Five Levels of Experience

Ananda Wood

“In modern physics, the field of study is restricted to a physical aspect of experience. This physical aspect is described through mathematical calculations; and the calculations are applied through the development of external technologies, which fabricate instruments and machines for use by our physical bodies. Traditional conceptions are broader and more comprehensive. They describe both physical and mental aspects of experience. Their descriptions are not restricted to mathematical calculation; and their application is not concerned so much with external instruments as with the cultivation and clarification of human faculties. In short, traditional conceptions of the world are less dependent than modern physics upon the achievement of external objectives. They are more directly concerned with the education of our living faculties: through a reflection back to an underlying, subjective ground.”

The Traditional Five Elements

What is the world that nature manifests? This question is answered by the traditional conception of 'five elements', shared largely in common by Indian and European traditions.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, there is an early account of these five elements. A lady called Gārgī points out that the entire world of earthly things is actually made of the element 'water', just as a cloth is woven from thread. What then, she asks, about the element 'water'? If all things of 'earth' turn out to be made of 'water', then what is 'water' made of?

She is questioning Yājñavalkya, who replies that 'water' is made of the underlying element 'fire'. And what about 'fire'? In its turn, 'fire' is reduced to the underlying element 'air'. Similarly, 'air' is reduced to underlying 'ether'.

Even by a modern academic dating that may have grossly underestimated the age of ancient traditions, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad is over two and a half thousand years old. It describes the five elements as a conception that was then already established by ancient custom, handed down from the distant past.

For thousands of years, in India and Europe, this conception has been used to progress from the gross particularity of earthly things to the ethereal pervasiveness of space and light throughout the universe. In India, traditionally-minded people still use this conception today.

Like many ancient conceptions, this one is metaphorical. It uses the metaphor of certain physical substances to suggest a subtler and more basic analysis of our experience. But what does the metaphor mean? How might it be interpreted in more abstract, modern terms? Since it is a metaphor that has been used over thousands of years, by many different people, we must expect that it can be interpreted in different ways. In the discussion that follows, one such interpretation is suggested. It is summarized in figure 1.

Through our limited senses and minds, we do not see everything at once. Instead, we see particular objects; and we conceive a material world that is made up of many such objects. Each object is a particular piece of matter, divided from other objects by boundaries in space and time.

Traditional element A modern interpretation Level of modern physics
'Earth' Matter Material objects
'Water' Energy Changing configurations
'Fire' Information Relative observations
'Air' Conditioning Conditioned fields
'Ether' Continuity Space-time continuum

This divisible matter corresponds fairly obviously to the traditional element 'earth'. In a classical Indian metaphor, the particular objects of the world are conceived to be formed from the element 'earth' as pots are formed from clay.

At first, the world of particular objects seems solid. But, upon further investigation, it is not so. As objects interact, they are caught in a constant process of formation and transformation. When changing time is taken into account, our solid-seeming world is shown to be only an instant snapshot: a momentary picture taken at a particular instant of time. As time flows, the objects of the world keep changing. Each moment that we look, what we have seen keeps vanishing, transformed into something else.

Through this examination, the seeming solidity of objects gives way to a fluidity of changing forms. It is then clear that matter is not the only element in our experience of the world. In addition to the concrete particularity of matter, we experience a second, more fundamental element – which may be called 'energy'.

This second element, of energy, is manifested in moving activity; and it thus produces the changing forms of objects in the world. It is associated with the fluidity of change, which makes it correspond to the traditional element called 'water'.

Through the changing flow of energetic activity, information travels from place to place. This enables us to observe the world. Each observer receives information that represents other things. These represented things are then illuminated by observing them, from a particular point of view.

So, beyond matter and energy, information is a third element of our experience. By representing other things, it throws a particular light on them; and it thus corresponds to the traditional element called 'fire'.

We do not directly observe the matter and energy in the world outside our bodies and our measuring instruments. External matter and energy are only observed through the representations of information that our instruments have received. In this sense, information is more fundamental than matter and energy.

In its turn, information depends on something further still. In order to represent anything, information depends upon a comparison of represented conditioning. For example, a map shows some places close together and other places further apart. Or it may show how various places are cooler or hotter: by comparative shades of colour, or by numbers that spell out the comparison in a more calculated way.

Thus, beneath the information through which the world appears to us, there is a fourth element: of relative conditioning. It shows the world as conditioned by varying characteristics and qualities, in much the same way that the atmosphere is conditioned by climate. So there is another correspondence here, with the traditional element called 'air'.

In order to compare the differing characteristics of different places, there has to be an underlying continuity, which extends through space and time. This continuity is understood in a way that is rather different from our perceptions of matter. Where matter is perceived, space and time are distances that separate particular objects and events.

Where continuity is understood, space and time are not just what separates, but rather what connects. Here, distance is not separation, but a connection in between. It is the intervening connection between parts of a world that has been made to seem divided, by our limited and narrow perceptions.

Thus, beneath the differentiated conditioning of the world, there is a fifth element, of pervading continuity. This evidently corresponds to the traditional element called 'ether'. It is described as the subtlest element, pervading the entire world.

In this kind of way, the 'five elements' can be interpreted as different levels, which get mixed up, in our experience of the world. These same five levels can be seen in modern physics. (See figure 1)

At the first level, we have Newtonian physics, where the world is described as made up from pieces of matter, which act upon one another through external force.

At the second level, physical objects are described as configurations of energy. Here, we have Einstein's principle that matter is only a concentrated form of energy. And we have quantum systems: as configurations of coordinated activity, which get disturbed by observation and other actions from outside.

At the third level, mass, energy, time and space are seen as relative measurements that depend upon the observer. They are not absolute things in themselves. Instead, they are interdependent components, in a process by which some observer receives and interprets information.

At the fourth level, there are various theories of fields. In physics, the word 'field' refers to a 'conditioned space'. The conditioning is described by attributing a mathematical value to each point of space and time. The idea is to explain phenomena, and to predict occurrences, on the basis of such mathematical descriptions of field conditioning. Relativity and quantum theory have gone a long way in this direction.

They use field calculations to describe physical phenomena, in a far more accurate and systematic way than our common sense ideas. And, in building these more accurate descriptions, modern physicists have shown that our common sense assumptions are often wrong.

In particular, our notions of separated matter are only approximations, and misleading ones at that. For many everyday purposes, our habitual assumptions work well enough to make us think that they are right. But, on closer examination, they break down. Then they have to be replaced by rather different ideas, which look deeper into our experience of the world.

At the fifth level of modern physics, there is the space-time continuum. At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists had a somewhat degraded notion of the traditional element 'ether'. They were puzzled as to how electromagnetic waves, like light, could travel through empty space.

So they thought of the 'ether' as a special kind of material substance, which invisibly filled all space. Electromagnetic waves were supposed to be carried by material vibrations in this invisible substance, like sound waves travel through vibrations in physical air.

But, as a material substance, the 'ether' was rather mystifying. To account for the tremendous speed of light, it had to vibrate extremely fast, like a very hard solid. On the other hand, it was like a very thin fluid, which penetrates through everything.

To enable the passage of light, the 'ether' had to permeate the vast emptiness of outer space, between the earth and the stars. Similarly, the 'ether' had to be present in the empty space of a vacuum tube; and it had to permeate air and water and other substances in which light travels and electromagnetic phenomena take place.

Moreover, as our planet earth moves around the sun, it must move through the 'ether', like a ball moves through physical air. Thus, on planet earth, there must be an 'ether wind'; and this must affect the speed of light, depending on whether the light travels with the wind or against it or across it. But the Michelson-Morley experiment showed that there was no such wind. So something was badly wrong.

Albert Einstein took a rather different approach. He did not think of light and electromagnetism as the result of any material substance that is somehow added on to space. Instead, he saw that the transmission of light is an essential property of space itself. Light and electromagnetism are not transmitted through any material substance, but through the essential continuity that relates together the different points of space and time. So, in place of a material 'ether', Einstein developed the conception of a 'space-time continuum'.

In Einstein's conception, the mechanics of matter is replaced by a space-time geometry. The world is no longer pictured through material objects and substances, mechanically acting upon each other in three dimensional space.

Instead, the world is conceived through events – which are related to each other by geometry, in four-dimensional space and time. The geometry connects events, into a space-time continuum. All events and happenings are partial manifestations of this continuum, as it is seen differently by the different observers who travel through it.

This space-time continuum is much truer to the ancient concept of 'ether'. In India, the word for 'ether' is 'ākāśa'. It is an old Sanskrit word, which means 'pervading space'. On the one hand, it is commonly used for the overarching space of sky, beyond the atmosphere. And on the other hand, it is philosophically used for the pervasion of space and time within particular objects and locations: as for example when talking of the 'ākāśa' within a pot, or within a person's body and mind.

There is, however, a significant difference between modern physics and traditional conceptions of the universe:

  • In modern physics, the field of study is restricted to a physical aspect of experience. This physical aspect is described through mathematical calculations; and the calculations are applied through the development of external technologies, which fabricate instruments and machines for use by our physical bodies.
  • Traditional conceptions are broader and more comprehensive. They describe both physical and mental aspects of experience. Their descriptions are not restricted to mathematical calculation; and their application is not concerned so much with external instruments as with the cultivation and clarification of human faculties.

In short, traditional conceptions of the world are less dependent than modern physics upon the achievement of external objectives. They are more directly concerned with the education of our living faculties: through a reflection back to an underlying, subjective ground.*

[*In Sanskrit, the word for 'field' is 'kṣetra'. And, as in modern physics, the word does not refer only to an agricultural field, but also to a subtle conditioning of space and time, underlying the manifestation of the world to our senses and minds. In the Chāndogya Upaniṣad 8.3.2, it is said:

Those who do not rightly know
a field where golden treasure lies
keep passing over it, but may not find it

So also all these creatures entered here, day after day,
in this world where all completeness is both shining goal
and ever-present ground. They do not discover it;
for they are kept distracted, by unreality.

In this passage, the distracting 'unreality' may be interpreted as the changing manifestation of the field – like the changing contours, plants, flowers and fruits of an agricultural field. The shining treasure is the changeless reality of the underlying ground – which is entirely complete, immediately underfoot. Each creature seen moving in the field is not a true knower of the field, but only a changing manifestation of the known field. The only true knower is the ground itself, supporting each creature and everything else in the field.]

For an illustration of such a reflection, we can return to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, in which Gārgī questions Yājñavalkya about the five elements. And when she asks what underlies the fifth element, 'ether', he gives her various mythological replies – about worlds of celestial spirits; about further worlds of the sun and moon and stars; about worlds of Indra (chief of gods) and Prajāpati (the divine creator); and finally about the world of Brahman, which is all totality.

And when she goes on to ask what underlies this world of Brahman, he points out that she has asked an illegitimate question (since there is nothing left to question, beyond the totality of everything).

For the moment, he has won the argument; so she falls silent, as he is questioned by other people. But she is not satisfied with the mythology; so she thinks a bit and comes back a little later to the argument, with a more careful question. She asks:

Consider all that's said to be:

above the heavens, below the earth,

in heaven and earth and in between;

including all there ever was,

is now, and will in future be.

In what is all that woven, warp and woof?

Yājñavalkya replies:

All of that is woven,

warp and woof, in 'ether'.

What is going on here, in this argument? What could it mean to say that all the world is 'woven, warp and woof, in “ether”'? If the word 'ether' describes an underlying continuity of space and time, then it clearly implies that different parts of the world are essentially interconnected, beneath their seeming separation. But what is the nature of this interconnection? What does it finally show? That is the drift of Gārgī's last question, as she goes on to ask:

In what is 'ether'

woven, warp and woof?

Then, at last, Yājñavalkya gives Gārgī a direct reply, which settles her persistent questioning:

Those who investigate reality

describe it as the 'changeless'.

It is not coarse, nor yet refined;

it is not long or short.

In it, no shadow brings obscurity;

there's no obstruction to be cleared.

It is not 'air', nor 'ether'.

Connection and relationship

do not apply to it. Nor do

any qualities, like taste and smell.

It has no eyes, no ears, no speech,

no mind; it is not sharp, nor has it

vital energy, nor any face, nor measure.

Nor does it consume, nor is consumed.

It has no outside, no inside.

This same changeless principle

is not the seen. It is the see-er.

It is not heard; it is the hearer.

It is not thought; it is the thinker.

It is not known; it is the knower.

Apart from it, there is no see-er.

Apart from it, there is no hearer.

Apart from it, there is no thinker.

Apart from it, there is no knower.

In just this unchanging principle,

the [all-pervading] 'ether'

is woven, warp and woof.

Thus, underlying the universal continuity of 'ether', Yājñavalkya identifies a changeless principle of pure subjectivity. He says that it is not what's seen or heard or thought or known. It is not an object of any kind. In particular: 'It is not known; it is the knower'. And: 'Apart from it, there is no knower.' In other words, it is a common principle of consciousness, underlying all experience of the world. From just that underlying consciousness, the five elements arise, as a succession of levels in the appearance of the world.

Accordingly, in traditional cosmologies, the whole world's creation may be described as an arising of the five elements – from an underlying subjectivity. Such a description is given in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad:

Appearing of Reality Perceiving instrument Examining disciplines Level of physics
Pieces of matter Physical body Physical sciences Materials objects
Patterns of Energy Living Organism Biological Sciences Transforming Configurations
Meaningful Information Conceiving Intellect Cultural Sciences Relative Descriptions
Conditioned Character Intuitive Judgement Psychological Sciences Field Conditionings
Continuing Existence Reflective Reason Philosophical Enquiry Space-time Continuum

Non-dual consciousness

From this same self,

'ether' has arisen;

from 'ether', 'air';

from 'air', 'fire';

from 'fire', 'water';

from 'water', 'earth'.

How can we interpret this subjective arising of the world, in modern terms? One such interpretation is summarized in figure 2 (above):

  • At the level of 'earth', reality appears through pieces of matter, perceived by our physical bodies. This is the level specifically studied in physical sciences: like physics, chemistry, geology and astronomy. As modern physics shows, even these sciences uncover deeper levels which require a reflection back into the minds of enquiring scientists.
  • At the level of 'water', reality appears through patterns of energy: observed by us as living organisms, who share in the patterns of energy that we observe. This organic level of experience is studied in 'life' sciences: like biology and medicine.
  • At the level of 'fire', reality appears through meaningful information, interpreted through our conceiving intellects. This conceptual level of experience is studied in cultural and symbolic sciences: like the history of thought, the anthropology of culture and many of the humanities.
  • At the level of 'air', reality appears through conditioned character and quality, contrasted and compared by our intuitive judgements. This level of comparative conditioning is studied in psychological sciences: like ethics and psychotherapy and sciences of meditation and mind development.
  • At the level of 'ether', reality appears through the continuity of common existence, discerned and clarified through reflective reason. This is a comprehensive level of experience, where common principles are understood beneath the variations of particular instances and differing phenomena. This comprehensive level is specifically studied in philosophical disciplines, through their skeptical questioning of superficial appearances and accepted beliefs that are usually taken for granted.
  • But philosophical enquiry is not restricted to any particular discipline or group of disciplines. It occurs essentially in all disciplines: whenever something is found not to fit into current ideas, so that there is a questioning of underlying principles.
  • Underlying all levels of appearance, the Hindu tradition identifies an unchanging ground of consciousness. This is no level of appearance, but reality itself – where all appearances are found dissolved.
  • Thus, the five elements are treated as showing a division of apparent experience, supported by an underlying ground. The division is called 'pañcī-karaṇa' or 'making five'. When this division is applied to the manifested universe as a whole, it results in the five elements (called the 'pañca-mahābhūtas'). But the same division may also be applied to other fields of experience.

In particular, when applied to the personality that perceives the world, this fivefold division gives rise to the 'pañca-kośas' or 'five coverings' of personality:

  • The outermost covering is the 'annamaya-kośa', or the 'covering of food'. It is the material body: made of the element 'earth', and thus perceiving a world of material objects outside.
  • Proceeding inwards, the second covering is the 'prāṇamaya-kośa', or the 'covering of living energy'. This describes a layer of personality that may be conceived as a living organism, functioning through purposeful activity. It is made of the element 'water', and it observes a functioning world of purposeful energy and activity.
  • The third covering is the 'manomaya-kośa', or the 'covering of mind'. It is the conceiving intellect: made of the element 'fire', and thereby interpreting an intelligible world of meaningful information.
  • The fourth covering is the 'vijñānamaya-kośa' or the 'covering of discernment'. This describes the discerning sensibility of intuitive judgement. It is made of the element 'air', and thus carries out the contrasts and comparisons that show a qualitative world of motivating value.
  • The innermost covering is the 'ānandamaya-kośa', or the 'covering of happiness'. It is made of the element 'ether', and it enables an integrated understanding of common and continuing principles.
  • Within these five coverings of personality, there is at last the pure consciousness of knowing self – which is at once each person's inmost center and the supporting ground of everything perceived in the objective world.

Similarly, there is a fivefold division of mind: into ahaṅkāra or ego, citta or will, buddhi or intellect, manas or sensibility, and antaḥkaraṇa or understanding. (Literally, 'antaḥkaraṇa' is the 'inner faculty'.)

Further, there are five prānas or vital functions (prāna or forward functioning, apāna or reactive functioning, udāna or aspirational functioning, vyāna or disseminating functioning, and samāna or assimilative functioning).

There are five senses of perception (smell, taste, sight, touch and sound: corresponding in that order to 'earth', 'water', 'fire', 'air' and 'ether'). And there are five faculties of action (upastha or reproduction,pāyu or expulsion, vāk or expression, pāda or movement, and pāṇi or holding – the order is rather uncertain).

These fivefold divisions are used – together with the threefold division of nature's constituting qualities – in various cosmological and psychological descriptions.

But it is understood that they all arise from a subjective ground to which they must keep on returning, continually, in order to resolve their differences.

(This article is an excerpt from Sri Ananda Wood’s book: “Ways to Truth: A View of the Hindu Tradition”. It is available from D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.)

[Ananda Wood is a disciple of the Sage Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon (1883 - 1959). He was born in 1947. His upbringing and school education took place in Mumbai, India. He obtained his bachelors degree in mathematics and theoretical physics at King's College, Cambridge, UK and his doctorate in anthropology (with specialization in Indian tradition) at the University of Chicago, USA. After his university education, he returned home to India, where he worked for some years as a junior industrial executive. He has now settled down to work from home in the city of Pune, on a long-standing interest in the modern interpretation of Advaita philosophy.]