A Story from the Upanishads

Retold by Hari Prasad Shastri

The four great elements of nature—earth, air, fire and water, and the space, or ether, in which they abide—met in conference and each began to assert its superiority.

Fire said: ‘I am supreme. There is none higher than me. I can reduce everything to ashes.’ Water asserted: ‘No, it is I who am supreme, because I can quench fire, and can pulverise the great rocks and high mountains.’ Wind stepped into the arena and told the others: ‘Without me fire cannot burn; without me water is as still as stone, I am supreme.’ Earth in all its majesty picked up the gauntlet, and confronted the others by stating: ‘Without me you little children, fire and water, can find no support at all. I am your mother. In my bosom you live and have your being.’

While they were quarrelling, a superhuman Intelligence appeared in their midst. First addressing Fire, It said, ‘You want to establish your superiority on account of your great power to burn up and destroy whatever you touch.’ The Intelligence then produced a straw, and asked Fire to burn it. The fire rose high and assumed many forms and colours, but was powerless to burn that straw.

Then the superhuman Intelligence summoned water, and said: ‘You wet this straw.’ Water tried with all the force it could, but had to fall back baffled.

Then the great Intelligence invited the other elements. They too had to acknowledge their abject discomfiture. The great Intelligence told them: ‘It is plain that you are all working under my orders and with my guidance. If I withdraw my power, none of you can do anything.’ So saying, It vanished into thin air.

The elements again conferred, and confessed: ‘Verily this Intelligence is greater than all of us. Who was it? Where was it? Let us seek to know That.’ A voice proclaimed: ‘This superhuman force is a partial expression of the supreme spirit, the Absolute—God. All power and glory has its root and origin in That.’

This article is from the Winter 2019 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.