Discovering the Dance of the 5 Great Elements of Nature
The ancient Indian sages expressed their vision of the oneness of all life not only through astonishing mystical poetry, but also through a careful, scientific articulation of the principles of the universe. They saw no division between the sacred and the scientific. One of these principles of life is to understand the evolution, qualities, and interaction of pancha mahabhutas, the five great elements.
All humanity, all creatures and vegetation, all matter and atoms, all that can be seen or known in the distant regions of the cosmos or the tiniest microcosm: everything is composed of five elements: akasha (ether), vayu (air), tej (fire), aap (water), and prithvi (earth). Understanding the five elements reveals to us that nature and the universe are not outside us. They are an inseparable part of our existence. They are our extended body.
Though the five great elements have evolved from the subtlest cosmic energy, they are tangible, perceptible, and accessible. They have distinct characteristics, yet they are all interconnected and interdependent. They are the conditions, ingredients, and blessings of our individual and collective lives. The knowledge of their patterns of influence on the way we act, look, and think, as well as on the way we are affected by our environment is worth understanding and living!
Just as the masters of the Vedic tradition perform elaborate rituals in order to become so perfectly aligned with time, space, and the elements of nature that they can transcend them, in a similar way, the Rishis (sages) guide us to understand the pancha mahabhutas and live attentively in harmony with them in order to live in fulfillment of our highest goals.
These five elements evolved sequentially: akasha is space filled with potential, which gives birth to vayu, the first state of matter. As air moves, it creates friction and gives rise to tej – heat and radiance. Fire liquefies matter, producing aap. When liquid evaporates, the solid matter of prithvi remains.
The subtlest element, akasha, or ether, is characterized as unstructured space, emptiness, as a formlessness that subtly vibrates with unmanifest potential. It is subtle and pervasive, and is associated with sound and the sense of hearing. In the body, it expresses itself as porousness, and is associated with spaces: in the mouth, lungs, nose, and abdomen, as well as in the pores and channels. In the mind, it expresses freedom, expanded consciousness, and detachment from worldly entanglements. When disturbed though, these can turn into feelings of isolation, emptiness, and spaciness.
Vayu, or the air element, is characterized by movement and activity. Like the wind, it’s isn’t visible, yet it stirs things up, sets potential in motion, carries things from one place to another, and dries things up. Like the wind, it carries not only sounds, but can be felt by the skin, so it is associated with the sense of touch. Like the wind, the air element is cool. In the body, it stimulates all bodily activities: it propels into action the breath, the beating of the heart, the delivery of ceaseless messages from the senses to the brain, the movement of food through the digestive system, excretion, childbirth, sneezing, speaking, and laughing. It is the organizing principle. In the mind, the air element expresses the flow of thoughts and desires, ideas and excitement, happiness, and creative inspiration. When disturbed, though, the air element can cause anxiety, fear, excessive talking, spinning one’s wheels around ideas, constantly changing one’s mind, and frantic activity.
The fire element, tej, is characterized by radiance and heat. Like a glowing fire that crackles, that is too hot to touch, and illumines everything around it, tej contains both sound and touch, but its special attributes are color, luminosity and form: it’s visible. So tej is associated with the eyes. It lights up the world of forms, as it heats things up, cooks, transforms, illumines, and inspires. In the body, it is the fire of digestion, the warmth of the body, the light in the eyes, the luster and color of the skin, and is deeply tied up with the immune system. Alas, it is also rashes and heartburn. In the mind, it is the light of the intellect, the brilliance of the “brainy,” it is burning motivation, confidence, and the power of quick comprehension. When disturbed, though, the fire element can cause anger, criticism, over-ambition, competitiveness, and the smoldering fire of resentment and hatred.
The water element, aap or jala, is characterized by fluidity, softness and connectivity. Like a flowing stream, it has sounds, it is cool and wet to touch, it has color and form. But its special attribute is taste. Ah, the sweet refreshing taste as you cup your hands and drink from a mountain stream! It liquefies, moistens, binds, purifies, and creates oiliness and heaviness. It is the numerous fluids within the body: plasma, saliva, urine, sweat, spinal fluid, tissue fluid, and tears. It maintains the flow of life. Yet, when it accumulates in excess, it causes edema and obesity, and when it is lacking, causes thirst. In the mind, it manifests as the sweetness of emotions, contentment, love, adaptability, compassion. It is heart connections and devotion. When disturbed, it causes one’s thoughts to be too fluid, too soft and mushy, weepy, over emotional, and lacking in strength and common sense.
The earth element, prithvi, is the grossest, and is characterized by solidity, stability, and heaviness. Like a forest trail, there are sounds, the solid touch of the ground, the colors and forms of the earth and rocks, the taste of the fruits, and the nuts that grow from the earth. But its special attribute is smell. Ah, that comforting, earthy fragrance! The earth element gives strength, structure, protective resistance, and bulk. In the body, it gives rise to everything that has solid form: bones, nails, teeth, hair, cartilage, skin. In the mind it manifests as loyalty, groundedness, supportiveness, forgiveness, nurturing, and growth. The earth element gives the physical and mental stamina to endure and complete difficult work. It gives rise to wisdom: being grounded in knowledge (rather than a flurry of bright ideas.) When disturbed, though, it gives rise to attachment, greed, stubbornness, dullness and depression.
Mahabhutas and Me
I feel that the dominant element in my foundation is prthvi. I love the smell of the earth, the aroma of home, with spicy dishes cooking and incense burning, the fragrance of the garden, the array of smells that you encounter everywhere in India. I love clay pots, walking barefoot on the earth, and digging the ground. I love walking on a forest trail, not on a treadmill. My spirits are quickly rejuvenated through a little gardening, or wandering in nature. The earth element in me wants to make ideas produce tangible results, nurture plans to fruition, and make solid things take form, even if it takes hours and weeks of patient work. On the downside, it can turn to doggedly pursuing something instead of letting it go. And worse, sitting on the couch doing nothing but enjoying the comfort of delicious food and getting fat.
Vayu loves to spin in my mind, tantalizing me with a flurry of fascinating, intriguing, or even disturbing ideas. It paints itself as more exciting than stodgy, boring earth. On the upside, it stirs me to action, and has made me a great multi-tasker. But on the downside, it can get me in a frazzled state, or even spinning in a vortex of anxiety. My best experiences of the power of vayu are when its power organizes and mobilizes a meaningful daily schedule, so its movement is well channeled towards my ideals and to what is beneficial.
Akasha in me says: drop it, spread your wings, and soar. Akasha loves and promotes freedom and space: climb to the top of the hill and spread my arms to take in the expanse before me; unclutter the space that the squirreling, hoarding prithvi has filled up. In hatha yoga, akasha says yes! to the asanas (postures) and pranayamas (breathing exercises) that create openness and expansiveness in the heart region. Akasha expresses itself in me as a love of freedom and detachment, in dreams of flying effortlessly, and in discovering the spaces of freedom within the apparent restrictions of discipline.
I like to think of earth as quietly filled with treasures and nourishment that need the stimulation of tej to be revealed. So I get fired up by chai with lots of ginger, by stimulating conversation and books, and by being in a warm, colorful place. Then, I can get kindled like a tej dominant person: on fire about a cause or an ideal, analyzing and shedding light on ideas and information, lit up with insights – as my cheeks get flushed. Then, I’m reading and analyzing and writing, feeling: Wow! Now I’m really on fire with something amazing. But oh dear, getting very frustrated when people put up too many obstacles.
Meanwhile, aap within me is singing its song: All you need is love. It offers the irresistible nectar of devotion as a sweet alternative to the stimulating world of sexy ideas. It makes me thrive on being connected with and interacting with people, whether for satsangha (gathering around truth and wisdom), or to accomplish things in the world – or just because people are wonderful. When aap and vayu come together, I sing, and devotion surges throughout my being. Unfortunately, when aap and prithvi get together in me in excess, they turn so easily into layers of squishy fat. It all happens while I’m sitting here innocently doing my work at the computer, enchanted with ideas and words.
Yet, it all comes back to prithvi. It’s an identity I’ve resisted, not seeing myself as a cook or a laborer. But prithvi’s riches, I discover, are not confined to these stereotypes.
Last year, I attended a Soma Yajna (a sublime and complex Vedic fire ritual). I was moved not only by the mystical dimension of the rituals and the knowledge that informs its intricate steps, but also by the environment in which it took place: it was an earthy, nature fest! The yajna was held in a large open mandap (pavilion) that allowed the sun and the breeze, the sounds of the cows and the stream to move through it unobstructed. The mandap was constructed with bamboo poles and had a bare floor of reddish earth swept clean. It was sparsely arranged with altars built of clay and coated with cow dung, piles of twigs, and fragrant kindling for the fires, earthen pots, and hand-made wooden utensils, fires kindled through the churning friction of dry wooden implements and prayers, pots of pure ghee, fruits, nuts, leaves, grasses, flowers – all woven together by the melodious chanting of mantras, the fragrant smoke of the yajna fires, and the amazing knowledge in action of the Vedic experts.
This was a grand royal ritual with silver vessels, marble floors and rich piles of mithai (Indian sweets). The grandest moment was when the spry ritualists squatted together on their grass mats to drink freshly pressed soma juice from chunky, wooden ladles, smiling with delight, mantras resounding in celebration and awe. I was so immeasurably happy sitting there, absorbed and delighted. All that earthiness wove together the other elements in a way that created heaven for me.