Though much research has been done on this subject in the last century or so, the study focuses on aspects which have hitherto received scant attention, or which remain matters of controversy. Special attention is accorded to entities whose place in the classificatory system is ambiguous and sets them apart from the other cosmic constituents; in particular those associated with the mysterious “fourth” world of some cosmological speculations. As is well known, Middle and Late Vedic texts, in accordance with the general triadic structure of the classificatory system, divide the cosmos into three “worlds”: earth, atmosphere, and sky, presided over by the deities Fire, Wind, and Sun, respectively. However, mention is sometimes made of a fourth (occasionally even a fifth) world added to the usual triad, associated with the moon, stars, the waters, and “food” (anna-). The nature and meaning of these “fourth-place” categories have been a matter of scholarly dispute. The study seeks to address the problem against the background of Vedic cosmological speculations, explaining the links between the nocturnal sky, water, and food in the light of conceptions of a celestial ocean located in the night sky, and speculations on the origins of rainfall and crops. Attention is also called to the hitherto little explored topic of Vedic color symbolism and its relevance to the matter at hand. The connection of food and water with the color black would seem to underline their nocturnal associations; it may already be foreshadowed in vague Early Vedic references to a watery realm unlit by the sun, perhaps identical with the nocturnal sky.
Lastly, the study takes a look at Uddālaka Āruṇi’s teaching (Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6) about the three cosmic elements, heat, water, and food; one of the most famous Upaniṣadic dialogues, which, it is argued, inherits older conceptions around the cosmic entities food and water and reworks them into a new, “rationalistic” doctrine on the constitution of the world and man.
There seems to be no reason to take, with some scholars, the various fourth-place categories as coded representations of the fourth and lowest class of Vedic society, the Śūdra class, or for seeing “food” as a symbol for the food-producing masses, supposedly legitimizing their place at the bottom of the social pyramid. Such explanations proceed from rigid social-deterministic models of interpretation and find little concrete support in the source-texts, where the fourth world and its elements are often associated with elevated figures and entities such as the brahmán priest, the mind, and the Creator, Prajāpati. When added to a triad, these often represent something that both transcends and encompasses the other members of the group, thus foreshadowing the famous Upaniṣadic speculations on a transcendent fourth state of consciousness and existence.