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The 5 Great Elements (Pancha Maha Bhutas)

So here we begin with the first big principle of Ayurveda. The Pancha Maha Bhutas.

Ayurveda believes that the entire universe and everything in it is composed of five elements. Well, not literally. The five elements are just representations of qualities. Each of the elements is a cluster of qualities. Below, they’re listed in a spectrum from the most subtle to the most solid. Let’s look at each…

Ether, Akasa, is the most subtle. Qualities: Clear, light, subtle, soft, immeasurable. It’s emptiness. It is often translated as space. Just like we have the space up there; without that space, nothing could exist. It’s the container for all the other elements. It’s vast, immeasurable and constantly expanding. It’s formless and permeates everything.

Then we move into the gases, the Air Element, Vayu, that moves and causes friction. Qualities: Mobile, dry, light, cold, rough, subtle. Air is light in weight, but has action and enough substance to create its main characteristic of movement. It’s responsible for movement in space, as well as tactile senses.

This moves us to the Fire Element, Agni, that is the transformation that’s taking place on the earth. Qualities: Hot, sharp, light, dry, subtle. Fire is hot and bright, born from the movement of air that builds heat. It’s responsible for everything that involves transformation.

Then we move to the Water Element, Apas, that protects and nourishes. It binds substances together. Qualities: Cool, liquid, dull, soft, oily, slimy.

Finally, we have the Earth Element, Prthvi, that takes on the most solid and stable form of the elements. Qualities: Heavy, dull, static, dense, hard, gross.

When I first looked over the elements and their qualities, I was trying to see these qualities in myself. Just take a second to look these over. Is there one or two of these that, when you think about yourself; meaning your physical body, your physiology, the way you think or the way your feel – is there one or two of these that you would say describe you?

All of the qualities, therefore, element, are in all of us; but we each have a unique ratio of each. I see myself primarily as fire (hot and spicy!) and air (with movement and always on the go). [By the way, this will correspond to your dosha. I’m Pitta-Vata.]

The elements are important because, when combined, they produce a unique constitution, or a human being, as you will see in future posts on doshas. These qualities, or gunas, are another big principle of Ayurveda. But before we get to the gunas, read more about the elements and learn about the constitutions, or doshas in the next post titled “The 3 Constitutions (Doshas).”

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