Original meaning of "catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ"


HI All,

What would have the phrase, “catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ” meant to a listener at the time of the Buddha?

Would it have meant simply “composed of the four great elements” much like we mean when we say that a tree is composed of mass/energy?

If he meant something else, what evidence of that in the early Buddhist texts?



“Katamo cāvuso, rūpupādānakkhandho? Cattāri ca mahābhūtāni, catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ.
“Katamā cāvuso, cattāro mahābhūtā? Pathavīdhātu, āpodhātu, tejodhātu, vāyodhātu.
And what is the material form aggregate affected by clinging? It is the four great elements and the material form derived from the four great elements.

And what are the four great elements? They are the earth element, the water element, the fire element, and the air element.
Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta (MN 28)

Dhātuvibhaṅga Sutta MN 140 analyses these elements. According to this sutta there are six elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, and consciousness.
However, when it comes to “catunnañca mahābhūtānaṃ upādāya rūpaṃ”, it means four great elements which are having grasped (upādāya).

Four great elements described using parts of the body rather than explaining it as primary elements that creates matter. When we consider the parts that are used to explain these elements it shows us this is literally solid, liquid, warmth, and air.
pathavīdhātu - literally solid nature of the form
āpodhātu - the liquid nature of the form, not water. (cohesion)
tejodhātu - literally means warmth not fire
vāyodhātu - the nature of compressing and expanding of air. (for mobility, mobile
Mahārāhulovāda Sutta MN 62 explains the nature of each element. Read it.


Hi @Amatabhani

Thanks for your post. It doesn’t answer what I was trying to ask. No doubt my fault. Let me try again.

A hair on the head is given as an exemplar or instance of the interior earth element.
A form is related to the the four elements. The relationship between elements and a form is translated by “derived from” and that’s captured by the word “upādāya”. Presumably, therefore, the hair in question is therefore an internal form. Presumably, if it falls out, then it becomes an external form, but presumably remains an instance of the earth element. By the same token, a gold ring, should be an instance of the earth element and would also be an external form. But this seems contradictory to the explanation in late Abhidhamma texts.

I’m trying to get at what the earliest texts understood to be - ordinary objects like hair, gold watches, rocks, etc.; or something else perhaps akin to the very brief entities the late (post-canonical) Abhidhamma texts consider to be form. To understand that it seems necessary to understand what the relationship expressed by “upādāya” is.

So that’s what I’m trying to ask about.

Is, for example, is a human body, with all its parts, derived from the four great elements and, therefore, from the perspective of the Suttas, a form? Is a tree? And so on.

Thanks again,


Mahārāhulovāda Sutta MN 62 explains there are internal and external form. Your understanding is correct about internal and external forms.

Literally the body consists of name and form where the form is made of four great elements. Generally parts that belong to the earth element are solids, similarly, water: liquid, air: gaseous, fire: heat. This is likely to be your idea about the explainations in EBTs discourses.

Abhidhamma texts explains about suddattaka (octats) which consists of above four elements and another four qualities color (vanna), odor (gandha), taste (rasa), and energy/sap (ojā). When it comes to octets no matter the form is internal or external it consists of octets (pure-octets??) . There is no contradiction but an explaination which cannot be found in basic texts to my knowladge. However, if you take examples used in the sutta which can be understood as patavi, āpo, so and so, this later explaination is somewhat contradictory. In my opinion the blessed one took these parts as examples to point the dominant characteristic element of each body part. If that is the case, considering hair under earth element does not necessarily mean it only consists of earth element. But, who ever starts his meditation with a hair or bone may mostly experience arising and ceasing of earth element.

As explained in satipaṭṭhānasutta one can start his meditation from some visible touchable and rough (olarika) object (ex: breath, hair, a dead body), but with the practice his object become subtle and gentle.

As stated in MN 62:
Whatever is an internal liquid element and whatever is an external liquid element, just these are the liquid element.
By means of perfect intuitive wisdom it should be seen of this as it really is, thus: This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self. Having seen this thus as it really is by means of perfect intuitive wisdom, he disregards the liquid element, he cleanses his thought of the liquid element (Same to the other elements).

evametaṃ yathābhūtaṃ sammappaññāya daṭṭhabbaṃ
By means of perfect intuitive wisdom it should be seen

This particular aspect is about the basic level of the form. This can only be seen through perfect intuitive wisdom. These levels are not visible or sensible to our physical senses. No matter which object you select from satipaṭṭhānasutta, when you develop your samādhi to achieve perfect intuitive wisdom, you can see arising and ceasing (uppādavaya) of name and form (nāmarūpa), where you experience arising and ceasing of one of these basic elements. (Just ignore if you don’t understand, I am not gonna explain this further.)

To explain the subtle and basic nature of elements commentators used octets and many other explainations for mental part of a being. But, these are not necessary to understand subtle nature of each element.


Hello Venerable @Amatabhani. Thank you so much for taking the time to address my concerns so well! I still am a bit confused about why the it is not stated more explicitly that a form can be composed of (as distinct from being derived from) the elements. But it seems that the idea of being composed of the elements is understood.

Thanks again!



Read the sutta,

Rāhula, is the liquid element? The liquid element may be internal, it may be external. And what, Rāhula, is the internal liquid element? Whatever is liquid, fluid, is internal, referable to an individual and derived therefrom, that is to say: bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, serum, saliva, mucus, synovial fluid, urine or whatever other thing is liquid, fluid, is internal, referable to an individual and derived therefrom, this, Rāhula, is called the internal liquid element. Whatever is an internal liquid element and whatever is an external liquid element, just these are the liquid element.
There is no proper explaination in EBTs how external elements (form) are created or exist. Commentaries say there are five different driving forces that create rūpa and the world. Utu niyāma, bīja niyāma, kamma niyāma, dhamma niyāma, citta niyāma


Hello Ven. @Amatabhani. Thanks again! I’m marking this answered! David.