Bhuta shuddhi is the very dynamic and systematic practice of tantra which transforms the elements, constituting body and mind, for the transmission of the atma shakti. Bhuta means 'basic element'. It is also known as tattwa. Shuddhi means 'purification'. According to tantra, body ,and mind are comprised of five primal elements known as earth (prithvi), water (apas), fire (agni), air (vayu) and ether (akasha). These tattwas are the manifestation of the primordial 'Shakti', and it is due to them that this entire universe exists. Of course, we can understand each tattwa in its gross state as earth, water, fire, etc., but here the word tattwa or element applies to something much more subtle than that.
These five tattwas comprise particular pranic vibrations of the one Shakti, just as white light is broken up into the different colours of the spectrum. In the body, earth tattwa represents solidity from the cellular structure; water tattwa, fluidity - blood, lymph fluid, etc.; fire tattwa, heat - appetite, digestion, thirst; air tattwa, motion - expansion and contraction; ether tattwa, subtle vibration and emotion. The tattwas, as part of the mind and psyche, arouse the sense of smell, taste, sight, touch and sound. From this level they connect to the corresponding organs, nerve plexi and energy centres or chakras.
In tantra, the practice of bhuta shuddhi is used for transforming the pranic flow of the tattwas back to their original unmanifest form as primordial 'Shakti'. As long as the prana flows outward through the sense organs, awareness will be engrossed in the external world. However, if we can realise these tattwas or pranic flows operating in their subtle form, independent of external stimulus, then the experience, knowledge and illumination can arise from the inner dimensions. The purpose of this practice, as in all tantric practices, is to free the consciousness from its attachment to external objects in order to realise the true inner nature.
The first step towards this is purification of the basic physical, mental, psychic and pranic structure. In yoga there are various forms of purification which are meant to achieve this: prana shuddhi, nadi shuddhi, vak shuddhi, manas shuddhi, etc., but the practice of bhuta shuddhi, as described in the ancient tantras, covers the entire range of man's existence.
In the 'Srimad Devi Bhagavatam' (Ch.8), it says that bhuta shuddhi purifies the body elements by 'respiratory attraction and replacement'. By concentrating on the yantra and bija mantra of each tattwa at its specific location in the body, the internal vital capacity and awareness becomes dynamic and active. At that time, sensorial awareness drops as you merge into the realm of vibration and form within.
You are lead from the gross sensory experience to the root cause of attachment in this world- the ego, which is represented in the form or mandala of 'Papa Purusha', the sinful man, represented as a hideous dwarf living in the abdomen. By the use of the tattwa bija mantras and breath, you mentally purify, dissolve and reconstruct his being inside you into a golden egg, like hiranyagarbha. This actually helps transform your own individual ego. Then, by considering yourself to be the supreme knowledge or consciousness (Shiva), you finally attain that state.
When you bring yourself back slowly in the reverse process, to the manifestation of Shakti in the elements and finally envisage Shakti in the mandala of Devi, both consciousness and prana become absorbed in the diverse manifestations of the one energy.
On completion of the meditation, it is essential to wipe bhasma or ashes on the body for purification of the tattwas. In the ancient vedic and tantric tradition, bhasma is vital for arousing the higher consciousness and purifying the body. Bhuta shuddhi, done with the use of ashes and fasting during a particular time according to the solar/lunar phase, helps control the animal instincts and awaken the consciousness. Therefore, it is also known as Pashupati vrata and Shiva vrata. Applying ashes is called the 'bath of fire', which burns attachment to sensorial experience and the lower nature.
In the Devi Bhagavatam (Ch.9) it says that, "Through this Sivovrata, Brahma and the other devas were able to attain their Brahmahood and devahood. The ancient sages, including Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra and other devas, all performed this Sivovrata. All those who performed it duly became sinless, though they were very sinful in every way."
In this practice, it is important to use cow dung ashes, especially from the fire ceremony, and wipe them over the body, particularly the forehead, while repeating mantra. Then say: 'Earth is ashes, water is ashes, fire is ashes, air is ashes, ether is ashes, everything whatsoever is ashes'. In this way the vibrations of the mantra are transmitted throughout every cell in the body.
In the process of awakening the vital capacity of the tattwas, particular characteristic signs of perfection arise. In tantra these are known as siddhis. In occidental countries they have been called supernatural, occult or magic powers, but it must be understood that these powers arise from within you as a result of your own effort to intensify and concentrate your mental and pranic energy. In Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (3:45) it says that, "By sanyama or concentration on the gross, basic, subtle and interpenetrating states, and the purpose of the bhutas, mastery over them is attained."
Awakening of the tattwas develops sensitivity to subtle vibration and to the higher faculties of clairvoyance, clairaudience, telepathy and intuition. In the Gherand Samhita (3:59-63) it says that, "Concentration of the prana for two hours in the earth tattwa brings steadiness; in water tattwa, destroys unbearable sufferings and sins; in fire tattwa, eliminates the fear of death; in air tattwa, gives the experience of flying in the air; in akasha tattwa, opens the doors to liberation."
The tantric texts also enumerate other attributes associated with the awakening of the tattwas. Earth tattwa is responsible for levitation, freedom from disease, and creation of astral smells. Water tattwa removes fear of water. It equalises the prana vayu and gives knowledge of unknown sciences, the power of astral travelling, and the ability to create various taste sensations. Fire tattwa gives material wealth, detachment, the ability of transforming base metals into gold, discovering of medicines, entering another's body. Air tattwa gives knowledge of the past, present and future, fulfilment of desire, contact with astral entities, ability of psychic healing, inner peace and harmony, compassion. Ether tattwa gives knowledge of the Vedas, longevity, endurance without food or water, psychic projection faster than the speed of light.
These are the powers which are associated with the tattwas but they should not be delved in as it is very easy to be misguided by the phenomena of the subtle realm. It is necessary to put them aside and conserve your energy to arouse an even subtler awareness - that of the atman.
This practice should be done in the early hours of the morning after bathing, to purify yourself before the oncoming day. Traditionally it was undertaken as a sankalpa made before the guru to be done three times daily: morning, noon and sunset on a long or short term basis, e.g. twelve years, six years, three years, six months, three months, one month, six days, three days, or even one day. It is said to be most effective when performed in the months of Shravan (July-August), during the time of intense Shiva puja, according to the Hindu philosophy, or in Ashwin (October-November), during Navaratri, the nine nights of puja or worship to Devi. The most important requirement, however, is that it is done under the instructions of the guru, with full faith and without expectation of fulfilling any desires through the practice. Only then is this sadhana truly sattvic and a pure state of 'being' attained.