A visitor to Kerala, Ayurveda’s Own Country, asked one of the physicians of this ancient science of life what the basic elements of Ayurveda were. He was rather stunned by the reply, “You are!” The physician went on to explain that according to Ayurveda, Man is the epitome of the universe. Within each individual there is as much diversity as there is in the universe. Everything in the Universe, including the human body is made up of five elements- earth, fire, water air and space. Now we must understand that when we speak of any of these elements like fire, it should not be taken literally. Rather, the term refers to characteristics of fire, like heat and combustion. Ether is the most subtle of the 5 elements and has its origin from consciousness itself. Air has its origin from ether, fire originates from air, water has its origin from fire, and earth has its origin from water and is the densest of the 5 elements. The human body is made up of millions of cells, and when these five elements are in harmony, the body is healthy, self perpetuating and self correcting – just as the universe is.
The five elements together are known as the Panchamahabutas. The most subtle, Akash is space. It is fine, subtle, soft, light, porous, and smooth. In the body, aakash is found in its tubes and channels, like the blood and lymph vessels, pores, and the intestinal tract. Vayu or air is the gaseous form of matter. It is mobile, dynamic, light, cold, rough, fine, subtle, and dry. Air flows freely throughout the body, controls breathing, feeds the cells with oxygen and helps to give movement to biological functions. Agni or fire is hot, sharp, subtle, fine, light, slightly sticky, and radiant in quality. Agni is found in the heat and energy of the body. Agni transforms food into energy. It creates the impulses of nervous reactions, our feelings, and even our thought processes. Jala or water is liquid, sticky, cold, soft, compact, heavy, and moist in quality. Water constitutes the liquids of the body. A large part of the human body is made up of water. Our blood, lymph, and other fluids move between our cells and through our vessels, bringing energy, and carrying away wastes, regulating temperature, fighting disease, and carrying hormonal information from one area to another. Finally there is earth or prithvi, the solid state of matter. Earth is heavy, hard, stable, compact, rigid, and dense in quality. Bones, teeth, muscles, fat, and the structure of the different organs are derived from the earth element.
Every substance in our world is made up of these five substances. All substances can be classified according to their predominant element. For example, a mountain contains earth, water, fire, air and ether. But as earth is the predominant element, it is classified as “prithvi”. As for you and me, we too are an assemblage of the five great elements or panchamahabutas… plus the ‘immaterial self’ which is what makes us what we are.