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"These are the most important points for entering in Shaivism." (Tattvas part one)

"These are the most important points for entering in Shaivism." (Tattvas part one)

kashmir shaivism tattvas (elements) thirty-six elements Feb 20, 2024

Thirty-Six Elements

This is an excerpt from the transcript of the audio that was the basis of the book Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme, book with free audio.

We offer an in-depth study of the “Tattvas (Elements); The Building Blocks of Creation according to Kashmir Shaivism as an online course on our website, which includes Q&A and discussions by John, Denise Hughes and George Barselaar, who studied and lived for many years with Swami Lakshmanjoo.



Swamiji with John Hughes and family 1972


Kashmir Shaivism: The Secret Supreme

Chapter One – The 36 Tattvas

Part One

Mahābhūtas – the five great elements

JOHN:  To be attended by John and Denise Hughes at Swamiji Shree Lakshmanjoo’s ashram in Srinagar, Kashmir, on November 25th, 1971 at 2:30 pm. This will be the first lecture given by Swamiji to the two of us.

SWAMIJI:  For the time being, I would like to tell you something regarding the tattvas (elements).1 In Vedānta, we have got, we explain, twenty-five tattvas.2 But in Shaivism there are thirty-six [tattvas]. [So] first I want to tell you regarding the explanation of the tattvas. I will begin from the lowest degree of the tattvas, I mean, the gross [tattvas].3 The gross tattvas are called the Pañca Mahābhūtas, the Five Great Elements.

JOHN:  Mahābhūtas.

SWAMIJI:  Mahābhūtas, yes. Earth (pṛthvī), water (jala), fire (tejas), air (vāyu), and ether (ākāśa). These are gross and these are called mahābhūtas because the whole universe is based on these five bhūtas.

JOHN:  These five elements (earth, air, water, fire, and ether–ākāśa), they are pretty much the same for most Indian philosophies, is that right?


JOHN:  Same.

SWAMIJI:  Yes, these are the same.

JOHN:  In Greek philosophy, too, they are pretty much the same.

Tanmātras – the five sensations

SWAMIJI: And then you move up to the tanmātras, the five tanmātras.4 The five tanmātras are gandha from earth, gandha tanmātra. Gandha means, smell. It’s not exactly smell, it is the abode of smell, where [every impression of] smell lives. That is called gandha tanmātrā, and that has risen from the earth, the element earth.5 This is called gandha tanmātra.

JOHN:   Gandha (smell).

SWAMIJI:  Gandha tanmātra. And the next one has come out from the water mahābhūtajala.

JOHN:   These tanmātras correspond to these mahābhūtas.

SWAMIJI:  Yes. From earth comes gandha tanmātra (smell). And from jala (water) comes rasa tanmātra (taste).

JOHN:  Rasa?

SWAMIJI:  Rasa. Where the impression of taste resides is called rasa tanmātra. And then from agni (tejas, fire) comes out rūpa tanmātra.

JOHN:  Rūpa, form.

SWAMIJI:  Yes. Rūpa, form.

JOHN:  Form. So this would be sight, then.

SWAMIJI:  Yes. It is not form, it is not exactly form, but it is the residence of form, the residence of the impression of form. Where the impressions of form reside is called rūpa tanmātra.

JOHN:  Then this would be in conjunction with sight.

SWAMIJI:  Yes. This is in conjunction with sight. That will come afterwards.6

JOHN:  Oh, afterwards.

Secret Supreme Chpt 01.mp3 [04:33]

SWAMIJI: Yes. And then from air (vāyu) mahābhūta (air is the fourth one) . . .*

JOHN:  Apa, is that apa?

SWAMIJI:  Air, vāyu, vāyu.

JOHN:  Vāyu.

SWAMIJI:  *. . . comes out sparśa tanmātrā, the tanmātra of touch, the touching sensation. The impression of touching sensation, the residence where it resides, is called sparśa tanmātrā–the impression of the touching sensation. And afterwards finally comes from ākāśa, śabda tanmātrā (sound). Śabda tanmātrā comes out from ākāśa mahābhūta. Ākāśa means, ether.

These are the most important points for Shaivism, to enter in Shaivism.

JOHN:  To enter, these five . . .

SWAMIJI:  No, these thirty-six elements.

JOHN:  These thirty-six tattvas.

SWAMIJI:  These thirty-six tattvas.

JOHN:  Now, is ākāśa . . . ?

SWAMIJI:  Ākāśa means, ether.

JOHN:  Ether, but that is not perceptible.

SWAMIJI:  Not perceptible, it gives you room to walk.

JOHN:  Like space? Something like space?

SWAMIJI:  Yes space, it is space.

JOHN:  But it is not a vacuum, it is not . . .

SWAMIJI: Something like that. A vacuum without air.

JOHN:  Without air. It is just space, air-filled.

SWAMIJI:  Air fills into it.

JOHN:   Fills in.

SWAMIJI:  And these tanmātras are clear now.



Karmendriyas – five organs of action

SWAMIJI:  And then what comes out are the five karmendriyas, the organs of action.

JOHN:  Karmendriyas.

SWAMIJI:  Organs of action.

JOHN:  Now, these are all objective elements here?

SWAMIJI:  These are all objective.

JOHN:  All objective.

SWAMIJI:  All objective elements.

JOHN:  Even the karmendriyas?


JOHN:  These are objective.

SWAMIJI:  Objective, with body, with mind, with even ātman (the soul)7 also, [they are] called objects in Shaivism.

JOHN:  So then only . . .

SWAMIJI:  Only that super Being (Paramaśiva) is subjective.

JOHN:  . . . Being is subjective.

SWAMIJI: And then comes the five organs of action, vāk, pāṇi, pāda, pāyu, and upastha. 

Upastha is the karmendriya organ, the active organ of sex. It is not for sex, actually it is not for sex. It is for removing urine, water, the organ for making water. Pāyu is the second one.

JOHN:  Pāyu.

SWAMIJI:  Pāyu; pāyu is the organ for passing stools. Upastha is for water. Then comes the tattva, pāda tattvapāda. Pāda means, foot, by which you move about. This is also a tattva in our system. In Vedānta also, this is a tattvapāda. And then is pāṇi.

JOHN:  Pāṇi.

SWAMIJI:  Hand. Hand is another tattva by which you take and give. And then is vāk, the organ of speech. These are five?

JOHN:  Yes. Upastha, pāyu, pāda, pāṇi, and vāk.

SWAMIJI:  Vāk, pāṇi, pāda, pāyu, and upastha, these are five.

And then comes five organs of cognition


1 Lit., the essence or substance of anything. As Swamiji will explain, “It creates and is not created. [A tattva is] un-manifested and manifestation comes out from that.” Kashmir Shaivism–The Secret Supreme (LJA archive). “Tattva means, ananāt iti tattva, that which is adjusted in many–that is a tattva. A tattva is not one. This chair, you cannot say [that] this is a tattva. This specks, this is not a tattva; a pot is not a tattva, a body is not a tattva. A tattva is that substance which is found adjusted in many things, [as] one function, pervading many things, not all.” Tantrāloka 9.2 (LJA archive).

2 Viz., Iśvarakṛṣṇa’s philosophy of Sāṁkhya.

3 The terms “gross” and “subtle” are employed frequently in the philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism to denote the degree of objectivity and subjectivity, respectively, of a given element or a class of elements. The grosser the element, the more commonly perceptible and the less pervasive the element is. The subtler the element, the less commonly perceptible and the more pervasive the element is.

4 Lit., subtle (tan) elements (mātrā). “Tanmātras means, where it is there, it is existing there, although it is not vividly seen, vividly perceived.” Tantrāloka 9.271 (LJA archive).

5 “And that tanmātra is bhūtādināmna; bhūtādināmna means, this is the source of all gross elements, the gross five elements.” Ibid.

6. Sight (cakṣu) is the 18th tattva which is in the category of jñānendriyas.

7 Viz., puruṣa.

(source: Kashmir Shaivism, The Secret Supreme, by Swami Lakshmanjoo)
Also available as an on-demand online course: “The Tattvas (Elements)
The Building Blocks of Creation in Kashmir Shaivism“  the Lakshmanjoo Academy created from a live online event, along with Q&A and discussions by John, Denise Hughes, and George Barselaar, who studied and lived with Swami Lakshmanjoo for many years.
All Content is subject to Copyright © John Hughes.

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