In English translation, the four elements are translated as

  1. Earth
  2. Fire
  3. Air
  4. Water

Instead, if they are translated as below

  1. solidity - the state of being solid with hardness and softness.
  2. Heat - the state of getting heat with hot and cold both identified as heat.
  3. Force - the state of pushing and pulling, or state of supporting and pushing
  4. Liquidity - the state of coagulating and flow or dripping

I am not a language expert but after studying four elements in Buddha's teachings and tipitaka the latter definitions seems more appropriate than Earth, Fire, Air and Water which have ambiguous meanings or are of less comprehensible.

Is it possible that we can have better English translation for Four elements since Earth, Fire, Air and Water seems limited in sense? What could be the better translation to understand the nature, characteristics and two opposite edges of four elements?

4 Answers 4


I don't think that's necessary. At once, they're both metaphorical descriptions and literal representations. E.g. earth implies solidity, but at the same time it can have the literal characteristics of the element as with the earth kasina being composed of clay.


If we're talking about translation, then those are very much the actual exact translations of the words that the Buddha used. If we're revising the wording beyond dictionary meanings, then we're not really talking about translation any more, but entering into realms of commentary and interpretive rendition.

The terms themselves are pruṭhavī-dhātu ("earth"), āpa-dhātu ("water"), teja-dhātu ("fire") and vāyu-dhātu ("wind"). Of these, only fire or "tejas" (Skr.) has a broader semantic field reaching into "energy", "efficacy", "heating faculty" etc. The rest of the terms used are rather literally the natural phenomena. Even while (an abundance of) specific words for solid, liquid etc. would exist.

The quad are abstract phenomena, represented with the four elements as their symbols/pointers, that each carry a large domain of connotations, typically also found in the characteristics of the physical elements. The elements' basic properties are outlined in any number of classical writings for the benefit of those keen on grasping their relevance and dynamics. (Further, their properties will in practice, if explored, emerge on spectrums broader than these basic vectors of examination, which have been traditionally deemed useful as meditation tools.)

In my personal view, it's not that hard to grasp that "water" implies more than literal h2o, etc. and simply get used to the olde "table of symbols". There will always be more to these phenomena than we can hope to convey in a single word. Entering into them through natural phenomena is rather useful, as they provide a commonly and immediately accessible concrete field of reference.

Given the choice of classic and concrete words/objects for pointers, even in the presence of more abstract alternative wordings, it's worth considering that such terms may have been chosen for reasons of sound strategy... factoring in both the nature's immediacy, and the Indic continuum of reference; of which only the latter's relevance is subject to contextual change.

As for your choice of alternative words: While "solid" and "liquid" are in tune enough with "earth" and "water", "heat" reduces the implications found in "fire", and "force" is rather broad for "air". Perhaps you were looking for something like momentum or impulse? There would also be a reduction there, given the implicit model of vital airs ("prana") generating the motions in our body; and, there's an "aerial" quality and distinct agency to it, beyond simple "push/pull/move" dynamics.

  • Updated with a link to an earlier Q/A on the elements; specifically see how MN 140 characterizes "fire" and "wind": suttacentral.net/en/mn140 (And note the general trend of focusing on the elements within the body.)
    – Markus AO
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:33

This is hard to translate as they possibly map into following modern concepts:

  1. Earth - solid, gravity, attractive magnetic force, attractive electrical charges
  2. Fire - temperature, energy, kinetic energy, potential energy
  3. Air - gas, motion, waves, repulsive magnetic force, repulsive electrical charges
  4. Water - liquidity, resistance, friction, viscosity

I believe these might have to be treated symbolistically, perhaps inline how science was taught in the time of Buddha.

Ref: Mahābhūta, Patthana Dhamma by Htoo Naing - Ch 3: Rupa, The Abhidhamma in Practice by N.K.G. Mendis, Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma - Ch 6 by Bhikkhu Bodhi, Rupa (Form) by Piya Tan, Abhidhamma in daily life - Ch 18 Elements by Nina Van Gorkom

Wikipedia give the following "better translation":

  1. Earth - attractive forces,
  2. Water - repulsive forces,
  3. Heat - energy and
  4. Air - relative motion

Medis gives:

  1. The Earth element (pa.thavi dhaatu) = solidity
  2. The Water element (aapo dhaatu) = adhesion
  3. The Fire element (tejo dhaatu) = heat
  4. The Wind element (vaayo dhaatu) = motion

Htoo Naing:

  1. pathavi or solidity,
  2. tejo or temperature,
  3. apo or liquidity, and
  4. vayo or movement or resistance

Bhikkhu Bodhi:

  1. earth - support or foundation
  2. water - fluidity
  3. fire - heat
  4. air - mortion

Superficially reading Piya Tan's translation difficult to narrow it down to one word hence giving a more detail quotation:

  1. The earth element is essentially hardness, softness, roughness, smoothness, heaviness, lightness, and is so called because, like the earth, it serves as a support or foundation for physical phenomena.
  2. The water element is essentially cohesion, stickiness (viscidity), thickness (viscosity) and liquidity. Whatever karmically acquired liquidity or fluidity there is in our own body—bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, skin-grease, saliva, nasal mucus, synovial fluid, urine and so on—this is called one’s own water element.
  3. The fire element is essentially decay, heat, cold, oxidation, combustion, and digestion (metabolism). Whatever karmically acquired heat or warmth there is in our own body—such as that whereby one is heated, consumed, scorched, whereby that which has been eaten, drunk, chewed or tasted, is fully digested and so on—this is called one’s own heating element.
  4. The wind element is essentially motion, vibration, distension, and pressure. There are 6 kinds of karmically acquired “wind” in one’s own body, that is, upward-going wind (vomitting, hiccup, burping, etc); downward-going wind (peristalsis when voiding and peeing); the wind in the belly; the wind outside the belly; the wind in all the limbs; and the in-breath and out-breath— this (including peristalsis and muscular movements) is called one’s own wind element.

Nina Van Gorkom:

  1. earth-element (solidity), appearing as hardness or softness
  2. fire-element (temperature), appearing as heat or cold
  3. wind-element, appearing as motion or pressure

S.N.Goenka in The Routine Duties of a Meditator: Sampajanna:

The most important one here is the cart-driver. He is compared with the mind; the oxen are compared with the element of motion (vayo dhatu). The other three elements (tayo mahabhutas) are caused by the mind.

Of these four elements, when walking, the element of kinetic energy (tejo), and the element of motion (vayo) are the leading factors and the element of solidity (pathavi) and the element of fluidity (apo) are just followers. When lying or sitting or standing, pathavi and vayo are leading factors and the remaining two are just followers.


Sutta such as MN 62 makes it clear the elements of earth, wind, fire & water refer to solidity, moisture, heat & movement/force.

I think 'elements' is a good translation for 'dhatu' because it fits with modern science.

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