I have written articles on this blog about the four elements of the classical cosmology: earth, fire, water, and air/wind. Aristotle added ether as a fifth element. So did ancient Indians. They called it akasha (“space” or “void”). We know now, of course, that the universe is made up of atoms and more than a hundred chemical elements have been identified so far. We also know that space is not static; it is expanding. Modern cosmology challenges the ancient cosmologies, including the biblical cosmology. This is a matter to be considered when we ask where Jesus went after his resurrection. We say “he ascended into heaven.” But where, actually, is that?
The fifth element proposed by some of the ancients is ether or space. In Hinduism, particularly in its esoteric tradition, the four elements describe states of matter; the fifth element describes that which is beyond the material world. In Buddhism the four great elements, to which two others are sometimes added, are not viewed as substances, but as categories of sensory experience. Chinese Taoism has a similar but different listing of five elements: metal, earth, wood, fire, and water.
The four or five elements of ancient Greek cosmology served as the working model of Western cosmological science for centuries. Albert Einstein revolutionized cosmological thinking by demonstrated in his general theory of relativity that space is curved – also that it is not empty; it is a gravitational field. While Einstein’s theory was revolutionary, it retained the ancient notion that there is a boundary or limit to the universe since space curves around on itself. Even for Einstein the universe was a static entity.
Then Edwin Hubble demonstrated through his telescope that space is expanding. One can see that galaxies are moving farther apart from one another. It took a bit of convincing to get Einstein to admit this; he had to look through the telescope himself. Space has an energy (called the cosmological constant) that allows it to push farther and farther away from its point of origin.
The question inevitably arose: is the universe moving at a steady rate or is it slowing down? Recent calculations have concluded that the rate of expansion is accelerating. This was discovered in 1998 by two independent projects, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search Team, which both used distant Type 1a supernova to measure the acceleration. But in actuality, the galaxies aren’t moving. It’s the space that contains them that is expanding; the galaxies just go along for the ride wherever the expanding gravitation field takes them.
View from the Hubble telescope
So, if I understand the current science, it is possible that the universe is both limited and unlimited; it is contained in space but the container is getting bigger, with no evident force that would stop its expansion. Are there other universes with their own space? Scientists think so. Will our expanding space bump into another expanding space? Yes, but there is more space because space is always expanding.
In the ancient yoga cosmology, ether or space has no substance of its own; it is a void defined by that which it is lacking. It is the absence of properties rather than having properties. It lacks fire’s warmth, so it is cold. It lacks the propulsion of air, so it is still. It lacks the wetness of water, so it is dry. It lacks the heaviness of earth, so it is light. Lacking material substance, ether/space is boundless and limitless.
In yoga practice the elements are not abstract theory; they are experienced in the body. This is perhaps the main difference between modern cosmology and the ancient Indian cosmology. In modern cosmology the elements of the universe are objects to be observed and analyzed. For the yogis the elements were sensed in the body. They are even identified with the five senses and their respective sense organs; therefore the elements have a phenomenological quality. Earth is related to smell (nose), water to taste (tongue), fire to sight (eyes), air to touch (skin), and ether to hearing (ears). The locations of the elements in the body are the perineum (earth), pubis/sacrum (water), navel (fire), heart (air), and throat (space). These are the locations of chakras, and it is at the chakras that we have access to the elements.
The elements of earth, water, fire, and air all originated in space; therefore they remain connected. In the body the lighter elements purify the heavier ones. Thus space purifies air, air purifies fire, fire purifies water, water purifies earth. In the body, this is experienced by accessing the ether/space element around the throat; there the body is experienced as open in all directions. From there energy can flow downward to the air element around the heart area, then to the fire element in the abdomen, then to the water element in the inner thighs, and finally to the earth element in the pelvic floor. Or, in practice related to the chakras the yogi can experience the flow of energy upward from the perineum to the head. It should be understood that since all five elements are in the body, to say that one element can be accessed in a particular chakra does not mean that other elements are not present. It simply means that a particular element is dominant in that location.
This chart shows the five yoga elements and the corresponding Taoist elements in parentheses located at the seven principal chakras.
Ether/space shapes and defines the other elements. Without ether/space there would be nothing between entities. Ether/space has no substance of its own. It is the space between breaths as well as the space around the body in the asana practice. In a sense, ether can help the yogi to become more aware of the breath and the asanas because space differentiates one breath or pose from another. A yoga practice that focuses on ether/space will hold inhales before exhaling and hold exhales before inhaling. It will hold a pose before going on to the next one. Perhaps if you are inhaling/exhaling at a 4:4 count, you could hold the breath another four counts and hold the pose as long as you desire or are able. One can experience spiritual power in the stillness that space between breaths and poses provides.
The element of ether is associated with the throat chakra (visuddha). The energy of the throat chakra is connected with sound and communication. Communication serves the purpose of making connections, and it is through ether/space that sound waves pass from transmitter to receiver. Yoga poses related to the element of ether could therefore be ones that move the neck up or down or from side to side, such as in low cobra, fish, and shoulder stands.
A pose related to the throat chakra is Simhasana (lion pose). This pose exercises the throat and facial muscles. It also exercises the vocal chords since it involves opening the mouth, sticking out the tongue, turning the eyes upward, and letting out with a roar (Aaaaaaahhhhhhh).
Ether/ space yoga could also focus on expanding the universe of the body, particularly by lengthening the spine to create more internal space for prana (energy).
utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle) by Jack Cuneo.
Where is Heaven?
Now with regard to Christ’s ascension: Where is Heaven? The ancients visualized Heaven as the space beyond the sky (the sky is what we would understand as space). We can only conclude, therefore, that Heaven is in another space. That’s why the Soviet cosmonauts didn’t see find God when they went into space (actually not very far into space).
When the Bible speaks of heaven and earth, it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum. Nor is it talking about a physical world and a non-physical world. It’s talking about two different kinds of space and two different material entities. Novelists and film makers often portray parallel worlds in their stories. C. S. Lewis portrayed parallel worlds in his Narnia stories. We love the concept but regard it as fantasy because it doesn’t fit into our modern scientific cosmology (although some scientists speak of parallel universes).
Heaven and Earth thus occupy different spaces, and it would seem that ne’er the two shall meet. But God’s saving act in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ has reconciled Heaven and Earth. After his resurrection and ascension Christ passed back and forth from one space to the other as he continued to meet with, instruct, and commission his apostles. After Pentecost the Spirit sent by the Father and poured out on the apostles in the Son’s name teaches us what we need to know.
The Ascension of Christ by Jan Matejko
Eastern Orthodox church buildings are noted for their icon screens (iconostasis) that separate the sanctuary (altar area) from the nave (the assembly’s area). The sanctuary symbolizes heaven and the nave symbolizes earth. But the liturgical ministers pass back and forth between these two areas through the royal doors during the liturgy to bring the word and the sacraments to the people and to take the prayers of the people to God.
Someday, in God’s time, according to the Book of Revelation, Heaven and Earth will be brought together when the heavenly City comes to Earth and God dwells with mortals. The separate spaces will become one space. The Gospel has cosmological as well as personal implications.
Pastor Frank Senn