The whole world is structured hierarchically in such a way that smaller units combine to form bigger ones. Therefore, when we ask what man is, we need to find out what units stand below and above man in the hierarchy. We need to find out what elements or units combine to form man, and what has man as a part of it.
What man is made of is a question that has been asked from very ancient times in almost all cultures. The ancient Hebrews believed that man is made of earth. “Dust you are and to dust you will return” Gen 3: 19. One might wonder how this belief that man is made of earth evolved among them. It is possible that such a belief originated out of commonsense and natural observation that a dead body becomes one with dust in time. The Hebrew story of creation affirmed this belief. “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground” Gen. 2:7. The story further says that the Lord God breathed on the dust-form to animate it. This association between breath and life may also have been the result of commonsense and observation that when someone dies, he stops breathing.
Most of the ancient civilizations knew that the world is made of smaller elements, but differed in opinion about the number of the basic elements out of which everything else has formed. In the Hymn of Creation found at the beginning of Genesis, we find three elements before God starts the first day’s creation. They are air, water, and earth. “The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” Gen 1:2. Moreover, the six days’ of creation do not include air, water, or earth.
The ancient Greeks believed that the world is made of five elements--Earth, Water, Air, Fire, and Aether. Being a part of the world, man is also made of these five elements. Thus the world is the macrocosm, but man is microcosm.
The ancient Indians had a highly sophisticated explanation of this. They shared the same belief with the Greeks regarding the number and kind of the basic elements. The human body is made up of these five essential elements, and upon death, it dissolves into these five elements. The Indians believed that the Creator used akasha (aether), the most "subtle" element, to create the other four elements; each element created is in turn used to create the next. The elements are associated with the five senses as follows.
Air Hear, feel
Fire Hear, feel, see
Water Hear, feel, see, taste
Earth Hear, feel, see, taste, smell
Because earth was created using all the other elements, it can be perceived by all five senses. Water has no smell but can be seen, tasted, heard, and felt. Fire can be seen, heard and felt. Air can be heard and felt. "Akasha" (aether) is inaccessible to all the senses, but acts as the medium of sound.
With the aid of modern science, we have a much better knowledge of what our world is made of. Today we understand that the world is made of matter and energy, and they exist in their smallest forms of particles and waves. Our scientists are striving for a theory that explains everything.
Although we have advanced considerably in certain areas, we haven’t advanced any farther than our forefathers in some other areas of knowledge. We have advanced in our knowledge of the outer aspects of our life, but we even seem to be far behind than they were in the knowledge of the inner aspects of our life. We have better transportation and communication. We have better clothes to wear and better shelters to live. But inwardly, we are very poor. We give emphasis to the beauty of our body, but we ignore our mind. We spend hours in gym and spend a lot of money to make our body strong, but we don’t care for our mind. We are spiritually illiterate. Our inner eye is blind. We don’t even know that an inner world exists. Although we can feel proud of our advancement in science, that doesn’t give us the license to look down upon our forefathers. They were much more advanced than we are in the knowledge of the inner world. It would be wise on our part if we humbly learn from them the wisdom of the inner aspects of life.
One major insight we learn from our forefathers is that man is made of the same stuff that the world is made of. We are a part of the whole. Therefore, we do not try to understand man in isolation. The question what is man is a part of the bigger question of what is the world.
Another major insight of our forefathers is that our world has an invisible component in addition to the visible components, for they knew that the visible components alone cannot explain the world. They also knew that the invisible component is fundamental, and the visible components are derived from it and depended on it. They also believed that the invisible component is more permanent in relation to the visible ones. Although we can gain a lot of information about the visible components, we cannot know much about the invisible component.
Combining these two insights, our forefathers assumed that man is made of an invisible component in addition to the visible components, and the visible ones are derived from and dependent upon the invisible one.
There is difference of opinion among various cultures and religions regarding what are the invisible components in man. Some people think that a man is really an eternal soul living temporarily in a body. Thus the soul continues its eternal journey by taking and leaving bodies. Some others think that a new soul is created to dwell in a body at the time of birth, and the soul goes to sleep or continues to stay awake at the death of the body, but the body and soul together resurrect sometime in the future.
However, one can see that all these are beliefs without the support of any evidence. A belief or opinion exists in the absence of facts. A belief may not be false; it might be true. We just don’t know. For centuries we have been arguing on mind, soul, and spirit, but the truth is that we know nothing of them. This is not to deny that they exist, but to deny any factual knowledge of them. Using the metaphor of a computer, we may say that a human being is a being that works with an invisible software that runs the program. DNA is analogous to the software.
Based on our knowledge of Biology, we can say some facts about what make up man. An individual human being starts from a single cell. It multiplies and takes diverse forms and roles. They coordinate and form a living body. The original cell has within it the program that leads to the formation of a human being, and also to reproduce more human beings.
This model does not solve all the puzzles at all. But it helps us to explain birth and death very satisfactorily. Life as we know it is always transferred from living beings to living beings. Also life doesn’t exist in isolation. Thus we have to distinguish between life and its forms. Life flows endlessly, but its forms begin and end. Life remains the same, but its forms vary. Life is invisible, but its forms are visible. According to this model, man is a certain form of life. Man has birth and death, but the life that animates him flows endlessly.
This model also helps us to explain a community. We can explain how individuals combine to form a community. The various individuals who form a community are basically the multiplication of the same individual in various forms and roles. This model affirms the unity and diversity of humanity. It says how all human beings are basically made of the same stuff, and how each differs from everyone else, which makes them act together as the organs of a body.
This model also helps us to explain the whole world. We may say that in spite of all the diversity we see in the world, it is basically made of the same stuff. In spite of the unity, it is the diversity that keeps the world together as one system or organism.