The Five Elements
Translated as Akasha in Sanskrit, meaning all-pervading, omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, Ether is the space where the Universe takes place, the field upon which all things are seen or unseen. Ether is the first element and it can be thought of as the space provided for the other elements and their infinite combinations to exist in. The qualities of ether are clear, light, subtle, soft and immeasurable. It is associated with expansion and nonresistance.
Translated as Vayu in Sanskrit, Air governs all movement in the Universe. It is the flow of consciousness from one cell to another in the body leading to the notion of prana, the vital life force that moves intelligence around the body. Sensory stimuli and synaptic responses are subtle movements of prana, blood circulation and moving one’s arms, legs are more gross aspects of Vayu. The qualities of air are mobile, light, dry, cold, rough and clear.
Where there is movement, there is friction, which creates fire, also known as Agni. All processes of transformation are governed by the fire element from metabolic conversions of food into tissues to the digestion of information during learning. The doors of perception, the ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose, each have a degree of the fire element so we can “digest” the input and make those perceptions into knowledge. Fire is also carried throughout the body as blood and nerve impulses. The attributes of fire are hot, sharp, light, dry and subtle.
When fire heats things, they melt, creating the water element. Translated as Apas from Sanskrit, water is the universal chemical solvent and all biochemical processes are governed by it. Without water, there is no taste. The lymph and plasma are the rasa or water of the body. In the medium of water, all the elements maintain their function. The qualities of water are cool, liquid, dull, soft, oily and slimy.
When water congeals, it creates Earth or Pruthivi in Sanskrit. Earth, not surprisingly, is the solid, dense and hard element and is necessary for all things manifest in the universe. All solid structures in the body such as bones, teeth, and cartilage are governed by the Earth element. The attributes of Earth are heavy, dull, static, dense, hard and gross.
The Five Great Elements or The Pancha Maha Bhutus
All things manifest in the universe can be described on the basis of what the Rishis called the Pancha Maha Bhutus or The Five Great Elements. These are not elements as we think of them in chemistry. Instead, it is helpful to think of the qualities or attributes of these “elements” when deciding the elemental makeup of a person or thing.
The Doshas and the Tridoshic Theory
According to Ayurveda, the entire universe is an interplay of the Pancha Maha Bhutus; Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Ayurveda further subdivides the five elements into three basic functional principles that are present in all things and all beings. These principles are called Doshas and the Sanskrit translation is “fault” or “impurity,” although that notion is somewhat misleading. The Vedic texts use the word Dosha to define a specific set of traits and characteristics. When the Doshas are of the right amount and the right quality, they help maintain a balanced individual. When they increase, decrease or move from their homes in the body, then dis-ease is experienced. It is through the Doshas that the body experiences The Five Great Elements. Vata conveys the energy of movement and self-expression, Pitta conveys the energy of transformation and Kapha conveys the energy of lubrication and structure.
Vata is composed of the Air and Ether elements and represents the subtle energy that governs all movement in and of the body. It governs movement of the limbs, self-expression, and movement of food, nutrients and thoughts. In balance, Vata predominant people are creative and enthusiastic for life. They have lots of friends and life dramas. Most artists are of a Vata nature, creating things for others to enjoy. Out of balance, Vata produces fear, anxiety and worry in the mind and abnormal physical movements in the body. The qualities of Vata are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile and clear.
Composed of Fire and Water, Pitta governs all transformational processes in the body. The digestion, absorption and assimilation of food, the transformation of information in to knowledge in the mind, and the transformation of images we see into information are all processes governed by Pitta dosha. In Balance, Pitta promotes intelligence and understanding. Out of balance, Pitta brings out anger, hatred, jealousy and disorders involving inflammation. The qualities of Pitta are hot, sharp, light, oily and flowing.
Composed of Earth and Water, Kapha governs all forms of structure in the body. Kapha lubricates the skin and the joints as well as the mind and maintains one’s immunity. In balance, Kapha is expressed as love, calmness and forgiveness. Out of balance, Kapha leads to attachment, greed and conditional love as well as disorders of congestion. The qualities of Kapha are heavy, slow/dull, cool, oily, slimy, dense, static, cloudy and gross.
In order to better understand the Doshas, we must understand their elemental makeup and the attributes or gunas of each Dosha.
Understanding the elemental makeup and the gunas (qualities and attributes) of the doshas allows for treatment of excess or deficient doshas. The principles for treatment are quite simple:
- Like increases like
- We reduce a dosha using the principle of opposites
- Qualities opposite to the vitiated dosha are used to bring that dosha in to balance
Simply put, if something is too hot, we cool it down; if something is too dry, we find a way to lubricate or demulcify it. On paper, this sounds easy and for simple wayward doshic imbalances, treatment is often times very straight-forward. On the other hand, when the doshas have been out of balance for long periods of time, they tend to make new homes in other places of the body forming infections, tumors, damaged nerves, etc. Treating more complicated situations where multiple doshas are deranged takes more time and devotion to the practices that pacify the doshas. The practices encompass diet, lifestyle, and sometimes herbal supplementation. The openings to the body are through the five senses; sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, and it is through these that Ayurveda brings treatment to the client. The practices and protocols encourage self-care and teach the client how to tell when their doshas are becoming aggravated so we can take the appropriate corrective action before hard and fast disease takes hold.
Ayurveda is the ancient science of health and healing given to us by India. Many scholars believe Ayurveda to be the oldest healing science on the planet. Ayus is Sanskrit for Life and veda means knowledge, thus Ayurveda is the Knowledge of Life. This knowledge is indeed a true science. One definition of the word Science is
“knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”
This definition describes Ayurveda accurately; it is a logic system that when applied properly, can give predicted outcomes to human health.
In the ancient texts, Ayurveda is much more than a simple predictive science; Ayurveda as a whole, deals with the scope, nature, and purpose of life and this includes both physical and metaphysical aspects such as health and disease and happiness and suffering. According to Ayurveda, life is the conjunction of body, mind and spirit of the Universal Consciousness and our main purpose for maintaining our health is so we can devote more time in knowing the Creator and to express our true nature as Divine Spirit in our daily living.