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
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,
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
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
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
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