Early cultures the world over described basic elements or fundamental qualities of the physical world. These principles are core to many traditional practices and understanding in health, architecture, event timing, and more.
Common to India (Mahabhuta), Greece, and Japan (Godai) are Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. Buddhism emphasizes the first 4.
The 5 elements of China (Wu Xing) are slightly different. I realized in seeing them in chart form that with the 2 unique ones, wood comes between water and fire while metal comes between water and earth. They are leaving off air and space and adding more detail to the 3 basic ones.
In modern science we describe the “elements” as the unique atoms that give rise to hydrogen, gold, cesium, and so forth. But the elements described here are more fundamental. More subtle we could say. This doesn’t mean looking more finely at sub-atomic particles, quarks, and superstrings. (a rabbit hole in itself) That’s looking at greater and greater detail of the physical. The subtle elements are non-physical and yet our senses are attuned to them. They are more like basic qualities. Fire, for example brings heat, light and colour, where earth brings solidity and smells.
You can read various charts outlining their origins, mainly in Samkhya.
But why like this? Why these qualities? While they express in the world, the elements have origins beyond it in the early dynamics of consciousness.
When consciousness first becomes globally self-aware, it creates a subtle “space” (see above right – think 3D)
As attention moves across that space (c), the process of experience arises and with it, the sense of time.
That movement enlivens space, giving rise to the quality of air and motion.
Lively air gives rise to light and colour, the element fire.
We can see this process described in various traditions such as in Genesis: time, movement, light.
However, keep in mind that at this point, nothing is manifest. This is just enlivened global consciousness, aware of itself, it’s movement and it’s light. Consciousness can know itself through sound and sight.
That consciousness is also becoming aware locally, at every point within itself. In this localization, consciousness is locally self-aware and the above process repeats itself. Less globally aware, it goes further into density and the final stages unfold. The first nested space within creation (Atman) contains our universe. Space is still infinite at this level, simply a lesser infinity. The gunas and the field of action come into play. Air and fire arise there. Inertia (tamas guna) brings density and the manifest elements.
A more concrete flow leads to the element water.
And a further density leads to more inertia and earth element. Actual “manifestation” aka form can now happen. With the local elements also comes the corresponding senses: hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell.
I’ve seen several people describe the manifestation of the 5 elements in local awareness as happening in 5 spirals of increasing density in the flow of consciousness. When I say local here, I mean relative to global. This local would be the level on which the universe begins manifesting, anandamaya kosha. Our personal local would be nested within that.
Long-term readers of this blog know that I describe a one into 3 into 7 process, leading to that composition in creation. 7 chakras, 3 gunas, etc. Why then 5 elements and senses? Those are the obvious ones. In the context of the elements, the first 2 would be what comes before space – Awareness, and then the process of observation that leads to the 5 as above. On The Sevenness, I describe the corresponding 6th and 7th senses. This is less relevant in simple living in the world but becomes more relevant if you seek to understand why it is the way it is. Some of the ancient traditions also recognized this but it has been de-emphasized over time.