What are the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas?

Sadhguru offers an elaborate look into the five elements or Pancha Bhutas, and gives simple processes to purify and gain mastery over the five elements.
Sadhguru Wisdom Article | What are the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas?
 

Sadhguru: Whether it is the individual human body or the larger cosmic body, essentially, they are made of five elements or the pancha bhutas – earth, water, fire, air and akasha.

#1 Water

Today, there is substantial scientific evidence to show that water has tremendous memory. If you just generate a thought looking at the water, the molecular structure of the water will change. If you touch it, it will change. So how you approach water is very important.   

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#2 Earth

The Earth element is the basis that all the other elements build on, and of our physicality. Though the element of Earth is part of physical matter around us too, it is best we start to perceive and understand it from the basis of our lives, because most people only really experience their own body and mind. Knowing and experiencing the element of Earth from within is part of the Yogic process. 

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#3 Air 

In the Yogic tradition, we refer to air as “vayu,” which means not just air as a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon dioxide and other gases, but as a dimension of movement. Among the five elements, air is the most accessible and relatively the easiest element to gain reasonable mastery over. Hence, a large number of Yogic practices are structured around vayu or air. 

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#4 Fire   

In Indian culture, the element of fire is personified as Agni Deva, a god with two faces who rides on a fiery ram. The two faces are symbolic representations of fire as a life-giver and a life-taker. Without the fire burning within us, there is no life. But if you do not take care, fire can quickly go out of control and consume everything. 

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#5 Akasha 

Do not mistake akasha for empty space. It is ether. The word “ether” is not quite accurate but it is the closest translation. Ether is not space; it is a subtle dimension of existence. Space is kala or nonexistence. It is Shi-va – “that which is not.” Akasha is “that which is.” 

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Why Does One Need the Cooperation of the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas?

If these five elements do not cooperate, you can struggle as much as you want, nothing happens. Only with their cooperation, from the basic aspects to the highest aspect, your life becomes a possibility. The fundamental sadhana in Yoga to gain mastery over these five elements or to purify the elements in the system in such a way that they cooperate, is referred to as Bhuta shuddhi

..it is the same door; which side of the door you are on decides everything about your life, even in terms of time and space.

This human system is like a doorway. A door has two aspects to it – if you are always facing closed doors, for you doors mean that which stops you. If doors are opening up for you, then for you a door means a possibility of entering into something. In either case, it is the same door; which side of the door you are on decides everything about your life, even in terms of time and space. Whether you experience this body as a great possibility or a great barrier simply depends on the extent to which these five elements are cooperating. 

In Isha Yoga, every sadhana has something to do with organizing these five elements in such a way that you can reap the best out of the individual being and the cosmic nature because both are just a play of these five elements. Whether this individual physical body becomes a stepping stone for your ultimate possibility or a hurdle towards that essentially depends on how you are able to deal with these five elements. What you are right now is just a little bit of earth, water, air and temperature. All the ingredients are out there in the garden; it just takes a little divine touch to make these four things into a throbbing human being. 

Sitting here, if you are aware of how the water, air, earth and fire in your body are functioning, suddenly you live your life with so much ease that people start thinking you are superhuman. But this is not about being superhuman, this is about realizing that being human is super. Being human is super if only you learn to use your humanity and this human mechanism as a possibility, not as a barrier. 

What Is the Composition of the Five Elements Within the Human Body? 

In these five elements, unless you want to explore mystical dimensions you do not have to bother about the akasha. Among the other four, seventy two percent of your body is just water. Another twelve percent is earth. Another six percent is air, which is the easiest thing to manage and take charge of because there is breath and you can take charge of it in a certain way. Another four percent is fire. Taking mastery over fire could do many things to you but because you are householders living in family situations, you do not have to take charge of fire. The remaining is akasha. You do not have to bother about that unless you want to explore mystical dimensions of the existence. To live well, four elements are enough. The fifth one is not relevant for people who just want to live well. 

Pancha Bhuta Temples 

India is a land where for the five elements in nature, there are five temples, which are all geographically located within the Deccan Plateau – four in Tamil Nadu, and one in Andhra Pradesh. These temples were created not for worship, but for sadhana. People moved from one temple to the other to do sadhana on each of the five elements. 

At one temple, they did sadhana on earth, then, they went to the next temple to do sadhana on water, and so on. Unfortunately, this connection is not there anymore because the sadhana atmosphere has been taken away. This understanding and mastery is generally missing, but the temples still exist. Some of them have maintained that vibrance and quality, while some of them have become weak. 

Elemental Deities 

Consecration can be done for the five elements. For example, let us say we want to create a deity for air. We will create an energy form, which a human being can relate to. Being in the yogic system, we generally do not go for a human form. We go for an ellipsoid because we know it is one form which will last longest with least maintenance. 

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Adiyogi  Unravels the Mystery of the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas 

Over 15,000 years ago, Adiyogi spoke about the five elements or the pancha bhutas. He pointed out for his first seven disciples that the whole universe is just a play of five elements; and in what proportion it plays within our body and how, if one can gain mastery over these, in a way you have mastery over the creation. By having even an element of mastery over the creation, you have a very direct access to that which is the source of creation. When this science was expounded in great detail and in all its manifestations, the Saptarishis who were sitting there as disciples, and Parvati, his wife, who was also witness to this, were amazed. They were incredulous. They could not believe that the whole existence is just five things – and one is nothing, so only four things. 

Adiyogi Reveals the Two Ways to Access the Source of Creation 

Adiyogi went about describing the intelligence behind it: with just four ingredients, you can cook up such a soup that we call the cosmos today. Everything that is physical is largely four elements. You do not experience the fifth one most of the time. If I just give you four things, can you even make sambar out of it? Even to make sambar you need twenty-five ingredients! 

The seven men were excited about mastering it. Parvati, the woman, decided to surrender to it and make it a part of herself.

If someone can cook up a whole cosmos with four things, that is astounding brilliance. Adiyogi went about describing the science and technology of gaining mastery over these elements. These seven plus one who were listening to this and were watching the little demonstrations that he setup were absolutely taken by this. Then he said, “Either you can master all these things or you can just surrender to this intelligence and it will be yours.” The seven men were excited about mastering it. Parvati, the woman, decided to surrender to it and make it a part of herself. 

So the seven were sent away to do work. Parvati was kept there because she gave in to the intelligence and it became a part of her. These seven were labeled as sages. She became a Goddess. I am talking about how to promote yourself! If you get into the intricacy of how everything has manifested, even if you live here for a million years and study, study, study, it will be an endless process. It is exciting but it is an endless process. 

Or, you simply put this endless process aside and touch the dimension that is the source of all these. If you want to play the game, you involve yourself with the elements of creation. If you do not want to play the game, if you are a match-fixer and just want to win – you are not interested in the game, you just want to pass and go on – then you touch only that which is the source of Creation. You do not have to get lost in the elements. 

You play the game or the game plays you. But if you do not play the game, the game may play you. Keeping the whole game of life aside and just being focused on being one with the source of Creation seems to be the simplest thing. If you have no sense of “you”, if you have that level of dispassion about your own body, mind, thoughts, emotions and everything, it comes naturally.

Otherwise, this is the most difficult thing. Is it possible to keep “you” aside when you are the hero of your life? When you are the main role, keeping “you” aside does not happen so easily. But that is the simplest and greatest way. Otherwise there is a big game to play – quite an endless game. But if you want to play the game, you better play it skillfully. A lousy player is hated by everyone. 

Why is it Important to Gain Mastery over the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas? 

Once you choose to play the game, having some mastery over the elements is important. Otherwise you will be a lousy player with life. If people have succeeded in any sphere of life, that means knowingly or unknowingly, in some way there is some mastery. Otherwise there is no success in anything. Maybe they worked for it elsewhere or they are working for it here, but without a certain element of mastery over something, there is not going to be any success in life. 

If you have no sense of “you”, if you have that level of dispassion about your own body, mind, thoughts, emotions and everything, it comes naturally.

If we have chosen to do activity, success is the sweetest thing in human life. There are some people going about spreading this kind of rubbish – they are referred to as philosophies – “It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it's all right.” There is no such rubbish in life. When you play a game you want to win. After the game is over, in case you lost, yes it is all right that you lost but before you play if you think it is all right to lose, you do not know what a game is. 

Once you have chosen to play the game – whether the marketplace, marriage, life or spiritual process – you must win. Many times it may be a team sport. You may forget that you winning means people with you also need to win. If you are married and you think only you should win, he or she will make it miserable for you! 

Bhuta Shuddhi - The Yogic Way of Gaining Mastery Over the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas 

Bhuta shuddhi is a way of consciously winning because without mastery over what you are doing, victory will be accidental. Your opponents may be lousy, so you may win. That is of no consequence. Whichever way, you play to the best of your capabilities and beyond. Whenever we give instructions for Hatha Yoga, we say, “Stretch yourself as much as you can and little more.” It is that little more which is the most important aspect. That is where life is. That is the difference between victory and failure – someone is doing that little more and another is not. 

Whenever we give instructions for Hatha Yoga, we say, “Stretch yourself as much as you can and little more.” It is that little more which is the most important aspect.

In the 1970s, Kenny Roberts won the world motorcycle championship three times in a row. That is not easy because these are the best machines on the track and the riders are of the highest order on the planet, so you win by hundredths of a second. If you have to win a championship, you have to win some twelve, fifteen races in a season and three times in a row is almost impossible. So people asked him, “How do you do this?” He said, “I go out of control with control.” Having the courage to cross that line of control and having the wisdom not to go too far. 

If you have to have the courage to do something, you have to have some capability. Otherwise courage will turn into disaster. If you do it successfully, people will say you are courageous. If you crash, people will say you are stupid. That line is very thin and your ability to traverse that line, your ability to walk that line becomes better and better if you have more mastery over the fundamentals of your existence. 

For those people who are not willing to do any sadhana towards this, we organize the Pancha Bhuta Kriya in Dhyanalinga so that at least you benefit by being there. This is the significance of a ritual. A ritual is essentially for those who cannot do it by themselves – public sadhana. A thousand people can sit and benefit from it. But if you do sadhana, it is just you. Sadhana is definitely of a higher nature but ritual is of a larger benefit. 

What Happens if you Gain Mastery Over the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas? 

Once there is a certain amount of mastery over the five elements, there is no such thing as inward and outward because elements do not respect your boundaries. To put it in the simplest form, as you sit here, you breathe. The air does not respect your boundary. It is constantly in and out. This is not just air, this is happening with everything. The food that you eat and whatever substance we relieve ourselves of and everything else is in constant transaction. 

...as you sit here, you breathe. The air does not respect your boundary. It is constantly in and out. This is not just air, this is happening with everything.

The boundaries of your body are only for your psychological comfort. But the five elements have no respect for that and they anyway transact without your permission. If you have some access to experiencing the nature of the elements, then you also lose the boundaries of your body. Or in other words, you have sacrificed your privacy because everything is seeping in and everything is seeping out constantly.   

How to Gain Mastery Over the Five Elements or Pancha Bhutas? 

#1 The Way of the Nagas 

When one wants to gain mastery, one of the things that are commonly done is to expose yourself to the elements. What spiritual movements of the past like the Nagas, Goraknathis or the Jains did at the basic level of sadhana is to expose themselves to the elements because they wanted the transaction to happen freely. Today, walking around naked in the world is not a possibility, though in India it is still in practice. You will see thousands of them walking naked, not bothered about the social norms. But that is not a possibility for all of you.   

Question: Is it possible to become more aware of this just by sitting in open spaces like in a field or looking at horizon points, staring at the ocean, or looking up at the sky or just spending some time in open spaces? 

Sadhguru: It could help, but the general tendency for most people when they are in open spaces is to cover and protect themselves, considering the variations in temperature that one may experience in different places. At the same time, yes, it is a possibility, but it need not necessarily be. If you happen to sit out, you can make use of that. 

#2 Wear Loose Clothing 

One simple thing that you can do is move to a looser level of clothing. You may not look shapely, but there is no shape to you in the elemental scape. It is in constant transaction. To facilitate this, to be able to be conscious of this, one important thing is that there is a little bit of space between your body and what you wear, that you are not wearing tight-fitting clothes. This is one step that one can take.   

#3 Pay Attention to the Breath 

If you pay attention, you will see that beyond this breath, a whole lot of transaction is happening constantly across the body. If one pays enough attention to this transaction, then one will also slowly understand the nature and the composition of the elements within us. Then enhancing one dimension or increasing the akasha in the system through appropriate practice becomes a possibility. If one knows that there is transaction – not by intellect, but by attention – then how to tweak the transaction in our favor is something we can do. 

#4 Pay Attention to Food and Water 

The first thing is to take charge of the most obvious transactions. The most obvious transactions are breath, food, consumption of water and the temperature of the body and the temperature outside. These are the most obvious transactions. Just pay a little more attention to these obvious transactions.   

If you bring attention to how you eat, drink, breathe and touch everything, you will see that the experience of life will rise to a completely different level.

It always amazes me how most people never ever notice breath, which is such an obvious transaction and it does not happen quietly, it moves the entire body. If you cannot notice your breath, how to notice anything subtler than that? If you bring attention to how you eat, drink, breathe and touch everything, you will see that the experience of life will rise to a completely different level. 

Most human beings are not doing these simple things. They are gulping down what they eat and drink. They breathe completely unconsciously. They touch anything and everything without knowing what they are touching or feeling it. People think that when you are breathing, you should not be doing anything else, you must just be breathing. The beauty of being human is that we have a cerebral capability of conducting complex activity within us and still be able to pay attention. It is like you are driving and you can still have a conversation with someone. So two levels of attention are happening just like this. You could be doing whatever you are doing, while paying attention to the breath. Breath is one thing that is always happening. You can pay attention to that.   

You can also pay attention to the food that you eat and the water that you drink. The possibility of knowing dimensions of the beyond and dipping into the mystical nature of the existence is very much rooted in the elemental composition of who we are. Bringing about a transformation in this can do fantastic things to you. 

Editor's Note: Find out more about Bhuta shuddhi practices and Pancha Bhuta Kriya (online).