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Mahābhūta is Sanskrit and Pāli for "great element."[1] In Buddhism, the "four great elements" (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) are earth, water, fire and air. Hinduism adds a fifth "great" or "gross" element, akasha or aether.



In Hinduism's sacred literature, the "great" or "gross" elements (mahābhūta) are fivefold: space (or "ether"), air, fire, water and earth.[2]

For instance, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad describes the five "sheaths" of a person (Sanskrit: purua), starting with the grossest level of the five evolving great elements:

From this very self (ātman) did space come into being; from space, air; from air, fire; from fire, the waters, from the waters, the earth; from the earth, plants; from plants, food; and from food, man.... Different from and lying within this man formed from the essence of food is the self (ātman) consisting of lifebreath.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of breath is the self (ātman) consisting of mind.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of mind is the self (ātman) consisting of perception.... Different from and lying within this self consisting of perception is the self (ātman) consisting of bliss....[3]

In the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad, God is identified as the source of the great elements:

Some wise men say it is inherent nature, while others say it is time – all totally deluded. It is rather the greatness of God present in the world by means of which this wheel of brahman goes around. Who always encompasses this whole world – the knower, the architect of time, the one without qualities, and the all-knowing one – it is at his command that the work of creation, to be conceived of as earth, water, fire, air, and space, unfolds itself.[4]

The same Upanishad also mentions, "When earth, water fire, air and akasa arise, when the five attributes of the elements, mentioned in the books on yoga, become manifest then the yogi's body becomes purified by the fire of yoga and he is free from illness, old age and death." (Verse 2.12).[5]


In Buddhism, the four Great Elements (Pali: cattāro mahābhūtāni) are earth, water, fire and air. Mahābhūta is generally synonymous with catudhātu, which is Pāli for the "Four Elements."[6] In early Buddhism, the Four Elements are a basis for understanding and for liberating oneself from suffering. They are categories used to relate to the sensible physical world, and are conceived of not as substances, but as sensorial qualities.[7]


In the Pali canon,[8] the most basic elements are usually identified as four in number but, on occasion, a fifth and, to an even lesser extent, a sixth element may be also be identified.

Four primary elements

In canonical texts, the four Great Elements refer to elements that are both "external" (that is, outside the body, such as a river) and "internal" (that is, of the body, such as blood). These elements are described as follows:

  • Earth element (pruhavī-dhātu)
    Internal earth elements include head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bone, organs, intestinal material, etc.[9]
  • Water (or liquid) element (āpa-dhātu)
    Internal water elements include bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, nasal mucus, urine, etc.[10]
  • Fire element (teja-dhātu)
    Internal fire elements include those bodily mechanisms that produce physical warmth, ageing, digestion, etc.
  • Air (or wind) element (vāyu-dhātu)
    Internal air elements includes air associated with the pulmonary system (for example, for breathing), the intestinal system ("winds in the belly and ... bowels"), etc.

These four elements are described as "primary" or "underived" (no-upādā) matter (rūpa), meaning that they cannot be analysed into further atomistic units. While underived, this does not mean that they are "unconditioned."[11] Thus, for instance, according to the 5th-century CE commentarial Visuddhimagga, "as to the proximate cause, each [element] has the other three as its proximate cause."[12]

Fifth and sixth elements

In addition to the above four elements of underived matter, two other elements are occasionally found in the Pali Canon:[13]

  • Space element (ākāsa-dhātu)
    Internal space elements includes bodily orifices such as the ears, nostrils, mouth, anus, etc.
  • Consciousness element (viññāa-dhātu)
    Described as "pure and bright" (parisuddha pariyodāta), used to cognise the three feelings (vedana) of pleasure, pain and neither-pleasure-nor-pain, and the arising and passing of the sense contact (phassa) upon which these feelings are dependent.

According to the Abhidhamma Pitaka, the "space element" is identified as "secondary" or "derived" (upādā).[14]

Sensory qualities, not substances

Rūpa (matter) means both materiality and sensibility—it signifies, for example, a tactile object both insofar as that object is tactile and that it can be sensed. Rūpa is never a materiality which can be separated or isolated from cognizance; such a non-empirical category is incongruous in the context of early Buddhism. Rūpa is not a substratum or substance which has sensibility as a property. It functions in early Buddhist thought as perceivable physicality. Matter, or rūpa, is defined in terms of its function; what it does, not what it is.[15] As such, the four great elements are conceptual abstractions drawn from the sensorium. They are sensorial typologies, and are not metaphysically materialistic.[16] They are not meant to give an account of matter as constitutive of external, mind-independent reality.[17]

Soteriological uses

The Four Elements are used in Buddhist texts to both elucidate the concept of suffering (dukkha) and as an object of meditation. The earliest Buddhist texts explain that the four primary material elements are the sensory qualities solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility; their characterisation as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively, is declared an abstraction – instead of concentrating on the fact of material existence, one observes how a physical thing is sensed, felt, perceived.[18]

Understanding suffering

The Four Elements pertinence to the Buddhist notion of suffering comes about due to:

  • The Four Elements are the primary component of "form" (rūpa).
  • "Form" is first category of the "Five Aggregates" (khandhas).
  • The Five Aggregates are the ultimate basis for suffering (dukkha) in the "Four Noble Truths."

Schematically, this can be represented in reverse order as:

Four Noble Truths → Suffering → Aggregates → Form → Four Elements

Thus, to deeply understand the Buddha's Four Noble Truths, it is beneficial to have an understanding of the Great Elements.

Meditation object

In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness," DN 22), in listing various bodily meditation techniques, the Buddha instructs:

"...Just as if a skilled butcher or his assistant, having slaughtered a cow, were to sit at a crossroads with the carcass divided into portions, so a monk reviews this very body ... in terms of the elements: 'There are in this body the earth-element, the water-element, the fire-element, the air-element.' So he abides contemplating body as body internally...."[19]

In the Visuddhimagga's well-known list of forty meditation objects (kammaṭṭhāna), the great elements are listed as the first four objects.

B. Alan Wallace compares the Theravada meditative practice of "attending to the emblem of consciousness" to the practice in Mahamudra and Dzogchen of "maintaining the mind upon non-conceptuality", which is also aimed at focusing on the nature of consciousness.[20]

Buddhist sources

In the Pali canon, the Four Elements are described in detail in the following discourses (sutta):

  • Mahahatthipadompama Sutta ("The Greater Discourse on the Simile of the Elephant's Footprint," MN 28)[21]
  • Maharahulovada Sutta ("The Greater Discourse of Advice to Rahula," MN 62)[22]
  • Dhatuvibhanga Sutta ("The Exposition of the Elements," MN 140)[23]

The Four Elements are also referenced in:

  • Kevaddha Sutta (DN 11)[24]
  • Mahasatipatthana Sutta (DN 22)
  • Satipatthana Sutta (MN 10)
  • Chabbisodhana Sutta (MN 112)
  • Bahudhatuka Sutta (MN 115)
  • Kayagatasati Sutta (MN 119)[25]
  • Anathapindikovada Sutta (MN 143)[26]
  • Catudhatu-vaggo (SN ch. 14, subch. IV), several discourses[27]
  • Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta (SN 16.13)[28]
  • Bija Sutta (SN 22.54)[29]
  • Asivisa Sutta (SN 35.197 or 35.238)[30]
  • Kimsuka Sutta (SN 35.204 or 35.245)[31]
  • Dutiya-mittamacca Sutta (SN 55.17)[32]
  • various brief Samyutta Nikaya discourses entitled, "Dhatu Sutta" (SN 18.9,[33] SN 25.9,[34] SN 26.9,[35] SN 27.9[36])
  • Tittha Sutta (AN 3.61)[37]
  • Nivesaka Sutta (AN 3.75)
  • Rahula Sutta (AN 4.177)

In addition, the Visuddhimagga XI.27ff has an extensive discussion of the Four Elements.[38]

See also



  • Bodhi, Bhikkhu (trans.) (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-331-1.
  • Buddhaghosa, Bhadantācariya (trans. from Pāli by Bhikkhu Ñāṇamoli) (1999). The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga. Seattle, WA: BPS Pariyatti Editions. ISBN 1-928706-00-2.
  • Hamilton, Sue (2001). Identity and Experience: The Constitution of the Human Being according to Early Buddhism. Oxford: Luzac Oriental. ISBN 1-898942-23-4.
  • Monier-Williams, Monier (1899, 1964). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press).
  • Ñāṇamoli, Bhikkhu (trans.) & Bodhi, Bhikkhu (ed.) (2001). The Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-072-X.
  • Nyanaponika Thera (trans.) (1981). The Greater Discourse on the Elephant-Footprint Simile. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.
  • Olivelle, Patrick (1996). Upaniads. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-283576-5.
  • (retrieved 2007-06-14).
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997a). Kayagata-sati Sutta: Mindfulness Immersed in the Body (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997b). Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1997c). Dhatu-vibhanga Sutta: An Analysis of the Properties (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (1998). Kimsuka Sutta: The Riddle Tree (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2001). Bija Sutta: Means of Propagation (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2003a). Anathapindikovada Sutta: Instructions to Anathapindika (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2003b). Maha-hatthipadopama Sutta: The Great Elephant Footprint Simile (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2004a). Asivisa Sutta: Vipers (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2004b). Dhatu Sutta: Properties (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2005). Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta: A Counterfeit of the True Dhamma (
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu (trans.) (2006). Maha-Rahulovada Sutta: The Greater Exhortation to Rahula (
  • Walshe, Maurice O'C. (trans.) (1995). The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications. ISBN 0-86171-103-3.
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