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The Five Elements: A Thought Provoking Introduction

By Swami Nityamuktananda (Dr Christa-Maria Herrmann)

The Five Elements must be the oldest, most accessible way to understand the universe, and our place in it. It is timeless. This is one of its attractions. In our fast changing world, we have by and large lost a sense of belonging. Religions of all kinds of colours and shades, used to fill the need of this intrinsic human emotion. In the last two centuries the role of religion has shrunk, and many people especially in the Western societies look for an alternative to make sense of life.

The Five Elements are references as independent of religion as of science and they are as inclusive of all religion and science. Sounds a paradox? Any scientific development and advance happens within some or all of the Five Elements, thus as our minds expand and our knowledge grows, be it scientifically cultural, religious or spiritual so our awareness of the Five Elements grows. This expansion of knowledge makes the concept universal and timeless.

We can look at any cultural frame, for verification, but let's start with an ancient one. The insights of Indian Philosophy, the ideas behind what is at present associated with Hinduism, are based on ancient Vedic texts (some go back probably 6000 years). They tell us, that the universe consists of one subtle and conscious energy, which unfolds in three different types of energy. There exist the calm and peaceful (sattvic) the active and passionate (rajasic) and the dull and inert (tamasic); the mixture of these, produces in several steps (tattvas), Five Aggregates, which then literally explode into the multitude of forms, that make up this and any other universe.

Consequently we can look at an object, thought, behaviour or any other form of existence and perceive to which Element it can be likened. And further, through contemplation of that Element an entrance, an understanding of its source, the Absolute that lies beyond can be gained. For example a person might finds his/her major tendencies of behaviour resemble the behaviour of Water, thus by contemplating Water they can find out about their purpose and place in the universe.

Now these ideas are not mine. The culture of the Australian Aboriginal has evolved with this knowledge and it has been expressed in various myth and become part of their rituals and ceremonies, their Dream-time. The original African shamanic culture, its religious and folkloric expressions have known and used these concepts since time began. The South American Mayas, have based their calendars, Astrology, their temple architecture and understanding of the universe on these insights, as have cultures that predate them. The American Indians cannot be understood in their deep nature bound believes without reference to the Five Elements. They have extensive rituals, ceremony and knowledge of these.

The Celts of early Europe and their extensions to the East, have explored the Five Elements as a natural foundation of the universe, and spread their influenced throughout medieval Europe. There science, medicine and art carry ample evidence of this. In Europe traditionally, Astrology, Art and Architecture still make use of it.

In ancient Greece, originally the Five Elements were just as important. They were understood in connection with the four directions - and the centre or soul; with Aristoteles the fifth Element was pushed out, and from then on in Europe only four Elements were recognised.

Yet the influence of the four here is just as clear as the Five elsewhere, right down to modern Psychology, C.G.Jungs work etc. The Chinese have taken the knowledge and developed and explored the Five Elements especially in respect to medicine, and the theory has re-entered our thinking from there. The Japanese have cultivated the theory for the Arts with a purity and perfection almost unknown elsewhere. In Tibet a thorough and all-pervasive understanding of the Five Elements is part of everyday life, medicine, education, architecture, astrology et.all.

I could site much more examples, but it is clear, that evidence for the use of this mind- frame is universal and goes from ancient times to today. Strictly speaking this is of course not a theory, because it has no strict frame in which to "theories". Knowledge of the Five Elements, is knowledge of the Movement of Life, it' s alive, in constant change, varied, dynamic and as unrestricted as the plurality of life itself.

Today in the West, this "theory" is not only used in Acupuncture and Shiatsu (both therapies of complementary medicine, coming from the orient) but in Art and Architecture as is obvious, by the exploding revival through the concept of Feng Shui (Chinese). Increasingly the knowledge of the Five Elements is present at national and international conferences from Kathmandu to Brasilia, or Sao Paulo about interfaith dialogues, world peace conferences, education, psychology, medicine and philosophy. Its rise in popularity in the recent years is due to the fact, that this paradigm is independent of religion or culture, global beyond even, space or time.

So what about it?

Well to look further into it, we need - nothing! nothing rather than to open ones eyes and mind. The hypothesis is that everything that exists belongs to Five different ways of Being, we call them Elements (basic building blocks); Earth, Water, Fire, Air Space. Immediately looking at these with an open mind, you can see that there is a decreasing sense of solidity. (This you can relate to the earlier statement, about its Vedic roots). So energy, or subtle energies (which modern science will agree makes the original field of existence) get denser and denser, becoming eventually manifest, in various stages. These stages we recognise when they become Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. (Some cultures have, although shared concepts, different names; Space, e.g. is also called ether, faith, source, wood etc.)

Of the above Earth is obviously the most manifest, but let's look beyond the obvious. Any idea we have, any thought-form is subtle, but when it becomes action, it becomes manifest. So in a manner of speaking, action is the manifest form - the Earth of thought! Imagine somebody has an idea, it's very good, but to be useful somebody needs to make it manifest, to put it into concrete projects, real materially recognisable 'things'. This latter step, of making something real, that is the "action of Earth".

Now look at Earth yet in a different way; observe Earth and find that it holds us with its gravity, and unless we use extraordinary effort (aeroplanes, rockets etc.) we can not really get away from that hold! So holding tight is a characteristic of Earth. Somebody who holds on to an idea with extreme stubbornness displays - earth energy!

Furthermore, Earth brings forth all life-forms, some think of it as mother. So the woman when becoming mother, because she brings forth a life-form, by implication is at that stage, in a phase of the energy Earth.

One more inspiration for thought. Earth is the centre for our perception of life; we cannot perceive life else where (not yet anyway) all that we know and exists, we know from the perspective of an Earth-ling; Earth is our centre. Similarly within our-self, we have a centre Which we call our self-understanding, our self perception; that is the centre from which we think, act, exist - that centre is our Earth; it is of the same energy as Earth(not the same material!). Our physical body is basically a food body, without food going in the physical body could not exist, any thought, any action, any behaviour can not be separated from the food -processing. Thus the place of food-processing in us, is our centre, our Earth, i.e. the stomach represents the Earth within our physical body.

You can try to follow similar thoughts with any of the Elements.

This might suffice to show how each Element in turn represents functions, energies, with a specific flavour throughout the existing world. The more we learn about the universe the more aspects we can add to our knowledge about the quality of the respective Element. And it is not Earth bound! In this sense, solid planets, where energy has become manifest, of course are equally "Earth"; yet the movement of the planets, is fluid and thus belongs to a different elemental quality, such as for example Water! The reader might understand how this relates to understanding the world around us, oneself, and even the body - but what is the place of such paradigm, for education, psychology, peace- politics and ethics?

At the beginning we said, everything that exists, is made of these five aggregates. Thus you and me too. How come we are all different? It's the mixture of the ingredients, which accounts for differences. A little bit more of one ingredient, say sugar, might make the difference between bread and cake.

One of the five energies; the Mahabuthas , or a couple - will be dominant in each person and shape the character; such constitutional Element is in dynamic relationship with all the others. And yet it makes for basically five types of people, this has long been known since the time the Bhagavad Geeta was written (and before).The fascinating thing is, that Each Element has so many variations, in itself, so many variations in interaction with others, that although there is a base tendency to belong to one of the Elements, no two people are ever the same.

We said in the beginning, the One, the divine energy by this process, became the multitude of existence and nowhere is that more relevant as within the human community. For it makes quiet clear, that all of mankind is of one source, divine in origin; but equally of a multitude of unique forms. The basic ethical consequence of this then is, total respect and reverence for each human, for each is expression of the ONE. Reverence to all forms of life, is thus inseparable from the Five Elements!

Let's look at it closer! So one Element inherently characterises our personality, it is stronger represented than the others (which we of course have as well). Co-existence of the elements in harmony or conflict determines imbalances; lack or imbalances creates problems in body, mind, spirit; we call these problems illness.

Let's look at a person dominated by the Earth Element. She is of course living in a community, in interaction with other people, who have dominance of other (or the same) Elements, and within an environment that also consists in every facet of other Elements. An incredible many dimensional Web of existence unfolds. How do we find our way through it?

We look at the obvious. How does Earth relate to Water, Fire, Air and Space? What fields of interactions can we observe, how do they transfer to the life of the Earth Person?

An Example: The Earth-Person finds a friend who is a Fire person. The Fire Person likes to be dramatic, volatile and is very passionate; he is quickly enthusiastic and has great ideas, but nothing ever "works". The Earth Person has a knack, to make things work, through patience, applying herself steadfastly to the task, she makes the ideas of the fire person workable, manifest. Now the Fire-person has so many ideas, changing from one to the next- it leaves the Earth-person no time to realise anything. There is conflict. In nature, Fire when it burns too bright just sweeps over the Earth, leaving nothing but ashes, devastating Earth. Earth's quality thus is laid waste by the passion of Fire.

The wisdom in nature applies to individuals. Elements can be used to understand relationships and solve problems. How? In the above, when both Elements contribute their best, they work well together, if either becomes dominant, it devastates the other. To achieve balance between people is just as important as within ones body. Balance is the key; to balance the Elements is the key to personal physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Now it is easy to see, how the Elements can help even in psychology, in relationships; even in politics because nations too have dominant Elements; cultures too shape under the dominance of Elements. Conflicts have to be balanced where ever they arise, and they can be solved in the inner environment just as in the outer environment; in the physical, biological and political environment, and even in the domain of spirit and religion.

Are the Elements an inter-religious issue?

The Elements are gross energy, are of 'this world', they are the last step of pure subtle energy becoming matter, they are the bridge between the subtle and the manifest; thus they acknowledge their source as beyond themselves. Therefore it is in no conflict with any system that explains or labels the source; rather the opposite. It offers much needed reverence and respect in this world, to that which lies beyond itself. It is a spiritual door, to that which is beyond, not a belief system or dogma.

Quite the opposite, it's dynamic, it's observation of the Movement of Life and in that sense it is science, holistic science, universal science. Not science limited by laws, that limit what and how things can be observed. It's science as ontological, participatory science, science for the new Millennium.

Swami Nityamuktananda (formerly Dr. Herrmann) is the author of several published books including the acclaimed "The Five Elements", her commentary on "Shree Guru Geeta" and her latest publication Seeing Yoga – A Commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras go to www.thebehappystore.co.uk  for details. She also brings her wisdom of many years experience as an internationally recognised Raku potter.        back

© Dr Christa-Maria Herrmann 2000         

                                                                                                                                              Last Updated Jan 2005          1994, 1997, 2000 © Chris Deefholts; Peace Transmissions © C Deefholts 2000