The Five Steps On The Scale Of Subtle Elements

[Vishnu's lotus feet]“The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.42)

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इन्द्रियाणि पराण्य् आहुर्
इन्द्रियेभ्यः परं मनः
मनसस् तु परा बुद्धिर्
|यो बुद्धेः परतस् तु सः

indriyāṇi parāṇy āhur
indriyebhyaḥ paraṁ manaḥ
manasas tu parā buddhir
yo buddheḥ paratas tu saḥ

One of the first teachings presented in the Vedanta school of spirituality is the difference between body and spirit. This is at the foundation, the primary building block. Without such knowledge, any type of subsequent allegiance will be based in faith only. Intelligence is used for discriminating between different substances and situations, which in turn influences the style of living.

The distinction is not difficult to understand, especially when considering the events of birth and death. The two bookends of a duration known as a lifetime, first there is the acceptance of the body. Later on the same gets rejected.

That body is generally visible. Even within the womb there is development. What may not be known through perception is the idea of a subtle side. These are elements of the material world in the same way that the body comes together, but they can only be realized through associated perception, i.e. from the influence on external objects.

1. The working senses

The analysis is not based on mental speculation. After all, anyone can say anything. Each person’s guess is as valid as the next person’s. Shri Krishna highlights the distinctions in His famous conversation to the bow-warrior named Arjuna. He provides the list of material elements:

भूमिर् आपो ऽनलो वायुः
खं मनो बुद्धिर् एव च
अहङ्कार इतीयं मे
भिन्ना प्रकृतिर् अष्टधा

bhūmir āpo ‘nalo vāyuḥ
khaṁ mano buddhir eva ca
ahaṅkāra itīyaṁ me
bhinnā prakṛtir aṣṭadhā

“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence and false ego – altogether these eight comprise My separated material energies.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.4)

The difference between gross and subtle is based on fineness. For instance, while still a gross element, air is finer than earth. We can’t see air, but we know that it is there based on the impact to objects that are gross in nature. The material body, i.e. the temporary residence of the individual, is an ideal example of a gross object.

At the individual level, the subtle nature begins with the working senses. These are finer than dull matter. They cannot be seen, but we know they are there. Without senses, interaction is not possible. The words spoken at the moment could not be heard. The written text could not be read. The change of clothes could not be felt, and so on.

2. The mind

Increase the degree of subtleness, and you next reach the mind. Everyone knows that it exists, though it cannot be seen. The mind is something like the processing engine in what is the body machine. The mind gathers information, stores it appropriately, and then retrieves it when necessary. If a person says that their brain is not working too well on a particular day, it means that the ability of the mind has been temporarily diminished.

3. The intelligence

This element is not as easy to identify. After all, does not the brain do everything? Is not the mind tied to the brain? What is this higher entity known as the intelligence?

We can consider the situation of driving on the road, while listening to music and talking on the phone. The mind continues to process information. After all, a person would never know to stop at a red light or make the appropriate turn if the mind were not in the “on” position.

At the same time, there is a higher force in the background. That is the intelligence. The mind can say to do something, but the intelligence can overrule the decision. My senses draw me towards that doughnut resting on the kitchen table. My mind makes excuses as to why having a doughnut will not be that harmful. But my intelligence steps in to stop the activity, acting off superior information.

[donuts]Another example is the child knowing to suck the breast of the mother after birth. There is no training in this process. The mind does not gather information and then make a rational decision. The practice is instinct, which proves the existence of a higher force, i.e. the intelligence.

4. The ego

Known as ahankara in Sanskrit, this is what identifies a person. The resultant words are “I am.” The ego can be false or real. In the temporary land of duality, the illusory energy known as maya tricks me into choosing the false version. I take identity from the temporary body covering me. This is nothing more than a collection of material elements, gross and subtle.

5. The soul

Finer than the ego is the soul. It is said that if you take the tip of a piece of hair and divide it into ten thousand parts, one of those parts is comparable to the size of the soul. Yet this fragment is everything. It is what determines the presence of the other elements. That is to say without a soul inside, there is no ego, mind, intelligence or senses. The subtle body accompanies the soul to the next gross body after death.

शरीरं यद् अवाप्नोति
यच् चाप्य् उत्क्रामतीश्वरः
गृहीत्वैतानि संयाति
वायुर् गन्धान् इवाशयात्

śarīraṁ yad avāpnoti
yac cāpy utkrāmatīśvaraḥ
gṛhītvaitāni saṁyāti
vāyur gandhān ivāśayāt

“The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.8)

The finest substance happens to be the most potent. Spirit, or atma, is part of the superior energy of the Divine. We are like a sample of God, while He is the entire thing. He is the powerhouse, the energetic, while we are the energy. The gross and subtle elements are just more of His energies, the inferior variety.

[Vishnu's lotus feet]The aim of Vedanta study is to realize this soul. Not just acknowledge its presence and superiority, but come to a firm understanding of how it interacts with the world around it. The higher objective is to turn the ego towards the real side, wherein I identify always as spirit soul, part and parcel of the Supreme Lord.

In Closing:

Just because not easily to see,

Disqualified existence to be.

Vedanta with concept fine,

Elements like senses and mind.

With each step finer to go,

Until finally essence to know.

Spirit soul, my identity true,

Sample of God, the powerhouse who.

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