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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Mahābhūtas

Sanskrit for “great elements,” of which there are five: Ākśa (space interpreted substantially), air, fire, water, and earth. According to Helena P. BLAVATSKY (CW IV:581) to define this term it is necessary to consider manas as part of the Septenary Principle in esotericism. First there is Mahat which is the source of two internal faculties which are Manas and Buddhi — mind and intuition. Manas draws forth along the “thread” of Prakriti four subtle elementary principles or “particles,” one of which is Tanm€tras, (lit. “measures of That”) out of which Mahābhūtas, gross elementary principles, originate.

In the Ved€nta view of Mahābhūta however, there are five gross elements listed emerging from the subtle essences or tanmātras (Ābda or sound, spara or touch, rūpa or [colored] shape, rasa or taste, and gandha or smell). These have their physical locus respectively in the ear, skin, eye, tongue, and nose. Note that Vedānta identifies hearing rather than sight as the highest sense.

In some Hindu schools of philosophy the Praktis are equivalent to the Mahā-bhūtas and are considered to be the eight primary “essences” that produce the visible world. These “producers” are called Avyakta, literally “unmanifest” or “undeveloped,” the productive principle from which all the phenomena of the physical world are derived; Mahat, literally “the great,” the intellectual principle; Ahamkāra (lit. “I-making”), the principle from which individuality is derived; and Tanmātras, five in number, usually translated as “subtle essences.”

P.S.H.

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