Dhatu and Mahabhuta in Early Buddhism

I published a draft paper on mahābhūta and dhātu in early Buddhism, in academia.edu and google drive. It is lengthy and not in the best of styles, but it’s still the most detailed discussion of these terms available, I think.

Obviously one doesn’t have to follow my conclusions, but I guess it’s still a good place to go for a detailed discussion.

My conclusions in short:

  • The four mahābhūtas come from originally five pre-Buddhist mahābhūtas
  • The suttas interpret them in a ‘physical’ or ‘materialistic’ way, in contrast to the Vedic perspective
  • The meaning of dhātu is generally ‘quality’.
  • Dhātu is partially related to the mahābhūtas but is generally a much more abstract concept
  • The purpose of dhātu is to highlight the objective aspects of perception and experience and thus to enable the practitioner to dis-identify from these aspects on the way to liberation

In some places they seem to appear almost as synonyms:

DN11:67.4: ‘kattha nu kho ime cattāro mahābhūtā aparisesā nirujjhanti, seyyathidaṃ—pathavīdhātu āpodhātu tejodhātu vāyodhātū’ti?
DN11:67.4: ‘Where do these four primary elements cease without anything left over, namely, the elements of earth, water, fire, and air?’


Thanks, interesting stuff. Could you elaborate on the second bullet point about the physicality of mahabhuta in the suttas? The impression I have of these from the EBT is that they’re effectively abstractions, with sense-objects being derivatives. In other words we don’t directly experience rupa, we only experience what is derived from it, ie sights, sounds, sensations, flavours and odours.

I’m not well-versed in the Vedas, but more generally my impression is that the classification into four or five basic elements was common in the ancient world, a precursor to our modern understanding of chemical elements.

As for dhatu, I think it’s a much broader term, including for example Nibbanadhatu. Which suggests the purpose of such classification is to distuinguish one thing from another.

The article became so long for a reason :slight_smile: I review all passages in order to come to conclusions, so I would ask you to go through section 1.1 in the article. I know it would be nice to break it down, but it’s all about the details (i.e. the aggregated sutta passages) for me. At least my approach is to see all passages and not draw conclusions from a small number of suttas.

The Vedas had a different perspective because they saw the universe as a sentient or quasi-sentient place. So some ‘elements’ are deified, others just play a part in early sentient cosmogony (section 1.2). Our view is basically in the materialistic tradition of the Greeks. But even they had different schools and perspectives on the ‘material elements’ (p. 22-23, and note 42).

Again, there are many details to this point, and I think it’s necessary to go through them (2.1.3 and 2.1.4).


Thank you. I’ve added DN11 to my study list. :pray: