The five elements of Ayurveda — ether (akash), air (vayu), fire (agni), water (ap) and earth (prithvi) — are described in the context of Samkhya philosophy, one of the six classical philosophies of Indian thought (shad darshan).
According to Larson (1), the seminal text of Samkhya philosophy (samkhyakarika), was probably completed between 320-540 CE, although “it is generally agreed that Samkhya's formulation took place at the earliest after the oldest Upanishads had been composed (~800 BCE).”
This places the composition of the text itself in the Classical or “Golden” era of Indian history (320-650 CE), while the theoretical foundations are being laid clearly in the Vedic period. The Vedic era of India is considered to begin around 1500 BCE with the codification of the Rig Veda and to end around 500 BCE, around the time the last of the “early” Upanishads were composed.
The Vedas are a set of four texts mostly set in hymnal verse. Scholars throughout history have worked to interpret and decode the abstract language of spiritual song and poetry for clues about the Vedic worldview. It is notable that even today, according to Wikipedia, “a good deal of the language is still obscure and many hymns as a consequence are unintelligible.” (2)
In the thorough compendium Vedic Experience: An Anthology of Hinduism’s Sacred and Revealed Scriptures (3), which includes extensive reference to both Vedic and Upanishadic texts, the authors make a choice:
“Out of the five classical elements, and others that perhaps could have been chosen, we give here texts concerning only three, which we may epitomize thus: water as the reality before creation, earth as the creation par excellence, and wind as the dynamic of the cosmos after creation.” (p 105)
Notably absent from this list are akash and agni. This is speculation, but perhaps this choice relates to the fact that Agni is one of three primary Vedic deities (concepts worthy of worship), alongside Soma and Indra. Meanwhile, as the focus of this essay is the treatment of akash and vayu in these seminal texts, let’s explore the ways in which these two elements make themselves known.
Akasha is “the all-pervading space” (p 76)
Akasha is identified w Brahman (p 616)
Akasha is “the atmosphere or ether. Akasha is the medium of sound.” (p 618)
Akasha is “the atmosphere that produces sound” (p 308)
Akasha is “the cosmic womb” (p 506)
“All the human organs enter the elements, including the atman which goes into the akash.” (p 541)
“In the rig veda, the wind is named vata or vayu, the former being used chiefly for the element and the latter chiefly for the God…
“An ambivalent meaning is suggested by some of the sentences in these two hymns. What is said of the Wind could equally be said of the Spirit. The Wind collects, enraptures and takes away in his chariot toward the celestial heights those who are caught in his blowing, bringing them together with the same devotion and enthusiasm as that of women congregating for a holy feast or gathering for a marriage…
“This same wind is connected to the primordial waters, is called the first-born, and yet is said to be of unknown origin; for nobody knows where it goes and where it comes from; it wanders free, is heard but not seen, is invisible, can only be felt, experienced, sensed, without being comprehended or understood.”
“The wind holds the gift of eternal life; it is the bestower of the life principle, the seed of life.” (p 120)
“4. Breath of the Gods and life germ of the universe, freely he wanders. We bring him our homage, whose voice may be heard but whose form is not seen.”
Interpretation: “Hearing pierces deeper than seeing into the realm of being, though seeing may be clearer than hearing.” (p 121)
“Vayu, in his aspect of uplifter of oblation. This elevation of the heart is also worship, and thus the devas come near to faith, inspired by Vayu.” (RV 10, 151)