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The Fifth Element

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on March 15, 2009 2 Comments

Last night, I was interviewed in a radio segment for a show entitled “Four Elements,” to discuss the importance of “Fire” in Hinduism. The idea behind the show is to explore the importance of the four basic elements-earth, wind, fire, water-in different cultures. First off, Hindus recognize five elements: the four listed above, and sky. For Hindus, fire has played a pivotal role since Vedic times, some 3500 years ago, and it continues to be a centerpiece in the religious experience. All the way back in our oldest sacred text, the Vedas (वेद), fire, or Agni (अग्नि, Latinate cognate: ignis) was considered an important deity, the supreme God of sacrifices. Fire continues to mediate the Hindu religious experience, in the form of yajnas (यज्ञ), as a part of the final act in wedding ceremonies, and in the Hindu funereal rite.

One of the things that struck me, as I was preparing to be interviewed over the last few days, was how difficult it was to talk about “agni” and “fire” as if one word is a translation of the other, or as if they are exact or even similar synonyms. The cultural imagination that is triggered by the word “अग्नि” (Hindi/Sanskrit) for me is utterly unlike the repertoire of images that occur when I invoke “fire.” How do I describe one using the other? It was also interesting that when I discussed the importance of अग्नि in Hinduism with my mother, she never once used the word “আগুন,” which is the Bengali word for “fire”: she invoked only the Sanskritic term “अग्नि,” since that, she said, was the religiously loaded term. There was no translating it even into Bengali, a descendant of Sanskrit!

A little frustrated, I looked up the entry on “fire” on Merriam Webster Online:

1 fire
Pronunciation: \ˈfi(-ə)r\
Function:noun
Usage: often attributive
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English fȳr; akin to Old High German fiur fire, Greek pyr
Date: before 12th century
1 a (1): the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat (2): one of the four elements of the alchemists b (1): burning passion : ardor (2): liveliness of imagination : inspiration
2 a: fuel in a state of combustion (as on a hearth) b British : a small gas or electric space heater
3 a: a destructive burning (as of a building) b (1): death or torture by fire (2): severe trial or ordeal
4: brilliancy , luminosity 5 a: the firing of weapons (as firearms, artillery, or missiles) b: intense verbal attack or criticism c: a rapidly delivered series (as of remarks)

No. It just doesn’t work, not even as a symbolic linguistic broker of sorts. Of course, these ideas are old (check out a brief piece on linguistic determinism if you’re so inclined), and I am not saying anything that hasn’t been said 2.7 million times before (precisely). Without entering into well-worn debates about these issues, I’d just like to say I was reminded once again of how untranslatable our linguistic experiences actually are.

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2 Responses to “The Fifth Element”

  1. Natalia Peterson on: 16 March 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Usree, you know, your “agni” sounds very similar to the Russian word “огни” ([ogni], stress in I) which means “fires” or “lights”. I was amazed when I realized that 🙂

  2. Usree Bhattacharya on: 16 March 2009 at 4:49 pm

    Hi Natalie, good to hear from you! Very cool, they must be cognates? 🙂

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