Notes on tanmatras

Meaning: The term comes from the Sanskrit, tan, meaning “subtle”; and matra, meaning “elements.” They are 5 in number and are called panchatanmatra.

Another translation of tanmatra is “mother of matter,” meaning that the pancha tanmatra represents the mother energy of the world. The pancha tanmatra comprise the information through which we sense or experience the external world.

Pancha tanmatra are the five perceptions or subtle elements that are the objects of the five senses. The pancha tanmatra are: rupa (form and color), gandha (smell), sparsa (touch), rasa (taste) and sabda (sound).

Irrespective of how many types and forms of material exists in the world, the human body has only 5 senses. Because our knowledge of the world is established based on these 5 senses, at least five basic elements are needed to explain this experience.

The tanmatras are related to the five cognitive sense organs called pancha jnanendriyacaksu (eyes), ghrana (nose), tvak (skin), rasana (tongue) and srotra (ear).

Both the pancha tanmatra and the jnanendriya are among the 36 tattvas, or aspects of nature, in Saivism.

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.

The pancha tanmatra also combine to produce the gross elements that comprise the universe:

  • Prithvi: Sabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa, gandha
  • Jala: Sabda, sparsa, rupa and rasa
  • Agni: Sabda, sparsa, and rupa
  • Vayu: Sabda and sparsa
  • Akash: Sabda

Reproduction from “Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine,” by Dr. Marc Halpern

“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.” 

1. Number of tanmatras is equal to the number of sense organs
2. Each human sense organ is powered by a tanmatra
3. The tanmatras create the panchabhutas. Panchabhutas create the world.
4. If one tanmatra, say rupa (form and color) is taken out, then the indirya called chaksu (eye) cannot function. Also, the elements such as agni, jala and prithvi will lose their ability to be seen.
5. The sharpest eye cannot create vision if light did not exist. The brightest light cannot create vision if the eye did not exist. Even together, the light and the eye cannot create vision, if the ability to see did not exist.
6. The tanmatra is the subtle element that ties the sense organ called the eye, to its ability to see and to the external reality of color.
7. The tanmatra is the binding rope that creates the ability to experience this universe by creating a triad of (a) The sense organ (b) Ability of the sense organ to function and (c) An aspect of external reality that can be sensed by the organ. It is by endless Mercy that a lifeform is blessed with all the three.

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