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Mahābhūta is Sanskrit and Pali for "great element".[1] However, very few scholars define the five mahābhūtas in a broader sense as the five fundamental aspects of physical reality.


In Hinduism's sacred literature, the "great" elements (mahābhūta) are fivefold: aether, air, fire, water and earth.[2][3] See also the Samkhya Karika of Ishvara Krishna, verse 22.

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

From this very self did aether come into being; from aether, air; from air, fire; from fire, water, from water, the earth; from the earth, organisms; from organisms, foods; and from foods, people. Different from and lying within this people formed from the essence of foods is the self consisting of lifebreath. Different from and lying within this self consisting of breath is the self consisting of mind. Different from and lying within this self consisting of mind is the self consisting of perception. Different from and lying within this self consisting of perception is the self consisting of bliss.[4]

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

Some wise people say it is inherent nature, while others say it is time – all totally deluded. It is rather the greatness of deities present in the world by means of which this wheel of brahman goes around. Whom always encompass this whole world – the knowers, the architects of time, the ones with and without qualities, and the all-knowing ones – it is at their commands that the work of creation, to be conceived of as earth, water, fire, air, and aether, unfolds itself.[5]

The same Upanishad also mentions, "When earth, water fire, air and aether 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 they are free from illness, old age and death." (Verse 2.12).[6]


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."[7] In this, 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,[8] 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 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)
    Earth element represents the quality of solidity or attractive forces. Any matter where attractive forces are in prominence (solid bodies) are called earth elements. Internal earth elements include head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, organs, intestinal material, etc.[9]
  • Water element (āpa-dhātu)
    Water element represents the quality of liquidity or relative motion. Any matter where relative motion of particles is in prominence are called water elements. Internal water elements include bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, nasal mucus, urine, semen, etc.[10]
  • Fire element (teja-dhātu)
    Fire element represents the quality of heat or energy. Any matter where energy is in prominence are called fire elements. Internal fire elements include those bodily mechanisms that produce physical warmth, ageing, digestion, etc.
  • Air (or wind) element (vāyu-dhātu)
    Air element represents the quality of expansion or repulsive forces. Any matter where repulsive forces are in prominence are called air elements. Internal air elements includes air associated with the pulmonary system (for example, for breathing), the intestinal system ("winds in the belly and bowels"), etc.

Any entity that carry one or more of these qualities (attractive forces, repulsive forces, energy and relative motion) are called matter (rupa). The material world is considered to be nothing but a combination of these qualities arranged in space (akasha). The result of these qualities are the inputs to our five senses, color (varna) to the eyes, smell (gandha) to the nose, taste (rasa) to the tongue, sound (shabda) to the ears, and touch (sparsha) to the body. The matter that we perceive in our mind are just a mental interpretation of these qualities.

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:[11]

  • Space element (ākāsha-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).[12]

Sensory qualities, not substances[edit]

While in the Theravada tradition, as well as in the earliest texts, like the Pali Canon, rūpa (matter or form) is delineated as something external, that actually exists,[13][14][15][16][17][18] in some of the later schools, like the Yogachara, or "Mind Only" school, and schools heavily influenced by this school, rupa 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. In some of these schools, rūpa is not a materiality which can be separated or isolated from cognizance; such a non-empirical category is incongruous in the context of some schools of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. In the Yogacara view, rūpa is not a substratum or substance which has sensibility as a property. For this school, it functions as perceivable physicality and matter, or rūpa, is defined in its function; what it does, not what it is.[19] As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic.[20] From this perspective, they are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.[21] This interpretation was hotly contested by some Madhyamaka thinkers like Chandrakirti.[22]

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.[23]

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

"Just as a skilled butcher and a assistant, having slaughtered a cattle, are sitting 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, the aether-element.' So they abide contemplating body in body internally."[24]

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.[25]

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 Footprints" MN 28)[26]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[27]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[28]

The Four Elements are also referenced in:

In addition, the Visuddhimagga XI.27ff has an extensive discussion of the Four Elements.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Or, more literally, "Great Natures." See Rhys Davids & Stede (1921–25), p. 507, entry for "Bhūta."[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ See, e.g., Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary where Mahābhūta is defined as: "a great element, gross [element] (of which 5 are reckoned, viz. aether, air, fire, water, earth, as distinguished from the subtle [element]s or Tanmātras.)." Monier-Williams (1899), p. 798, entry for "Mahā-," retrieved 24 December 2008 from "U. Cologne" at
  3. ^ Gopal, Madan (1990). K.S. Gautam (ed.). India through the ages. Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. p. 79.
  4. ^ TU 2.1–2.5, trans. Olivelle (1996), pp. 185–7.
  5. ^ SU 6.1–6.2, trans. Olivelle (1996), p. 263.
  6. ^ Shvetashvatara Upanishad
  7. ^ 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."
  8. ^ These elaborations on the elements can be found in the Majjhima Nikaya discourses nos. 28, 62, 140. See below for more information.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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).
  12. ^ Hamilton (2001), pp. 5, 35 n. 9. For more information regarding "primary/underived" and "secondary/derived" matter, see the article Rupa.
  13. ^ Bodhi, Bhikkhu, "The Connected Discourses", Wisdom Publications, 2000, chapter 22.94 "And what is it, bhikkhus, that the wise in the world agree upon as existing, of which I too say that it exists? Form that is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change: this the wise in the world agree upon as existing, and I too say that it exists. "
  14. ^ Narada Thera, "A Manual of Abhidhamma", Buddhist Missionary Society, 1956 pages 342–343 "Buddhism does not attempt to solve the problem of the ultimate origin of matter. It takes for granted that matter exists and states that rupa develops in four ways.
  15. ^ Bodhi, Bhikkhu, "The Long Discourses", Wisdom Publications, 1995, chapter 28 "If, friends, internally the eye is intact but no external forms come into its range, and there is no corresponding conscious engagement, then there is no manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness. If internally the eye is intact and external forms come into its range, but there is no corresponding conscious engagement, then there is no manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness. But when internally the eye is intact and external forms come into its range and there is the corresponding conscious engagement, then there is the manifestation of the corresponding section of consciousness." "Now there comes a time when the external water element is disturbed. It carries away villages, towns, cities, districts, and countries."
  16. ^ Karunadasa, Y, "A Buddhist Analysis of Matter", Wisdom Publications, 2020, pages 613 and 638 "Most of the schools of Indian thought, notably the Sāṃkhya, the Vedānta, and the Medical Tradition as represented by Caraka and Suśruta, recognize five mahābhūtas, or elemental substances... In the Nikāyas they are defined in simple and general terms and are illustrated mostly with reference to the constituents of the human body. Earth-element is that which is hard (kakkhaḷa) and rigid (kharigata) —for example, hair of the head or body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, etc. Water-element is water (āpo), or that which is watery (āpogataṃ) —for example, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, tears, etc. Fire-element is fire or heat (tejo), or that which is fiery (tejogataṃ) —for example, the heat in the body that transmutes food and drink in digestion. Air-element is air (vāyo), or that which is airy (vāyogataṃ) —for example, “wind discharged upward or downward, wind in the abdomen or belly, vapors that traverse the several members, inhaling and exhaling of breath.” These definitions seem to suggest that from its very beginning Buddhism did not make a radical departure from the popular conception of the mahābhūtas."
  17. ^ Karunadasa, Y. A Buddhist Analysis of Matter, Wisdom Publications, 2020, page 149 "This theory ensures that the object of direct and immediate perception is not an object of mental interpretation but something that is ultimately real."
  18. ^ Bodhi, Bhikkhu, A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma, Paryatti Publishing, 1993, page 3 "It is the dhammas alone that possess ultimate reality: determinate existence “from their own side” (sarupato) independent of the minds conceptual processing of the data. Such a conception of the nature of the real seems to be already implicit in the Sutta Pitaka, particularly in the Buddha’s disquisitions on the aggregates, sense bases, elements, dependent arising, etc.,…"
  19. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 183.
  20. ^ Dan Lusthaus, Buddhist Phenomenology: A Philosophical Investigation of Yogācāra Buddhism and the Chʼeng Wei-shih Lun. Routledge, 2002, page 184.
  21. ^ Noa Ronkin, Early Buddhist Metaphysics the Making of a Philosophical Tradition. Routledge, 2005, page 56.
  22. ^ Buddhist Philosophy Essential Readings, Edited by William Edelglass and Jay Garfield, Oxford Publications, 2009, Pages 309–319 "What sensible person would look at a passage from this same [Dasabhumikasutra] and imagine that consciousness exists as an independent thing (vastutah)? A notion like this is nothing more than dogmatic opinion. It follows that the expression "mind only" serves only to clarify that mind is the most significant element [in experience] This text should not be understood to assert that there is no objective form (rupa)." "One can certainly maintain that objective reality exists."
  23. ^ Dan Lusthaus, "What is and isn't Yogacara." He specifically discusses early Buddhism as well as Yogacara. "What is and isn't Yogacara". Archived from the original on 31 March 2010. Retrieved 12 January 2016..
  24. ^ Walshe (1995), p. 338.
  25. ^ B. Alan Wallace, The bridge of quiescence: experiencing Tibetan Buddhist meditation. Carus Publishing Company, 1998, page 257.
  26. ^ Thanissaro (2003b).
  27. ^ Thanissaro (2006).
  28. ^ Thanissaro (1997c).
  29. ^ Thanissaro (1997b).
  30. ^ Thanissaro (1997a).
  31. ^ Thanissaro (2003a).
  32. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 645–50.
  33. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 680–1; Thanissaro (2005).
  34. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 891–2; Thanissaro (2001).
  35. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 1237–9; Thanissaro (2004a).
  36. ^ Bodhi (2000), pp. 1251–3; Thanissaro (1998).
  37. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1806.
  38. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 697.
  39. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1006; Thanissaro (2004b).
  40. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1010
  41. ^ Bodhi (2000), p. 1014; Thanissaro (1994).
  42. ^ Thanissaro (1997).
  43. ^ Buddhaghosa (1999), pp. 343ff.