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Ancient vision of the cosmic order has certain fundamental features that separate it from the modern science perspective. The exchange of views between the two systems of knowledge seems to be problematic. Yet, as humans, we cannot dispense with searching for our foundations.

Human science presents a picture of the cosmos as seen by man, the master of the universe. It describes the role evolution plays within the biological and cultural spheres; constructs a theory of culture as the tribal microcosm conditioned by human instincts; and creates a super-ideology of power that places man at the centre of the universe. The result of this anthropocentric attitude is that the cosmos sharing the human adventure is overwhelmed by the tension between nature and culture.

The traditional vision of man, on the contrary, is cosmocentric. Man is made up of four or five cosmic elements. The cosmic order that governs the dynamism of all reality, envelops human life, creates awareness, and signifies patterns of culture. As a result, the cosmic equilibrium is maintained both in nature and in culture. This primal vision is incontestable and fully integrated in two different but related traditions — the textual and the oral. The textual tradition offers a complete and systematic analysis of the universe. Reflections of the oral tradition are more concentrated in practice than systematic in analysis.

The essays compiled here are based on papers presented in the seminar on ‘Perceptions of Bhutas (Elements) in the Oral Tradition’ held at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in February 1992. They trace the areas where reflections on man and the universe emerge. Of these presentations, eleven are the fruits of the IGNCA pilot projects on cross-cultural lifestyle studies.

Primal Elements of the Universe

Tribal cosmogony refers to a variety of elements, some of which are self-existing and others created. For instance, the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh speak of water, cloud, mist, egg and wood as the basic elements from which all other elements are known to have originated (Saraswati). For them, as also for other archaic groups, creation is a male-female principle, allegorically termed ‘marriage’ or ‘sexual union’ (Adhikary, Prasad, Purohit, Saraswati). It has also been held that the world was created in phases by a number of heavenly bodies and not by one Creator-God, a single supreme being (Saraswati). The hunter-gatherer Birhors divide the world into two halves: the sky and the earth. There is a world beyond the sky and another below the earth. The earth is a round-shaped flat surface; the sky a hollow concave over-arching the earth. The structure of the universe is thus somewhat like a cone, similar to the structure of the Birhor leaf-hut (Adhikary).

It is curious that many of the tribes who have never seen the sea, or even large sheets of water, should visualize a primeval ocean from which the universe is said to have emerged. Another remarkable feature of the tribal vision is the notion of the pluriverse. There is, however, no clear distinction between this world and the other worlds.

Structured Sequence of Elements

The idea that the world was created in phases made the elements structured in a sequence. In the beginning was a state of nothingness. But this nothingness is described not as an absolute void. Before the earth was created, everything was water, or cloud, or nothing, nothing at all but two eggs which shone like gold. From that state of nothingness came the earth and the sky; and when the sky made love to the earth, every kind of tree and grass and all living creatures came into being (Saraswati). The Santhals claim that water and earth came first, air fourth, man fifth and fire was sixth and the last (Prasad). In the Garhwal Himalayas, the sequence is visualized as follows: from the mysterious syllable onkar to the primeval whizzing; from whizzing air; from air clouds; from clouds water; from water to lotus; and from lotus the creator Brahma was born. In yet another sequence of creation, the earth was first and afterwards the sky; first female then male; first night then day; first guru then disciple; first daughter then son (Dhasmana).

The archaic cultures developed their own jargon, just as the modern specialists have complex theories. The tribal notion of the beginning of the universe as ‘not absolutely void’ seems to be in line with the scientific cosmology. The archaic realization of the origin of the universe from a primeval sound is another interesting resemblance with the theories in modern physics.

Gross and Subtle Elements

The primal elements are said to have personal (material) as well as spiritual attributes. The Angami Nagas assign positive quality to water, and both positive and negative qualities to fire. Water is perceived to have cleansing properties; fire, though not capable of cleansing, is regarded as an agent of good and bad fortunes (Joshi). The Bhuiyans ascribe sacredness to all five elements. The earth is associated with their entire lifestyle, rituals and festivals. Fire is an object of worship; it is kindled in a special manner. It epitomizes the fundamental principle of the cosmic order. The power of water is utilized against evil. It is also a medium for transferring sin or impurity to the enemies. For the Bhuiyans the sky and the sun are synonymous. The sun and the earth are always viewed as benevolent deities. The ritual act of blowing (air) heals the sick (Mohanty). The Birhor hunters believe that fire also has life and death; the sun is the supreme creator of all things on earth; a female presides over the earth; and there are deities of rain and storm, thunder and meteor, wind and so on (Adhikary). The marine fishers of Kerala think that every element has a spirit or demon (Mathur). The farmers of Karnataka worship the earth, consider water divine and fire auspicious, associate air or wind with life, and regard the sky as a home for the countless celestial bodies (Chandran).

These examples make a great impression on the gross and the subtle aspects of an element; but the cognitive distinction between them remains unexplained. According to Adhikary, the Birhors think that the deities who control the elements are the natural phenomena superior to man. Purohit, reporting on the folk myths of Garhwal, observes that a recognizable pattern of the gross and the subtle is found in the form of the concrete matter and the all-powerful souls of gods, goddesses, men, animals and birds. All souls are believed to be the subtle form of the five basic elements. Khubchandani cites an example of the incarnation of the Sindhi’s lord of the river in a family of boatman. Thus three types of cognitive distinctions are identifiable:

(i) in the tribal perception the gross and the subtle are inter locked;

(ii) in the folk beliefs the two levels overlap;

(iii) at a higher abstraction, the reality of the subtler plane is responsible for the reality of the grosser plane.

Integral View of Man and Nature

The Arunachal tribes consider man as an integral part of nature. In their perception man is not unique insofar as his origin is concerned. There is no ontological difference between man and non-man. Every element has a form, a location, a function and a dependent relation with other elements. Man is not unique even in the possession of knowledge; for primordial knowledge came to him from birds and animals (Saraswati). The Santhals also think of man and nature as an inseparable whole. According to them the human body is made up of three elements — air, earth and water (Prasad). Different parts of the body are associated with different elements — head and ears with sky, neck and chest with air, stomach with fire, and body with earth (Mital). Thus man as a microcosm fits harmoniously with the macrocosm, both being subject to the rule of the sphere (Patnaik). There are examples of human groups claiming their origin from one specific element. The Bhuiyans (derived from bhumi, land) associate themselves with earth (Mohanty), and the Birhors (bir = forest, hor = man) with forest (Adhikary). In Karnataka each caste of craftsmen is associated with one of the five elements (Brouwer). The fact of an intrinsic relationship between the human body and elements of nature is ritually demonstrated by the Paiks of Orissa. Their danda ritual involves group pantomimes on the ground (rolling in dust), acrobating in water, walking on burning coal, and swinging upside down on burning ashes (Citaristi).

In traditional lifestyles nature is an arena for the play of man. Man’s understanding of the natural phenomena depends on his attitude towards nature, and the kind of relationship he establishes with the natural environment. The analysis of the myths of Arunachal tribes shows that in the tribal perception the forces of nature are set into a creative harmony to the extent that there is no intrinsic disorder in nature (Saraswati). In the Santhal worldview all opposites are united by the male-female principle: air-water, seed-earth, earth-sky, dry-wet, and so on. Fire symbolizes destruction and water restores the world order (Prasad).

This ancient vision of spiritualized nature has been destroyed by the modern ‘technocentric’ civilization. Reporting on the pastoral transhumants in the Garhwal Himalayas, Negi observes that although man and animal are still symbiotically related, man’s relationship with nature (ecology) has turned parasitic. Miri’s analysis of the Lingami Naga stories shows how man-animal-nature continuum has been disrupted in today’s tribal consciousness.

Oral and Textual Modes of Perception

The discussion on the five-element theory in oral tradition has shown that different categories of people — the hunter-gatherer, the fisher, the farmer, and the pastoral transhumant — visualize, more or less, the same basic pattern of the universe. Minor variations occur only in the specificity of the ecological conditions and social systems. Since the basic elements of nature are the same everywhere, one can understand perceptual similarity among many of the preliterate groups.

The oral mode presents an experiential view of the environment that co-ordinates human life in concrete terms with things and beings around. The textual mode, on the contrary, provides instruments for logical analysis that takes one to a higher level of abstraction. The question, then, is: does the difference in the mode of perception constrain the projection of reality ? Several contributors to this volume (Brouwer, Dhasmana, Mathur, Patnaik, Verma) have demonstrated that as far as India’s traditional cosmology is concerned, there is little difference between the oral and the textual views. This again stands to reason, because India’s wider system of beliefs and practices has been operating through crossed-link populations from time immemorial.

How does traditional cosmology work across civilizations ? As appears from Tan Chung’s investigation of the ancient Chinese cosmology, the belief that the world is made up of material elements is deeply rooted in human thinking. Of the five elements of the Chinese tradition — water, fire, wood, metal and earth — only metal does not figure in the Indian system of basic elements. There are areas of conspicuous similarities in the two traditions. Both the civilizations share in common views on the gross and the subtle aspects of elements, on the fivefold constitution of man and the universe, on the association of elements with colour, sensory organs, emotions, etc., inter-relatedness of the five elements through a chain of reactions, understanding the world in terms of the male-female principle, and the idea that opposites form a harmonious whole.

The IGNCA has planned a number of conferences devoted to the study of the basic elements in the ancient philosophies and modern sciences. This venture, being the first in the series, may seem to be largely descriptive; but, whatever the form, it does show that the search for the human foundation has been a common concern of both spiritual and scientific enquiries.

Baidyanath Saraswati


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