Editor’s note: We are happy to start a new series under the title – वाग्वेद (vāgveda). Every month a particular Sanskrit word, preferably related to the theme of that month’s issue, will be highlighted and its detailed etymological explanation will be presented. The purpose is to facilitate a deeper understanding of the word and all that it means and suggests.

आकाश ākāśa – Beyond Sky

Space is the theme of this month’s issue. So naturally the word for this month is – आकाश (ākāśa) which usually means sky.

The word आकाश (ākāśa) is formed by combining the prefix आ (ā)  with काश (kāśa.)

  • The prefix आ (ā)  in Sanskrit is used to denote diminution (ईषत् – īṣat) or extension (अभिव्याप्ति – abhivyāpti) or boundary (सीमा – sīmā). 
  • The word काश  (kāśa) comes from the root-sound काश् (kāś) which means to be visible or appear, to shine or be brilliant.
  • The word आकाश (ākāśa) would then mean the vast extension in which things manifest, appear or shine.

This is different from प्रकाश (prakāśa) which also has the sense of brilliance, expansion, shining, appearing etc. The word prakāśa is used in the Vedas, Upanishads and Tantric texts in the sense of ‘the essential effulgence’ which is the very nature of the Supreme Transcendent Absolute.

When this essential effulgence, which is in a concentrated state, becomes diffused for the creation to begin, it becomes आकाश (ākāśa), the space, the extended vastness. In other words, for the purpose of creation प्रकाश (prakāśa), the essential effulgence imposes on itself a limitation and becomes आकाश (ākāśa), the space, the Ether, the medium through which light moves and extends.

आकाश (ākāśa) is also called अन्तरीक्ष (antarīkṣa), the mid-region through which the divine possibilities high above are effectuated as actual manifestations down below. As the space is the extent to which we can see, ākāśa is also the perception, the vision, the दृष्टि (dṛṣṭi). The wider the vision the greater is the experience of the vastness of ākāśa.

As the Divine’s vision is infinite and endless, so the primordial आकाश ākāśa or space from which all have come into being is realized as infinite and endless or अनन्त (ananta — another name for ākāśa).

The Upanishads describe ākāśa or the space as the body of the Brahman (आकाशशरीरं ब्रह्म — ākāśaśarīraṁ brahma, Taittiriya Upanishad, 1.6.1). This infinite space of undivided consciousness exists in all – inside and outside. The infinite vast space is अनन्ताकाश (anantākāśa) or चिदाकाश (cidākāśa) and the space within is दहराकाश (daharākāśa) or हृदाकाश (hṛdākāśa). In the Vedas this infinite vast space is known as अदिति aditi, the undivided consciousness. In the Tantra it is भुवनेश्वरी (bhuvaneśvarī) who is the vast space from which she brings all worlds into being.

As one of the five elements or पञ्च महाभूत (pañca mahābhūta-s) ākāśa has शब्द (śabda) or sound as its तन्मात्रा (tanmātrā) or the root-energies of the five elements. Among all the five elements ākāśa is the subtlest.

Other words used for ākāśa are as follows:

  • As all is enveloped in the space it is called व्योमन् (vyoman), derived from the root व्ये (vye) meaning ‘to envelope, cover, clothe’.
  • For the same reason it is also known as अम्बर (ambara) which also means cloth.
  • As the supporter of the clouds it is known as अभ्र (abhra).
  • Because of its brilliance it is known as द्यौ (dyau) and दिव (diva).  
  • सुरवर्त्म (suravartma) literally means the path through which the cosmic powers or gods travel.
  • Because of its grandeur and vastness it is known as विहायस् (vihāyas) and वियत् (viyat).
  • As गगन (gagana) it facilitates movements of light and sound.
  • ख (kha) is the vast expansion.
  • Derived from the root-sound नभ् (nabh) meaning to burst forth, नभस् (nabhas) means the open space that has burst forth.
  • अन्तरीक्ष (antarīkṣa) refers to the mid region through which things become perceptible.
  • Space is experienced as the stride of Vishnu, so it’s called विष्णुपद (viṣṇupada).
  • And finally पुष्कर (puṣkara) refers to that which holds water or clouds.

Cover photo: Soar into the sky, by Pranav Makhijani