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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 2

Before discussing why Agni (fire) is so important in Hindu ceremonies, let me quote a few passages from a book on the Vedas by the late Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi. He defines Yagna as “offering libations to each deva through mantras”. Then he says “mantra means that by repeatedly meditating upon which, one is saved”. “The chanting of mantra in a yagna is like writing the address on a postal envelope, he says. Only if the oblations are made with the chanting would Agni carry the message to the devas”. He then comments that "the sacrificial fire converts the oblation to a subtle state before carrying it to the devas". More about these points later.

Why is Agni(fire god)so important? Fire is equated with the mouth of the Gods in several texts (eg: Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad). It is through the mouths and “tongues” of Agni that we can send our offerings to the rishis, Gods and ancestors. All of us know how the flames of fire are described as tongues in many languages. In Mundaka Upanishad there is a passage that recommends offering oblations to the Devas through the seven tongues of Agni (fire). There are even names for these seven tongues: kali, karaali, manojava, sulohita, sudhoomravarna, sphulingini and visvaruchi. The literal meanings of these names are: black, terrible, speedy as mind, very red, colored like thick smoke, emitting sparks and innumerable rays!

Also, in the Samkhya system of philosophy, the order of manifestation of the cosmos is space, air, fire, water and earth. Fire is the first visible element. This may be another reason why fire plays such a great part in our rituals. When you take a vow in front of Agni it is a covenant with the Gods.

When performing yagna, the offering to the fire is called aahuti (oblation) and is of three kinds. Those that flare when poured into fire (Yahuutha ujjvalanthi) such as ghee and wood are meant to please the deities. Those that make noise when poured into fire (Yaahuutha athinedhanthe) such as meat and wood sticks (called samith) are meant to please the manes. Those that go down when poured into fire (Yaahutha adhisheerathe) such as rice and milk and soma juice please the world of men.

Please note that items that make noise when poured into fire include meat. It appears that when this practice was given up(I wonder whether it was after Buddha's time), the priests started using special dry sticks called samith that make noise when deposited in fire. This is still practiced during homa ceremonies.

During the offerings, the performer utters several mantras. A mantra by definition is that which protects by being remembered (mananaat thraayate iti, mantrah). Each mantra is attributed to a particular rishi, is made in a specific poetic meter and has a specific deity in charge of it or associated with it. For example, Gayathri mantra is attributed to rishi Vishvamitra, is made in the meter Gayathri and its presiding deity is Savitha. Therefore, before starting the mantra, the performer mentions the name of the rishi and touches his head, then utters the name of the meter and touches the nose and utters the name of the deity and touches the heart. Now, you may see people doing this ritual daily and you now know why.

The performer of the yagna is supposed to say the mantra silently for meditation, and loudly while pouring the offerings. While performing yagnas and homas, the performer is asked to utter a mantra, use a moment of silence and then offer the oblation into the fire using words such as svaaha or thannamama.

Chandogya Upanishad and Aitreya Brahmana (25.8) say: “That which is sacrifice is a successive movement of speech and mind, activated by prana and apana”. In the Chandogya Upanishad, there are passages to suggest that there are two paths to performing sacrifices – the path of speech uttering a Mantra ending with the word svaaha and thannamama and the path of the mind (silence).

In a subsequent passage Chandogya Upanishad says: “atha yathra brahma na vyavadathi”. That is, the priest breaks the silence in the interval. This suggests that the performer is to meditate, break the silence to utter the mantra and offer the oblation. The next cycle of meditation, mantra and oblation starts again. We will come back to this silence aspect in a subsequent paragraph.

What do the words svaaha and thannamama mean at the end of each mantra. Svaha means one’s own. Svaaha means “this does not belong to me”. Mama means mine. Thannamama means “not mine”. In other words, the performer has to offer oblations saying “All of this belongs to you; not to me”. The feeling behind these words (bhava) is more important than the words uttered for the world to hear. Substance is more important than the ritual.

Thaithriya Kaathaka Prashna I - Final Anuvaaka 4th mantra states: “One who merely performs yagna without feeling the presence of God is merely feeding the fire with firewood and raises only smoke. He is a fool. He will never realize the Self”. There is also a sloka which lists six wrong methods of saying the mantras. That includes “anarthagna”, which means saying the mantra without understanding the meaning.

How does the oblation offered into agni help the devas? Why are we sending offerings to the lesser deities when our purpose is to please the Supreme? Kanchi Periyaval has an interesting answer in his book on the Vedas. It is as follows: ” …. For each ritual there is a separate mantra, Devata, sacrificial object, time etc. Thus, although there is a different procedure for performing each, the ultimate goal is to please the Supreme Being. We know that although paid in different offices, all taxes are credited to the government’s revenue.”Similarly……

Let me digress to another area which requires intervals between silence and mantra. This is the practice of japa with the aid of beads strung around a thread (rosary). This is a common practice in all traditions. The idea is to focus on a mantra or the name of your chosen deity and repeat that name while touching the beads in succession. This is to prevent the mind from wandering all over and help focus. Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan master explains the idea in his book on Meditation as follows. He suggests that we say the mantra while touching the beads one at a time, calm down, enter a moment of silence and then touch the next bead. The goal should be to prolong the period of silence in between the beads so that the moments of silence become predominant. Once you can do that, you do not need the rosary beads. The focus of japa should be the practice of silence in between the beads and not chanting of the mantra or pushing the beads!

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