FIRE CEREMONY at the Haidakhandi Universal Ashram
Fire is used as a symbolic form of worship in religions all around the world. It has many symbolic uses. In religion and science, it is considered a source of energy. The sun is a source of energy without which the Earth could not support life, and it has been and still is worshipped as a manifestation of the Divine Energy. Fire, a familiar form of the sun's fiery energy, is a potent Purifier. Whatever we offer to the fire is changed instantly; the gift to the fire is irrevocable. Fire is symbolic of the flame of purity and devotion within the individual, which transforms individual lives.
Fire worship is probably the oldest form of worship still in use. The ceremony we participate in at the Ashram has developed from the traditions of the Aryans who entered India thousands of years ago. Many historians say the Aryans came into the Indus Valley about 4000 years ago; religious tradition puts their arrival thousands of years earlier. They came from Eastern Europe - perhaps the Ukraine, or Poland - and spread in many directions. The Persians (also Aryans) still celebrate their New Year (the first day of spring) by jumping through a blazing bonfire to burn away their short-comings of the past year and enter the new year without those encumbrances. Until recent years many Europeans celebrated the Christmas and New Year season by burning the Yule log.
In India, the fire ceremony (called a Yagna or havan) developed into a ritual filled with symbolism and meaning. The Aryans were a nomadic people who moved with their flocks. They carried their fire in clay pots; from the ashes of their last fire came the coals from which a new fire was made. When they settled for a time in a new place, they built an altar - either a pyramid of mud bricks built up from a rocky base, or a pyramid down into the earth, as we have at the Ashram. Onto or into the pyramid, they built a fire from the coals they brought with them. This fire was kept lively as long as they stayed in that place. It was the center of their lives and worship - their temple.
Every morning the priests purified the area and prepared for the tribe's fire ceremony. The people gathered around, with heads of household sitting close to the fire and making offerings directly. Wives and children sat behind the head of family, participating in the offerings by putting their right hands on the right shoulder of the person in front of them, so their energy flowed through each act of offering.
These Aryan precursors of the Hindu faith called themselves followers of the Sanatan Dharma. "Sanatan" means eternal; the Dharma is a way of life, in which people live in harmony with the Divine process of Creation, with the Divine Will, and with all other created beings, animate and inanimate.
It is believed in much of India that the creation process begins with the Divine expressing the sound "OM". The vibrations of this sound reverberate throughout the universe and start the sub-atomic bits of Energy bumping into each other. They form atoms and the atoms collect in different forms by many processes until the universe we see (and those parts that we do not see) is formed. So every element of the Creation has the spark of the Divine Energy within it. Therefore, human beings with consciousness and the power of thought, can live in harmony with this process of Creation and with all created elements in the universe.
Like the ancient Aryans, we do the ceremony with clean hands, mouth rinsed, our bodies bathed and covered with clean clothes. The officiating priest or priests open the ceremony with mantras to purify the area. Then, a sprinkling of water cleanses the fire pit, and a symbolic bath of the Shiva lingam (a symbol of Lord Shiva's creative powers) and/or of the form of our guru (in a photograph). As a guest is welcomed in the East, this invocation ceremony offers water and ointments for the bath, perfumed oils, chandan, kumkum and rice. A sacred symbol is put on the Shiva lingam, on the form of the guru and into the fire, which is also honored as a manifestation of The Divine. Flowers and incense are offered to provide beauty and sweet scents.
Next all present make offerings together. Each offering is preceded by a mantra, which invokes the energy of a particular aspect of the Divine. Each mantra ends with the word "Swaha." Swaha has several meanings, one of which is "I offer."
While the mantra is being said, each person offering picks up from his or her plate a bit of the offering. It is taken with the second and third fingers of the right hand, using the thumb to hold the offering on the two fingers while picking it up. Keep the index finger out of this offering process. The index finger is also known as the ego finger (because we use it to point at people, often in an accusing, egoistic manner). Ego and self-interest are not part of this ceremony. When the officiating priest utters the word "Swaha," all repeat "Swaha" in unison and, at the same time, make their offering to the fire in an underhanded, gentle throw into the fire. Aim at getting your entire offering into the fire; if any part of your offering falls short of the fire pit, leave it there; this is the share of the asuric forces. (The birds, mice, ants and chipmunks love it.)
Each offering is made to a specific aspect of the Divine. With each offering, we offer something the Creation has provided for us. We are symbolically offering back to Creation and to the Divine something material that the Creation provides for our well-being. Each offering is an act of sacrifice and of thanksgiving. With each offering we also have an opportunity to offer something of ourselves. We can surrender anger, greed, pettiness - or whatever - to the fire, with the conscious thought that what we offer will be burned away and that our character will be purified. We can offer hopes, dreams, our good qualities to the Divine in the fire with the thought of their being purified and strengthened. In this way, our every act of offering is a symbol of our sacrificial offering of ourselves and our possessions to the harmonious operation of the whole of Creation.
At some point, the officiating priest will state that we are ready for the last five offerings. At this point, whatever is remaining in your plate of offerings should be divided into five roughly equal portions. These last five offerings are made with both hands and for the fifth offering everyone stands. With the fifth offering, a coconut or other nut is offered. This is a symbol of ourselves, our egos, as the last offering.
The last portion of the ceremony is an aarati ceremony. A ghee lamp is lit and each person at the ceremony may offer the Light to the Fire, to the Shiva lingam, and to the guru. The symbolism is the burning away of the darkness of ignorance that we have allowed to come between ourselves and The Divine. Hold the lamp in your right hand and offer it clockwise three or four times and pass it on to the next person. At the end of the aarati, make a pranam (bow) to the fire as a guru - because it has taught you something valuable - and sit for a few minutes in silence.