How do I explain akasha (sky - one of the Panchamahabhuta) to a scholar?


I am giving excerpts from 'The Serpent Power' by Sir John Woodroffe on the Bhutas including Akasa. Sir John compares Akasa with ether but I will remove those parts from the excerpt posted here:

The Indian theory [says] that ...scientific or ponderable matter does not permanently exist, but says that there are certain motions or forces (five in number) which produce solid matter, and which are ultimately reducible to Akasa. Akasa is one of the gross forces into which the Primordial Power (Prakrti-Sakti) differentiates itself. Objectively considered it is a vibration in and of the substance of Prakrti of which it is a transformation in which the other forces are observed to be operating. Lastly, Akasa is not an ultimate, but is itself derived from the super-sensible Tanmatra, with its quality (Guna) whereby Akasa affects the senses; and this Tanmatra is itself derived from the mental I-making principle (Ahamkara), or personal consciousness produced from the superpersonal Jiva-consciousness as such (Buddhi), emanating from the root-energy, or Prakrti-Sakti, the cause and basis of all forms of "material" force or substance. At the back of both "matter" and mind, there is the creative energy (Sakti) of the Supreme who is the cause of the universe and Consciousness itself.

Matter affects the Jiva in five different ways, giving rise in him to the sensations of smell, taste, sight, touch and feel, and hearing.

As already explained, the Tanmatras are supersensible, being abstract qualities, while the senses perceive their variations in particular objects only. These sense particulars are produced from the generals or universals.

From the Sabda-Tanmatra and from the combinations of the later with the other Tanmatras are produced the gross Bhutas (Maha-bhuta), which as things of physical magnitude perceivable by the senses approach the Western definition of discrete sensible "matter". These five Maha-bhutas are Akasa (Ether), Vayu (air), Tejas (fire), Apas (water) and Prthivi (Earth). Their development takes place from the Tanmatra, from one unit of that which is known in sensible matter as mass (Tamas), charged with energy (Rajas) by the gradual accretion of mass and redistribution of energy. The result of this is that each Bhuta is more gross than which precedes it until "Earth" is reached. These five Bhutas have no connection with the English "elements" so called, nor, indeed, are they elements at all, being derived from the Tanmatras. Dynamically and objectively considered they are (proceeding from Akasa) said to be five forms of motion, into which Prakrti differentiates itself; viz, non-obstructive, all-directed motion radiating lines of force in all directions .. affording the space (Akasa) in which other forces operate; transverse motion and locomotion in space (Vayu); upward motion giving rise to expansion (Tejas); and the motion which produces cohesion, its characteristic of obstruction being the opposite of the non-obstructive ether (Akasa) in which it exists and from which it and the other Tattvas spring. The first is sensed by hearing through its quality (Guna) of sound (Sabda)[According to western notions, it is the air which is the cause of sound. According to Indian notions, Akasa is the substratum (Asraya) of sound and Air (Vayu) is a helper in its manifestation]; the second by touch through resistance and feeling; the third by sight as colour; the fourth by taste through flavour; and the fifth by the sense of smell through its odour, which is produced by matter only in so far as it partakes of the solid state.

The hard and stable obstructive "earth" is that which is smelt, tasted, seen and touched, and which exists in space which is known by hearing - that is the sounds of it. The smooth "water" is that which is tasted, seen, and touched in space. "Fire" is what is seen and touched - that is felt as temperature- in space. "Air" is what is so felt in space. And sound which is heard is that by which the existence of Akasa is known. These Bhutas when compounded make up the material universe.

Akasa is space and is the starting point of the other Bhutas. The subject matter of the Bhutas is complicated because it is derived from Yogic and not ordinary experience.

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