The Elements: Addendum to The Five Sources of Pain

pentagram displaying the generative and supporting cycles of the five elements

Generative and supporting cycles of the five elements

Last time, I went into a good deal of depth in defining each of the sources of pain and how they can manifest. If you haven’t read the first two pieces in this series, I suggest that you do so, though the contents of this post can stand alone.

I imagine that everyone reading this is already familiar with the idea of the classical elements: earth, water, fire, and air. Some in the West add a fifth called by various names and conceptualized quite differently depending on your source; it may be called ether, spirit, mind, quintessence, azoth, prima materia, or any number of other things, but there is generally at least an assumption of a fifth element which somehow transcends and unites the classical four. These five are then mapped onto a pentagram. There are a number of ways to do this, as well, but the better ones place emphasis on how the elements relate to one another when doing so. The Indian system of elements which I prefer to use is very much the same.

Referring to the diagram above, if you are familiar with popular forms of Western occultism you may immediately notice the difference in elemental attributions on the points of the pentagram. Clockwise from the top, they are: space, fire, earth, air, water. (For reference, the common Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn attribution would go clockwise: spirit, water, fire, earth, air.) The lines of the pentagram represent one of the major relationships between the elements, and the circle commonly inscribed around the points of the pentagram shows the other. More on this as we progress.

Before we enter into the elements individually, we must have an answer to the question: What are the elements really? From the perspective of physics and chemistry, they are not atoms in the modern sense because we have a reasonably long catalog of those, far more than four or five, and the modern atoms are divisible (making them, by definition, not atoms). According to some Indian sources, the elements are indeed atoms — properly indivisible — much subtler than our instruments are capable of detecting, possibly subtler than physical instruments are in principle capable of detecting, but responsible for all physical manifestation.

A phenomenological approach prefers to say that they are the atoms of experience, neither fully material nor fully mental but somehow bridging the two realms. This is the Yogic perspective which sees the elements as real forces which are themselves purely subjective but without which the whole category of “object” (in the sense of that which is observed or experienced by a subject) could not exist. These elements are known in Sanskrit as mahābhutas — literally “great existences” or even “big ghosts”. This hints at their quasi-material nature while also underlining their significance in human experience.

Even more subtle than the mahābhutas, however, are the tanmātras. There isn’t room here for a full exploration of those, but as it is necessary to mention them individually as part of the discussion of elements it’s worth defining them for those not familiar with Indian philosophy. “Tanmātra” is often translated as “subtle element” but may also be rendered “trifle”, “essence”, or “potential”. While the elements are atomic in a physical sense, it is possible to divide them further into the sensory data they encode: these sensory data are the tanmātras. As matter becomes more and more subtle, fewer and fewer senses are capable of giving us an apprehension of it. For Yogis and magicians, this includes the so-called astral or psychic senses as well. For example, earth is detectable with all five senses while water is too subtle to be smelled, and fire cannot even be tasted but may still be felt, seen, and heard. The tanmātras are therefore the purely subjective interiority of the mahābhutas.

Space (ākāśa) is the origin, ground, and contextual matrix of the other four elements. It is both the void in which everything takes shape and moves and the potential-substance out of which the other elements arise. It is the essence of movement, and so the manifestation of time: change must occur in relation to something in order to be measured and space supplies this omnipresent relationship. Space is detectable only through the sense of hearing or, more precisely, the sense of vibration which we usually notice as sound but which we can also feel in our organs and “in our bones”. Uses of sound in ritual such as mood music, bells, drums, and so on, are effects of space and bells and drums are often played as etheric offerings in puja. As this all extends to the psychic realm, even imagined sound is used as an offering in Tantric ritual. If something more steady or tangible is necessary as an offering, flowers are common as a way of gently drawing attention to a particular point in space: flowers making a circle around the working area, around the altar, or around the image of the particular deity invoked, etc. Space gives rise directly to wind simply by giving it a context in which to exist. All that movement and change require in order to exist is opportunity. Space supports and feeds fire in the same way; fire needs space in which to spread, always outward from its center.

Air or Wind (vāyu) is yet grosser movement within space. This usually manifests as heat, so the sense of temperature differences — but also “touch” or “feeling” in general, though these are also sometimes considered to be merely extensions of hearing — is the tanmātra associated with air. Wind, however, can be apprehended both by hearing and feeling. Ritual offerings associated with air are mostly breath itself, which is often symbolized by incense; though the smell is more to do with earth (see below), the movement of the smoke rising from the heat is symbolic of wind. Air gives rise to fire through intensification of heat and feeds water by moving things out of place and forcing combinations.

Fire (agni) is fully manifest energy; where wind can move things about, fire transforms them. Fire, of course, emits heat and it makes noise while doing so, so it is apprehensible by the senses of touch and hearing, but it also emits light which is its defining tanmatra. Every source of light in the universe is therefore a form of fire, and this includes psychological levels: fire also represents the conceptual ability to shed light on ideas and experiences, thus transforming or refining them. Technically, this tanmatra is not light but form; light reveals form in its fullness, though, so light often stands in for form — but know that anything which reveals form is related to fire. Naked flame is the best ritual offering to do with fire, and other offerings may be given up to the flame if appropriate and practical. Ideally, the flame (candle, lamp, pit fire) should be the only artificial light source (as in, other than the Sun, Moon, and stars) during meditation or ritual practice. Fire gives rise to water by clearing away obstacles to its flowing and producing a midpoint between itself and its opposite of solid earth. It also feeds earth by transforming substances into one another; consider the soil cycle which requires the transformation of dead organisms in order to release chemicals for new and existing lifeforms to grow.

Water (jala or apa) is the first experience we tend to recognize as matter: gas and liquid are both fluid states which water represents. Wind is not gaseous matter in particular but movement in and through space. Water introduces the tanmatra of taste — rasa or “essence” — which is the most intimate of the senses for the need to absorb a bit of the substance being tasted. While water can be apprehended through sound, touch, and sight, it is characterized by taste. Purely physically, it is the presence of saliva and other liquids in the mouth which make it possible to taste foods. The best watery offerings, then, are liquid water, wine, or fruit juice as flavor either potential or realized. Water gives rise to earth by introducing inertia, and feeds space by its tendency to passively take the shape of any space into which it is placed without the need to actively expand to fill it.

Earth (pṛthivī or bhumi) is the possibility and fact of solid matter and of anything that plays the roll of “foundation” or “bedrock”. It is manifestation, fully; while water may provide the possibility of fluids, without earth to provide all forms of cohesion even the chemical atoms and molecules which make up matter would not be possible. It is possible therefore to refer to earth as “gravity”, provided we do not confuse it with the purely technical sense of modern physics but as all tendencies to come together and cohere. Psychologically, it is also something like Nietzsche’s “spirit of gravity”, though it must be understand that this is not purely negative but has its necessary function in keeping the personality together during day-to-day life. Earth is available to all five senses, but is characterized especially by smell as relatively large particles of a substance are necessary for smell receptors to be able to detect them and this shows how far along we are in the process of materialization. Earthy ritual offerings include the scent of incense or, especially when some material result is required, fruit, pastries, candy, or even meat. Earth does not give rise to anything else, being the most dense of the elements and the final principle of manifestation, but it does provide the equilibrium necessary for continued movement in space to be meaningful. Earth feeds or upholds air by providing a counterpoint to it, the still object by which movement is made meaningful and which provides the solid base against which moving objects may push off or strike.

If you reverse either the cycle of feeding or that of generation, you will see the cycles of undermining or starvation and that of dissolution. Just as too much of an element during the generation and/or feeding cycles can throw the process out of balance and require other elements to compensate, too little of an element also requires compensation and generally brings exhaustion. Nevertheless, the dissolution cycle has its productive use in spiritual practice as exemplified in Raja Yoga, Chan/Zen, Dzogchen, and similar practices.

Just as the Indian attributions of elements to the points of the pentagram differ from Western sources, their planetary associations in astrology and astrological magic are also different. This may not be immediately relevant to all readers, but enough of you will likely find it interesting enough to be worth a brief survey.

Unlike Western astrology, Jyotish does not associate the two luminaries directly with the elements. While the Moon rules over water and the Sun rules over fire, the Moon and the Sun are not “watery” or “fiery” because they project those elements rather than presiding over and being influenced by them. When reading a chart in which one or both of the luminaries is exceptionally significant, the corresponding element is likely in the native’s life in force, but usually in a more primal and polar manner than is the case with the other planets. Franz Bardon’s “magnetic fluid” and “electric fluid” make good stand-ins for the elemental influence of the Moon and Sun, respectively. That leaves us with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter.

According to the sage Parashara in his Hora Sastra, Mercury is the planet of earth, Venus that of water, Mars of fire, Saturn of wind, and Jupiter of space. There is a reciprocal influence, here: each planet, as an intelligence and deity, presides over its corresponding element and is most strongly of that element and therefore influenced by its nature. In brief, we can say that Mercury is the planet of manifestation (which includes but is not limited to thinking, designing, and communicating); Venus is the planet of taste, essence, vitality, and fertility; Mars is the planet of strength, energy, courage, will, and transformation; Saturn is the planet of disease, disorder, aridity, coldness, roughness, loss, and the steadfastness necessary to weather all of these; and Jupiter is the planet of generosity, expansiveness, order, legitimate authority, and learning. The elemental associations are rather obvious in these attributions.

The same cycles we examined for the elements above, those of generation and of feeding, are equally true of the planets in their elemental ordering. Jupiter therefore gives rise to Saturn as order automatically creates disorder and as the expansiveness of space leaves gaps of cold aridity; Saturn gives rise to Mars as the will, courage, and aggression which develop in the face of hardship; Mars gives rise to Venus as the vitality needed to carry out Mars’s will and the desire to give it constructive form; Venus gives rise to Mercury by providing much-needed vitality and the will of Mars filtered through a sense of beauty and taste all to the end of bringing something to manifestation in the world of shared experience; finally, Mercury gives strength to Jupiter by providing the wealth and knowledge upon which generosity and authority are founded.

Similarly, Jupiter’s providence, knowledge, and meaning give purpose to Mars in his strength and courage; the power and will of Mars fuels the skill and intelligence of Mercury; Mercury’s creations feed and are necessitated by the depredations of Saturn; Saturn’s harshness inspires beauty in a healthy Venus; and the beauty, vitality, and artistry of Venus inspires the sense of meaning which feed Jupiter.

While these cycles are not aligned with the parentage of each planetary deity in puranic myth, and there is plenty of useful information to tease out of these myths, the present diagramatic cycles are intended more to display relationships between the powers and faculties represented by the planets in the individual’s makeup — being especially useful in spiritual, psychological, and physical health matters. These relationships are also very important in astrological remediation and magical methods. So, for example, if one’s Mars is quite weak or afflicted, it is likely that the native’s space is starving their fire; we can then quickly determine that propitiation of Jupiter by way of donations or service is in order, followed by strengthening of Mars with a talisman to restore healthy fire. Similarly, a weak Venus starves Jupiter of the experience of beauty and liveliness which allows for a sense of meaning, so strengthening Venus will give Jupiter a greater capacity to bring his gifts into the native’s life.

In the next article, we will see how these same relationships apply to the Kleshas and begin to explore how we can actually make use of them.


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