22 Jan Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire
This month I’ve been writing about ritual. Rituals can be quite mundane or magnificently ceremonious. Because I frequently encounter people who associate ritual with religion and have an ambivalence or even an aversion toward religion, I generally present ritual as something that’s yours to create however you like it. That said, I feel there is a certain potency to rituals that have been crafted and practiced with great intention over centuries, and today I’m going to tell you about one of my favorites, an age-old ritual called homa.
Homa – fire ritual – originated in Hinduism and Buddhism. Essentially, homa consists of building a special fire, often in a decorated fire pit or brazier with a significant geometric shape; invoking Spirit (usually in the form of one or more deities); and then feeding the fire with offerings while reciting mantras or prayers. The offerings are generally symbolic, and may consist of the mantras or prayers themselves or physical substances such as incense, ghee, honey, or sandalwood.
Central to the ritual is, of course, fire – agni. Once upon a time, when fire was considered more of a miracle, Agni was a major Hindu god. In India, ascetics (those who have renounced material possessions and ties to community in the pursuit of spiritual connection) called naga sadhus keep only one thing: a fire. Every naga maintains his own fire (dhuni), and no one can sit at the fire but that naga. In the words of Aghori Vimalananda (in Robert Svoboda’s Aghora series), “You enter into such an intense relationship with the fire that only you two can share the experience. Do you invite a third party into your bedroom to watch you and your spouse make love?” You don’t have to answer that.
The special relationship that nagas have with their fires makes me think about how, before electric lights, everyone spent a lot of time with fire. Fire was the sole source of light when the sun went down. Fire formed a chain of continuity between people. Millions of folks, over thousands of years, stared into flames every night. Fire has been many a human’s companion, warming us, warding off the darkness, and keeping us company. Vimalananda continues, “I have always treated the fire as my beloved friend. When I sit and worship the fire, I play with it. And because I don’t fear it, it doesn’t burn me.”
In Tantric philosophy, a downward triangle symbolizes the female and signifies a connection to the earth and dualism. And an upward triangle symbolizes the male and signifies a connection with the ethereal and unity. Because fire has the shape of an upward triangle, it’s considered to carry energy and intention to the spiritual realm. Thus, prayers and mantras offered to a fire are thought to more effectively reach their destination.
As for the connection between upward triangles and unity, fire is considered to be a great unifier because regardless of the many different things that can be fed into it, it is all rendered into one as ash. Vimalananda explains that the two physical eyes and the conceptual “third eye” also form an upward triangle, of which he says, “The lower two eyes see only duality [the many different things and polarized minds of the world], and the upper [spiritual] eye sees nothing but unity [the Oneness that we all share].”
Fire is also symbolic of transformation in Tantra and Ayurveda. Digestive energy, for instance, is referred to as jathara agni (digestive fire) and it is understood as the power to transform food into energy and substances that are usable by the body. Likewise, spiritual drive – the urge to awaken to reality – and the power to digest ideas are said to be governed by fire as well, in a form called bhuta agni (devotional fire). Part of the function of homa is that it’s considered to transform and purify the practitioner, and to help burn away our karmic debts.
Fire also has an important position in Chinese Five Element theory, in which is signifies warmth, expansion, illumination, awareness, expression, and communion. It is associated with the summer season, when the great ball of fire we call Sun comes nearest to Earth. Within the human body, the fire element is most closely associated with the heart, which is seen as the center of consciousness, joy, and love. In the practice of acupuncture, we literally burn small fires on the body in a technique called moxibustion (don’t worry, the fire is removed before it hurts the skin) for the purpose of stimulating acupuncture points. When I use fire, rather than a needle, to stimulate a point, my intention is to awaken through fire’s luminance, and to warm and nourish the underlying tissues and whatever aspect of the body and mind the acupuncture point corresponds with. Fire can also be used to clear out or transform stagnation, toxicity, and cold.
For all these reasons, and the fact that I think it’s simply enjoyable to behold, fire is one of the basic elements I find myself recommending as an addition to pretty much any ritual. If someone asks me, “How can I make a ritual around writing?” The first thing that comes to mind is, “Light a candle.” If someone asks me how to make meals a more special ritual, the first thing I think is, “Light a fire.”
The most special fire to me is the one that was the centerpiece of my and Briana’s wedding ceremony. That fire’s unifying role felt more than symbolic. As we spoke each of our vows, we threw a offering into the fire to signify each of the different things we wanted to invite into the relationship. And every fire since then feels like a rekindling of that bond.
One of my teachers taught that in order to get the most out of a communion with fire, it’s best to use either a large fire or many candles. Whether you subscribe to this idea or not, it’s a special thing to have a dozen candles lit around you. Give it a try. This week, I invite you to play with matches and see what transpires.
Dr. Peter Borten