Panchamahabutha (5 Great Existence / State)
panchamahabuta – Basic concept of Ayurveda
“pancha” means Five; “maha” means “Great or gross.” The word bhuta does not have a direct transliteration in English. bhuta is derived from the root word “bhu” which means to exist. Many translated English books refer to panchmahabhuta as “Elements” but it should not be confused with the elements of the Chemistry Table. When I use the word Element here, bear in mind that I am referring to the panchmahabhuta )
These 5 Existence pervade the Universe in both an “unseen” and “seen” level. That which is unseen is more potent and powerful that that which is seen. What science accepts as E=mc2 was propounded by ayurveda thousands of years ago. Although the understanding of the 5 existence and their role in human, plants, environment and health requires a deeper study, a simplified analysis is provided below.
The panchamahabhuta (5 Great Existence) are
- Space (akash),
- Air (vayu)
- Fire (agni)
- Water (jala) and
These 5 panchamahabhuta are ultimate entites that make up the Universe. Everything needs space to exist and in that sense Space (akash) is the first entity to come into in being. This is followed by Air (vayu) which constitutes Movement. The next State is Heat (agni/tejas) which represents Transformation. Everything is transformed using either or both exothermic and endothermic energy. The fourth Element is Water (jala). We are not referring to the actual water per se but the quality or attributes of liquidity. Finally there is the final state which is the actual gross material called Earth (prithvi). Again this is not earth as in the physical Earth but represents the final gross material and attributes that make up the universe. Therefore ayurveda states that everything has its origin from subtle (akash) before appearing as gross (prithvi). Subtle and gross are intermingled as in E=mc2 and classical physics and quantum physics. They are interdependent and not mutually exclusive.
When we use the example of a seed or ice or foetus, we will be able to appreciate the dynamic interplay of the panchmahabhuta. A foetus is only formed when the ovum and sperm unite (which forms the prakriti of the individual). Before creation it was in form of “nothingness” (akash). From this “nothingness”, through a process of movement (vayu) and by exothermic and endothermic energy and transformation process (agni) it becomes a liquidity-type foetus (jala) and finally a full formed baby (prithvi). Starting from the process of space (Akash) there is an entire interplay of panchmahabhuta to form the final baby (prithvi) with the aid of agni (transformation) along every step of the way.
Similarly ice goes through the gross to subtle process. As a solid substance (prithvi) it transforms (agni) to liquid (Jala) to vapour (vayu) back to space or “nothingness” (akash). On the reverse when it transforms from subtle to gross it becomes vapour then liquid to solid. This gross to subtle and subtle to gross is a universal principle of ayurveda.
The entire transformation process of the whole universe at both micro and macro level, from the subtle to gross level has the intrinsic and dynamic interplay of the panchmahabhuta. Using ingredients to make food, or cooking an egg, or observing a rusting iron, or listening to the sound formation in dessert dunes – every single process in the whole cosmos has the interaction, teamwork, cooperation of panchmahabhuta. It was for this reason that the ancient people paid tribute to the panchbhuta-s.
The panchmahabhuta permeates and penetrates the whole Universe and in order live in harmony with the Universe and with oneself, one must appreciate the attributes (guna) of the panchmahabhuta. If we can understand the bhuta-s and how they manifests from subtle to gross we will be able to understand the body and maintain its healthy state.
ayurveda is both a philosophy and a science. It is just like understanding electricity. We know there is electric current running through the wires, but we cannot see the electricity. However, if we can harness the electricity and use it properly, we can benefit from it. If utilised improperly, it can lead to danger. Likewise, the interplay of the bhuta-s our body can cause health or disease depending on how we manage it.
These five magnificent all-embracing bhuta-s form the 3 dosha-ss known as vata pitta and kapha which become the barometer for balancing one’s diet (ahara) and lifestyle (vihara). I will briefly discuss the dosha-s below and expound on them in greater detail in the following series.
Vasanthi Pillay is the President and Founder of the Ayurveda Association of Singapore (AAOS) and the Director of Innergy Ayurveda and Yoga Pte Ltd. She conducts several onsite and online Trainings and Workshops in Singapore and Asia to help people understand the fundamental principles of ayurveda so that they can apply these universal principles as a preventive medicine for their families and themselves. Vasanthi works with 2 large conventional hospitals in Taiwan in assisting them with training and integrating ayurveda and yoga into the healthcare system. She is also working with several educational institutes in Asia, educating the parents and teachers in incorporating a holistic diet and lifestyle program for parent-child education. Born in Singapore, Vasanthi who has worked in a highly stressful corporate world, developed a keen interest in mind-body relationship. This prompted her to take up her yoga Instructor Course in svyasa Bangalore India in 1995 and since then has continued her lifelong learning by taking up several ayurveda Courses in India, USA and Singapore from 2000. She completed her Diet and Lifestyle Counsellor program with the Kerala ayurveda Academy in 2020 and is currently studying the ashtanga hridaya in a classical manner. Vasanthi also holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS) majoring in Philosophy, Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration (SIM, Singapore) and Post Graduate Diploma in Banking and Finance (UNSW, Australia). Vasanthi collaborates with M S Ramaiah Indic Centre for Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (Bangalore) to offer certificate programs on ayurveda and yoga.