MAN IN NATURE
Akasa, From Space to Spacelessness
Medieval Indian Mystics' Concept of Akasa
S. G. Tulpule
What is Akasa, the last among the five elements? It is certainly not the sky, which is the region of space visible from the earth. The sky consists of atmosphere which extends hundreds of miles above the earth. Its colours result from the scattering of sunlight by the gas molecules and dust particles in the atmosphere. This description of the sky does not apply to Akasa which exists even beyond the atmosphere and is colourless. Then what is Akasa? It is certainly not ether; this is supposed to be a subtle fluid filling and pervading the whole universe and becoming the peculiar vehicle of life and of sound. Akasa is also not just vacuity. Akasa exists, while vacuity does not exist.
Thus, the term Akasa slowly enters the field of the mysterious. But we get a clue to its mystery in compounded words like hrdayakasa and mahadakasa, ghatakasa and mathakasa, which indicate akasa bound and unbound, or limited and unlimited. Jnanesvar speak even of Gitakasa, the akasa of the Bhagavadgita.1 But that is only a poetical image and nothing more. The compound words I have mentioned tend to suggest that Akasa is space — space confined or not confined. Considered this way, the term Akasa may be said to be a partial synonym of the term avakasa. In fact, Jnanesvar has used these two terms synonymously, e.g.,
We have thus to interpret the term akasa as space and this interpretation befits the peculiar position of Akasa in the fivefold scheme of the mahabhutas, or the Elements. The other four elements are cognizable, some even perceptible. But Akasa is different. As space, it continues in all directions and has no known limits. It is wrong to say that space begins where the earth’s atmosphere ends or is too thin to affect objects moving through it. That would be equivalent to saying that space begins about 100 miles (or 160 km) above the earth, a statement that negates the very definition of space. Writers on astronomy have divided space into different parts, such as Cislunar space, or the space between the earth and the moon; Interplanetary space, reaching far beyond Pluto, the planet most distant from the earth; Interstellar space, or the space between stars, reaching unimaginable distances; and Intergalactic space, or the space between galaxies. Now, such a division of the contiguous space might have its practical advantages, but the very idea of dividing space into different strata seems strange.
The doctrine of Akasa, or space, as the origin of all things, came rather late in the history of Upanisadic thought. Also in Greek philosophy, the concept of space as the arche of things appeared very late. With Thales, Anaximenes, Heracleitus and Empedocles we meet the conceptions of water, air, fire, and earth, either individually or collectively. It is only when we come to the time of Philolaus that we get to the notion of space as the arche of all things. The first four elements, namely Prthivi, Ap, Tejas and Vayu are more or less tangible; but for Akasa to be regarded as the origin of all things requires a higher philosophical imagination. That we find in the Chandogyopanisad in the answer given by Pravahana Jaivali to the question: asya lokasya ka gatih? What is the final habitat of all things? He answered, it was space: akasa iti havaca. He further clarified his statement saying: "All these beings emerge from space and are finally absorbed in space; space is verily greater than any of these things; space is the final habitat": sarvani ha va imani bhutani akasadeva samutpadyante, akasam pratyastam yanti|akaso hi eva ebhyo jyayan, akasah parayanam ||3 This passage from the Chandogya is corroborated by another passage from the same Upanisad where we are told that "space is really higher than fire. In space are both the sun and the moon, the lightning and the stars. It is by the space that man is able to call. In space and after space are all things born. Meditate upon space as the highest reality": akaso vav tejaso bhuyan|akase vai suryacandramasavubhau|vidyunnaksatranyagnih akasenahvyati|akase jayate|akasamabhijayate|akasamupasveti ||4
Thus, space is regarded as a higher entity than any of the conceptions that have hitherto been reached. In fact, space is, to put it in the words of the Chandogya itself, tajjalana, a cryptic term the Upanisad uses to name that from which all things spring, into which they are resolved and in which they live and have their being.5 This analogous development of cosmogony in Greek and Upanisadic philosophical thought can best be explained, as Ranade suggests, by the theory of Independent Parallelism.6
Seen on this Upanisadic background, the contribution of the mystics of medieval India to the conception of Akasa looks significant. Almost all of them interpret Akasa as space and use it as an imagery to give expression to their mystical experience. Jnanesvar, for example, explains the identity between the Nama and the Nami on the analogy of Akasa which is its own support.7 In his most poetical commentary on the phrase Acaryopasanam of the Bhagavadgita (13.8), Jnanesvar says that after physical death, a disciple merges into the space inside his heart, into the space where his Guru lives.8 Tukaram, in his famous abhanga beginning with the words anuraniya thokada, recited most meaningfully by Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, declares that he has become smaller than an atom and as spacious as the sky. The poem is a masterpiece of his mystical experience and I feel here tempted to render it into English thus:
Ramadas has a novel way of explaining the term Akasa. It is called Akasa because, according to him, it lives in all the five bhutas: pancabhutamadhye vas |mhanini bolije akasa ||.10 This definition of Akasa brings out its nature and meaning very clearly. But Ramadas is also aware of the danger of Akasa being identified with the Brahman, or the ultimate Reality. A metaphor like Kham Brahma is well-known. It tries to bring out the similarity and not the identity between space and Reality. But the metaphor is so often used and the similarity so often shown that one finally identifies the two. When all is said and done, Akasa still remains a mahabhuta, a great Element, but thinking, or rather poetising, gives it the status of the highest Reality. Ramadas has taken great pains to disprove this imaginary identity between space and Reality. A whole sub-section of his Dasabodha is devoted to distinguishing between Akasa on the one hand and svarupa, or vastu, or brahman, all identical terms, on the other.11 The Dasabodha is written in the form of a dialogue between the Guru and his disciple — a guru-sisya samvada — and the sub-section I am referring to begin with a statement of the Guru to the effect that Akasa is avakasarupa, it is hollow, spotless and steady; it pervades all; it is the one among the many; it contains all the other four mahabhutas; and it is like svarupa. On this is a question from the disciple: "If both are alike, why not call Akasa svarupa, or svatahsiddha vastu?" Ramadas answers as follows: "Vastu is nirguna, without quality, while Akasa has seven qualities: kama, krodha, soka, moha, bhaya, ajnana and sunyatva. Therefore, Akasa is a bhuta and cannot be equated with vastu or svarupa, or the form of the Self, which is absolute. How can a bhuta and Ananta be one? Glass-tiled floor and water look alike, but knowers know the difference". However, this argument does not silence the disciple. He is still in doubt. His next question is: "If Akasa is basically arupa, formless, then why not identify it with vastu (which is also without any form)? The other four bhutas come to an end, but Akasa is endless and so is Brahman. Then why not identify the two?" On this question of the disciple, Ramadas has an answer to give. It is this: "Akasa is known as sunya or, void, and ignorance is its characteristic. Sunya, or void, is ajnana, ignorance, and Akasa is typically void. Ajnana is mixed up with Akasa, and that ajnana is destroyed by jnana. Naturally, Akasa, like ajnana, is destructible, while svarupa, being jnana, is not. Akasa and svarupa look alike, but there remains the difficulty of sunyatva, or voidness, in identifying the two. It is like unmani and susupti, or the transcendent and the sleeping states, which appear the same, but are different. Secondly, says Ramadas, Akasa is seen as distinct from its seer, while in the case of svarupa, the seer becomes one with the svarupa. Thirdly, Akasa is experienced, but svarupa is beyond experience. Who is there to experience svarupa when one becomes svarupa oneself? Therefore, the two cannot be one." Here Ramadas differs from Sankara who defines the Brahman as Akasa (akasah tallingat) in his commentary on the Brahmasutras.
The gist of the whole argument of Ramadas is that Akasa is the most convenient and handy expression to describe the Brahman which pervades the universe, but it cannot be the Brahman itself for the reasons given above. In other words, space cannot be equated with something that is spaceless, that is the Brahman, or Svarupa, or Vastu.12 It is exactly here that medieval Indian poet-saints make an absolutely original contribution to the philosophy of mysticism. They do entertain and make use of the concept of Akasa to describe Brahman, or the ultimate Reality. But on rare occasions they go beyond it and enter the field of spacelessness. It is a void, but not of the nature of an abyss or a bottomless pit, but of the nature of the vast and expansive space itself. It is this spacelessness, or infinitude, that is at the core of their mystical experience. Among the many medieval Indian mystics I have selected two, one from the North and the other from the South. Kabir represents the north and Kudaluresa represents the south. Kabir has a special term to denote the concept of spacelessness. It is sunya, meaning ‘void’. Constructing a metaphor of the fabulous Anal bird who is supposed to make its nest in the air without ever touching the earth, Kabir says:
This concept of ‘void’ seems to be a favourite of Kabir’s:
Even this ‘void’ is transgressed by Kabir as can be seen from the following couplet:
All have gone up to the boundary, but no one has crossed the boundary. Kabir plays in the maidan which is the open space of behad, the limitless.15
Here Kabir uses the term had to denote bounded or limited space. Behad is an antonym of had and means unbounded or unlimited. According to Kabir, we are all living within the limits of space. As the girl in the German film ‘Ein stuck Himmel’ can see only a very small patch of the sky and not the whole sky, in a similar way our experience of the Divine is limited or bounded by our worldly existence. It is only a mystic like Kabir who can transgress the limit and become the Infinite. We see on the television screen astronauts walking in space. But Kabir is a super astronaut. He not only walks but also plays, and that too not in space, but in the spaceless. Elsewhere he has used the phrase, avinasi ki god "the lap of the eternal", to denote the idea of spacelessness.
A parallel to Kabir’s experience of the behad is found in a poem by Kudaluresa from Karnataka.16 It begins with the words nodiri brahmanatava ‘Behold the sport of Brahman’, and goes on describing this sport in the Upanisadic fashion. Kudaluresa concludes the description of his experience of the Reality in very significant words, I quote from the original: bayalige bayilu nirbayilu tanadaddu "This God is shining in the spaceless space". Now, bayalige bayalu nirbayalu is a very special idiom in the Kannada language. The Kannada word bayalu means space. There is space beyond our space, bayalige bayalu and that which transcends this space is nirbayalu. What Kudaluresa means is that for him God fills the whole of the existence, and the whole of the non-existence. These concepts of these two mystics, behad of Kabir and nirbayalu of Kudaluresa, would remind a student of Greek philosophy of the Apeiron of Anaximander against the Peras of Pythagoras. The Peras is a small conception, but the Apeiron brings us quite near to the infinitude that is portrayed in the manifestations of the sublime. The experience of the sublime seems to be almost transcendent and baffling even for the imagination to reach. Anaximander, therefore, regarded the Apeiron as his most fundamental category. It is this aspect of the element of Divinity in all cases of Infinitude which is at the basis of the behad of Kabir and nirbayalu of the Kannada mystic.
It is a long journey from sima to asima, from had to behad, from bayalu to nirbayalu, from peras to apeiron, from space to spacelessness. The concept of Akasa takes one ultimately to nirakasa, the spaceless. It is not only from Guha to Akasa as Bettina Baumer says in her valuable paper bearing the same title, but from guha to akasa to nirakasa as well.17 It is here that the medieval saints like Jnanesvar and Kabir and Kudaluresa shine with a mystical lustre all their own. They have raised a mahabhuta like Akasa to the status of the Brahman, the ultimate Reality, just by making it void of space, or spaceless. The Sanskrit root akas has two meaning: (1) to shine, and, (2) to view, to recognize. It is this second meaning which conveys the sense of consciousness that is spaceless. Thus, consciousness and spacelessness are one, the one Samvid, Samvid of the Self. Dimensionless space is much more than Eternal Silence. It is Consciousness which reminds us of a Chinese saying which states that void is mind itself and mind itself is void.
Spacelessness takes us to timelessness. For space and time are like two sides of the same coin. Both are the world’s deepest mysteries. If we can imagine a world without space, then we can also imagine it without time. It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relativity theory, however, time and space disappear together with other things. That is why a mystic like Kabir can say that he has gone beyond the bounds of time and space. To say it in the words of Ramadas,
Kabir has given expression to his timeless state in his usual cryptic manner:
Kabir finally declares that he is leaving for his nija-ghar, his own Home, where Kal has no entrance: kah kabir niya-ghar chalim, jahan kal na jahee.
Thus, there is a fusion of time and the three dimensions of space which gives us the concept of space-time, also known as ‘the fourth dimension’. The mahabhuta Akasa, therefore, has a very different interpretation for the medieval mystics whose approach to it is both spacial and temporal, culminating finally in the unitive experience of the samvid, or Consciousness, that lies beyond the ‘impassable Pass’ and where all duality is forever abolished.
We can conclude in the words of Kabir in their English translation by Charlotte Vaudeville, a great scholar of Kabir.
This may be an answer to the question poised by Keith Critchlow: "Space: Plenum or Abyss?": in the volume on Space mentioned above.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi