Both Ayurveda and Yoga are based on the principle of the five elements. These five elements are referred to as the panchamahabhutas in Ayurveda or the tattvas in Yoga. Pancha means “five” and mahabhuta and tattva are Sanskrit words meaning “element” or “reality.”
These five elements are responsible for the structure of the universe; they are the building blocks of the material world. Everything in the universe, animate and inanimate, is made up of the five mahabhutas. The five elements are: aakash (ether), vayu (air), agni (fire), jala (water), and prithvi (earth).
How the Five Elements Manifest
Each object and being in the universe contains a varying degree and combination of the five elements providing its unique features. The elements are not detected in their pure state. We perceive substances that possess many qualities, which come from a combination of more than one element.
The English translations given for the five elements do not give the full and correct meaning of the original Sanskrit terms. The mahabhutas encompass much more than their given equivalents.
They refer not to the element itself, but to different densities of matter and different characteristics that they possess. The mahabhutas represent the physical qualities, energetic properties and biological functions related to the given element. English equivalents are used to simplify the meaning of the panchamahabhutas.
The density of the five elements increases from ether to air, to fire, to water, to earth. The five elements originate from the subtle and all-pervasive universal consciousness. Ether is the most subtle of the five elements and has its origin from consciousness itself, even though less subtle than consciousness or spirit. In this same way, air has its origin from ether and is less subtle and pervasive than ether. Fire originates from air and is more dense than air. Water has its origin from fire and is more dense than fire. Earth has its origin from water and is the most dense of the five elements.
Every animate and inanimate being is made up of atoms; the five mahabutas can be explained with the example of an atom:
- Aakash (space component) is the space which the protons and neutrons occupy as well as the space in which the electrons revolve.
- Vayu (air component) represents the force of movement of the electrons around the nucleus.
- Agni (fire component) represents the latent energy in an atom as well as the released energy when an atom is broken down.
- Jala (water component) gives the force of cohesion that allows the protons, neutrons and electrons to remain attracted towards each other.
- Prithvi (earth component) contributes the solid portion of the atom (i.e. the electrons, protons, and neutrons).
The Five Elements Applied to Health
Our body is made up of the five elements and so is everything we consume. Because natural substances such as foods, herbs, minerals, sunlight, air, and water are of the same composition as our structure, our body’s can utilize them in a harmonious way.
The panchamahabuta concept can be applied to maintain health and promote healing. In a healthy body, the five elements are maintained in a particular proportion. When the state of the body is not in its natural harmony, the body will try to maintain it’s equilibrium by eliminating excess elements and taking in others. All disorders of the body are manifested because of a disturbance in this balance of the body’s components.
The Relation of the Five Elements, Tanmatras, Indriyas, and Chakras
In addition to the five mahabutas animals and humans consist of eleven indriyas. The indriyas include the five sense organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue, and nose), the five organs of action (vocal cords, hands, feet, genitals, and anus) and the mind.
The senses are are subtle elements referred to as tanmatras. The five elements become more evident in the functioning of the five senses (hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell). Each sense organ has a quality specific to it. (e.g. our eyes see and our hands touch). The five elements function with the five sense organs, allowing us to perceive the physical world through the senses. Since these are the organs through which we perceive reality, the five sense organs are referred to as jnanendriyas from the word jnana meaning “knowledge” in Sanskrit.
Each of the five elements is also related to a primary organ of action, allowing the body to respond to the input of the five sense. These five organs are named karmendriyas from the Sanskrit word karma meaning “action”.
The five lower chakras (muladhara, svadhistana, manipura, anahata, and vishuddha) are attuned to the energies of the five elements, and thus also have a relation to the tanmantra and indriyas associated with each element.
This table indicates the correlations between the mahabhutas, tanmatras, indriyas, and chakras. Further explaination on their relationships are given below the table.
|Role in Existence||Sense
|Ether/Space Aakash||Space||Hearing/Sound Sabda||Ears||Vocals/ Mouth||Vishuddha|
|Force of attraction||Taste
In the body aakash is found where there is empty space such as in the tubes and channels (srotas) of the body. Such empty spaces are found in blood and lymph vessels, openings, pores, and the intestinal tract. Aakash also contributes the sounds of the heart, lungs, intestines, and swallowing.
Aakash is space; all sound is transmitted through space and is related to the sense of hearing. The ear is the sense organ of hearing, and since sound is produced using the vocal cords and mouth these are considered to be the organ of action related to the sense of hearing. Vishuddha chakra is located in the area of the throat and is directly related to the ether element and the tanmatra of sound.
All empty spaces are filled with air. Air flows freely throughout the body, controls breathing, feeds the cells with oxygen and helps to give movement to biological functions.
Air relates to the sense of touch, and therefore, skin is the related sense organ, and the hand is the organ of action. The air element corresponds to anahata chakra, also called the heart chakra. Vayu is related to the actions of giving, and receiving and is displayed in its correspondence with the hands and anahata chakra.
Agni is found in the heat and energy of the body. Fire exists in all metabolic processes and chemical reactions. Fire is the transformational force; it promotes appetite, digestion, and metabolism. Converting food to energy creates thought processes and bodily impulses. Agni is also responsible for providing luster, radiance, and color for the body.
Fire relates to vision because of its qualities of heat, light, and color. The eye is the sense organ of sight. Agni’s ability to give direction and impulse relates it to the feet as it’s organ of action. Manipura chakra, the navel chakra corresponds to the fire element
Water constitutes the fluids of the body and represents the force of cohesion, as well as the abilities to
attract and to change that are associated with water. This element provides the bodily fluids such as urine, plasma, lymph, and makes up most of our bodily weight. The bodily fluids move between the ce
lls and through the vessels of the body carrying nutrients, wastes, antibodies, and hormones.
Water is related to the perception of taste, and its sense organ is the tongue. The associated sense organ is the genitals which are very closely linked in function to the tongue. Without water, neither the tongue nor genitals can function properly. Svadhistana chakra is located in the area of the genitals and is attuned to the water energy
Bones, teeth, muscles, fat, and the structure of the different organs are derived from the earth element.
Earth is related to the sense of smell. The nose is the sense organ through which we perceive smell. The organ of action is the anus which allows us to excrete matter back to the earth. Muladhara chakra, also called the root chakra is located outside the body in the area of the perineum. The root chakra is our connection to the earth, giving us stability in the body and the mind.
- Dr. Sapna B.A.M.S, Lecture: The Panchmahabhuta concept
- Agama Yoga, Lecture: The Indriyas and Chakras
- Vasant Lad, Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing.