What are the Elements in Ayurveda and their Significance?

The term Ayurveda means “the science of life,” where “Ayur” is life and “Veda” is knowledge.

Ayurvedic principles state that the cosmos are compiled of the “Pancha Maha Bhutas” also known as the “Five Great Elements.”

These elements originate from the “Pancha Tanmatra” known as sound (shabda), touch (sparsha), vision (roopa), taste (rasa), and smell (gandha). Although each element is a combination of all five Tanmatras, each shows a predominance of only one.

The first element is known as ether (akash), followed by air (vayu), fire (agni), water (jal/apas), and earth (prithvi). These elements are the core of Ayurvedic principles, as they represent ideas fundamental to nature and matter. Together, they are a collection of qualities that form the building blocks of nature.

Elements in Ayurveda

In order to understand Ayurveda, it is essential to first understand these five elements. According to Ayurveda, the components and functioning of the cosmos are similar to our body components and its functions.

With the body, each element is associated with different tissues and functions. With the mind, the elements relate to personality and characteristic traits. In medicine, the elements govern their actions. Hence, having knowledge of the five elements opens the doorway to understanding creation itself.

Ether (Akash)

Ether (Sky)

This element comes first because it is the subtlest of all five. Ether originates from shabda, which is the tanmatra of sound. It is the primordial space from which a vibration emerges long before it takes the form of sound in the ear. Sound and ether are inseparable, so the ear is considered to be the sense organ of ether. The mouth is its organ of action.

Hearing loss and loss of voice is the result of a disturbance in the functions of the ether element. The ether element is present in the body as the empty space between cells. The hollowness of the empty intestines, bladder, blood vessels, and the lungs are filled with ether.

An etheric person demonstrates qualities of imagination, expansion, subtleness, and dreaminess. They can also be elusive and passive at times.

Air (Vayu)

Air (Vayu)

This is the second element because it evolves from ether. When the potential within empty space becomes active, the result is air. It represents the capacity for motion and all forces and movements which occur as a result.

Air originates from Sparsha, the tanmatra of touch. It is the potential of the touch experience in its most subtle form. Touch and air are inseparable, so the skin which receives the touch is considered to be the sense organ of the element air. The hands through which we reach out are its organ of action.

We associate air in our body with the air we breathe. Ancient Rishis recognized this air as the immediate source of life; that which is synonymous with prana (life energy). Air is described in five forms according to its direction of movement. These are inward (prana), outward (vyana), upward (udana), downward (apana), and the force that stabilizes these movements toward the center (samana). These five movements are known as the vayus and the pranas.

In the body, air is present in the form of motion. Its force allows the blood to circulate, breath to move, nerve impulses to travel, thoughts to flow, and joints to propel movement. Disorders of tactile perception and those of grasping are the result of vitiation of the air element.

People with a strong air element in their constitution are agile and tend to move quickly and easily. By nature, they are cheerful and enthusiastic.

Fire (Agni)

Fire (Agni)

Ether provides fire the space to burn while air provides fire the capacity to burn. Hence, the third element is fire which evolves from ether and air. Just as the sun is the generator of energy for the earth, fire is the generator of energy for the body.

Fire originates from Roopa, the tanmatra of vision. Roopa means form or colour, both of which are the result of perception. This is why fire is the primordial form of perception, light, and vision. It provides the light for perception. The eyes are the vehicle through which light is received and perception takes place. Hence, eyes are considered to be the sense organ of fire.

Disorders of visual perception are a result of a disturbance of the fire element. It is through the feet that we act upon what we see. By using the feet, a person can change his direction or intensity of progress based on perception. Hence, the organ of action associated with the fire element is the feet.

Fire represents light, heat, energy, metabolism, and the power of transformation. People with a strong fire element in their constitution have leadership qualities and are adventurous, brave, confident, motivated, energetic, and progressive. They are eager in pursuing goals and are full of youthful spirit.

Water (Jal/Apas)

Water (Jal/Apas)

This is the fourth element that comes into existence out of the previous three. Fire causes air to become dense, giving us the element of water. Water is the protector of the body providing its most basic nourishment. It protects against the dissolution of ether, the roughness of air, and the heat of fire. It also soothes pain and inflammation in the body.

Water is the first element that we can taste. It originates from Rasa, the tanmatra of taste. In this context, it is the causation of the experience of taste (but not taste itself). Taste depends on water for its manifestation, so disorders of the ability to taste are an imbalance of the water element.

Since the tongue is the vehicle through which the rasa tanmatra manifests, it is considered to be the  sense organ of water. The taste buds of the tongue work only in the presence of water or saliva. This means that if there is no water, there is no taste.

The organ of action associated with the water element is the urethra. Through the male urethra, potent reproductive fluid is expelled from the body. The male and female urethra also expel water in the form of urine.

People with abundant water in their constitution show strong traits of compassion and empathy, since water is connected to emotions.

Earth (Prithvi)

Earth (Prithvi)

The fifth element of the five great elements is prithvi, because it evolves out of the other four, hence containing the essence of these elements within it. Ether provides earth with the space to exist and air provides earth with subtle movements. Fire is latent within the earth bound by chemical bonds, and water is inherent within the earth as a bridge between gaseous and solid matter.

The earth element represents the matter of the universe. It gives form to the human body and all creation. This structure provided by the earth is the conduit through which all other elements flow.

Earth originates from gandha, the tanmatra of smell. The state of the earth element in the body and the capacity to smell have a special relationship. Gandha enables the experience of smell, while the earth element enables smell to be experienced in the body. The nose is the vehicle through which the gandha tanmatra manifests, so it is considered to be the sense organ of earth.

Through consumption and defecation, the balance of earth in the body is regulated. This makes the rectum the organ of action associated with earth. Disorders of the ability to smell are the result of vitiation of earth in the body.

A person who demonstrates a strong earth element is someone who is methodical, reliable, stable, and perhaps stubborn.

In the evolution of elements, ether is the subtlest of all. As ether becomes active it evolves into air. Ether and air give fire the space and capacity to burn. Fire causes the air to become dense and form water. This process continues until water gives us the earth element.

Hence, we see that in each evolution from one element to the next, nature becomes denser. All elements are born of the ether element and are contained in the earth element.

Reference Links:

  • https://www.ayurvedacollege.com/book/export/html/560
  • https://blog.pureindianfoods.com/ayurvedic-doshas/
  • http://www.ayurvedaamritvani.com/pancha-mahabhutas—five-great-elements.html