Prakrti: The Integral Vision
There is a vast body of primary sources and equally extensive history of critical discourse on the nature of primal elements and their in dispensability, not only for humankind but for all life on Earth. The IGNCA initiated a series of Seminars, exchanges between Scientists, Indologists, Anthropologists, Artists and Philosophers, to discuss this crucial context Prakrti: The Integral Vision is a five volume set which incorporates these exchanges. This foreword to these volumes written by Kapila Vatsyayan examines the concept of Primary Elements within the content of holistic, cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary approach for the understanding of traditions.
Perhaps, the first conscious awareness of Man was the fact that his life depended on Water, Earth, Air, Fire and, above all, Space. Understandably, in all civilizations, at the more sophisticated level as also at the simplest level, the recognition that primal elements were primary and indispensable for Man, is universal. Myths of the origin of the universe, creation, cosmology and cosmogony, have been developed on the concept of the elements which are four or five. There is a vast body of primary sources and equally extensive and complex history of critical discourse on the nature of primal elements and their indispensability, not only for Man but for all life on Earth.
The subject was too vast and too monumental to be taken up in a single Seminar. Organizationally, therefore, this time it was decided to hold five successive but interlocked Seminars, one leading to the others, so that they could all culminate in a final international cross-cultural multidisciplinary Seminar. Since cultures, disciplines, and levels of society are not completely autonomous and insulated, there was a planned and understandable overlapping between one Seminar or Workshop and another.
Logically, the first of these Seminars focused attention on the articulations of cohesive communities in the world who have lived in harmony with nature and who have communicated with the five elements in a continuous unceasing dialogue. To them the nature of the five elements – water, earth, air, fire and space – is not a matter of intellection or breaking down into separation and divisions of totality or a whole; instead, it is a question of life here and now. This is manifested in ritual practices which sacrilize nature so that man can live as an integral part of the universe, the rhythmic movement of the changing seasons, and the symmetrical punctuation and cycle of seed sprouting, growing, flowering, fruiting, decaying and renewing. In modern discourse, this is understood as the need for man to live in harmony with the environment for an evolution of socio-cultural systems and methodologies for ensuring the maintenance of ecological balances. The lives and lifestyles of these cohesive groups have begun to acquire renewed validity on account of what Man has done to pollute, contaminate, desacrilize and desecrate the very fundamentals that sustain him and make it possible for him to live on earth. The first Volume is based on papers submitted at this Seminar.
The second Seminar moved the emphasis to the textual traditions. There is a vast body of literature in Greek, Chinese and Indian sources where philosophic discourses have been held on the nature of universe, the nature of matter, the elements and the possibility of transmutation of the gross to the subtle. In India, all branches of the philosophic streams, have discussed the nature of the Bhutas and the Mahabhutas. The discussion ranges from the earliest articulations in the Rgveda to the philosophic schools of Vaisesikas, Vedantins, Saivas and the Agamas. The old system of Ayurveda in India, as much of medicine in Greece in a very different way, is based on the concept of the Mahabhutas in the constitution of the body itself. The very conception of five elements constitutes the body. Texts on Indian astronomy, chemistry, metallurgy are replete with discussions on the elements. This discussion cannot be dissociated from speculation, and discourse of, the nature of the universe, cosmology, cosmogony. The second Seminar developed deep into each of these aspects specially in the Indian tradition – Vedic, Brahmanical, Upanisadic and Tantric. In addition, there was a consideration of the concept of the Mahabhutas in Buddhism and Jainism. This Seminar unfolded the very complex and subtle aspects of the discourse on the nature of matter, the five-fold organic matter and the five external objects. It also brought forth the many convergences as also divergences of viewpoint between and amongst these different streams of Indian thought as exemplified in the textual tradition. The second Volume of this series is based on the papers and the discussions held at this Seminar.
Logically, the third Seminar had to and did explore the discussions as also the manifestations of the five elements in the Indian arts, along with their Agamic background. As is well recognised, while the Upanisads provide the basis for speculative thinking, the Brahmanas give the methodology of ritual practice (Yajna and prayoga). Parallel is the development in early and later medieval India where the texts on Vastu and Silpa provides the framework of the abstract principles of creating concrete structures through different media and in different forms. The Agama is the twin which provides the methodology of enlivening, giving life and breath to the concrete structures and forms of art. If monumental architecture, sculpture, painting, music or dance, poetry or theatre, are created on the comprehension of space and time, they are built even more on the system of correspondences first, for embodying then evoking the five elements. The fascinating and unceasing cycle of the movement form inner experience to the creation of form, which would incorporate the five elements and the employment of a methodology of ritual, is outlined in the Agamic texts only to achieve the end experience of the transformation of the gross to the subtle. This was the subject of this Seminar. From different vantage points of the architect, sculptor, painter, musician and dancer, the field was re-opened to examine the structure of the Indian arts at its primal level.
Naturally, theories of aesthetics which have emerged from such a viewpoint had to be discussed and many questions asked. The third Volume incorporates the span of the papers presented and the discussions held at this Seminar.
If the arts deal with the process of transmutation and mutation of the subtle to the gross, and the evocation of subtle from the gross, in other words, the process of the abstract and the concrete suggesting, stimulating and evoking the abstract, then the astrophysicist deals with the nature of primal matter itself. No discourse on the elements could have been completed by excluding the discussion on modern physics of elementary particles and the most recent developments in microbiology. Thee fourth Seminar took up the question of the nature and function of matter itself and discussed the theories of he creation of the universe and emergent cosmologies in modern physics. This was juxtaposed with the consideration on the nature of matter and consciousness. It was obvious that the new developments in science were, perhaps, not all that far remote from the earlier insights in the context of consciousness. The debate between nineteenth century mechanistic science and modern physics was re-opened. This was juxtaposed with speculations and the philosophic discourses in the Indian philosophic schools. If the second Seminar dealt with the textual traditions and the philosophic schools of Samkhya, Mimamsa and the Vaisesikas, this Seminar looked at these traditions as structuralistic traditions from scientific point of view. The dialogue created between the method of science and the method of speculation was invigorating. The fourth Volume comprises papers and discussions of this Seminar.
The fifth and the last Seminar was a coming together of cultures as also disciplines. The international community, comprising scientists, biologists, philosophers, anthropologists, ecologists and artists shared not only the myth and cosmology of their particular societies but also there was a most meaningful dialogue between those who lived in the awareness of the primordial myths of the elements and those who had employed the tools of science to explore the nature of the phenomenon of matter.
Man stands today at the moment where he is threatened by the pollution, inner and outer, of his own making. The primal elements and the urgent need for purification through austerity and discipline are not matters of intellectual discourse alone. Their maintenance and sustenance, and the purity of these that are primary and primal, are the objectives of our life, lest death overtakes us.