The indriyas, or senses, are the third major component of life described by Ayurveda. They arise out of the fundamental properties inherent in the five elements, a process which will be explained in detail in the next chapter. The indriyas act as a bridge between the non-physical parts of life: atma or soul and the mind on one side, and the physical body and environment on the other. Without the senses, our internal reality would be completely disconnected from our external reality.
Sharira, the body, is the fourth fundamental part of life. Ayurveda does not consider sharira to be any more important than the subtler parts of human life just described. It does, however, understand the body to be the vehicle through which we can influence these aspects and their connections with each other and the whole. The next several chapters are devoted to the Ayurvedic conception of the human body and the principles which govern its functioning.
The last aspect of human life to be elaborated is sharira, the physical body. When viewed in its proper perspective, the body is nothing less than an evolutionary wonder, an unbelievably complex instrument capable of supporting limitless possibilities for human life. This marvel of nature can be studied from many points of view. Our Western model has taught us to see the body as a thing or object composed of successively smaller objects: organs, cells, organelles, molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles.
In Ayurveda, the five elements of space, air, fire, water and earth and their corresponding organizing principles are termed respectively: akash, vayu, agni, jala and prithvi. In this book, we will favor the Sanskrit names because the common English terms do not accurately convey the true meaning of these principles. When we do use the terms air, fire, water, etc., understand that they are used in a figurative sense and are rarely meant to be taken literally. To do so tends to limit our ability to understand the utility of the five element theory.
Akash – Non-Resistance
(Space) – Sound
When we think of deep space, we imagine an incomprehensibly vast expanse of open, unobstructed nothingness. Yet, within this “no-thing-ness” is contained the possibility for things or objects to be present. This no-thing-ness is the element of space, and without it, nothing in the universe can exist nor can any process take place. Akash, the subtlest of the bhutas, serves as a matrix or medium in which the other bhutas can manifest. Objects in creation exist in relationship to one another by virtue of space. Space creates the relationship and allows us to have knowledge of things within our perceptual field. Because the essential nature of akash is free of objects, non-resistance is one of its basic properties. Nothing exists to offer resistance when akash is found by itself.
Vayu (Air) and its Qualities
Vayu – Movement
(Air) – Touch
In popular discussions of five-element theory, the element of vayu is often translated as air or wind, but this is only a figurative interpretation. The Ayurvedic classics clearly explain that movement is the essential organizing principle behind this bhuta. Since movement always implies direction, these two qualities are closely associated. Vayu originates and gives direction to all motion and change, and, as a result, to all processes and functions in creation.
Agni (Fire) and its Qualities
Agni – Coversion
(Fire) – Sight
Though popularly known as the fire element, agni’s essence is displayed in creation in many more ways than just the physical form of fire. Agni’s nature is best understood in terms of its universal organizing principle: the intelligence which causes all conversion or transformation in creation. This manifests as the qualities of heat and light, as well as that which gives color and visual form to all things.
Jala (Water) and its Qualities
Jala – Liquidity
(Water) – Taste
Jala, the fourth element to arise sequentially from cosmic intelligence, is often translated as “water.” Though water is of key importance to life on earth, it is imprecise to call it one of Ayurveda’s five elements. As with the other elements, jala’s universal organizing principle, or mahabhuta, offers a more complete picture. When we understand the mahabhuta of jala, we know that it embodies the principle of liquidity and cohesion. In organic life, jala is also responsible for increasing size, since water is the primary constituent of all living forms.
Prithvi (Earth) and its Qualities
Prithvi – Solidity
(Earth) – Smell
The sequential manifestation of the elements moves from subtle and abstract to gross and concrete. Consequently, prithvi or “earth,” the most solid of the elements, is the last to emerge. Solidity and structure describe the essence of the cosmic organizing principle for this element. Any substance or particle with shape, no matter what its size, indicates the presence of prithvi bhuta. All structure, whether in an atom, a molecule, a rock, a mountain, a planet, a solar system or a galaxy, is determined by prithvi. This element governs the shape and structure of every branch, leaf and flower in the plant kingdom and every organ, tendon, muscle and bone in the animal kingdom.
Modern medical knowledge has given us a very detailed understanding of the substances and structures that compose the human body. With the aid of modern technology, it has been able to probe deeply into the workings of organs, cells and even the minute organization of the DNA. However, even with this vast knowledge, it has not provided us with an understanding of the intelligences that initiate and coordinate all the various processes that go on within the human physiology.