Fire

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Introduction

Fire is dangerous, but it is also useful.  It keeps us warm and cooks our food.   It is also the most dramatically powerful of all earthly forms of cosmic energy.

When fire ranges freely, which it does at any one time somewhere on Earth, it is a catastrophe. In fact, it is symbolic of any and all disruptions of harmony, so what are we to do?

Contained & Displayed

Fire is offered in almost every one of the earth's religions.  In traditions that are theistic or, god-based, it can take the form of the flame issuing from one or more candles, or in the form of the special -- sometimes red --  "eternal light" like the one that hangs before the Ark of the Law in a synagogue.  It can also appear as part of a combination offering of a precious substances, such as oil or butter that is set alight.   As part of a domestic ritual, it is frequently used to welcome guests and new members of the family, and to commemorate other significant events in our lives. 

In the above examples, the flame is symbolic in at least 3 different ways:  1.  It represents the individual as part of the Divine, 2. It represents the power and constancy of the Divine, and 3. The fire acts as the medium or vehicle that transforms and conveys the offering to the Divine. 

A small flame, such as that of a candle, also acts as a symbol for the warmth of the family hearth (the household fire.)   The display of a candle flame can serve to focus our sense of the visual; it causes us to pay attention to our immediate surroundings, and to the person (or people) in the small circle of light.

Agni

The tall long-headed people from the Caucasus, who are sometimes known as the Aryans (cf. Iran, Eire,) may have settled in the Indian subcontinent between 2500 and 1500 BCE.   The holy scriptures, the Vedas, which they likely brought from somewhere to the west, form the essence of the Brahmanic religion, and one of the main Vedic deities is Agni, god of fire. 

In English, we remember Agni when we use the word "ignite" which comes down to us via the Latin ignis.  

Agni is referred to as Dhumaketu ("whose sign is smoke"), Saptajihva (seven-tongued), Hutasa (devourer of offerings) and Rohitashva (red-horsed.)  The Rig Veda says that he was born from a lotus flower, and was originally called Vasishtha. 

Although he began as water deity, he was transformed when struck by storm god Rudra's thunderbolt.    Usually depicted with 2 faces, one peaceful, the other wrathful, with teeth of gold and 7 tongues, his flaming hair stands on end and he has 3 legs and 7 arms.  He rides Mesha, his ram.  (Interestingly, the word for "wick" in French is une meche.) 

The Aryan priests, whose duties were later acquired by the brahmins, were the controllers of yagna -- the fire sacrifice, considered the only proper way to please the Vedic deities.  Therefore, the ritual recitation of scripture or the performance of sadhana is always accompanied by fire. 

Since fire is present at all important ceremonies, Agni is also considered a divine witness. Therefore, a Hindu wedding is only considered fully sanctioned when "witnessed by fire" (Skt. agnisakshi.)

There is an akhara (order>regiment) of celibate (Skt. brahmachari) Hindu practitioners formed in 1482 CE called the Agni Akhara.   Buddhists will be interested to know that it was the philosophical opponent of Nagarjuna, Shankara (fl. 800 CE) who is the founder of many such orders.

Swaha

All offerings made to fire are dedicated in the name of Agni's wife, Svaha (Tib. pron. soha.)  Mythology has it that she persuaded Agni to ensure the continuity of their relationship, so he declared that all offerings made to the gods by means of fire would be in her name. Therefore, all prayer formulas and mantras end with her name.

Sati

Myths are traditional sacred explanations.  The Indian myth about Shiva's young bride, Sati, tells how certain exceptional rituals using yoga or tantric methods were integrated into the purely Vedic religion.

The rishi Daksha permitted Sati, the youngest of his 8 daughters, to choose her own husband, following the rare custom known as swayamvara.

Sati was an embodiment of all divine activity -- shakti.  She was the very essence of the energy of all the gods. When the Hindu gods determined to destroy the demons that had been harassing the world since Creation, they all focused their combined energy and caused huge flames to rise from the ground.   From that fire, Sati, the young Adi-shakti (the first or proto-shakti,) was born.   She is later known as Parvati.

Her desire for the ascetic adept (or, Skt. yogin,) whom she had once glimpsed in the forest was so strong that, although Shiva was not invited to be among the group of prospective bridegrooms, he manifested just as she was throwing the wreath of selection into the air.  (How the significance of a flung bridal bouquet has been transformed!)

Daksha cursed Shiva for his presumptuous appearance at the gathering of suitors, and therefore he was not among those gathered on a Himalayan peak for the purpose of making a 10,000-horse sacrifice (Skt. dasaswamedh) to Lord Vishnu.

Both Shiva and his wife were not invited, since they were considered sources of pollution because of their uncivilized lifestyle.  Sati could attend alone, for any daughter is welcome in her father's house, but her husband warned her to expect to hear him insulted, which would certainly put her in a very difficult position.

And so, as Mahadev (Great God, ie. Shiva) foretold:  Sati, in the dilemma of not being able either to slay the offender since he is her parent, nor to leave in support of her husband's honor without insulting her father, is entirely consumed by the fire of her inner anger. 

When informed of what had happened to Sati, Shiva glowed with anger.  Tearing a lock of hair from his head, he cast it upon the land, where it turned into the fierce demon, Virabhadra.  This firestorm manifestation flew to the site of the great sacrifice, injured many beings, and even destroyed the staff of Yama, god of death.

Bearing the body of Sati in his arms, Shiva began stalking the three worlds.  The other gods, trembled before his wrath and appealed to Vishnu for help.  Lord Vishnu loosed a whole stream of  arrows that struck Sati's body severing it into 51 pieces.   The places where they landed became the fifty-one sacred shaktipeet [power spots.]

Where Sati's tongue fell, at Jwalaji, today we can still see, through fissures in the rock, the clear blue flames that burn continuously with her power.

Thus it is shown that more powerful than any ritual offering is the power inherent in meditation; it is greater than that of ritual, even that of the priestly fire puja.

From then on, Daksha permitted ascetics to attend his court, having learned that there were other acceptable ways of practicing besides the way of the brahmin priests.  To banish those who worship in ways other than those prescribed by the Vedas is to court the kind of catastrophe that can bring harm to all.

Real Life Sati (suttee)

The myth about Sati, the goddess, is what underlies the practice of widow-burning (suttee is an older English spelling,) which Ibn Batuta the 14th-century Arab traveler reported.  This terrible custom, though outlawed by the British in 1829, still occasionally takes place.  

 

 

Another famous case occurred in 1987, on Sept. 4th, in the village of Deorala Samaj, Rajasthan.  18-year old Roop Kanwar, the young widow of Mal Singh, who died not many days after their wedding, possibly through coercion by her in-laws committed herself to her husband's funeral pyre,

 

The Indian courts at first strengthened penalties as a result of this case but succumbing to pressures from religious and other groups, they again softened their position.   It is difficult to enforce the existing laws or strongly punish accessories to ritual suicide, since the practice fulfills not only a socio-economic purpose, but also ancient spiritual requirements. 

Usually, once the ceremony is over the sacrificed woman is considered a "goddess" and the funeral spot becomes a shrine.  The memorials are known as Mahasati-stones or hero-stones.   

Dr. Jyotsna Kamat says: 

The Agni Purana declares that the woman who commits sahagamana goes to heaven.  However, [magistrate] Medhatiti pronounced that Sati was like suicide and was against the Shastras, the Hindu code of conduct.

Srmt. Kamat points out that this kind of suicide goes hand-in-hand with the abysmal condition of widows in much of Indian society.  Since the majority of traditional style families are patrilocal, a bride is transferred away from her own family as part of an arrangement in which money and goods play a role.  Therefore, she is not generally welcome back at her parents'.  She becomes subordinate to her mother-in-law (and any of the late husband's sisters still living at home) and often does the menial work of a scullery maid.  If the son dies and there is no offspring, the young woman can be not only another mouth to feed, but a source of anxiety as potential focus for conflict due to her youthful sexuality and fertility.  

It is a sad commentary on the current attitude towards the public presentation of knowledge, that Dr. Kamat had to append a notice to her "suttee pages" that stresses the fact that her discussion of this type of suicide does not in any way condone the practice.

Kamat's site also has Col. Sleeman's 19th-century account, and the earlier Pietro della Valle report about "Sati-s." 

Shiva's Fire

In the mythology of India, fire is one of Shiva's 5 arrows, that together represent the elements, which in turn stand for the 5 senses.   The fire arrow symbolizes the sense of sight.

A glance from his Third Eye can cause a person or object to burst into flame.

As Nataraj, he is depicted as dancing in a Ring of Fire, which stands for Time, the fire which eventually consumes us all.

Lighting Lamps

Hindu Religious Practice

In Hindu practice, according to Swami Chinmayananda: 

The oil or ghee [clarified butter] in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the negativities get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. 

The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals. 

While lighting the lamp (dipa,) the Hindu prayer is:

Deepa-jyothi para-brahma
Deepa sarva tamopahaha
Deepena saadhyate saram
Sandhyaa deepo namo-stute

"I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp whose light is Supreme Knowledge which removes the darkness of ignorance and by which all can be achieved. "  

Fire and Mortality 

In the mythology of the world, fire is associated not only with divinity, but also with new life and with the continuity of life. 

The Return of the Hero

In India, even today, at times of deep spiritual or personal commitment such as the return of a man from battle, or the welcoming of a new son-in-law to a matrilocal residence, the woman may greet a man at the entrance waving (in a horizontally circular gesture) a tray of the small lighted lamps.  This is considered the highest form of expression of joyous honour.  There is a charming folkdance in which these trays are manipulated in intricate positions of precarious balance.

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Aryan: an examination of the use of the term

Through its association with the "skillful" people or possibly, their own ethnocentric view, the word arya came to have the connotation of "noble," "excellent" or "supreme."  It was used by Buddha Shakyamuni in his discourses in that wider sense which had the effect of undoing the caste system, since he applied the term to anyone with noble aspirations, ie. one aspiring to enlightenment for the ultimate welfare of all beings.

ignisThe language of the ancient Romans is, like English, an Indo-European language whose root-words are still clear in Sanskrit, the classical language of Hinduism and so, from the 6th century on, of early Buddhist scripture, too.

rishi:  Hindu tradition says there were 7 divine lineage-holders, men of great wisdom or "sages," who transmitted proper knowledge and ritual to the early settlers of India. 

5 elements:  Earth, air, fire, water, and "aether" or space.

5 senses:  sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

swayamvara:  Choosing for oneself (instead agreeing to an arranged marriage.)

Shiva cursed Daksha in return:  He was condemned to waste his resources in material and ceremonial pleasures and furthermore, would ever after have the countenance of a goat.   This he indeed acquired, since the compassion of Shiva replaced his original head which was burnt in the tempest of fire with that of a goat!

arrows:  The others are the 4 remaining elements:  space/ether=sound, air=touch, water=taste, and earth=smell.

Dasaswamedh:  This is still the name of the principal ghat or landing place on the banks of the River Ganges in the city of Varanasi (formerly, Benares) where these extravagant animal sacrifices once occurred.

 

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Updated 2012-02-09

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