Fixed number of building blocks, the five elements


The knowledge of Ayurveda is ancient. In olden times, before close observation and the naming of great and minute parts of objects was possible, there was an understanding and a need to explain that all matter in the universe is made from a fixed number of building blocks. From the subtlest to the grossest substance, from the smallest to the biggest, the existence of everything was understood to be based on the presence of five basic elements that give character to each substance.

The names of these might sound generic or broad in meaning but we need to remember that the ancient way to talk about things they couldn’t witness directly was in metaphors. This, however, and you will see, does not make the knowledge any less accurate.

The five elements are: ether, air, fire, water and earth. Their presence can be observed in every matter in the universe. Everything from the biggest formation to the smallest particle is made out of these five. There is not substance that would be made only of one of them. They all coexist and do not have an individual subsistence.

The elements define matter

The five elements give matter its particular features. They make it describable. But what makes it possible for us to describe one substance different from the other? The answer lies in the proportion of each element in them. Some substances are more “airy”, others more “earthy”. Just like air we breath and earth we walk on. But if you start observing the air more closely you’ll notice that there is much more to it. Also, if you think about soil there is air, water and even fire in it.

Take an experiment to observe the nature through the five elements. Next time you are outside taking a walk in a park start observing anything you see around you and try to qualify it with the five elements in mind. The ground under your feet is solid and denotes mostly the earth element in it. The water in the nearby pond is obviously mainly governed by the water element. What you breath into your lungs can feel warm or cool, humid or dry, but still it is air that we are dealing with and this air exists in space, in ether. Ether is the premise for the existence of everything. There has to be space for matter to manifest itself.

The spectrum of things in the universe, from the simplest to the most complicated, can all be considered in terms of these five elements. Some things are easy to figure out, like stones for example. Some things are slightly more difficult, especially when we go to the other end of the spectrum to qualify a human being.

What does your body feel like? It is a solid structure so it has a strong earth element. We also know that our bodies contain plenty of liquids so water element’s presence is noticeable. Our bodies also emanate heat, which we can feel on our skin. We have cavities in our bodies too, spaces filled in by air.

Elements and atoms

A great way to elucidate the concept of five elements is to consider it in the context of an atom. The five basic elements of Ayurveda relate well to the characteristics that determine the behaviour of an atom. For each atom there has to be space, movement, heat, cohesion and mass. These all relate to the five elements perfectly. The atom exists in space. They have a diametre and the electrons exist in a distance from the nucleus where protons and neutrons reside. The air relates to the vibration and activity of the parts of the atom. The fire to the temperature or the heat they emanate. Water relates to the cohesive power of atoms. The electrons are attracted to the nucleus by the cohesive electromagnetic force. Different atoms between themselves also have a power of attraction and create bonds with others making molecules. Lastly each atom has a tiny mass, which is expressed by the nucleus.

Ether – space

Air – Movement

Fire – Heat

Water – Cohesion

Earth – Mass

Each substance in the universe, starting from the tiniest of particles like atoms, is made out of these five constituents. They always exist together. Just like an atom cannot lose its mass or lose its property of cohesion or vibration, substances cannot lose a constituent. There is no substance that would only have earth, water or fire. The five elements are everywhere. What changes between substances is the proportion of them and the distribution of these determines how various substances behave.

In the following chapter after we examine what are the consequences of everything being made of the same constituents and how what makes things change, develop and become different from one another.

We are all made of the same

We have seen that the five elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth form the entire universe. Because everything is made out of the same five constituents – our bodies, the earth we walk on, the air that we breath, the objects and tools we use, food and drinks we consume and even our thoughts – we are related to everything on some level. We are the in the universe and universe is in us. Because of this principle our bodies and minds are able to recognize the world around us and therefore we are able to process in our minds what we hear, feel, see, taste and smell from the environment.

Because of the five elements in us and everywhere else, we should be able to digest, absorb, assimilate and eliminate whatever we nourish our bodies with in the form of food and drinks.  Whatever is in nature is already in us and this makes it possible for us to benefit from nature’s resources in their natural form. Our bodies have an innate ability through recognition to process at some level whatever we take in from nature because of this similarity.

Difference between substances

From the subtlest to the greatest of all, only the five elements of matter are enough to create all the variety of the universe. What changes between things is the proportion of each element in them. The proportion gives a substance its particular characteristic and determines its action.  Some elements are more earthy, other again more liquid, some present a strong character or lightness and airiness. Whatever the character is like and how it behaves depends on how much of each five element exist in them.

Describing the elements

We can associate different qualifying words to the five elements if we just think about that specific element. Earth is heavy, solid and stable. Water is heavy, liquid and cool in temperature (it will turn cool even after heating). Fire is hot and light. Air is light and usually in motion. Space is weightless and very wide, if not unlimited. It’s everywhere. The proportion of the five elements within determines the character of any given object. Whatever the mixture of elements that is the nature. We can describe the universe around us because of the five elements and the associations we give them.

Because everything in the universe can be described somehow, the characteristics given by these five elements relate everything to something else through these characteristic. Two things having the same quality between themselves do not need to be from the same category. Now we can relate things like food and thoughts or movement and drinks!

For example, what would relate depression and cheese? The quality of heaviness. What would relate coffee and cardio exercise? The qualities of heat and drying. What we relate to another thing does not have to have a physical existence either. It can be only a thought. Activities can also be described and therefore have a quality related to a physical object. Everything is related no matter if it is something we can perceive with our senses or something we just understand as existing from its effects, like electricity or the mind.


The five elements are everywhere, in anything we observe. For us to understand the universe we need to be made of the same matter with the same qualities. The experience between us and the environment occurs through the elements. The elements define our existence and our relationship with everything around us.

Anu Paavola

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