Ākāśa is literally translated as ‘that which shines in all directions’. It can mean
- free or open space.
- ether, sky atmosphere.
- ether or space: one of the five traditional physical elements make up the world of matter.
Ākāśa, the sky, with its firmament dotted with stars, planets and other celestial objects often provides poets with inspiration to sing. Philosophers, however, question whether it is empty space or a material substance.
As in the case of other subjects of inquiry, several various viewpoints have emerged with the Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, and Jaina viewpoints having the most consensus.
Ākāśa in Vaiśeṣika metaphysics
In the Vaiśeṣika system ākāśa is considered as a dravya or substance, one of its nine kinds. It is the pervading substratum of the quality of sound present everywhere.
Ākāśa in Sāṅkhya metaphysics
The Sāṅkhya, the Yoga and the Vedānta systems consider ākāśa as one of the five tanmātras pertaining to sound. The ākāśa that is experienced by us is formed by these tanmatras by the process of pañcīkaraṇa. According to the process of creation as described in the Upaniṣads, ākāśa is the first of the five bhutas or elements that emerge out of the Atman. The Upaniṣads have sometimes used the word ākāśa for Brahman also.
Ākāśa in Jaina metaphysics
In Jaina metaphysics, ākāśa is considered as space, eternally existing. Its function is to afford room for the existence of all astikāyas or extended substances. Jīvas, pudgala, dharma and adharma all exist in ākāśa. It is too subtle to be perceived by the senses. Its existence has to be inferred.
It is of two kinds:
- Lokākāśa: space containing the world of souls and matter
- Alokākāśa: empty space beyond such world
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore