Because bodies are cremated in India, the final verse of the Isha Upanishad addressed to Agni (Fire) is recited when the crematory fire is lighted. But the upanishadic rishis had a far more profound intention when they intoned:
“O god Agni, lead us to felicity. Thou knowest all our deeds. Preserve us from the deceitful attraction of sin. To thee we offer our salutations, again and yet again!” (Isha Upanishad 18).
The most prevalently venerated natural force throughout the history of humanity is the sun. The next is fire, which was considered a divine gift. Fire is a mystery. Throughout my schooling, from grade school to university, I asked many teachers: WHAT is fire? Nobody gave me any answer, much less an accurate-seeming one.
A friend of mine once pointed out an interesting fact about fire. When people–especially young boys or girls–sit around an open fire, the subject of the supernatural in some form or other usually comes up. Ghost stories around the campfire are a staple of campers. How is this? My friend said that it was because fire stimulates awareness of the unseen levels of existence. Certainly this was the opinion in India where fire was considered a channel of communication between this world and the subtle worlds. Long before Christians were lighting candles in church to convey their prayers to Christ and the saints, in India people were reciting prayers in the presence of fire and making offerings into the fire, confident that the prayers and offerings would be transferred by the fire to their intended recipients. Consider in our own time how much attention and meaning is attached to the Olympic Flame–really only a shadow of the original Greek fire.
Everything has multiple layers to its existence, one of which is ideational. That is, everything that exists is a thought in the divine mind. Consequently everything is both meaningful and symbolic. To the yogis of India fire became a most significant symbol, the symbol of the will of the yogi and the transforming power of yoga itself. So much so, that yoga practice came to be called tapasya–the generation of heat. In the twentieth century, Sri Aurobindo Ghosh wrote extensively on this subject, especially in relation to the yogic symbolism of the Vedic hymns.
Fire and meditation
In Vedic religion the fire rite, the Agnihotra or Havan, is the supreme ritual act. It is emblematic of the soul’s progression to divinity, and its elements and actions can be studied to reveal many secrets of esoteric life and unfoldment. The sacred fire is kindled by the friction of two wooden sticks called aranis or drills. This is an important symbol, for it is considered that the fire is latent in the wood until the friction causes it to manifest. In the same way, enlightenment is latent in the yogi, awaiting the right conditions to be provided for its manifestation. Meditation is the friction that produces the fire of God-perception. With this in mind we can unravel the intentions of the rishis when they prayed: “O god Agni, lead us to felicity. Thou knowest all our deeds. Preserve us from the deceitful attraction of sin. To thee we offer our salutations, again and yet again!”
Lead us to felicity
Spiritual practice and the will to practice must go together. Knowing what to do, but having no interest to do it will get us nowhere. At the same time, wanting to succeed and not knowing how is equally useless. But put the two together for the necessary time, and all benefit will be ours. Agni represents the radiance of our Self and of God as well as that which is produced by sadhana practice. These three fires will light our way to blessedness. But their combined effect will not just show us the way, it will lead us along the way, illumining our heart and minds with the requisite wisdom for spiritual attainment. It will also draw us along the path, but only in the degree that we are actively walking the path. This is indicated in the Song of Solomon when he prays: “Draw me, we will run after thee” (Song of Solomon 1:4). Both God and man must actively seek each other. It is said in India: “When someone chooses God you can know that God has chosen them.” The liberating power we call Agni is the result of these two forces meeting and combining with one another.
Thou knowest all our deeds
After one of his classes on the Narada Bhakti Sutras, Swami Prabhavananda was asked how a person could avoid spiritual pride. His answer was remarkable: You cannot develop spiritual pride if your spiritual practice is correct, for you see yourself correctly and can neither fall into pride nor despair. This is certainly true. The light of tapasya reveals all about ourselves we need to know. Self-knowledge, even if fragmentary or dim at the beginning, is an immediate fruit of right meditation, and will in time develop into the full light of spiritual “day.” The Eastern Orthodox hymn to Saint Nicholas begins: “The truth of things revealed thee….” This is profoundly true. When we begin approaching the Real, the Truth becomes revealed, both the Truth of God and the truth of us.
Preserve us from the deceitful attraction of sin
Understanding the nature and consequences of our deeds, we will learn how to truly live as Krishna outlined in the Bhagavad Gita, especially the second chapter. At the closing of the third chapter, Arjuna asks: “Krishna, what is it that makes a man do evil, even against his own will; under compulsion, as it were?” To which Krishna replies:
“The rajoguna has two faces, rage and lust [kama: desire]: the ravenous, the deadly: recognize these: they are your enemies. Smoke hides fire, dust hides a mirror, the womb hides the embryo: by lust the Atman is hidden. Lust hides the Atman in its hungry flames, the wise man’s faithful foe. Intellect, senses and mind are fuel to its fire: thus it deludes the dweller in the body, bewildering his judgment. Therefore, Arjuna, you must first control your senses, then kill this evil thing which obstructs discriminative knowledge and realization of the Atman. The senses are said to be higher than the sense-objects. The mind is higher than the senses. The intelligent will is higher than the mind. What is higher than the intelligent will? The Atman Itself. You must know Him who is above the intelligent will. Get control of the mind through spiritual discrimination. Then destroy your elusive enemy, who wears the form of lust.”
Meditation and other forms of sadhana are that which protects us from the attraction of folly and ignorance. Wherefore Krishna asks: “The uncontrolled mind does not guess that the Atman is present: how can it meditate? Without meditation, where is peace? Without peace, where is happiness?” (Bhagavad Gita 2:66).
To thee we offer our salutations, again and yet again!
There are those who think that sadhana is medicine, a “have to” that they can sigh and grouch about and grudgingly engage in. They are wrong. Their very attitude will destroy any benefits the sadhana might bestow. They should forget about spiritual practice until they get enough good sense to rejoice in it and value it above all else. That does not mean it will not be difficult and even a struggle, sometimes painful, but it is their delusion that galls the wise, not the remedy for it. Meditation should be a kind of “deity” for us by the grace of which we can worship the Divine and our own divine Self.
By meditation we can make our entire life embody the resolve: “To thee we offer our salutations, again and yet again!”
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Mover of the Moved
Sections in the Upanishads for Awakening:
- The Isha Upanishad
- The Kena Upanishad
- The Katha Upanishad
- The Past is the Future
- Seeing Death, Seeing Life
- The Good and the Pleasant
- The Way of Ignorance
- The Mystery of the Self
- How to Either Know or Not Know the Self
- From the Unreal to the Real
- Finding the Treasure
- The Transcendent Reality of the Self
- The Immortal Self
- The Indwelling Self
- The Omnipresent Self
- The Sorrowless Self
- Who Can Know the Self?
- The All-Consuming Self
- The Divine Indwellers
- The Chariot
- The Chariot’s Journey
- The Glorious Way
- To Know The Self
- The Power of Enlightenment
- The Infinite Self
- The Dweller in the Heart
- The Birthless Self
- The Shining Self
- The Life-Giving Self
- The Eternal Brahman–The Eternal Self
- The Radiant Self
- The Universal Tree
- Hierarchy of Consciousness
- From Mortality to Immortality
- The Prashna Upanishad
- The Mundaka Upanishad
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Taittiriya Upanishad
- The Aitareya Upanishad
- The Chandogya Upanishad
- The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
- The Shvetashvatara Upanishad
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