CCA Logo A World Leader In Ayurvedic Education
Call us at 530-478-9100

Advanced Topics in Ayurveda: The Tanmatras

“Sankhya philosophy is one of India’s oldest philosophical systems attempting to address the most important and common questions of life itself. Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? How do we get there? Sankhya philosophy attempts to answer each of these questions through its exploration of cosmology. 

Sankhya means “system of enumeration.” It lists the twenty-four tattwas or principles upon which all of creation rests.” 

Among these tattwas are the tanmatras, the root energies of the five elements. In the newly revised edition of “Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine,” Dr. Marc Halpern offers additional information about the tanmatras:

“The first building block is actually the "potential" for a building block. These potentials are called tanmatras. They provide the potential for all existence. Tanmatra means "essence" or "potential." These are the root energies of the five elements. They are the most subtle form of energy and it is only because of the tanmatras that everything comes into creation. This includes the mind, senses, and organs of action. Although the tanmatras are named after their related sensory experiences, their influence is not limited to the senses. 

Being so subtle, the tanmatras are difficult to understand at first. Tanmatras are the most subtle form of energy, the root energies of the five elements. They provide the potential for all existence. The following information helps to round out the student’s understanding of the tanmatras. Refer to the section on Sankhya Philosophy for additional information. The following description brings in concepts that are described later in the text. Interested students are encouraged to come back and read this appendix only after reading the rest of the textbook. 

The origin of the ether element is the tanmatra of sound called shabda. Shabda tanmatra is the primordial, unmanifested form of sound. Shabda is the primordial space from which vibration emerges long before it takes the form of sound in the ear. Sound and ether are inseparable. Because of their intimate relationship, the ear is considered the associated sense organ of the ether element, and voice (mouth) is its organ of action. Hearing loss and loss of the voice are difficulties that are often due to vitiation of the ether element in the body. 

The origin of the air element is the tanmatra of touch called sparsha. Sparsha tanmatra is the primordial, unmanifested form of touch. Sparsha is the potential of the touch experience, expressed in its most subtle form. Touch and air are inseparable. Because of their intimate relationship, the skin (through which we receive touch) is considered the associated sense organ of the air element and the hands (through which we reach out and touch the world) are its associated organs of action. Hence, disorders of tactile perception and those of grasping are the result of disturbances in the functions of the air element. 

The origin of the fire element is the tanmatra of vision called rupa. Rupa means form or color. Both form and color are the result of perception. Rupa tanmatra is the primordial, unmanifested form of perception, light, vision and, thus, the fire element. Fire and the visual sense have a special relationship. Fire provides the light for perception. The eyes are the vehicles through which light is digested and perception takes place. Hence, disorders of visual perception are primarily those of the fire element. 

The origin of the water element is the tanmatra of taste called rasa. Rasa in this context is the primordial causation of the experience of taste. Rasa tanmatra is the causal energy that provides the potential for the experience of taste to occur. It is not the taste itself. However, since taste depends upon the water element for its manifestation, disorders of the ability to taste are due to an imbalance of the water element. 

The origin of the earth element is the tanmatra of smell called gandha. The state of the earth element in the body and the capacity to smell are deeply connected. Gandha tanmatra is the primordial cause of the experience of smell. It is the seed energy or potential, emerging from the causal body, which sprouts into the earth element. The earth element then builds the potential for the experience of smell in the subtle body and the structures through which smell can be experienced in the physical body. Thus, the gandha tanmatra is not the smell itself but smell is dependent upon it. Disorders of the ability to smell reflect an imbalance of the earth element.” 

Excerpt from “Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine,” by Dr. Marc Halpern, Founder of the California College of Ayurveda