Thirty-Six Elements


To begin with, I will explain to you the nature of that which is known as the tattvas, or elements. In Vedānta we are told that there are only twenty-five tattvas; however, in Śaivism we know that there are really thirty-six tattvas. These thirty six tattvas are the most important points for entering into Śaivism.

I will give the explanation of the tattvas in the manner of rising not descending . We must rise up to Parama Śiva. I prefer rising, not descending, so we must rise. I will, therefore, explain the grossest element ‘earth’ first and then proceed to explain subtler and subtler elements, until we reach the subtlest element, the finest, which is Parama Śiva.



Pañca mahābhūtas

Five Great Elements
pṛithvī =
jala =
tejas =
vāyu =
ākāśa =


Pañca tanmātras –

Five Subtle Elements
gandha =
rasa =
rūpa =
sparśa =
śabda =


Pañcakarmendriyas –

Five Organs of Action
upastha =
pāyu =
pāda =
pāṇi =
vāk =


Pañca jñānendriyas –

Five Organs of Cognition
ghrāṇa =
nose, organ of smelling
rasanā =
tongue, organ of tasting
cakṣu =
eye, organ of seeing
tvak =
skin, organ of touching
śrotra =
ear, organ of hearing


Antaḥkaraṇas –

Three Internal Organs
manas =
buddhịḥ =
ahaṁkāra =
ego connected with objectivity
prakṛiti =
puruṣa =
ego connected with subjectivity


Ṣaṭ kañcukas –

Six Coverings
niyati =
limitation of place
kāla =
limitation of time
rāga =
limitation of attachment
vidyā =
limitation of knowledge
kalā =
limitation of action (creativity)
māyā =
illusion of individuality


Śuddha tattvas –

Pure Elements
śuddha vidyā =
I-ness in I-ness—Thisness in Thisness
īśvara =
Thisness in I-ness
sadāśiva =
I-ness in Thisness
śakti =
śiva =
I-ness (Being)

We will begin, therefore, from the lowest degree of the tattvas, which are the gross tattvas. The gross tattvas are called the pañcamahābhūtas, the five great elements. They are the tattvas of pṛithvī (earth), jala (water), tejas (fire), vāyu (air), and ākāśa (ether). The element “ether” is not a perceptible ele-ment, such as the elements earth, air, fire, and water. Rather, it is space, unoccupied space. It gives you room to move. It is that element in which the other four gross elements have room to exist. We could say that it is a special vacuum which is filled by the other four great elements. These tattvas are gross and are called mahābhūtas (great elements) because the whole uni-verse is based on these five elements.

After the five mahābhūtas, you move up to the five tanmātras. The five tanmātras correspond to the five mahābhūtas. Gandha tanmātra arises from the element of earth (pṛithvī tatt-va). The word gandha means “smell”; however, it is not exactly smell, it is the abode of smell, where smell lives. And that abode of smell is called ganda tanmātra. The next tanmātra, rasa tanmātra, has come out from the element of water (jala mahābhūta). Rasa tanmātra is the residence of the impression of taste (rasa). And then from the element of fire (tejas mahā- bhūta) issues forth rūpa tanmātra. Though the word rūpa means form, rūpa tanmātra is not exactly form; it is the residence of form, where the impression of form resides. This residence is called rūpa tanmātra. From the element of air (vāyu mahābhūta) rises sparśa tanmātra, which is the tanmātra of touch, the sensation of touch. This tanmātra is the residence of the sensation of touch. And finally, rising from the element of ether (ākāśa mahābhūta) is śabda tanmātra, the tanmātra of sound. This is the residence of the sensation of sound.

After the five tanmātras come the five tattvas, which are known as the five karmendriyas, the five organs of action. These organs of action are vāk, pāṇi, pāda, pāyu, and upastha. The first karmendriya is vāk tattva, the organ of speech. Next is pāṇi tattva. The word pāṇi means “hand.” Pāṇi is that organ of action by which you take and give. Then comes pāda tattva. The word pāda means “foot.” It is the organ by which you move about. It is the organ of locomotion. Next is pāyu tattva, which is the active organ of excretion. It is the organ of passing stools. The fifth and last karmendriya is upastha tattva. Upastha tattva is that karmendriya, that organ of action which is the active organ of sex and urination, the organ by which sex is performed and by which one urinates.

The next five tattvas are the five organs of cognition (knowledge) and are known as the five jñānendriyas. These are the mental organs with which we experience the world. These five organs are ghrāṇa, rasanā, cakṣu, tvak, and śrotra. The first jñānendriya is ghrāṇa tattva. The word ghrāṇa means “nose.” The use of the word nose does not refer to breathing; rather, nose is used here to indicate smell. This is the organ of cognition by which you smell. It creates odors. The next tattva is rasanā tattva. Rasanā means “tongue.” Here the use of the word tongue does not refer to speech but to taste because, athough speech also comes from the tongue, it is an organ of action, not an organ of cognition. Rasanā tattva is that organ of cognition by which you taste. It creates flavors. Now follows cakṣu tattva. The word cakṣu means “eye.” It is that organ of cognition by which you see. It creates form (rūpaḥ). The fourth jñānendriya is tvak tattva. Tvak means “skin.” It is the organ of cognition by which you feel. It creates touch. The last organ of cognition is śrotra tattva. Śrotra means “ear.” It is that organ of cognition by which you hear. It creates sound.

All of the above twenty elements;—the five mahābhūtas, the five tanmātras, the five karmendriyas, and the five jñānendriyas,—are called gross elements. They are all objective elements. The following elements, as we continue rising in our explanation of the tattvas, are said to be objective cum subjective elements. You should understand though that, in Śaivism, all the elements are really objective elements. They are called objects. Only that Super Being is subjective. Yet, as the following elements are a bit more connected to subjectivity than the former, we say that they are objective cum subjective elements.

Now we rise to the three tattvas which are known as the antaḥ̇karaṇas. The word anta ̇karaṇas means “internal organs.” The three internal organs are manas (mind), buddhiḥ̇ (intellect), and ahaṁkāra (ego).

Manas tattva, the element of mind, is said in Sanskṛit to be saṁkalpasādhana, the means by which you create thought. This could be any thought, such as, “I am going there, I will go there, I have done this, I have done that.” This is the action of manas. The action of buddhiḥ̇ tattva, the element of intellect, is to confirm whether I should do this or not. This is the field of the confirmation of the rightness of any proposed action, whether intellectual or moral, because, first, you must determine the rightness of a proposed decision or action and then make a choice dependent on this rightness. You ask yourself internally, “Should I perform this action or not? Is this the right decision or not?” The buddhi will reply to you, “No, you should not do it,” or “Yes, you should do it.” “This is bad, it is wrong to do it.” “This is good, you should do it.” “This answer is right, this answer is wrong.” All this is done by the intellect. Ahaṁkāra tattva is the element of ego which is connected with objectivity. When you attribute any action or knowledge to your self, such as, “I have done this and it was a mistake, I have done that and I ought not to have done it,” or “I did a wonderful thing today which will benefit me a lot,” this is the action of ahaṁkāra tattva. It creates limited “I” consciousness, the limited ego which is connected with objectivity.

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This article is an excerpt from the book "Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme" by Swami Lakshmanjoo, click image for more information.

Rising still further, we come to the two tattvas of prakṛiti and puruṣa. These two tattvas are interdependent. Prakṛiti is dependent upon puruṣa and puruṣa is dependent upon prakṛiti. Prakṛiti is the element which is known as “nature.” It is the field where the three tendencies arise and flow forth. These three tendencies are known as the three guṇas, the three qualities. They are, respectively sattva, rajas, and tamas. Prakṛiti is the combination of these three guṇas but without any distinction. The three guṇas emerge from prakṛiti and thus it is said that the three guṇas are not in the field of the tattvas. They are not to be considered as tattvas because they are created by prakṛiti. Tattvas are creators, they are not created. It is, therefore, not the guṇas which are tattvas but their creator prakṛiti. And that which responds to that prakṛiti, which owns that prakṛiti, is called puruṣa.

Up to this point, I have explained twenty-five tattvas; five mahābhūtas, five tanmātras, five karmendriyas, five jñānendriyas, three antaḥ̇karaṇas, prakṛiti, and puruṣa. This is the limit of the Vedāntin’s understanding of the tattvas. They say that there are only twenty-five tattvas. Yet in Śaivism, nothing as yet has happened. All these tattvas exist in the field of māyā, in the field of objectivity.

In Śaivism, puruṣa is not a realized soul. Puruṣa tattva is bound and limited just as ahaṁkāra tattva is. The only difference between puruṣa and ahaṁkāra is that puruṣa is connected with subjectivity and ahaṁkāra is connected with objectivity. And this puruṣa is entangled and bound in five ways, which are the five kañcukas: niyati, kāla, rāga, vidyā, and kalā.

First, there is niyati tattva. The function of niyati tattva is to put the impression in puruṣa that he is residing in a particular place and not in all places. You are residing in a houseboat near the First Bridge and you are not residing simultaneously at Ishiber near Nishat. You are residing in Kashmir; you are not residing simultaneously in Australia or Canada. This is the limitation which niyati tattva causes for puruṣa; that one is residing in a particular place and not everywhere.

Next comes kāla tattva. The word kāla means “time.” The action of kāla tattva is to keep puruṣa in a particular period, the victim of being in a particular period. For instance, you are 25 years old, I am 64 years old, and he is 43 years old. This limitation is the result of the action of kāla tattva.

The third tattva by which puruṣa is limited is known as rāga tattva. Rāga means “attachment.” This is that attachment which results from not being full. The action of rāga tattva is to leave the impression in puruṣa that he is not full, that he is not complete, and that he must have this or that to become full. He feels a lack which he must fill. This is the function of rāga tattva in limiting puruṣa.

The fourth tattva which limits puruṣa is vidyā tattva. Vidyā means “knowledge.” The action of vidyā tattva is to put the impression in puruṣa that he has this or that particular and limited knowledge, that he is not all-knowing for he knows only some limited things.

The fifth and final bondage and limitation for puruṣa is kalā tattva. Kalā tattva creates the impression in puruṣa that he has some particular creativity, some particular artistic talent. He has mastered the art of writing, or the art of music, or the art of medicine; however, he does not have unlimited creativity. He is good at some things and not all things.

These five bondages of puruṣa are caused by puruṣa’s ignorance of his own nature. And this ignorance is another tattva, which is known as māyā tattva. These five tattvas are created by māyā for puruṣa. That puruṣa who is the victim of māyā, therefore, does not know his own real nature and becomes bound and entangled by these five (kañcukas) and thus becomes a victim of prakṛiti. He takes on individuality and becomes a limited individual.

These five tattvas plus māyā are known as ṣat kañcukas (the six-fold coverings). These are the six coverings which bind and entangle and, therefore, limit puruṣa. He is not limited by only one covering but by six and these coverings must be removed, and this is done automatically by the grace of the Master. Through this grace, at the time of real knowledge, māyā is transformed into His śakti, His great energy. In His glory, māyā becomes the glory of Parama Śiva. When puruṣa realizes the reality of his nature, māyā becomes glory for him.

We have completed our examination of those tattvas, from the antaḥkaraṇas to māyā, which are connected with objectivity cum subjectivity. We will now rise to those tattvas which are connected with pure subjectivity. This is the subjective course to be entered into by puruṣa for rising from pure subjectivity to purer subjectivity to purest subjectivity.

Pure subjectivity is found in the tattva known as śuddhavidyā tattva. This exists when puruṣa actually realizes his own nature. And yet that realization is not stable; it is flickering, it is moving. This is the realization at the level of śuddhavidyā tattva. This realization is in motion. Sometimes you realize it, sometimes you forget it. And the experience (parāmarśa) of śuddhavidyā tattva is, “I am Śiva, this universe is in duality. This universe is unreal, I am Śiva.” This is the impression which comes in śuddhavidyā tattva and it is pure subjectivity.

Now purer subjectivity will come in the next two tattvas, īśvara tattva and sadāśiva tattva. In īśvara tattva, you realize, “This universe is my own expansion. This universe is not an illusion, it is my own expansion.” The realization which takes place in sadāśiva tattva is the same as the realization which takes place in īśvara tattva, but more refined. In sadāśiva tattva, you realize,“I am this whole universe.” This is the difference between these two impressions. In īśvara tattva, you have the impression, “This universe is my own expansion,” whereas in sadāśiva tattva, you will find “I myself am this whole universe.” These two tattvas comprise subjectivity in a purer form.

Now in the final two tattvas, we come to subjectivity in its purest form. These two tattvas are the interdependent tattvas: śakti tattva and śiva tattva. The impression which comes in these two tattvas is only I, the pure I, the universal I. It is not “this universe is my own expansion” or “I am this whole universe.” No, it is just I, pure I, universal I.

Last is that Being which does not come in the cycle of tattvas that Being called Parama Śiva. Parama Śiva is not only found in śiva tattva or in śakti tattva. It is not only here, not only there. You will find It everywhere. You will find It from the lowest tattva to the highest. It is all levels, and therefore no level. It is everywhere, that is why It is nowhere. The one Being who is everywhere, It is nowhere.

Excerpt from the book: "Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme" by Swami Lakshmanjoo.