The Panca-maha-bhutas as the underlying principle in Philosophy, Religion, Aesthetics and Medicine

by Dr.Anand Amaladass
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The five basic elements – known as Pancamahabhutas – have their own history in the Indian (both Hindu and Buddhist) literature. They are discussed in different philosophical systems, interpreted thematically in different contexts such as religion, aesthetics, ecology, astrology etc. The basic concept implied here is harmony, interconnections between Religion, philosophy and medicine.  Here an attempt is made to consider the healing power of the five elements as it is portrayed in the Vedic hymns and in the Oyurvedic science and then show the five-basic-elements as the underlying principle in religion, aesthetics and medicine.

Pancamahabhutas – the five elements- what are they?

According to the Samkhya Philosophy the five elements which constitute our environment are the evolutes of the Prakriti. They are distinctive elaborations of the primeval energy. Every element has its own form and location, but all are interconnected and interdependent. The Taittiriya Upanishad says: From Brahman arises space (akasha), from space arises air (vayu), from air arises fire (tejas), from fire arises water (apaH) and from water arises earth (prthvi). After creation Brahman enters into the universe as its life and consciousness. That explains the relation between the humans and the natural world. In the Maitrayani Upanishad it is stated that the three-quartered Brahman has its roots above and its branches below; the branches are earth, water, fire, air and space.  According to Bhagavadgita (7,4-5) the primordial nature is eight-fold: the five elements plus the intelligence (buddhi), the ego-sense (ahamkara) and the mind (manas).

Three concepts are interlinked in this context: religion, philosophy and healing. All these three speak of the five basic elements. Indian (as well as Greek) Medicine is derived from philosophy and both are linked to religion. All wisdom traditions seem to presume that medicine without religion does not heal and it is no longer medicine. Religion without medicine does not save and it is no longer religion. We shall come back to this idea later.

The healing powers of the five elements in the Vedic Vision


Vedic India considered all medicines to be derived from three sources: heaven, earth and waters. (RV 1.34.6) Water was considered to be an important element for the cure of the internal diseases like ketriya, rapas and amva. So in the healing rites water was consecrated with the following formulaic verse: “The waters [are] indeed medicinal; the waters [are] the amva-dispellers [and] the waters [are] medicines for every [disease]. [Therefore,] let them be medicine for you.” [1]

The waters are said to protect the body (RV 1.23.21) and carry away evil (RV 1.23.22). They are praised as more healing than the healers (AVS 19.2.3) and are said to contain immortal medicine, brought by a chariot known as Matali and put into them by Indra (AVS 11.6.23)

AVS 6.24 is the only complete hymn in the Atharva Veda which focuses on the healing properties of water. It was recited primarily by the patient and its aim was the eradication of the various internal diseases and symptoms:

“Indeed may the divine waters, [which] flow forth from the Himavant [and form] a confluence somewhere in the Sindhu, bestow on me that medicine against hrddyota (chest-pain). (1)

May the waters, best healers among healers, eradicate all that which has afflicted [me] in my two eyes, in [my] two heels and in the front of [my] two feet. (2)

You, who are all the rivers which have Sindhu as mistress and queen, bestow on us the medicine for that [disease; and] by means of it may we gain your benefit.” (3) [2]

The waters possess an integral reality, and thus they have healing power (RV X. 137,6). Purification is their first anthropocosmic function. Waters convey divine energy but they are not the divine principle. The latapatha Brahmana says that they were produced out of vac the word: the first element of the first “principle”. (SB VI. 1.1.9). “They bring life, but they can also be lethal; they purify but they can also be muddy; what is more ambivalent than the waters, which on the one hand you cannot live without, while on the other hand they may unexpectedly flood the land and drown you?”. [3]

O Waters, stored with healing balm,

Through which my body safe will be,

Come, that I  may see the sun. (7)

Whatever sin is found in me,

Whatever wrong I may have done,

if I have lied or falsely sworn,

Waters, remove it far from me.”(8) [4]

Earth: (prthvi)

The relation of man to the earth is very complex. Earth is not simply nature, it is not merely material. It is part of man himself. Man stands on the earth and earth is the mother of man, but man is also lord over earth. So the tension between them remains. Earth is an object of worship and awe, and not of exploitation.

Earth is a cosmic power, the receiver of prayers and the bestower of blessings, the protector and the inscrutable judge. She is the dwelling place of all living creatures. There is only one hymn in the Rig Veda addressed to prthvi, the earth, though she is praised in several hymns conjointly with the sky, dyu. (RV 1.185; RV 1.160). These two are called father and mother, not only of terrestrial creatures but of the gods also. Atharva Veda has the famous Prayer to the Earth (XII,1). It is called Bhumi Sukta, not prthvi.

“Heaven and earth and the space in between

have set me in a wide expanse!

Fire, the sun, the waters, the gods,

have joined to give me inspiration (53)

O Earth, O Mother, dispose my lot

In gracious fashion that I be at ease.

In Harmony with all the powers of Heaven

set me, O Poet, in grace and good fortune.!” (63) [5]

Wind (vayu)

In Rigveda the wind is named vayu or vata. What is said of the wind could also be said of the spirit. The wind is connected with the primordial waters, is called the first born, and it is said to be of unknown origin; for nobody knows where it goes and where it comes from: it wanders free, is heard but not seen, invisible can only be felt, experienced, sensed, without being comprehended or understood. The wind holds the gift of eternal life; it is the bestower of the life-principle, the seed of life.

“Breathe, o Wind, your healing breezes,

Blow away evil. You are the medicine

Of this whole world, the messenger of the Gods.” (RV X.137,3)

“May the Wind breathe healing upon us,

prolong our life-span,

and fill our hearts with comfort!

You are our father, O wind,

our friend ad our brother,

give us life that we may live.

From that immortal treasure, O Lord,

Which is hidden in your abode,

impart to us that we may live.” [6]

Space (akasha)

akasha is the generic term for space, the subtlest and most pervasive of the five basic elements. “It manifests itself as gravitational force. It represents openness, brightness, expansiveness and the fullness of blooming capacity”. [7] At Chidambaram in Tamilnadu, South India, space is worshiped as a manifestation of the Divine. It is said that God Siva lives there in the form of akasha or sky. The devotees have a peep at the roof, when the priest lifts the screen. Mahakasha is infinite space. Loka is the perceptible space and it sustains people.

An Upanishadic dialogue on the last foundation of everything ends with the affirmation that “space is the final goal”. [8] This space is identified with the Brahman and is stated outside and inside man (purusha). This akasha lies within the heart of man (antar-hrdayam-akasha) and constitutes this fullness (purnam). [9] “It means that space is neither a purely objective nor a purely subjective reality. There are no things without space and there is no space without things. If we consider only physical space we are making the common scientific statement that there are no bodies without space and no space without bodies.” [10]

Fire (Agni)

Sun, lightning, and fire are forms of his element. The lustrous dawn (Ushas) and the glorious orb of the sun (Surya) are its expressions. The friendly aspect of the sun is personified as Mitra. He is the stimulator of life (Pusan). Sacrificial smoke purifies sky (space) and air. The poet-seer prays in the Rigveda (1.1): “O Agni, like a father to his son, be thou easy of access to us; be with us for our welfare.” The divine sun is worshiped in India since ancient times. The Gayatri Mantra is addressed to the sun god. This worship purifies the intellect and the environment. “We meditate upon the glorious splendor of the vivifier divine. May he himself illumine our minds”. [11]

Ayurveda – the knowledge of life

Healing is the common goal in this pursuit. Health is defined in Ayurveda as follows: “Balanced dosha (humors), healthy agni, a good state of tissues and heir metabolic and end-products lead to a balanced state of the senses, mind and spirit all of which lead to health”. [12] The basic philosophy of Ayurveda is based on the five elements theory. From this theory evolves the concept of the controlling forces or the doshas which act on the tissues, the dhatus, giving rise to various metabolic products, i.e. mala. An important concept of Ayurveda is that each individual is genetically different – this gives him or her a very specific constitution (prakrti) and also a very individual way of interacting with the environment. [13]

The three humors (doshas) are wind (vata, vayu), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha, shleshman) which on analogy with the humors of the Hippocratic and Galenic systems [14] were vitiating forces in the body. When something called a nidana, ‘primary cause’, which could be of climatic, organic or less commonly, demonic origin, acted upon the humors, an imbalance occurred, bringing about the manifestation of disease. The principle aim of the physician was to recognize which humor or humors were out of balance and to re-establish the equilibrium through allopathic treatments which usually included drugs with opposite qualities, diet and daily regimen, although surgery was also sometimes recommended. [15]

It is said that all the sense faculties are made of all the five elements. Though all the five elements are present in all the five sense faculties, each sense faculty is dominated by one element. For example visual sense faculty is dominated by tejas and as such it is known as taijas. Such is the case with all the other sense faculties as well. (Caraka Samhita, 8,14). Then the physical properties of the five elements are described (CS. XXVI, 11). And it is also said that there is nothing in the world which does not have therapeutic utility in appropriate conditions and situations. (CS XXVI, 12).

The Caraka Samhita asserts that the Ayurveda is the Veda alongside the classical four Vedas and more than an upanga or appendix to the Atharva Veda, since it offers the foundations for the “good life” in this world and the next. According to this text there are four kinds of life; happy (shukha), unhappy (dukha), good life (hita) and bad (ahita). Medicine takes all four into account. Moksha, liberation or salvation in the broadest  sense, is the aim sought both by medicine and religion. [16]

Health means equilibrium, harmony between the three factors (dhatu) – air, bile and phlegm – as well as the five elements. When the proportion is right (svamana), there is health. The purpose of the Ayurveda is to attain harmony, dhatu-samya, between all the factors that compose human life. What counts is the equilibrium between the diverse constituents, not that they be good or bad. Everything that exists is good, although the proportion can be noxious. “The Ayurvedic conception believes in the possibility of restoring harmony between the material and the spiritual, between the individual and the collective, between the world and the other. Ayurveda intends to collaborate toward that equilibrium.”[17]

In fact Panikkar has summed up insightfully in his formulation how medicine and religion go hand in hand in all wisdom traditions of the world. “Medicine without religion does not heal, it is no longer medicine; religion without medicine does not save, it is no longer religion. What combines both is the dharmic attitude, joining the whole with the body, a cosmic order to which the individual must adjust beyond all other moral conflict. Whoever perturbs this order harms himself/herself. Dharma is the very texture of the universe. It is the web whose knots are the people themselves.” [18]

That is one of the reasons why in all religious traditions the healing aspect is attributed to the all the founders of religions. Buddha appears as a great doctor whose teaching is considered medicine against all sickness like the three poisons – avarice, anger, hatred. Similar complex ideas, metaphors and images and narratives could be identified – Christ the Healer-motive, Zarathustra as medical doctor, Thomas Mani as doctor, Laotze as dispenser of the elixir of immortality. [19]

Aesthetics and the five elements

The sense of beauty in aesthetics has to do with harmony, proportion, equilibrium. The Lord of dance (Nataraja) embodies a series of apparent contradictions, reconciling the oppositions between perpetual motion and eternal stasis, creation and destruction, reality and illusion. Siva’s dance has been arrested at a point of perfect equilibrium and he is surrounded by symbols of universal continuity –fire, water, space and time. All of Siva’s traditional activities are represented in the symbolic design of this icon: creation, destruction, preservation, veiling and liberation. The small drum that Siva’s uplifted right hand represents the akasha – audible space that fills the universe – which according to Taittiriya Upanishad is the first evolute from the universal soul (3.6), which causes sound to issue forth at the first moment of creation.

The benedictory verse from Kalidasa’s Sakuntalam invokes Siva’s blessings on the performance by praising his octo-form nature and suggesting that the performing arts of India should be viewed as instruments of sacrifice, a sacrifice bringing unseen benefits to all who participate and all who bear witness. Siva’s eight forms – water, fire, audible space, earth, air, the sun, the moon and the person of the sacrificer – encompass the whole reality of nature (5.1). [20]

In fact there are five temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in South India representing the five elements: Kalahasti near Tirupati for Vayustalam; Chidambaram for space – akashastalam; Kanchipuram for earth- prthvistalam; Tiruvannamalai for Agni (arunachalam); and Tiruvanaikaval for water Jambukeshvarar.

The general notion of beauty which emerges from a large number of Sanskrit verbal roots express a few fundamental ideas – to shine, be pleased, resound, appear, and enjoy – carutvam, lavanyam, chaya, rupam, kanta, shobha, saundaryam, etc. Taken together they suggest an idea that Plato would have endorsed – that “beauty is an epiphany, a manifestation of the light of creation to the senses, bringing the taste of delight and a glimpse of the ultimate in sensible, graspable form.” [21]

Are the basic elements deities (devatas)?

What are the generic terms applied to the basic components of the world in the early upanishadic teachings? In Uddalaka’s instruction, they are called “deities” (devata; Cha. Up. 6.3.3, 4, 7) and this term, which points to a continuing mythologization of macrocosmic powers, is also found elsewhere in relevant contexts. In the introductory cosmogony of the Aitareyopanishad, the self (atman), the single and unique initial entity, first creates the three cosmic strata with the waters beneath earth as the fourth, and then man as the world’s protector. The self incubated him and when his mouth burst asunder like an egg speech arose from it, and from speech arose fire (agni). By the same process, breathing and wind (vayu), then the quarters (disah), then water (apaH). The basic components of the world thus arise from man’s vital faculties, which originate from their respective organs or body parts. Collectively, they are subsequently called deities ‘devatas’, when the author narrates how they required a basis in which to establish themselves. [22]

Later the Mimamsakas raise the question: what is devata? labara in his commentary on Jaiminiya Sutra answers: “Deities are those to whom hymns are addressed (suktabhak) and recipients of offerings (Havirbhak)”. [23] The devata that is usually mentioned in labara Bhåshya is in connection with the performance of sacrifices and thereby belongs to the reality in which we live. labara rejects strongly any human experience of a devata. He demythologizes those statements made in the Smrti texts and known by custom and indicate texts which pretend to speak about a certain behavior or qualities of the devata, such as eating habits, rewarding people with wealth and strength; physical qualities like Indra’s arms as ‘covered with hair’ etc. [24] Devatas are clearly distinguished from human beings, they cannot replace each other. In fact, a deity is not even able to perform sacrifices nor can man replace the deity to which the offerings are made in a sacrifice. Nevertheless deities are important for the performance of a sacrifice, “since the very term ‘sacrifice’ denotes an act bearing upon a substance and a deity”. [25]

Another Harvard scholar, Francis X. Clooney, compares the devatas with the angels, as these are understood in traditional Roman Catholic theology. [26] In an era of intercultural thinking it is worthwhile to give credence to such studies, where functional similarities (Panikkar’s “Homeomorphic Equivalents”) are identified in different traditions without identifying them, in order to enable dialogue between various cultures and traditions. The obvious points of comparison between angels and (deities) devatas are: both stand above humans and below the highest divine reality; both share the general orientation of reality to God, both find their fulfillment in the divine; both contribute to the overall functioning and intelligibility of the universe, though God and brahman remain primary, free and independent with regard to them.

If we take into consideration lankara’s discussion of the devatas in the Uttaramimamsa Sutrabhashya, the following similarities could be identified: first of all, in Vedanta the devatas provide intelligent guidance for human selves during life with respect to their sense organs and more generally after death (when humans are no longer in conscious control.) In the Roman Catholic Theology of Thomas Aquinas, angels share both these functions. Though the terminology and distinctions differ, it seems plausible to suggest that devatas and angels are both conceded significant though limited roles with respect to the intelligibility of the world and human place in it. [27]

Secondly, following the tradition going back to Aristotle, Aquinas concedes to angels influence over heavenly bodies and by that means, influence over material realities as well; as in Vedanta, this concession of power to secondary beings does not diminish the power of the Lord, but serves a convenient and appropriate intermediate role in how the world works intelligibility. However, while in Aquinas the agency of the angels is mediated through their ability to influence the heavenly spheres and no such specification seems to have been put forward regarding the devata’s guiding role over material realities, nevertheless the general parallel is clear: a higher divine agency is mediated through secondary intelligent beings. [28]


The theme of this discussion – the five basic elements – might look academic and abstract on the one hand and appear to be too common-place matters of day-to-day realities of life on the other hand and so we may tend to ignore or take them for granted. But the underlying philosophy is the unifying principle, which creates harmony and equilibrium, both in one’s personal health and in the cosmic vision of reality.

The present-day ecological awareness has also awakened the interests in the Pancabhutas and their impact on human consciousness and in the environment on the whole.

But there seems to be a revival of interest in this topic, as it is the theme of the conference. There is a fascinating visual presentation of the five elements creatively choreographed by Dr. V. Chandrasekhar with the Bharatanatya classical dance style in which he himself dances. It is available in the website.

Bibliographical References

Francis X. Clooney, “Sankara’s Theological Realism: the meaning and usefulness of gods (devata) in the Uttara Mimamsa Sutra Bhashya”, in: New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta. Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet S.J. Edited by Bradley J. Malkovsky, Leiden, Brill,  2000, 30-50

Collins, James, The Thomistic Philosophy of Angels, Washington DC, Catholic University of America Press,1947

Gächter, Othmar, Hermeneutics and Language in Purvamimamsa. A Study in Sabara Bhasya. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 1983

Klimkeit, Hans-Joachim, “Heil und Heilung in Volks- und Weltreligionen”, in: Heil und Heilung in den Religionen, Ed. Karl Hoheisel and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz Verlag, 1995, 1-19

Panikkar, Raimon, The Vedic Experience, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, (1977) 1994

Panikkar, Raimon, The Rhythm of Being, New York, Orbis Publications, 2010

Panikkar, Raimon, “Medicine and Religion” in InterCulture vol. XXVII, No. 4, 1994,25.

Preisendanz, Karin, “Mahabhutas”, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. II, Leiden, 2010. 806-818

Rao, K.L. Seshagiri, “The Five Great Elements (PañcamahåbhΩtas): An Ecological Perspective”, in Hinduism and Ecology, The Intersection of Earth, Sky and Water. Edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2000

Rowell, Lewis, Music and Musical Thought in Early India, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1992

Zysk, Kenneth G., Religious Healing in the Veda, Philadelphia, American Philosophical Society. 1985

[1] RV 10.137.6; AVS 6.91.3.

[2] Kenneth G. Zysk, Religious Healing in the Veda, American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia 1985, 92

[3] Raimon Panikkar, The Vedic Experience, Motilal, Delhi (1977) 1994,116-117

[4] RV X.9, 7-8. Translation by R. Panikkar, 120

[5] AV XII, 1. Translation by Panikkar, 128-129.

[6] RV X. 186. Translation by Panikkar, p.132

[7] K.L. Seshagiri Rao, “The Five Great Elements (Pancamahabhutas): An Ecological Perspective”, in Hinduism and Ecology, The Intersection of Earth, Sky and Water. Edited by Christopher Key Chapple and Mary Evelyn Tucker, OUP New Delhi, 2000, 30

[8] CU 1, 9, 1: akasha parayaham.

[9] CU III, 12, 7, 7-9.

[10] R. Panikkar, The Rhythm of Being, 2010, 180-181

[11] Om tat savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhimahi/ dhiyo yo na prachodayat. Om./ RV. III. 62. 10.

[12] Samado ah samagnishca samadhatumalakriyah/

prasantatmendriyamanah svastha ityabhidhshyate// Shushruta Su. 75/41

[13] In keeping with the guru-shishya-parampara, this knowledge was propagated and crystalized into the Ayurveda texts of Caraka and Shushruta Samhitas. These were further expanded in complementary sciences like Vagabhatta’s Ashtanga Hridaya, Sharangdhara samhita etc.

[14] The names of the temperaments indicate the similarity with the Western concept – the four bodily humors:  blood, phlegm, yellow bile and back bile and their corresponding temperaments – sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic.

[15]  Kenneth G. Zysk, Religious Healing in the Veda. 1985, p.1.

[16] Plato in his Symposium (186 c) writes: “Medicine is then, to put it briefly, the science (of the rhythmic fluctuations) of love, of what the body loves with regard to filing and evacuating; and the one who can distinguish between beneficial love and harmful love may claim to be a physician in the fullest sense of the word.” Quoted by Panikkar, “Medicine and Religion” in Inter-culture vol. XXVII, No. 4, 1994,25.

[17]  Raimon Panikkar, p.26

[18] Raimon Panikkar, “Medicine and Religion”, in Inter-culture, Vol. XXVII, no. 4. 1994, 11-12

[19] Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, “Heil und Heilung in Volks- und Weltreligionen”, in: Heil und Heilung in den Religionen, Ed. Karl Hoheisel and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1995, 19

[20] Lewis Rowell, Music and Musical Thought in Early India, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992, 3-4

[21] Ibid. p. 336

[22] Ait. Up. 1.1-2; 1.2.1,5. Cf. Karin Preisendanz, “Mahabhutas”, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Vol. II, Leiden, 2010, p. 808

[23] Sa.Bha. 10.4.23.

[24] Devatadhikarana IX, 1,6-10

[25]  Cf. G. Jha; Sa.Bha. 6.1.2. quoted by Othmar Gächter, Hermeneutics and Language in Purvamimamsa. A Study in Sabara Bhasya. Motilal, 1983, 24.

[26] James Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of Angels, Washington DC, Catholic University of America Press, 1947

[27] In fact Ananda Kumarasamy in one of his articles translates devata as “angelic power”, an insightful [and interperatative] translation.

[28] Francis X. Clooney, “Sankara’s Theological Realism: the meaning and usefulness of gods (devata) in the Uttara Mimamsa Sutra Bhashya”, in: New Perspectives on Advaita Vedanta. Essays in Commemoration of Professor Richard De Smet S.J. Edited by Bradley J. Malkovsky, Brill, Leiden 2000, 48-49