The History of Fire Ritual in Asia

February 2, 2011 Comments Off

The History of Fire Ritual in Asia

The History of Fire Ritual in Asia
© Maarten Elout 2006

The Heavens and the Earth travailed,
There travailed also the purple sea,
The travail held
The red reed stalk in the sea.
Through the hollow of the reed stalk a smoke rose,
Through the hollow of the reed stalk a flame rose
And out of the flame ran forth a youth.
He had hair of fire,
He had a beard of flame,
And his eyes were suns.

This is the song of the birth of Vahagn, the fire God from Armenian
mythology. Born out of a reed stalk after having traveled both earth and
sea, the song refers to a practice that predates even the time when man
made his first fire. A technology that survives to this date among but a
few indigenous tribes in the jungles of Asia and South America, this
ancient song captures in words the practice of maintenance and
transportation of perpetual fire. Originally caught from a wildfire
sparked by lightening perhaps, a designated member of the tribe carries
carefully wrapped glowing embers from the village’s hearth fire as these
nomads travel to new lands. This handling of perpetual fire has ever
since been ritualized, as has the later uses of fire as a domestic
source and means of communicating with the Gods.

When Aryan nomads migrated into the valley of the Ganges and introduced their fire
cult in the 2nd millennium BC – one that seems to have been common
amongst all Indo-European peoples – it was received into an existing
indigenous cult of which unfortunately no records survive. It is
therefor difficult to assess how the two interacted and eventually
merged to become the Vedic ritual tradition some 500 years later. The
fact that the Aryan migration predates by far even the compilation of
the earliest Vedas gives ample weight to the belief that the
pre-historic fire cults have their roots in and developed from an earth
based shamanic practice. An argument sustained by surviving present day
shamanic practices in Central Asia and ceremonies within Tibetan and
Japanese Tantric Buddhism wherein fire ritual, mountain worship,
communion with deities and unseen forces and asceticism still walk hand
in hand.

Once the Aryan nomads had settled in the Indian region the culture, its religious pantheon and the rituals developed into a
more complex and elaborate structure, giving birth to the Vedic
Tradition. An altar made out of brick, set within a religious space or
temple, replaced the portable altar and village fireplace at the center
of their once movable dwellings. As part of the development of the Vedic
rites, the shape of the altars used for the fire rituals became more
complex and the ceremonies highly stylized. The refinement of its
religious expression eventually resulted in a separation of the rituals
of a domestic nature (grhya rites) that are performed by the householder
himself, from the more elaborate priestly ceremonies (srauta rites)
that are only performed by professional priests. This ensured the
Brahmins already firm grip on society and added to the ever-growing
complexity of the Vedic rites and body of sacred texts, and its
expanding influence in the region.

The priestly srauta rites make use of three different kind of fires: a householder’s fire at the West
of the ritual space (round hearth), a fire that is home to the ancestors
and evil spirits in the South (semi-circular hearth), and a fire
dedicated to the Gods in the East (square hearth). Some suggest that
these three shapes correspond with the earth, the atmosphere between
earth and the overarching heavens, and the four-directioned sky. One of
the most basic srauta rites that belongs to the sacrificial offering
practices is the Agni Hotra fire ritual. In it an offering of ghee
(clarified butter) and rice is made to a small fire of dried cow dung,
accompanied by specific chants and prayers.

Agni, the God of fire
The God of fire Agni, Indra’s twin, is found at the base of the Vedic sacrificial
rituals serving a twofold function in the rites, being both the purifier
and conveyer of the oblations made to the Gods. Agni is related to
other Indo-European fire Gods as: Atar (Avesan) and the before mentioned
Vahagn (Armenian), who are both masculine. Agni also relates to the
feminine deities of the hearth fire in ancient Greece and Rome . In the
Vedic tradition Agni is associated with three kinds of fire: the
domestic & ritual fires, which are under human control, the solar
fire, and lightening and thus sparked wildfires ànd rainstorms. Here the
element of water in the form of rainstorms is also attributed to the
God of fire.

In a second Armenian tradition of a more shamanic nature predating the rise of the Vedas there is another reference of the
alchemic relationship between the fire and water. Here fire, the
feminine aspect, when being extinguished in ritual is thought of as the
sister of water, the masculine aspect, being welcomed into the arms of
her brother. In the fire rituals of Tantric Buddhism water is used as an
offering to the deity and a purifier of the mouth of the deity, hearth
and practitioner. And in the big fire rituals of Japanese Shugendo the
monks and priests are wont to throw buckets of water onto the burning
pile to release the steam that will carry the prayers to the heavens.
In the East Agni is often depicted as a being with a butter smeared face,
wild hair, swift tongues, sharpened jaws and golden teeth, riding on a
chariot pulled by red horses leaving a blackened trail behind them. In
the Vishnu Purana the essence of Agni is captured in the following story
:

Legend relates that one day Bhrigu cursed Agni. A woman named Puloma was betrothed to a demon, and
Bhrigu seeing she was beautiful fell in love with her and, after
marrying her according to Vedic rites, secretly abducted her. But thanks
to Agni’s information the demon discovered the place where the young
woman promised to him was hidden, and brought her back to his dwelling.
Furious with Agni for helping the demon, Bhrigu cursed him saying:
“Henceforth thou shalt eat of all things.” Agni demanded of Bhrigu the
reason for his curse since he had only told the demon the truth. He
pointed out that if a man is questioned and tells a lie he is cast to
hell, along with seven generations of his ancestors and seven
generations of his children. Moreover, the man who fails to give
information is equally guilty. And Agni went on to say: “I too can hurl
curses but I respect the Brahmans and I control my anger.
In truth I am the mouth of the gods and of
the ancestors. When clarified butter is offered them, they receive it
thanks to me, in their mouth,
so how can you tell me to eat all things?” Hearing these words,
Bhrigu agreed to change his curse and said: “As the sun purifies all
Nature with his light and heat, so Agni shall purify everything which
enters his flames.”
(my emphasis)

With the spreading of Hinduism throughout most of South East Asia and Indonesia (±1500 BC
>), the Vedic fire ritual merged with many different indigenous
religious practices, forming a unique attribute to South East Asia’s
religious diversity. At present fire rituals with Vedic roots can be
found in Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Bali, of
which some include firewalking.

On the wings of Buddhism
With the development of Buddhism from the 5th century BC onwards the ritual use of fire, is dispensed
throughout Central Asia essentially as part of the expansion of the
Mahayana tradition in this region. Known as the Great Vehicle, the
influence of esoteric Mahayana Buddhism stretches primarily from India
all the way through Central Asia into Japan, whereas exoteric Hinayana
Buddhism, known as the Small Vehicle, evolves more generally into South
East Asia. The first waves of the Buddha’s teachings reach beyond the
Indian region into China in the 1st century BC, South East Asia from the
2nd century AD, Korea & Japan in the 6th century and Tibet in the
8th century AD.
The earliest indication of the use of fire in ritual within the Buddhist tradition is from an early third century AD Chinese
translation of a sutra . This is during the period known for the
development of ‘mixed’ Buddhist Tantra in India, which spans from the
2nd century until the 6th century AD.

One of the main characteristics of Tantric Buddhist ritual is the importance placed on
the inner practice, which emphasizes the unity of the deity and the
practitioner and the complete alignment of the three mysteries of body
(ritual action, asana , mudras etc), speech (dharanis , mantras ,
invocations etc) and mind (visualizations, mandalas ). During the fire
ritual the practitioner visualizes the mouth of the deity, the mouth of
the altar hearth and his own mouth as one, the ceremony being the
vehicle for the inner realization of unification with the deity to take
place.

It is within the Tantric Buddhist tradition that fire ritual further evolves in Central Asia. In the 8th century it is
introduced into Tibet when Padmasambhava travels the Silk Road through
what is now Afghanistan into the high Tibetan plateau. He founds the
Nyingma School of Vajrayana Buddhism, incorporating some of the existing
nature based Bon religion and so ultimately replacing it as the
official state religion. In the early 9th century KoBo Daishi Kukai
founds the Shingon School in Japan, successfully incorporating native
Shinto religion and the Shugendo tradition of mountain worship and
asceticism. The practice of firewalking that can be found in both
Buddhist schools is part of the big seasonal fire rituals and is thought
to stem from the more shamanic and indigenous elements. Both the
Tibetan and Japanese schools practice the same four kinds of fire
rituals and are the sole Buddhist ambassadors of the ancient fire
practices of Aryan origin in Central Asia up to this day. Unfortunately
no other Tantric Buddhist tradition survives on the mainland due to the
many political upheavals of which the recent communist revolution was
probably the most devastating to the region’s cultural and religious
depth and diversity.

Since the dawn of time the peoples of Central Asia have used fire in their rituals. From its shamanic origins
to Vedic tradition and Buddhist Tantra, fire has been used to offer, to
make sacrifice, to please the Gods, to invoke unseen forces and to
identify and unite with beneficial deities. Some of the ancient
traditions and their rituals are still alive today: from big fire
rituals in Sri Lanka, purification rituals in India to Tantric
ceremonies that include the ancient practice of firewalking in Tibet and
Japan. Throughout time and into the present fire continues to be a
vessel for humanity to connect to and align with a higher source. Or as
Agni stated:

“In truth I am the mouth of the gods…”

Tonight I will burn a fire
inside and out
and I will burn the past
celebrate the now
be open to tomorrowsTonight I will speak
in whispers and aloud
call on the Gods
that govern time
and let them know I’m readyTonight I will sing
of the sunrise and the sunset
of the tides and winds
inside and out
in yearning of the raptureTonight I’m aligning myself
with purpose and compassion
with love and patience
for peace and wholeness
for service and abundanceTonight I will pray
for the absolute and holy union
of my body, my soul, my mind
So that I may know you better
Spirit, and be happyI am grateful  Written by Maarten Elout

Sources:
The Tantric Ritual of Japan – Richard Karl Payne, Aditya Prakshan, 1991
Armenian Mythology – Mardiros H. Ananikian, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964
Agni, The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar – Frits Staal, Asian Humanities
Press, 1983
The Hindu Religious Tradition – T. Hopkins, Dickenson Publishing Company, 1971
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn Publishing groups, 1995
The Buddhist Conquest of China – E. Zurcher, E.J. Brill, 1972
The Catalpa Bow – Carmen Blacker, George Allen & Unwin, 1975
A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendo – H. Byron Earhart, Sophia University, 1970
Shamanism – Mircea Eliade, Princeton University Press, 1964

——————————–

Sources:
The Tantric Ritual of Japan – Richard Karl Payne, Aditya Prakshan, 1991
Armenian Mythology – Mardiros H. Ananikian, Cooper Square Publishers, 1964
Agni, The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar – Frits Staal, Asian Humanities
Press, 1983
The Hindu Religious Tradition – T. Hopkins, Dickenson Publishing Company, 1971
New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Hamlyn Publishing groups, 1995
The Buddhist Conquest of China – E. Zurcher, E.J. Brill, 1972
The Catalpa Bow – Carmen Blacker, George Allen & Unwin, 1975
A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendo – H. Byron Earhart, Sophia University, 1970
Shamanism – Mircea Eliade, Princeton University Press, 1964

——————————–


 

Text Source
Image Maarten Elout
Tags fire, vedic, purification
Path/Religion Spirit Lodge Academy

 

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