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Tanmatra (Sanskrit: तन्मात्र) is a noun which means – rudimentary or subtle element, merely that, mere essence, potential or only a trifle.[1] There are five sense perceptions – hearing, touch, sight, taste and smell, and there are the five tanmatras corresponding to the five sense perceptions and five sense-organs. The tanmatras combine and re-combine in different ways to produce the gross elements – earth, water, fire, air and ether, which make up the gross universe perceived by the senses. The senses play their part by coming into contact with the objects, and carry impressions of them to the manas which receives and arranges them into a precept.[2]


The Samkhya school propounded by Rishi Kapila holds the five tanmatras or principle ideas as the essential elements that are the primordial causes of the five substantial elements of physical manifestation. The five substantial elements of the physical world are – ether (Akasha), air (Vayu), fire (Agni or Taijasa), water (Ap) and earth (Prithvi) in the order of their development, these are the five Bhutas from whose unlimited combination everything results including the living bodies which are material forms living in space and time. According to the Vedic theory of creation, the tanmatras are the basis of all corporeal existences because from them evolve the Bhutas, the building blocks of the perceptible universe.[3]

Act of Creation[edit]

Charaka speaks of seven dhatus (components, elementary substances) - the five gross elements (bhutas) and Chetna or Purusha. Purusha (Creative force) and Prakṛti (Nature) are counted as one but there are twenty-four categories of elementary substances – the five cognitive and the five conative senses, the five objects of senses, and the eight-fold Prakrti viz. Prakrti (Nature), Mahat (great, eminent), Ahamkara (Ego) and the five elements. The Manas (conscience, mind) which remains in touch with these twenty-four categories, works through the senses and the two movements of manas are – indeterminate sensing (uha) and conceiving (vichara) before definite understanding (buddhi) arises. The five elements variously combine to produce the senses. All living beings are made up of the conglomeration of the sense-objects (gross matter), the ten senses, manas, the five subtle bhutas and Prakrti, Mahat and Ahamkara; cognition, pleasure, pain, ignorance, life, death, karmas and fruits of karmas belong to this conglomeration. By ignorance, will, antipathy, and work the conglomeration of Purusha with the elements takes place producing knowledge, feeling or action. The Atman is the illuminator of cognition. The avyakta (undifferentiated), a part of Prakrti, is identified with Purusha; this avyakta is the same as chetana from which is derived Buddhi (intellectual faculty) and from buddhi is derived Ahamkara, from Ahamkara are derived the five elements and the five senses and creation is said to have taken place. Ahamkara as Sattvika gives rise to the senses and as Tamasa to the Tanmatras and both these are held up in Mahat.[4] Pancasikha calls the ultimate truth avyakta in the state of Purusha, and that consciousness is due to the conditions of the conglomeration of the mind-body complex and the element of cetas, the phenomena which though mutually independent are not the self, the renunciation of the perceived and imperceptible phenomena results in moksa (liberation). Vijnanabhiksu holds that both separation of Ahamkara and evolution of tanmatras take place in the Mahat. The pure cit (intellect) is neither illusory nor an abstraction, though concrete it is transcendent. The state in which the tamas succeeds in overcoming sattva aspect preponderant in Buddhi is called Bhutadi. Bhutadi and rajas generate the tanmatras, the immediately preceding causes of the gross elements.[5]

Purusha and Prakrti are non-evolutes, they are eternal and unchanging. From the union of these two non-evolutes evolves Buddhi (associated with knowing), from Buddhi evolves Ahamkara (associated with willing), from Ahamkara evolves Manas (associated with feeling), Jnanenriyas (five sense-capacities), karmendriyas (five action-capacities) and Tanmatras (five subtle elements) from which conglomeration evolve the Mahabhutas (five gross elements); the nearness of Purusha disturbs Prakrti, alters the equilibrium of the three Gunas – Sattva (illumination), Rajas (stimulating and dynamic) and Tamas (indifferent, heavy and inactive) whose combination of attributes determines the nature of all derivative principles enumerated by Samkhya, triggers the causal chains and facilitates evolution. Primordial materiality does not manifest itself; it is manifested through the evolutes.[6]

Process of Creation[edit]

The tanmatras, the subtle matter, vibratory, impingent, radiant, instinct with potential energy and collocations of original mass units with unequal distributions of original energy, evolve out of the Bhutadi which is only an intermediate state. They have some mass and the energy and physical characteristics like penetrability, powers of impact, radiant heat and viscous attraction etc., and have effect on the sense after assuming the form of paramanus or atoms of the Bhutas (the created ones) which process is Tattavantraparinama or primary evolution. In evolution the total energy always remains the same redistributed between causes and effects, the totality of effects exists in the totality of causes in the potential form. The collocations and regroupings of the three Gunas (attribute or property) induce more differentiated evolutes; they constitute the changes leading to evolutions i.e. from cause to effect, which process is based on Satkaryavada, the doctrine the effect is existent in the cause even before the causal process has started to produce the effect operating in accordance with the two laws of conservation of matter and energy.[7]

The suksma bhutas combine in different proportions with the radical as its material cause and other bhutas as the efficient cause to form the Mahabhutas; atoms and suksma bhutas cannot exist in the phenomenal state in an uncombined form. Two panus or paramanus (atoms) combine as a result of parispanda (rotary or vibratory motion) to form a dvyanuka (molecule), three of these dvyanukas combine to form a tryanuka, and so on till heavier metals are formed. Except akasha, all other tanmatras have attributes of the previous ones in the succeeding ones. The tanmatras are quanta of energy.[8] The total sattwik aspects of the five tanmatras combine to form the antah-karana or inner-instrument consisting of manas, buddhi, citta and ahamkara; the individual sattwik aspects of tanmatras combine to produce the jnana-indriyas consisting of the five sense organs of perception. The total rajasik aspects of tanmatras of the five tanmatras combine to form the five pranas – prana, apna, vyana, udana and samana; the individual rajasik aspects of tanmatras combine to produce the five organs of action. The individual tamasik aspects of the five tanmatras combine to form the elements that make up the world.

From the subtle elements are formed the gross elements through the process of Panchikarana.[9]


Vijnanabhiksu states that the tanmatras exist only in unspecialized forms as the indeterminate state of matter which the yogins alone can perceive. The five tanmatras - akasa associated with ether or space, sabda associated with air, sparsha associated with tejas, ap and rasa associated with kshiti, generate the paramanus in which they partly exist as tanmatravayava or trasarenu which Vaiseshika anus Vijnanbhiksu in his Yoga-vartikka states are the Gunas, and that in the tanmatras there exists the specific differentiation that constitutes the tanmatras. The formation of bhutas through tattvantra-parinama is followed by dharmaparinama or evolution by change of qualities. In the production of a thing, the different gunas do not choose to different independent course, but join together and effectuate themselves in the evolution of a single product. The appearance of a thing is only an explicit aspect of the selfsame thing – the atoms, quality is a nature of substance and any change in substance is owing to changed qualities. Lakshana-parinama aspect of the change in appearance refers to the three different moments of the same thing according to its different characters as unmanifested or manifested or manifested in the past but conserved; it is in the avastha-parinama aspect of that change that a substance is called new or old, grown or decayed.[10]

Sankara and Ramanuja, the theological commentators on the Upanishads have understood the elements as meaning deities and not the elements proper. The Upanishads hold the impossibility of the generation of anything from out of Nothingness or Not-being and explain the genesis from Life-force or Cosmic-force but to finally aver that all creation is only an illusion or appearance. The first created Rayi and Prana mentioned by Pippalada refer to matter and spirit.[11] That Brahman is the non-dual reality can only be known by the process of differentiation from the five elements, differentiation is necessary to separate Brahman from the elements which make up the perceived world. As creation means the appearance of names and forms, names and forms cannot exist before creation. Also, difference between objects of the same class can have no reference to Sat, for nothing else exists, and to speak of difference from a thing which does not exist conveys no meaning. Vidyaranya explains (Panchadasi III.27) that:

अक्षाणां विषयस्तवीदृक्परोक्षस्तादृगुच्यते |
विषयी नाक्षविषयीः स्वत्वान्नास्य परोक्षता ||

an object which the senses can perceive can be compared, but an object which is beyond perception can only be imagined, and the object which is the subject of perception cannot be an object of the senses. [12]


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