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The Fire’s Journey: From Here To Eternity

In Bhasa’s play Karnabhara (5th-4th century AD), when Sakra approaches Karna in disguise asking for alms, Karna, the great giver, says that he is ready to give him anything he wants, and offers the fruit of the Agnishtoma Sacrifice.
The writer,  facilitated by Indic Academy, attended a full-fledged, five-day Agnishtoma Yagnya, the first of the great ‘Soma Yagas’ of the Vedic period, carried out with close adherence to the Vedic Shroutha Sutras at Jayasuryapatnam (Nadergul) near Hyderabad, between May 09 and May 13, 2019.

Reflections on the Vedic Agnishtoma Yajna

The Fire comes to you when you undergo the Upanayanam ceremony, when you become a dvija. As a Brahma-Charin, one who has begun the walk on the path of Brahma, you perform the Samidha Dhaanam, offerings of fuel sticks of sacred wood into Agni, offerings which are to be made every day. After marriage, you bring home, along with your dharmapathni, the Aupasanagni, duly kindled, to be maintained every day. You will make offerings of milk, twice a day, a prelude or precursor to the Agnihotra to come later. There is also the Sthalipaka, offerings of cooked rice every fortnight, recommended to be carried out by the married couple. As a married adult, at some point in your life, you might decide to establish the three Vedic fires, the Tretagni, becoming an Ahitagni for the rest of your life.

The three fires aflame — the Garhapatya, the Dakshninagni, and the Ahavaniya

The ceremony establishing the three Vedic fires is the Agnyadhana, Agnyadheya, or Adhana for short, and the three fires are the Garhapatya (housed in a circular altar), the Dakshninagni (semi-circular) and the Avahaniya (square). After that, if you have maintained your eligibility, and you have the resources (which might or might not involve a lot of money), you might decide to perform a Yagnya.

It is only an Ahitagni who can “enter” the Soma Samstha, the seven Soma Sacrifices, the first of which is the Agnishtoma, which qualifies you to perform any of the others, and is in many ways a prototype or Prakrithi of much of the sequences that are replicated in the other Soma Yagnyas. The seven Soma Sacrifices are considered Nithya (obligatory) in the Vedic schema.

The Sacrificer, the Yajamana, on this occasion was Kuppa Kumaraswamy Sastry Yajva, along with his wife, the Yajamani, Kuppa (Madduri) Sailaja Sowjanya Somapithini.

The Yajamana and Yajamani

Yajva and Somapithini are titles formally accorded to them by the Vedic Priests, the Ritviks, after the successful completion of the Yagnya. In an interview, the Yajamana, Kumaraswamy Garu talked about his journey leading him to this stage, in which not only his own mind and aspirations played a part, but a family history of deep involvement with our Vedic heritage. “Before I could conduct even the Adhana, I undertook the Vaisvadeva – an oath to ‘feed the world before you feed yourself’ – in practice, to feed at least one guest before you eat your meal,” he said.

He relates how in earlier generations on his maternal side, there were well-known adherents to the Vedic dharma who practically used up almost all their wealth, including vast property, in ‘feeding the world.’ With the Adhana, the ahitagni is making a life-long commitment, to maintain the fires, make the daily offerings, conduct fortnightly rituals called Ishtis, for which again priests are required, where Purodosha cakes (cakes made of rice flour) are offered to Agni. Not to mention consequent commitments by the Yajamani. The ritual sequences, mantras, implements, ingredients, and the specifications for the yaga shaala with its sheds and altars, are unchanged over the last few thousand years, before and after Karna’s time — as are the roles and responsibilities of the 16-18 Ritviks involved.

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Four Ritviks each lead four-member groups – the Adhvaryu is essentially in charge, in his capacity as the Ritual Director and chief representative of the Yajur Veda, the Veda of the Yajus mantras and ritual directions and prescriptions. The Hotr recites the Rik mantras of the Rig Veda, the Udgatr sings the Saman chants of the Sama Veda, which are Riks set to Saman music. The fourth, the Brahma, later associated with the Atharva Veda, but earlier considered as someone knowledgeable in all the three Vedas, is the overseer and sanctioner as the sequences proceed. There is a 17th, the Sadasya, who is a sort of chief reference and adjudicator. There was an 18th, the Soma Pravaka, who appears only in the preparatory stages when the 16 priests are formally identified and invited – he is a casting director, if you will. A senior priest, though not part of the named 18, is usually involved as mentor and advisor, and it was so in this case too, with the presence of Sri Rendu Chinthala Yajneswara Chandrashekara Yajulu Garu, a veteran of many a yagnya in modern times, a “shrouthi” to the core, a priest straight out of Vedic times.

In the Centre is Chandrashekara Yajulu, flanked by the Adhvaryu Sri Krishna Yajulu, and the Prati Prasthathr, Vishnu Bhatla and in the foreground is Raghavendra Bhat of Mathur

For the modern Yajamana, there are other challenges, commitments. This is the 21st century. But the world of Vedic ritual is very, very old, and its custodians in the modern world, as they were in the old days, are dedicated upholders of the Veda and the Shroutha Sutras, not to mention the massive complex of Sastric dictums that come with it. None can be taken lightly – after all, if you pick and choose, what is it that you might actually be left with? This is where the Sutrakara comes in. He has done it for you. You have to follow him. After all, as the Potr, Kuppa Srinivasa Sastri, notes: “The Sutrakaras don’t just tell you what to do based on the Vedas and the existing mantras, they tell you after intense tapas and inner drishti.”

Given the great span of the Vedic corpus, that is indeed a boon. But it also presents other challenges. Someone who has travelled abroad is no longer ‘arha’, worthy or eligible to perform a yagnya. But the wheel has to move forward. And so the Yajamana makes a commitment. Never to travel abroad again, set foot outside Bharatha Kanda, a major step for a senior IT professional like Kumarawami Garu. But it is not the only promise he makes. The Chief Mentor, close to their family, extracts another one. Never to even dial down the responsibility of providing for the family in the same way as before. “My original plan was to actually retire at 47 (his current age),” he smiles. “That has to be modified now.” There were three components to his motivation, he says. A ‘Curiosity’ — about our culture and heritage, an ‘Aspiration’ — to learn, perform, progress in the spiritual realm, and even a ‘Rebelliousness’.

The last may seem surprising. “I had to overcome a lot of resistance to learning and doing. It is there in some of our seniors, this resistance, reluctance to teach, help, take us along. On a related note, we often say youngsters are moving away from tradition, they are not interested etc. Actually, even when they are, and many of them are very interested indeed, it is we who deny them, not make enough effort etc.” Curiosity, he says, led him to the study of the Puranas and other texts. Then came the aspiration, to “protect the Vedic traditions in our family, particularly on my maternal side, the Madduri side.” This is how, he says, a lot of the Ritviks are actually his relatives, including his son.

After all the challenges, experiencing the yagnya was very satisfying he notes, and as things fell into place, there was a sense that the world was responding, and that he was on the right path. “It was also interesting to see how the couple’s roles are reflected in the way the Yagnya proceeds. A lot of times, we are at different alters in the shaala, but asking for the same things, in the same way. When the man is outside the home, the role of protecting the Agni is taken by the woman and this is reflected in the yaga shala as well.”

The Yagnya had begun even before it had begun, and it was after quite a journey in the mind, that Kumaraswamy Garu even came to the Adhana. Choices. When you choose, it sets you on a path away from others. It also does something else – when you finally act, action is a resolver of contradictions. There is the age old distinction between the karma and Gnyana kandas of the Veda, which vanishes when you see a yagnya in action. The Karma resolves the Gnyana. What is more, that model is set within the Karma Kanda itself. Actions. Counter actions. Propitiation. Via Medias. Loopholes. Exit Options. If. But. Then. Therefore. If Not. This. That. Leading finally to That art Thou.

The Veda is eternal. It is full of equivalences. The Fire is the Water. The Water is the Earth….It is also full of assertions and negations, prayers and commandments, and above all, invocations and praises, the call, the answer, the song, and the beat, the flow and the pause, the beginning and the culmination, without end, eternal. And so you arrive at one great beginning, the establishing of the fires. The Adhvaryu and his assistants kindled the new fire the old way, with the arani, the Agni manthan, churning of two blocks of wood, in friction producing smoke, then fire, a tiny drop of molten red that is carefully transferred to the Vedi, lovingly, with great care, and then fed and fanned into living flame.

Agnimanthan — creating a new fire

There are Dikshas and Ishtis, preliminary sacrifices to be done. There is the ceremonial transfer to the Yaga Shaala, accurately prepared, with the Yajamana’s height as a reference measure. One fifth of his height is an aratni, and in the shaala, every measure, every distance, every stamba is so many aratnis, all laid down. There are Pravargyas and Upasads. The much-documented Pravargya ritual, repeated several times during the course of the five-days, is deeply moving to watch, with its offering of hot ghee, hot goat’s milk, and hot cow milk.

The priests prepare the Pravargya offering

Everything is getting more intense in magnitude, from the preparations to the vedis, to the offerings to the mantras. After all Soma, who is King Soma in the Veda, has been ceremonially welcomed, received with all upacharas, and seated in comfort, watching the Pravargya.
Of the Vedas’ many mysteries, Soma is perhaps the most delicious, no pun intended, for the simple reason that no one knows what the Soma herb really tastes like. That it is held in great reverence is in no doubt. Entire mandalas of the Rig Veda are devoted to it. That it became a mystery in the Vedic period itself is also clear, with the Brahmanas, the prose sections of the Veda, themselves offering up substitutes. “Soma Bhaave Puthikaha.” It is the Puthika grass/creeper, green, translucent, that sits enshrined next to the Ahavaniya in the Praagvamsham.

The juice of King Soma (Puthika) pressed and ready

On day four, after being performed twice a day, morning and afternoon, the Pravargya and Upasad is offered twice in the morning itself. It is, after all, a big day, with major offerings to Agni-Soma, now conflated into a single Receiver of the oblations.

The action by now has shifted to the Uttara Vedi, the large altar at the apex of the yaga shaala. Among the highlights of that transfer is the Agnisomapranayana procession, carried out with an ember of the fire from the Ahavaniya, and accompanied by the Soma stalks. The Yajamana holds the Adhvaryu, the wife the Yajamana, her sons behind her and so on. There is also the Bahishpavamana, ritual sprinkling of sanctified water, in which all visitors get to take part as well.

The eternal Agni

The last day is the Sutya day, when King Soma gets his due. The three famous “pressings” of Soma happen, morning, afternoon, and evening, with the ritual partaking of the Soma by the priests, the chanting of the Rig Vedic ‘sastras,’ the priestly exchanges in the “Sadas,” the distribution of fees to the priests, and the formal pronouncement of the Yajamana and Yajamani as Yajva and Somapithini. The Potr, Kuppa Srinivasa Sastri, relates: When all the human beings went to Bramha pleading for various boons. Bramha said I have given you yagnas and the yagnas will give you everything. Whatever you want get it through yagna.

Sahayajnaya prajashishtva purovachaha prajapathihi
Yagnena prasavishadhvam pravoshtu ishtakama madhuhu.

Chandrashekara Yajulu Garu says that the Yajamana gets the Karmaphalam while Creation as a whole is also benefited. In the phenomenal world, it is reciprocity that works, and the phenomenal world is not just the world of man, but the world of the devas to whom the mantras are recited and the offerings made. Dehi Me, Dadahi Te….(Give to me, and I shall give to you….)

The Veda was created first, declares Chandrashekara Yajulu Garu, then came Shristi, Creation. When something doesn’t go right in the created world, and has to be fixed, you have to take recourse to the Veda, to Yagnya, to Agni. “You can pray to the paramatman, and he can give you mukti. But what about this created world? Here, for man, there is nothing other doing the upasana of Agni.” “Agni comes into your house like a child after marriage, and grows,” as Kumaraswamy Garu puts it.

As Agni burns in the Vedis, again and again, the call of the Adhvaryu rings out in what is known as the Ashravana. “Aaa…..Shra…. Va….Ya…..” he calls out in the prescribed tone and duration, to be answered “Astu Shroushat,” by the Agnidhra, carrying the wooden sword, the sphya. It keeps ringing out in your head, for long after, along with the embers of many moments, at once dramatic and moving, awe-inspiring and deeply spiritual — the Pravargya fire balls, the Ulmuka, the firebrand going around the offering, three times, six times, in the Paryagnikaranam….

Even for someone just witnessing, your consciousness will never be the same again.


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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