The five Tattvas, or Pancha-mahabhuta, are the foundations of our cosmos and therefore principles of our existence. The essence of life is both created and maintained by the Tattvas. Therefore, these aspects make up the entirety of the universe, including humans.
We are composed of these elemental Tattvas before we take our human form and will return to them once we leave our bodies. These are ether (akasha), air (vayu), water (jala), fire (agni), and earth (prithvi).
In this article, we will be looking at:
- History Of The Tattvas
- What The Tattvas Are
- The Mahabhutas in Ayurveda
- How to Balance the Mahabhutas
history of the Tattvas
To understand the importance of the Tattvas to yoga, it is best to start with a discussion around Samkhya.
Samkhya philosophy is a one of the 6 systems of Hindu and Indian philosophy explaining how our entire manifest reality emerges from consciousness (Shiva). Some believe that it even pre-dates the Vedas and Upanishads.
Amongst many other things, such as the three gunas, it gives us an understanding of the relationships that each of the material elements of the universe (Tattvas) have to one another. In Samkhya, there are 25 Tattvas in total.
There are 5 Tattvas that sit independently and 4 groups of Tattvas, consisting of 5 each:
- Purusha (soul/consciousness/Shiva),
- Prakriti (original nature/unmanifest),
- Mahat (buddhi/intellect),
- Ahamkara (ego/manifest),
- The five karmendriyas (organs of action),
- The five jnanendriyas (organs of sense),
- The five tanmatras (senses),
- The five mahabhutas (elements).
Yoga expands on this, focusing on how once we understand both our inner (mind) and outer (world) reality, we can understand the root from which everything has emerged and find our origination point.
Since this is consciousness itself, we achieve union with Shiva (eternal consciousness).
Samkhya philosophy is embedded throughout all of Hinduism, not just within Yoga. Indeed, many concepts discussed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are thought to have originated from Samkhya.
The deep and inseparable connection that both Samkhya and Yoga have means that they can essentially be thought of as one, the terms could be used interchangeably.
In other words, those who follow Samkhya are yogis and, similarly, yogis embody Samkhya because it is the basis of yoga philosophy.
Kashmir Shaivism further expands on the Tattvas, naming 11 more – making the total 36.
These elements are worshipped as if they are human because God is present within them, just as Gaia is the personification & Goddess of the earth in Greek mythology, for example. As we are composed of these elements, we are continually bound by and subject to them.
What are the five tattvas?
1. Akasha (Ether)
The subtlest of all the elements and so, naturally, the most complicated to understand. It is the field in which energy and matter have unlimited potential, it has no limits – all matter is created from and ultimately returned to this state.
Ether is the first creation of the divine and imparts a connection to the Supreme.
It brings a vastness and openness to our experience of the world. It is also present in our bodies, amazingly, 99.9% of our bodies are empty space! If space, or akasha, were to be removed from our bodies, we would fit merely ‘into a particle of dust’.
Each of the elements has a chakra, sense, and sense organ associated with them. Akasha is the vishudh (throat chakra) and the sense of sound.
2. Vayu (Air)
Essentially, this is life in motion; it is freedom, movement, and expansion. Present in our body as prana, we can master this element through the practice of pranayama.
We can treat this element as our teacher or inner guru. To make this idea more tangible, reflect on how we treat the air element in our body and how this determines our interactions with the life around us.
Do we rush through life, fearful that we must make the most of our time before our prana runs out? How is this different from our very first breath, were we born with a fear that we only have a limited amount of air, or did we allow the air to flow with intuition and ease?
You can see how our relationship with air governs how we experience the world.
It’s associated with the anahat (heart chakra) and the sense of touch.
3. Jala (Water)
A powerful force that carries energy and allows it to flow throughout the body and universe. Water makes up 60% of our bodies and is more obvious in the natural world, showing up as lakes, seas, rivers, and so on.
More subtly, it represents both our conscious and subconscious emotions. It is loving, soothing, and healing but the depth of water also has the ability to make us so ‘damp’ that we lose our resilience.
Jala is associated with the swadhisthana (sacral chakra) and taste.
4. Agni (Fire)
Fire is the element of transformation, energy, and passion; a Tattva which burns brightly to expose the truth or the ‘light’. It is the fire of kundalini and a force that helps to sustain life, such as the sun in our solar system.
In our bodies, this is the metabolism that digests nutrients to keep us alive and healthy.
It is represented through our manipura (solar plexus chakra), the center of inner fire, and sight.
5. Prithvi (Earth)
The element that makes all life possible, holding all life on its surface as well as making up our bones, muscles, hair, ligaments, and other structural parts of us that allow us to function practically as human bodies.
It is dense and gives things form, stability and solidity; prithvi allows consciousness to interact within and on its strong structure.
Without the body, for example, we would not be aware of our own consciousness (ether) and we would certainly not have a vessel for food to be digested (agni). This is why practices such as tantra see the body as a vehicle for liberation.
Earth resides in the muladhara (root chakra) and its sense is smell.
|Tattva (Mahabhuta)||Sense (Tanmatra)||Sense Organ (Jnanendriya)||Finger|
|Akasha (Space/Ether)||Sound||Ear||Middle (Saturn) Finger|
|Vayu (Air)||Touch||Skin||Index (Jupiter) Finger|
|Jala (Water)||Taste||Tongue||Little (Mercury) Finger|
|Prithvi (Earth)||Smell||Nose||Ring (Sun) Finger|
In sum, if earth is the body, fire is intelligence, air is awareness, water is the mind, and ether is consciousness.
the five tattvas & Ayurveda
As you can see, each Tattva is present not just throughout the universe, but in all of our bodies too.
The differentiation in these mahabhutas is what creates the tridoshas, making up the constitution of every individual. Ayurveda is based around harmonizing these three doshas:
Dominated by akasha and vayu
Dominated by agni
Dominated by jala and prithvi
Applying Ayurvedic principles to your lifestyle aims to balance these doshas and thus avoid disease, which is a Tattva imbalance.
Issues that may be caused by a lack of harmony between these elements might include:
Ayurveda & Ether
This would include diseases in which space has taken over parts of the body that are supposed to have structure or earth. An example of this would be Parkinson’s, where space has invaded former substance.
It could also lead to problems with the ear or voice since ether is the place in which vibration originates.
Ayurveda & Vayu
Excess vayu can lead to dryness throughout the body, such as in the skin, or cracking of joints. Mentally, we can experience anxiety, overwhelm or stress if we have an imbalance of Vata dosha. This is down to the feeling of being ungrounded from having too much air in our bodies or minds.
Ayurveda & Jala
This one may be easier to guess – excess water in the system can lead to a lot of sweating or bodily fluids. This may also show up as feeling like you have symptoms of a cold or flu, such as having a runny nose, congestion or blocked sinuses, or watery eyes.
Ayurveda & Agni
Being directly linked to fire, you may also be able to conclude how this imbalance shows up. It can be in the form of inflammation, overheating, hot flashes, irritated skin, or excessive thirst. In the mind, it can be having a tendency to be controlling or aggressive, impatient, short-tempered, or an overthinker.
Ayurveda & Prithvi
A lack of the earth element could lead to brittle bones, conditions such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, or weak teeth/tooth decay.
Surplus prithvi may result in obesity or conditions such as kidney stones in which there is an excess of substance or hard form within the body.
Balancing the five tattvas
Kirtan Kriya Variation
This meditation works with the five elements using the fingers, as displayed in the table above. It is using the chant ‘Sa Ta Na Ma’.
1. Sit in a comfortable seated posture such as sukhasana
2. Place the hands in gyan mudra (thumbs and index finger touching)
3. Either silently or out loud, begin to chant ‘Sa’ on the exhale. On the next exhale, chant ‘Ta’, touching the middle finger to the thumb. Repeat ‘Na’ and ‘Ma’, touching the ring and little finger to the thumb, respectively. You can repeat this chant internally or play it out loud using a track such as this
4. Practice for up to 11 minutes, but no longer than this
5. To end, inhale and hold the breathe for around 15 seconds, making fists with the hands. Exhale through the mouth and release the fists
Asana For The Mahabhutas
The five element Tattvas show up not only in our world but also in our bodies and minds, if this was not the case then life would not exist!
The elements of air and ether give lightness, consciousness, and fluidity to the elements of fire, water, and earth. The latter provides the foundations and support system upon which our awareness can play and flourish.
Remembering this, and honoring the mahabhutas as such, allows us to make those elements, and all aspects of life, a sacred practice.