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(Bettina Bäumer)

vi¿avab¢japraroh¡rthaÆ m£l¡dh¡ratay¡ sthitam;

dhart¤¿aktimayaÆ vande dhara¸¢r£pam¢¿varam.


                           I pay obeisance to the supporting energy of the Lord

                           in the form of the earth

                           which remains established as the prime base

                           for sprouting the seed of the universe.

                                                                        Abhinava Bh¡rat¢

                                                                        Ma¸gala¿loka (in praise of the first

                                                                        of the five elements)

Indian Art, both conceptually and in practice, is embedded in a world-view and cosmology, which is based on the fundamental elements (mah¡bh£t¡ni): earth, water, fire, wind and ether (space). We find a system of correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, linking the gross and subtle levels, as is evident in the Vedic as well as Ëgamic traditions. This conception finds its immediate application in ritual, which can serve as a key to these relationships and to the rich symbolism implied. The correspondences between the elements, in their gross and subtle aspects, sense-perceptions, and human emotive states have been elaborated at all levels of the Indian tradition.

All these conceptions and practices have influenced the Indian aesthetic theories, and have found expression in the different media of the Arts. Taking the mah¡bh£tas as the concrete starting-point, these interrelationships can be examined in the case of each art-form. They appear at different levels: at the level of the material, at the level of the creative process and artistic articulation, at the level of communication and aesthetic receptivity.

Besides the aesthetic and symbolical dimensions of the mah¡bh£tas, their ecological importance should not be forgotten. Man formed by such a tradition lived in harmony with his surroundings and expressed a deep reverence towards the earth on which he dwells, the air he breathes, the water which purifies and gives life, the fire that transforms, and space which gives him the vastness to live. When he draws ma¸·alas on the ground, their symbolism of colour and form gives expression to this relationship. When he pours offerings into the sacred fire, he is conscious of the power and manifold nature of the element, and so forth.

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has since its beginning been concerned with fundamental themes underlying the Indian Arts, exploring them in all possible directions and thus opening a new and deeper under-standing of the artistic traditions. After exploring the concepts of Space and Time,[i] another basic theme has been examined in its various dimensions in several seminars: the concept of the cosmic elements which have been classified as five in the Indian tradition.[ii]

A Seminar on The Role of the Elements (mah¡bh£tas) in the Indian Arts and their Ëgamic Background has been held at IGNCA, New Delhi, from March 12-14, 1992, of which the papers are presented in this Volume.

Our life depends on the cosmic elements - earth, water, fire, air and space - but we are rarely conscious of this fact, whether in our own body or in our environment. Any discussion on the elements should lead us to a greater and more immediate awareness of this dependence and to a cosmic sense of responsibility, otherwise it is a futile academic exercise.

The arts, as any human activity which needs a material support, are a sublimation of the elements, "transformation of nature in art", in Coomaraswamy's formulation. Every art-form has its own immediate material, but it uses all the other elements and their transformations in one way or another. It was one of the scopes of this Seminar to explore the relationship between specific art-forms and the elements predominating in them, not only in their material aspect, but in their symbolic function and quality. Water does not only mean the physical element but the quality of fluidity and the symbol of life; fire does not only mean a burning flame, but the quality of intensity, of heat and burning, etc. The texts are full of descriptions of the qualities and symbolic value of the elements.

But the elements or mah¡bh£tas in their gross form are part of a whole cosmology and cosmogony. Their role in cosmogony cannot be discussed here, because it would require a separate treatment. But we have to place the elements in the total scheme of cosmology which is the system of the tattvas –whether 25 as in S¡Ækhya or 36 as in the Ëgamas. The system of the tattvas presents a perfect ecological balance. Ecology in the modern Western sense is limited to nature and remains artificially cut-off from the mental and spiritual dimensions, whereas the system of tattvas contains everything: the gross elements (bh£ta) cannot be separated from the subtle (tanm¡tra), nor from the sense-organs (indriya), and beyond them to the subtler mental faculties. Even the latest theories of modern physics have again discovered that the observer cannot be left out of the picture, that the observed is not just an 'object'.

In the system of the tattvas the elements are the basis of the pyramid, and the ascent is from gross to subtle and beyond: sth£la, s£kÀma and para cannot be separated. Thus the theme of this Seminar on the bh£tas should not be and has not been understood as a limitation, but as a, starting-point. The elements are the very basis of the universe, and any sublimation has to start from them. Or, seen from the other side, there is an evolution from the supreme (para) to the subtle and from there to the gross elements.

In another aspect, too, the elements are all-pervading, that is in the symbolic field. Where they are not present materially, they are present symbolically. At all the levels, even the most subtle and spiritual, we find elemental symbolism. As an example we may mention the three yogic n¡·¢s being identified with sun, moon and fire.

If we agree that the tattvas present a complete scheme and an ecological balance, we have to address ourselves to two important issues:


                     1. In actual practice cosmology becomes manifested in ritual, life style, festivals and art.

            How are the Indian arts manifesting, expressing, integrating this cosmological scheme in their different media?

                        How does the concept take on flesh and form and sound and movement?

                        What are the methods of transferring this cosmology into the visual and audible form that we ca.11 art?

                     2. We should not adopt a complacent attitude with regard to the Indian tradition, as if everything were in harmony. We should rather seriously ask ourselves why it is that a, tradition with such a wisdom in relation to nature has fallen into such neglect of nature and has allowed an ecological disaster to happen in its own environment. Can our reflections on these inter-relations between cosmology, ritual and the arts be more than a romantic looking back to a lost harmony, and can they create an awareness of the urgent need of the hour? Can the arts, and the theory or philosophy supporting them, become an instrument of integration and ecological aware-ness, instead of being cut off from their context and used as an isolated act of entertainment for the privileged few?


It is here where the Ëgamas / Tantras can play a crucial role of mediation, with their integration of the senses and of matter into spirituality.

Here a word of explanation on the limitation and scope of the topic of this Volume is necessary.

There is no doubt that, at least in the Indian context, the arts have grown out of a re-enactment, of the cosmos, of human life and of the Divine, which we may call, for lack of better word, ritual. Whether it is the Vedic sacrifice Ëgamic temple-ritual or personal puja, it always involves symbolic forms like the shapes of the Vedic altars, cosmic ma¸·alas, yantras, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, etc. Thus ritual is all linked with different art-forms and with cosmological conceptions which are basic to all the arts. We could describe it with the symbol of a triangle:

For the sake of a more precise discussion it seemed useful to limit the scope to only one, though very vast, stream of the Indian tradition where this triangle becomes clearly manifest, that is the Ëgamic tradition. By Ëgamas we mean a I class of literatures and practice which may be áaiva, VaiÀ¸ava or á¡kta (or even Jaina or Buddhist), but which have certain common characteristics. It would have been very tempting to include the Vedas in the same discussion, and in not doing so we do not want to emphasize a total separation of the Vedic and Ëgamic traditions, on the contrary, we will discover many threads connecting the two. We need not go here into any controversies about the relationship between Vedas and Ëgamas or Tantras, this would be besides the scope of our search here. We rather want to find the connecting threads between the three points of the triangle, that is cosmology, ritual and arts, in the context of the Ëgamic tradition.

It is an undeniable fact that, when speaking of the elements or mahabhutani, the cosmological, ritual and artistic dimensions are closely interwoven, but more often than not these are studied in isolation and not in their inter-connectedness. Thus it is the aim of this Volume to discover these connections and establish the relationships.

Though the Seminar was primarily concerned with an exploration of the Ëgamic tradition in its relation to the Arts, the ecological importance of such an exploration remained constantly in our minds, from the Introduction by the convener to the conclusion by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan. Understanding the tradition should not remain limited to a literary analysis nor to extolling the glorious past when man was in harmony with his surroundings and his activities were integrated in the rhythm of nature. It should rather help us to become more aware of the dimensions we have lost in a fragmented way of life, and to recover some of the attitudes embedded in the tradition, such as respect and reverence for the earth on which we dwell, the air we breathe, the water which purifies and nourishes us, the fire which transforms and heats, and the space which gives us room to live. In this sense this Volume is not merely historical or literary, but directed at the burning issues of present-day ecology.

The aim of the Seminar was to be achieved in five steps, and hence the articles presented here are arranged in five sections, related to the number five of the elements:

1.                   An exploration of the concepts and practices of the Ëgamas in relation to the elements, their cosmology, ritual and Yoga,

2.                   An analysis of the aesthetic theories, mainly based on the Natya-Sastra and Abhinava Bharati,

3.                   The artistic theories and techniques as found in the Sastras of the Arts,

4.                   The manifestation of the elements in the different artistic expressions, where each art-form has a special relationship with one or more of the elements, and yet all are present in one way or another, and

5.         General questions relating to the Arts and ecology.

These five points are supposed to cover the different levels where the elements underlie the Arts: the level of the material, the level of the creative process and artistic articulation, the level of symbolic relationships and the level of communication and aesthetic receptivity.

In this Introduction I can only give a short survey of the rich material presented in the papers, to show the connecting link.

The Agama, ritual and Yoga in relation to the elements was presented from the Vaisnava Paficaratra tradition by P.P. Apte, from the point of view of the dualistic and non-dualistic Saivagamas by H.N. Chakravarty, S.P. Sabarathi-nam and S.S. Janaki respectively. From these presentations several common features of these different schools emerged, which are independent of their respective theologies. One of these common features is the importance of ritual purification of the elements in the body, called bh£ta&ddhi. Any ritual re-quires the purification of the worshipper's gross and subtle body which has to go through the five elements, and by which the worshipper's body be-comes divinized. This process was clearly described and analyzed by P.P. Apte in the Pancaratra tradition, and by H.N. Chakravarty, S.S. Janaki and S.P. Sabarathinam in the Saivagamas.

P.P. Apte brought out another important aspect of ritual where the elements are represented in ma¸·alas with their corresponding shapes and colours. Ma¸·alas are microcosmic representations of the macrocosm, and they combine ritual and art in a unique way.

H.N. Chakravarty gave the philosophical and cosmological background of the elements in the Saivagamas, from the point of view of the non-dualistic 'Saivism of Kashmir. The five elements are the basic tattvas in the Ëgamic cosmology comprising thirtysix tattvas. The five elements are further under-stoodas forms of Siva, corresponding to the five Brahmans. The astamurti conception of Siva also accords a basic theological importance to the elements.

S.S. Janaki developed the process of bhutasuddhi in the Saiva, Siddhanta tradition and showed the correspondences of the elements with colours, forms, mantras, deities, etc. The yogic correspondences to the subtle centres in the body were also referred to S.P. Sabarathinam dealt with the ma¸·alas in the Saiva context.

All these presentations of the Ëgamic material made it clear that the elements are present at all the levels, from the physical to the subtle and spiritual, and that all these meanings are embedded in a cosmo-theology, whether it is interpreted in a dualistic or non-dualistic way. They are not only instruments of external ritual and inner purification, but they have a definite significance in the ultimate process of divinization of the devotee.

The second section is focusing on the aesthetic theories which have been largely informed by the Vedic and Ëgamic traditions. K.D. Tripathi's paper: 'From Sensuous to Supersensuous: An inquiry into some terms of Indian Aesthetics' presents a pivotal point of the Volume. Following Abhinavagupta, he went into the very process of creativity and the role of sense-experience in the process of passing from the aesthetic to the transcendent experience. He analyzed the very basic concept of rasa in the light of its elemental association with water. The aesthetic qualities of madhurya and ojas are related to the watery and fiery elements. In fact, most of the terms of Indian aesthetics can be derived from the essential qualities of the five elements. The paper made it clear that the very process of the aesthetic experience, being a process of universalization or sadharanikarana, is a transformation of the sensuous into the supersensuous. In this, the qualities of the elements are more important than their physical nature.

R. Tripathi discussed the ritual of the Rangadaivatapujana of the Natya-Sastra and the use of the elements and compared the consecration of a temple with the consecration of a theatre. However, the historical question of the dependence on the Ëgamic ritual cannot be solved easily, since the textual form of the Ëgamas is later than that of the N@+Stistru. However, the symbolism of the elements is essential in the preliminary rituals of theatre.

The third section moves from the Natya-Sastra and the aesthetic theories to the Sastric theories of the different Arts. Two papers, by Prem Lata Sharma and Mukund Lath, were devoted to Sarigitta-dtistra. P.L. Sharma analyzed the specific role of the elements and their qualities in music. Some of the elements, such as wind, play a physical role in the production of musical sound, while others are represented by their qualities. The Satighz-Rutn&uru speaks of the elements in relation to the body and mental faculties in terms of Ayurvedu, and also in their subtle meaning in terms of Yoga and of the cakras in the body.

Mukund Lath developed further the idea of  'The Body as an Instrument' in the light of the Sangita-Ratnakara, and he expanded on the process of sound-production in the human body. From both these papers it became clear that musical theory and practice is intimately linked with the human body, its physical and subtle understanding which consists of the five elements in their gross and subtle form.

My own paper entitled 'Lines of Fire, Lines of Water: the Elements in Silpasastra' was dedicated to some aspects of the elemental symbolism in Silpa-sastra, as applied to both, sculpture and architecture. This symbolism is found in the lines of the compositional diagram (panjara), which have certain qualities of the elements: the horizontal is the water-line, the vertical the fire-line, etc. The integration of the apparently opposing qualities of water and fire is found in the hexagram, a basic form of all yantras. The images created on the basis of such diagrams share the qualities of the respective elements and their combination. The human figure is also divided vertically in sections attributed to the five elements. In architecture, the symbolism of the elements is part of the general cosmic symbolism of the temple which is applied to its different parts.

Michael Meister, in his paper on 'Unity and Gravity of an Elemental Architecture', demonstrated the symbolism of the temple with the help of slides. He summarized the general idea thus: 'The temple by intention is poised between elements, always placed near water; built of and on the earth; it is itself the home of fire; its tower the embodiment of air; and its apex of ether.'

The fourth section passes on to artistic practice (prayoga) in which Ganapati Sthapati gives a summary of his vast knowledge and experience of the conceptions and practice of traditional architecture. He elaborated on Space as the primal element of architecture, and he gave much importance to the Vastupurusamandala in constructing a house or a temple.

Kapila Vatsyayan has related Indian myths and their representations in art to the questions of ecology. She has shown that myth and art have a powerful message for our ecological situation, especially in India, if we know how to read it.

The concluding section starts by a comprehensive survey of 'The Cosmic Elements in India; an Agenda of Questions' by A.R. Kelkar. He put the theme in the context of cosmology and gave a survey of different cosmological schemes, comparing them also with other Indo-European cultures, such as the Greek. His semantic analysis of central terms of the theory of art like rasa, underlined the thesis proposed by K.D. Tripathi about the elemental origin of these terms. His 'agenda of questions' presented a useful survey of possible relationships of the elements with the Arts.

However, the main stress of the last section lies in the emphasis on ecology, a link which had not been sufficiently established in the papers describing the Ëgamic and Sastric traditions. Bryan Mulvihill stressed the need for a 'cultural ecology', which is the need of the hour in a world-wide situation of exploitation of the earth, pollution and ecological disaster. All traditional cultures with their wisdom and deep respect for the elemental forces of nature have to teach modern civilization how to deal with their environment. He stated that 'perhaps no other society has developed the human interdependence with nature to such a refined and elaborate degree than the cultures of the Indian sub-continent where the relationship with the elemental forces is portrayed on every level of human and cultural expression.' Sadly, this har-monious relationship of man and nature is now very much disturbed in India itself. The author also demonstrated his thesis on the elements with the help of a Buddhist mandala structure, maybe one of the 'leitmotifs' of this seminar. His appeal was for a greater awareness of the interdependence and relationship with the elements that traditional cultures preserve. He found the reasons for the ecological disaster of our time in a 'globally embedded arrogance' and 'inflation of the ego', leading to sheer exploitation of the earth.

In her concluding speech, Kapila Vatsyayan also made a poignant appeal to link our traditional wisdom, ritual and art, with the problems of ecology in India and the world over. Tradition should not remain closed in itself, unaware of the environment, but it should play a crucial role in rediscovering the primordial relationship of man and nature.

The 'missing link' between the Ëgamic knowledge and ecology could be mentioned as one of the weaknesses of the Seminar, but it reflected faithfully the present state of affairs in India. If we can recognize this weakness and come to a greater awareness of the relevance of the cosmologies propounded in the Ëgamas, which found their expression in the various art-forms, starting from ritual itself, the Seminar would have served an important, purpose.

If at all some conclusions could be drawn, I would dare to make a general remark. It is obvious that such a rich tradition of Ëgamic cosmology, ritual, aesthetic theory and artistic practice cannot be exhausted in a few papers. But it is perhaps the sign of a living tradition that it takes the basic elements so much for granted that it is not longer aware of them. Thus, to my mind, the ground on which we stand, the earth element, prthivi or bhumi, has not been given its due importance. If this basic element alone (though of course not in isolation) could be studied in all its implications, we could come closer to a real Indian ecology.

We are grateful to Professor Kirti Trivedi, Industrial Design Centre, IIT, Bombay, for providing the slides of ma¸·alas to illustrate the article by P.P. Apte. These ma¸·alas have been created by him in association with Dr P.P. Apte, on the basis of the Pauskara Samhita.

We thank the American Institute of Indian Studies, Ramnagar, Varanasi, for providing photographs to illustrate the article by Michael Meister.

I also wish to thank the staff of IGNCA, Varanasi, for assisting me in bringing out this volume, for composing and formating the text in the computer and proof-reading. Sri S. Dorai has prepared the line-drawings after the originals provided by the authors.

Bettina Baumer

[i] Cf. Concepts of Space, Ed. by Kapila Vatsyayan New Delhi (IGNCA and Abhinav Publications) 1991, and Kalatattvakosa, Vol. II, Ed. by Bettina Baumer.

[ii] Kalatattvakosa, Vol. III will be dedicated to this theme.


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