PANĆA MAHABHŪTAS AND THEIR ROLE IN WELLNESS
A guest wellness series based on ancient Indian wisdom, by Amritavarshini.
Read the previous post of the series here
As mentioned in the previous post, Panća Mahabhūtas or the Five Elements are not only found in Nature but also within the human body. In that respect, our body can be compared to a small universe. It was therefore natural for our ancestors of Indian and Eastern cultures, to make the five elements an integral and inseparable part of all customs and traditions. These customs might have evolved and changed over the centuries and millennia, but the basic concepts ingrained in them have remained unchanged even today.
Nature was the nurturer for our ancestors, as she provided them with food, energy, herbs to cure ailments, provide relief from stress and tension-related mental illnesses, and much more. So, they lived in perfect harmony with Nature and the Five Elements contained therein. With the passing of time, they began settling down, forming clusters of civilization and these very bhūtas not only became their means of livelihood and means of transport, but also proved to be an inexhaustible source of knowledge. They further enhanced the knowledge they gained, through a spirit of inquiry that led to exploration, thereby creating a treasure trove of wisdom for posterity. So vast in scope and depth is this storehouse of knowledge that it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we are still only skimming the surface.
Once they realised that they couldn’t live without the help of the bhūtas, our ancestors began caring for them. It was almost as if the latter actually spoke to our ancestors: “Use us, but also nurture us and we will be your well-wishers and care-givers in return!” What a beautiful way of living in interdependence!
Living closely with the Elements, they understood their moods and behaviour – when the weather would be pleasant, when it would turn foul, the change of the seasons, when the rains would be good and when they would fail and so on. Thus, they devised a comfortable and compatible co-existence of humans, other living beings and Nature. There are verses in our Vedas and Upanishads that offer prayers to the Panća Mahabhūtas of Appu/Jal, Teyū/Agni, Vāyu, Prthvī and Ākāśa.
Living beings can be classified into five divisions, with each division possessing a particular number of bhūtas.
• The first division is the plant kingdom, the vital element of which is Appu (Water).
• The second comprises of those living things that live underground–insects, worms and the like, and consists of two active elements, viz, Agni and Prthvī (Fire and Earth).
• Birds belong to the third division, the active elements in them being Agni, Prthvī and Vāyu (fire, earth and air).
• Animals fall under the fourth category with all the four elements – Agni, Appu Prthvī and Vāyu (fire, water, earth and air) as their active elements.
• Ākāśa (sky/space), is subtle, unlike the other four bhūtas, and does not exist in other living beings but is found in human beings alone along with the other four bhūtas. It is this fifth element, which unites humans with the Supreme Power. That is why human beings are considered to be superior to other to other living beings among all creation.
Our ancestors nurtured and preserved the Five Elements by living in tune with Nature, instituting certain rituals and customs that were beneficial for both living beings and Nature. The underlying concept was mutual reverence and nurturing, because each of them involved the use of one or more bhūtas, which in turn benefited the humans. Even a cursory study would reveal the scientific basis of these customs and the beautiful and traditional wisdom that has gone into them.
By cleverly weaving the rituals and customs around divine propitiation in the early years and later around dharmic duties and social obligations, our wise ancestors ensured that the living beings and Nature were cared for equally.
Interestingly, these rituals and customs exist even today. While many follow it by force of habit or compulsion without understanding the significance behind them, others reject them completely as being superstition or regressive.
Let us take the customs related to temple puja and the bhūtas involved in them.
• The foremost one is water. No temple visit is complete without jala is it? For starters, a pilgrimage is known as Tīrtha Yatra, the reason being that our temples were/are either situated on riverbanks or have temple tanks attached to them – the latter being a part of any medium or large temple – especially in south India. The devotees first take a holy dip in rivers and temple tanks before entering the temple. In all temples the Deity has abhişekam (ritual bathing) performed by the purōhita. In North India, the devotees themselves offer jala to Shiva in temples (jal chadhana). They drink the abhişeka tīrtham, or the purōhita sprinkles the tīrtham on the devotees (tīrtha prokśanam). No wonder water bodies were preserved and kept pure with so much emphasis on the use of jala in temple rituals.
• Large scale havans and yagnas performed in temples induce agni to clear any pollution of the vāyu in the atmosphere.
• Prthvī is conserved by growing plants and trees for producing flowers, and leaves, fruits, and twigs offered in the havans. The flowers and leaves have beneficial medicinal properties that help cure many diseases.
• When these four bhūtas are protected and preserved, the fifth one – Ākāśa (sky) becomes pristine pure and directly connects the spirit of man to the Divine Force.
It is popularly believed, especially in south India that Lord Śiva manifests Himself in the form of the panća bhūtas in each of the following sthalas, of which four are in Tamil Nadu and one in Andhra Pradesh.
- As Prthvī Lingam at Kancheepuram
- As Vāyu Lingam at Kalahasthi
- As Appu Lingam at Thiruvanaikaval
- As Teyū/Agni Lingam at Tiruvannamalai
- As Ākāśa Lingam at Chidambaram.
To understand panća bhūta tattva and the importance of the bhūtas in our lives we should know how these five elements affect our body.
(To be continued)
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