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 Common Roots for Transfer of Culture


M. Vannucci

Dr. P. Banerjee said, during giving a lecture at IGNCA, October 27 1992, on "Arts of Central Asia: Chinese Turkistan", that "intuition is sometimes more valuable than knowledge." This never applies better than when we search into the human mind of centuries past and when we try to understand what were the roots of human habits and culture. The intuition of the scholar is akin to the revelation that a rsi or a saint may have had. The concept of the five ‘elements’, usually designated as "The Elements", is a concept that developed and evolved, independently or not, in most ancient cultures: how much was due to intuition and to the common nature of the mind of man and how much was due to direct transfer of knowledge and culture among different people, is a difficult proposition that has no general or sure answer.

Each one of the ‘elements’ is roughly comparable to the corresponding one of other cultures, however each one has its own characteristics in the context of each culture and each one is tinted by the peculiarities of the culture to which it belongs. Furthermore, in comparing the perception of the five elements by different people, it becomes clear that the relative importance given to each varies; the differences appear to be influenced by the type of environment and climate in which each culture developed.

It should be clarified that the "five basic elements" that are the subject of the present note, are not the same as the chemical, simple or compound ‘elements’ that are the units of which organic and inorganic matter is formed; the study of the structure and dynamics of chemical molecules and elements are the subject and object of chemistry and physico-chemistry while at that atomic and sub-atomic levels, they are the object of physico-chemistry and physics. At the environmental level they are ecological, cultural and philosophical ‘elements’, as for instance air, water, or the properties of mercury.

The "five basic elements" already recognized at the origin of most cultures can best be described in contemporary scientific terms, as the "basic environmental elements". It is precisely because they are environmental elements that they have been observed and considered of great importance by all men in all cultures in one form or another. Life and death are the main concerns of thinking man and one may venture to imagine what would the mind perceive as the basis of this unexplainable phenomenon that is life. Man would see:


The solid matter from which comes all food directly or indirectly; all materials for shelter, clothing and utensils. Hence earth or soil and rocks are usually called Mother, or the one who feeds and carries her children before and after birth, while alive and after death.


The liquid matter for drinking, indispensable to preserve life but necessary also as a cleansing agent, for cooking and for extracting substances from solid matter. Earth and Water are closely related.


The gaseous matter necessary for respiration and combustion and for the production of light; earth, water, air are the indissoluble trio without which there is no life.


The transformer of matter into non-matter, is the heat or energy that keeps everything, living and non-living always on the move.


Non-matter or void which is the imponderable, unexplainable, undescribable aspect of nature that pervades everything. Everything has an opposite and akasa is the opposite of matter. In a way akasa is similar to the magic or asu that endows the Great Asura Varuna with maya or magic power and that gives existence to the unreal, whatever it is that we call ‘real’. The most ancient Aryan Gods, it would be recalled, are frequently invoked as Asura in the Rgveda (RV), because they are imbued with asuryan or ‘asura-hood’ that gives them almost illimited and infinite power; consequently, therefore, they are endowed also with asurasya or lordly power, as Varuna himself has.

The five environmental elements were first conceived from the observation of nature and as natural elements they were born in the mind of man. In many cultures they have retained their original characteristics, as for instance in Vedism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, while in other cultures they may have acquired different connotations, even those of what later came to be known as chemical elements. In ancient Greece, the original four elements were earth, water, air, fire and they were well defined and established by the fifth century bc. Aristotle (384-322 bc) superimposed on them four qualities: cold and dry (earth), cold and wet (water), hot and wet (air) and hot and dry (fire). Though this perspective is to some extent biologically and ecologically valid, the resulting rigidity of thought imposed by the great personality of "The Master" who always had the last word: "Magister dixit" or: "the master has said", lingered on and stiffled European scientific thought up to the fifteenth-sixteenth centuries and the Renaissance. The basic elements in Europe after Aristotle gradually became absorbed into alchemy, hence the use of the same noun: elements for the chemical as for the environmental ones.

But let alchemy go its own way and let it eventually develop into chemistry and let us return to our four or five environmental elements.

In contrast to the ancient Greek learning where the character of the original elements was changed early, in other cultures the four — or five — elements maintained their original characteristics and acquired a defined meaning as the basis of the body, intellect and spirit, and of the whole world we live in. Man tried to give concrete expression to his identification with nature and to his desire to participate in natural events. There is an ancient practice still widely used in Bali, to dress tree stumps with clothing and with a head gear, the colours of which are symbolic of the elements or of some of them, to give them a human semblance. The Indian folklore is rich in the personalization of plants and animal forms and species; thus the interaction between man and nature is intimate, constant and consciously kept alive.

Let us consider the importance of the five elements in the Indian cultural context. The most remarkable trait is that the concept of the elements remained unchanged over the ages and the respective role of each was preserved intact, which shows that the original perception of nature was rational and therefore valid. Stated briefly the reasons of this persistence and of the correct view of nature’s functioning could be that man in India, pre-Aryan autochthonous people, the Vedic man and the following people who lived in geographically major India, have always lived in close symbiosis with nature and obedience to Rta, the natural law was a must and man had to learn his lesson well. Another reason could be that the sub-continent as a whole offers all types of ecosystems and therefore all environmental elements are represented, but they carry different weight and exercise a different impact on the daily life of mankind in different places, say the arid zone of Rajasthan, the high Himalayan mountains, the sub-tropical southern part of the peninsula or the humid forests of north-east India; taken together the role that is recognized for each element is balanced in relation to the others. Finally, an added reason could be that Vedic man on reaching Saptasindhu, after migrating over many generations from Central Asia through different types of environments and climates, had the opportunity to observe the action, the effects and the relative importance of each of the five elements. The balanced role and mutual interaction of the five elements is a fundamental trait of Vedic philosophy.

The concept of basic elements is practically the same in the Asian tradition as it was in the Hellenic pre-historic or Mycenean age and the early historic period tradition. The main difference lies in that Indians did not expound precisely formulated theories that could be tested experimentally, while the philosophers of the Hellenic tradition in the Mediterranean world, did formulate scientific theories regarding the function of nature’s elements, and these influenced decisively the evolution of the European thought. The establishment of fixed theories or rules, like the Aristotelian principles of unity of space, time and action or logic, were in practice a cause of stagnation rather than evolution of thought and the acquisition of new knowledge was starved at its roots. In contrast the fluidity of thought and the non-formulation of dogmatic laws about the universe of nature permitted an open-minded development and evolution of the thought of Indian philosophers. This in turn favoured the incorporation of the knowledge acquired into the corpus of Vedic lore. The formulation of the concept that everything changes and may evolve or involve uninterruptedly, left all entries open to further developments anchored, as it were, in the laws of Rta that govern the functioning of the cosmos, including Earth and all that is in and on it. The theories were not expounded as such, but the relations of cause and effect and the interrelation of natural elements and laws were and are well-known in practice. Practicalities of everyday life could be adapted to changed places and circumstances while at the same time the basic philosophic formulation of nature’s laws could be retained, exactly because of its openness that always admits one more exception or one more "special case". Adaptations of plants and animals to the limits of their survival capacity can be observed everywhere in nature, but Aristotelism inevitably condemned the obvious evolution and constant change of everything in space and time. In contrast, in the Indian context, knowledge — or Truth — is not bound by rigid theories and would naturally accept the obvious fact of the evolution of all processes of matter and spirit. Consequently it is logical to admit that the five basic elements acquire different roles and weight under different conditions of geography, climate and ecological factors. This could be termed scientific alertness or constructive criticism; it is philosophically expressed as tolerance and open-mindedness.

Plate 19.1 A guardian at the enterence of the sacred enclosure, Bali

Plate 19.2 The violent volcanic environment of Bali

In medieval Europe scientific endeavours and discoveries were suppressed and even as great a personality as Dante Alighieri only shily expresses natural laws in as disguised a manner as possible. For instance the law of the identity of the angles of the incident and reflected rays of light is clearly formulated in the Divina Commedia, but it is unobtrusively stated and it can easily remain unnoticed. In contrast the concept of Rta as the law and order of nature that varies in the space-time continuum promotes and favours the "unveiling of Truth" which is the same as favouring the continuous acquisition of knowledge through understanding. From this lack of rigidity the Artha are derived that in turn pave the way for further search of knowledge, for instance Ayurveda has not ceased to evolve and develop since its inception.

It may be interesting to note that the rural folk and the "home sciences" in Europe, themselves innocent of Aristotelian principles, developed their own empirical ‘science’, important among them the health sciences, the proper use of different foods at different times and seasons for different purposes, genders and ages of man and his domestic animals, according to the seasonal changes of earth, water, air, temperature and vitality of nature. This is vividly reflected in the title of a book in 543 pages on medicinal and other useful plants by Palaiseul (1972) that reads: "Nos grandmeres savaient . . ." or: "Our grand-mothers knew . . ."

In India the perception of the five elements is well balanced. Earth is solid matter, the substratum on which we walk, sleep and are — or where — entered, meaning buried; earth is the provider of foods and all sorts of useful materials. As the good provider, Prthivi is ‘mother’ and there would be no better epithet. Water as liquid is indispensable to sustain life in all biological systems, for drinking, for the metabolic functioning of the body and for cleansing body, shelter, domestic animals and to prepare food and medicines. Air as gas is the weightless vital breath without which life and fire, the universal energy, are suffocated. Agni, Fire, the primordial God, is the energy of the whole universe that expresses and manifests itself in an unlimited number of ways, fire is capable of interchanging matter and energy and its omnipresent. Finally Akasa or void, which is the undeterminable ‘something’ that reason indicates must exist to fill in the gaps between the element’s particles and inside the elements themselves, throughout the cosmos. But none of this would ensure correct functioning of nature and the universe, if each did not "do its duty by observing Rta". The balanced and adequate action of each element is recognized as indispensable, the best example of this order is the disciplined movement of celestial bodies, considered to have a life of their own because they move, even if a peculiar type of life.

According to ancient thought the existence of the physical and the essential or spiritual worlds is due to the interaction of the basic environmental elements, therefore all natural things are sacred, specially the most mysterious of them all: life. As Quintus Curtius (1st century a.d.) remarks about Indians: "Deos putant quid quid colere coeperunt, arbores maxima, quas violare capitule est" (. . . they . . . consider as God all that they can collect or reap, specially trees, the falling of which is a capital offence) and in the Divyavadana, I, p. 1 it is said that there are devata for everything: gardens, forests and jungles, trees, river sangams and everything else; but the deva’s main duty is to see that the laws of Rta are not broken.

Living a wholesome life close to nature ensures a rational view of the necessary interaction of the basic elements. However, climatic and local factors, as for instance the fierce sun — Surya -— is inevitably considered to be the dominant element in water and vegetation-scarce desert areas. The greatest title given to Rajput kings was that of Suryavamsa. The high peaks are abodes of Gods for all people and the more inaccessible they are, the more sacred; wind is violent expression of air that may occasionally fall out of tune and cause avalanches, whirlwinds, dust or sand storms or other calamities. Coastal areas and riverine people have water as their main object of devotion and while ritual washing may be pardoned to water deprived dwellers of dry areas, it would be unforgivable for a coastal or riverine person to offer prayers without prior ablution with water, "the cleansing one". At Eleusis in Greece and at Rameswaram in India, both places near the sea shore, a sea water bath for purification of initiates, worshippers and sacrificial animals was — and is — obligatory or common practice. Agni, fire, the great purifier, is universally revered, honoured and invoked by all people from all culture since their origin; fire is the manifested or potential ubiquitous energy of "what moves not and moves".

Rgveda Mandala X.121, is a hymn dedicated to Ka or Kah: Who? Whom? We shall not discuss here whether this hymn is a "recent addition" or whether some of the stanzas are later interpolations; I shall abide by Max-Mueller’s conclusion that it must be "previous not only to the Brahmana period but also to the Mantra period, or earlier than 1000 bc." According to scholars Kah is the interrogative pronoun "Who?" and authors have followed Max-Mueller in considering Kah "the unknown God". The refrain has been translated: "to what God shall we offer oblations?" (Max-Mueller) or "what God shall we adore with our oblation?" (Griffith) or "to what God may we pay worship with oblation?" (Whitney). It seems to me that it is more correct to regard Kah as the unnamed or nameless, but not the unknown God. Kah should be translated plainly as ‘who’ or ‘it’. The Supreme Entity cannot be designated by name, out of respect its name should not be pronounced, it is awe-inspiring, it is the Supreme Entity. The South Siberian Turks say: "it is not permitted to call you by name". Hence the general use of the neutral as an uncompromising appellation of the unthinkable, undescribable, unimaginable, illimited in space and time, without beginning or end, present nowhere and everywhere, the self-existent. The same approach is expressed beautifully in the questions that Yudhishthira addressed to Bhishma. The replies given by Bhishma and the commentaries by Adi Shankara in his Vishnu Sahasranama Bhasya, all point clearly in the same direction: Kah, Who or Whom, is the Supreme Entity, perhaps mentally represented by Akasa.

The Sanskrit word nama is literally translated as name, though the original meaning would be rendered better by the word ‘attributes’: the nameless in fact has infinite attributes, as recited by Bhishma. The name of the hierophant, who was the chief priest of the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, could not be spoken because his sanctity was paramount. Hieronimy was the rule forbidding under severe penalty the calling or mentioning the hierophant by his personal name. The personal name was lost upon entering the sacred office, "the mystic law cast it away into the sea !" Much importance is given to the name and the reticence in pronouncing people’s names as a mark of respect persists and persons are usually addressed by their title or family name or by their special designation rather than by their personal names. The South Siberian Turks are forbidden to pronounce the name of Amagan Calu Gadaci, the feminine spirit that lives on mountain Yalangjiy and who is extremely powerful; only the shaman can pronounce her name (Invocation to the spirit of Amagan Calu Gadaci). The habit has also been imposed by the Hebrew-Christian tradition as a binding law though in a different form: "Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord in vain", which is one of Moses’ Ten Commandments.

Here rises another misleading factor that has negatively influenced Western scholars. Because of etymological reasons, the sanskrit Deva, Devata which is the same root as the Latin and neo-latin word Deus has been rendered into the English word God. As Max-Mueller has correctly pointed out (p. 3, Notes to RV, X.121): "to us (Europeans) the conception of one God pervades the whole of this hymn". . . to Kah. In the Sastra however, the Deva are nowhere equalled to the Supreme and they are not exactly the same. Proves it the fact that the Deva, except for Agni are not indefinitely immortal and their life comes to an end at the end of each kalpa. The misconception that the Vedic, Hindu, Buddhist word ‘God’ is the same as the "one God" recognized by Max-Mueller in RV, X.121, has caused much confusion in the interpretation of the Sacred Texts. It can be concluded that Kah — Who? It? — is indeed Isvara, the Ultimate Reality, the Brahmam "who is the God to whom we shall offer sacrifices", and not the unknown, but the unnamed or nameless.

RV, X.121 is particularly interesting in the context of the present note since among others, it explicitly expresses the view that the four basic natural elements are the elements of which the universe is formed, plus Kah that is everywhere and always, that is unseen, unfelt, unheard, untasted, unsmelled and difficult to visualize mentally or even to understand. In this sense Kah is unknown, it is so great that it cannot be mentally apprehended; it is a fulfilment or added dimension to the concept of Akasa. In other words, the basic query of the hymn is a search for the ultimate cause of the existence of the universe. Akasa can be inferred in the text and the other four elements are clearly expressed.

In 121.1, "earth and sky are said to be fixed and held up by Hiranyagarbha, the golden embryo or golden germ or seed that marks the auspicious beginning of all that is, of all created beings: bhuta, which of course includes also living beings, infused with the life principle of golden Savitur. In fact, in 121.2, Hiranyagrabha is said to be the giver of breath, power and vigour "whose shadow is immortality or death". This can be interpreted thus: "the unnamed God, the initial seed gives protection and under its shadow life can be used well, giving immortality, or poorly spelling death. In fact ‘he’ (ish) became the ruler of living things, man and animals (121.3). Under 121.4 it is stated that mountains (solid matter) and water (liquids, sea, rivers) are "his arms", or parts of it’s body. Under 121.5 ‘he’ establishes the firmament and measures ‘sky’ or air. Finally the fourth element, the energy that animates the universe and transforms the material into immaterial and vice versa, Agni or Fire, is mentioned in 121.6 as expressed by Surya. Accordingly Agni is not only the energy principle that governs the struggle for life (121.5), as is also mentioned in other contexts in the RV, but also the energy of God himself and obviously of life that sustains the germ or seed that was carried by the mighty waters. The word great or mighty is also used to describe the mountains that are the source of water of the mighty rivers of Saptasindhu, sustainers of life. Further, 121.8 reminds us that the overlord, the God above all Gods is the one who surveyed the floods that held the power. Power here means energy, all forms of energy, including the life energy of golden Savitur. Kah the nameless God with infinite attributes is finally (121.10) invoked as the righteous, the one who beget the earth, water, air and light. In RV, X.121.10 the name of Prajapati is mentioned, but there is no reason to believe that Kah and Prajapati are one and the same, as some authors have done. On the contrary, what is most probably meant is that Prajapati as the lord of all creatures, as the elder of men is the one who can understand the meaning, since: "O Prajapati, thou alone comprehendest all these created things, and none other". It would also be recalled that this hymn is recited at several important occasions, even the caturmasya and agnicayana rituals, which proves its universal validity.

Most significantly, the refrain of the hymn to Kah is reflected in almost identical terms in the first four of the six questions that Yudhishtira addressed to Bhishma lying on the bed of arrows awaiting the beginning of the uttarayana, or the winter solstice. The first four questions can be rendered thus: "What is the one supreme Godhead?"; "What is the one supreme goal?"; "Praising which do we attain the goal?"; "Worshipping which do men gain good?". As a reply Bhishma first describes the nameless and states that the supreme goal is Reality or Brahman; then he recites the thousand names of God. Adi Shankara gave a well-known beautiful image saying: "As air that enters into material things takes many shapes according to the things it has entered into. So the One who is the internal Atma of all things is outwardly of many forms." The questions, answers and commentaries appear to be derived directly from RV, X.121.

Even this short analysis of RV, X.121 shows the balanced importance given to the five elements in the thought of Vedic Man. All elements are necessary and indispensable and the whole world or universe as seen with Vedic eyes would not function if the parts were not equilibrated in their mutual interaction; if the balance is broken, malformations, disease and death are the unavoidable consequences. This truth is universally valid.

Another important hymn reveals the clear understanding of nature that the rsi had, this is RV, VII.103, a Vasistha hymn, dedicated to the mandukah, the frogs. It reveals a mature concept of the five environmental elements, their mutual relationships and their interaction with other elements. Unfortunately Max-Mueller remarks (Ancient Sanskrit Literature, p. 494) that "the hymn . . . which is called a panegyric to the frogs is a clear satire of the priests". This misconception was repeated by many scholars after Max-Mueller, including Renou (1956, p. 45). The hymn far from being given in a light vein, reflects a good knowledge of nature and of the relationship between the environment and man as exemplified by a description of the behaviour and life cycle of frogs; it also mentions the relationship between rain and climate in general, soil, water and the elements among themselves, as expressed also in Atharvaveda (AV), IV.14. Frogs are symbol of fecundity in many cultures because their life-cycle can be completed only if there is water in the ponds, which in turn indicates that rains have been adequate to ‘fertilize’ the fields for agricultural activities and for pasture. Among the South Siberian Turks, frogs are also mentioned, together with others, as inhabiting the netherworld, perhaps because they must hide themselves in underground holes during the hot, dry season. In a curious parallel, Aristophanes in his comedy ‘Frogs’ that was undoubtedly known to Max-Mueller, was said to ridicule the cult to Demeter and the ‘open’ part of the mysteries of Eleusis because of the chanting of priests that was compared to that of the frogs.

Saraswati and Vidyalankar (1980, p.2799) have cleared the misconception concerning the hymn to the frogs and have explained it thus: ". . . the frogs . . . practice penance throughout the year like Brahmanas and utter prayers to clouds (1); they hybernate throughout the year and the moment clouds pour water, they wake up and croak (2); at the time of rains, one frog greets the other with croaking as inarticulate as a child (3); the speckled frog leaps up and greets the green one (4); they play in waters with their bodies fully developed (5); they are of a variety of colours and their voices different; some bellow like a cow and some bleat like a goat (6); like the Brahmana at the Soma and Atiratra rites these frogs croak around the lake replenished with water (7); they appear to be reciting perennial prayers, like the ministrant priests with their gharma offerings; and during the heat they hide in holes (8); they come out only when the rains return and attain freedom from their hiding places (9).

Two of the species described probably are Rana tigrina that is large, congregates in tanks and ponds at the breeding season and is a voracious feeder. The other could well be Rana cyanophlyctes that is very common, entirely acquatic and has the habit of skipping over the surface of the water over small distances. Frogs are very sensitive to environmental factors, specially temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure; indeed they are almost like natural barometers and species are quickly decimated by the growing pollution throughout the world; their colour changes to match the colour of the background, they also become darker at night. Their behaviour, as any village child knows, such as feeding or not, burrowing or not, mating or not is indicative of environmental conditions. Most species are active after dusk and hide away during daytime when humidity drops below their limit of tolerance and there is the danger of drying out. Rsi Vasistha was a keen and accurate observer of nature.

In the Nirukta it is also said that Vasistha praised Parjaniya, the cloud, to propitiate rains and that the frogs applauded him so that the rsi in turn praised them. Whatever the mythology behind it, this loose rendering of the hymn (RV, VII.103) shows that it is zoologically and ecologically correct, though much more can be inferred from the text. For instance, frogs give many useful services, as adults they feed on insects, worms and other small animals some of which are noxious, like malaria vector mosquitoes; as tadpoles they clear the water from algal and weed growth. At present rearing of frogs has been practised to help combat malaria. I have shown elsewhere (Vannucci, under press) that the hymn implies several important details, such as the existence of frogs of different species each with its specific mating call; the metamorphosis from tadpole to adult, mentioned in (5) where it is mentioned "with their limbs (only the adult has limbs) fully extended or developed". Seasonal cycles are described, as well as the frog’s reaction to climatic changes; details of the habits of different species, such as floating motionless with legs extended at the surface of the water, their reproductive cycle (6) and their posture. The overall life-giving aspect of rains is beautifully expressed and in the context of the present note, the hymn is interesting in that it shows perfect understanding of the relative roles and interrelations between earth, water, climate, seasonal cycles and of the dynamics of life, or life energy that is clearly expressed in (5): as they move and leap on the waters with limbs swelled with energy, or, as SS and SV write: "every limb throbs and swells" or "every limb seems to be growing larger" in Griffith’s translation. To this day throughout India it is taken as natural to relate many frogs with good pastures and good crops, fat cows and goats; this in Vedic terms means that the frogs are granting us riches.

Frogs are bearers of good omen among the Central and northern South American ancient civilizations as well as in the Mediterranean folklores. In Italy it was common to see in the junior classes aquaria for rearing tadpoles to teach practically the details of the life-cycle and metamorphosis from tadpole to fully formed four legged adults, and after metamorphosis, frogs and tadpoles were let loose in the fields. The parallel that rsi Vasistha draws between the frogs and the Brahmanas, far from being derogatory expresses the meaningfulness of everything and the wonders and sacredness of all nature. The Atiratra ritual mentioned in (7) is held at night and lasts the night long as also the song of the frogs that marks the mating season and the renewal of life. Frogs in fact link earth, water, air and fire as energy and if there is not a good balance in time and quantity of these four elements, frogs cannot complete their life-cycle. The presence of frogs is indeed an auspicious sign.

Among the South Siberian Turks, frogs are spirits of sacred terrestrial place, including, as mentioned, the underworld. In the invocation to the spirits of the Earth it is said: "rich six-legged frog". Six-legged camels and six-eyed tigers are mentioned as auspicious, however six-legged frogs could also refer to the mating posture when the male’s front legs are hidden under the female while he holds her firmly in the amplexus; the pairs of frogs during the many hours of mating look like a single animal with six legs. The act of mating in general is taken as a good omen and one to be respected, as also the act of consuming the earth given food and water. The frog, as an auspicious animal is represented on the lower part of the shaman’s ritualistic drum and accompanies him in the voyages that his spirit does while he is in trance. There are many common denominators between the myths and legends of the Mediterranean and the Asian Indo-European and other people of the same stock, but at this late stage of evolution, it is difficult to have a correct perspective of the exchanges that have taken place between different cultures.

To avoid lengthening unduly this discussion I will refrain from quoting the large number of places where the elements, their place in nature and their interdependence are mentioned in the Veda. I would rather draw only one more example: RV, X.168 is a hymn addressed to Vayu that shows how powerful the Wind is, it has the voice of thunder and reaches to heaven, it causes whirlwinds and dust storms over the earth while unremittingly he speeds forth in his car in middle air. But Vayu is also the friend of waters, he is the vital spirit of deities and there is no life without air and water.

Shamanism is an ideological system with a peculiar concept of the world’s structure and function. It can be viewed as a complex of different techniques practised by the shaman with the purpose of establishing a direct relation between man and the supernatural world; it usually culminates with the trance of the shaman. In Asia, shamanism has its centre in Central Asia but is practised throughout the continent irrespective of the religion of the people, because shamanism is not a religion. Essentially most ancient Asian cultures have contributed to the techniques used and to the beliefs expressed by the shaman which he uses to achieve the contact desired. Shamanism incorporates certain aspects of ancient naturalistic religions, magic pictures and the concept of four or five environmental elements; in many ways it preserves the oral tradition that is incorporated in the shaman’s words, functions and practices. Only since the middle of last century have the words of the shaman in trance been recorded in written form, they show clearly that the ancient roots of different people and traditions are alive and have become integrated to a greater or lesser degree into the cultures into which they have become assimilated in the course of time. As preservers of tradition the chants of the shamans are interesting in the present context of the perception of the five environmental elements by the different people. The largest amount of transcripts taken ipsis litteris comes from the lore of the South Siberian Turks who are of Indo-European stock; it is therefore not astonishing to find many similarities and parallelism between their culture and that of Rgvedic man. Two simple examples could be mentioned: "Let everything be transmitted (to the Gods) to and by fire" —- "Let everything be transmitted to the Great Yayiq (flowing water)" and other expressions in a lengthy invocation to the spirit of the taiga, which is the earth for the people living there. Originally, as elsewhere, there were probably only ‘white’ or benevolent shamans, the development of harmful practices or "black magic" is a late development inexistent in the original shamanism and ancient traditions. Finally, the word ‘shaman’ is taken from the Tunguese language and it has been postulated that it is derived from the same roots as the Sanskrit sraman (Marazzi, 1984, p. 21).

The ideas and concepts of the oral tradition and early philosophies of life are incorporated in the present-day chants and texts recited by the shaman in trance, but they have been influenced over the ages, by different religions. Traditionally the shaman, both male and female, is saddled with the heavy burden of the power with which he or she is endowed not at his or her request. This power the shaman has the duty to use to obtain concrete benefits for humans, their domestic animals and fields. The texts that we have at present in direct transcript are the supreme word in the relations between the spirit of the shaman and the supernatural entities called spirits and rarely called by name, though they have one. A direct relationship is established between similar beings: the non-material spirit of the shaman and that of the non-material spirits invoked for a particular purpose; the spirit of the shaman leaves the body during the trance to contact the spirits that live in the void and who are believed to be capable of rendering the services requested by the shaman on behalf of the common human being who does not have the power as the shaman has. The shaman thus assumes the role otherwise performed by fire, they are both mediators respectively between God and man and between spirits and man.

In the context of the present note, I have not found in the large number of texts consulted any systematic treatment of the five elements in the shamanistic literature of Central Asia. Environmental elements, however, are frequently invoked in isolation or not and they are eulogized, their attributes and powers are recognized.

Fire, presumably taken since the origins as energy, or what would more naturally be called power, is invoked at all important rites and at all important homely rituals and actions, such as for instance putting the new-born baby into the cradle, or before invoking different divinities; no shaman would ever approach any spirit without the permission of "mother fire"; interestingly fire is invoked both in the feminine and in the masculine genders. Fire boils or roasts for human consumption the flesh of animals sacrificed during rites and fire is itself fed with butter: "May powerful fire transmit my requests". In the invocation to the spirits of the "Real Earth" of the South Siberian Turks fire is the most eulogized element because of its power, its omnipresence as heat and energy and its practical uses. Offerings to fire include horse fat, tea, an alcoholic drink made of fermented mare’s milk, butter and more rarely also milk. Fire and iron are here as elsewhere closely associated and one is reminded of the three-ridged dagger if the Tibetan lamas that is used for killing the spirits and of the waving of iron objects to frighten them away in many other places.

In everyday life it is admitted that there is a spirit to everything, from the door of the yurta of the Turks, to the fermented mare’s milk, tools, forests, people and animals, but the spirit of the yurta’s hearth is the most powerful of all spirits. It is the spirit of fire that alone can transfer the spirits of the shaman from one sky to the next during its travels for pleading with the spirits to fulfil human desires and needs and for healing purposes.

The sky is often the object of important prayers and invocations; air is mentioned in the fumigation processes common to all rituals, it marks symbolically the link between fire and air, the sublimation of solids and liquids into nothingness and fumigation also has practical purposes of disinfection. Air is praised as the medium through which birds and spirits move, including the spirit of the shaman who also ‘flies’ and air is praised as sky or heaven. The cult of heaven or sky is very ancient and amongst others marks the link between air and water, it is invoked as giver of rain and as such it is related to earth, its mountains and rivers. The South Siberian Turks for instance, believe in the existence of three cosmic levels; sky or heaven, nether-world and earth in between; "venerable great earth, we beseech you . . ." as is a repeated invocation and earth is the praise of the fourth sky "with its handsome earth and its forests"; earth is invoked as the one on which and from which mankind lives. At the centre of the world is placed the mountain Aq Toson Altai Sini where resides Cari-Su, a name that literally means earth/water and that derives from a very ancient deity of the early Turks, called Yar Sub. Similarly the Lord-spirit of the Altai mountains is the one who nourishes everything while the spirit of the cold wind, Canagan Qam inhabits the glaciers. Mountains as earth, are object of veneration and at the centre of Mount Altai Sini is found the navel of the Earth. The tayga and vaste prairies and forests, as elements of earth, are also objects of devotion.

We could recall here that the classical Japanese flower arrangement or Ikebana has three levels: Heaven above, Earth the lowest and man in between.

Interestingly, among the Turks, water is usually thought of as rivers, lakes and only seldom as rains.This reflects the geography and climate of rain starved Central Asia that is however traversed by several important rivers and has many lakes. The Lord-spirit of water is present in every lake and has to be propitiated with food before fishing, probably a symbolic gesture related to recycling in nature: whatever one takes must be returned to nature in one form or another. The Lord-spirit of waters is requested to give healing power to springs in general and to warm water springs in particular; it obviously refers to the cleansing power of water and to the medicinal value of mineral waters. Medicinal waters are called arsan by the South Siberian Turks, a word that has been approximated to rasayana in Sanskrit. One is reminded of the hot water springs and the health value of the Kulu-Manali valleys and the "Vasistha baths" not far from the source of the Beas river.

All offerings made to the four elements include libations with fermented drinks, specially araqi that is distilled from fermented milk and ayran that is a special fermented milk. However, unlike other places, names and genders usually are not strictly determined. As mentioned, fire can be both masculine and feminine or even mentioned as "sweet mother of fire" and there are many names and different genders for spirits of the same elements; there are even several deities and spirits of fire of both genders, however the fire of the hearth is the most sacred.

This is not the time to go into details of the parallelisms between the shamanistic texts of different people of Central Asia and many aspects of the Rgveda or more so of the Atharvaveda suffices it to say that there are many and they are significant. One may wonder how much is due to common origin of Indo-European cultures, how much is due to the fact that human mind and people are basically the same everywhere, and how much is due to direct transfer of cultures. In comparing the relative importance given to the four — or five -— elements in Central Asia, earth is mainly seen as mountains, forests and the wind-swept tayga; water is rarely mentioned as rain but rather as rivers, lakes or even glaciers; air is mainly feared as wind and is traversed by a host of spirits that animate and inhabit everything everywhere. Fire is of course ubiquitous and powerful. I could not perceive the concept of void, ether or akasa in the texts, unless we consider the immaterial ever-present spirits of good and bad to exist in void and use air as a mean to travel about, they have no material entity. The texts of the Yacut people recited during the travels of the spirit of the shaman at the most important and very ancient ritual called Isiax roughly follow the sequence "earth, water, air, fire" but the elements are neither treated individually as such nor is there a discussion or description of their attributes. The same could be said of the Yacut invocation to the Lord-spirit of the forest. One is thus led to believe that the long history of the evolution of the Central Asian cultures has abutted to rites and ceremonies that include ancient wisdom but the roots of the knowledge are lost in time. Knowledge has been crystallized into rituals and practices that may include ancient wisdom but the details of the original ideas and concepts have become blurred and are often unrecognizable.

Lievre and Loude (1990) produced a book dealing with the shamanism practised in the Hindukush-Karakorum range where live the Chitrals, the Kafirs, the Kalash and other people of Indo-European extraction. These people remember their ancient culture and frequently repeat: "In ancient times, when people were mixed . . . at the beginning, gods, spirits, humans, animals and plants lived together and spoke the same language." Among these mountain people the concept of the five environmental elements is not, at present, expressed as a well defined body of knowledge or description of the world is which they live; but the whole life of the individual, of the family and of the society revolves around the annual cycle of nature, marked by the observation of the solstices and equinoxes. While the major festivities occur at the winter solstice that usually marks the beginning of the year, the spring equinox is the most joyous one. A close analysis of the celebrations carried out at these occasions, the chants, dances, sacrifices, rites and rituals and ritualistic performances, the preparation and consummation of food and fermented drinks from grapes, the libation and the interventions of the shaman indicate an holistic appreciation of nature and respect for all the elements. They also show a strong will of man to fully participate in the natural phenomena of the universe of which he knows to be a part. Thus the four — or five — elements are, so to speak, merged into a single whole: NATURE, and in this capacity they are celebrated and venerated. The habits and culture of these people are not far removed from those of Vedic man and their main God is Indra, who may have slightly different names art different places, but who arrives figuratively at the festivals and celebrations on horseback, usually during the trance of the shaman.

Here too air and fumigation are an essential part of most home and community rites and of course Fire is always the most exalted and ever present entity without whose participation nothing spiritual, religious or practical can be transacted. Fire is also among these mountain people the messenger between man, Gods and the supernatural in general. Spirits and fairies are ubiquitous and participate in human affairs. Fire, juniper, blood are common denominators in the practices of communication between man and the supernatural powers throughout the Hindukush-Karakorum range.

In ancient Egypt, the rising of the star now called Sirius, which is the alpha Canis majoris or Mrigavyadha, in ancient Sanskrit terminology, marked the summer rise of the waters of the Nile. Of the five elements, water was specially important since the parched land would not produce unless watered and fertilized by the Nile floods. Hence the importance of the rising of Sirius. The Sun was object of very special adoration both by the priests of Ammon as by the heretic cult installed at Tell-el-Amarna by the pharaoh Amenophis IV or Akenaton who declared it to be the only God. The good earth provided the bitumen to give immortality to the mummies. The four elements were recognized in the annual cycle of nature and the Book of the Dead gives at places the idea of void, or ether. River water is otherwise the dominant element in the nature cult of ancient Egypt and is still one of the objects of major concern for modern Egyptians. Finally I would like to mention the curious coincidence that the soul of the deceased is called Ka and represented as a small bird sitting at the edge of the sarcophagus.

I would like to add a note about Demeter, her daughter Persephone and the ancient ‘mysteries’ at Eleusis, not far from Athens, in Attika. Demeter is an earth goddess, mother earth in its agricultural aspects, related to wheat and barley. Demeter lost her daughter Persephone to Pluto, the king of Hades, the nether world, who abducted her. Demeter desperately searched for her daughter until Zeus took pity on her and allowed his own daughter Persephone, to visit her mother Demeter once a year. The major ceremonies of the cult of Demeter were held annually at Eleusis, where she had built her temple and where she had instructed the first priests. Initiation took place there at different levels, from neophytes to the highest priests. What is interesting in the present context is the secrecy under which the ceremonies of initiation to the lower and to the higher mysteries were held. The climax of the lower mysteries for the initiation of the neophytes was reached when the hiera, which were the sacralia or sacred objects, were shown to them under solemn oath of secrecy. The secrets of the mysteries were so well guarded that to this day and probably forever after, it will not be known what the hiera were nor the details of the cult and of the initiation ceremonies. The great antiquity of the temple at Eleusis is proven by the fact that its origins are attributed to goddess Demeter herself who taught how to cultivate wheat and the related ceremonies when she arrived at Eleusis as a stranger from other lands desperately in search of her daughter. She probably arrived at Eleusis about the fifteenth century bc, perhaps between 1462-1423 bc during the reign of a man called Pandion, in the pre-historic Mycenean age that has left no written records; later writings at Crete, however, do not mention Demeter. Dyonisios probably arrived at about the same time or together with Demeter. The second millennium bc was a period of intensive evolution of cultures, travel, commercial and cultural interchanges among people of the old continents and not only in the Mediterranean world. The name of the place, Eleusis, itself could be one of the many pre-hellenic, non Indo-European names that are common in Attika. Attika was the first to produce wheat and barley and Demeter is normally represented bearing ears of wheat or barley on her head or on her head-gear. There are many similarities between the legend of the abduction of Persephone and that of Rama’s Sita, except that it is the mother, not the husband who is desperate. It could be speculated that Demeter had to instruct the priests on agricultural practices, as tradition tells us, because she had lost her daughter who would otherwise have carried over the tradition had she been permanently on earth rather than hidden away in the dark netherworld. What greater tragedy for Mother Earth, the giver of plenty, to loose her only daughter to the Lord of Hell and Death? According to Mylonas (1961, p. 270) Demeter conferred upon the land of the Athenians a double gift, "which is the greatest ever given to mankind: the gift of the telete (mysteries) and the gift of the fruits . . . the produce of earth."

Demeter represents certain aspects of Earth, while other aspects of mother Earth are embodied in other goddesses of the Hellenic pantheon; undoubtedly ancient Greeks were concerned with earth as the basic natural element from which sustenance was to be had, with the participation of water, air and fire as vital energy. All had their role to play in the rites that Demeter herself dictated to the priests of Attika. While scholars have had to admit that the origin of Demeter is mysterious as well as her cult, it is clear that she represents a basic element of the Indo-European — and perhaps of all human traditions.

As mentioned, little is known about the mysteries, but according to Hippolytus in his Philosophoumena, at a certain stage of the initiation, the priests and initiates gazed up to heaven and cried aloud: ‘rain’, they gazed down upon earth and cried: ‘conceive’; also the words ‘rain’ and ‘conceive’ are part of an inscription on a well in front of the Dipy on gate of Athens. Similarly to other parts of the world, the festivities marking the seasons and agricultural events were an important part of the ‘open’ rituals of the Eleusis mysteries; then included "that which is enacted" (dromena), or songs, dances, recitations and invocations; the showing of the sacralia, hiera to the initiates (deiknymena) and the "word spoken" (legomena). The latter, or the words spoken by the hierophant were so important that if they were not heard clearly by the initiate, he or she could not be considered initiated. The hierophant was the highest priest, interpreter of the unwritten, ancestral laws, the patria. Next to the hierophant in importance was the dadouchos, the barefoot torchbearer who had a knot of hair called krokilos on the nape of his neck and who nobody knew where he had come from. It is known that there were libations on the last day of the lower mysteries and the initiates poured the content in two vessels, one facing east and the other west, then they turned the vessels upside down as a libation to earth; a similar habit involving cups thrown on earth precedes some rites of the Siberian Turks.

The function of the Dadouchos was for life and it alternated between members of two traditional families. The name Dadouchos is suspiciously similar to Dadhicha, from the old form Dadhyac, who was a rsi son of Atharvan, regarded, together with his father, first founder of sacrifice. Dadhicha was later merged with the personality of Dadhikras.

These are only a few examples that indicate the recognition of earth, water and also air in addition to fire, as basic elements of concern of a developing agricultural society. They also suggest extensive cultural interchange among ancient people and the fundamental importance given to the word — Vak in the RV — the oral tradition that must have reached a very high level of development and maturity before the written word was invented. All the rituals express unequivocally though in a different manner, the sacrality of knowledge. Probably because of the attitude of respect for knowledge, secrecy was imposed and only the initiated and the priesthood would have access to the most fundamental knowledge. An attitude expressed also in the Veda and in most religions.

The importance of the cults to Earth, the performance of rituals and the initiation to ‘mysteries’ and imposition of secrecy that exist in all cultures and religions are related to the desire for immortality and the fear of death. Mother Earth or Demeter at Eleusis alleviate this fear, the earth does not only produce food and all materials necessary for physical life, but it also renews itself and regenerates what has perished of a natural death. For this reason the beginning of the year coincides with the winter solstice that is easy to determine exactly and marks the beginning of the season when nature takes rest and stores energy for the next solar year, it also marks the beginning of the period when the days grow longer, hence the importance of the uttarayana; alternately the beginning of the year coincides with the spring equinox that marks the awakening of nature after the winter stasis. Earth, particularly agriculture goddesses have the last word and the annual revival lessens the fear of death with the promise of a good future and of rebirth. Cicero himself said (De Legibus; 2,14, 36) that "Athens has given to the world nothing more excellent or divine than the Eleusian mysteries" and it would be recalled that the mysteries of Demeter were celebrated at Eleusis over a span of two thousand years.

I would finally like to recall the well-known letter sent in 1854 by Chief Seattle to Franklin Pierce, the then President of the United States of America, who had expressed the intention of buying land from the Indians. The letter begins with asking "how is it possible to buy or sell the sky or the warmth of the earth?. . . As we do not own the freshness of the air and the brightness of the water, how could they be bought? . . . Every little piece of land is sacred to my people . . ." The text of the letter is an enlightened hymn to earth, water, air, life energy and their products and interrelations. It is a masterpiece of understanding of nature and a lesson in ecology from the first to the last word. It is a hymn to the sacredness of the order and law of nature and of the sanctity of life. It is too well-known to be repeated here, but it is one to be kept always in mind, read and memorized, never to forget its content. The letter also has some prophetic sentences that are now becoming a sad reality: "your appetite will devour the land, leaving a desert behind it."

Chief Seattle has been proved right; man has dangerously drifted away from nature, the gap is widening and is filled with pollution of matter, mind and spirit, while deserts continue to expand.

I would like to close with two quotations from the Introduction by Seyyed Hossein Nasr to his book on The Encounter of Man and Nature (1967): "Few would be willing to admit that the acutest social and technical problem facing mankind today comes not from the so-called ‘under-development’ but from ‘over-development’ " . . . "To remedy this situation the metaphysical knowledge pertaining to nature must be revived and the sacred quality of nature given back to it once again".


Lievre, V. and J.Y. Loude, 1990. Le Chamanisme des Kalash du Pakistan, ed. Recherches sur les civilisations; Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 558 pp.

Marazzi, U., 1990. Testi dello Sciamanesimo, UTET/TEA, Torino, Italy, 610 pp.

Mylonas, G.E., 1961. Eleusis and the Eleusinian Mysteries, 87 t. Princeton University Press, 346 pp.

Nasr, S.H., 1968. The Encounter of Man and Nature, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. London, 151 pp.

Palaiseul, J., 1972. Nos grand-meres savaient, ed. Robert Laffont, Paris, 543 pp.

Renou, L., 1956. Hymnes Speculatifs du Veda, Gallimard, Paris, 276 pp.

Saraswati, S.P., and S. Vidyalankar, 1980. Rigveda Samhita, Vol. VIII, Veda Pratishthana, New Delhi, pp. ix-xiv + pp. 2339-2808.


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