Prior to the age of science, traditions the world over described the world as composed of 4*-5 fundamental elements or components, whose combinations lead to the various qualities and building blocks of the physical world. This was not because of primitive beliefs, though they may have degraded into such. The origin of the idea is in the direct experience of the way the world becomes.
There are 2 ways of looking at these 5 elements.
One is the way elements are the fundamental building blocks of the physical world. Not elements in the sense of the periodic table you learned in Chemistry but more the fundamental qualities whose combinations give rise to the groups of elements in the periodic table. They function as different modes of physical properties. I described them this way in the kosha (purusha) chart here. The pranas (energy) and senses are more subtle.
Another way to look at them is even more fundamental. In that sense, the 5 elemental qualities arise in sequence, each arising within the previous, each progressively less subtle.
In this model, the qualities of the 5 elements are all present in the gross as above, but the physical is dominated by the earth element. The next most subtle level is dominated by water, and so forth.
|bliss, celestial, causal
(Note that these are not 1-to-1 correspondences but relationships. And they are not separate layers but interpenetrating.) [Updated]
The elements arise due to the nature of awareness itself. When awareness curves back on itself and becomes aware of itself, it creates a subtle space: self witnessing self. Feeling the recognition leads to air, seeing to light and fire, taste to water, and smell to earth. They are then structured as personal sensory experiences by our energetic physiology; the chakras and their expression. Here they shift from principles into actual elements.
And thus can we know the world from within our own awareness.
* some leave off space/ether