Eastern Elemental Correspondences

Eastern cosmologies share some major themes with western cosmologies, but there are significant differences. Thus, the elements and elemental magic as a whole are approached in a different manner. Eastern correspondences for each element are shown below. Feel free to modify them to your liking or substitute your own. The oldest source, when available, is cited. These are not exhaustive tables. Some correspondences (such as cakras) have been omitted due to wide variation in systems and traditions. Comments, criticisms, corrections, and suggestions may be submitted via the Contact page.


Hindu and Buddhist Elemental Correspondences

One of the earliest views of the Hindu elements appears in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad,1 which discusses the attributes of three elements (earth, water, and fire). These three elements reflect the guṇas (San. qualities) of the Bhagavad Gītā,2,3 whose attributes are largely consistent with the elemental attributes presented in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad. The Hindu elements are also mentioned in the Yogatattva Upaniṣad,4 Darśana Upaniṣad,5 and other texts.

In Buddhism, the four “great elements” described in the Pāli Canon6-8 are earth, water, fire, and wind, which manifest as solidity, fluidity, heat (energy), and movement, respectively. The fifth element of space (sometimes called “void”) emphasizes the Buddhist concept of void or emptiness (San. śūnyatā ). A sixth element (consciousness) is also sometimes mentioned in Buddhist literature,6,8 and is discussed extensively in esoteric Buddhism.9,10 The Buddha families are also linked to the elements via the tantras.11 Note that elemental and other correspondences may vary among tantras, as the development of Hinduism and Buddhism over the centuries involved the development of diverse doctrines and practices. Tibetan Buddhist correspondences10 are emphasized in the table below. Note that other traditions with alternate (and equally valid) correspondence schemes exist.

Element Earth Water Fire Air (Wind) Space
Sanskrit
pṛthivī (पृथिवी) or bhūmi (भूमि) āpas (आपस्) or jala (जल)
agni (अग्नि) or anala (अनल) vāyu (वायु) ākāśa, (आकाश, sky or space) or śūnyatā (शून्यता, void or emptiness)
Tibetan (Wyl.) sa (ས་) chu (ཆུ་) me (མེ་) rlung (རླུང་) nam mkha’ (ནམ་མཁའ་, sky or space) or stong pa nyid (སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་, emptiness)
Ouranian Barbaric NOBO THALDOMA ASHARA DIJOW (air) or ATIPJOROF (wind) XACOJ (atmosphere) or PINGAL (void)
Hinduism
Color1 black white red N/A N/A
Body parts1 feces, flesh, mind urine, blood, breath (San. prāṇa) bone, marrow, speech N/A N/A
Food1 other food water ghee, butter, oil N/A N/A
Quality (San. गुण, guṇa)2 ignorance (San. तमस्, tamas) goodness (सत्त्व, sattva) passion (रजस्, rajas) N/A N/A
Class (San. varṇa), via guṇas3 vaiśya (San. वैश्य), śūdra (शूद्र) brāhmaṇa (ब्राह्मण) kṣatriya (क्षत्रिय) N/A N/A
Principle (San. तत्त्व, tattva)4 pṛthivī (San. पृथिवी), yellow square āpas (आपस्), white crescenta agni (अग्नि), red triangle vāyu (वायु), black hexagramb ākāśa (आकाश), smoky circlec
Body region4,d feet to knees knees to anus anus to heart heart to middle of eyebrows middle of eyebrows to top of head
Body region deity (San.)4 Brāhma (ब्राह्म) Nārāyaṇa (नारायण)e Rudra (रुद्र) Īśvara (ईश्वर) Sadāśiva (सदाशिव)
Seed letter (San.)4 la (ल) va (व) ra (र) ya (य) ha (ह)
Buddhism
Shape10 square circle triangle semicircle drop
Color10 yellow bluef red green whitef
Cardinal direction10 south east west north N/A (center)
Buddha10 San. Ratnasambhava, Tib. rin chen ‘byung gnas (རིན་ཆེན་འབྱུང་གནས་) San. Akṣobhya (अक्षोभ्य​​), Tib. mi bskyod pa (མི་བསྐྱོད་པ་)g San. Amitābha (अमिताभ​​), Tib. snang ba mtha’ yas (སྣང་བ་མཐའ་ཡས་) San. Amoghasiddhi (अमोघसिद्धि), Tib. don yod grub pa (དོན་ཡོད་གྲུབ་པ་) San. Vairocana (वैरोचन​), Tib. rnam par snang mdzad (རྣམ་པར་སྣང་མཛད་)g
Consort10 San. Māmakī (मामकी), Tib. ma ma ki (མ་མ་ཀི་) San. Buddhalocanā (बुद्धलोचना), Tib. sangs rgyas spyan (སངས་རྒྱས་སྤྱན་) San. Pāṇḍarāvasinī (पाण्डरावसिनी), Tib. gos dkar mo (གོས་དཀར་མོ་) San. Samayatārā (समयतारा), Tib. dam tshig sgrol ma (དམ་ཚིག་སྒྲོལ་མ་) San. Dhātviśvarī (धात्विश्वरी), Tib. dbyings phyug ma (དབྱིངས་ཕྱུག་མ་)
Attending bodhisattvas (male)10 San. Ākāśagarbha (आकाशगर्भ​), Tib. nam mkha’i snying po (ནམ་མཁའི་སྙིང་པོ་)

and

San. Samatabhadra (समतभद्र​​), Tib. kun tu bzang po (ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་)

San. Kṣitigarbha (क्षितिगर्भ​), Tib. sa yi snying po (ས་ཡི་སྙིང་པོ་)

and

San. Maitreya (मैत्रेय​), Tib. byams pa (བྱམས་པ་)

San. Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर​), Tib. spyan ras gzigs (སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་)

and

San. Mañjuśrī (मञ्जुश्री), Tib. ‘jam dpal dbyangs (འཇམ་དཔལ་དབྱངས་)

San. Vajrapāṇi (वज्रपाणि), Tib. phyag na rdo rje (ཕྱག་ན་རྡོ་རྗེ་)

and

San. Sarvanivaraṇaviṣkambhin (सर्वनिवरणविष्कम्भिन्), Tib. sgrib pa rnam sel gyi sprul pa (སྒྲིབ་པ་རྣམ་སེལ་གྱི་སྤྲུལ་པ་)

none
Attending bodhisattvas (female)10 San. Mālā (माला), Tib. phreng ba ma (ཕྲེང་བ་མ་)

and

San. Dhūpa (धूप​), Tib. bdug spos ma (བདུག་སྤོས་མ་)

San. Lāsyā (लास्या), Tib. sgeg mo ma (སྒེག་མོ་མ་)

and

San. Puṣpa (पुष्प​), Tib. me tog ma (མེ་ཏོག་མ་)

San. Gītā (गीता), Tib. glu ma (གླུ་མ་)

and

San. Āloka (आलोक), Tib. snang gsal ma (སྣང་གསལ་མ་)

San. Gandha (गन्ध), Tib. dri chab ma (དྲི་ཆབ་མ་)

and

San. Nṛtya (नृत्य), Tib. gar ma (གར་མ་)

none
Aggregate (San. स्कन्ध, skandha)10 sensation (San. वेदना, vedanā; Tib. ཚོར་བ་, tshor ba) form (San. रूप, rūpa; Tib. གཟུགས་, gzugs) conception (San. संज्ञा, saṃjñā; Tib. འདུ་ཤེས་, ‘du dhes) emotion (San. संस्कार, saṃskāra; Tib. འདུ་བྱེད་, ‘du byed) cognition (San. विज्ञान, vijñāna; Tib. རྣམ་པར་ཤེས་པ་, rnam par shes pa)
Buddha clan10 jewel (San. रत्न, ratna vajra (वज्र​) lotus (पद्म, padma) action (कर्म, karma) buddha (बुद्ध)
Throne10 horse elephant peacock eagle lion
Implement10 jewel vajra lotus viśvavajra (double vajra) eight-spoked wheel
Poison10 pride anger lust envy delusion
Wisdom10 equalizing mirror discriminating all-accomplishing reality perfection
Pure land10 San. Śrīmat (श्रीमत्), Tib. dpal dang ldan pa (དཔལ་དང་ལྡན་པ་) San. Abhirati (अभिरति), Tib. mngon par dga’ ba (མངོན་པར་དགའ་བ་) San. Sukhāvatī (सुखावती), Tib. bde ba can (བདེ་བ་ཅན་) Prakuta (also called Karmasampat) All-Pervading Drop
Gem10 gold diamond ruby emerald sapphire
Seed syllable (San.)12 TRAṂ HŪṂ HRĪḤ ĀḤ OṂ
Seal (San. मुद्रा, mudrā]12 giving (varada) earth-touching (bhūsparśa) meditation (samādhi) fearlessness (abhaya) wheel-turning (dharmacakra)

aCommonly depicted as silver in western traditions.13

bCommonly depicted as a blue circle in western traditions.13

cCommonly depicted as a black13 or dark purple14 egg in western traditions.

dThe Darśana Upaniṣad5 lists slightly different body regions (e.g., hips instead of anus, middle of eyelids instead of middle of eyebrows).

eThe Darśana Upaniṣad5 lists Viṣṇu.

fIn some traditions, blue and white are switched.

gIn some traditions, the Buddhas of water and space are switched.

References

1Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Upaniṣads, translated from the original Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 95-176.

2Discussed in Devi, Radhanath Phukan’s Treatment of Sāṁkhya Philosophy: A Study, 2012, Gauhati University, PhD dissertation.

3The Bhagavad Gītā, translated by Winthrop Sargeant, edited with a preface by Christopher Key Chapple, 25th anniversary ed., State University of New York Press, 2009.

4Yogatattva Upaniṣad. The Yoga Upaniṣads, translated by T. R. Śrīnivāsa Ayyaṅgār, edited by P. S. Subrahmaṇya Śāstrī, The Adyar Library, 1938, pp. 301-325.

5Darśana Upaniṣad. The Yoga Upaniṣads, translated by T. R. Śrīnivāsa Ayyaṅgār, edited by P. S. Subrahmaṇya Śāstrī, The Adyar Library, 1938, pp. 116-150.

6“The Great Elephant Footprint Simile – Mahā Hatthipadopama Sutta  (MN 28).”

7“An Analysis of the Properties – Dhātu-vibhaṅga Sutta  (MN 140).”

8“Properties – Dhātu Sutta (SN 25.9).”

9Kūkai: Major Works, translated, with an account of his life and a study of his thought, by Yoshito S. Hakeda, Columbia University Press, 1972.

10The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding In the Between, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman, Bantam Books, 1994.

11See the Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra, Vajraśekhara Tantra, Guhyasamāja Tantra, and Hevajra Tantra.

12Bhattacharyya, An Introduction to Buddhist Esoterism, Motilal Banarsidass, 1980.

13Crowley, 777 and Other Qabalistic Writings of Aleister Crowley, edited by Israel Regardie, Samuel Weiser, 1999.

14Bardon, Initiation into Hermetics, Merkur Publishing, 2001.

Suggested Reading

Hinduism

Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Upaniṣads, translated from the original Sanskrit by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 95-176.

Yogatattva Upaniṣad. Thirty Minor Upaniṣads, translated by K. Nārāyaṇasvami Aiyar, Madras, 1914, pp. 192-201.

Buddhism

“The Great Elephant Footprint Simile – Mahā Hatthipadopama Sutta  (MN 28).”

“An Analysis of the Properties – Dhātu-vibhaṅga Sutta  (MN 140).”

The Tibetan Book of the Dead: Liberation Through Understanding In the Between, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman, Bantam Books, 1994.


Chinese Wǔxíng (Five Phase) Correspondences

The wǔxíng are “phases” or “agents” that represent five different movements or tendencies of energy. Their history cannot be traced as closely as the western elements, but it is clear they emerged some time during the Warring States Period1 and were well established by the time of the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE) before the import of Buddhism into China.2 Zōu Yǎn provides the earliest known account of the wǔxíng in the 3rd Century BCE. Though the original texts are lost, they are discussed in the Records of the Grand Historian (Chi. Shǐjì) of Han Dynasty historian Sīmǎ Qiān.

Both Daoism and Confucian thought became popular during this time, and classics like the Book of the Way and Virtue (Chi. Dàodéjīng) and Book of Documents (Shūjīng) indicate the Chinese were already “thinking in fives.” The Book of Documents3 describes the five phases as:

Wu-xing: 1. water, 2. fire, 3. wood, 4. metal, 5. earth.

Water [is of the quality] that is soaking and descending.

Fire [is of the quality] that is blazing and rising.

Wood [is of the quality] that allows curving and aligning.

Metal [is of the quality] that allows moulding and solidifying.

Earth [is of the quality] that allows farming and harvest.

The correlative power of the wǔxíng permitted successful integration with other systems, leading to its eventual dominance in early China.1

There appears to be no mention of wǔxíng in a medical context before the Qin Dynasty (221 BCE – 207 BCE).4 The earliest known appearance in ancient medical texts is in the Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor (Chi. Huángdì Nèijīng), finalized in the 1st Century BCE. The first part of the work is the Basic Questions (Sù Wèn), which discusses the theoretical basis for Chinese medicine and diagnostic methods. The second part of the work is the Spiritual Pivot (Língshūjīng), which discusses acupuncture in great detail.

Phase Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Chinese
(木) huǒ (火) (土) jīn (金) shuǐ (水)
Ouranian Barbaric N/Aa ASHARA NOBO JAMAQAD THALDOMA
General
Color1 greenb red yellow white blackb
Cardinal direction1 east south N/A (center) west north
Season1 spring summer midsummer autumn winter
Time of day1 morning afternoon N/A evening night
Quarter guardian5 azure dragon vermillion bird N/Ac white tiger black tortoise
Animal type1 scaly feathered nakedd hairy shelled
Sense5 sight speech taste smell hearing
Human finger5 index middle thumb ring little
Weather1 windy hot humid dry cold
Work1 birth, sprouting growth, blooming flourishing punishing, severity death, closing up
Yīn/Yáng state1 lesser yáng greater yáng balance lesser yīn greater yīn
Public officials1 public works agriculture palace revenues military prisons
Ordinance1 nourishing, caring giving, rewarding generosity, kindness punishing, chastising funerals, execution
Mutual generation (Chi. xiāngshēng) cycle1 wood (as fuel) produces fire fire produces earth (as ash) earth produces metal (from mining) metal (on its surface) produces water (as dew) water produces wood (by feeding plants)
Mutual conquest (Chi. xiāngkè) cycle1 wood (as a plow) conquers earth fire conquers metal (by melting it) earth (as a dam) conquers water metal (as an axe) conquers wood (by chopping it) water conquers fire (by extinguishing it)
Medical6
Yīn organ liver hearte spleen lungs kidneys
Yáng organ gall bladder small intestinef stomach large intestine bladder
Sense organ eyes tongue mouth nose ears
Tissue sinewsg blood vessels muscles skin bones
Taste sour bitter sweet pungent salty
Smell rancid burnt fragrant rotten putrid
Emotion anger joy pensiveness worry, sorrow, sadness
fear
Sound shouting laughing singing weeping groaning

aA word for this phase has not been divined yet.

bThe character describing wood (Chi. 靑, qīng) may mean blue or green, but is typically interpreted as green. Also, I have seen some practitioners assign green to wood and blue to water. Perhaps this is due to Buddhist influence.

cSometimes humans are placed in the center, surrounded by the four guardians.

dHumans are “naked” animals.

eThe pericardium is another yīn organ associated with fire.

fThe “Triple Burner” is another yáng organ associated with fire. It is an invisible organ spread across the chest and abdominal region, and regulates and water flow.

gSinews are tendons and ligaments.

References

1Discussed in Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

2Discussed in Demerath, Crossing the Gods: Worldly Religions and Worldly Politics, Rutgers University Press, 2003.

3Quoted in Chen, Early Chinese Work in Natural Science: A Reexamination of the Physics of Motion, Acoustics, Astronomy and Scientific Thoughts, Hong Kong University Press, 1996, p. 200.

4Yuqun, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

5Wen, The Tao of Craft: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition, North Atlantic Books, 2016.

6Maciocia, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text, 3rd ed., Elsevier, 2015.

Suggested Reading

Maciocia, The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text, 3rd ed., Elsevier, 2015.

Wang, Cosmology and Political Culture in Early China, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Wen, The Tao of Craft: Fu Talismans and Casting Sigils in the Eastern Esoteric Tradition, North Atlantic Books, 2016.

Last updated: April 4, 2020

Originally published: September 21, 2018