By Urmila Devi Dasi
The fifth in a series of articles on Krishna’s material elements.
Looking at the heavens—the vast expanse of space—has probably always inspired humans to either wonder about the existence of God or, for believers, to stand in awe of His majesty. Another kind of space—the space that surrounds us—can also evoke thoughts of the divine.
Space is one of Krishna’s energies, as He mentions in the Bhagavadgita (7.4):
bhinna prakritir ashtadha
“Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego—all together these eight constitute My separated material energies.” In this verse Prabhupada translates kham as “ether.” Other Sanskrit terms for this energy are akasha and nabhah. all three terms can be translated as “space,” “sky,” or “outer space.” because the word ether is problematic, for the purpose of this meditation I’ll consider kham the three-dimensional space of our existence.
The material energies listed by Krishna are sometimes referred to as “material elements,” but the “elements” in the ancient texts are not the same as those found in the modern periodic table of the elements. The modern definition of element is any substance that retains its identity on the atomic level. In the ancient categories of material energy, earth refers to solids, water to liquids, air to gases, ether to the space in which all else exists, and fire to radiant energy.
Meditation on the attributes of space can stimulate loving thoughts of Krishna, the ultimate goal of all spirituality and yoga practice. As Prabhupada comments, “The cosmic manifestation is nothing but a display of Krishna’s energy, and because the energy is not different from the energetic, nothing is different from Krishna. When this absolute consciousness, Krishna consciousness, is absent, we are separated from Krishna; but, fortunately, if this Krishna consciousness is present, then we are not separated from Krishna.” (Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Chapter 82)
The Bhagavatam describes space as the element from which all the other gross states of matter and energy evolve. Space is thus the foundation or source of everything, reminding us that Krishna is the cause of all causes.
One of the most peculiar aspects of space is the difficulty of one’s mind and senses to describe, define, or perceive it. We often understand space more by what it is not than what it is. For example, we commonly define space as an area without furniture, or a shelf without books. Similarly, those who rely exclusively on sense perception and logic struggle to define the Absolute Truth and resort to saying what it is not. In Sanskrit this process is referred to as neti neti: “not this; not this.” Despite its elusive definition, however, space is the main component of material reality. Modern science tells us that even the densest objects are mostly space, which pervades everything. Similarly, Krishna is everything, and is the essence of everything.
How a living entity understands and defines space depends on the particular living entity’s level of consciousness. For example, a bug on my windowsill cannot understand how the rooms in my house are connected, or how the city in which I live relates to the country or the planet. Similarly, our ability to understand Krishna and perceive how His energies connect throughout the universe depends on how much our consciousness is developed in spiritual realization.
Generally, we focus our awareness on the stuff that exists within space, rather than on space itself. Similarly, a materially conditioned soul generally absorbs his or her consciousness in Krishna’s material energy, rather than in Krishna Himself, within whom everything rests.
When we do notice space, it generally evokes positive, expansive emotions. We feel relief and satisfaction when there is room in a closet, drawer, or suitcase for the object we desire to keep.
Many spiritually inclined people reserve a part of their living area as a “sacred space” for worship, prayer, meditation, and renewal. The many places to which the faithful make pilgrimage to find meaning, peace, and joy are also sacred spaces.
Space around our body allows for stretching, health, movement, and expression, which bring us vigor and vitality. Spaces in artwork define objects and messages. When we wish to express deep joy, we surround our body with space-by jumping, dancing, diving, even parachuting. This nature of space as both an impetus for joy and freedom and a way to express those reminds us that Krishna’s ultimate spiritual reality is full of freedom, joy, play, and sports. His service is not limited or stereotypical, and He exalts in a full expression of individuality.
“Where do you live?” It’s a question even a stranger feels comfortable asking, and is often the first question people ask me. I suppose I never noticed the prevalence of the question until I no longer had an easy answer because of my constant travel. People’s need to ask the question and their discomfort and confusion when there is no simple answer taught me that when we seek to understand something, we first want to “place” it. We want to determine its position in space. Similarly, we can evaluate something only when we know its relationship with Krishna. Indeed, perceiving something without knowing where it stands in relation to the Absolute Truth is illusion and falsity. Sometimes we turn our attention from the space in our immediate surroundings of rooms, buildings, and cities to the vast expanse of the sky. The blue of the sunlit sky is a reflection of Krishna’s transcendental body and can remind us of Him. The night sky has fascinated humans since the dawn of time. We marvel at the distances beyond imagination, and at the beauty of the lights that hint at worlds we can only guess at. Similarly, Krishna is mysterious, dark, beautiful, great beyond our imagination, and inaccessible to our material senses.
Space and Krishna’s Opulence of Detachment
Although space is both everywhere and the source of everything, it always retains its identity and doesn’t mix with any other form of matter or energy. Krishna Himself refers to this attribute of space as analogous to His own detachment and neutrality. As the Supersoul, or the soul of all souls, Krishna is the well-wishing witness who like a neutral judge awards all living beings the pleasing or distressing results of their actions and desires.
Nothing takes place without the sanction of the Supersoul, and He is the ultimate doer. But He claims no responsibility for the suffering and enjoyment of the willfully deluded. An essential part of Krishna’s deep love for all living beings is His completeness and His ability to independently satisfy all His needs and desires. An ordinary conditioned soul’s “love” stems from possessiveness and thus easily turns to grief or anger. Genuine spiritual love is rooted in freedom and sacrifice. Krishna loves without conditions, manipulation, or force. He loves simply to love. Even though the scriptures describe Krishna as being controlled by His pure devotee, He’s controlled not by fear of loss but by the devotee’s freely given love.
The sky displays renunciation by not mixing with anything. Similarly, Krishna shows His renunciation by disappearing from the pleasure dance with His dearest devotees, the milkmaids of Vrindavana village. Indeed, Krishna is so detached and independent that He even travels away from Vrindavana, His ultimate abode, where even the buildings and water are alive and full of devotion for Him. In His role as a warrior prince, He was so renounced that He casually walked away from battle with the evil Jarasandha. He left to attend to a letter from his future wife, although no fighter would normally dare risk his reputation as a courageous hero by fleeing from combat.
Space and Sound
India’s sacred writings describe that each “element” has a corresponding sense and sense object that allow us to perceive it. We perceive space through hearing and sound. Many creatures, such as bats and whales, use sound to detect space. Blind people often become skilled at using sound to determine space and location, and to some extent all of us naturally use sound in this way. In addition, sound is vibration, which involves movement, and without space, nothing can move. Krishna says that He is all sound carried in space. Although all sound is Krishna, when the sound has a covering of ignorance or passion, Krishna is not perceived.
Among all the ways in which Krishna manifests in sound, certain sound combinations are His own form—His avatar of sound. Krishna’s names are the sound forms of His personality. When the Vedic literature says that the Absolute Truth has no name, that means no name in the material sense—a limited designation separate from that which is designated and subject to change according to language and custom.
Probably the most well known sound form of the absolute is om. Om is part of many mantras chanted by devotees of Krishna, but the sound form of the Absolute Truth that forms the basis of the spiritual practice of the Hare Krishna movement is Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. “The impersonal sound of Krishna is om,” Srila Prabhupada writes, “but the sound Hare Krishna contains om.” (Bhagavad-gita 8.13, Purport)
The saint and scholar Jiva Goswami’s explanation of om clarifies Prabhupada’s statement. Jiva Goswami writes that the two sounds that blend to become “o”—”a” and “u” (pronounced “uh” and “oo”)—indicate the absolute as masculine (Krishna) and feminine (Radha) respectively, while the “m” ( bindu) indicates ourselves, the living beings. Like the “a” in om (aum), Krishna and Rama are the absolute as masculine. And like the “u” in om, Hare is the absolute as feminine. The grammatical form of the mantra implies that someone is speaking to the Absolute Truth. That speaker is us, the living being, the “m” in om. The Hare Krishna maha-mantra is therefore a conversation, a request for service, and an exchange of affection. It is not just a statement of the reality of divine loving reciprocation, but a full experience of that reality.
Krishna’s Sporting Activities in Relation to Space
Scriptures such as Srimad-Bhagavatam tell us that the ultimate and complete display of the Absolute Truth is Krishna, the transcendental person who eternally enjoys a variety of sporting, playful activities of love between Himself and His devotees. Noticing varieties of material space around us can remind us of Krishna’s pastimes that involve space.
Perhaps one of the most well known descriptions of Krishna involving space is His display of His universal form to His devotee Arjuna, recounted in the Bhagavad-gita. Lord Krishna says, “Everything—moving and nonmoving—is here completely, in one place.” (11.7) And Sanjaya, the narrator, says, “At that time Arjuna could see in the universal form of the Lord the unlimited expansions of the universe situated in one place. . . .” (11.13)
Krishna’s mystic potency of having all of space within Him, in one place, was also evident when, on two occasions, Mother Yashoda looked into His mouth. She saw all of outer space within His spiritual body. She saw the stars, planets, sun, and moon. She was astonished to see all of material cosmic space within the apparently small enclave of her son’s mouth. In this regard, the creator of this universe, Brahma, prays, “Although You are now within this universe, the whole universal creation is within Your transcendental body—a fact You demonstrated by exhibiting the universe within Your abdomen before Your mother, Yashoda.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.14.16)
In Brahma-samhita (5.35) Brahma also explains, “All the universes exist in Him, and He is present in His fullness in every one of the atoms that are scattered throughout the universe, at one and the same time.” We find it impossible to get a mental picture of this description of Krishna’s relation to space. How can the Lord be fully present in every atom while the whole universe is also present within Him? Krishna describes this fact in the Gita (9.4-6): “By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them. And yet everything that is created does not rest in Me. Behold My mystic opulence! Although I am the maintainer of all living entities and although I am everywhere, I am not a part of this cosmic manifestation, for My Self is the very source of creation. Understand that as the mighty wind, blowing everywhere, rests always in the sky [space], all created beings rest in Me.”
Another of Krishna’s pastimes that show His inconceivable relationship with space occurred while He was staying in Dwaraka. When the Brahma of this universe came to visit Krishna, Brahmas from many other universes were also there. Each one was thinking Krishna was within his own universe, and none was able to see the others or interact with them. Krishna exhibited a similar opulence when He sat in the middle of concentric circles of many cowherd boys and each perceived that Krishna was facing him directly. One commentator says that this pastime of the Lord reminds us of the Gita verse (13.14) that states, “Everywhere are His hands and legs, His eyes, heads, and faces, and He has ears everywhere.”
Although Krishna is in all space—everywhere—at once and all places that exist within space are within Him, He also delights in traveling through outer space in a vehicle, as if He needs to move from one location to another. The Lord’s vehicle is often a tremendous eagle-like divine being named Garuda. At least once Krishna traveled through outer space on a horse-drawn chariot that sped past the stars and galaxies. To assist His friend Arjuna, He went beyond material space, through the universal coverings to the causal spiritual ocean.
I was taking a break between seminars at a Hare Krishna festival on the Asov Sea in Russia. As I walked along the beach, I meditated on Krishna as space. The warm, soft sand between my toes, the wild waves, the refreshing breezes, the sun-blazing like diamonds on the rippling sea-and all around and above, in all directions, expansive space. Here were all of Krishna’s gross material energies: earth, water, fire, air, and space. I remembered Lord Shiva’s prayer: “My dear Lord . . . You are the all-pervading sky within and without . . . I therefore offer my respectful obeisances again and again unto You.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.24.40)