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The Mah¡bh£tas

The Buddhist Approach

Pratibha Pingle

While 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.

The 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.

Now  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 r£pa -

          rupaÆ paµcendriy¡¸yarth¡Å paµc¡vijµaptireva ca A

                                                              Abhi. 1.9.

The r£pa-skandha consists of five senseorgans (indriyas), their five objects (arthas) and the unmanifested Act (avijµapti).

Thus 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

                                                          Abhi., 1.9

The 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.

Vasubandhu quotes from the Prakara¸a-grantha -

          cakÀuÅ katamat A cakÀurvijµ¡n¡¿rayo r£papras¡daÅ

What is cakÀu. It is subtle material element (r£papras¡da) which is a point of support for the eye consciousness etc.

Similar 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.

After explaining the nature of these sense-organs the KoÀa describes the external objects.

The visible is two-fold and twentyfold.

The sound is eightfold.

The taste is sixfold.

The odour is fourfold.

The tangibles are elevenfold.

(For details please see the Appendix)

When 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 impenetrability (sapratighatva) 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.

When 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

          sarv¡nyar£p¡¿rayatvenaud¡rikatvat A

The 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

And again in which these primary substances - (dh¡tus) are established. What is their nature?

          te punarete dh¡tavaÅ kasmin karma¸i saÆsiddh¡ A

          kim svabh¡v¡¿cety¡ha dh¤ty¡dikarmasaÆsiddh¡ AA

                                                            Abhi., 1.12.

They are established through their (respective) functions like supporting etc.

These primary substances - the earth, water, fire and air - are established through their respective functions as follows :

            earth            -            dh¤ti or holding together,

            water           -            saÆgraha or cohesion or striking.

            fire               -            pakti, ripening, maturing or transformation                                                                                and

            air                -            vy£hana movement.

Vy£hana should be understood as expansion, v¤ddhi or prasarpa¸a.

Their natures are respectively  

          kharasnehoÀ¸atera¸¡Å A kharaÅ p¤thiv¢dh¡tuÅ A sneho'bdh¡tuÅ A

          uÀ¸at¡           tejodh¡tuÅ A ¢ra¸¡ v¡yudh¡tuÅ A

          Hardness is the earth element.

          Adhesion is the water element

          Heat is the fire element.

          Motion is the air element.

The 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.

The KoÀa says -

          kaÅ punaÅ p¤thivy¡d¢n¡Æ p¤thiv¢dh¡tv¡d¢n¡Æ ca vi¿eÀaÅ ?

What is the distinction between the earth and the earth element.

          p¤thiv¢ var¸asaÆsth¡namucyate lokasaÆjµay¡ A

In common parlance what is designated as earth is colour (var¸a) and shape (saÆsth¡na).

Now 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 elements' (mah¡bh£tas) 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                          

          R£pa is that which obstructs.

What is that obstruction

          r£pasya punaÅ k¡ b¡dhan¡ ? vipari¸¡motp¡dan¡

What 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 A

          sa´gh¡tasthaÆ tu tad r£pyata eva  A


The 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.


We 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

The 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.

The 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.

So 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 elaborately.

The KoÀa says :

          vikÀipt¡cittakasy¡pi yo'nubandhaÅ ¿ubh¡¿ubhaÅ A

          mah¡bh£t¡nyup¡d¡ya sa hyavijµaptirucyate A

                                                            Abhi., 1.11

Avijµapti 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  element.

The 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 r£pa.

This idea of avijµapti is a special concept recognised by only the Sarv¡stiv¡dins.7

In 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 dharmas :

          an¡srav¡ m¡rgasatyaÆ trividhaÆ c¡pyasa´sk¤tam A

          ¡k¡¿aÆ dvau nirodhau ca tatr¡k¡¿aman¡v¤tiÅ  AA

                                                            Abhi., 1.5

Undefined dharmas (an¡srava) 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).

Thus 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.

Thus according to KoÀa, ¡k¡¿a is not included in the list of the mah¡bh£tas.

Generally 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 :


1.    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.


2.    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 texts.



I.        The Visible (R£pa) is twofold - colour and form.

The colour is fourfold - blue, yellow, red, white, other colours are the varieties of these four. The form is eightfold - odd etc.

(In other words) the same R£p¡yatana is twentyfold:


1.    n¢la                  -       blue

2.    p¢ta                 -       yellow

3.    lohita                -       red

4.    avad¡ta            -       white

5.    d¢rgha              -       long

6.    hrasva              -       short

7.    v¤tta                 -       round

8.    parima¸·ala       -       circle

9.    unnata              -       high

10.  avanata             -       low

11.  s¡ta                 -       even

12.  visata               -       odd

13.  abhra               -       of the colour of the cloud

14.  dh£ma             -       of the colour of the smoke

15.   rajas               -       of the colour of the dust

16.   mahika            -       of the colour of the mist

17.   ch¡y¡             -       of the colour of the shadow

18.   ¡tapa              -       of the colour of the sun

19.   ¡loka              -       of the colour of the moon

20.   andhak¡ra       -       of the colour of the darkness

II. The audible is eightfold:

1.       up¡ttamah¡bh£ta - produced artificially by four gross elements.

2.       anup¡ttamah¡bh£ta - produced non-artificially by four gross elements.

3.       sattv¡khya - produced by living beings.

4.      asattv¡khya - produced by non-living being. Each of these forms is further   divided into harmonious (manojµa) and discordant (amanojµa).

III. The taste is sixfold:

1.  madhura  -  sweet

2.    ¡mla  -    sour

3.  lava¸a  -    salty

4.  ka¶uka  -    bitter

5.    tikta  -  pungent

6.    kaÀ¡ya  -  astringent


IV.  The odour is fourfold.

mild and strong smell of good and bad odour.

sugandhadurgandhayoÅ samaviÀama-gandhatv¡t


V.    The tangibles are elevenfold:

Four gross elements, smoothness

(¿lakÀ¸atva), harshness (karka¿atva),

heaviness (gurutva), lightness

(laghutva), coldness (¿¢tam)

hunger (jighats¡), thirst (pip¡s¡)



    1.  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¡ (gross).


    4.   For more explanation, see The Buddhist Nirv¡¸a by Th. Stcherbatsky.

    5.                                  Bh¡Àya on 1.44.


7.    'What is Avijµaptir£pa' by Prof. V.V. Gokhale, In +New Indian Antiquary, Vol. 1.



The AbhidharmakoÀa with Bh¡Àya, ed. by P. Pradhan.

The Sphu¶¡rtha-AbhidharmakoÀavy¡khy¡, ed. by Dvarikadasa Sastri.

Th. Stcherbatsky, "The Central Conception of Buddhim" and "The Soul Theory of the Buddhists".

Conze, Buddhist Thought in India.

'What is Avijµaptir£pa' by Prof. V.V. Gokhale, In New Indian Antiquary, Vol. 1.

Dic Probleme der Buddhistischen Philosophie, by O. Rosenberg

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