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic of sky (sound); arthaḥ—object of perception; yasya—whose; tat—that; śrotram—the auditory sense; ucyate—is called; vāyoḥ guṇa-viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic of air (touch); arthaḥ—object of perception; yasya—whose; tat—that; sparśanam—the tactile sense; viduḥ—they know.

The sense whose object of perception is sound is called the auditory sense, and that whose object of perception is touch is called the tactile sense.

PURPORT: Sound is one of the qualifications of the sky and is the subject matter for hearing. Similarly, touch is the qualification of the air and is the subject of the touch sensation.

tejo-guṇa-viśeṣo ’rtho / yasya tac cakṣur ucyate
ambho-guṇa-viśeṣo ’rtho / yasya tad rasanaṁ viduḥ
bhūmer guṇa-viśeṣo ’rtho / yasya sa ghrāṇa ucyate

tejaḥ-guṇa-viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic of fire (form); arthaḥ—object of perception; yasya—whose; tat—that; cakṣuḥ—the sense of sight; ucyate—is called; ambhaḥ-guṇa-viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic of water (taste); arthaḥ—object of perception; yasya—whose; tat—that; rasanam—the sense of taste; viduḥ—they know; bhūmeḥ guṇa-viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic of earth (odor); arthaḥ—object of perception; yasya—whose; saḥ—that; ghrāṇaḥ—the sense of smell; ucyate—is called.

The sense whose object of perception is form, the distinctive characteristic of fire, is the sense of sight. The sense whose object of perception is taste, the distinctive characteristic of water, is known as the sense of taste. Finally, the sense whose object of perception is odor, the distinctive characteristic of earth, is called the sense of smell.

parasya dṛśyate dharmo / hy aparasmin samanvayāt
ato viśeṣo bhāvānāṁ / bhūmāv evopalakṣyate

parasya—of the cause; dṛśyate—is observed; dharmaḥ—the characteristics; hi—indeed; aparasmin—in the effect; samanvayāt—in order; ataḥ—hence; viśeṣaḥ—the distinctive characteristic; bhāvānām—of all the elements; bhūmau—in earth; eva—alone; upalakṣyate—is observed.

Since the cause exists in its effect as well, the characteristics of the former are observed in the latter. That is why the peculiarities of all the elements exist in the earth alone.

PURPORT: Sound is the cause of the sky, sky is the cause of the air, air is the cause of fire, fire is the cause of water, and water is the cause of earth. In the sky there is only sound; in the air there are sound and touch; in the fire there are sound, touch and form; in water there are sound, touch, form and taste; and in the earth there are sound, touch, form, taste and smell. Therefore earth is the reservoir of all the qualities of the other elements. Earth is the sum total of all other elements. The earth has all five qualities of the elements, water has four qualities, fire has three, air has two, and the sky has only one quality, sound.

etāny asaṁhatya yadā / mahad-ādīni sapta vai
kāla-karma-guṇopeto / jagad-ādir upāviśat

etāni—these; asaṁhatya—being unmixed; yadā—when; mahat-ādīni—the mahat-tattva, false ego and five gross elements; sapta—all together seven; vai—in fact; kāla—time; karma—work; guṇa—and the three modes of material nature; upetaḥ—accompanied by; jagat-ādiḥ—the origin of creation; upāviśat—entered.

When all these elements were unmixed, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the origin of creation, along with time, work, and the qualities of the modes of material nature, entered into the universe with the total material energy in seven divisions.

PURPORT: After stating the generation of the causes, Kapiladeva speaks about the generation of the effects. At that time when the causes were unmixed, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, in His feature of Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, entered within each universe. Accompanying Him were all of the seven primary elements—the five material elements, the total energy (mahat-tattva) and the false ego. This entrance of the Supreme Personality of Godhead involves His entering even the atoms of the material world. This is confirmed in the Brahma-saṁhitā (5.35): aṇḍāntara-stha-paramāṇu-cayāntara-stham. He is not only within the universe, but within the atoms also. He is within the heart of every living entity. Garbhodakaśāyī Viṣṇu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, entered into everything.

tatas tenānuviddhebhyo / yuktebhyo ’ṇḍam acetanam
utthitaṁ puruṣo yasmād / udatiṣṭhad asau virāṭ

tataḥ—then; tena—by the Lord; anuviddhebhyaḥ—from these seven principles, roused into activity; yuktebhyaḥ—united; aṇḍam—an egg; acetanam—unintelligent; utthitam—arose; puruṣaḥ—Cosmic Being; yasmāt—from which; udatiṣṭhat—appeared; asau—that; virāṭ—celebrated.

From these seven principles, roused into activity and united by the presence of the Lord, an unintelligent egg arose, from which appeared the celebrated Cosmic Being.

PURPORT: In sex life, the combination of matter from the parents, which involves emulsification and secretion, creates the situation whereby a soul is received within matter, and the combination of matter gradually develops into a complete body. The same principle exists in the universal creation: the ingredients were present, but only when the Lord entered into the material elements was matter actually agitated. That is the cause of creation. We can see this in our ordinary experience. Although we may have clay, water and fire, the elements take the shape of a brick only when we labor to combine them. Without the living energy, there is no possibility that matter can take shape. Similarly, this material world does not develop unless agitated by the Supreme Lord as the virāṭ-puruṣa. Yasmād udatiṣṭhad asau virāṭ: by His agitation, space was created, and the universal form of the Lord also manifested therein.

etad aṇḍaṁ viśeṣākhyaṁ / krama-vṛddhair daśottaraiḥ
toyādibhiḥ parivṛtaṁ / pradhānenāvṛtair bahiḥ
yatra loka-vitāno ’yaṁ / rūpaṁ bhagavato hareḥ

etat—this; aṇḍam—egg; viśeṣa-ākhyam—called viśeṣa; krama—one after another; vṛddhaiḥ—increased; daśa—ten times; uttaraiḥ—greater; toya-ādibhiḥ—by water and so on; parivṛtam—enveloped; pradhānena—by pradhāna; āvṛtaiḥ—covered; bahiḥ—on the outside; yatra—where; loka-vitānaḥ—the extension of the planetary systems; ayam—this; rūpam—form; bhagavataḥ—of the Supreme Personality of Godhead; hareḥ—of Lord Hari.

This universal egg, or the universe in the shape of an egg, is called the manifestation of material energy. Its layers of water, air, fire, sky, ego and mahat-tattva increase in thickness one after another. Each layer is ten times bigger than the previous one, and the final outside layer is covered by pradhāna. Within this egg is the universal form of Lord Hari, of whose body the fourteen planetary systems are parts.

PURPORT: This universe, or the universal sky which we can visualize with its innumerable planets, is shaped just like an egg. As an egg is covered by a shell, the universe is also covered by various layers. The first layer is water, the next is fire, then air, then sky, and the ultimate holding crust is pradhāna. Within this egglike universe is the universal form of the Lord as the virāṭ-puruṣa. All the different planetary situations are parts of His body. This is already explained in the beginning of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, Second Canto. The planetary systems are considered to form different bodily parts of that universal form of the Lord. Persons who cannot directly engage in the worship of the transcendental form of the Lord are advised to think of and worship this universal form. The lowest planetary system, Pātāla, is considered to be the sole of the Supreme Lord, and the earth is considered to be the belly of the Lord. Brahmaloka, or the highest planetary system, where Brahmā lives, is considered to be the head of the Lord.

The virāṭ-puruṣa – the universal form of the Lord