Previously in the Ayurveda 101 series, we built the foundation for understanding the potent wisdom of Ayurveda and, more importantly, connected with the knowingness that through this ancient Science of Life, we are at the controls of our own state of wellbeing.
As we step more fully into this power as the conscious creators—the Alchemists—of our own reality, let’s have a look around this living laboratory to discover just what resources are at our disposal to play with!
Ayurveda teaches that everything in existence is comprised of the Pancha Mahabhutas, which are the building blocks of the entire known universe.
In Sanskrit, pancha means five and maha means great.
Bhuta is translated as element, and each of the five corresponds with a familiar elemental name in English.
However, remember, Sanskrit is much more layered and complex than a simple word-for-word translation. The mahabhutas…well, we call them the great elements for a reason.
They encompass so much more than their tangible physical characteristics, though that is certainly one way they are experienced. Each mahabhuta is also expressed through subtler energetic personalities, and has what I like to call its archetypal superpower—meaning its primary gift, essence, or contribution to our inner and outer worlds.
The presence of each mahabhuta can be quite obvious in the material world. In developing this deeper understanding of their attributes and functions, we can also identify where they show up within our own bodies.
Here, we’ll get to know them in more detail.
AKASHA :: ETHER
Physical Characteristics: Clear, subtle, soft
Subtle Personality: Expansive, vacant, boundless
Archetypal Superpower: POTENTIALITY
Ether is perhaps the most mysterious of the mahabhutas, and is often omitted from other wisdom traditions’ reference to the elements. Also known as Space, this element represents limitless possibility. Where there is Space (an empty room, blank canvas, wide open field, clear mind), nothing yet exists. And thus, within this vacant nothingness, exists the potentiality to fill it with absolutely anything. Ether teaches us that everything is possible if we just make a little room for those dreams/ideas/creations to form.
In the body, Akasha is found in the empty spaces of tubes and openings, pores, nostrils, ears, stomach, intestine, brain, and the space within every vessel and cell we are comprised of. They are the receptors through which we can acquire input and information.
VAYU :: AIR
Physical Characteristics: Dry, rough, cold
Subtle Personality: Unpredictable, mobile, dynamic
Archetypal Superpower: MOVEMENT
What a stagnant world we would live in without Vayu! Whether it is a gentle summer’s breeze or gale-force winds, Air is the element that instigates change, variation and newness. It is light, quick, and completely unpredictable, thus often catching us off-guard. Anyone who has lost their favorite ball cap on a fast boat ride can understand that element of surprise. Whether we ask for it or it shows up completely unsolicited, Air invites dynamic exchange through movement and giving/receiving.
We identify Vayu within the body’s active processes—breath and the circulation of oxygen, blood pumping from the heart to the organs/limbs, receiving of nutrients from food and drink, and the biological processes of elimination.
TEJA :: FIRE
Physical Characteristics: Sharp, intense, hot
Subtle Personality: Direct, attractive, penetrating
Archetypal Superpower: TRANSFORMATION
If ever there were an element that knew exactly what it wanted, it’s Fire. And it certainly isn’t shy about it either. Teja doesn’t spark in just any environment…the conditions must be just agreeably so—though once it flares to life, it exemplifies passion and gusto, as it is literally life-giving to the rest of the world. It also teaches the great lesson of caution and moderation in its extreme of uncontrolled wildfire.
Teja is most recognized in the body as Agni, or digestive fire. It’s our internal furnace that possesses the wisdom to metabolize and extract the nectar from the foods we eat, convert that to energetic fuel, and release the toxins we don’t need. Similarly, it’s reflected in all other chemical reactions in the body.
JALA :: WATER
Physical Characteristics: Moist, dull, smooth
Subtle Personality: Tender, Tolerant, Inclusive
Archetypal Superpower: COHESION
Water is the mahabhuta whose mission it is to make sure that everyone gets along. It cleanses, protects, and unifies. Imagine placing two droplets of water next to each other on the table…like a magnet they connect and become one. Jala has no need for conflict and, though it is smooth, it is no push-over. It will either gently flow around an obstacle like a creek bubbling around rocks and branches or, when necessary, form into a mighty rapid and simply wash away obstructions. No questions asked.
Our adult bodies are about 60% water, so Jala is a bit easier to identify in this regard. It’s every liquid—plasma, blood, cerebrospinal fluid, perspiration, to name a few—and it unites and cares for each part of the body by safely transporting vital hormones and nutrients to their final destinations.
PRITHVI :: EARTH
Physical Characteristics: Dense, cool, static
Subtle Personality: Stable, reliable, patient
Archetypal Energy: STRUCTURE
Once an idea has had room to develop in space, air has creatively breathed it into motion, fire has given it direction and momentum, and water has ushered in the resources needed for success…our sweet and stable Earth moseys in to provide the form and structure. It can be considered the organizing power of the universe, as it takes all the other pieces and materializes them into a concisely defined reality. Things would literally fall apart were it not for the safe, reliable container that Earth provides.
Most obviously, there is an abundance of Prithvi in our bodies. Otherwise we’d be puddles of mush on the floor (which also wouldn’t exist were it not for Earth!). It shows up as our skin and bones, hair, nails, muscles, organs…everything that gives physical form to this magical, mysterious human existence.
Creating life with the building blocks
So in this living laboratory of existence, the Mahabhutas are our foundational substances, tools, tinctures, toys…whichever words suits your fancy…for all of creation.
These five elements are intricately woven together and it is extremely rare that we experience them in their pure, solitary state. Rather, they combine in varying degrees to give rise to absolutely every being, material, creation, and object in the natural world.
There is nothing in the known universe that is not an expression of the mahabhutas, in their physical attributes and/or subtler qualities. As the unidentifiable cosmic soup gave rise to everything and everyone, we were each created with a distinct recipe… an exclusive blueprint… a unique combination… of the mahabhutas.
In Sanskrit, this unique constitution is called a Dosha. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Now that everything is here in the natural world and we have the consciousness to explore, we’ve been positioned as the on-earth Alchemists that get to play with it all. We’re able to discern the elemental attributes of each being/material/creation/object and experiment with how they interact with and influence one another.
If you read along last time, you likely won’t be surprised to learn that even among the trillions of potential pairings, there are generally only two reactions: Yum or Yuck.
Though before we even get to that, it’s important to better understand our starting point. Our perspective. Our very own exclusive, unique constitution. And we’ll do exactly that…next time!