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Panch Tattva – A Perspective From Various Religions

Dr. D. P. Singh

Apr 7, 2006
Nangal, India
Panch Tattva – A Perspective from Various Religions[/FONT]

Dr. D. P. Singh

Ancient Greek and Indian philosophy describes four classical or basic elements of creation and life. These elements are named as earth, water, air and fire. Sometime a fifth element Aether (quintessence) is also included. In the Western tradition, the concept originated from Babylonian mythology. Enuma Elis, a text written in 1800 -1600 BC, describes five cosmic elements as the sea, earth, fire, sky and wind [1].

Empedocles (ca. 490–430 BC) called these the four “roots”. Plato (424 BC – 348 BC), was first to use the term “element” in reference to air, fire, earth, and water [2]. The Greek word for element, stoicheion meant "smallest division”, a smallest unit from which a word / thing is formed”. Aristotle added aether (quintessence) reasoning that the stars must be made of a different, unchangeable, heavenly substance [3].

These five basic elements (Panch Tattva)of nature are also known as ‘the elements of life’ or ‘the elements of survival’. It is important to note that within these, and through these, life has prevailed and evolved. Without these elements life could not exist. Thereby, with the passage of time, number five has got special significance in almost all the religions.

Five – A Special Number

In Christianity number five has a special significance in terms of the ‘Five Wounds of Jesus Christ’ (e. g. the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, the wounds in Christ's hands, the wounds in Christ's feet, and the side wound of Christ). The book of Psalms of the Jewish is also arranged into five books. The holy scripture of the Jews - The Torah- contains five books— Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These are collectively called the Five Books of Moses [4].

In Taoism the five precepts constitute the basic code of ethics. The five basic precepts are: ‘no murdering’; ‘no stealing’; ‘no sexual misconduct’; ‘no false speech’; ‘no taking of intoxicants’. In Buddhism also there are five precepts, which constitute the basic Buddhist code of ethics. These five precepts are commitments to ‘abstain from harming living beings’, ‘stealing’, ‘sexual misconduct’, ‘lying’ and ‘intoxication’.

There are five basic ‘pillars’ of Islam, which are; ‘the shahada (creed)’; ‘daily prayers ( salat)’; ‘almsgiving (zakat)’; ‘fasting during Ramadan (sawm)’; and ‘the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once in a lifetime’. Muslims pray to Allah five times a day. In Shia Islam, the Panjetan or the five holy purified ones are the members of Muhammad's family: Muhammad, Ali, Fatima, Hasan, and Husayn [5].

In Hinduism Vasant Panchami is a festival celebrating Saraswati, the goddess of Knowledge, music, and art. It is celebrated every year on the fifth day (Panchami) of the Indian month Magh (January-February), the first day of spring. Nāg Panchamī is another festival during which religious Hindus in some parts of India worship either images of or live cobras on the fifth day after Amavasya of the month of Shraavana.

In Sikhism, also, number five is associated with several important aspects of the religion e.g. five Takhats, five banis of Nitnem, five Beloved Ones, five sacred Sikh Symbols - Panj Kakars (e.g. Kesh (unshorn hair), Kangha (the comb), Kara (the steel bracelet), Kachhehra (the soldiers shorts) and Kirpan (the sword)). Five Virtues (e.g. Sat (Truth), Santokh (Contentment), Daya (Compassion), Nimrata (Humility) and Pyare (Love)). Five Evils (Vikaar) (e.g. Kaam (Lust), Krodh (Anger), Lobh (Greed), Moh (Attachment), and Ahankaar (Ego)).

Even in ordinary life, number five has special significance as well. Human beings are blessed with five senses e.g. hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. There are five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Also almost all amphibians, reptiles & mammals, which have fingers or toes have five of them on each extremity. The Olympic Games’ symbol contains five interlocked rings. There are five permanent members with veto power in the United Nations Security Council. Also it was a committee of five members which drafted the US Declaration of Independence.

The Classical or Basic Elements

In Hinduism Pancha Mahabhuta (five great elements) are named as bhumi (earth), jala (water), agni (fire), pavan (air), shunya or akash (void or aether). All the creation (including human being) is made up of these five basic elements. Upon death, the human body dissolves into these elements, balancing the cycle of nature. Akasha, the most subtle element, was used to create the other four elements. Each element created is in turn used to create the next element, each less subtle than the last [5].

The five elements are associated with the five senses. They act as the gross medium for the experience of sensations. Basest element, earth, was created using all the other elements. Earth can be perceived by all five senses-hearing, touch, sight, taste, smell. Next higher element, water, has no odor but can be heard, felt, seen and tasted. Fire, can be heard, felt and seen. Air can be heard and felt. Akasha is the medium of sound but is inaccessible to all other senses.

In Tibetan Philosophy five elemental processes of earth, water, fire, air and space are the essential materials of all existent phenomena. T. W. Rinpoche (1961- ) states that the physical properties assigned to these elements are earth (solidity); water (cohesion); fire (temperature); air (motion); space (spatial dimension). From the five elements arise the five senses and the five fields of sensual experience. They are the five primary pranas or vital energies. They are the constituents of every physical, sensual, mental, and spiritual phenomenon [6-7].

In Japanese tradition these elements of Nature are called as ‘go dai’, literally ‘five great’. These elements are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void [5]. Earth represented things that were solid. Water represented things that were liquid. Fire represented things that destroy. Air represented things that moved. Void or Spirit represented things not of our everyday life.

In Taoism five elements (or phases) are slightly different than their classical counterpart. These elements are - Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wood. Here air is replaced with qi, which is a force or energy rather than an element. According to Taoism, Universe consists of heaven and earth. The heaven is made of qi and earth is made of five elements [5]. Yin, Yang and five elements are recurring themes in the oldest Chinese classical text I Ching. The Doctrine of five phases describes two cycles of balance, a generating or creation cycle and an overcoming or destruction cycle of interactions between the phases.

In Chinese tradition a somewhat different series of elements, namely Fire, Earth, Water, Metal and Wood. These were understood as different types of energy in a state of constant interaction and flux with one another, rather than the different kinds of material. Although, usually translated as ‘element’, the Chinese word xing literally means something like ‘changing states of being’ [5]. These elements were seen as ever changing and moving forces or energies. One translation of wu xing is simply ‘the five changes’.

In Pali Literature, the mahabhuta (great elements) or catudhatu (four elements) are earth, water, fire and air. Four primary material elements are the sensory qualities; solidity (earth), fluidity (water), temperature (fire), mobility (air). With these elements, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived [8]. Thanissaro Bhikku (1997) renders an extract of Shakyamuni Buddha's from Pali into English thus: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property [6].’

In Sikhism, panch tattva (five classical or basic elements) are ap (water), tej (fire), vaaye (air), pirthmi (earth) and akash (aether) [9-11]. Gurbani describes that the Creator created all these elements from the Primal Void. It elaborates that all of creation, including the human body, is made up of these five basic elements. Upon death, the human body dissolves into these five elements, thereby balancing the cycle of Nature.
ਅਪੁ ਤੇਜੁ ਵਾਇ ਪ੍ਰਿਥਮੀ ਆਕਾਸਾ॥[/FONT]ਤਿਨ ਮਹਿ ਪੰਚ ਤਤੁ ਘਰਿ ਵਾਸਾ॥[/FONT] (1- [/FONT]ਪੰਨਾ 1031[/FONT])
Water, fire, air, earth and aether, in that house of the five elements, they dwell. (Mehl 1, p 1031)

Panch Tattva - the five elements of nature are basically classical in nature and are not resonant with the concept of element as referred in modern science. According to modern science, air is a mixture of several gaseous elements and compounds, water is a compound, earth or soil is also a mixture of several solid compounds. Fire is electromagnetic energy. Aether or Akasha is closest parallel to space-time continuum.

An element is made up of atoms. An atom is the smallest division of a substance to exist independently, and contains the characteristics of the substance. Scientists have discovered that there are 92 naturally occurring elements. For example Helium gas is an element. A compound is made up of two or more elements. For example water is a compound of oxygen and hydrogen elements. Thus these classical elements cannot be treated as elements in the modern sense.

However Panch Tattva is a classical concept to explain the phenomenon of the world and life. A brief introduction of these classical elements is as under;


Air is of fundamental importance to life. It is provider of breath to living beings. Ancient Greeks called it ‘aer’ meaning the dim lower atmosphere [4]. It can’t be seen, held or captured or tamed, but can be felt. It influences the weather, the seasons and represents the essence of time. It can be destructive (as a howling Tornado) as well as soothing (as a gentle breeze). It can be oppressive, hot & stifling (as in summer and rainy season). It can be cool and calming (as in spring and autumn). It is resonant with the gaseous state of matter.


In order to survive, plant, animal or sentient life to a large degree, depend on the water element. It is the most common liquid on earth. Water gives much, but takes as easy everything back. Water as the "primal liquid", appears in different shapes and forms. In its natural state Water can be salty or fresh. Fresh water is found in wells or in rivers. Salt water is mostly found on seas. Water is an unpredictable element. It can cause death and destruction upon those living near open Water, but it also grants life. It is a mysterious element; it can disappear in no time on a hot day in front of your eyes and nobody knows for sure where it has gone. In Nature, water is resonant with the liquid state of matter.


Earth encompasses all the living and non-living substances, within the terrestrial environment. Its diversity is of extremely high order. Earth represents nourishment on all levels. It is an essential element of life, an element of survival. It represents the solid phase of matter.


The ancient name of this element of nature is Fire whereas the modern scientific name of it is electromagnetic energy. It has two types based on its origin; Terrestrial fire (camp-fire, forest fire) and Cosmic fire (sunshine, stars). It provides heat and light. It is prime-mover of the life sustaining water-cycle. It is also primary source of energy for photosynthesis. It is a creator as well as destroyer. It can heal or harm. It can bring about new life or destroy the old and worn.

Aether or Akasha

Between the four elements (air, earth, fire & water) is the finely dispersed fifth element called Aether. The Ethereal substance is so delicate that it is all permeating. Aether has no direction, yet it encompasses all directions. It is the Center, the circumference, above and below. It is beyond seasons and time, yet is all seasons and time. In Hindu philosophy, Akasha or Aether is the One, Eternal, All Pervading and imperceptible physical substance. It is the substratum of the quality of sound. Akasha is actually an East Indian word meaning inner-space, reflecting our belief that the universe is both within and without us. Aether is in many ways the strongest element. It is the scaffolding of reality, it holds it up, it is the adhesive of reality, it holds it together. Though Aether mostly follows time’s steady flow, it also seems to exist with some degree of independence.

The above referred religious philosophies, although differ in many details, yet they all emphasize the basic unity of the universe, through the recognition of Panch Tattva as the basis of creation. It is pointed out that through a continuous exchange between these elements and the creation, the cycles of creation and destruction are balanced. Thus the knowledge of Panch Tattva, makes us aware of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things. It helps us to transcend the notion of an isolated individual self and to identify ourselves with the ultimate reality.

1. Francesca Rochberg (December 2002). "A consideration of Babylonian astronomy within the historiography of science". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 33 (4): 661–684. [/FONT]
2. Plato, Timaeus, ch. 27, p. 83.[/FONT]
3. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plat.+Tim.+48b[/FONT]. [/FONT]
4. W.K.C. Guthrie[/FONT], A History of Greek Philosophy, vol. 1, pp. 466, 470-71.[/FONT]
5 http://en. wikipedia.org/wiki/ Classical_elementhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_element [/FONT]
6. Majihima Nikaya[/FONT]. "Kayagata-sati Sutta[/FONT][/FONT]". p. 119. [/FONT]http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.119.than.html[/FONT]. Retrieved 2009-01-30. [/FONT]
7. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (2002). Healing with Form, Energy, and Light. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications. p. 1. [/FONT]ISBN[/FONT]1559391766[/FONT]. [/FONT]
8. Dan Lusthaus[/FONT]. [/FONT]"What is and isn't [/FONT]Yogacara[/FONT]"[/FONT]. [/FONT]http://www.acmuller.net/yogacara/articles/intro-uni.htm[/FONT]. [/FONT]
9. http://www.gurugranthdarpan.com/darpan2/0736.html[/FONT], p 736[/FONT]
10. Sri Guru Granth Sahib, (Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji), 1983 (Reprint), S.G.P.C., Amritsar, p1430.[/FONT]
11. http://www.srigranth.org/servlet/gurbani.gurbani?S=y[/FONT] (English translation of Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji by Sant Singh Khalsa) [/FONT]

*Dr. D. P. Singh M. Sc., Ph. D. is a Teacher and a Writer, who specializes in writing on religious, scientific and environmental topics. He has 20 books and about 1000 articles to his credit in these fields.[/FONT]


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Brother Onam

Jul 11, 2012
I am just a stray dog in Sikhi, but if I am not mistaken, in the end of Jap Ji, there is also a description of the five levels of heavenly consciousness; the five Khands.
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