The Sāńkhya Theory of Five Elements

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Introduction and Overview

This article elaborates on the Sāńkhya theory of the five “gross” elements. The theory is rather complicated, and not well-understood today. One primary source of confusions is a comparison between the Sāńkhya elements and the Greek elements going by the same name. This article will hopefully illustrate how the Sāńkhya elements are deeply enmeshed with a model of perception and a science involving the rule of demigods in the material world that has no precedent. The classic Vedic text Śrimad Bhāgavatam (SB) is used in this discussion rather than the later texts like Sāṁkhyakārikā.

Overview of the Five Elements in SB

One of the hallmarks of the SB description of the five elements is that it has two parts.

  • The first part is divided into three components called ādidaivika, ādiatmika, and ādibhautika, which results in a three-fold division of demigods, senses, and tanmātra.
  • The second part is also divided into three components, but this time the division begins with tanmātra, which then produces the element and a sense.

The elements are the widely known aspect of Sāńkhya, but they are in fact 4th in the hierarchy. Incredibly confusing is the fact that senses are described to be part of both the above schemes, which presents a difficulty that we need to resolve through a better understanding, which I will do here.

Before we step any further, let’s ground ourselves into some of the essential ideas.

Demigods, Senses, and Sensations

The first key idea is that of ādidaivika, ādiatmika, and ādibhautika which are respectively produced from sattva-guna, rajo-guna, and tamo-guna.

The individual person possessing different instruments of senses is called the ādiatmika person, and the individual controlling deity of the senses is called ādidaivika. The embodiment seen on the eyeballs is called the ādibhautika person. [SB 2.10.8]

Then, O King, false ego in ignorance seizes sound, the quality of ether, after which ether merges into false ego. False ego in the mode of passion takes hold of the senses, and false ego in the mode of goodness absorbs the demigods. [SB 12.4.15-19]

The term ādidaivika denotes the demigods or the presiding deities. As we have discussed earlier, presiding deities represent the ideal or the perfect example of some type of entity. In this case, the demigods are the presiding deities over the senses, which means that these demigods represent the ideal behavior of each of the senses. We have seen earlier how Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha are the ideal mahattattva (morality), the ideal ego (intentions), the ideal intellect (beliefs), and the ideal mind (idea). The demigods similarly are the presiding entities over sensation (rather than the subtle body); they represent the ideal hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling.

Our senses are not necessarily perfect. For example, we might not see everything that can be seen or hear everything that can be heard, or smell everything exactly as it should be. In fact, different species of life have different sensual capabilities which enable them to perceive differently. The demigods are the perfect example of sense perception, and the other living entities are the imperfect examples; the demigods can perceive everything that any other species can perceive, but the other living entities will only perceive parts of the demigod perception, and often different from each other.

Thus, once we describe the perfect sense called ādidaivika, then we can describe the imperfect senses of other living entities (including ourselves), which are called ādiatmika, in relation to the perfect sense. What we call our “sense” is not a universal entity because each body has different kinds of senses. The meaning of ādiatmika sense is a particular type of process or mechanism used to perceive. The result of this process is the “sensation” called the ādibhautika (also called the tanmātra). So the “sense” is the recipe or the process employed to create a product called “sensation”. Each type of living entity employs a different process of sensation due to which they can perceive a limited set of things only. Therefore, if we have to explain how the senses in an animal are different from those in the human, we need a criterion to distinguish them. Those criteria are the processes or methods employed to perceive.

Egoism in the mode of passion produces two kinds of senses: the senses for acquiring knowledge and the senses of action. The senses of action depend on the vital energy, and the senses for acquiring knowledge depend on intelligence. [SB 3.26.31]

The property of rajo-guna is activity and the senses of knowledge and action are both involved in activities. However, as mentioned in the above verse, they are supported by different entities. Intelligence here means how we perceive, and prāna means how we achieve a goal.

One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws his limbs within the shell, is to be understood as truly situated in knowledge. [BG 2.58]

One of the hallmarks of Sāńkhya philosophy is that the senses are like the limbs of a tortoise, which “reach out” to the world of objects, rather than the objects coming into the senses. The material science understanding of perception is that the world comes to the senses—e.g. the sound comes to the ears, the light comes to the eyes, the taste comes to the tongue, etc. In Sāńkhya, the senses go to their objects. In order to reach their destination, they have to follow a path. This path is the procedure the sense needs to follow to reach its destination. The demigods represent the shortest path. But other living beings may not follow the shortest path; accordingly, their perception differs.

The ultimate result of following the path is that we reach a goal—and that goal is the sensation property. For example, the property can be form or color for sight, heat or roughness for touch, etc. The key point is that the world is not being represented in our brains or minds. Rather the senses are reaching out into the world and perceiving the world. In that sense, while perceiving, we don’t have to first “store” the world in the mind before it is perceived. The fact that senses reach out to their objects is also responsible for why we feel the stare of other people, as we have discussed previously.

The three-fold division of ideal sense, individual sense, and sensation repeats for all the five senses. From the ideal sense, we derive an individual sense, and from the activities of each individual sense, we produce a specific type of sensation (sound, touch, sight, taste, smell).

Sensations, Elements, and Senses

The second triad in Sāńkhya comprises three categories called a sensation, element, and sense. For example, the first triad is sound, ether, and the sense of hearing. The second triad is touch, air, and the sense of touching. In this way, SB describes five triads. Each successive triad emerges from the element of the previous triad. For example, touch emerges from the ether, form emerges from the air, etc.

SB 3.26.32 — When egoism in ignorance is agitated by the sex energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the subtle element sound is manifested, and from sound come the ethereal sky and the sense of hearing.

SB 3.26.35 — From ethereal existence, which evolves from sound, the next transformation takes place under the impulse of time, and thus the subtle element touch and thence the air and sense of touch become prominent.

SB 3.26.38 — By interactions of the air and the sensations of touch, one receives different forms according to destiny. By the evolution of such forms, there is fire, and the eye sees different forms in color.

SB 3.26.41 — By the interaction of fire and the visual sensation, the subtle element of taste evolves under a superior arrangement. From the taste, water is produced, and the tongue, which perceives taste, is also manifested.

SB 3.26.44 — Due to the interaction of water with the taste perception, the subtle element odor evolves under a superior arrangement. Thence the earth and the olfactory sense, by which we can variously experience the aroma of the earth, become manifest.

A mysterious aspect of the above description is that the senses (hearing, touching, seeing, tasting, and smelling) are mentioned to be transformations of tamo-guna whereas earlier we saw that senses are produced from rajo-guna. We also saw that during annihilation the senses merge into rajo-guna while the sensations merge into tamo-guna. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?

I will return to this question shortly, but before that let’s understand the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The sensations are those of form, color, heat, roughness, etc. but they are not adequate to define our perception. For example, a form can be square or circle, color can be red or blue, and touch can be hot or cold. The sensations, therefore, have to be refined to give them a value and this value (when defined in relation to the sensation) is the material element. The elements are objective matter because they have values of properties. However, the properties themselves are subjective. Thus we are defining and describing matter in relation to the sensations and not in relation to a measuring instrument (e.g. meter or clock or kilogram) as is the case in modern science.

However, there is a further problem in perception, which is that even redness may not be seen as red. The senses described above represent the processes followed to arrive at a destination, and given the nature of the sense, some destinations are inaccessible. However, there is a further problem that even if you reach a destination, you might think that you haven’t reached it, or reached somewhere else.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Let’s suppose we are listening to some music.

  • The “hearing” is performed by the sense called the ear and our ear is not necessarily the perfect ear, so we may not hear all kinds of sounds; some sounds are outside our auditory range.
  • The sensations produced from hearing include tone and pitch, which are the qualities that we can derive from the material world provided we listen to some sound.
  • The elements are the objective reality from which sensations are given value; in this case it the embodiment of a particular value of a property—e.g. note for a tone.
  • The objective value of the note is not how we might experience it because each person has a different native scale; therefore, the received note will be interpreted by our scale.

The sense produced from tamo-guna is our personal “scale” of measurement, while the sense produced from rajo-guna is the process of measuring. The process of measuring weight, for example, can be measuring the pull of the earth, however, the “scale” of measurement can be a kilogram or a pound. Each person has a unique scale in-built. For example, if you go to learn Indian classical music, the teacher will ask you about your base sa—or the base note. The base note is different for each person.

This fact is most commonly seen in the prevalence of numerous accents due to which one sound can be interpreted as another letter or word because each person has a different “scale” of measurement. This scale cannot be created unless the material element embodying that property exists. For example, I cannot choose a meter as my standard of length unless there is ether that expresses a value of length. Therefore, the meter must follow the ether, and this meter is the standard of measuring.

With this understanding, we can extend the picture comprised of an ideal sense, a particular sense, and a sensation, to include elements and their standards. The “standard” is a measuring instrument, and because it is used to perform an objective measurement, it is called a “sense”. However, this “sense” is different from that which perceives sensations. The measuring instrument objectivizes the value into a quantitative value.

The Sāńkhya scheme can be understood by decomposing the statement “I see the length is 5 meters” into successive components. The term “I see” is the subjective sense or indriya. The term “length” is the property or tanmātra. The element ether is the number 5—the objective expression of a property. And the second “sense” is the standard of measurement—e.g. a meter—created from the modification of ether (by adding a further qualification to the number 5). We commonly think that nature doesn’t have a standard; nature is just length, which we measure through a standard to obtain numbers. In other words, there is an objective thing called “length” whereas “5 meter” is a subjective expression of this property. In Sāńkhya, the model is inverted; the property called “length” is a subjective experience called tanmātra, whereas “5 meter” is two levels of objective reality—a number (5) and a standard (meter). Thus, we say, “length is 5 meter” rather than “length is meter 5”, because 5 comes before the meter—i.e. it is logically “higher” in the space definition. To truly know the world, we don’t just have to know the values, but also the scale. This is not so evident in length measurement, but quite obvious in music where just knowing the frequency is not enough; we have to also know the scale in order to describe the note. And to make the note an objective (rather than subjective property) we have to attach the scale to the note itself.

Sāńkhya describes how the world is created from the subjective to the objective. When we understand this, then we can be convinced that the subjective is more fundamental than the objective. Modern science believes that there is an objective reality that we subjectivize. In Sāńkhya, instead, the reality is primarily a subjective set of properties that are objectivized during creativity and later subjectivized again during perception. Since we are objectivizing before perceiving, each person possesses their own “scale” for converting the subjective into the objective, and that means that the scale used by the person who creates an object must also be objectively present in nature.

The Role of the Ahaṅkāra or Ego

The secret to understanding Sāńkhya is to begin at the top, and grasp why everything evolves from the ego. I mentioned above that “I see” is the sense, it is comprised of two parts—”I” and “seeing”. Sāńkhya is telling us that first there is the “I”—the ego. From this ego, develops a detail such as “seeing”, which then develops a tanmātra such as the property of length, which then acquires a value such as 5, which is then objectivized using a scale such as a meter. Step by step we construct the sentence “I see the length is 5 meter”.

Each part of this sentence is a material symbol, which is given a meaning in relation to the previous symbol. This sequence constitutes the material tree: the “I” is the trunk, the “seeing” is the branch, the “length” is the stem, the value 5 is the twig, and the standard “meter” is the leaf. Even though the mind is higher than the senses, and the ego is higher than even the mind, in certain cases, the mind is not actually functioning—i.e. we are not thinking what the sensation means. We are rather just engrossed in the sensation, and this engrossment in the sensation itself is a hierarchy “I see the length is 5 meter”.

However, we must bear in mind that demigods are evolved from the same ego in the mode of sattva-guna, representing the perfection of seeing. This perfection is the “center” of the sensual space, and our senses generally deviate from that center. However, since our sense is defined in relation to the center, demigods must be understood to even understand our flavor of imperfect seeing. For example, some people have a musical ear, due to which they can listen to a sound and realize whether the instrument is tuned or not. Others have a good color perception, and they can distinguish subtle hues. At the other extreme are tone-deaf and color blind people. Perfection of sense perception means we can understand music deeply and perceive colors vividly. The demigods are enjoying sense perception because they have the capability for vivid perception due to the advancement of senses. This enjoyment is not like the gross hedonism that we encounter at present. Rather, they are enjoying music, art, dance, aromas, and so forth.

The senses of the demigods are evolved from sattva-guna but our senses are evolved from rajo-guna. Therefore, when a demigod says “I see” it means perfect seeing. But when we say “I see” it means distorted seeing; the reason is that the demigod senses are modifications of the ego under sattva-guna and our senses are modifications of the ego under rajo-guna. There is a huge difference between the two kinds of “I see” and considering the demigod, senses to be just like human senses is a mistake. The insight here is that even if we improve sensory perception, our life would be significantly improved due to sattva-guna pervading the senses. Then as we improve our thinking, our life would be further improved due to sattva-guna pervading the mind.

Value from Property vs. Property from Value

A curious aspect of Sāńkhya, which we can discern from the above picture, is that it derives values (e.g. ether) from a property (e.g. sound), and then derives another property (touch) from the value (ether). Let’s focus our attention on this aspect of Sāńkhya by removing the other components.

This is the top-down process during the creation of the elements. A reverse process occurs during annihilation in which the element merges into a property and the property then merges into the higher element. The universe thus grows step-by-step as a tree, and then collapses back into the root.

SB 12.4.14 — As the entire universe is flooded, the water will rob the earth of its unique quality of fragrance, and the element earth, deprived of its distinguishing quality, will be dissolved.

SB 12.4.15-19 — The element fire then seizes the taste from the element water, which, deprived of its unique quality, taste, merges into fire. Air seizes the form inherent in fire, and then fire, deprived of form, merges into air. The element ether seizes the quality of air, namely touch, and that air enters into ether. Then, O King, false ego in ignorance seizes sound, the quality of ether, after which ether merges into false ego.

In the previous article, we discussed a model of two hands drawing each other; the two hands here are properties (sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell) and values (earth, air, fire, water, and earth). Originally, the first hand exists as an abstraction or outline, and then it draws the outline of the second hand. The second hand is now capable of drawing some more details into the first hand, which makes the first hand capable of drawing even more details into the second hand.

The reality thus grows from abstract to detailed because there are two hands that draw each other through successive stages. Similarly, the second detailed hand can erase itself and collapse back into the first hand. The drawing and erasing of hands constitutes the interplay of the three modes of nature; nature is working perpetually because opposite hands draw each other and then erase themselves. Once this model of change is understood, it can be expressed logically and that expression constitutes a semantic computation.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Sāńkhya Theory of Five Elements," in Shabda Journal, April 3, 2017,