The Theosophical Ether

The existence of subtler, etheric states of matter is a basic postulate of theosophy. H.P. Blavatsky writes:

... Occult science recognises seven cosmic elements – four entirely physical, and the fifth (ether) semi-material, as it will become visible in the air towards the end of our fourth round, to reign supreme over the others during the whole of the fifth. The remaining two are as yet absolutely beyond the range of human perception. These latter will, however, appear as presentments during the 6th and 7th races of this round, and will become known in the 6th and 7th rounds respectively. These seven elements with their numberless sub-elements (far more numerous than those known to science) are simply conditional modifications and aspects of the ONE and only Element. This latter is not ether, not even akasha, but the source of these.1

Ether, says Blavatsky, is the grossest form of akasha. Although the words ‘ether’ and ‘aether’ are sometimes used interchangeably, ‘aether’ usually has the same meaning as akasha and refers to the fifth cosmic element or, more generally, to the highest states of spirit-substance of a plane or hierarchy, whereas ‘ether’ refers to a lower manifestation or subelement of this ‘mother-substance’.2 Between the ether and akasha/aether lie the various levels of the astral realms.

G. de Purucker criticized the tendency of scientists in the 1930s to discard the ether, and stated:

We either have to admit the existence of [the] ether or ethers, i.e., of this extremely tenuous and ethereal substance which fills all space, whether interstellar or interplanetary or inter-atomic and intra-atomic, or accept actio in distans – action at a distance, without intervening intermediary or medium of transmission; and such actio in distans is obviously by all known scientific standards an impossibility. Reason, common sense, logic ... demand the existence of such universal pervading medium ...
    [The ether] is only the lowest dregs or lees of [the] spiritual-substantial cosmic essence which in its hierarchically highest parts the esoteric wisdom calls akasha, or sometimes, from another angle of vision and with an even more abstract significance, mulaprakriti – root-nature.
     The cosmic essence, septenary or denary in hierarchical structure, is not only a medium of transmission or connecting cosmic fluid between body and body, but actually is the prima materia itself, out of the lowest or most concreted parts of which the entire physical material universe is constructed.3

Purucker says that scientists were right to reject the existence of an ether of tenuous gas, but wrong to reject an immaterial ether – ‘immaterial’ in the sense of a grade of substance subtler than our gross physical matter. He explains that the ether is physical matter in its first, second or even third or possibly fourth states, counting downwards from the highest. The cosmic ether does not noticeably retard celestial bodies in their movement through it, because it is immensely more tenuous than ordinary physical matter, even though it belongs to the lowest prakritic cosmic plane.4

Purucker points out that in a general sense, ‘ether’ can refer to any states of matter that are invisible to us, both denser and subtler than physical matter. The scientist J.J. Thomson held that the density of ether was 2000 million times that of lead, though to us it is so tenuous as to be intangible. Purucker says that the ancient wisdom agrees that the lowest parts of the ether are far denser than our densest metals. Physical matter is known to consist mainly of ‘holes’, which are not merely filled with the subphysical ethers but are them.5 Blavatsky says that although the atmosphere seems to us to be clear and transparent, it is actually permeated with extremely dense matter that surrounds us as a ball of pitch might surround a fly.6

Purucker predicts that the cosmic ether will one day come into its own again and will be recognized as one of a number of cosmic ethers of varying degrees of ethereality.7

  1. The Secret Doctrine, TUP, 1977 (1888), 1:12-13.
  2. See The Secret Doctrine, 1:332; Secret Doctrine Commentary, Stanzas I-IV, TUP, 1994, 2:30-1 / H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, TPH, 1974, 10:384; G. de Purucker, The Esoteric Tradition, TUP, 2nd ed., 1940, pp. 421-2.
  3. The Esoteric Tradition, pp. 901-2fn.
  4. G. de Purucker, Studies in Occult Philosophy, TUP, 1945, pp. 440-2.
  5. The Esoteric Tradition, pp. 423-7.
  6. H.P. Blavatsky: Collected Writings, TPH, 1950, 5:152.
  7. The Esoteric Tradition, p. 1018.

by David Pratt. May 1998.

For the views of science on the ether, see:
Space, time, and relativity
(Einstein’s fallacies),
and Worlds within worlds.