VEDIC, BUDDHIST AND JAIN TRADITIONS
considering the concept of mah¡bh£tas
in the Buddhist context, normally attention is drawn to P¡li
commentaries, but the present discussion is based not on the P¡li
sources,1 but on Sanskrit sources and to be very precise, on a later work,
the AbhidharmakoÀa of
Vasubandhu. This is because of the fact that although late (i.e. fourth
century ad) the AbhidharmakoÀa is a systematized exposition of a much earlier work,
the Abhidharma-Vibh¡À¡ á¡stra,
which is a commentary on the Abhidharma
of the Sarv¡stiv¡da school.
And this school is one of the earliest of the Buddhist sects. The age of
Vasubandhu is about the same as that of the P¡li commentaries. Moreover,
the AbhidharmakoÀa is accepted
as an authority by all the schools of Buddhism, though it is written from
the standpoint of the Sarv¡stiv¡da.
And that is why AbhidharmakoÀa
will be the main source for this discussion about the bh£tas.
terms mah¡bh£ta (the gross
elements of matter) and a¸u are
not specifically Buddhist, though the terms p¤thiv¢
etc., have lost their original meaning completely in the Buddhist context. This is the characteristic example
of the Buddhist terms, which in the beginning were definitely a physical
phenomenon, and acquired psychological character subsequently. In the
field of the Buddhist theory of the dharmas,
which explains the existence of consciousness-stream, it is not easy to
explain the terms like bh£ta
and a¸u which have obviously a
material meaning. To the Buddhist, the universal elements of Matter are
more energies than the substances. And this is indicated by the fact that
air (v¡yu), the fourth gross
element is characterised by motion.
let us see the place of the mah¡bh£tas
in the context of Buddhist philosophy. The simplest classification of all
the elements of existence is represented by a division into five groups of
elements. The first of them is matter - R£paskandha.
The physical elements of
personality, including its
outer world, i.e., the external
objects, are represented by this one item - matter. If we use the old pre-Buddhistic
term n¡ma-r£pa, this matter,
the first of the five skandhas -
is r£pa and the rest of the
four skandhas - vedan¡ (feelings), samjµ¡
(ideas). Sa=msk¡ra (volition)
and vijµ¡na (pure sensation)
come under the category of n¡ma.
AbhidharmakoÀa explains this
rupaÆ paµcendriy¡¸yarth¡Å paµc¡vijµaptireva ca A
r£pa-skandha consists of five
senseorgans (indriyas), their
five objects (arthas) and the
unmanifested Act (avijµapti).
it is eleven fold. The five sense -organs are the eye, the ear, the nose,
the tongue and the tactile organ. And the five objects are the objects of
these very sense-organs, namely the visible, the sound, the odour, the
taste and the tangible. It is further said -
tadvijµ"¡n¡¿ray¡ r£papras¡d¡¿cakÀur¡dayaÅ A
subtle material elements (r£papras¡da) (conveying visual and other sensations), which are
the points of support (¡¿raya)
for the respective consciousness of the visual etc. (or the
eye etc.) are the five sense-organs the eye etc.
quotes from the Prakara¸a-grantha -
cakÀuÅ katamat A cakÀurvijµ¡n¡¿rayo r£papras¡daÅ
is cakÀu. It is subtle material
element (r£papras¡da) which is
a point of support for the eye consciousness etc.
is the case with the rest of the sense-organs. And this r£papras¡da or the subtle material element is derived (up¡d¡ya)
from mah¡bh£ta, the gross elements. "O Monk, the eye is the
internal base of cognition of the subtle element of matter, which is
derived from the four gross
elements. This is the explanation". Thus the five sense-organs and
their five external objects (and of course
avijµapti) is the
Matter. In other words matter is nothing but sense-data. It is broadly divided into two categories. Objective sense-data (artha
or viÀaya) constituting external objects and the sense-organs
conceived as a kind of translucent subtle matter (r£papras¡da) which is "like the shining of the jewel, it
cannot be cut into two. And it disappears without a residue at
death". It covers the body when it is living. This division is
similar to the S¡mkhya view
that matter developed along two different lines, the one with predominance
of the translucent intelligence-stuff (sattva)
resulting in sense-organs, the other with predominance of dead matter (tamas)
resulting in sense-objects in their subtle (tanm¡tra)
and gross (mah¡bh£ta) forms.
The concept of tanm¡tra comes
very near to the Buddhist conception of an element of matter. But the
fundamental difference between the two conceptions is that in the S¡mkhya
system these elements are modifications of an eternal substance. In
Buddhism they are mere sense-data without
any substance in them.
explaining the nature of these sense-organs the KoÀa
describes the external objects.
visible is two-fold and twentyfold.
sound is eightfold.
taste is sixfold.
odour is fourfold.
tangibles are elevenfold.
details please see the Appendix)
we say that r£pa consists of
the sense-organs and their external object, we have to see what the term r£pa
means : r£pyate b¡dhyate iti r£pam.
Matter is what materializes. According to Prof. Th.
Stcherbatsky, matter is what materializes. Different meanings are
given of this materializing - as pressure, pain, disappearance or change.
Thus matter is something that disappears. The real meaning is
which is further expressed variously. The impenetrability is defined as
the fact that space occupied by one of them cannot at the same time be
occupied by another. This r£pa
or matter is atomic.
it is said that both the types of matter is derived from the mah¡bh£tas,
which are these bh£tas -
bh£t¡ni p¤thiv¢dh¡turaptejov¡yudh¡tava]Å . . mahattvameÀ¡Æ
gross material elements (bh£tas)
are the primary substances (dh¡tu)
of earth, water, fire and air. Their grossness is because of their
greatness and because of their being the support of all other forms.2
again in which these primary substances - (dh¡tus)
are established. What is their nature?
te punarete dh¡tavaÅ kasmin karma¸i saÆsiddh¡
kim svabh¡v¡¿cety¡ha dh¤ty¡dikarmasaÆsiddh¡
are established through their (respective) functions like supporting etc.
primary substances - the earth, water, fire and air - are established
through their respective functions as follows :
dh¤ti or holding
saÆgraha or cohesion or
pakti, ripening, maturing
should be understood as expansion, v¤ddhi or prasarpa¸a.
natures are respectively
kharasnehoÀ¸atera¸¡Å A kharaÅ p¤thiv¢dh¡tuÅ A sneho'bdh¡tuÅ
tejodh¡tuÅ A ¢ra¸¡ v¡yudh¡tuÅ
Hardness is the earth element.
Adhesion is the water element
Heat is the fire element.
Motion is the air element.
AbhidharmakoÀa also explains
the different meaning of the word p¤ithiv¢
in the sense of a bh£ta and in
the common usage. This peculiarity of the Buddhist terms is already
mentioned in the beginning.
KoÀa says -
kaÅ punaÅ p¤thivy¡d¢n¡Æ p¤thiv¢dh¡tv¡d¢n¡Æ ca vi¿eÀaÅ
is the distinction between the earth and the earth element.
p¤thiv¢ var¸asaÆsth¡namucyate lokasaÆjµay¡
common parlance what is designated as earth is colour (var¸a) and shape (saÆsth¡na).
what is p¤thiv¢dh¡tu? We have
already seen that the matter is atomic. These are simple atoms (dravyaparam¡¸u)
and combined atoms (sa´gh¡taparam¡¸u).
The dravyaparam¡¸us do not
appear separately. The combined ones include four atoms of 'universal
conventionally termed as earth, water, fire, air. But it is expressly
stated that these are only conventional names, they denote respectively a
hard stuff, a coagulating stuff, heat and motion. They are called
universal because they are present everywhere, in every piece of matter,
always in the same proportion; but in some combinations one or the other
energy may get greater intensity and we accordingly get hard and liquid
stuffs, warm and moving bodies. There is as much element of heat in a
blazing flame as there is in wood or in water and vice
versa. The difference is only in their intensity, e.g. the tactile
sensation may have a different degree of intensity as the touch by the
bunch of steel needles is more intensely felt than the touch of a
painter's brush although the quantity may be the same. It is also said
that the existence of cohesion, i.e., of the element water in a flame is
proved by its keeping a shape. The pressure of repulsion of hardness,
i.e., of the element of earth, in water is proved by the fact f its
supporting a ship etc. Ya¿omitra's Sphu¶¡rth¡
- the AdhidharmakoÀabh¡Àya -
explains many such examples in II. 22.3
The KoÀa says:
r£pyate b¡dhyate ityarthaÅ
is that which obstructs.
is that obstruction
r£pasya punaÅ k¡ b¡dhan¡ ? vipari¸¡motp¡dan¡
is the nature of that impress or obstruction created by r£pa. It brings about some change, creation of transformation.
na vai param¡¸ur£paÆ ekaÆ p¤thag bh£tamasti
sa´gh¡tasthaÆ tu tad r£pyata eva A
separate atom does not have any form. But in collected form it impresses
or obstructs.4 Every combined
atom includes four atoms of the four mah¡bh£tas
or universal elements and at
least four secondary atoms, what may be termed as atoms or quality (bhautika) - of colour, of
smell, of taste and of touch, one of each. Consequently a combined atom
consists at least of eight simple atoms in K¡madh¡tu.
When matter resounds, an atom of sound becomes present in every combined
atom, it then consists of nine parts. The number increases in organic
matter, the organs of sense being also a special atomic matter. Each
secondary atom always has as its support a combination of four universal
ones. According to other authorities the number of primary atoms
supporting each atom of quality must be eight, two of each element. So (in
reality) a combined atom has many more parts, but it is usually spoken of
as consisting of eight kinds of matter at least. And this only is the
sphere of defiled matter (k¡madh¡tu). In the higher regions of pure matter (r£padh¡tu)
smells and tastes are absent and the combined atom changes accordingly.
have already seen that the subtle or translucent organic matter is also
atomic. It is represented by five different kinds of atoms. The Ko¿a gives the description and the arrangement of these atoms.5
atoms of the eye the organ of sight (cakÀurindriya)
cover in concentric circles the pupil of the eye; these look like the
small jar flowing. The atoms of the ear are arranged inside the conch or
the outer ear. The atoms of the nose, the olfactory organ - are located
inside the nostrils. These look like cone-shaped and remain arranged like
the garland in the same way as the atoms of the eye and ear are arranged.
The atoms of the organ of taste, or precisely, that matter which is
supposed to convey the sensation of taste or the gestatory organ are like
a half moon. They are scarcely spread over the centre of the tongue. The
atoms of the tactile organ are pervasive in character as the organ itself.
It is said that all the atoms of the organ of sight and the tactile organ
are not sabh¡ga (or function
only in their own field). Some of them are tatsambh¡ga (not confined to their own field). The atoms of other
organs are sabh¡ga only. The
atoms of pumindriya (the faculty
of masculinity) look like the thumb (a´guÀ¶ha)
and of str¢ndriya (faculty of
femininity) are like the horn (bher¢)
or vessel (ka¶¡ha). These two
organs are placed in some parts of k¡yendriya
but these are distinctly different both in structure and function. That is
why their atoms are separately mentioned.
Buddhists explain their atom-theory as parallel to the kÀa¸av¡da.
Atom is the smallest unit of so-called matter.6
Moment is the smallest unit of so-called time. And all atoms are momentary
existences having no duration.
far we have discussed the ten aspects of the elevenfold Buddhist matter.
The subtle, internal fivefold organic matter and the five external
objects. Now let us come to the eleventh aspect - avijµapti, which is not discussed in P¡li Commentaries so
KoÀa says :
vikÀipt¡cittakasy¡pi yo'nubandhaÅ ¿ubh¡¿ubhaÅ
mah¡bh£t¡nyup¡d¡ya sa hyavijµaptirucyate
is that stream of actions which being morally either good or bad, is
present even in the mind of a distracted or unconscious person and which
is essentially a product of material
term avijµapti implies that
this particular kind of physical element cannot be revealed to others.
Unlike the other ten elements of r£paskandha,
it is unmanifested and undiscoverable. When we promise to do something and
then fulfil the promise after some time, the interval between the promise
and the overt action of its fulfilment represent the period, when the
physical action remains unexpressed as avijµaptir£pa.
The folding of one's hands in prayer and an accidental, unintentional
folding of the hands are two different kinds of actions, the former being
accompanied by concealed form of moral activity - avijµaptir£pa.
Obviously avijµaptir£pa has a
twofold character. It is not merely a r£pa
like the visible etc., because unmanifested as it is, it always implies
some kind of activity (kriy¡);
nor is it mere activity, because, it is essentially a
product of the material elements and therefore shares the nature of
idea of avijµapti is a special
concept recognised by only the Sarv¡stiv¡dins.7
Indian tradition the mah¡bh£tas
are counted as five, the fifth being ¡k¡¿a.
In the KoÀa, ¡k¡¿a is included in the asa=msk¤ta
an¡srav¡ m¡rgasatyaÆ trividhaÆ c¡pyasa´sk¤tam
¡k¡¿aÆ dvau nirodhau ca tatr¡k¡¿aman¡v¤tiÅ AA
consist of truth of the path of salvation and the threefold unconditioned dharmas - space and two types of cessation. Space means absence of
covering (where matter can penetrate).
contrary to the matter, it is of the nature of non-obstruction. It is ar£p¢,
anidar¿ana, apratigha, an¡srava and asa=msk¤ta.
But when ¡k¡¿a is counted in
the list of dh¡tus or the
elements of existence it is exactly the opposite, i.e., r£p¢,
sanidar¿ana, sapratigha, s¡srava and sa=msk¤ta.
Abhidharma defines local space as a hole or cavity in which there
are no material objects but which like a mouth or gate is near them and
can be perceived. It is described as the gaps or holes which occur between
visible objects. This local space is described to be two-fold. The
cavities in doors and windows etc. is external ¡k¡¿adh¡tu.
And the cavities in the mouth or nose is internal ¡k¡¿adh¡tu.
according to KoÀa, ¡k¡¿a
is not included in the list of the mah¡bh£tas.
speaking the Buddhists do not show much interest in what the bh£tas
are and what they do. This absence could be because of two reasons :
Keeping in mind the goal of the Buddhists there was no incentive to
do any serious thinking about the non-human and non-moral universe.
Secondly, the Buddhists attributed moral function to the law of
cause and effect. They did not accept cosmic activity as impersonal and
inevitable but explained it in the light of their belief in the karma
theory. However, the concept of the mah¡bh£tas
is discussed in detail in the Abhidharma
The Visible (R£pa) is
twofold - colour and form.
colour is fourfold - blue, yellow, red, white, other colours are the
varieties of these four. The form is eightfold - odd etc.
other words) the same R£p¡yatana
of the colour of the cloud
of the colour of the smoke
of the colour of the dust
of the colour of the mist
of the colour of the shadow
of the colour of the sun
of the colour of the moon
of the colour of the darkness
The audible is eightfold:
produced artificially by four gross elements.
produced non-artificially by four gross elements.
sattv¡khya - produced by
- produced by non-living being. Each of these forms is further
divided into harmonious (manojµa)
and discordant (amanojµa).
The taste is sixfold:
odour is fourfold.
and strong smell of good and bad odour.
The tangibles are elevenfold:
gross elements, smoothness
(jighats¡), thirst (pip¡s¡)
The concept of the mah¡bh£tas
is discussed in detail in the P¡li commentaries -
the DhammasaÆga¸¢, the A¶¶has¡lin¢ etc.
2. The P¡li
commentaries discuss in detail why the elements of existence are called mah¡
4. For more
explanation, see The Buddhist Nirv¡¸a
by Th. Stcherbatsky.
Bh¡Àya on 1.44.
'What is Avijµaptir£pa' by Prof. V.V. Gokhale, In +New
Indian Antiquary, Vol. 1.
AbhidharmakoÀa with Bh¡Àya, ed. by P. Pradhan.
Sphu¶¡rtha-AbhidharmakoÀavy¡khy¡, ed. by Dvarikadasa Sastri.
Stcherbatsky, "The Central Conception of Buddhim" and "The
Soul Theory of the Buddhists".
Buddhist Thought in India.
is Avijµaptir£pa' by Prof. V.V. Gokhale, In
New Indian Antiquary, Vol. 1.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi