The Five Great Elements: A Mirror to Our Being*
by Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur
Founder, Vedika Gurukula, College of Ayurveda and Vedic Studies, Emeryville, California** and Member, Council of Advisors (COA), TI School of Integrative Medicine (SIM)
(YSN Vol. 4, No. 1 – Jan. 2016)
*Originally published in TathaAstu Magazine (2010)
Introduction: Macrocosm and Microcosm
Ayurveda is the product of a civilization, which is deeply rooted in Mother Nature. The seers knew that all of Nature is part of the individual, since we are all created from, exist in, and return to nature.
A fundamental tenet of the Ayurvedic system of medicine is the principle of similarity between macrocosm and microcosm. We human beings are made of the same “stuff” the rest of the universe is made up of. Ayurveda teaches that everything in the universe is made up of Five Great Elements called Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, or Akasha, Vayu, Teja, Aap, and Prithvi in Sanskrit, respectively. These Five Great Elements can be considered as subtle matter states or energy, as matter and energy are interconnected states on the continuum of existence.
The Five Great Elements
The most important or foundational organizing principle of Ayurveda is that of the Five Great Elements, known as the Pancha Mahabhutas. The Five Elements represent multidimensional macro and micro existence, expression and ideas, where Space for example, represents the expansive and open qualities of the universe/sky, the infinite potential of the mind, and also, the actual hollowed spaces inside the body, for example inside tubes and channels, arteries, etc.
Earth represents the solid state of matter. It manifests stability, permanence, and rigidity. The body parts that are particularly thick, stable, massive, heavy, coarse, and hard, as well as nails, bones, teeth, flesh, skin, feces, hair, beard and mustaches, skin hair, tendons, etc., along with smell or the olfactory sense (nose), are Earth in nature. In the mind, Earth endows resolve, or the power to withstand and endure.
Water characterizes eternal flow, and is always unstable by nature. It is a liquid state and is a majority composer of various fluid substances inside our body – blood, lymph, urine, intracellular fluid, and even emotions often possess a liquid and sticky, clingy, cohesive quality. Water flows through our being, distributing nutrition, carrying away wastes, regulating temperature by imparting a cooling effect, strengthening and moistening our being by distributing the immune essence or Oja throughout the body, and making our cells hydrated and youthful with fluid. The sense of taste and tongue are Water dominant in nature. Thus, the liquid, mobile, dull, unctuous, soft, and slimy aspects of our being are dominated by Water. In the mind, Water creates feelings and emotions.
Fire is the power to transform, burn, and illuminate. In the body, all food and substances, be they solid, liquid, or gaseous in nature, thanks to Fire, get transformed or converted into tissue and energy. In the mind, fiery intelligence and fiery emotions along with passion contribute to a fiery experience of being. Heat and luster, along with vision and the visual sense, are Fire dominant in nature. In the mind, Fire assists passion as well as anger.
Air is the Element that is mobile and eternally dynamic, with no arrest whatsoever. Its constant motion and speed are its unique characteristics. Respiration, twinkling of eye (all subtle movements, including that of nerves), contraction and relaxation, movement, propulsion, and retention, along with touch and the tactile senses, are Air dominant in nature. In the mind, the thoughts and their constant motion is well represented by Air. So typically, fearful anxiety will manifest, if the Air Element were to unnaturally increase.
Ether is the space in which everything happens. The vacant spaces inside the body, big and small channels, along with sound and the auditory sense are predominant in Space by nature. It is the field that is simultaneously the source of all matter and the space in which it exists. Ether is only the distances that separate grosser states of matter (the other four elements). The chief characteristic of ether is sound. Here, sound represents the entire spectrum of vibration. In the mind, it creates an expansive potential to meditate and be quiet.
|Space||Ether||Potential energy/ matter||All emptiness and lightness in the body/mindcommunication, exchange between mediums|
|Air||Gaseous||Kinetic energy / matter||All movement and action in the body/ mindspeed, direction, velocity, time|
|Fire||Radiant||Thermal energy / matter||All burning and transforming in the body/mindperception, heat, light, radiance|
|Water||Liquid||Cohesive energy / matter||All liquidity and stickiness in the body/mindflow, filling, softness, liquidity|
|Earth||Solid||Static energy / matter||All solidity and heaviness in the body / mindstability, resistance, form|
What Element Characterizes You?
We can benefit from Ayurvedic understanding of the Great Five Elements to not only understand the outer universe, but also our inner universe – our unique mind-body personality – because, according to Ayurveda, the relationship of the Elements with each other greatly determines our natural constitution and predispositions to health and ill health. It even influences minor things, like our habits, hobbies, and spiritual inclinations.
When Elements combine together, they form bio-psychic forces called Doshas; and while Dosha-based constitution is a standard in Ayurvedic tradition, the great teacher of Ayurveda Rishi Sushruta also elaborated upon Five Element-based constitution, as discussed in this article.
Being a part of Nature, we are ourselves an expression of these five attributes. It should be noted that each of us contains and expresses the qualities of all five Elements, but our particular constitution, or nature, has dominant Elements.
Space-Dominant Constitution – Akashiya
If you are dominant in the Space Element, the ether state of matter, you will possess a soft, lightweight body. The various openings in the body and internal spaces will be large and well defined. You will posses great understanding of sound and its multiple shades and tones. A Space Element-dominant individual will display expansiveness, a love of cleanliness, light body weight, etc.
The mind may be expansive and unattached naturally; in Sanskrit, we call this quality Sattva. This will make you from birth a lover of all things spiritual – lightness, refinement, truth, and expansiveness. You will seek Space in how you are in relationships, inside your home, closet, and even inside your body (no congestion permitted). On bad days, you may feel “spacey,” but if you understand yourself, you will enjoy the uninterrupted quality of your self expression, whether in being or becoming.
Your body will embody mildness, softness, subtleness, lightness, and looseness (of joints, ideas, etc.). After all, your body is woven with oodles of ether, that ever so subtle matter in the universe that effortlessly flows and connects and holds, but is barely there and yet everywhere.
Watch out for an excessively fragile body by feeding yourself well and with intention. A mind that does not ground enough, and emotions and thoughts that do not hold or cohere long enough to create a decisive state of mind are other challenges. Other wise, enjoy your spontaneous ability to meditate and channel, connect with cosmic ether and embody being and non-being at the same time.
Air-Dominant Constitution – Vayavya
If you are dominant in Air, the gaseous state of matter, you will possess a wiry, light, rough, and clear body type. You may find that you get excited easily, and you will find your self mobile, always on the move, physically or mentally, or both. In addition, you will possess a sensitive skin, with a well-developed sense of touch. Even the ever so subtle wind as it moves in creation, will stroke your skin and alert you to its divine existence.
Your constitution will embody dryness, subtleness, lightness, looseness, lack of compactness, easy extensibility, coolness, roughness, and the ability to perceive touch excellently. In the mind, there will be an overflow of quick thoughts, as the thinking process is really a play of the Air Element. The quality of Rajas or excitement dominates the mind, creating nonstop mental activity, frequent agitation, mood swings and sometimes even turbulence in the mind.
After all, what is Air? Grab a handful and you get a non-substance in your palm, but lots of sensations on the skin of your palm. Motion without substance describes you, and also describes some of your projects in which you may turn your wheels for not much substantial gain. Like wind, you can blow harmoniously and creatively, but when the mood changes, bellow and destroy, like enraged winds uprooting trees and homes. Watch out for depletion from over-action, exhaustion of body and mind, thinness, skipping meals, or sacrificing normal sleep hours in favor of excitement, as that also aggravates Air. Enjoy the spontaneity, quickness, and unparalleled imagination and visions, which are your gifts from Nature.
Fire-Dominant Constitution – Agneya
If you are dominant in the Fire Element, the radiant state of matter, you possess a light, but warm, or even hot body. You will embody the thermal and radiant state of matter, and hence, you will run hotter than most people, digest well or rather too intensely, and this heat in mind will translate as intelligence, sharpness, and even anger at times.
You may be easily impatient, and burn out quickly with a mediocre endurance capacity. The spark that enlivens you may also burn you in summers, or if you consume excessive fiery foods or lead a fiery hot lifestyle. Your skin may have a deep pinkish to reddish hue naturally, and you may possess not only excellent vision to begin with, but also an eye for detail. An excellent digestion, if taken for granted, may lead to burning sensations, etc.
Your body embodies fiery qualities, such as sharpness (tongue, temper, appetite), hotness (body and mind), dryness (due to over heating and parching), subtleness (of mind), lightness (body weight), and clearness (in mind and complexion). In your mind, both Sattva and Rajas qualities dominate, so you may seek spiritual solitude (Sattva) and at the same time, make a list on how to obtain it (action tinged quality of Rajas).
Watch out for burning the body, as well as bridges in professional life. Enjoy your natural leadership potential, your sunny cheerful temperament, and your ability to find solutions and achieve mastery of life and health through sheer force of transformation.
Water-Dominant Constitution – Jaliya
Water-dominant individuals are dominant in Water or the liquid state of matter. If you have mostly this Element dominant in your body type, you will possess a soft, smooth, somewhat heavy and even flabby body. You will feel cold easily, and your appearance will show your skin to be well moistened, soft, and smooth, with almost an oily sheen.
Your joints will look well lubricated, and hair, nails, etc. have a fluid, soft quality. Your body fluids (including sexual ones) will be abundant, endowing you with fertility and beauty. Your body embodies watery qualities such as liquidity, coolness, heaviness, slowness, gentle mobility, and stickiness (yes, everything glued together).
The Water manifesting as emotions possess your being often, and in floods of feelings and loyalty, memory, and attachments, you dwell in a landscape that is more often than not romantic, sentimental, old world, and special.
Look out for water retention, and quickness to accumulate body fat, because fat is predominantly made-up of the Water Element. The watery, introspective quality of your mind may sometimes slip into sad, weepy depression. Enjoy your natural nurturing and healing ability, appreciate your soft beauty, and dwell in your flowing body suit with grace and artistry. Embrace what comes naturally to you.
Earth-Dominant Constitution – Parthiva
If you are dominant in the Earth Element, the solid state of matter, you possess a well-developed and perhaps well-endowed body, displaying naturally large bones and well-defined muscle structure. Your well-built body will display the sturdiness, heaviness, largeness, and compactness (density) of Earth. You may have a tendency to put on weight too, which is not flabby, but hard – more muscle buildup than fat. Your bones may be heavy, as well.
Often, Earth-dominant individuals possess a more earthy complexion (darker than usual), and even newborn babies that are dominant in Earth are large enough to look older than their age, or look really well-nourished when compared to the puny Air- and Space- or Fire-dominant babies.
Your body embodies earthy qualities, such as hardness, slowness, compactness, bulkiness, and steadiness. The Earth in you makes you capable of tolerating heavy odds, do hard labor, and demonstrate patience and remarkable enduring power. You may find that you are often courageous, and easily forgive others. Yes, you are the down to earth, rooted, solid, stable, and dependable one in this Five Element universe.
Be wary of excessive Earth-creating blockages and growths, and a stubborn mind. Flexibility and ease should be your mantra, even as you enjoy the divine gifts of calmness, sturdiness, and resolve in body and mind.
A Mirror to Our Being
Born from the womb of Nature and destined to return to Nature, we human beings are indeed woven of the same five threads that intertwine and compose the rest of the universe. Though we contain all five in every atom, every cell, every particle of our being that makes us up, often a single element truly rules our show and dictates the genetic script of our being and dictates the terms of our personality – its weaknesses and strengths, as well as what will balances us and what will imbalances us. When we make a conscious effort to understand the Great Five Elements, we see in that ancient wisdom, a reflection of our own being. We begin to know at an intuitive level how the Elements play inside us and their behavior in the macrocosm is a mirror to how they will behave inside us, in the microcosm.
© Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur and Ayurveda Lifestyle Medicine, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.
About Acharya Shunya: Acharya Shunya Pratichi Mathur is Founder of Vedika Global, Inc., a non-profit Vedic foundation that supports an awarded international School of Ayurveda and Vedic Studies, sponsors community welfare initiatives, and delivers charitable wellness through global projects. She is also current President of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine (CAAM) and an Advisory Board Member of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA). For her trailblazing work in reviving Gurukulam system of education in Ayurveda, Acharya Shunya was formally bestowed the Mother Padmavati International Ayurveda Award by the prestigious Institute of Indian Medicine, Pune, India (2010); the Nalanda Award for Excellence in Ayurvedic Education in North America by AAPNA (2010); and was honored by Ayurveda Yoga Upachar Research Activity Foundation AYURA (2013), and, Foundation for Education and Research in Ayurveda and Traditional Systems of Medicine – FERATSM (2009) in India. Acharya Shunya’s work has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, Yoga Journal, and Tathaastu Magazine. She teaches year-round to medical students and lectures in classrooms, conferences, and seminars worldwide. Read more of her writing on her blog, Ayurveda Lifestyle Medicine.