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Mahābhūta is Sanskrit and Pāli for "great element."[1] In Buddhism, the "four great elements" (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) are earth, water, fire and air. Buddhism adds a fifth element as explained as sunyata or emptiness whereas in Hinduism the fifth element is ether which relates directly to the 'Spiritual Sky' or Akash.


Further information: The 36 tattvas

In Hinduism's sacred literature, the "great" or "gross" elements (mahābhūta) are fivefold: space (or "ether"), air, fire, water and earth.[2]

For instance, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad describes the five "sheaths" of a person (Sanskrit: purua), starting with the grossest level of the five evolving great elements:

From this very self (ātman) did space come into being; from space, air; from air, fire; from fire, the waters, from the waters, the earth; from the earth, plants; from plants, food; and from food, man.... Different from and lying within this man formed from the essence of food is the self (ātman) consisting of lifebreath.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of breath is the self (ātman) consisting of mind.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of mind is the self (ātman) consisting of perception.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of perception is the self (ātman) consisting of bliss....[3]

In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, God is identified as the source of the great elements:

Some wise men say it is inherent nature, while others say it is time – all totally deluded. It is rather the greatness of God present in the world by means of which this wheel of brahman goes around. Who always encompasses this whole world – the knower, the architect of time, the one without qualities, and the all-knowing one – it is at his command that the work of creation, to be conceived of as earth, water, fire, air, and space, unfolds itself.[4]

The same Upanishad also mentions, "When earth, water fire, air and akasa arise, when the five attributes of the elements, mentioned in the books on yoga, become manifest then the yogi's body becomes purified by the fire of yoga and he is free from illness, old age and death." (Verse 2.12).[5]


In Buddhism, the four Great Elements (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) are earth, water, fire and air. Mahābhūta is generally synonymous with catudhātu, which is Pāli for the "Four Elements."[6] In early Buddhism, the Four Elements are a basis for understanding that leads one through unbinding of 'Rupa' or materiality to the supreme state of pure 'Emptiness' or Nirvana.


In the Pali canon,[7] the most basic elements are usually identified as four in number but, on occasion, a fifth and, to an even lesser extent, a sixth element may be also be identified.

Four primary elements[edit]

In canonical texts, the four Great Elements refer to elements that are both "external" (that is, outside the body, such as a river) and "internal" (that is, of the body, such as blood). These elements are described as follows:

  • Earth element (pruhavī-dhātu)
    Internal earth elements include head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, organs, intestinal material, etc.[8]
  • Water (or liquid) element (āpa-dhātu)
    Internal water elements include bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, nasal mucus, urine, etc.[9]
  • Fire element (teja-dhātu)
    Internal fire elements include those bodily mechanisms that produce physical warmth, ageing, digestion, etc.
  • Air (or wind) element (vāyu-dhātu)
    Internal air elements includes air associated with the pulmonary system (for example, for breathing), the intestinal system ("winds in the belly and ... bowels"), etc.

These four elements are described as "primary" or "underived" (no-upādā) matter (rūpa), meaning that they cannot be analysed into further atomistic units. While underived, this does not mean that they are "unconditioned."[10] Thus, for instance, according to the 5th-century CE commentarial Visuddhimagga, "as to the proximate cause, each [element] has the other three as its proximate cause."[11]

Fifth and sixth elements[edit]

In addition to the above four elements of underived matter, two other elements are occasionally found in the Pali Canon:[12] This "space element" has also been identified as 'Emptiness' in Buddhist translations. Indeed space and consciousness are similes of 'Emptiness' and are considered lesser expressions or qualities of 'Emptiness.' 'Emptiness' by definition does not exist because it represents the absence of all materiality,and so, to lend a temporal nature and/or material form to the 'Emptiness' element, some modern Buddhist interpretations are describing the 'Emptiness element' as space and consciousness. Certainly one does not need to derive a sixth element when the true fifth element of 'Emptiness' is understood which contains both space and consciousness and is beyond space and consciousness in its truer, more pure selfless 'Empty' nature.

  • Space element (ākāsa-dhātu)
    Internal space elements includes bodily orifices such as the ears, nostrils, mouth, anus, etc.
  • Consciousness element (viññāa-dhātu)
    Described as "pure and bright" (parisuddha pariyodāta), used to cognise the three feelings (vedana) of pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, and the arising and passing of the sense contact (phassa) upon which these feelings are dependent.

According to the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the "space element" is identified as "secondary" or "derived" (upādā).[13]

Sensory qualities, not substances[edit]

Rūpa (matter) means both materiality and sensibility—it signifies, for example, a tactile object both insofar as that object is tactile and that it can be sensed. Rūpa is never a materiality which can be separated or isolated from cognizance; such a non-empirical category is incongruous in the context of early Buddhism. Rūpa is not a substratum or substance which has sensibility as a property. It functions in early Buddhist thought as perceivable physicality. Matter, or rūpa, is defined in its function; what it does, not what it is.[14] As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic.[15] They are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.[16]

Soteriological uses[edit]

The Four Elements are used in Buddhist texts to both elucidate the concept of suffering (dukkha) and as an object of meditation. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterisation as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction – instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.[17]

Understanding suffering[edit]

The Four Elements pertinence to the Buddhist notion of suffering comes about due to:

  • The Four Elements are the primary component of "form" (rūpa).
  • "Form" is first category of the "Five Aggregates" (khandhas).
  • The Five Aggregates are the ultimate basis for suffering (dukkha) in the "Four Noble Truths."

Schematically, this can be represented in reverse order as:

Four Noble Truths → Suffering → Aggregates → Form → Four Elements

Thus, to deeply understand the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, it is beneficial to have an understanding of the Great Elements.

Meditation object[edit]

In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness," DN 22), in listing various bodily meditation techniques, the Buddha instructs:

"...Just as if a skilled butcher or his assistant, having slaughtered a cow, were to sit at a crossroads with the carcass divided into portions, so a monk reviews this very body ... in terms of the elements: 'There are in this body the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, the air-element.' So he abides contemplating body in body internally...."[18]

In the Visuddhimagga's well-known list of forty meditation objects (kammaṭṭhāna), the great elements are listed as the first four objects.

B. Alan Wallace compares the Theravada meditative practice of "attending to the emblem of consciousness" to the practice in Mahamudra and Dzogchen of "maintaining the mind upon non-conceptuality", which is also aimed at focusing on the nature of consciousness.[19]

Buddhist sources[edit]

In the Pali canon, the Four Elements are described in detail in the following discourses (sutta):

  • Mahahatthipadompama Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint," MN 28)[20]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[21]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[22]

The Four Elements are also referenced in:

In addition, the Visuddhimagga XI.27ff has an extensive discussion of the Four Elements.[37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Or, more literally, "Great Natures." See Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–25), p. 507, entry for "Bhūta."
  2. ^ See, e.g., Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary where Mahābhūta is defined as: "a great element, gross el[ement] (of which 5 are reckoned, viz. ether, air, fire, water, earth ..., as distinguished from the subtle el[ement] or Tanmātra...)." Monier-Williams (1899), p. 798, entry for "Mahā-," retrieved 24 Dec 2008 from "U. Cologne" at
  3. ^ TU 2.1–2.5, trans. Olivelle (1996), pp. 185–7.
  4. ^ SU 6.1–6.2, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 263.
  5. ^ Shvetashvatara Upanishad
  6. ^ Note that the Pāli word dhātu is used in multiple contexts in the Pāli canon. For instance, Bodhi (2000), pp. 527–8, identifies four different ways that dhātu is used including in terms of the "eighteen elements" and, as in this article, in terms of "the four primary elements."
  7. ^ These elaborations on the elements can be found in the Majjhima Nikaya discourses nos. 28, 62, 140. See below for more information.
  8. ^ The traditional list of body parts associated with the earth element are the first 19 of 31 body parts – from head hair to feces – identified in the Pali Canon with the contemplation of Patikulamanasikara, with the catch all phrase of "or whatever else internal, within oneself, is hard, solid, & sustained" (trans. Thanissaro, 2003b) added.
  9. ^ The traditional list of water-element body parts are the latter twelve of 31 body parts – from bile to urine – identified in Patikulamanasikara contemplations, with the catch all phrase of "or whatever else internal, within oneself, is liquid, watery, & sustained" (trans. Thanissaro, 2003b) added.
  10. ^ E.g., see Hamilton (2001), pp. 5–6.
  11. ^ Buddhaghosa (1999), Vism. XIV.35, p. 443.
  12. ^ The "space element" is encountered more frequently in the canonical discourses than is the "consciousness element." Examples of discourses that include both of these latter elements are DN 33 (Walshe, 1995, p. 500, para. 16), MN 140 (Thanissaro, 1997c), and SN 27.9 (Thanissaro, 1994).
  13. ^ Hamilton (2001), pp. 5, 35 n. 9. For more information regarding "primary/underived" and "secondary/derived" matter, see the article [[Rupa (Buddhism)|]].
  14. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  15. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 184.
  16. ^ Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, 2005, page 56.
  17. ^ Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogacara." He specifically discusses early Buddhism as well as Yogacara. [1].
  18. ^ Walshe (1995), p. 338.
  19. ^ B. Alan Wallace, The bridge of quiescence: experiencing Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Carus Publishing Company, 1998, page 257.
  20. ^ Thanissaro (2003b).
  21. ^ Thanissaro (2006).
  22. ^ Thanissaro (1997c).
  23. ^ Thanissaro (1997b).
  24. ^ Thanissaro (1997a).
  25. ^ Thanissaro (2003a).
  26. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 645–50.
  27. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 680–1; Thanissaro (2005).
  28. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 891–2; Thanissaro (2001).
  29. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 1237–9; Thanissaro (2004a).
  30. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251–3; Thanissaro (1998).
  31. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1806.
  32. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 697.
  33. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1006; Thanissaro (2004b).
  34. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1010
  35. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1014; Thanissaro (1994).
  36. ^ Thanissaro (1997).
  37. ^ Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.