Vedanta teaches us about the nature of the universe and how everything in the universe is a merely a reflection of the same unchanging, omnipotent, omnipresent, and conscious Truth. Vedanta teaches us how to live in, interact with, and find happiness in the world. This universal Truth is visible everywhere. We can even see it in the periodic table of the elements. How can the periodic table of the elements teach us about spirituality? How can it teach us about the “Oneness” that Vedanta indicates?
Matter: we can see it all around us. But someone long ago wanted to know what actually constitutes this matter. People eventually found out that the organic matter we can see is in fact made up of small living cells, tiny components of every living thing. It was then discovered that all matter, organic and inorganic, is made up of small things called atoms. Eventually we discovered something even subtler than that: particles called protons, neutrons, and electrons. From the gross matter, we went all the way down to the subtle, subatomic level.
Protons, neutrons, and electrons are within every speck of matter in existence. The only difference between objects is the arrangement of different kinds of atoms within them. The constituent particles remain the same. What does an atom look like? All atoms are made up of a proton-neutron nucleus and electrons that orbit the nucleus. These electrons orbit the nucleus at various energy levels. The number of “outer electrons” in an atom determines its stability. The atoms of most elements are unstable. Their nature is to move towards stability. They achieve stability by constantly attempting to give electrons to or take electrons from other atoms. Elements that are inherently stable have no need to give or take electrons and are known as the noble elements. These noble elements are completely stable and unreactive. Even in the presence of highly reactive elements, a noble element will remain unaffected and will not react.
At this atomic level, we notice a parallel between chemistry and Vedanta.
Neutrons have no charge and are inactive; they represent the tamasic guna. Electrons are negatively charged and are always on the move: they represent the rajasic guna. The protons are positively charged, they are not agitated, but at the same time, not inactive. They are sattvic and attract the rajasic electrons. The elements represent all humans, and each person has all three gunas in varying combinations. Many humans are unsatisfied and are constantly seeking stability. However, there are a handful of realized human beings who have achieved stability similar to that of the noble elements. They are unreactive in all human encounters, and other human beings strive to be like them.
Atoms that are only one electron away from achieving noble configuration are the most eager to become noble. Similarly, when a person is at the cusp of Self-Realization, he/she will avoid all other distractions and stop at nothing to achieve that peaceful mental state.
It is extremely difficult to artificially make a noble element unstable by removing or adding an electron. Once a human being is self-realized, the tumultuous agitations of the world cannot sway them.
As humans, we seek happiness and stability. But how should we seek happiness? Just like the elements of the periodic table, our goal should be to become noble. The atoms of noble elements have the smallest size. This is analogous to a highly reduced ego in a noble person. Just as other elements strive to achieve the ideal configuration of a noble element, humans should attempt to reduce their egos to become noble.
Compounds of atoms that we see in everyday life are created when atoms bond in many different ways. Atoms bond with the sole purpose of reaching that stable, content state. Sometimes they share electrons and sometimes they give electrons away to other atoms. As human beings, we must bond with other human beings with the intent to reach that peaceful state by sharing our spiritual wealth.
The action, or karma, of the atom is chemical bonding to attain stability. In this process, the atoms exhaust their agitations by trading electrons. Once atoms achieve a stable configuration, they are no longer agitated.
The lesson for human beings is to perform the right karma to exhaust their tendencies or vāsanās and become like a noble person, or Mahātma.