Tag Archives: vishnu-iconography

Pancha-mahabhutas: the five subtle constituents of matter

If everything is consciousness (Brahman), then how does this conscious energy put on the appearance of material solidity.  Why does the table appear solid?  In order to bridge the gulf between consciousness and apparently durable matter, ancient Indian sages postulated (or “divined”) that all physical things are constituted of five subtle elements  called Pancha-Mahabhutas – earth, fire, water, air, ether.  These are not the elements known in the conventional sense (e.g. “water” does not imply the water, and “earth” does not mean soil) but are actually subtle conditions which together create the perception of forms which can be sensed by the human mind.  The actual names of these five elements are Akasha (ether), Vayu(aeriality), Agni(fire), Apas(liquidity) and Prithvi(compaction).  The descriptions of these five constituents are quite similar across Sankhya, Tantra and Buddhist philosophy and even Greek Stoic texts.  Furthermore, as I point out later in this article, what is amusing is that these five elements were codified, probably inadvertently, in the Vishnu iconography seen in Indian temples!

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