In simple words, the Pancha Mahabhutas refer to the five sense organs. These are the means through which we perceive the external world. They are the eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue.
According to Ayurvedic principles, the Pancha Mahabhutas also help us to absorb the perceived external objects into our bodies as various forms of energy.
Universe classified according to the Pancha Mahabhutas
Just as Physics and Chemistry differentiate the matters in universe into several basically different elements, so also Ayurveda classifies these elements into the Mahabhutas.
Based on the five senses (Pancha Mahabhutas), Ayurveda classifies the entire universe into five groups. The Pancha Mahabhutas of the universe are christened according to their basic qualities as Akasha; Vayu; Agni; Jala; and Prithvi.
The five Mahabhutas also constitute the food and drug ingredients. The respective qualities are realized by the senses in terms of Rasa (taste); Guna (quality); Virjya (potency); and Vipaka (the taste following metabolism and consequent digestion processes).
English representations of the Mahabhutas Inadequate
Mentionably, the literal translations of these terms in English do not at all connote the exact nature (qualities) of the Mahabhutas. For instance, the transliteration of Akasha; Vayu; Agni; Jala; and Prithvi are the sky; air; fire and water. But, each one of the Mahabhutas means much more then the English representations. So, it would be a folly and a misnomer to deem the original Sanskritised connotations of the Mahabhutas as parallel to the English terms.
Take, for example, Jala Mahabhuta. The only characteristic feature of Jala Mahabhuta akin to water is the force of cohesion (attraction). Over and above this, Jala Mahabhuta includes also the other Mahabhuta qualities as well.
In the same way, Vayu Mahabhuta contains not just air but also elements of the other Mahabhutas.
On the other hand, though scientifically each molecule of water is made up of two atoms of Hydrogen and one of Oxygen; yet according to the Ayurvedic principles, hydrogen is identified with Jala Mahabhuta while oxygen with Agni Mahabhuta.
The technical aspects of Mahabhutas
Technically, every single atom of the human body as well as the outside universe is made up of the five Mahabhutas.
Scientifically an atom is composed of various elements like neutrons, positrons and electrons.
As per the Ayurvedic principles, these elements building up each atom is constituted by the typical attributes of the five Mahabhutas.
The aforementioned different elements constituting the atom are representative of Prithvi Mahabhuta.
The manner in which these elements as well as the atoms stay attracted to each other denote the characteristic feature of Jala Mahabhuta.
An atom is a reservoir of energy. When an atom is broken up, it also produces energy. This potential power of an atom as well as the energy latent in the unbroken atom is Agni Mahabhuta.
The force with which the electrons move, represent the primary characteristic of Vayuv Mahabhuta; while the space in which the atomic constituents travel is the main identity of Akasha Mahabhuta.
Mahabhuta get represented in bodies as the 2Ds and 1M
Ayurvedic principles state that the five Mahabhutas constitute the human physique. They can be mentally mapped as the 2Ds and 1M. The ‘2Ds’ are the ‘Dosha’ and the ‘Dhatu’ while the single ‘M’ is the ‘Mala’.
The natural mechanism of refurbishing or purging the 2Ds and 1M
The 2Ds and 1M are found within the human body in a particular equilibrium. This ratio is maintained naturally by the body. If any shortage occurs in the actual ratio of any of the (or all the) 2Ds and 1M, the body instantly replenishes it (them) from its buffer stock. Suppose there is a shortage in the reservoir as well, then the required amount of the 2Ds and 1M is refurbished from several extraneous factors like sunlight, heat, air, water and food items that we consume.
What happens when the equilibrium in the ratio of 2Ds and 1M gets disturbed due excess deposit or accumulation of the Doshas, Dhatus and Malas? In such situations, the body purges or eliminates the excess amount instinctively.
It is when the body fails to accomplish the refurbishing and elimination mission, the physique becomes weak — generally or partially. Enzymatic action is to be blamed for this disorder. Then, we get affected by various types of illnesses.
Death: The Mahabhutas play the pivotal role
The Mahabhutas play a pivotal role even in the death of a person. The five Bhutas have two forms which can be identified as ‘Subtle’ and ‘Gross’.
The body functions normally when the ‘Subtle’ Bhutas can impregnate the five senses without any hindrance.
Death occurs when the ‘Subtle’ Bhutas cannot impregnate the five senses naturally.
Ayurvedic principles say that the impregnation process happens five times. Even after the five attempts, if the impregnation process fails the ‘Subtle’ Bhutas detach themselves from the five senses. It is during this juncture that the body loses the sense organs; the body then doesn’t respond to any stimuli. This stage is termed ‘Death’.
The dead body is then composed of only the ‘Gross’ Mahabhutas.
Philosophical Explanations of Pancha Mahabhutas
The Pancha Mahabhutas theory has been variously explained by the different philosophical schools. Many explanations converge as to the basic concept whereas a few have offered divergently different concepts.
Nonetheless, each one of the theistic philosophical camps agrees with their compatriots in one respect. That common ground of unanimity is one of the basic Ayurvedic principles that the Pancha Mahabhutas constitute the universe.
Mention may be made of the Charvaka atheist school of thought; it does not believe in anything that is not perceptible through the naked eye. Hence, it does not accept the fifth Mahabhuta – Akasha (the space wherein the atomic constituents move around).