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The Panca Mahabhutas

P. G. Lalye

Ancient Sanskrit texts have dwelt on the problem of origin of universe as a problem of cosmogony. While trying to establish that the origin of the gross world is the subtle Absolute Spirit, they have given certain stages of evolution — the transformation real or apparent — of the Absolute into the gross natural objects.

The elemental matter or the five Bhutas or Mahabhutas as they were termed and, though independent, evolves from some Original cause, are supposed to mix with each other in certain proportion, thus giving rise to the different basic objects of the nature.

The Brahmanas (Literature) for the first time, enumerated the five principles. They gave the five names of the Bhutas, which were also called five Purusa. They were described as constituting the gross manifested universe. Sometimes they are called five Sattvas or the primary forms of matter.1

The Brahmanas went a step further by declaring that the five Bhutas or Mahabhutas are integrally connected with five senses of human beings. They also declared the whole creation as arising out of ‘motion’.

The Brahmanas2 also recognized three aspects of the above-mentioned motion.

(1) Gati — Movement from the centre to the circumference

(2) Sthiti — This is the controlling centre of Agati and Gati

(3) Agati — Stationery position.

This approach shows that the doctrine of motion, arose out of the concern of the Brahmanas for giving an account of the origin of matter having various characteristics.

Later in the Upanisads we find a further development of this ‘motion’. They have tried to point out the relation between the elements, in figurative matter, (in the spirit of Bandhuta) which was a common respectable approach of the Brahmana-Upanisadic thinkers. One Upanisad says:

The Earth is the first form;

Heaven is the counter form or the ultimate form;

Space (or Akasa) is the union;

wind or air is the medium or agency of that union.3

There is some discussion about the other categories also.4

In some passages five forms of union are described, which try to explain —

(1) Creation as due to actions of divine beings;

(2) Creation due to the power of esoteric knowledge;

(3) Creation due to some union of Cosmic Sex;

(4) Creation due to Atman, or man as the Centre.5

In the same spirit of Bandhuta, of identifying the constituents in a mystic manner, one of the Upanisads has dilated upon the Vaisvanaravidya.6 The propounder of that sacred Mystic Lore (Vidya) is Asvapati, who has taught that Heaven, Sun, Wind, Ether, Water and the Earth are only the different aspects of Atmavaisvanara, who is to be viewed as all-comprehending totality of all these. This is the developed form of more or less identical teaching with the same personnel and the same categories found in one of the Brahmanas.7 Asvapati also points out that the real Vaisvanara fire is the cosmic Purusa.

The very epithet Atman is suggestive, inasmuch as the Atman eats, swallows, absorbs the different elements, which constitute the objective world.

Some Upanisads describe what may be called the graded creation, in which the five Mahabhutas are supposed to have been emanated from the earlier category, one by one. From the undifferentiated infinity, air, fire and other elements were created.8 Figuratively, the Infinite is thought to be a river of five streams from five sources.9 It is one of the earlier references to the interrelations of the gross universal objects, the vital air (Prana) and the sense functions. There —

  1. the five senses represent the streams;

  2. the five elements are the five sources;

  3. the five Pranas represent the waves;

  4. the five sense objects, viz., sound, touch, colour, taste, smell are

  5. called whirlpools, as the individual soul gets involved in them.

In the post-Upanisadic period the Samkhya philosophy dominated the field. The Purusa-Prakrti dichotomy was accepted, along with the doctrine of the Gunas and Bhutas. It was accepted mutatis mutandis by the Epics, the Puranas, and the Smrti works. While elaborating the PrakrtiVikrti doctrines, the sixteen were supposed to be Vikrti — which include five senses of cognition, five senses of action, mind and five elements. While describing the stages in the Evolution, the order is given as follows — Prakrti-Mahat (buddhi) = Ahamkara, the five subtle elements (the tanmatras) — the five gross elements — Akasa, Vayu, Tejas, Ap, Prthivi — the five senses, the five organs of action and the mind. The creation process is also given systematically.9(a)

Each succeeding gross element has more properties than the succeeding one because of the larger number of tanmatras fashioning it.

In Karika 38,10 it is told that the subtle elements are non-specific. From these five, proceed the five gross elements. These five gross elements are known as specific beings, tranquil, terrific and stupefying.

On account of the Supreme authority of the Nature over everything, the subtle body the (linga deha) acts through the connection with the means and their results. The subtle body plays its part with the Nimittas (causes).11

The divisions of organic and inorganic mental and non-mental are divisions from the object point of view. The Samkhya order of creation suggests that every individual is a composite one, so far as the five elements and their transformations are concerned. The creations etc. are applicable mostly to empirical variants of the universe, which are generally categorized under Prakrti, (which is also termed as Svabhava, Maya, in many texts).

Thus, Prakrti is the prius of the whole material and psychical order of phenomena. Though Prakrti is numerically one singular entity it is by no means a simple homogeneous substance. It is the union of opposites. It consists of three elements viz., Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, which are by their nature and functions opposed to one another. This opposition is kept in check, when Prakrti is in its pure state of equilibrium prior to evolution. Sattva is primarily responsible for self-maintenance and self-manifestation of Prakrti. Rajas is the cause of all activity. Tamas is responsible for inertia and restraint of activity. These three elements have different expressions in the material and in the psychical plan.

The order of evolution which occurs in and through Prakrti, is determined and justified by a logical necessity. The different stages reached in the course of evolution are also regarded as different categories. The whole process of evolution is summed up in terms of twenty-four categories, of which Prakrti is the primal and the initial limit. It is the uncaused cause and (so-called) the first original cause. The final limit or terminus or evolution is furnished by the five gross elements, the five cognitive organs, the five organs and mind. But in between these two limits, there are seven categories, viz., Mahat or Buddhi, which is the material counterpart and revealer of pure consciousness, the principle of egoity and five superphysical elements (Potentials). These seven categories possess the dual characteristics (tanmatra) of being evolutes and evolvents in their turn. The intellect is the first evolute from the primordial Prakrti and is the evolvent of the egoity. Egoity in its turn is the evolute of intellect and is the evolvent of five subtle elements — sound, touch, colour, taste, smell and the eleven organs. The five subtle elements are the evolutes of egoity and the evolvents of five gross elements, viz., ether, air, fire, water and earth. These twenty-four categories comprise among them the entire realm of reality. The spirit (Purusa) is, however, neither the cause nor the effect of anything else and thus stands apart and aloof from the course of evolution.

According to the Samkhyas, the effect must be existent in the cause, because a non-entity cannot be produced. Choice of material implies the previous existence of the effect. Again, production is not arbitrary, production means the manifestation of an attribute, implicitly present in the substance and cessation connotes the relapse of the manifested attribute into the unmanifest state. Causality presupposes determinate capacity of the cause to produce a determinate effect. This capacity can come into play only if there is a relation between it and what is produced. The very possibility of causality implies that the effect must be existent in the cause. Prakrti is thus ultimate causal ground of the whole flux of phenomenal order.

The Guna domination over the Prakrti evolution is quite apparent. The Tanmatras possess physical characteristics like penetrability, pressure, heat, capacity for cohesive attraction. They also possess the potentials of the energies represented by sound, touch, colour, taste, and smell.

These potentials are within the subtle matter. They undergo transformations by new groupings before they act as stimuli to the gross matter.

From the Bhutadi, different Tanmatras are generated, which have only the potential power of affecting our senses. The fivefold classification of the elements is not based on any chemical principle, but from the point of view of the five senses, through which their knowledge comes to us.

The five classes of items are generated from the Tanmatras. Sound potential and (Akasa) touch potentials and combine with the vibratory particles to generate Vayu-atom. The light and heat potentials combine with touch potentials and sound potentials to produce the Tejas-atom. The taste potentials combine with light, heat, touch and sound potentials to generate Ap-water and the smell potentials combine with the preceding potentials to generate the earth-atom. They possess the qualities as follows:

Akasa —— Penetrability

Vayu —— Impact or mechanical pressure

Tejas —— Radiant heat and light

Ap —— Viscous attraction

Prthivi (Earth) —— Cohesive attraction

According to the Vedanta, which generally follows the Samkhya School, the creation process is dormant in Nature or Prakrti. It becomes active or productive when it comes into contact with the sentient, but Inactive Purusa. In the evolutes of Prakrti, mention should be made of five elements (Mahabhutas) and five subtle elements (Tanmatras).

This amalgam of the five elements is a point often discussed in Vedanta texts. The elements amalgamate with each other in certain proportion. Every element contains half or 50 per cent of its own and the rest of the half is of other four elements generally 1/8 of each (Pancikarana).

In the second chapter of Pancadasi, it is told that if Brahman is to be comprehended, it can be comprehended indirectly through its adjuncts. It is told that from Prakrti, dominated by Tamas, Five Bhutas emanate, by the order of the Almighty. Through the Sattva aspects of Ether etc. five organs of cognition emanate. They adopt the properties of their causes, ether and others.

The mind is the activator of all the ten organs. The existential characteristics are to be understood through the Sastras and also through deductive reasoning.

All the rules of change as variations are not applied to the Highest Brahman, because it is free from Svagata, Svajatiya, and Vijatiya differences. Names and forms are superimposed on Brahman.

The Akasa is the first Karya or the effect of Maya. Thus the elements and elemental creations are transitory according to Advaita Vedanta. The properties like touch, motion and speed are those of Air. The Sattva, Nistattvarupa and sound are derived from Sat, Maya, Akasa respectively. When Air is separated from Sattva, through discretion, nothing original of Air remains. This is due to Maya. The sound is the nature of Ether. The discretion enlightens us and makes us cognize the right or correct properties of Air etc.12

Like this by intelligent discretion, the sat can be separated from many properties of Fire. All other are false.13

Pancadasi gives its own ideas about the mutual amalgamation of the five elements. For example, Air absorbs some qualities from Sat, Maya, Akasa (Ether) and permeates some portion of Maya, which in turn permeates some portion of ether. Air occupies some portion of ether; fire that of air. This methodology of mutual amalgamation shows that cause has got a wider canvas than that of Effect. The occupied portion is only about 10 per cent.

The elemental creation is described in the Vedantaparibhasa which adopts the "Samkhya Theory".14

The Nyaya-Vaisesika system defines Substance as that in which qualities and actions inhere. There are nine substances — the five mahabhutas, time, space, spirit (Atman) and mind. The first five are called physical substances and each of them has a peculiar quality as given earlier. There is a psychological sense with the physical sense-organ, which is a part of the physical body. Earth, water and fire are perceptible; air and ether are inferred from the qualities.

Of the twenty-three qualities, air possesses nine, fire possesses eleven, water has fourteen, Earth has fourteen, atman has fourteen, time and space five each.15 The Tanmatras have got a peculiar role to play on the physical level. The Vedanta and the Samkhya Yoga schools believe that the stuff of the gross elements, seen in earthly objects is a transformation of the stuff constituting the subtle elements (Bhutas). The psychological senses and their respective objectives are the polarizations of the subtle forms of the elements (Devatas) and the subtle elements as such are the manifestations (say Rasmi, amsu) of the potentialities of the Atman and are co-extensive with the Atman. They are the patterned, potential forces of the cosmos.

These elements are the infinite potencies of polarization lying latent. The Vedanta position is that these elements are derived — one out of other, while the Samkhyas maintain that the subtle elements evolve out of the ego (Ahamkara) independently of one another and get transformed into the gross elements, and instead of belonging to the cosmic person, they belong to Prakrti. The subtle elements thus can be treated as the transcendental grounds of the substance quality or substance property manifestations. The subtle elements are the evolutes, the potential evolutes, from the attributes according to the Samkhya theory.

According to Nyaya-Vaisesika school, the empirical world is constituted of the imperishable atoms of Earth, Water, Light and Air. They also enumerate Ether, Time and Space with them. The God is only the intelligent cause, who keeps order in the Nature. The creation is absolutely an ab ovo process.16

The Saiva School explains the phenomenon of creation as follows:

At the time of creation, vibration also termed as Maya, starts in the Absolute. In this super vibration, the three Gunas are generated. The Sattva indicates consciousness, Tamas inertia and Rajas a combination of both. There the five Bhutas are present in subtle form. For vibration some space is required which is provided by ether. It has sound as its property. The vibratory movement is obviously unsteady. It is the nature of wind. When the vibration is in the state of appearance, it is soft, being subtle. Viscosity is the nature of water. The lack of knowledge or consciousness of it is the veritable toughness of the Earth. So, it is said that the Gunas and the five Bhutas are present in the vibration in a subtle form. Later, the five elements are separated from the Tamas and attain distinct nature. The original state of equilibrium of the Gunas create agitation among the Gunas, when all the Gunas become manifest along with their capacities — cognition, activity and substance.

The substance capacity is in the form of five Bhutas, which manifests in the following order — Ether, Wind, Light or Fire, Water and Earth.17

The Ether (Akasa) encompasses in itself, the reality of the Brahman and the unreality of Maya, as Akasa is smaller than Maya by one degree. Void, Emptiness and sound are the characteristics of Ether. From Akasa, Vayu or Air emanated. Air also is marked by Brahman, Maya, Akasa with their real and unreal, sound aspects. In addition, it has got the quality of Touch. Air is less permeative than Akasa by one degree and it is unsteady. From Air, Fire is born. It has got all the earlier qualities, with the addition of Form. Fire is less permeative than Air by ten degrees. From Fire, Water is created. In addition to all the qualities of the earlier causes, it has got Taste as the additional one. Moreover it has got two more qualities, Softness and Fluidity. Water is less permeative than Fire by ten degrees. From water, Earth is born. It has got smell as an additional quality. In addition to all those it has got three more qualities, Hardness, Substance and Smell. Earth is less permeative than water by ten degrees.

Though these Bhutas are lesser in permeation than the previous ones, they are more and more permeative as far as inertia is concerned. The qualities also increase gradually. They can be enumerated as follows:

Ether Sound
Air Sound,  Touch
Fire or Lustre Sound, Touch, Form
Water  Sound, Touch, Form, Taste
Earth  Sound, Touch, Form, Taste, Smell

Maya is one of the bonds of the soul. It provides the soul with the means, locations, and objects of enjoyment called Bhogyakanda.

Kashmir Saivism observes that the appearance of the universe in creation is due to the self-limitation of the divine power and dissolution follows from the self-assertion of the same power. Prakrti is one of the thirty-six principles which includes the five Bhutas also.

Just as light and heat coexist in fire, in the same way universal Ahmta and freedom or Sakti coexist in Caitanya. This freedom is Maya which though essentially identical with Caitanya, brings out varieties of infinite kinds.

Prakrti with which the lower creation begins is indeed the assemblage of the dispositions and tendencies (Vasanas) of all persons with various and beginningless Karmas. This karma-vasana or Prakasa is threefold.

An important Tantra text — Saradatilaka, shows the origin of the manifested world from Paramesvara to Nada.18 It gives a lucid account of the creation of the universe, in its own terminology.

During creation, the first manifestation is that of Sakti, characterized by will which is the first evolute. It is a spontaneous act, like the appearance of the oil out of the seeds. The void is termed as Maya. The vision of void is accompanied by an indistinct sound called Paranada, which fills the entire state. Nada is of the nature of light. Generally Tantras recognize that sound and light co-exist.

The next step is represented by the concentration of this diffused light sound into a focus, called Bindu. The creative principles are evolved out of this supreme bindu. Bindu subsequently breaks into three Bindu, Bija, and Nada. In Bindu Siva aspect predominates, in bija Sakti, in Nada both are of equal strength.

It is the Kala which breaks the equilibrium of bindu.

The causal state of Brahman is represented by Sabda Brahman or Kulakundalini, figured as a triangle consisting of Bindu, Bija, and Nada.

Matter is regarded as the collective organism or collocation, consisting of the four-fold substratum of colour, smell, taste and contact. The qualities of all the Mahabhutas are inherent in the Paramanus. The special characteristics of roughness, viscousness, heat, movableness combine together to form each of the elements. The difference between the different elements consists only in this that in each of them its own special characteristics, though present, remain only in a potential form. The mutual existence of material things is due to the quality of earth so inherent in them; the mutual attraction of things is due to moisture or the quality of water and so forth. When the Prakrti is disturbed, the three Gunas, appear along with their potentialities. The Tamas has got power of materialization from which the five bhutas emanate. The five elements are permeated by the three Gunas. From the Sattva emanate Ear, skin, eyes, tongue and nose from the distributory aspect and Antahkarana as the unitary aspect. From the Rajas the five Karmendriyas evolve in distributory aspect, but in unitary aspect, when the elements are indeterminate (avyakta) and they are subtle.

The elements become gross and materialized through the process of Pancikarana. In that process every element is equally divided into two halves; one half is kept in the self same bhuta and the other half is further divided with four equal parts and each is allocated to each of the remaining four.19

The doctrine of the five Bhutas is more or less accepted by the Puranas. The Puranas, have mostly adopted Samkhya terminology while describing the creation of the matter through evolution. One special mention, however, should be made, regarding the Purana ideas about the creation. Bhagavata, for example, has mentioned that the Almighty plays a positive role in activating the five elements, senses, mind and the Gunas, to fashion out a body for their own purpose. It is told that the five elements got themselves interrelated with (Samhatya) each other through Casual relations, and created Pinda and Brahmanda. The Brahmanda origin of the creation is mostly concerned with sentient human beings, the first of which was Virat. Various categories and regions emanated from the limbs of Virat.20

In the Guna-graded creation, it is told that Tamasa the origin of the five bhutas, had some commotion. Then Akasa was born, and the creation of the subsequent Bhutas took place after the same pattern. This pattern of creation can be illustrated in a tabular form as follows:


The Category The Elements Cause Quality

Undergoing Commotion stris initiated by Kala Action (karma) Produced Karma Mahat 

Tomas Ego

Rajas-Tomas Jnana Dravya also called Ahamkara

(It is to be understood that the Time created stir in the three Gunas, the Nature transformed them and karma gave birth to Mahat).

Movement in due to Accretion in Transformation from

Mahat Sattva, Tejas Tomas three fold Ahamkara Vaikarika - Jnana Tanmatra
Taijasa - Kriya
Tamas - Dravya
Tamasa Ahamkara Stress exertion Akasa Sabda
Akasa - Vayu Sparsa and Sabda
Vayu Kala, Karma Svabhava Tejas Rupa, Sabda, Sparsa
Tejas Tejas Jala Rasa, Rupa, Sabda, Sparsa
Jala - Prithvi Gandha, Rasa, Rupa, Sabda, Sparsa
Vaikarika Ahamkara Movement, Stress Exertion Manas, Ten Superintending deities of ten senses
Taijasa Stress, Exertion Five senses of cognition and five senses of action Buddhi + Prana


We find another reference to Virat in the same Purana21. In a discourse to Vidura, the sage Maitreya reiterates that on observing that Mahat and other powers are unable to create anything due to their independent or disintegrated nature, the Lord himself entered into that group of twenty-three. This stimulated the Adrsta of the individual souls, and created Virat out of those twenty-three principles.

There are certain modern or ‘Later’ versions Pancikarana, mostly effected by the Saint poets of India. Here a specimen is given. It is propounded by Hamsarajaswami of Maharashtra (1805-55).

In the table22 given below air is divided into five types of Prana and each element is connected with Jnanendriya, Karmendriya and tanmatra.


Elements Ether Air Lustre Water Earth Function

Ether Antahkaran Vyana (moving throughout body) Ear Speech Sound Hearing & Speaking
Air Mind Samana helping (Digestion) Skin Hands Touch Touch, giving, taking
Lustre Intellect Udana (Taking food etc. upwards) Eyes Feet Form Seeing & Walking
Water Citta Prana (Air Inhaled and exhaled) Tongue Penis Flavour Eaging and enjoyment
Earth Ego Apana (Air passing through lower parts) Nose Rectum Smell Smelling, excreting

In this running account about the Five Mahabhutas, one fact clearly emerges. The Universal categories are indivisible five elements, which themselves emanate in a particular order, the earlier one being the cause of the latter one. Each evolute has certain Guna, which itself absorbs some potentials of other elements. The Akasa is quite comprehensive and permeating element. It has given rise to a doubt. (The word Akasa is generally translated as Sky, ether, space. The Upanisads use the word mostly in the sense of Vast space. A question may be put. How can the vast eternal space, equated with the Atman or Brahman, be deemed to have produced air?).

Akasa is described as permeating, eternal and having sound as quality. In the later works, it is described to have been created from the Sabda potential. It is obvious that Akasa Bhuta cannot be supposed to be indivisible. The permeating Akasa can never be the material (Samavayi or Upadana) cause of the sound, as there cannot be any harsh impact on the space to produce the sound. Moreover Vayu and other elements cannot be produced from the infinite Akasa. A way out can be suggested. Just as the atoms of other Bhutas are disjuncted at the time of deluge (Mahapralaya), the atoms of Akasa must also be supposed as segregated. Thus Akasa may be taken to be Mahakosa whose material cause (Upadana) is the Sabdatanmatra. It has not the contact with Sparsa potential. There is no difficulty in accepting that the harsh impact, as the Logicians believe, is the Contact between quarters, Time and Atman, though they do not have Sparsa potential.

With the movement in the atoms (termed as Arambhaka Samyoga), the gross space is formed. This Akasa has got the potential of sound only, as Akasa does not have any contact (Upastambha Samyoga) with other Bhutas.

We may conclude by saying that the term Bhuta comes from the root Bhu which connotes existence. Moreover, those which are called Bhutas are prone to be converted into effect Karya. This distinguishes the Bhuta from Sati. The various schools of philosophy take the word to mean an eternal material cause (Upadana). They are also the inherent cause of the qualified substances and so, Time, Space, Atman, and mind are not reckoned as Bhutas. The five Mahabhutas give rise to five subtle elements (Tanmatras).

A verse in Ayurveda work defines Bhuta as follows:

This definition is more succint:

The essential qualities of Earth, etc. are manifest in the elements. While those of the other four are unmanifest the senses can cognize (or have cognition of) the special material (Upadana) quality, as for example, light (Tejas) is the chief material — of the Eye. Light’s quality is form; therefore, Eye can grasp form only.

Moreover, a synthesis was sought to be achieved by the Ayurveda writers, by recognizing six Dhatus, i.e., Five Bhutas, with Atman. They are advocated to be the cause of the universe. We may surmise that a particular School believed in six principles — Six Dhatus This may show the way for bringing about a harmonious blending of various schools.

Thus the Ayurveda system may be taken the archetype to carry further research on the scientific aspects of the Five Mahabhutas.

A few observations on the Five Mahabhutas are given here, for further investigations by the scholars.

The Five Elements — An Interpretation

What are the traditional five elements, ‘earth’, ‘water’, ‘fire’, ‘air’, ‘ether’ ? Though they are called ‘elements’, they are often described as a series of increasingly subtle levels in the appearance of the world. On the one hand, in a progressive enquiry towards underlying reality (as described in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 3.6 and 3.8), each element is found to overlie the next (in the above order). On the other hand, in cosmological accounts of creation, the same elements arise in reverse order, as a progression of increasingly gross levels through which reality appears.

Accordingly, from a philosophical point of view, the five elements could perhaps be interpreted as a division of experience into five levels, along the following lines.


Traditional element Element of Level of experience Correspondence with modern physics

'Earth' Differentiation and particularity Particular objects Pieces of matter
'Water' Change and transformation Changing forms Moving configurations
'Fire' Representation and propagation Intelligible meaning Propagation of energy
'Air' Qualification and conditioning Relative characteristics Fields conditioning space and time
'Ether' Underlying continuity Continuing background The space-time continuum


When the world is perceived through body and mind, it seems at firrst to be made up of different objects and events. At this initial level, an element of differentiation and particularity appears in experience. This could well be symbolized by the traditional element ‘earth’: in the sense that earth is found differentiated into particular objects, like clay is found fashioned into different pots (to use the traditional analogy).


If particular objects are perceived to exist, then how do their differences and particularities arise? How are objects told apart, and how are they formed? Such questioning leads to an underlying level of experience, where change and transformation become apparent: as that element of experience which forms and shapes the world. This could well be symbolized by the traditional element ‘water’: in the sense that water flows in changing shapes and forms.


What do change and transformation show, and how do they take place? What is shown by changing forms, and how are they transferred from one object or one place to another? Such questioning leads to another underlying level, where representation and propagation become apparent: as that element of experience which gives meaning to forms and enables them to move from place to place. This could well be symbolized by the traditional element ‘fire’: in the sense that fire consumes and illuminates (like meaning consumes its representations to illuminate what is represented), and fire also propagates (by burning its way through things and radiating energy).


How do representation and propagation work? What represented qualities are shown by meaningful forms, and what characteristic qualities and conditions travel along with forms that move identifiably from place to place? Such questioning leads in its turn to a further underlying level, where qualification and conditioning become evident: as that element of experience which gives relative character to varying objects and localities in space and time. This could well be symbolized by the traditional element ‘air’: in the sense that air or atmosphere is an enveloping medium of relative qualities and conditions (described, in one traditional metaphor, as that which can be ‘felt but not seen’).


How is experience qualified and conditioned? On what continuing basis are varying conditions and characteristics compared, in different objects and localities differently situated in space and time? Such questioning leads to a fifth level of experience, where a background of underlying continuity is understood: as the background element of experience, which enables characteristics to be contrasted and compared, and which thus enables objects to be discerned apart and related together again. This background continuity could well be symbolized by the traditional element ‘ether’: in the sense that the ‘ether’ was conceived to pervade (and thus to continue through) all objects and all localities in space and time.

The above division of levels is very general and abstract; and hence it can be applied in somewhat different ways to many particular fields of experience. In the above table (and the attached chart), an illustration is given of how it might be applied to modern physics, in a way that is naturally a little different from its application to more general or to more subjective experience.

In traditional thought, the pancikarana distinction of five elements has in fact been applied somewhat differently in different fields of experience: as for example in the five elements (panca mahabhutas) of the external world, in five levels of personality (the panca kosas), in five levels of mind (ahamkara — ego or personal identification, citta — will, buddhi — intellect, manas — qualitative mind or sensibility, antahkarana — the ‘inner faculty’ or understanding), in five vital functions (pranas), in the five senses (jnanendriyas), in five external functions of action (karmendriyas), in the enveloping spheres of medieval European cosmology (with the sphere of ‘earth’ progressively enveloped by spheres of ‘water’, ‘fire’, ‘air’, ‘ether’: all finally enveloped by the infinite reality of ‘God’), and in other ways.

The following chart elaborates a little on the previous table, and summarizes some of the ways in which the division of five elements was traditionally conceived in the past and might perhaps be re-interpreted today.

The Five Elements

Traditional name Elements of Traditional Characterization Level of experience Level of Personality Correspondence with modern physics

'Earth' Solidity Differentiation into objects - as clay can be made into different pots Matter - differentiated into pieces of matter and thus formed into objects Body and senses Objects as pieces of matter - with differentiated forms
'Water' Fluidity Change and transformation - as water flows in changing shapes and forms Form relating component pieces, though patterns recognized by similarity with other objects Practical mind - will and observation Changing forms of energy - objects as patterns of moving energy
'Fire' Energetic illumination Destruction and radiation - as fire consumes its fust and sheds hight on other things Meaning - of symbolic representation that direct attention to further experience, by representing qualities of other objects Intellect - formulation and interpretation Radient energy - propagation of characteristics (like beat and light) in space and time
'Air' Transparent tangibility 'Atmosphere' or enveloping medium of relative qualities - which can be 'felt but not seen' Quality - relative characteristics (like not and cold) compared on the basis of common, continuive principles (like temperature) Emotional Mind - judgement and lutuition Fields of distnionted characteristics (like heat, hight, energy, mass) - conditioning of space and time
'Ether' Pervasion Permeation of the universe - thus continuing through differences of objects and localities in space and time Continuity - common principles underlying difference and vanation, thus enabling knowledge to continue from past epxerience Understanding - Coordination and comprehension Space - time continuum - connecting different objects, events and localities


1. Taittiriya Brahmana, 2.2.9. 1-3.

2. Ibid., 3.8.3-10.

3. Taittiriyopanisad, I. 3.2.

4. P.T. Raju, Structural Depth of Indian Thought, p. 31.

5. It is said that from the Atman, the five Mahabhutas have come. The very epithet, ‘Atman’ is suggestive, in as much as the Atman eats, swallows absorbs the different elements, which constitute the objective world.

6. Chandogya p. V.11.

7. Satapatha Br., X. 61.

8. Taittiriya Up., II.1.

12.   Pancadasi, II. 2-83; also cf. Vedantasar, pp. 68-9

13.   Ibid., II 2.91.

14.  Vedanta paribhasa, Visayapariccheda

18.  Ksemraja, Parapravesika, p. 10

19. Saradatilaka, I. 78.

Bhagavata II. 5.32-3, Bhagavata II. 6.1-11.

21. Bhag, III. 6. 1-9.

22. Source: Dr. Kale, Parandyache Hamsarajaswami (Marathi), Pune, 1991, pp. 155-56.

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