Photo by Binyamin Mellish from Pexels
The final part of our exploration of the pañcabhūta concerns earth (pṛthivī), that which gives structure, solidity and stability to the system. Earth manifests in many ways within the human system but it is most apparent in the skeletal system which gives structure and stability to our body. Built from minerals that come from the earth via our food, we ourselves come from the earth that we stand on, reconstituted.
Earth manifests in different ways in different parts of the system according to its function. As alluded to previously, we ingest components of the earth through our food which itself comes from the earth, and assimilate them through digestion, before finally eliminating that which we no longer need, and so earth returns to earth. This reminds us that we are intrinsically part of nature; our manifest being is a composite of the same five elements as everything in the universe.
Pañcabhūta in the digestive process
The process of digestion as a whole clearly illustrates the inter-dependence and inter-relationship between these elements. Pṛthivī (earth) gives a structure, in this case the organs of the digestive tract. These are lubricated and protected by āpaḥ (water) as mucous. Agni (fire) provides the energy for transformation in digestion and vāyu (air/gas) is also a product of this process. Adequate ākāśa(space) is essential for all these to exist and function well.
If the elements are in harmony with each other digestion proceeds and the system is nourished and then cleansed. But if there is any imbalance, for example too little water or too much heat, problems will develop such as constipation (too dry), gastritis (too much heat). We can re-balance the system by addressing diet (ahāra), and appropriate practice: bṛmhana (with a focus on inhale) to stimulate function or laṅghana (with a focus on exhale) to pacify or reduce.
Pañcabhūta in the reproduction process
Another area that exemplifies the symbiotic relationship of the pañcabhūta is the area of reproduction or fertility. The earth component provides the container or womb into which seed is introduced, but there must also be warmth (fire) and moisture (water), as well as air and space for good germination or fertilisation, as with the seeds in the earth. Just like in the digestive processes, too little water (poor motility of sperm or egg) or excess heat can cause problems, as can other imbalances. We need all the five elements to be present in the appropriate ratio for health, what is called in Ayurveda, samadośa, a balanced constitution.
Pañcabhūta and Ayurveda
How do the pañcabhūta manifest in terms of the tridośa of Ayurveda? Vāta is a combination of space and air, pitta combines fire and air and kapha, earth and water and thus the pañcabhūta manifest in each of us uniquely as our own constitution. This is one reason why we need our own practice and regime to stay healthy; each of us needs a different proportion of the same five elements for our unique constitution to be in balance.
Photo by Sandra Percy
Pañcabhūta and the environment
In the Brahmānanda Vallī (Taittirīya Upaniṣad, chapter two), the fundamental link between the elements, in terms of the macrocosm and the life of humans, is portrayed in a description of creation. This could also be understood as the life-giving water cycle: the sun (fire) heats the ocean causing the formation of clouds (water) in the atmosphere (space) that are moved across the land by wind (air) and release their life-giving rain (water) back to the land (earth). This water eventually finds its way, via streams and rivers, back to the ocean and the whole cycle is repeated.
The rain and the warmth of the sun act on the earth so that the plants grow and all our food is produced. Our environment is crucially important because we ALL depend on it: if the planet is unhealthy, we are unhealthy. If the elements are polluted, we are polluted – dirty rivers and contaminated air are what we become. There is no separation.
Pañcabhūta and the individual
So, for this reason some reflection on our relationship to the pañcabhūta is appropriate: do I understand and respect my self and my relationship to the five elements and how they manifest within me? Acknowledging the elements and their role in my being and well-being can form a part of practice: firstly, recognising the space in which I stand and exist; then inhaling and moving into the space around me and the space within me; feeling the form that I inhabit, my contact with the earth, my weight, my substance and feeling that form enlivened, lightened and energised by the breath; feeling and acknowledging the warmth of my body as it moves; celebrating the synchronicity of the elements of which I am comprised and of which we are all comprised, as is the Earth, our home.
Through exploration, we can form a new relationship to what we are and how we can nourish and care for ourselves, and we can form a new relationship to our environment and how we can also nourish and care for that!