Five subtle elements
These are earth, water, fire, air, ether that represent the solid, liquid, radiant, gaseous and etheric forms of matter that make up the outer world of experience, including the physical body. The sense organs and organs of action work upon them in receptive and active roles respectively.
These elements work on both the gross and subtle levels and it is in only their gross forms that we experience in physical matter. The subtle elements or Tanmatra work in the mind at the subconscious level and in the dream state.
They are the principles of density that apply to all manifest medium, including the mind. Earth on one hand, is a completely dense medium that allows no action. Ether on the other hand is a completely subtle or receptive medium that allows complete freedom of action. Between these two extremes are all possible densities affording the complete range of experience and the manifestation of all ideas.
The science of the five elements is probably the most important factor in Ayurveda and all other forms of ancient science like astrology and alchemy. It should be learned carefully and contemplated regularly.
Hence the elements themselves are also manifestation of ideas. They are different densities or fields of expression for different ideas:
1. Earth manifests the idea of solidity or stability, giving resistance in action.
2. Water manifests the idea of liquidity or flowing motion, allowing for life.
3. Fire manifests the idea of light allowing for perception and moving from place to place.
4. Air manifests the idea of subtle movement, manifesting ideas of direction, velocity and change and giving the basis for thought.
5. Ether manifests the idea of connection allowing for interchange between all material mediums, communication and self-expression.
Or to put it another way, ether manifests the ideas of space, air that of time, fire that of light, water that of life and earth that of form. Like the different lines and colours of an artist, these are the different mediums necessary for the creative cosmic intelligence to express itself.