Significance of Fire in rituals

Ma Prem Naina
A land of great diversity and home to many religions and innumerable languages, India is a land of festivals as well. From celebrating new harvest and full moons to birthdays of enlightened beings, Indians love celebrating. None of the festivals and celebrations are complete without rituals and offering prayers to the Gods.
Osho says rituals have an important place in human life and if they are taken playfully, they add juice to life and become occasions for celebration. If taken too seriously they become pathological, an aberration.
For example, fire plays an important part in Hindu practices. Fire is used in several rituals and is a symbol and a connection to the gods. It is both the creator and destroyer of life and the Hindus recognize this fact through several of their rituals and practices. In Hinduism, fire is one of five sacred elements of which all living creatures are comprised and is considered an eternal witness essential to sacred religious ceremonies.
Osho says, fire is the very substance of life, life exists through fire. It may be in the form of sun energy, it may be in the form of love energy but life exists through fire. When you eat food you are simply eating condensed fire. The trees and the fruits you eat go on absorbing the sun. It is fire made ready for you to absorb. Life cannot exist without fire because basically life is fire. But fire can have two forms: it can become destructive, it can become creative. The fire can burn your home and can warm it too. So one has to be very alert, conscious, aware about using fire in the right direction, in the right way; one has to be very mindful.
Known an ‘Agni’ in Sanskrit, 200 hymns in the Rig Veda are addressed and eight of its ten books begin with praises dedicated to Agni, the Fire God.
Osho brings out the significance of fire in rituals when he speaks about Yajna (Sacrificial Ritual)and more so about Jnan-yajna (Sacrificial Ritual of Knowledge).
“Fire is such a common and ordinary thing in our day-to-day life – we have captured it in a tiny matchstick – that we cannot comprehend its pristine glory; but it was not so ordinary in the distant past. We are indebted to fire for most of the growth and progress our civilization and culture have achieved down the ages. Human civilization today is essentially the product of fire. None of the great inventions of history would have been possible without this igniting spark called fire. Fire is foundational to everything in our life.
Evidently when it was first discovered, we celebrated the occasion by dancing around it in utter ecstasy. This celebration, now turned into a ritual, was so natural and spontaneous — as if it had exploded on us from nowhere. There was no other way to ex press our gratefulness to existence except by dancing and celebrating. And we said fire was God, because it occupied such a central place in man’s life.
Every religion in ancient times grew around fire or the sun. The night was frightening it was full of darkness and danger and man was terribly afraid of wild animals and snakes and reptiles. And the day was comforting, full of light and warmth. One could look around and take care of himself against any danger. So darkness looked inimical and the sun seemed friendly. With darkness there was danger and death. With light there was hope; fear disappeared and everything was relatively safe. So human beings worshipped the sun as God. When fire was discovered, it heralded man’s victory over darkness, and so he began to love fire more than anything – including the sun. Naturally many beautiful things like song and dance, love and festivity grew around fire.” (Krishna: The Man and His Philosophy)
Yajna was our ancestors’ way of celebrating the discovery of fire; who danced around it with abandon and offered to it every good thing they had. They had wheat, cows, wines and and they made an offering of them to the fire. Everything was impromptu and spontaneous. It was an outpouring of a simple, innocent and unsophisticated heart-mind.
By the time of Krishna and the Geeta, civilization had already made great strides and fire had became a household thing, the extraordinary had become ordinary. Now it seemed meaningless to dance around fire and make sacrificial offerings to it. Krishna grafted a new word onto the old stem of yajna and called it jnan-yajna or the ritual of knowledge.
“The society in which Krishna was born was a highly developed and sophisticated society. Now dancing around fire looked so primitive and backward. So Krishna thought of igniting the fire of knowledge, which is the last luxury of a society that comes to the pinnacle of material prosperity. But he used an old word, because a word to be a word has to be old. Krishna said, “If we want to dance we will dance around the fire of knowledge. If we have to offer something to the sacrificial fire we will offer ourselves in place of grains and wines and cows.”
Jnan-yajna or sacrificial ritual of knowledge stands for a special spiritual path, and every traveler on this path burns his ego, his “I-ness” in the fire of the knowledge of reality. Ordinary fire burns everything that is gross, but it cannot burn subtler elements like thoughts of arrogance, pride and ego. Only the fire of knowing can destroy it.
It is interesting to know that down the centuries the symbol of fire remains alive and it is not without reason.
The most important reason was that in the life of the primitive man there was nothing like fire which by its nature moved upward. Water moves downward: pour it anywhere and it will find a downward path to flow. But no matter what you do, the flame will always rise upward. Even if you turn a burning torch upside down, its flames will keep going up. So fire became the symbol of ascension – upward journey; its flame reflects man’s highest aspiration to reach the unknown.
Fire was the first thing in the knowledge of man that rebelled against the law of gravitation. The earth seems to have no power over fire. So those who danced around fire and rejoiced over its blessings also nursed a hope and prayer that a day might come in their life when they would go on the upward journey to the highest, the ultimate in existence.
Like water, human mind as we know it is inclined to move downward. Therefore the seers who first exalted the fire and danced around it in joyous homage declared their aspiration to become like fire and ascend to the heavens. Their prayer said, “We want to turn our spirit into a flame so that even if it is put in an abyss it will continue to move upward and reach the zenith.” So the ritual of the sacrificial fire was symbolic and significant.
There is another attribute of fire which is still deeper and more meaningful; it is that first it burns its fuel and then burns itself. As soon as the fuel turns into ashes the fire is extinguished. This aspect of fire is deeply representative of knowledge, which first burns the dross of ignorance and then burns itself. It means to say that after one’s ignorance is dispelled, the ego, the knower himself disappears. One who attains to true knowledge, what is called wisdom, disappears as an ego, and so there is no way for him to wander in darkness. True knowledge first destroys ignorance and then it destroys the knower too, who ceases to be an ego, an entity. It is like fire, that after burning the fuel extinguishes itself. For all these reasons fire became a very useful and powerful symbol of knowledge. Worship of knowledge is like worship of fire.” (Krishna: The Man and His Philosophy)
If one can rightly understand the significance of fire as a symbol, he will know that worship of knowledge is eternal.