The Vivekananda Decomposition – A New Type of Destructive distillation!

Destructive Distillation
Destructive Distillation of Coal

We learned about charcoal and coke during 8th grade but we didn’t learn how they are produced until 10th grade  when  our beloved Prema madam taught us the process of destructive distillation. I kind of liked the idea since the process reminded us of another experiment I conducted with my brother at home. Most ordinary light bulbs have a component inside that  resembles a miniature test tube which we have used to conduct experiments on projectile motion.

Inside of a light bulb

We found at an early age that the inflammable material at the tip of a match stick can be utilized to launch projectiles. My brother and I were introduced to the test tube like thing by our neighbors. We put the inflammable stuff inside it thing and compressed it from outside. When we applied heat at the open end of the tube, it shot forward like a bullet.

I thought that this tube could also be used for destructive distillation. Science freaks like my friend Shyamlal and I used to sit  in the class and mock spiritual concepts. In Hindi we were taught many lessons depicting stories of Buddha and Vivekananda. This is about an incident centered around a biographical lesson on Vivekananda and his contributions in our 10th grade Hindi text book.

Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda

The lesson was nice and at the end of it , there was a couple of paragraphs about his death. It was written that his body which was made of panch bhoot or five elements (earth, ether, fire, water and air) finally got separated from its soul and disintegrated into the earth. I was puzzled and asked Shyamlal who sat next to me “What does that even mean?”. He joked saying, “May be we can do a destructive distillation of his body to find out whether he is composed of panch bhoot!”. I stared at him for a while thinking about what to say.

It was a funny incident but it raised some fundamental questions in our minds. For instance, “Why do we still believe in pseudoscience even though we know that real science says something else?” “Why is it that yoga instructors and Ayurveda practitioners still preach about the vata, pitta and kabha doshas when the actual explanation of the symptoms in the body is different?”

My friend’s joke didn’t decompose Vivekananda. It instead decomposed our views on pseudo-scientific notions about the world around us! And now I like Vivekananda who caused this initiation.

Join the Conversation


  1. Body is made up of five elements doesn’t mean literally the chemical elements in the periodic table. It is the basic elements of existence in the universe for any living thing.
    For exaple, take the case of a tree. It require earth ( where it gets rooted up), water (to grow), Air (the carbon dioxide or respiration), Fire ( the sunlight or heat) and Ether ( it is the space where everything exists). Every living thing requires these five elements for existence. It cannot be classified as psuedo science, in fact it is an integral way of looking at the existence as a whole.

  2. It is not an integral way. Rather it is a primitive way of looking at existence. We have advanced so much that we can discard what is essentially an obsolete notion about the universe. When man did not understand the universe fully, he created his own answers based on the little knowledge he had. As his knowledge evolved, so did his understanding of the fundamentals of nature. Anyway, thanks for reading my post. Will look forward to more comments and suggestions from you :).

  3. Do you think any living thing exist in this world without any of these basic elements of nature..? Non living thing doesnt require all the basic elements of nature for existence..(but ether or space is a must for anything to exist.. that is the least case). You can argue that some minute beings which maynot require air for example and say that all the living things doesnt require all the basic elements of nature. But then.. the universe is made up of different levels of consciousness according to Darwin evolution theory. And you may also have this different levels of existence between the no living entities and the living ones requiring the basic elements of nature in different scales. Anyway for all the living entities which we can see there is no existence without these five elements of nature…. And one more thing is.. even if the knowledge is ancient or modern, if the experience can prove it true.. then i think it is wrong to denounce it…. It is not just accepting everything is modern.. it is knowing what is true from experience…, at least for me… 🙂 Best wishes….

  4. You can say that there is string theory which proves that matter doesn’t exist as an entity but as vibrations… you can even say how does this ‘five elements of nature’ idea held true for dark matter… But even, the vibrations to exist requires some space. And energy does not have a hypothetical existence, it requires a presentable form which may even acquire space… So i think these basic elements has got very strong roots….

  5. I didn’t say that string theory proves anything. You have misunderstood string theory and the vibration of the strings. String theory itself breaks many conventional hypothesis in the macroscopic world and that is why it is still considered an untested hypothesis. But there are certain predictions made by it that is currently being checked in the Large Hadron Collider. We do not need the five element theory anymore to describe life. By the way what do you mean by “the universe is made up of different levels of consciousness according to Darwin evolution theory”? Please do not take offense, but you seriously do not know what Darwinian Evolution means. Please read some more and come back. We will have a discussion.

  6. For me i broadly classify the evolution as different forms of life in the world having different levels of consciousness. It is just classified broadly though and is basically phenomenon due to evolution itself. A a permenent change in DNA or a genetic drift due to some particular reasons can induce some peculiar traits in a living organism. This phenomenon over a large time evolve the organism to distinguish it from the previous one. For example.. like how human evolved as a distinct species from apes or so. The consciousness level which is the cause of intellect has also been modified due to the process. That could be the reason between the difference in intellectual capacities between a human and an ape. I think you should try to analyse the general meaning rather than picking on things and also view on a practical sense. Because if you pick on everything then the general idea is lost and the discussion is always futile… If you want to argue on the Darwin evolution or String theory there maybe many people who are experts in those areas and they would be good contentors. I just try to keep it simple and easy so that the general idea is not lost…. And dont expect me to go deep on those if you understand some of my words and if it makes sense to you then take it.. or else you always have an option to leave it and i would be more happy…. 🙂 You are free to choose… and for arguments…. I dont normally waste my time for it, because it is always a futile excersise and it can be made to last life long…. 🙂 So.. Best Wishes… 🙂

  7. Moreover i think i already explained what does it mean if it is said that the body is made up of five elements of nature…. If you can experience and analyse from the surroundings, then understand it…. if not.. just leave it… :-). And frankly i dont know about Ayurveda… And one more thing to understand is that, in ancient times the thinking pattern was different and now we have a different thinking pattern. So when trying to analyse the ancient writings one always gets into misinterpretations and confusions. So any ancient thing has to be understood in related terms. That doesn’t mean all the ancient things are right though…

  8. Hey… i didnt mean that we should stop speaking… you can say your opinions too…:-)
    If you think there is no need to define the 5 elements of nature, just think back and see if you have existed any microsecond without any of these and of the 5… You require O2(air), fire(heat,temperature), water(body is approx. 70% water), Ether(space.. you require space), earth(you have been in earth till now, in future it may be possible to live on air, but as of now we require these elements)… 🙂 Just take it as a friendly discussion…. 🙂

    1. I do not understand why we have to go back to the ancient definitions when there are better modern definitions of the composition of the human body and the world is lives in? When there was no methods to separate individual elements, people thought air as a single element. Now we know that only 21% of the air supports life. Same is the case with water and other liquids which were considered separate elements.

  9. Ok… i will tell one thing i know why this is important. By the knowledge of the five elements of nature it is possible to understand how matter manifestes and un manifests in the universe. Just see this… today you drink water, tomorrow it is a part of your body.., it may exist as blood or maybe a part of your flesh or so.You respire, the oxygen and it is becoming a part of your body(you give out CO2 but some amount of oxygen has become a part of your body. By oxidation, it may become a part of cells inside the body). Heat is required for all the metablic activities to happen in the human body. There too the manifestations of energy is apparent. The energy changes from one form to another.Earth is very much important because it is due to the life sustaining gravitational force that the food you eat reaches stomach properly.Space where all matter exists.Hence by the knowledge of these basic elements the various manifestations of matter and energy can be understood. Hence it is very important… It makes us understand that whatever we see is not constant, it is just a manifestation of matter in different ways. And this is applicable to everything in the universe. Nothing is constant… it is just manifestations and un manifestations of matter…. Hope it is clear… 🙂

  10. Let me ask you this. Don’t we already know that the universe is dynamic? And don’t we already know it in much better ways than ancient philosophers? I think the answer to these two questions is yes. Everything is dynamic. Even empty space is dynamic. Hence, I do not think the five element theory or five substance theory has any significance in today’s world.

  11. ok… then tell me what are the basic constituents of your body with which it is made up of…? I just dont mean the ones which you can see(like hands, legs etc.) , but the basic ones (the starting point) with which the body as it is exists now…. I want to know does it not make sense…

    1. The body is made of atoms. At the atomic and subatomic levels, solid, liquid, gas, ionized plasma etc do not have any meaning. You can’t say that an oxygen atom is gaseous or iron atom is solid. Hence, air, water, earth, fire and ether do not make sense at the atomic level either. Ergo, it is not particularly useful to see the world or even the human body based on states of matter when there is already a better explanation available.

      1. Hi Pleasant,

        Appreciate the sincere thought behind your articles. However, I differ in that modern science cannot provide the answers and solutions to every existential issue. Its range is limited to the limit to which Nature cares to reveal.

        For instance, science cannot give life to inert matter; it cannot explain the most basic process in the body: breathing. Well you can say that when the lungs expand, a vaccum is created and air moves in from outside (higher pressure). But what causes the lungs to expand ?

        Science is a product of thought, which is finite. Isn’t the universe infinite? How can a finite instrument explain the Infinite?

        There are laws in Nature which are way beyond the instruments of modern Science. Your discussion was on the Five elements-this touches on the subtler realms, which no instrument can detect.

        1. Dear Sudheer,

          Your doubts are valid. However, it is not true that we cannot touch the most fundamental realms of science. The quantum foam for instance that exists at the Plank Scale is still an enigma since our instruments cannot detect what happens at that level. But as we advance, it is also possible that we might create bigger machines than the LHC in order to find out what is going on at that level too. Whether nature cares to reveal or not is out of question because if you check the history of science, nature did reveal a lot of information who wanted to know more about it. For instance, it was not until 1895 that the electron was found and people started taking seriously that the atom might have an internal structure thereby commencing the era of modern science. I reiterate that as we advance, we might find out more about nature. Thanks for commenting :).



  12. I agree that body is made up of atoms 100%… Not the body, but the whole universe… But the root cause with which the atoms manifest is the elements of nature. That is why it is called the basic elements. The basic elements with which the matter manifestes as atoms. I agree that the elements of nature are divisible… It is considered divisible in ancient times also. The word atom comes from anu which is a very ancient word used in different schools. So matter was considered divisible. But the elements of nature are those by which the life or matter is sustained in the form. I could give an example. If someone is put inside water, without air or oxygen, he can’t survive. hence the body or the matter is not sustained or gets disintegrated.. but the atoms are not lost.. it just manifests differently in another form by degradation. Hence the elements of nature are just the sustaining part with which the form of atoms are sustained. If you dont have the basic elements, life can’t be sustained in the present form, but the atoms are still not lost.. in turn it manifests differently to what it was inside a living body(even though to sustain in the changed state, elements of nature are necessary, suppose the dead bodies eaten by hyena, hynea’s life is sustained by basic elements, so to manifest matter or atoms in any form, elements of nature are necessary)… That is why i think it is called basic elements… 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *