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The Five Element Theory - Panchamahabhutas

Earth, and everything on it, is the product of different combinations of the five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. It should be noted that the names of these elements are actually representative categories. Everything found on Earth can be classified into one of these five categories, based on their innate characteristics. The word "element" is not used as a name or label for each individual natural element, in the manner that the modern scientific periodic table uses it.

Just as chemistry and physics use specific technical terms to classify matter, Ayurveda uses the characteristics of the five elements (pancha mahabhutas) to identify various objects. If something is classified as "fire" it does not mean that it is literally a fire. It means that the object displays the characteristics of fire, like combustion, heat and so on. Similarly, if an item is classified as "water" or "earth" it means it is moist, cool and sticky or heavy, solid and stable.

In Ayurveda, the place in which to determine the elements around us is not a science laboratory, but the human body. We use our senses of hearing, taste, touch, sight and smell to identify the surrounding elements and their qualities. The pancha mahabhutas theory may sound simplistic, but it is actually a very sophisticated method of classifying not only all of the objects found on Earth but also the natural cycles experienced on it like days, seasons and life itself. This is because the elements dominate at particular times, depending on the conditions experienced and observed.

For example, the human lifecycle is divided into childhood, where physical growth takes place (water and earth), adulthood where activity and change occur (fire), and old age where mobility becomes impaired and the body begins to weaken (space and air). The year is divided into four seasons – winter when it is cold and rainy (water, earth); spring when new growth occurs and it becomes warmer (water, fire); summer when it is hot and dry (fire, air); and autumn when it is windy and cool (air and space).

Understood and applied correctly, such a system of classification becomes a powerful method for considering the way man interacts with his environment. The elegance of this science lies in the simplicity of the basic concepts, and the powerful analytical tool they provide for internal (body-mind) and external (environmental) assessment.

The elements (mahabhutas) have certain qualities, attributes and impacts on the body and mind. All objects and substances are a mixture of the five elements, but they have one dominant element that allows them to be identified and classified. Examples of food and herbs are used to illustrate the elemental groups.

Characteristics of Elements

Space (Akash)
- soft, light, subtle and abundant.
Action - provides room, looseness, openness
Facilitates - sound and non-resistance
Substance - anything that is light, profuse, and ethereal
Example - hollow and light foods – popcorn, wafers
Intake - increases softness and lightness in the body

Air ( Vayu)
Qualities - weightless, mobile, cool, dry, porous and subtle
Action - motion or movement, evaporation, dryness
Facilitates - touch and vibration.
Substance - anything dry and airy, or that creates gas
Example - toast, cookies, cabbage, beans
Intake - increases coolness, dryness, movement and circulation

Fire (Agni or Tejas)
Qualities - hot, sharp, dry, subtle, weightless and rough
Action - radiation of heat and light
Facilitates - form, color and temperature
Substance - anything combustible and spicy
Example - chilies, ginger, pepper, clove, cumin
Intake - increases digestion, metabolism (fire and heat), glow and color of skin

Water (Jala or Apa)
Qualities - oily (unctuous), moist, cool, soft, and sticky
Attribute - cohesion, lubrication
Facilitates - fluidity and taste (via saliva)
Substance - anything liquid, fluid or watery
Example - drinks, soups, melons, cucumber
Intake - increases smoothness, coolness, softness and
flow of fluids

Earth (Prithvi)
Qualities - heavy, rough, solid, stable, slow
Attribute - resistance, density
Facilitates - fragrance, odor and shape
Substance - anything solid and heavy
Example - fried foods, cheese, cakes, banana
Intake - increases heaviness, stability, obesity and solidity in the body

Using the characteristics described above, every object around you can be considered and classified. This should be done with the basic understanding that everything is a mixture of different proportions of the elements, some of which may be manifested under different conditions.

For example, even the compound of water itself cannot be considered to have a single fixed elemental nature. When solid and heavy (ice, snow, hail) it is a representation of earth/prithvi. It melts due to the exposure of light and heat - fire/agni. So it returns to water/jala, then evaporates and creates steam due to contact with air/vayu and disappears into space/akasha.

Or taking another of the basic elements listed above, fire/agni initially requires wood (earth/prithvi), paper or dry grass and wind (air/vayu). Generated together they create friction and heat, which combusts to create fire/agni. As the wood or paper is burnt (prithvi engulfed by agni) the heat gradually diminishes and only ash (vayu and akash) remains.

The balance and character of elements in the environment constantly fluctuates and is never static – the temperature (agni), humidity (jala), dryness (vayu) and so on are in a natural state of flux, depending upon the combination and quantity of elements present. Sometimes severe weather results when this combination becomes volatile, unsustainable or extreme – electrical storms, cyclones or hurricanes, floods or drought.

Composition of Human Beings

Humans are one of the many living organisms present on Earth. We are physically made up of exactly the same elements that form all of the other entities that live on Earth. When we die, our bodies return to the earth, water, fire, air and space. A person sustains the combination of elements already present in the body through breathing air and consuming food and liquids - taking in those elements found in the surrounding natural world.

The “five element” theory explains the similarity between humans and the natural world surrounding them. In our body, space/akasha is present wherever there is a cavity like in the nostrils, mouth, ears, throat, lungs, and stomach; air/vayu in movement of the lungs, heart, stomach, intestines and joints; fire/agni in all metabolic activity, the eyes, intelligence and body temperature; water/jala in all plasma, blood, mucus, and saliva; and earth/prithvi in any solid structure like fat, muscles, skin, nails and hair.

The basic elemental compatibility or similarity between Earth and humans clarifies why substances found in the natural world (plants, herbs, foods) are usually harmonious with the human system. They can be easily absorbed and cause no adverse reactions or side effects (if consumed in appropriate quantities) because they are fundamentally the same in character and composition. This is why foods and herbs are able to heal the human body. Vegetation can repair and restructure humans because they share a common elemental basis.


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