The concept of Panchamahabhuta (Five elements) is the foundation of Ayurveda to understand its physiology (normal functioning), pathology (disease formation) & pharmacokinetics (movement of drug within the body) .
Ayurveda believes that everything in this universe is made up of five basic elements. These five elements are earth (prithvi), water (jal), fire (Agni or tej), air (Vayu) and ether or space (akash) and collectively they are termed as Panchmahabhuta.
These are the minutest elements, which constitute living and non-living matters. Every thing, including drugs, herbs and living beings are made of these basic elements. Every matter contains all of these five elements. Depending on the predominance of the content, the matter is classified as Parthiva, Apya, Taijasa, Vayaviya and Akashiya( With predominance of earth, water, fire, air and space respectively). The permutation and combination of these elements and its quantity in a given matter determines its properties.
Ayurveda understands body, mind and spirit likewise. It divides the constitution of people into three categories—Vata (ether/air), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water/earth). These are three basic energies or life forces that are the biological deriVataives of the five elements and they govern all the function and structure of the body or its existence as a whole.
Evolution of Matter
Mahabhuta is the smallest divisible part of any matter. Akash Mahabhuta is the space without which matter cannot exist. Its main sense attribute is Sound (Shabda) and Nonresistance (Apratighatatwa) is its main property.
Vayumahabhuta evolved from Akashamahabhuta. Touch (Sparsha)is its chief sense attribute and as it is evolved from Akasha it also inherits attribute of sound (Shabda). Chalatwa or movability is its chief property.
Agnimahabhoota evolves next from Vayumahabhoota. The main sense attribute of Agni is Vision (Roop) and the chief property is heat (Ushnatwa). It also inherits the sense attributes of sound(Shabda) and touch (Sparsha) from the Akash and Vayu Mahabhuta respectively.
The next Mahabhuta to evolve from Agnimahabhoota isAapamahabhuta (Jalmahabhuta). Taste (Rasa) is its main sense attribute and liquidity (DraVatawa) is the chief property, along with that inherited from earlier Mahabhuta. The last to evolve isPrithwimahabhuta. Roughness (Kharatwa ) is the chief property andSmell (Gandha) is the main sense of this Mahabhoota besides properties inherited from the earlier once.
|Mahabhuta / Element||Chief sense attribute||Chief Property|
|Space / Ether/ Akash||Shabda||Apratighatatwa|
|Air / Vayu||Shabda, Sparsha||Chalatwa / Mobility|
|Fire /Agni||Shabda, Sparsha, Roop||Ushnatwa/ Heat|
|water/Jal||Shabda, Sparsha, Roop, Rasa||DraVatawa /Liquidity.|
|Earth/ Prithvi||Shabda, Sparsha, Roop, Rasa, Gandha||Kharatwa/ Roughness|
Ether Akash is not synonymous with the sky. It can be something similar to Space. All the body channels, pores or empty spaces symbolizes Ether or space.
Air is the gaseous form of matter which is mobile and dynamic. Conceptually anything that moves or transported does so because of this Mahabhuta. In living beings this Mahabhuta is a major constituent of Vata dosha which is responsible for movements like that of motor or sensory nerve impulses, food through G.I.T, movements of the joints etc. Vayu or air follows Akash in the hierarchy of creation.
Fire possess power to transform the state of any substance. In living beings, Agni Mahabhoota is the major constituent of biological humor Pitta dosha. It is responsible for biotransformation. This Agni provides the energy required for all activities in our body. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can be converted from one form to another. We derive energy from the food we eat. Biological Agni transforms the energy in the food to the energy, which can be utilized by our cells. The vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats etc. we consume, are biotransformed by this Agni to the substances that can be utilized by our body. All the activities in body are performed smoothly as long as this Agni is in balance. Any disturbance in this Agni causes imbalance in the homeostasis and disturbs functioning. Ayurvedic therapeutics is entirely based on this concept of Agni. The branch of Ayurveda which deals in internal medicine and treatment is known as “Kaya chikitsa”,where Kaya means Agni and Chikitsa means treatment. Ayurvedic therapeutics focuses on rectification and maintenance of biological Agni.
Water symbolizes the liquid state. Our blood, lymph, and other fluids bringing energy, carrying away wastes, regulating temperature, bringing disease fighters, and carrying hormones from one area to another.
Evolution of Aapamahabhoota follows that of Agnimahabhuta. Sense of taste (Rasa) is its chief sense attribute and liquidity (DraVatawa) is the main property. Apa Mahabhuta is the main constituent of the biological humor Kapha dosha. This Mahabhuta brings and keeps things together. Conceptually all biological and chemical are feasible because of this Mahabhuta.
Earth represents the solid state of matter. It symbolizes stability, permanence and rigidity. In our body, the parts such as bones, teeth, cells and tissue indicate earth element. The last in the series to evolveis Prithvi Mahabhuta. Sense of smell (Gandha) is its main sense attribute and Roughness (Kharatwa) is its basic property.
These five elements are the basic building blocks of matter. They are combined in an infinite variety of relative proportions such that each form of matter is unique. Each element has a variety of attributes, only some get apparent in a particular situations.
A single living cell is a unique combination of these five elements- the earth element gives structure to the cell. The water element is present in the cytoplasm or the liquid within the cell membrane. The metabolic processes being carried out in the cell symbolize the fire element. The gaseous exchange taking place symbolizes the air element. The space occupied by the cell symbolizes the Space or ether element. The pores or channels through which nutrition reaches the cell and the waste metabolic products that are formed are excreted out denotes the space element.
In the case of a complex, multi-cellular organism as a human being , spaces within the body (mouth, nostrils, abdomen etc.) denotes the ether or space element; the gases and the impulses or movements denote the air element; The functioning of enzymes (intelligence, digestive system, metabolism) denotes the fire element; All body fluids (as plasma, saliva, digestive juices) denotes the water element; Solid structure of the body (bones, teeth, flesh, hair etc.) denotes the earth element.