Tag Archives: 36 tattva

Tattwa: A foundation of Indian Philosophy

“Detached from the outer show, he sees the inner essence and recognizes that life is merely the spontaneous acting out of the roll consciousness has assumed in the drama of universal manifestation.” — Aphorisms of Shiva; Dyczkowski

When we look into this philosophical or metaphysical questions of, “who am I?” or “what is knowledge?” and “How do I know what I know?,” or “What is reality?” we often turn towards categories to understand. We break the problem down and we look at ourselves from different perspectives. We see the typical parts of the self that we identify with: I am this body, these emotions, this intellect, this vital force, I am this breath; to say nothing of the host of external identifiers by family, nation, race, religion. Certainly we are all of these things and many more; but we’re much more even than that.

The tattva are a central component of the traditional sciences and philosophies of India. They are mentioned in the Yoga Suttras & the Bhagavad Gita, and one of the core differences between Tantra and Vedanta is the inclusion of 11 extra tattva in the former. It’s also a core concept for ayurvedic or jyotisha understanding of reality.

The tattva are components of reality and show us the course thru which each of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) follows though our lives to unfold reality through each of our senses and inner faculties of the mind. The tattvas represent both subject and object as well as all of the elements that lie between the subject and object. In short, the tattva are the elements of existence.

Different schools of philosophy have different perspectives of how the tattva fit together and relate with each other but ultimately they all agree that there is a subject, and object, and something that connects the two, and that the tattva make up the basic components of that three part reality.

Two of the most popular grouping of tattva suggest that there are either 25 or 36 tattva though quite often they also refer to the five mahabhuta (earth, water, fire, air, ether)primary elements alone as the tattva.

From these five, they also list the organs of knowledge (the abilities of the senses) as well the elements of the senses. Hearing and sound, touch and feeling, seeing and form, tasting and flavour, smelling and odour. Each of these represent a certain aspect of reality. They also list five ways that our body interacts with the world are also considered elements of our existence: speaking, grabbing or holding, moving in space, procreating and excreting waste.

Raising our awareness to more subtle heights we find our sense of individuality and uniqueness (ahamkara), we can witness our mind weighing options as an indeterminate knower. Its from here that our sense typically reach out to the world in order to determine and define knowledge and our individuality. Many modern people call this “excersising our free will.”

It’s at this level of existence where we find out minds fluxuating, vibrating, moving and changing. The manas and the ahamkara are the areas Patanjali brings our awareness to. For meditation, and to still the vibtations of the mind we are advised to follow the inward course of the tattva rather than the normal outward course thru the senses.

As we continue moving our awarness inward we will come to the buddhi the highest faculty of knowledge that just seems to know things. This is the silent knower who doesn’t argue because it doesn’t have to; the buddhi just knows. The buddhi is always endowed with truth; not necessarily the highest truth, but certainly what is true for the individual soul.This is one of the key differences between the buddhi and the manas. The manas is always seeking truth, usually from the outside world, while the buddhi silently knows the truth emanating from the individual soul.

The individual soul is essentially a combination of the purusha and prakriti. The individual soul, purusha, differs from the individual ego, ahamkara, in that it recognizes the connection between our “thisness” (idam) and that’s “thatness” (aham). The individual ego is that which disconnects our thisness from thats thatness. So, as we continue on our inward journey we do not loose ourselves but rather reconnect to that greater self and the universal purpose for our existence.

However, even when we are living from our ego, blind to the inherent interconnectedness, we are none the less also completing our universal soul quest; nothing can ever knock us from this path. The difference being that the ego has to struggle greatly with the vibrations of the mind always seeking knowedge but never gaining satisfaction. The mind is just vibrating from one thing to the next, from subject to object and back again without finding the source from which both of these emanate.

Once we know we are connected, once we realize our true nature, there is no question, no vibration between this and that; there is just the free and natural flow of karma without trying to hold onto this karma or rejecting that karma.

You will find a list of the tattva with explanations below

36 Tattvas of Tantra
Macrocosmic Universe: ParamaShiva: the great ultimate is said to be beyond the tattva. Tantra specifically, and most other branches of Indian thought usually have some little bit left over in their accounting of reality. There is always some residue which cannot be explained; something which is beyond explanation.

36. Shiva tattva: This is the entire universe in the form of illumination. In the process of manifestation of the world, Shiva performs five crutial functions. Since Shiva tattva is the tread that connects all the tattva, we could say that Shiva performs these five functions thru each tattva as well as to the whole system. Shiva is often identified as Prakash, the light of consciousness while Shakti is Vimarsha, cognitive awareness

  1. Nigraha: the act of self limitation or contraction. Concealment of his true nature.
  2. Srsti: Creation. The act of self manifestation as the world.
  3. Sthiti: Preservation of the manifest world.
  4. Samhara: Destruction, absorption or withdrawal of worldly manifestation
  5. Anugraha: Grace; revelation of his true nature

Pure Elements: the next four elements are elements of the Tantric goddess Usma, who is the embodiment of the internal heating and swelling of creativity.

35. Shakti: Shivas power which is not different from Shiva. This is Shivas power to conceal himself from himself. Shiva is the one who emanates and shakti is what is emanated; the being and the becoming. Shakti has 5 primary modes of expression. The first two are said to be his nature while the following three are the powers thru which he makes his nature known or manifest. Shakti has the experience of aham (thatness).

  1. Cit-shakti: conscious force
  2. Ananda-shakti: power as bliss
  3. Iccha-shakti: power as will
  4. Jnana-shakti: power as knowledge
  5. Kriya-shakti: spontaneous action as power

34. Sadashiva: the universe laying submerged and void within the self experience of the experiencer. Experience of aham (thatness)-idam (thisness)

33. Ishvara: self experience as “I” (aham) and an experience of the universe as a separate object with “thisness” (idam) shining unequally distinct within the self experience. Experience of idam-idam

32. Sadavidya: experience of aham-aham/idam-idam


Vidya Tattvas: these are the tattvas which bind us to our bodily existence.

31. Maya:
Three kinds of defilements:

  1. Aanava mala (mula mala: root impurity): The impurity of individuality, occurring at the first moment of manifestation of the universe as Shiva begins to contract. Shiva’s true power becomes “obscured by the notions of existence and non-existence…” (Aphorisms p15) This impurity begins to take hold as soon as he descends to sadashiva tattva. Two kinds of anavamala: a) veils knowledge of divine awareness, but freedom of action remains intact (for those existents which exist below prakriti) b) leaves knowledge of divine awareness, but veils ability to act freely (those staying above maya tattva).
  2. Maayiiya mala: maya and the five kanchukas. Makes oblivious to real nature. Robs all sign of divinity. Veils only those below Prakriti.
  3. Karma mala: Provides us with physical body. Collective residual impressions from past lives. Once karma mala defiles Shiva in his descent, embodies individuals are created, known as sakalas. There are four kinds of karma: a) Sanchita: accumulated over many lifetimes. b) Prarabha: Created in this current life c) Kriyamana: freedom to change our current life situation. d) Agama: free will to set an intention for future action.

Five Kanchukas:

The kanchukas are sometimes called the five sisters of Mayadevi are like five cloaks worn by Shiva in order to mask his true nature from himself. It’s essentially thru the kanchukas that the all powerful is capable of making a stone so large that even he cannot lift it. He does this by masking his true nature from himself. Once conscious force individualizes itself thru anavamala and maya, it takes on five more cloaks in order to transform each of the five divine powers into five limited individual powers belonging to the individual soul. From this perspective we could say that maya is actually the core of our innermost individual micro-soul; from her we seek out our mega-soul for redemption.

30. Kalaa: Contracted kriya shakti. Limits Shiva’s power and creative abilities so that one cannot do everything. Limits omnipotence and the power of agency.

29. Vidya: Contracted jnana shakti. Limits Shiva’s knowledge so that one cannot know everything. Limits omniscience.

28. Raga: Contracted iccha shakti. Limits Shiva’s sense of fullness and gives craving, desire and attachment.

27. Kaala: Contracted ananda shakti. Limits Shiva in time and space making us subject to change, death and decay.

26. Niyati: Contracted cit shakti. Limits Shiva thru cause and effect, the necessity that one thing follows another.

As Shiva makes himself into an individual in order to express his freedom, he scales back, contracts, or limits his universal power thru maya and the five kanchukas (Mayadevi and her five sisters). This leads to two main kinds of impurity (mala).

1. Paurusa ajnana: innate ignorance regarding the self. We dont know who we really are.

2. Bauddha ajnana: Ignorance of buddhi. We don’t even don’t know that this knowledge is actually inside of ourselves.

Asuddha vikalpas are the ideas, thought constructs, irrational psychological responses that make us think we are this body. Replacing ajnana (incorrect knowledge) with jnana (pure knowledge) is one of the main goals of Kashmiri Shaivism & philosophical and spiritual practice generally.


Atma Tattvas: The microcosmic mirror of the subtle macrocosm described above begins here. What follows are the traits of individuals with limited powers who are distinct from other individuals with limited powers.

25. Purusha: This is the individual soul; the individual subject mirroring the universal subject.

24. Prakriti: Prakriti provides Purusha with everything he needs for enjoyment. The physical body, karmendriyas, jnanaindriyas and the rest of the next 23 tattva. The three gunas (sattvic, tamas, rajas) constitute prakriti. Possessing gunas is a property of being the object of experience which depends on an experiencer. Three modes of activity of shakti are mirrored in prakriti in their limited form: will, knowledge & activity (iccha, governed by rajas; jnana, governed by sattva; and kriya, governed by tamas).
Instruments of cognition:

Also called the Antarkarana/Inner Instrument or Chitta/consciousness of the individual

23. Buddhi – Intelligence/Discrimination. Sattvic
Buddhi is the abode of prana-shakti. From here it flows thru the different parts of the body via the nadis. Locus of every experience. It is considered the contracted power of jnana shakti and thus it’s a sattvic element. Righteousness is said to reside here in the form of our conscious

Five kinds of pranavayu: 1. Prana (moves outward as do the sense organs) 2. Aapana (moves downward as with elimination) 3. Udaana (upwards as with speech) 4. Vyaana (expansion in all directions as does the movement of our limbs), 5. Samaana: (Inwards as when we meditation turning our awareness inward to a center point).

22. Ahamkara – Ego/ I-maker. Rajas.

This is where the ego connects with objective activity attributing the source of thoughts and actions to oneself (ones own limited being). This is the principle of individuality cut off from the higher tattva

21. Manas – Mind. Tamas. This is the place where thoughts are created and weighed against each other. Instrument of rationality. Supervises and controls the karmindriya, jnanendriyas, and tanmatras.
Jnana Indriyas 16 – 20: the sense faculties for knowledge. Representing the sattvic functions of the mind (manas).

20. Sense of hearing: function of the ear.

19. Sense of touch: function of the skin.

18. Sense of seeing: function of the eyes.

17. Sense of taste: Function of the tongue.

16. Sense of smell: Function of the nose.
Karma Indriyas 11 – 15: Organs of action. Representing the rajasic functions of the mind (manas).

15. Power of speech: Functions thru the mouth and vocal cords

14. Power to grasp objects: Functions thru the hands, arms and fingers

13. Locomotion: functions thru the legs and feet.

12. Power of procreation: functions thru internal and external sex organs.

11. Excretion: functions thru the excretory organs of the pelvic bowl especially the anus.
Tanmatras 6 – 10: the five subtle elements. Representing the tamasic functions of the mind (manas).

These are the objects of the sense. The sound itself. The feel of what is touched, the form of what is seen, the flavor of what is tasted, and the odour that is smelled. Tantra suggests that sounds evolves from hearing, and form evolves from sight. This is how the world is projected from within.

10. Sound:

9. Touch/Feel

8. Form

7. Taste/Flavour

6. Odour
Mahabhuta 1 – 5: the primary elements

5. Ether: Expansive, space, emptiness, vacuum. This tattva is not itself manifest, but is the supports the other tattva by providing space for their existence. Symbolized the unseeable, unknowable spirit which both transcends reality and is immanent in reality; permeating every aspect of all that is knowable and not. Relates with the vissudhi chakra.

4. Air: Movement and mobility, dry subtle, rising. It can easily penetrate everywhere (filling the void of space). We recognize it most distinctly in our breath and it is the vehicle for prana, vital energy. Relates with the Anahata chakra.

3. Fire: Transformation, hot, sharp, dynamic. Represents the masculine principle of dynamism, extroversion, passion and aggression. Also relates to the digestive fire and the intellectual fire. Relates with the Manipura chakra and thus with prakash, divine illumination.

2. Water: Fluid, liquid, cool. Represents the feminine principle and is passive and can assume any form. Water purifies and dissolves, and it relates with sexuality and birth. Relates to Svadhisthana chakra and thus represents the flow of linear time.

1. Earth: All of the tattva are fully manifest in earth. It is the most dense, the heaviest, the most solid and grounded of the tattva. Related with Mother Earth principle of patience, creativity, sustenance; as well as the lunar principle of progression, rhythm and change. It’s often said that Shiva loves this tattva the most because this is the limit of his contraction. In it’s relationship with muladhara chakra this is the residence of kundalini.


The connection between the primary elements and the tattva looks something like this.

Ether – Sound – Speech – Hearing — Jupiter — Prana — HAM — Crystal Clear disk — Eyebrows to top of head — Cit — Om hraum sadashivaya akashadhipataye shantyateetakalatmane, hum fhut swaha

Air – Touch – Grasping – Touch — Saturn –– Apana YAM — Six sided/six circles smokey grey or grey blue — Heart to Eyebrows — Ananda — Om hraim ishanaya vayuvydhipataye shantikalatmane, hum fhut swaha

Fire – Form – Locomotion – Sight — Mars — Vyana RAM — Red Triangle — Navel to Heart — Iccha — Om hrum rudrya tejodhipataye vidyakalatmane, hum fhut swaha

Water – Taste – Procreation – Taste — Venus — Udana– VAM — White Crescent moon — knees to navel — Jnana — Om hrim vishnave jaladhipataye pratisthakalatmane, hum fhut swaha

Earth – Odour – Excretion – Smell — Mercury — Samana — Anus — Dhananjaaya: remains in the corpse until it’s burned — LAM — Yellow Square — Feet to knees — Kriya — Om hraum brahmane prithvidhipataye nivrittikalatmane, hum fhut swaha

Photo from Tantra Illuminated by Christopher Wallis

The Shaivist conception of these tattva has Shiva constantly evolving and devolving thru the tattva. Shiva is the eternal subject, the first illuminator, the first enjoyer. His movement thru the tattva an expression of his joy. This movement has many names (spanda, wave, force and it shows his movement from Shiva tattva to earth and back to Shiva tattva. The process of creation and destruction going on continually. But even this is not as it seems. Most of us would assume destruction is happening as Shiva makes his way back to himself, but actually earth will be the first to die. Being fully manifest puts us most solidly in the world of death, sorrow and suffering. This is where all this fire and brimstone of kali and Shiva’s burning ghats comes from.

So, when we turn our attention, thus identifying with the body (the earth), we will surely only know suffering, change, confusion and lack of control. When we turn our attention, and thus our personal identification inwards we limit that suffering step by step. Getting past the mind and the emotional being is one of the greatest hurdles. Only matched by the struggle a young yogi will go thru to get past their ego (ahamkara).

The ego is an important topic for discussion in tantra. Shiva is essentially a supreme egoity; the self of all selves. The purusha is ones individual soul; this is certainly a big part of who we are. And then we have the ahamkara which is who we think we are. These are like three levels of ego: The ahamkara is the ego which is cut off from inner truths; it only sees what is on the surface. The purusha is that ego which understands our connection to the universal. People who strongly identify with their individual soul approach life as an instrument of the divine. This is the beginning of saintliness. But only one who has fully realized their divine nature as all of this whole universe will experience Shiva’s true freedom (svatantriya).

This is a little like saying that there is more than one truth, though they might each seem to be incompatible with the other truths. A big part of our job as yogis is to assimilate such contradictory truths and ultimately experience the illumination of this world thru each lens. It’s not that the world of this body and these sensual desires is not true, but it represents a limited truth; a tamasic, impure truth. The truth of our individual soul is quite another level of truth which represents a rajasic truth, which manages to be both pure and impure. Only the highest truth is truly pure and sattvic, but this does not negate the others. Shiva is fully present in each of the tattva. His illumination shines from everywhere. From whichever perspective we take, we can recognize Shiva and realize ourselves as that infinite being of all being.


Short Bibliography

The Advaita Saiva Philosophy of Kashmir, by Debarata Sensharma

The Philosophical and Practical Aspects of Kashmiri Saivism, By Pandit

Tantra Illuminated, by Christopher Wallis

Aphorisms of Shiva, translated by Mark Dyczkowski

Tattwa Shuddhi, by S. Saraswati (Bihar School)

Vedic Remedies in Astrology, Sanjay Rath

Painting of “Sri Yantra” by Tania Satori (used with permission) see tania_vaculty on Instagram.