Pancikarana is a basic theory in Vedanta. It explains about how a subtle matter transforms itself into the gross matter. Pancikarana theory is based on Trivrtam, which is explained in Chandogya Upanisad (6, 3, 3). The Vedic seers believed that the five primordial subtle elements divide themselves and undergo the process of Pancikarana, to become the five gross elements, the panca-maha-bhutas. It is believed that the process of Pancikarana (fivefold division and combination) undergoes continuously, till the gross elements are produced. Each of the panca–bhuta is a combination of all the five basic elements, but in different proportions. Each panca–bhuta gets its name owing to the preponderance of its own part. An outline knowledge of the evolution of the universe in required in understanding the process of Pancikarana.
The Supreme Brahman is of the nature of existence, consciousness and bliss. Prakriti is a primordial substance. Prakriti literally means the source of creation. It is neither a product of Brahman, nor an entity apart from Brahman. Prakriti can be said as the bliss aspect of Brahman. Prakriti apparently becomes the world. Prakriti differentiates itself into three gunas as sattva, rajas and tamas. At the beginning of the creation, these three gunas were not differentiated. The gunas were at equilibrium and that state is called Mahat–tattva. From Mahat–tattva evolved the subtle aspect of “I sense”, which is also called as Ahamkara. Ahamkara disturbed the equilibrium of the three gunas. The three gunas became distinct as sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is pure intelligence, rajas is action or motion, and tamas is matter. The three gunas are not qualities, but the constituents in the apparent process of materialization. When element sattva is pure (when it does not mix with rajas or tamas), prakriti is knowm as Maya. Brahman reflected on Maya is known as the omniscient Isvara. Isvara is capable of controlling Maya. Isvara is not something other than Maya. Isvara is the involved controller consciousness. Isvara is that consciousness, which is involved in the process of creation.
When the element of sattva is impure (being mixed up with rajas and tamas), it is called Avidya. Brahman reflected on Avidya (impure sattva) is Jiva. The Jiva is of different grades due to the difference in combination of rajas and tamas. This Avidya is the causal body. When the Jiva identifies himself with the causal body, he is called Prajna. For the experience of Prajna, the five subtle elements space, air, fire, water and earth arose from that part of prakriti which is predominated by tamas. When the panca-bhutas are in the subtle form, they are not perceived by the senses. The subtle form of the panca-bhutas is called ‘Tanmatra’. It is this subtle tanmatra that undergo the process of Pancikarana to create the gross panca-bhutas.
In bird’s eye view, prakriti differentiates itself into three gunas as sattva, rajas, and tamas. From the tamasic aspect of prakriti arise the subtle tanmatras. Every tanmatra also has three aspects, sattva, rajas, and tamas. From the sattvic aspect of the tanmatra arise the sensory organs of hearing, touch, sight, taste, and smell. From the sattvic aspect also arise the organs of inner conception called antahkarana. The manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), chitta (memory), and ahamkara (ego) are collectively called the antahkarana.
From the rajasic aspect are born the organs of action known as the organs of speech, the hands, the feet, and the organs of excretion and generation. From the rajasic aspect also arise the vital air (prana). From the tamasic aspect arise the five gross elements or the panca-bhutas. The five organs of knowledge, the five organs of action, the five vital airs, the mind and the intellect – all the seventeen together form the subtle body, which is called the sukshma sarira. When the prajna identifies with the sukhma-sarira (subtle body), it is called Taijasa. The jiva thinks that the subtle body is its own. Actually, the subtle body belongs to the combinations of the different aspects of prakriti. This takes place in the individual level (microcosm). It happens because the Jiva lacks the universal knowledge and is conscious only of its own subtle body. When Isvara identifies with the totality of all the subtle bodies of the universe, Isvara is called Hiranyagarbha. In short, the totality of all the subtle forces of the universe is called the Hiranyagarbha. This takes place in the universal level (macrocosm).
The jiva cannot have any experience without a body and the external world. The subtle concepts have to be made gross to facilitate it. The process of Pancikarana leads to the formation of the gross panca-bhutas. Panci means fives, karana means creating and it indicates the process of fivefold division and mutual combination of the tanmatras.
Process of Pancikarana
Stage 1: Tanmatras remain in their own individual pure state.
Stage 2: Tanmatras show a tendency to split in to two halves.
Stage 3: They split in to two halves.
Stage 4: One half of the tanmatra of each element remains intact and the other half divides into four equal bits. Each of the four bits is now one eighth of the whole tanmatra. Thus each tanmatra has split in to five segments, one half bit and four one eighth bits.
Stage 5: Each half remains intact and combines with each of the one eighth bits of the other four elements.
By their mutual intermingling, each element has 50% of its own element and 12.5% of each of the other four elements.
Gross space = space (1/2) + air (1/8) + fire (1/8) + water (1/8) +earth (1/8)
Gross air= air (1/2) + space (1/8) + fire (1/8) + water (1/8) +earth (1/8)
Gross fire= fire (1/2) + space (1/8) + air (1/8) + water (1/8) +earth (1/8)
Gross water= water (1/2) + space (1/8) + air (1/8) + fire (1/8) +earth (1/8)
Gross earth= earth (1/2) + space (1/8) + air (1/8) + fire (1/8) +water (1/8)
Therefore each gross element is dominated by its own quality. It also includes a fraction of the quality of the other four elements. The newly formed materials are gross and can be perceived by the senses. Srimad Baghavata explains the successive formation of the gross elements and its characteristics as follows
‘From the tamasa aspect originates the subtle element (bhuta-sukshma) of sound. Out of that sound, came the element Akasa (space). Akasa generated the sense of touch. The subtle sense of touch, under the influence of time, maya and the divine presence transformed in to air. The powerful element air, Supported in akasa, generated the tanmatra (subtle aspect) of rupa (form). From that came the element fire. Fire with air as its proximate category generated the tanmatra of taste, and from that came the element water. Water, with fire as its proximate category generated the tanmatra of smell and from that came the element earth. The element that succeeds retains all the qualities of the earlier ones because of their intimate connection and combination. Thus akasa has sound as its quality. Air has sound and touch as its quality. Fire has form, sound and touch as its quality. Water has taste, form, touch and sound as its quality. Earth has smell, taste, form, touch, and sound as its quality. The grosser elements have more qualities. The gross elements are compounded’ (Srimad Baghavata, 3, 5, 31-36).
The same process of division and combination involving three element fire, water and earth are described in Chandogya Upanisad (6, 3, 3). This process is called Trivrtam.
The three tanmatras splits into two halfs, one half is intact and the other half splits into two bits.
Gross fire= subtle fire (1/2) + subtle water (1/4) + subtle earth (1/4)
Gross water= subtle water (1/2) + subtle fire (1/4) + subtle earth (1/4)
Gross earth = subtle earth (1/2) + subtle fire (1/4) + subtle water (1/4)
The theory of pancikarana is based on the process of Trivrtam
Thus the five gross elements are formed.
From the permutation and combination of these five gross elements evolve the world as well as all the objects of experience and the bodies in which the experience takes place.
When Hiranyagarbha identifies himself with the totality of the gross bodies, he is known as Vaisvanara (macrocosm). In the individual level (microcosm), when taijasa identifies itself with its own gross body, it is called Visva. The visva see only the external things and are devoid of the knowledge of their true inner nature. This makes the jiva involve in samsara and makes them take repeated births. Self-knowledge alone can relieve the jiva from the cycle of repeated births and deaths.
Pancadasi (Trans, Swami Swahananda), Sri Ramakrishna Math. Mylapore, chennai
Chandogya Upanisad (Trans, Swami Lokeswarananda), The Ramakrishna Mission Institute Of culture, Kolkata, 1998
Srimad Bhagavata Vol 1(Trans, Swami Tapasyananda), Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai
Mandukyopanisad (Trans, Swami Nikhilananda), Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata