Fire Ritual: Awaken the Subtle Forces of Life
Forty feet below us at the base of a steep embankment, the Ganges flows quietly—invisible in the near-darkness of early morning. On the plateau above we are enveloped in thick fog that gives us the sense of being alone. A large group of us, travelers to the Kumbha Mela in Allahabad, have assembled around a havan kunda, a carefully constructed hollow pit (kunda) used for performing a ritual fire ceremony (havan). As we wait, blankets and cushions are being arranged so that those closest to the kunda can sit down. To stay warm, most of us have dressed in several layers of clothing—layers that further insulate us and draw us inward.
The site of this gathering is a grove of trees on the north side of the Ganges. Planted years ago by adepts who did their meditation practices here, the trees are now fully grown. Under their branches the space is tranquil, and bare earth serves as a firm floor beneath our feet. The havan kunda, a square pit about three and a half feet long on each side and equally deep, has been dug at the center of the grove. Surrounding it, and leading up to the edge of the kunda, are three small steps constructed from the same bricks that line the pit itself. A thatched canopy has been erected overhead for shelter—it protects the kunda from condensation that drops from the trees like a soft rain. Nearby, piles of kindling and larger logs stand ready.
Soon a fire will awaken here and offerings will be placed into it. The ceremony initiated by these simple acts will introduce many in our group to an unfamiliar aspect of yoga practice: a ritual observance called Rudra Yaga that unites the igniting and tending of a fire and the recitation of specific mantras. To prepare for it, offerings of black sesame seed, rice, ghee (clarified butter), and fresh herbs have been carefully readied and then placed in packages for each participant to offer into the fire at the proper time. We have been doing our own personal preparations as well, mainly meditation practices of various kinds. Now, as we anticipate the ritual, we wait in thoughtful silence.
Agni and Soma
The body of every substance is food for another, and every substance is made up of what it has "eaten."
Wood fires are straightforward. There is nothing invisible in the relationship between flames and wood—we see the wood burning in front of us, and we see that it is food for the fire. In this sense the fire is the eater of the food. The simplicity of this relationship reveals a truth about life. Wood and flames, fuel and the consumer of fuel, are the archetypes described in the most ancient texts of yoga. The process is universal. Agni, or fire, is anything that supplies heat, that consumes or digests (for example the sun, an oil lamp, the stomach, the womb, human desire). Soma, or food, is the fuel for these fires (for example the sun’s own substance, oil, food and drink, sperm, the object desired). The body of every substance is food for another, and every substance is made up of what it has “eaten.”
The Taittiriya Upanishad exclaims: “I am food. I am food. I am food. I am the eater. I am the eater. I am the eater.” The Mahabharata echoes: “All this universe, conscious and unconscious, is made of fire (agni) and the fire-offering (soma).” In these and many other passages, the scriptures underscore the fact that the fiery process of “devouring” is the nature of the universe: every creature devours and is in turn devoured.
Fire and fuel are constantly mutating in form and function. "Devouring" alone persists.
Fire and fuel, then, are constantly mutating in form and function. “Devouring” alone persists. Inevitably all matter is absorbed by the fire of death, only to reemerge in new cycles of existence. And in this chain all things are said to be woven as if they were knots in an infinite net of being. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad calls the One who dwells within the entire net Rudra—the Fire in the core of each life.
In the Rig Veda, the earliest of the Vedas, the Lord of the Universe is called Rudra and is described as shiva, which means “auspicious.” This word was applied only to Rudra—no other divine force is so described. In time the word replaced the name. Rudra is the ancient equivalent of Shiva, “the Auspicious One.” The two are essentially one.
There are many stories about how Rudra got his name. Among them, one says that as an infant child he wept, and when asked why he was crying, he replied that even though he was the giver of names, he had no name himself. Thus, from the verb root rud (“to weep”) he was called Rudra, “one who weeps.” Another story tells us that as he looked out on the world and saw the suffering of those embodied there, he wept and was named Rudra. According to this story, the Lord of the Universe is endowed with infinite compassion. Yet another story says that he is Rudra because “when the life breath leaves the body, it causes men to lament. The life force is thus called Rudra, because it makes them cry.” Still another interpretation of Rudra’s name is “the remover of pain.” Rut means “pain.” Rudra is thus “he who drives away pain.”
Rudra is embodied in eight natural elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, the sun, the moon, and the life force.
From these stories we can see that Rudra has both a loving and a fearful side. He “howls” in the storms of life. He strikes as lightning, burns, and ultimately destroys. He manifests as anger and as passion. Yet this same Rudra sheds tears on behalf of those who are suffering; he nourishes all beings; and he rules over deep sleep, the remover of pain.
Rudra is embodied in eight natural elements: earth, water, fire, air, space, the sun, the moon, and the life force. Among these, he is especially identified with fire and in this form he pervades the three dimensions of the universe: “earth (bhuh), sky (bhuvah), and heaven (svaha)” (they are named in the prelude to the mantra). Fire itself is the earthly manifestation of Rudra; in the sky, fire flashes as lightning and howls as wind; in the heavens, fire shines as the sun. Each is a manifestation of Rudra.
A picture begins to emerge. Wherever the metabolic processes of life are engaged, wherever consciousness has taken form, wherever food and fire perform their dance, and wherever the cycles of birth and death revolve—there Rudra finds embodiment and shines as the indwelling self. But Rudra also dwells in the deep place in which existence ends and pure being begins. Many embodied souls are frightened of a place that is represented by death, but others turn toward it as the source of light and consciousness. The Shvetashvatara and Katha Upanishads both speak of this place in the same words:
There the sun does not shine, nor the moon, nor the stars. There lightning does not glitter, to say nothing of the earthly fire, for all that shines is but a reflection of the radiance of him whose splendor illumines the universe.
In this way the sages proclaim that the fires we see with our eyes are linked to that deep, inner Fire which lies behind the manifest universe. This is a reality, they say, that is indestructible and utterly One. And it is this Rudra who is to be invoked now in the traditional manner: with a fire along the banks of the River Ganges.
Awakening the Fire
Dry wood is placed into the fire pit as we wait. The logs are arranged so that they overlap and secure one another in place. Camphor to light quickly, smaller twigs for kindling, and ghee for offerings have been placed near the person who will be igniting the fire and reciting the mantras.
The precise order and number of mantras used to light a fire of this kind vary, depending on the purpose and complexity of the ritual. But many of the mantras are familiar to us, and the words of the first “igniting” mantra awaken respectful attention among our group. The mantra is recited:
OM bhur bhuvah svardyauriva bhumna prithiviva varimna tasyaste prithivi devayajani prishthe agnim annadam annadyaya adadhe.
In every realm of existence, O Kunda (fire pit), you are indeed as beautiful as heaven itself; you contain that which dwells within you, like the earth itself. You are the very ground where all action can be performed. Into you I place Fire—that Fire who consumes the oblations that will be offered—so that all who are sustained by food can live happily.
It is the nature of fire not only to accept the food offered into it but also to carry that food, literally and ritually, to all the forces of creation that derive nourishment from it.
This opening mantra reminds us that the place where the fire ceremony is to be performed is sacred, explaining that it is the nature of fire not only to accept the food offered into it but also to carry that food, literally and ritually, to all the forces of creation that derive nourishment from it. Thus, fire is described as the mouth of all creation. As this mantra is recited, a small piece of camphor is lit and placed into the kunda. And as the fire begins to burn, a second mantra is uttered:
OM, udbudhyasvagne prati jagrihi tvamishtapurte samsrijethamayam cha, asmin sadhasthe adhyuttarasmin vishve deva yajamanascha sidata.
O Fire, please wake up, please get up. And in your arising, wake us up as well. You are the one who gives us what we ask for, as well as what comes to us unasked. You are the remover of illness. In this house of fire practice, please be seated. Along with you, may all the benevolent divine forces be seated, too. May those doing this practice also be seated.
The second mantra invites the fire to find its place in the havan kunda. “Graciously awaken in the hearth,” the mantra requests, “and also awaken those seated around it.” This mantra also subtly reminds the practitioners that once the ceremony begins, they must remain seated so the ritual may be completed without interruption. And now, offerings of smaller sticks that have been dipped in ghee are made. A minimum of three, but often more, are placed into the fire, and the following mantra is recited each time the offering is made:
OM, ayam ta idhma atma jatavedastenedhyasva var-dhasva cheddha vardhaya chasman prajaya pashubhir brahmavarchasena annadyena samedhaya svaha. O Fire, the knower of all who take birth, this stick is your food. With it, may you grow and expand, and similarly, may you help us grow and prosper. Ignite our consciousness. May all who are related to us and may all other beings of this universe also grow and be nourished. May our spiritual wisdom mature. May everyone and everything, directly or indirectly, be inspired and awakened. May they grow along with you and along with those who are serving you.
Serving this fire is a means for serving the planet and all the beings of this universe.
The third mantra calls the fire by another name: jatavedas, literally, the one who has knowledge (veda) of every species (jata). As the mantra is recited the fire is kindled with small sticks, and as it grows larger it ignites the logs that were placed in the kunda earlier. This mantra establishes the link between the fire, those making offerings into it, and all other beings of the universe. It implies that this fire, the embodiment of Rudra, is a doorway into the vast web of creation. Serving this fire is a means for serving the planet and all the beings of this universe.
It is said that the success of any ritual fire depends upon four things: the fire, the offerings, the proper recitation of mantras, and the correct hand gestures associated with the ritual. Among these four, the mantras connect the mind to both the invisible and the visible worlds. They invoke the presence of the divine being, carry the activity of the ritual forward, and eulogize the main deities who figure in the ritual.
For one who is fully prepared, and who practices the Rudra Yaga both inwardly and externally, the goal is to become one with the identity of Rudra.
Once the fire is awakened, other mantras follow. They are recited in Sanskrit and have been selected carefully to lead the awareness of a well-versed practitioner inward. They begin with nine verses from the opening of the Rig Veda, praising and describing the nature of agni (fire). Then six mantras (the Shiva-Sankalpa verses) create a strong and healthy relationship between the practitioner and his or her own mind. Each verse ends with this refrain: “May my mind be filled with beautiful and auspicious thoughts.” A selection from the Rig Veda called the “Purusha Sukta” follows. These verses uplift the individual mind and impart a vision of the universal self. And as the ceremony continues, the mind is drawn toward even higher contemplations—mantras leading to the realization of collective consciousness (“Narayana”) and beyond. For one who is fully prepared, and who practices the Rudra Yaga both inwardly and externally, the goal is to become one with the identity of Rudra.
Tending the Fire
But there are other goals for this practice as well. When the first morning’s recitations were completed, most of the group dispersed for a day of activities. But the fire was not extinguished. It was tended each hour by a few who continued to make offerings of grains and herbs (collectively called samagri) while reciting meditation mantras silently. In this way the fire was sustained for over two weeks. Each day, in the early morning, the group convened at the site of the havan kunda to recite the opening verses of the Rig Veda and the verses that followed. During the daylight hours and for much of the night, smaller groups meditated there. And so the Rudra Yaga entered the life of our community. We were connected to it heart and mind, and the area around the fire became charged with a deep sense of tranquility.
As the days passed, the fire revealed its changing personas.
As the days passed, the fire revealed its changing personas. At times it virtually leapt from its bed in the havan kunda, while at other times it slept. During cold and sometimes foggy nights it made a retreat deep into the ashes of the previous day’s activity. Yet it was never extinguished, and in the morning—with careful tending—it burst into life once again.
Eventually we began to recognize that by consciously making offerings of samagri into the fire, our actions were becoming ritualistic in the best sense of the word. We no longer performed them for some purpose of our own, but because they brought us into contact with something beyond ourselves—with the members of a larger cycle of life. The sun, the rains, the earth, the plants, and the vital energies of every living thing—these were the members of this cycle. And the intention of our action, an intention reinforced by the mantras we recited each day, was to nourish the fire so that it would, in turn, nourish the world and all these beings that dwell here as part of this cycle.
It is hard for anyone to know if the Rudra Yaga we performed accomplished this purpose. Nonetheless, in becoming part of the life of the fire, many of us were drawn closer to the belief that such connections are not only possible, but real. And for that reason the end of the ceremony, which took place early one morning near the end of our stay, left us all deeply content. As is the custom, we left the fire without extinguishing it, moving away so it could finish its meal in its own time. And a number of days later, when the ash from the fire had cooled, it was collected to be used in medicinal preparations or applied in other ways. The kunda was cleaned, and the area around it again looked as it did when we first arrived.
The Finer Forces of Life
The purpose of lighting the Rudra Yaga fire is to awaken our awareness of the finer forces of life—forces within us that naturally respond to the presence of earth, water, fire, air, and light.
It is important to remember that the purpose of lighting the Rudra Yaga fire is to awaken our awareness of the finer forces of life—forces within us that naturally respond to the presence of earth, water, fire, air, and light.
Life in India brought us much closer to these elements. The rising and setting sun, the changing shape of the moon, the colors and coverings of the sky, the texture of the soil, and the richness of the vegetation around us seemed more personal and important than they had at home. Sounds that are normally muffled by thick masonry reached us directly through the canvas walls of our sleeping tents. Even our skin seemed to have been transformed into “outdoor” skin that relished its contact with the open air.
In that environment spirituality seemed more elemental as well. The Vedas tell us that the entirety of our environment is a symbol for a higher reality that is divine. That this reality will, under certain circumstances, take the form of fire seems now as real as the flow of the Ganges and the prancing of nearby deer. The acts of sitting before the fire and placing offerings into the kunda brought the ritual into our bones and breath, and gave the mind an unforgettable image for contemplation. It is the sanctity of that image that grows.
About the teacher
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice,... Read more