To see the original poem without the explanation, here’s the link to “The Elements of Life”:
Many philosophies hold earth, water, fire, and air as central elements to life. Aristotle popularized this philosophical view of the elements in ancient Greece over 2400 years ago with the Hellenic list. However, the Eastern religions were the first to discuss these four central elements. They they marked them as metaphysical elements instead of purely physical ones. Below is a table of the elements and the respective religions that viewed them as sacred:
|Hellenism||Hinduism||Buddhism||Bön Philosphy, Tibet||Seven Chakras|
When we talk about the Asian religions, nothing is more important to the people that follow them than nature. I wrote this poem to describe this connection with nature as it should be—divided into parts. I also wrote it as tribute to their amazing importance to life on Earth. The forces of earth, water, and fire possess incredible religious power in the East, and each individual element must be broken down to assess its value. One might notice that the element of air is missing from this poem. It was not left out. To streamline the poem, I incorporated its characteristics into the other elements. However, when discussing this poem, I will follow the pattern of its design by analyzing its parts individually.
Part One: The Earth
Earth, the center of the universe for many, is the element that comes first in “The Elements of Life”. This follows its priority on the tables of numerous philosophical lists. Earth, as a planet and as an element, is the foundation for the other three. It represents all that is solid in Bön, the philosophy of the Tibetan monks. It is also associated with all visible, physical matter in the universe to the other religions. Definite, absolute, concrete, stable, unchanging—all of these terms relate to the element of Earth. To the Greeks and Romans, who adopted many ideas from the East, the Earth was the embodiment of everything heavy and terrestrial.
The poem opens with an earthquake:
“The mighty planet quakes!
From the core to the crust the ground shakes,
Spouting oil from the fractured soil.
The source of wealth for kingdom come,
The silt scatters to the beat of a divine drum”
This incorporates the idea of motion, associated with the air, with the qualities of Earth. The mention of sound, or moving air, is referenced by “the beat of a divine drum”. Sound and music are essential aspects of human culture. It is the root of emotional expression and language. Without speech, language would not exist. Neither would these religions. Sikhism acknowledges sound’s importance by labeling it a chakra, or essential spiritual element. It is the chakra that is released from the human body with each breath.
From the perspective of Western science, the poem opens from the outside inward, describing the earth as a planet divided into geologic layers. The core is the center of the earth, the core of what’s real to humans. The crust is everything external, the surface to which humanity clings. The mention of air’s characteristics reflects the Hindu perception of an earth-air duality in which Prithvi, the Earth mother goddess, and Dyaus, the sky father god, exist as complementary half-shells. The idea of an Earth mother goddess and sky father god is also shared by the Greeks and Romans, with the figures Gaia and Uranus (Caelus to the Romans). This contrasts with the Zoroastrian view that fire is the first of the elements and the father of everything that exists in the universe, including the other elements.
The mention of oil stems from the ancient observation that the ground bears metals, the prevailing source of wealth for the ancient civilizations that gave birth to these religions. Oil is a product of the earth that is central to the notion of modern national wealth. This mention of wealth is mentioned immediately afterward:
“The rifts are formed as the Earth reveals her power
Breaking the metals in each waking hour
The gold, the silver, the iconic iron ore,
All belongs to the globe
Or so it was decreed…
The crystals, the flowers, the fruits of lore.
To us the roots of plenty, it was agreed
Shall be shared with all who wear the violet robe.
The mention of crystals (like diamonds) represents another material aspect of wealth, while plants represent the earthly fertility of agriculture that was central to the creation and continued perpetuation of civilized society. Plants are together an element of Zoroastrianism that also bears incredible scientific significance. They represent the basic trophic level of the terrestrial food chain. They are primary producers on land, capturing the fire of the stars and absorbing the water and minerals from the ground to produce edible energy for other living things. “Flowers” and “fruits” are the roots of plenty harvested for the many, fulfilling the dietary needs of people around the world. This also ties into the discussion of Earth as a primary force behind life and death. From a scientific perspective, the earth is the origin of all organic and inorganic matter. When dissolved, this type of matter can be transferred to water.
However, the description of metals is central to Taoism and Zoroastrianism. Without metal there would be no wealth, weaponry, or power. The Earth bears these metals to humans when they dig for gold, silver, sodium, and others. Sodium needs to be mentioned because it is a quintessential element in many ways, especially to commerce and science. Salt, a sodium compound, was the original measure of wealth for humans, hence words derived from it like the word “salary”. It is also an essential nutrient for humans, affecting things as different from each other as blood pressure and nerve function. Without salt, most organisms would not survive. Without gold, silver, copper, and other metals, society’s infrastructure would not exist (at least in the way it has currently developed). The stanza also describes the financial inequalities tied into the system, with that last line “Shall be shared with all who wear the violet robe”. Violet is a color associated with royalty in many Eastern and Western cultures, and those with the greatest power have true access to the majority of humankind’s material wealth. Following this significance is the earth’s association with life and death:
“The story of life begins here,
As does the dastardly dance with death.
And with a brooding breath,
The blue blossoms of fertility emerge
In a fluctuating, rolling surge
Blanketing the tills of glaciers past,
All that is solid shall last
Until the dueling rivers diverge.”
The Zoroastrians believed death should be left to the cycle of decomposition on the Earth’s surface. Most Western religions believe that the life of a person should end with a ceremonial burial. The Greeks and Romans believed in a subterranean netherworld, as the Abrahamic faiths currently do. However, most Eastern religions associate life and death with the powers of water and fire. The story of life and death through reincarnation, emphasized by Hinduism and Buddhism, takes place entirely on Earth. The earth, in this case, is the arena where good and bad deeds are committed and then weighed against each other. Life is not easy; it is a game where the living do the best they can to avoid death. This “dastardly dance with death” defines the experience. Whether it’s the prey avoiding the predator or, in fact, the motivation behind medicine, living things need to avoid death to procreate. And, ironically, must kill to survive. So is the story of evolutionary, the idea proposed by Anaximander and later popularized by Charles Darwin. However, change is the only thing that is permanent in Buddhism. The change of species over time is, thus, a biological response to impermanence as part of this survivors’ dance with death. Death, in turn, powers life through various cycles of biological and chemical breakdown.
This, in turn, flows serendipitously with the role of water as a liquid force of change. While earth is solid, water is versatile and has many different states.
Part Two: Water
Water is my favorite element (in part because I’m studying marine biology). Almost three-quarters of the earth’s surface are covered by the life-giving clear liquid, the special substance, called water. Anywhere between half and ninety-nine percent of an organism’s body is composed of this magic fluid. Also known as dihydrogen monoxide, this chemical is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. The significance of this will be explained in the next section.
Often associated with female goddesses, the classical element of water is generally linked to spiritual characteristics. Where the Earth is rigid, concrete matter, water represents things like intuition, emotion, and purity to the philosophies mentioned on the table. To Aristotle, it was the only element that was both cold and wet. The second section of “The Elements of Life” is dedicated to these attributes of water. It opens, describing water’s deep intrinsic connection with the Moon. This celestial body is the earth’s sibling in outer space. It blocks the sun when the Earth needs the cold, and keeps our planet rotating along a balanced axis. Without the Moon, the tides would not ebb or flow. Life, too, would not exist. The cosmic and spiritual significance of the lunar link is explained as this part of the poem begins:
“The Lunar Lake gleams,
Reflecting still the prismatic light
Of the autumnal moon in the cool heat of the night.
Flowing forth from this lacustrine source,
The fulfilling fluid force
Of the River of Dreams
The Current of Creativity,
The Spirit of Serendipity,
The Surge That Purges.
Where the Earth is the physical foundation for life, the water is both its origin and its medium of existence. All organisms are composed of water and require it to survive. Water has three phases—liquid, vapor, and ice. The Moon also has phases, eight to be exact. Water also occurs in many different places on the Earth’s surface—in oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, ponds, the sky, caves, puddles, inlets, estuaries, and waterfalls to name a few. It is also present inside living things; the amount of which must be maintained at equilibrium so a living thing neither shrivels away nor bursts apart.
In Buddhist, Tibetan, Taoist, and Japanese tradition, water is an essential part of meditation. It boosts discipline and productivity of thought. Monks often ponder under the pounding flow of waterfalls, inhaling the chilled vapors produced by the crashing water while exhaling heated water from their lungs, to reach a heightened state of awareness. This is popularized by countless movies and television shows, especially in the Japanese anime genre. It has also inspired works of art, music, and literature. Where would Emerson be without Walden Pond? Where would modern music be without The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me”? Where would mankind be without the Ganges River? And, most of all, where would this poem be without the TV show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”?
That is why I described water as a “River of Dreams” (courtesy of Billy Joel), as a “Current of Creativity”, and as a “Spirit of Serendipity”. Water is the most important fluid to the bodies and minds of humans. It is a seemingly infinite substance that replenishes itself, or so it seems. Where it ebbs or recedes, it later flows and floods. It is also transparent, representing purity. This purity can indicate the health of a physical environment or an emotional one. To all Eastern religions, and especially Hinduism, water represents spiritual purity. This purity is the reason why millions of Hindu pilgrims migrate to the River Ganges in India. They seek to cleanse themselves of sins they have committed and the impurities they have absorbed during life. This “Surge That Purges” gives water a divine property, much like nectar to the Greek deities. The next stanzas further explain water’s amazing properties, touching on its presence inside living things and the way it gives life the ability to live:
“The liquid of life it inspires,
Fills the veins of all that requires.
It ebbs and it flows,
Like the intensity of desires.
And like heavenly nectar on land,
It is much to quenching demand…
And so it goes…
All that it touches it cleanses,
It purifies. It recompenses.
It washes away all that is wrong
In a torrent of forgiving truth,
It revives the soul behind forgotten youth.
It fuses what is weak with what is strong,
And it pulses through,
Rushing and flushing, calming as it soothes,
It is the thing to which we all belong.
The ice in winter becomes vapor in summer
It is all that is different and one and the same
And, for this dualistic dichotomy, it is free of blame.
It is the rain, the snow, and the forms in between,
It is the blood that’s red, the chlorophyll that’s green
And what drives the seasons,
Here and now, in the ocean of time…”
The water cycle drives the changes of the seasons, and its presence or absence determines the type of environment that exists in an area. I call water “The Great Determinant” for its incredible capacity to shape the habitability of a place. It is a bridge between the living and dead to some, and a fluid that has immeasurable chemical, religious, and philosophical importance. It is a fluid, much like air, that is constantly moving. It can be a solid whose presence indicates the changing of the seasons. It can also be a gas that composes the very air we breathe to stay alive. It is also within us, constantly being replenished as it drives the processes that keep living things alive. As a symbol of purity, its renown is unmatched by everything except its counterpart: Fire.
Part Three: Fire
Where the earth and water are bound to the ground, fire rises. Often associated with the colors red and orange, it is actually hotter and more intense when it shines yellow, green, blue, or white (in order of increasing intensity). Fire is the preferred medium of the metaphysical. It gives light to the heavens and gives humanity its inventive spark. The third portion of “The Element of Life” discusses the prowess of fire and its special properties. It opens, describing the Sun and all its fiery might:
“The sun shines in the summer skies,
Emitting energy from the heavens high.
It warms the water and melts the ice
And clasps the Earth with its invisible grasp.
With force unseen, it keeps the Earth green…
Fire has many forms, with the destructive to the creative forms being the most commonly referenced. The biggest creative fire of them all is the Sun, which has been worshipped by everyone from the Egyptians through the Zoroastrians. It is also an essential part of the Abrahamic faiths. The Sun is the fire that created the Earth, according to modern astronomers and the Zoroastrians. It is the forge of creation, and its constant fusion of hydrogen gas (one of the constituents of water) keeps it burning. From a scientific perspective, solar fire is also the original force that led to the creation of the other periodic elements. In Zoroastrianism, it is fire that created the other three elements and the universe itself. And, despite the fact water as a compound can douse flames, the hydrogen and oxygen that compose water actually fuel the process of combustion that created flames in the first place. Combustion itself cannot occur without oxygen.
Where cosmic fire created the universe and all that inhabits it, internal fires keep living things alive. The spark of invention is kindled by necessity, and this idea holds its water everywhere in human society. Nothing has greater power than the internal fire that drives idea generation and the motivation behind survival. The most important invention (or, technically, discovery) of all was the ability to harness flames. Humans have mastered it for hunting, for cooking, for making shelters habitable, and for locomotion. They have also used it as a metaphor for the soul and its reincarnation. Below is the next stanza, which describes these important properties:
“Big and bright,
Nothing possesses greater might
Than the fire that burns out of sight,
The inner light.
Its combustion inside the soul
Lets the spirit take flight
And makes the individual whole.”
In Hinduism, there are three forms of fire: the flame, lightning, and the Sun. As a deity, it is represented by Agni, who possesses those forms. In Zoroastrianism, it is also the medium through which a single God speaks. This is also echoed in the Abrahamic faith with the Hebrew story of Moses, the Burning Bush, and the Ten Commandments. This spiritual importance is mentioned in the following stanza:
“It is the mother of invention,
The spark of lightning flashing,
The power divine crashing,
Defying the rules of convention.”
Fire can also be a purifying force. Just as a flame consumes dead plant matter on the forest floor, it can eat away at all that is dead and impure in the human soul. Cremation is the process by which Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs prepare the dead for the next world. This place, called Nirvana, Heaven, the Netherworld, or the Afterlife, is the final destination for all that live and shall be reincarnated. While only pure souls make it to Nirvana, all fallen souls arrive in the Afterlife in the major world religions of the East and West. When a body is cremated, the remains turn to ash. The ashes are then ceremoniously scattered across to signify the holy passing into the next realm of existence. This aspect of fire is described by the final stanzas of this section:
“The fire burns and churns,
Singes away the impure
Of all that is tainted,
Painted and secure.
All shall turn to ash,
And they shall scatter throughout the land
Uniting the Earth with the Netherworld,
Hand in hand.”
Thus, fire not only destroys but creates a bridge between the living and the dead. It is the cosmic force of creation to many, much like aether is to other philosophies. It can purify like water, and singe like lightning or a naked flame. However, the power of the elements as individuals is dwarfed by the power of their interaction as a single unit.
Part Four: Altogether, an Interaction of the Elements
Below is the finale of the poem, the last section, the denouement:
“The ground quakes as the waters surge,
The fire flaring and the lights glaring.
All the elements interact, and then merge.
The earth, moisture, and inner flames
Become one inside the living.
Their attributes unite in a form of divine giving.
The final piece of the puzzle,
All falling into place,
Everything that occurs happens here
In this unique space.
So begins the race of life
And the precursors of love
Between a man and his wife.
Let there be peace from within and above.”
“Create a connection,
That shared perception.
Just a simple touch
Is all that it takes
To restart the cycle of these elements,
To make the individual better.
For renewed existence,
The give and take…”
These elements exist in the philosophical realm because they interact together to make living things whole. Their analysis breaks down the human experience into components that are both comprehensible and essential. They serve as the ancestors to the periodic table, and everything we know about sciences like physics and chemistry. In Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism, the classical elements are tools to be honed by the individual on the course to spiritual enlightenment.
This was the main reason why I wrote this poem. In the big give-and-take called life, we must all understand the connection between ourselves, the physical world, and the metaphysical world. The earth, wind, fire, and air represent the forces that created and continue to shape what it means to be human.
- My Poem ‘The Falling Leaf’ (poetofthesphere.com)
- The Four Elements of Balance and Wellness (melindarodriguezdotcom.wordpress.com)
- Shungite: The Stone of Life (crystallogy.wordpress.com)
- Black Kyanite: The Restoration Stone (crystallogy.wordpress.com)
- How Does the Sun Shine in Taurus (zheljana.wordpress.com)
- The people of Gol’em – a poem and a tale (thethoughtstorage.wordpress.com)
- Moon Created by Giant Collision, Studies Confirm (history.com)
- Initiation Into Womanhood By Rochelle Wallace (womensphilanthropy.typepad.com)
- Awakening the Mysterious Feminine Goddess (culturalcreativestimes.wordpress.com)