In modern physics, the idea of a 'field' is introduced by thinking
of an object like a magnet. The magnet somehow influences the space
around it, so as to attract or to repel other magnetic objects. This
influence on space is described as a 'field', generated by the magnet.
Similarly, our planet earth is said to create a gravitational field,
which pulls us down onto the ground beneath our feet. So also, the
nucleus of an atom creates an electrical field, which attracts electrons
and keeps them circling around it.
However, this idea, that objects create fields, is only an
introductory one. This is just an initial indication, made rather
crudely at first, on the way to a more subtle and sophisticated
understanding. As a student learns more physics, the idea is actually
reversed. It isn't objects that create fields, but the other way around.
What our gross senses see as objects are only partial and inaccurate
appearances. More accurately viewed, these seeming objects are made up
from subtle fields that underlie them.
In quantum theory, all objects are conceived to be made of
sub-atomic particles, which are not just little bits of matter. Instead,
they are quantum elements in subtle fields that condition all space and
time. Through some rather abstract mathematics, this subtle field
conditioning is theoretically described. It cannot be seen directly by
our gross senses and our material instruments. But it is everywhere..
The theory of relativity goes even further. Instead of describing
subtle fields of force, it gives up the idea of 'force' altogether. It
thus describes a four-dimensional continuum, with three dimensions for
space and one for time. In this continuum, all movement is entirely
unforced. Each line of travel is always the most natural. It is always a
straight line, taking always the shortest path in a four-dimensional
geometry that joins together the differing events of space and time.
That interconnecting geometry is curved, rather like the bumpy
surface of our planet earth, with its mountains and valleys. The earth's
surface is of course only two-dimensional, with one dimension for
latitude and the other for longitude. But where this two-dimensional
surface is bumpy, as in a mountainous region, the shortest and
straightest path often seems to twist and turn, in a forced and
unnatural way; when it is seen from a one-dimensional perspective that
looks at the path point by point, as one travels along it.
Something similar happens in the four-dimensional geometry of the
space-time continuum. In our usual perspective, through our immediate
senses, we see a world of three dimensions in space, changing from
moment to moment. As the bumpy geometry of space-time is seen from this
three-dimensional perspective, the four-dimensional bumpiness produces
the appearance of separate material objects and the forced motions that
they seem to inflict upon each other.
In our habitual perspective, we are material observers, travelling
through a world of objects that are located in the three dimensions of
space, at each point of time. The theory of relativity describes a more
fundamental perspective, in which space and time are taken together, as
an underlying continuum that subtly interconnects all different seeming
In Srimad Bhagavatham the details of five traditional elements:
called 'prithivi' or 'earth', 'apas' or 'water', 'tejas' or 'fire', 'vayu'
or 'air', and 'akasha' or 'ether'. These names must not be taken too
literally; for they represent a progression of increasingly subtle
levels, in our experience of the world.
• 'Earth' is the 'solid' element, found at the level of gross
matter that is separated into different objects.
• 'Water' is the 'fluid' element, found at the level of dynamic energy
that flows in organic patterns of changing activity.
• 'Fire' is the 'illuminating' element, found at the level of meaningful
information that enables a further perception of represented things.
• 'Air' is the 'qualitative' element, found at the level of conditioned
character that may be contrasted and compared in different and changing
• 'Ether' is the 'pervading' element, found at the level of underlying
continuity that is implied by all difference and change.
These five levels are found in modern physics as well, but with a
difference. The older sciences include a profound consideration of life
and living process, as expressing an underlying consciousness. So, where
modern physics is restricted to investigate the macrocosm of the
external world, the older sciences go on to analyze the microcosm of
Thus, corresponding to the 'pancha-mahabhutas', or the 'five
elements' of the macrocosm, there are five 'koshas' or 'coverings' of
personality. These coverings are layers or levels of experience. As they
are penetrated, by reflecting inwardly, we go down towards the depth of
consciousness. And here the traditional descriptions are more abstract,
so their scientific character becomes a little clearer.
The outermost layer is the 'annamaya-kosha' or the 'covering of
food'. It is the external body, made of matter, like other objects seen
outside by our gross senses. Here, matter is called 'food', thus
conceiving it organically. It is what gets consumed by natural processes
that function to produce and to transform the different objects of the
Reflecting inwards, the second layer is the 'pranamaya kosha' or
the 'covering of energy'. Here, energy is described as 'prana', which
also means 'living breath'. This is an energy that is inspired from
within. It is not an energy of artificial force, exerted by one object
upon another. Instead, it is a living energy that naturally expresses
consciousness. In everyone's experience, this living energy arises quite
spontaneously, from an inner ground of consciousness that we all share
in common. We share that inner ground of life in common with each other,
and with the whole universe. It is the ground of nature's life, in every
person and in the world outside. In the world as a whole, the living
energy of prana is expressed impersonally, through the impartiality of
nature's ordered functioning. In the limited bodies of living creatures,
the same energy is expressed more personally, through our partial
faculties of physical and sensual and mental activity.
Beneath the level of living energy, there is a third layer, called
the 'manomaya-kosha' or the 'covering of mind'. This is the conceiving
intellect, made up of thoughts that interpret the patterns of activity
that our senses perceive. Thus interpreted, these patterns are conceived
as meaningful information, telling us about an intelligible world. Here,
as information is meaningfully represented, modern physics is confined
to quantitative measurements and calculations of mathematical variables
like distance, time, speed, mass, momentum and energy. But the older
sciences go on to a broader and fuller investigation of language,
thought and meaningful experience.
Next, beneath the level of information and its interpretation,
there is a fourth layer, called the 'vijnyanamaya-kosha' or the
'covering of discernment'. This is our discernment of qualities and
values, which we compare and contrast in the information that we
perceive and interpret and describe. In modern physics, the comparison
is strictly quantitative, ascribing a mathematical value to each point
of space and time, and thus formally describing a mathematically
abstracted 'field'. By contrast, the older sciences consider quality and
value in a much fuller way, as a conditioning that we discern and judge
intuitively, through our inner feelings. So, instead of being restricted
to calculating theories that have to be applied by an external
technology of material instruments, the older sciences are more
essentially concerned with a systematic and reasoned clarification of
our discerning faculties.
Further still, beneath the level of quality and its discernment,
there is a fifth layer, called the 'anandamaya-kosha' or the 'covering
of happiness'. This is the co-ordinating layer of personality, with the
word 'ananda' or 'happiness' being used in the sense of 'harmony' and
'integration'. The co-ordination takes place through assimilated
understanding. Through it we comprehend the continuity of underlying
principles, beneath the change and the variety of superficial
Here, at the level of continuity and integration, the old sciences
show up their subjective basis. When the concept of 'akasha' or 'ether'
is rightly understood, it corresponds closely with the space-time
continuum of modern physics. 'Akasha' means 'pervading space'. It is the
continuity of space and time, pervading through all experience. But this
same word, 'akasha', also implies a knowing light, which is subjective.
The continuity of akasha includes both objective and subjective
When it is considered subjectively, this continuity is called 'prajnyana'
or 'consciousness'. It is the knowing ground that lights up all
appearances, no matter where, no matter when, no matter in whose
experience. On that subjective ground, the old sciences are based.
But, if these sciences are founded in this way, on a subjective
basis, that might seem to make them merely personal. How then can they
be scientific? The answer is that they are meant to be based upon an
impersonal subjectivity. They depend upon a ground of consciousness that
is at once subjective and impersonal.