The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Composed around 1500 BCE, the Sanskrit Vedas are among the oldest religious writings in existence. Their hymns, incantations and rituals form the spiritual basis of Hinduism. They also let us glimpse everyday life in India 3,500 years ago.

First mentioned in the Vedas, the emotion abhiman (pronounced ab-ee-man) continues to be instantly recognizable across the Indian subcontinent. It is impossible to translate into a single English word. The literal meaning of “abhi-man” is “self-pride.” But a clue to its deeper significance lies in the other Sanskrit word whose echoes can be heard in it: balam (strength).

Abhiman evokes the pain and anger caused when someone we love, or expect kind treatment from, hurts us. Sorrow and shock are at its root, but it quickly flourishes into a fierce, bruised PRIDE. It is often translated into English as “wounded dignity” or “spiteful retaliation,” phrases with overtones of pettiness. In India, abhiman is a more acceptable, even expected, response. To recognize abhiman as an inevitable part of our emotional life is to know that breaking the unspoken contracts of love and respect between families and allies is an extremely serious betrayal.

Like many of the emotions linked to pride, abhiman can be stubborn. Often the one who feels it suffers most—a double blow. In Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Shasti” (“Punishment”), the heroine Chandara lives in grinding poverty with her beloved husband, his brother, and his brother’s miserable and complaining wife. When Chandara’s brother-in-law accidentally kills his wife, and the police arrive, Chandara’s husband panics. Attempting to save his brother, he accuses Chandara of the murder. It is not only a betrayal of their love, but of Chandara’s position as a wife, and it wounds her deeply.

She draws herself up. Stiff with cold and implacable resentment, she confesses to the murder and is led silently to prison. Tagore writes that her actions are motivated by her abhiman, and translators have offered various versions in English: “What unrelenting resentment!”; “Such fierce, passionate pride”; “How terribly she was reacting to her hurt feeling”; and so on. As the date of her execution draws near, Chandara’s husband repents and tries to intervene, but the wound still smarts. She refuses to meet his eye, even as she steps onto the gallows.