Why Adishesha - bed of Cosmic Vishnu has 5 heads

Narayana is always depicted in a reclining form on the bed of a 5 hooded coiled snake called AdiSesha in literature, sculpture and all other art forms.  Normally a snake has only one head. Why is AdiSesha always depicted with 5 heads ? Does this number of 5 heads also have a scientific significance, if so, what?

What does 5 heads indicates ?

The 5 heads denote the 5 primordial states of matter. These 5 primordial or basic elements Bhuta were termed as PanchaBhuta. Narayana and AdiSesha, inthe primordial waters, embody these 5 basic elements of this Universe,

Akasa -Space/Ether


Tejas - Fire

Apah - Water

Prthvi -Earth

The understanding of the PanchaBhuta is given in various Vedic and Upanishad statements which also explain how man has the ability to understand and appreciate the 5 basic elements of the Universe with His 5 senses. First came Akasa, space, ether and with that Sabda, sound. At most we can only hear sound in hollow space. We cannot touch, see, taste or smell space. After Akasa, evolved Vayu i.e air, wind. We can not only hear the wind but also feel it when it touches you.But we still cannot see, taste or smell it. It has no form. It just fills up the space.

Vayu then gives way to the evolution of Tejas i.e Agni, Fire, Heat. We can not only hear and feel fire and its heat but can also see its form. But we cannot taste or smell it. After Agni, comes Apah i.e Water.We can hear, feel, see and also taste water.But water still does not have any smell of its own. Finally Prthvi or earth evolves, where we can hear, touch, see, taste as well as smell it. We get a sense of this smell for example, when it proliferates the air soon after rains on a dry ground.While the names of the 5 PanchaBhuta are trans­lated in English as Space, Wind, Fire, Water, Earth, the root meanings for these names in the Sanskrit language denote the characteristic, Guna.

For example,Prthvi comes from Prthu meaning expansive and heavy. Thus while Prthvi is the word used for earth, as a primordial element, it denotes solidified state of matter. Thus we see that - Akasa, space grows, Vayu, wind blows, Tejas, fire glows, Apah, water flows & Prthvi, earth shows.

How can we say with any authority that it is only 5 basic elements ?

The ancient Indian word for Universe is Prapancha. Pancha means 5 and Pra denotes special, natural or primordial. Thus from this very word PraPancha, it is evident that the universe is made up of 5 primordial elements. These 5 elements are the very essentials of life in the Universe.

It is these 5 states of matter that give rise to the 5 senses and the experience that arise from it. The concept of evolution of the PanchaBhuta giving rise to favorable conditions for life through which we experience the oneness with nature, has been depicted through the deity Shiva, who is symbolized and revered as the embodiment of PanchaB­huta. More on Shiva in our next series.

This concept is symbolically represented through the PanchaBhuta temples for Shiva in South India are at

  • Chidambaram for Akasa
  • Kalahasti near Tirupati for Vayu
  • Thiruvannamalai for Tejas or Agni
  • Jalakanteshwar near Trichy for Apah
  •  Ekambareswar inKanchipuram for Prthvi

Legends based on true life incidents as well as scientific concepts keep the interest and faith in these temples alive, with the hope that through all these, mankind will continue to remember and revere the very life giving scientific concept of the PanchaBhuta.

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