Prakrti is a concept I was blissfully unaware of until beginning my exploration of the elements. Praktri has been translated from Sanskrit as ‘nature’ or ‘matter’. I have also seen it referred to as the source of material existence and the primal motive force. It is an important concept that I am pleased to have discovered. To my delight it came into my life through a five-volume work titled ‘Praktri: The Integral Vision’.
This five-volume collection, which was first published in 1995, was the outcome of a series of five successive, inter-locked seminars culminating in a cross-cultural, multidisciplinary understanding of the ‘primal’ elements – Sky, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. The volumes provide an in-depth coverage of the elements in India, as well as discussing and comparing other cultures and philosophies. The volume titles are, respectively:
- Primal Elements: The Oral Tradition
- Vedic, Buddhist and Jain Traditions
- The Agamic Tradition and the Arts
- The Nature of Matter, and
- Man in Nature
There is a wealth of information in these volumes, which I have only just started reading. They capture the rich heritage of the elements in eastern cultures and their continued importance. So far, I have found nothing comparable in the mainstream western literature where scientists, philosophers, artists, anthropologists and others have come together to share and discuss their understanding of the elements. If any readers are aware of such a publication, please let me know!
Something that caught my eye in the first volume of Praktri was the contrast between conceptual categories in written philosophies in India and the implicit oral philosophies in tribal cultures. The example given is the fivefold framework called the Bhutas – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Sky – and the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh who refer to four orders of elements, the first three of which have several categories. Linking the elements to other categories such as colour, directions and heavenly bodies is found across different philosophies, including the Wu Xing in China.
Another book on the elements written from an Indian perspective is ‘The Five Great Elements Rediscovered’ by Swami Nityamuktananda. The book is another in-depth exploration of the elements across diverse cultures. Before finding these two publications I had not realized the importance of the elements in India, apart from some connections to Ayurveda. The main exposure I’d had was to the elements in western cultures, derived from Ancient Greece, and the Yin Yang/Five Element philosophies from China (think Feng Shui, acupuncture etc.). Thankfully that is now changing.
One of the themes that I’m discovering across different expressions of the elements is the importance of energy/essence and of sound. Swami Nityamuktananda writes about some of the differences in the philosophies of India and other countries in relation to these concepts. She talks about creative energy giving rise to words compared to some other cultures where the world comes into existence through the spoken word.
Sacred words in India are called mantras. As the Swami relates, one of the most ancient mantras embodies the five elements: Ohm namah Shivaya – these syllables stand for na – earth, ma – water, shi – fire, va – air and ya – space. This is another example of the intrinsic nature of the elements in Indian culture. I’m sure that it is only the tip of the iceberg.
In two days time I am travelling to Japan, a very elemental place. Japan has links to India through the spread of Buddhism there, via China and Korea, in the sixth century AD. When you start exploring the elements, it is exciting where the journey takes you and what connections you discover. In May 2016 I started a sister blog called elementaljapan.com. You may be interested in reading it.