Sensing the Elements Around Us

Everyday Ayurveda by Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Ayurveda separately emphasizes clean senses in its definitions of a healthy being. Unlike other holistic systems that discuss the Being as body, mind and sometimes the soul, which Descartes removed from the domain of medicine in 1648, Ayurvedic philosophy also focuses on a fourth component, the indriyas as the interactive tool connecting the outer world and our inner purpose for living.

Jñana-indriyas (jñana = wisdom in Sanskrit) are the five sensory organs, karma-indriyas (karma = action) are the five motor organs, and manas is the organ for sensing the soul and connecting it to the language of the senses. Together, these eleven organs act to help the soul journey around in the material world on its path of discovery and healing.

Humans have five sense organs that interact with the five master elements on the planet. These five elements are indivisible for living things and are different from the elements in the chemical periodic table. Called panchamahabhutas (pancha = five; maha = great), bhuta literally means that derived from a non-material energetic being. These energies, from most subtle to most material, are space, air, fire, water and earth.

Sometimes called ether (think of ethereal), space is the physical absence of molecules and represents the potential for being filled by material. Its medium or tanmatra is sound. Tanmatra is the subtle energy whose movement allows our consciousness to sense and thereby create an interpretation with which the body can interact. When space moves, we perceive sound. Without the harmony of sound, we could not listen. The jñana-indriya is the organ of sound or the eardrum and inner ear architecture and mechanics.

Air is the element that is made of transparent molecules. Without the presence of these lightly packed, fast-moving molecules, we would not be able to detect movement. The tanmatra of air is touch. Air allows us to sense both sound and touch. When air moves, we are able to perceive feeling. Modern science says we perceive through sensory receptors of four main types—hot/cold, pressure, pain and position. Ayurveda says we perceive subtle movements of air and ether through our skin and sense of touch.

Other animals, especially fish, have a sixth sense in electroreceptors, which detect electric fields, salinity and temperature gradients. The jñana-indriya is the organ of our skin. Some like sharks detect sound waves and use them in their gills instead of ears.

Fire is the element of heat and earth. Its tanmatra is form, which we perceive as vision through the jñana-indriya of the eye. Fire interacts with sound, touch and vision. The movement of subtle fire is known as light, without which we could not see form or color. We see both with our eyes but also with the heat of light, sensing the waves and the particles as they move through ether, air, and via light.

Water is the predominant element on earth. It is the solvent, solution and crystal in which life is made. Its tanmatra is taste. Water interacts with sound, touch, vision and taste. Only when water moves and interacts with other elements are we able to perceive different tastes. The taste buds are the jñana-indriya. Containing gustatory receptors, these sit predominantly on our tongue and in our stomach. If you dry your tongue completely, and then run sugar or salt across your tongue, you will not be able to taste anything. The sense of taste is only now being deciphered by modern neuroscience. Ayurveda says we taste complex flavors as an experience of the movement of molecules through space, air, fire, and water. Our memories cradle everything occurring in the experience of food.

Earth is the heaviest element on the planet. Many of the modern chemical elements are permutations of earth. Earth has many forms and characteristics including inorganic metals and rocks and organic wood and plants. Its main feature is to provide structure and stability to everything in the material world. Its tanmatra is odor. Earth interacts with sound, touch, vision, taste and smell. When earth moves, it can interact with our organs of smell, called olfactory receptors, which are in the nose and tongue, and activate the smell receptors. Without the particles and density of earth, we would not be able to trigger our smell receptors. Smell is considered primitive, but our sense of smell integrates our sense of being on the earth, positioning space, feeling air and the warmth of light, with the humidity of water.

These five elements convey subtle properties of energy translating into matter. Our five sense organs pick up the subtle energies and matter, and translate them into our consciousness through forms we can perceive enough to identify. Light, sound and invisible chemicals become sound, touch, form, taste and smell.

Self-control of the sense organs is said to be the greatest promoter of delight and the ability to be content. The discipline of yoga and the study of adhyatmika both address the yoking of the mind, with its infinite possibilities and quick movement. The sense organs, the five gyan-indriyas, interface our mind and soul with the world.

Overstimulation of the sense organs leads to addictions, uncompensated desires and the ripu or trappings of the mind. Understimulation leads to withdrawal, depression, lack of connection and hopelessness from lack of experience. Aberrant stimulations lead to perverted thoughts that make us see the world in patterns that are not harmonious with the way nature flows.

Besides body, mind and soul, Ayurvedic philosophy also focuses on a fourth component, the indriyas as the interactive tool connecting the outer world and our inner purpose for living.

Thus, self-control allows us to engage our hearing, touching/feeling, sight, smell and taste with the world around us and enjoy the balance that is nature. This attunement to harmony provides delight and contentment that is often translated as happiness.

Ayurveda spends considerable energy advising how to keep the five senses and the mind clean. It reminds us to re-invigorate and open them so that we can take in the world. Rather than relegate them to an ENT doctor when a problem arises, Ayurveda teaches us how to keep health care in the self-empowered domain.

Even neuroscience has discovered that we are often the only ones that can detect when a disturbance in our senses has occurred. So, Ayurveda advises us to clean our senses each morning, and then periodically, so that we can engage with our environment, actively counseling, communicating and forming relationships through eye contact, active listening and knowledge of how to talk to and touch another person appropriately.

The South Asian Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 20182023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House. 

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