Five-thousand years ago, the Wisdom Kings of India perceived a model of physical reality, wherein any substance of energetic-matter, when come into contact with another, will produce physical effects and generate physical experience. To distinguish these interactions and their effect on the human experience, matter was classified broadly into five distinctions, in an infinite, co-operative continuum of interchangeable energy and mass.
The five distinctions, viz. Akasha, Fire, Water, Air and Earth, are what we refer to today in the West as the Five Great Elements and represent every state in which that energetic-matter may manifest. Our direct experience defines the qualities, or attributes of these elements. For instance, we might experience the qualities of fire as hot, sharp or penetrating and the qualities of air as dry, subtle or clear. Each element has attributes far too numerous to go into in this simple article, but there are excellent books to explore which go into great detail on the subject. You can find several of these in the Public Resources section under Ayurveda (The Science of Life).
According to the life science of Ayurveda, the five elements combine to form intelligent life principles, that govern all the processes in the body-mind and are responsible for certain physical and behavioral traits. These principles are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Each of these principles, or doshas, is dominant at different time periods of the day and night, in different seasons, and in different areas of the body, thus according to Ayurveda, lifestyle practices should be based on living in accordance with nature. Such practices help keep doshas in balance and serve to cleanse, detoxify and purify the body-mind vehicle.
The human being is naturally tri-doshic, meaning that we are comprised of each element in various complimentary constituencies. The elements, combined or singularly, are understood to have particular physiological characteristics and functions in nature. Akashic and Airy substances have very dynamic properties and effects. In Ayurveda, these substances combined are categorized under a primary label called Vata Dosha, one of three primary biological categories of physical life distinction. Biological because it’s the life forms which interact experientially with the life forces.
Vata is the driving force of all movement in the body. The nervous system and emotions, breath and the respiratory system, secretions and the excretory system fall under this category. Vata is energetically mobile easily intermingling with and influencing the other elements. According to theories of Ayurvedic health, an aggravated Vata is responsible for most illness. Vata often characterizes the active body and mind. Aggravation of this dosha can express as gas, dry skin, cracking joints and imbalance to menstrual cycles. Mentally, excess of Vata tends to effect mood and may manifest as nervousness, depression, low self-esteem or loss of memory.
Some methods of countering Vata’s negative psycho-physiological expressions include drinking enough water, light physical exercise such as walking, warm foods, drinks and clothing and by actively interacting with other people. The Vata dosha is primarily found in the lower part of the body including lower back, thighs, large intestine and pelvic regions, but also throughout the entire nervous system and the skin.
Five Types of Vata or The Five Winds
- Prana Vayu governs the respiratory system and mental activity.
- Udana Vayu controls speech and movement in the upper body.
- Vyana Vayu provides nourishment and aids circulation and the movement of body parts.
- Samana Vayu secretes, moves the digestive juices and absorbs nutrients.
- Apana Vayu coaxes the downward movement of excretions, as well as menstruation and giving birth.
Representing the attribute of Fire, Pitta functions are transformational in processes such as digestion and metabolism of both physical and mental constructs. In classical Tantra, the fire element is qualified in this away according to whether it is operative in the strictly physiological realm, or whether its qualities are interacting with the mental-energetic. Read more about the interactions of the fire element in this article on the nature of Kundalini.
Pitta combines the elements fire & water and is the force that controls the endocrine system, hormones, digestion, body temperature, immunity, hunger, thirst and skin quality. Mentally it defines our intelligence and perception. An aggravated Pitta may result in skin rashes, heavy sweating, cardio-vascular diseases, ulcers, fevers and inflammations. Pitta-type personalities are often characterized by a strong will and a certain level of nervousness and impatience, and when imbalanced can be overbearing and prone to conflicts. Recommended activities for a Pitta-type constitution are regular exercise, in nature, and peacefully spending time with family or good friends.
The Five Core Fires
- Sadhaka Pitta governs intellect and aids the transformation of words to practical knowledge.
- Alochaka Pitta drives perception creativity and intuition.
- Pachaka Pitta is the strongest fire, dealing with digestion and assimilation (food, knowledge) and regulation (systems, temperature).
- Ranjaka Pitta is responsible for the delivery of color and taste (Rasa) and the complex totality of knowledge obtained through the taste buds and sense of smell.
- Bhrajaka Pitta imparts color to the complexion of skin and hair.
Knowledge of the elemental makeup of our life experience is integral to understanding the effects that are likely to be produced through our interactions with any of life’s substances. Similarly, applications of this logic can be used to counteract the effects or activities of elemental substances, by incorporating those elements or substances that contain the opposite attributes, thus coaxing the human nature back into balance and health.
Kapha, combining Water & Earth, is the most stable of the three energies. It is immensely powerful and resistant, responsible at once for creation as well as lubricating the creation. It protects the body organs with mechanisms such as the mucous lining of the stomach, cerebrospinal fluid in the brain and synovial fluid in the joints. Kapha moisturizes tissues, organs and joints; it defines our health and sustains our organism. Kapha types are calm of temper, easy-going, tolerant and pleasant. They tend to be overweight and sleep deeply. When the elements are aggravated, they are prone to lethargy, respiratory issues and comfort eating leading to digestive issues. Daily exercise, moderate food intake bordering on ascetic, regular fasting and saunas are recommended. Proper Maintenance of our original energetic constitution, prakriti, is essential to a well-balanced life.
Kapha’s Five Sub-Doshas
- Tarpaka Kapha nourishes and lubricates the brain cells and nervous system and carries stimuli to the brain.
- Bodhaka Kapha signifies the subtle knowledge governing perceptions such as taste.
- Avalambaka Kapha lubricates and holds the organs of the upper thorax in place.
- Kledaka Kapha moistens and protects the gastro-intestinal tract.
- Shleshaka Kapha lubricates the joints.
The Elements According to the Greeks
The Greeks also proposed the existence of the same five basic elements for which the Alchemists would later associate four representative triangular symbols and a circle for the Akasha which binds them all. The Akasha, or fifth element, goes by a variety of names in the west, and tends to be more rarefied in its reference as spirit with religious or spiritual overtones. In the western occult tradition it is referred to as the aether, or quintessence, literally the fifth element in Latin. Interestingly, the Chinese system of Elements replaces Air and Akasha with Wood and Metal.
In traditional Western occult theory, the elements are hierarchical: Spirit, fire, air, water, and earth, with the first elements being more spiritual and perfect and the last elements being more material and base. There is also some debate amongst the occult intelligentsia concerning the order of the hierarchy itself, indicating perhaps that some subjects might not altogether benefit from the philosopher’s touch. Still, plenty of other modern systems, such as Wicca, view the elements as equal.
As in the East, the Western view also assigns qualities, orientations, correspondences and aspects to the elements and their relationship with each other. In classical elemental systems, each element has two qualities, and it shares each quality with one other element.
Hierarchy of Elements
Traditionally Fire is seen as the most rarefied and spiritual of the physical elements because of its masculine properties (which, in a patriarchy, were superior to female properties). It also lacks physical existence, produces light, and has a transformative power when it comes in contact with more physical material. Fire is associated with strength, activity, blood, and life-force. It is also seen as highly purifying and protective, consuming impurities and driving back the darkness.
Its qualities are warm and dry, its gender masculine (active). The mythical Salamander is Fire’s Elemental personification and its tools are, case by case, the sword, dagger or wand. Mars is Fire’s planetary attribution and its zodiac signs are Aries, Leo and Sagittarius. Fire’s season is summer, its time of day noon.
The intangible element of intelligence, creativity, and beginnings. It is active, masculine, without permanent form and (considered in some circles to be) superior to the more material elements of water and earth.
Air’s qualities are warm and moist, its gender masculine (active). The mythical Sylphs (Invisible beings) are Air’s Elemental personification and its magical tools are both wand and sword. Air belongs to Jupiter, its zodiac signs Gemini, Libra and Aquarius. Its season is Spring and time of day, the morning or sunrise.
The element of emotion and the unconscious, as opposed to the conscious intellectualism of Air. Water, sharing physical existence, interacts with all of the physical senses, but is still considered less material (and thus superior) to earth because it possesses more motion (read flow) and activity.
Water’s qualities are cold and moist, its gender feminine (passive). The Undines (water-based nymphs) are its mythical Elemental personification and its magical tool is the cup. Water belongs to the Moon and Venus, and its zodiacal signs are Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces. Water’s season is Autumn, its time of day sunset.
The element of stability, grounding, fertility, materiality, potential, and stillness. Sounds fairly superior to me! Earth is an element of beginnings, endings, death and rebirth. Its qualities are cold and dry, gender feminine (passive). She’s the Great Mother of us all. The Mother Superior. Our magical tool to ritualize Her in this Element is the pentacle and the planetary attribution of Earth is Saturn. Earth’s zodiac signs are Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn, its season is Winter and time of day is midnight.
This element is an article unto itself. Intermingling among and penetrating all elements, the Akashic element is a bridge between the physical and the spiritual, a transitory substance between the physical and celestial. Akasha is the house of every attribution, carrying qualities of each within its record. Akasha touches every planet, is active at evert time of day and in every season. It is both masculine and feminine and has no mythical Elemental attribution but is found in every mythical personification. Standard symbolic representations of spirit are simple circles, eight-spoked wheels and spirals. Perhaps I’ll write in more detail on the Akasha someday, if asked, but for now, you might enjoy this personal anecdote of once upon a time when I went surfing on the Akasha.
For further reading on the purification of these Five Great Elements according to classical Tantra, you might find this piece interesting.
…is a Saiva Tantrika, Gyana Yogi and founder of Uma Maheshwara Yoga & Ayurveda. David has an MA in Semiotics, lives in Japan with his family and works as a coach in L & D, devoting his time to developing science-based tools and programs that help people reach the fullest potential of the human condition.