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Thursday, June 8, 2023

Significance of number ‘five’ in Hindu Dharma

Staying with the idea of using numbers to understand some common ideas in Hindu Dharma, we will now study the number five. We had earlier done the same exercise with Fourfold Hinduism and Hinduism in Three. From the five fingers and toes to Punjab, the land of five rivers and the most common number of petals in a flower, the mystical five stares at us all around, let us dive into it with a disclaimer that this is neither a comprehensive list of fives, nor some logical assemblage, but a mere pretext to use the number five to gain some insight into the wisdom of  Indian civilization and the numerous eclectic concepts.

Basic ideas of the civilization

PanchabhootasAt the core of our physical classification are the five primordial elements, pancha bhootas. They are namely aakasha (space), vayu (air), agni (fire), apa (water) and prithvi (earth). This is not to be confused with what we see as air, water or earth, which is an admixture of the different bhootas. Since the Universe is a product of the five bhootas, it is calls as Prapancha.  In Tamil, the dead body is referred as bhoota udal, referring to the composition of the body.

PanchatanmatrasTanmatra is the subtle, rudimentary element. They are sparsha (touch), rupa (form), gandha (smell), rasa (smell) and sabda (sound). These principles give rise to their external counterparts – Panchajnanendriyas.

PanchajnanedriyasIndriyas are organs deployed by the mind, which deploys the following five to sense itself with respect to jagat. They are shotra (ears), chakshu (eyes), ghrana (nose), jihva (tongue) and tvak (skin). Being external facing and in constant contact with the sensory objects, regulating them form a key part of Sadhana.

Panchakarmendriyas – To effect real action, the mind/body deploys five organs of action. They are vak (speech), pani (hands/dexterity), pada (feet/locomotory), payu (rectum/excretory) and upastha (genitals/reproductory).

PanchapranaPrana is the very vitality, essence of life. This idea goes beyond philosophy, medicine and Bharatiya way of life. Prana is perceived as performing the different actions in one’s physiology and is tightly coupled with the mind, hence the benefits of Pranayama. Depending of the role, the same Prana is classified as Prana, Apana, Samana, Udana and Vyana. Prana, located in the heart is responsible for respiration. Apana’s seat is the anus; aids excretion. Samana is seated in the navel; responsible for digestion. Udana is located in the throat enabling swallowing.  Vyana is all pervading the body, seen to be aiding circulatory role.

There are also five upa pranasNaga, Kurma, Devadutta, Krikala and Dhananjaya. Naga performs eructation and hiccup. Kurma is behind our blinking. Devadutta is responsible for our yawning. Krikala causes our hunger and thirst. Dhananjaya is behind the opening and closing of the heart valves.

Panchakosha – The very essence of all is Atman, but due to illusion and delusion, human beings think themselves as one of the five illusory layers of sheaths. It is customary to depict them as one contained by the other. The real idea given by Upanishads is each one as more subtle than the previous. They are Annamayakosha, Pranamayakosha, Manomayakosha, Vijnanamayakosha and Ananadamayakosha. For a real indepth insight, please read The Pancha Koshas – Swami Sivananda.

Name, Place, Things, Time

Pandavas – Also referred as PanchaPandavas are the first ones we can think of five people. They are Yudhishtra, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva. Each of them had a son from Draupadi and together these five were referred as Upapandavas. They were respectively called as Prativindhya, Sutasoma, Shrutakarma, Shatanika and Shrutasena. Though they survived the Mahabharata war, they were murdered by Aswathama in their sleep.

Panchakanya – refers the five women, thinking and understanding their lives in the right sense is liberating from our sins. They are Ahalya, Draupadi, Sita, Tara and Mandodari. In a similar set of verses available Sita is replaced with Kunti. A detailed future discussion is warranted for a better understanding.

ahalyā draupadī Sita tārā mandodarī tathā ।
pañcakanyāḥ smarennityaṃ mahāpātakanāśinī

PanchaPrayag – In Sanatana Dharma, rivers hold prime importance as Theerthas. The confluence of rivers is more than a pleasant sight as they have purificatory effect on our vasanas. The Ganga has been at the center of our civilization even before Saraswati dried up. There are five such confluences that are held in high esteem – Pancha Prayag – Vishnu Prayag, NandaPrayag, Karna Prayag, Rudra Prayag and Deva Prayag.

Vishnu Prayag is at the confluence of the rivers Alaknanda and Dhauli Ganga. Nanda Prayag is at the junction of the rivers Alaknanda and Nandakini. Karna Prayag is where Alaknanda meets Pindar. At Rudra Prayag, Alaknanda meets Mandakini. At Deva Prayag, the rivers Alaknanda joins with the Bhagirathi to take the name of Ganga. Apart from this we also have Prayagraj or Prayag where the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet.

Panchanga is the Hindu calendar based on Vedic ideas and a close study of the Cosmos over millennia. The five aspects that enable the time computation are Tithi, Nakshatra, Yoga, Karana and Var. These five angas or parts have enabled our civilization to keep our time accurately. 

Panchaloha is a very popular alloy for making murthis and is made from gold, silver, copper, zinc and iron. This alloy is a testament to the metallurgical prowess in its bygone years.


Panchayatana puja is attributed to Adi Shankara and involves five principal deities, arranged in a quincunx form. They include Shiva, Vishnu, Parvati/Devi, Surya and an ishta devata – Kartikeya, Ganesha. Many traditional temples also may follow this architecture by having the primary deity in the central shrine with four minor deities arranged around in smaller shrines.

Panchamuki LingaShiva, one of the primary trinities of the Hindu pantheon is represented by his five faces. He is called as Panchamukhi/Panchavaktra Shiva. The five faces denote his five aspects – Aghora, Ishana, Tat Purusha, Vamadeva and Sadyojata. The Sadyojata is west facing representing Rudra, the destructive form of Shiva. Vaamadeva is northfacing and represents the feminine aspect in the form of Parvati.

Aghora is the south facing destructive power of Shiva. Tat Purusha is east facing, associated with meditation and enlightenment. Ishana is the skyward facing aspect that represents the balancing of the other four. While studying each element may take a lifetime, the idea is to get introduced.

PanchaksharaShiva is mediated or represented by the five holy syllables. The syllables are Na, Ma, Si, Va and Ya. The syllable OM is added at the beginning for the purposes of Japa, dhyana or puja. The mantra has its origins in the SriRudram portion found in the Taittriya Samhita kanda of the Krishna Yajur Veda. The Saivite explanations of the mantra are numerous.

Panchamukha Anjaneya – Hanuman is another deity usually depicted as five. The five faces depict Hanuman, Hayagriva, Narasimha, Garuda and Varaha. Meditating and worshipping such a form enables rapid spiritual progress.


Panchamrita is a mixture of five foods used as a part of Puja offering. They usually are honey, jaggery, cow milk, yogurt and ghee. They are usually offered as a mixture. Variations exist throughout the Indian geography. Palani which is one of the famous abodes of Muruga, is renowned for the Panchamrita used both for abhisheka and prasada. This recipe includes banana, jaggery, ghee, honey, dates, cardamom and sugar candy.

Panchagavya(m) figures prominently is the list of most abused and caricatured Hindu idea. It is a mixture of five ingredients from the desi cow, not the imported breeds. They include gomuthra (urine), gomaya (dung), goksheera (milk), godadhi (curd) and goghrutha (ghee). It literally means a mixture of five cow products in Sanskrit. Ayurveda documents its medicinal properties, though Panchagavya figures prominently in many rituals.

Pancha nidana are the five diagnostic tools or causes used in Ayurveda. They include Nidana, Purva Rupa, Rupa, Upashaya and Samprapti. Nidana are the causes like diet, environment, injury or causes for the imbalances in the doshas. Purva Rupa is the initial symptoms of the disease. Rupa is main symptom during the disease manifestation. Upashaya are the special or diagnostic symptoms that act as a diagnostic guide for special ailments. Samprapti is to get the proper knowledge about the pathway of disease manifestation. 

Panchakarma refers to the five actions done in Ayurveda to cleanse the vitiated doshas from the body. They are Vamana (Emesis), Virechana (Purgation), Niroohavasti (Decoction enema), Nasya (Instillation of medicine through nostrils), and Anuvasanavasti (Oil enema). Sadly the methods are extremely popular in the west to the chagrin of Indian ignorance.

Subtler ideas

Yama is a central idea in the spiritual path of an individual. Though they sound like a list of ‘Don’ts’, they are much unlike the Ten Commandments. Different Hindu texts give a different set of compilation. The most popular one consists of five ideas as a prerequisite in the path of Yoga, captured in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (II-30).

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः॥३०॥

ahiṁsā-satya-asteya brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ 30

Ahimsa is causing non injury. It may be the most misinterpreted idea. For example a soldier eliminating a terrorist at the border will not be considered as doing himsa. The motive, situation and dimension all color this. Yet at a very practical level, keeping the central idea that the same Brahman expresses itself in all the living beings and hence hurting others is tantamount to hurting oneself is Ahimsa.

Satya is Truth, which may not be limited to speaking or thinking. Perhaps Shakespeare’s phrase “To thine own Self be true” aptly summarises Satya. This trains the mind to be true in all states and develops Viveka as one has to constantly inquire into the True nature of things. Asteya is non-stealing.  This helps to train the mind of the oneness. No one keeps stealing from oneself, as nothing can be more absurd.

Brahmacarya begins are marital fidelity and chastity, yet at the core is the tendency to emulate Brahman. Aparigraha implies non-avarice or the lack of greed or idea to possess. Again the idea is to reinforce the essential Brahman in all. If all is one, where is the need to covet?

Niyamas are the positive observances or the ideas encouraged to follow. Though their number can differ based on the text, our reference is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (II-32). 

शौचसंतोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥३२॥

śauca saṁtoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ ॥32॥

Sauca represents cleanliness or purity. It has bodily as well as mental connotations, resulting in clarity of thought and mind. Santosha indicates contentment, irrespective of the situations in life, having a balance. Krishna emphasizes this quality repeatedly in Bhagavad Gita. Tapas is austerity, ability to put intense work towards the achievement of a higher cause. This involves not sacrificing like how it is commonly understood, but realizing that petty trinkets we hold must be given up for getting the divine inner treasures.

Svadhyaya is self study or introspection. This may include study of scriptures as an aid to understand one’s inner self. At a higher level, it is studying one’s own thoughts, words and actions. Ishvarapranidhana is contemplation of Ishvara, Brahman or an Avatara to expand the consciousness from limited body or mental thinking of worldly ideas to the cosmic level.

Panchamahapataka refers to the five great sins. Pataka refers to the sins, Mahapataka is great sin. It will be so shocking that most of us violate quite a few on a daily basis. They include killing a person (with extra severity of a person immersed in Brahman), consuming intoxicants (alcohol, drugs), stealing, being untruthful (lies may be just the external expression) and illicit sex (which includes adultery). It is disheartening that most of these are of daily occurrence that our minds have gotten desensitized. If we can realize that killing a person is equated in the same list as lying, how much subtle and evolved a mind has to be to infer the connection.

Panchakleshas are the five hindrances in the path of spiritual progress. They include avidya, asmita, raga, dvesha and abhinivesha. Avidya is ignorance. This is considered to be at the very root of our creation or existence. Asmita is I-ness, ego, especially the false identification principle that makes us think our Self as body, mind or intellect.

Raga is the likes, attachment, wanting of the past experiences. Dvesha is aversion to unpleasant things as perceived, dislikes. Raga and Dvesha are the push and pull forces that exert on the mind to express the vasanas. Abhinivesha is the clinging to life, the self preservation idea, but strongly connected with the mundane samsara. These five are a deadly cocktail of forces that keep us immersed in the worldly ways. One could be very successful in the world, yet be light years away from spirituality due to these.

Panchamakaras are the five Ma’s used in Tantric practices, mostly in Shakti worship. They are Madya (intoxicant, alcohol), Mamsa (meat, flesh of animals), Matsya (fish), Mudra (grains also gestures) and Maithuna (intercourse).  It is believed many of these common interpretations are masked by allegorical ones which maybe clear to Tantric sadaks. One must understand tantric ideas are not for the uninitiated or the masses. 

Panchamahayajnas are the five daily practices of every grihasta. The idea is to develop tame the I-ness by developing a sense of gratitude all around. With modernization and deracination, these are almost forgotten Hindu ideas, let alone practices. They are Brahma Yajna (homage to Brahman), Deva Yajna (homage to Devas), Pitri Yajna (homage to ancestors), Bhuta Yajna (Homage to all beings) and Manushya Yajna (homage to humanity).

Brahma Yajna involves repaying our debt to the rishis by studying scriptures and sharing knowledge. Deva Yajna is repaying our debt to the devas by performing Yajnas and Yagas. Offering Pinda, tarpana is the way one repays the debt to the Pitris (ancestors). Being conscious of the ecosystem, planting trees, digging lakes and helping animals by feeding them is the way to do Bhuta Yajna. Charity, philanthrophy, feeding guests and poor are sure ways to do Manushya Yajna.

As we draw to the close of this long list, we are reminded of the popular set of stories authored by VishnusarmaPanchatantra, a classic set of stories revolving around one of the five ideas. These stories spark the intelligence in kids, originally directed to help a couple of dullard princes. The ideas are centered around Mitrabheda (loss of friends), Mitralabha (winning friendships/allies), Kakolukiyam (on crows and owls), Labdhapranasam (losing the gains) and Aparikshitakarakam (on hasty actions). It evokes the awareness of kids on the human virtues and vices.

The list of fives goes on with Thyagarajar’s famous five compositions called Pancharatna Kritis, Panchagnividya explained in the Upanishads, Panchavadyam popular in Kerala temples, the five characteristics that define Purana (Panchalakshana) and the five arrows of Kamadeva and so on. Though Vedas are one, classified for our understanding as four by Vyasa, often Mahabharata is referred as Panchamo Veda as it covers so many Dharmic ideas at the same level of complexity and subtlety as the Vedas

Just as the five fingers are the appendages of the same hand, just like the same Ganga flows through the Pancha Prayag, connected with the Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the commonality behind all things five is the same Brahman. This long list of five is another pretext to understand the unity behind. May that Brahman be a guide to lift our lower self to a Higher Self.

(Featured Image source)

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Sanatana Dharmist. Endeavor is to share the little I have learnt along this Cosmic journey with my fellow travelers. Sincerely interested in raising awareness of Hindu Dharma, especially to Hindus.


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