Why is Homa (Agni karya) an integral part of sadhana?

This is PART 2 of the series of posts in continuation with the PART 1 posted here.

Havan is that part of any sadhana which has always given me great joy and a sense of inexplicable fulfillment. Even as a kid when I understood nothing of its significance, every time a Havan would take place at home or anywhere in the vicinity, it always caught my interest and involvement. Over the years of growing up as I read and understood some more of these Vedic practices, I have always greatly enjoyed performing the Havan with utter reverence for our ancient wisdom. Slowly the grace of Gurus in my life revealed the deeper significance of the Agni Karya and what makes it an indispensable part of any Mantra Sadhana. What caused me to write on this in this post is the number of  questions posed recently to me by youngsters and even people in their late 40s and 50s on why should we perform these rituals, what is the sense in it all.  This is a small attempt to share the essence of my basic understanding of the subject based on research and Bhashyas(interpretations) on the Vedas published by various Vaidic scholars on this subject. Its a very long read but I hope its worth your valuable time.

So lets address the question on what is the necessity of Homa?

It is an inseparable anga (limb) with a vital process for completeness of any Mantra Sadhana. Well, if you don’t believe in the wisdom of our sages and the science of Mantras, then you need not bother with it. However, since our Santana culture weaves around a lifestyle where these practices formed the very framework of Vaidic tradition, we may care to know something of it. The primary concept of Vedic Sadhana is first, the activation of a mantra or stotra through mindful repetitions and japa done sufficiently, which creates the astral formation of the devata whose japa is being conducted, then homa is performed which have 1/10th the number of ahutis(oblations) of the total number of repetition of the japa to infuse consciousness into that astral formation. Finally steps of tarpana and marjana and feeding upasakas or brahmins is performed in 1/10th of the number of counts of the previous step. This is explained in detail in The Ancient Science of Mantras by Om Swami. Then the mantra works through all the tattvas and produces the intended spiritual effect on the consciousness of the sadhaka leading to complete accomplishment by gathering life-force energy and interacting with the upasaka to guide him into higher realms. Of course one has to practice this to experience it first hand.

Why Fire?

Let’s go first into the verses of the Rig Veda which detail what exactly Agni(Sacred Sacrificial Fire) is.

The first shloka (rik) of Rigveda is as given below:

ॐ || अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं ऋत्विजम् | होतारं रत्नधातमम् || 1.001.01 ||

Verse 1:
Agnim = Devata designated as Agni or Fire personified.

Eellee (eedee) = I glorify

Purohitam = The first appointed or high priest

Yagnasya = of sacrifice

Devam = The divine / the Devatas

Rtvijam = ministrant (but some opine summoner)

Hotaram = Invoker

Ratnadhatamam = holder/bestower of the greatest wealth (including here inner wealth)

Thus the verse refers to Agni being the Purohita who invokes and summons the Devatas (and the Rig Veda starts with this mantra).

Please note that Vedas are highest Shastra Pramaana (Scriptural injunction) and the entire Rig Veda starts with a Sukta for Fire. This alone shows how much of an emphasis is laid on the worship through Fire. Now, look at the verse itself and lets ask these basic questions:
Can anyone else invoke the Devatas?
How can the Devatas be invoked?
How can the Devatas be summoned?

Thus the first Vedic verse gives us the answer that it’s not the sadhaka but Agni Himself as the first and the highest priest who clearly is the one who invokes the Devatas. Now we must ask the next question: Why are the Devatas being invoked and who is Agni in this regard?
Agni is the one who is Vanhi or the one who carries the offerings given in it to the Devatas (Vahana).
Is anyone else given this sort of an appellation or honour in the Vedas? No. of course not. Let’s move further and see what else does the Rig Veda say about Agni.

वह्निं॑ य॒शसं॑ वि॒दथ॑स्य के॒तुं सु॑प्रा॒व्यं॑ दू॒तं स॒द्योअ॑र्थं ।द्वि॒जन्मा॑नं र॒यिमि॑व प्रश॒स्तं रा॒तिं भ॑र॒द्भृग॑वे मात॒रिश्वा॑ ॥

This verse is Sukta 60 of the 1st Mandala of the Rig Veda. It mentions the word “Vanhi”, whose meaning can be derived as a carrier of oblations to the Devatas says that Matarishvan brought as a friend to Bhrigu, the celebrated Vanhi (Agni), who is the one who illuminates the sacrifice and the careful protector of those who worship as well as (described as the) swift moving messenger of the Devatas, the offspring of the parents as it were a precious treasure. (Meaning sourced from interpretation by Sayanacharya)

Thus we see that the Vedas actually give the Shabda Pramana (Scriptural injunction) to Agni as the one who actually protects those who worship as well as the Vanhi and the one who illumines the path of the worshiper. This meaning can be derived through Anumana from verses of the Vishnu Sahasranama and other sources in the Veda itself which will be discussed in detail in the next Part.

There is also the connection of Agni and intuitive perception in Sri Aurobindo’s research. The next verse of the same Sukta is even more profound.

अ॒स्य शासु॑रु॒भया॑सः सचंते ह॒विष्मं॑त उ॒शिजो॒ ये च॒ मर्ताः॑ ।

दि॒वश्चि॒त्पूर्वो॒ न्य॑सादि॒ होता॒पृच्छ्यो॑ वि॒श्पति॑र्वि॒क्षु वे॒धाः ॥

This is a reproduced translation of Sayanacharya and further illustrated by Arya. The Devatas and men are worshipers of this ruler (Agni is now referred to as a ruler), those who are to be desired (Devatas) and those who are mortal and bearing oblations, for this venerable Invoker of the Devatas, the lord of men and distributor of all benefits was placed by the priests even before the Sun was in the sky.

This above verse tells us further the primacy given to Agni worship in the Vedas. Now the question arises as to why Agni is given so much importance in the Vedas?

The answer is given by the third verse which points out that Agni is engendered in the heart. Here we come again to the Apratyaksha Jagat(Unseen world) or that INNER SPACE (Chidakash) and inner working of the human body which is hidden to most but is revealed to those who worship using Agni. The verse 3 of Sukta 60 of the 1st Mandala of Rig Veda says:

तं नव्य॑सी हृ॒द आ जाय॑मानम॒स्मत्सु॑की॒र्तिर्मधु॑जिह्वमश्याः ।

यमृ॒त्विजो॑ वृ॒जने॒ मानु॑षासः॒ प्रय॑स्वंत आ॒यवो॒ जीज॑नंत ॥

Meaning: May our newest celebration come before that Agni, who is sweet-tongued, and is to be engendered in the heart; whom men, the descendants of Manu, sacrificing and presenting oblations to him, beget in the time and battle.

This verse then tells us of the time when these offerings were made to get success in battle too.

Now, having established that Agni is so vital to the entire internal and external Universe, the Rig Veda moves on further to a rather impossible but true proposition given in a verse from Sukta 68:

श्री॒णन्नुप॑ स्था॒द्दिवं॑ भुर॒ण्युः स्था॒तुश्च॒रथ॑म॒क्तून्व्यू॑र्णोत् ॥

परि॒ यदे॑षा॒मेको॒ विश्वे॑षां॒ भुव॑द्दे॒वो दे॒वानां॑ महि॒त्वा ॥

This verse above says that Agni who is the one who is offered all the oblations, then ascends to heaven and clothes all things, movable and immovable and the night itself with its (ethereal) light. It is radiant among the Devatas and in himself alone comprehending the virtues of all the substances. The Sukta then goes on to call Agni, the Lord of all possessions, of the sons of Manu (all mankind) who is worshiped to get the (procreative) vigour within the bodies of all mankind (to get excellent progeny) in this verse:

होता॒ निष॑त्तो॒ मनो॒रप॑त्ये॒ स चि॒न्न्वा॑सां॒ पती॑ रयी॒णां ॥

इ॒च्छंत॒ रेतो॑ मि॒थस्त॒नूषु॒ सं जा॑नत॒ स्वैर्दक्षै॒रमू॑राः ॥

Thus the benefits of Agni karya are being proclaimed again and again, verse after verse.

There is another word – Ṛta (Sanskrit ऋतम् ṛtaṃ or Ritam) which means the eternal universal truth or order. We come across the verse Rtam Vachmi, Satyam Vachmi (I speak of cosmic law, I speak of universal Truth) in the Ganapati Atharvashirsham.

In the Rigveda, the term Ṛta appears as many as 390 times, and has been characterized as the one concept which pervades the whole of Ṛig Vedic thought.

Rtam is the pinnacle of the ethical ideals that Bhagavan Himself represents as “Dharmo Vigrahavan” or the embodiment of Dharma. Rtam is the virtue of virtues, the axle that holds the wheels of the dharma chakra. That virtue of virtues is simply Truth or SATYAM. It has been pointed out that this description of Satyam and its six synonyms, one of which is Rtam is given by a Yajamana about to undertake a Yagna or Vratha or vow of abstinence during the entire duration of the vratam.

This vratam of truthfulness is undertaken in front of the Vratapati as a witness, who is Agni, who is none other than the Lord Himself. In these circumstances, Truth or Rtam is equated to reality or Godhead; anrtam or falsehood or ungodly entities are perishable (satyameva Jayate). While taking this vow or observing the Vratam, the Yajna kartha recognizes that the sacredness of this dharmic pursuit confers on him a divine body during the observance of the vratam and he is no longer a mere mortal. As a result, the Vrata karta is convinced that he is bound to speak the Truth (satyam) and nothing but the Truth.

Another passage from the Yajur Veda states, “AgnE vratapatE vratam charishyAmi tacchakEyam tanmE rAdyatAm, idhamaham anrutAth Sathyamupaimi” (YV 1.5)

(Meaning): O Lord of Vratams (vows)! I will now observe the vow (for the Yajna) O adorable Lord! May I have the strength for the observance of this vrata with your blessings! May I conclude this Vratam successfully (with Your grace). NOW INTO TRUTH FROM UNTRUTH DO I ENTER.

The truth here is rtam and the untruth is anrutam. From mere man, the vrata kartha elevates himself to that of divinity and thereby aspires to speak the truth and act in consonance with the eternal dharmam (rtam). From asatya (anruta) state, he wishes to enter the state of Satya (rtam) to qualify himself for the observance of the role as Yajamaana for the Yajna.

In a similar spirit, Atharva Vedam passage (AV.XII.1.1) elaborates further on this concept of Rtam. It proclaims: “satyam bruhat, rtamugram, dhIkshA tapO, Brahma Yajna: pruthivIm vArayanthi.”

According to this verse, the 8 virtues that nourish and sustain this world are:

Satyam (truth),

bruhat (the vastness with its three cosmic divisions),

rtam (the right attitude of vratha kaari),

ugram (formidable majesty),

dhIkshA (consecration, Initiation),

Tapas (austerity, study and teaching),

Brahman (motivation for learning as one of its many meanings)

and Yagna (dedication to the sacred rite and the sacred rite itself in a spirit of selfless dedication and for the wellbeing of the world and its beings).

The importance of Yagna and its close connection with rtam, satyam is summarized in the following Yajur Veda verse (XVIII.6):

rtam cha mEamrutham cha mEayakshamam cha mEanAmayaccha

mE jIvAthusccha mE dhIrgAyuthvam cha mEanamithram

cha mEabhayam cha mE sukham cha mE sayanam cha mE

sushAsccha mE sudhinam cha mE yajEna kalpathAm

In this resonant passage, a moving plea is made to the Vratapati, Yagna Narayana: “May my religious rite (rtam), my immortality (anrutham), my freedom from consumption and disease (Kshaya rogam), my life, my longevity, my freedom from enemies, my freedom from danger, my happiness, my lying down (sayanam), my dawn (susha ), my day (sudinam ) PROSPER BY SACRIFICE (YAJNAM )”.

The fearlessness, security, safety, universal love and freedom from hatred, efforts, victory in those efforts to conquer anrtam and asatyam, the discriminating intellect are sought as fruits of the Yagna performed with rtam. Many of these prayers are tied with the central Vedic doctrine of Rtam or dharma.

We have seen that there is an order that drives the life on this planet. We have also seen what the effects are, and how human beings are the sole cause of affecting this order. When this order is spoken in the manner it exists, then it is called “Satya” (सत्य); even before it is spoken, the very thought/or the existence of this order in the mind (or the subtle body) is called “Ruta” (ऋत); the practice or the tangible existence of this order is “Dharma” (धर्म). To maintain “Satya, Ruta, and Dharma” or simply put, to maintain the cosmic order, what one does is called the “Karma”. Without going into too much detail in this regard, and in the light of the above discussion I shall quote two shlokas from the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 3 – Karma Yoga)

Bhagawan Sri Krishna says thus in the Gita,
अन्नाद्भवन्ति भूतानि पर्जन्यादन्नसम्भवः।
यज्ञाद्भवति पर्जन्यो यज्ञः कर्मसमुद्भवः।।14।।

annād bhavanti bhūtāni parjanyād anna-sambhavaḥ
yajñād bhavati parjanyo yajñaḥ karma-samudbhavaḥ

All living beings subsist on anna (food), which are produced from rain (crops cultivated through rains). Rains are produced by performance of Yagna (sacrifice) and Yagna is born of prescribed duties (Karma).

कर्म ब्रह्मोद्भवं विद्धि ब्रह्माक्षरसमुद्भवम् |
तस्मात्सर्वगतं ब्रह्म नित्यं यज्ञे प्रतिष्ठितम् || 15||

karma brahmodbhavaṁ viddhi brahmākṣhara-samudbhavam
tasmāt sarva-gataṁ brahma nityaṁ yajñe pratiṣhṭhitam

The duties for human beings are described in the Vedas, and the Vedas are manifested by God himself. Therefore, the all-pervading Lord is eternally present in acts of sacrifice (Yajna).

Now how does this symbolize the universal law of life? You see offering oblation itself meant that I have taken so much from life and I have to give back in some form that is why I offer – so this is when you perform a Nishkam Yagna (Without the sense of doer ship – karta bhaav and expectations of getting something out of it, not even the fruits of good karma). It is just to reinforce the idea of the interconnected life and the healthy exchange between the individual and the cosmos. I have taken so much from life; I offer back oh lord. I offer it to you, Oh Mother in this form, please accept it so that we can learn to give without any expectations. For offering oblation as a self-dedication (Antar Yaag) into the inner fire of true knowledge as a sacrifice (of our limitations, conditioned views and vices), with a sense of utmost gratitude and surrender, without attaching ourselves to the fruits of such action, the ritual of Yagna was invented.

It symbolizes a very great idea. Please understand this. The nature of life is interconnectedness. No man is an island. We live by what others provide and almost everything in your life has been generated by the labour of others. Not just human beings but this entire planet is a huge ecosystem which lives by exchange between the individual and the cosmos. So to acknowledge this exchange and to replenish what we draw from life, to rejuvenate life, the practice of Yagna was invented. It was a rite, a ritual which was conducted in order to pour out one’s devotional offering of gratitude for what one has received in life and towards the supreme. It was always a Nishkama karma. It was a means to give back to universal life that is why the word Svaha is suffixed with every offering. With the Svaha I offer into the fire, to the supreme lord that which he has given me in this life.

SVAHA is defined as svatva-hanana-iti-svaha – sva = self, hanana = effacement of or erasure of, so the translation would be: svaha indicates the abnegation of all “sense of self” i.e. ego and possessiveness associated with the oblation which I am offering into the fire which is symbolic of the wisdom which destroys all ignorance in the very form of identity and possessiveness. Every oblation is followed by Svaha. It is the declaratory mantra of renunciation (tyāga) and surrender.

According to Devi Bhagavat Purana, Svaha And Svadha are the wives of Agni Deva. They are the ones who take the essence of the samidha, havishya and mantras of Yagna fire to their respective recipients. As water carries the essence of food in billions of cells in our bodies, they carry the power and meta physical nourishment of mantra and havishya material of Yagna to Gods. One who carries the havishyam in Yagna Fire to Devas is Svaha Devi and the other one is Svadha Devi who is the source of nourishment for Pitras (ancestors).

Agni is Dev Mukha i.e. He is the mouth of Devas. He has Sapta Jivhas (7 tongues) as per the Vedas. Through Yagna Agni, the Havishyam is turned in to divine essence of mantras which Svaha carries to Gods in celestial dimensions. They are the one who feed Gods, hence they are Divine Mothers. Scriptures have eulogized them and MahaShakti Bhagawati (Mother Divine) is often associated as Svaha and Svadha through the verses in Tantrokt Ratrisuktam in the Durga Saptashati:

त्वं स्वाहा त्वं स्वधा त्वं हि वषट्कारः स्वरात्मिका ।
सुधा त्वमक्षरे नित्ये त्रिधा मात्रात्मिका स्थिता ॥२॥

Brahma ji said:
You are Svaha (Sacrificial oblations to the Gods), You are Svadha (Sacrificial oblations to the ancestors), You are indeed Vasatkara (Exclamation during sacrifice after which the oblation is poured); You are the essence behind these Swaras (Exclamations during sacrificial oblations) (and thus the One to Whom all Sacrificial Oblations go), You are the Nectar (of Bliss) within the Akshara (Om), residing eternally as the essence behind the three Maatras (A-U-M),

The Rishis clearly understood that everything in life is cyclic. Today in science we study the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle. All our energies are circulated cyclically, so the individual in the cycle also is maintained. Just observe how are we maintained by what we draw from the outside and even the simple breathing apparatus in our body functions because the trees are giving out oxygen and that we are able to take it. It’s a natural interconnectedness so it must be a natural exchange between the external and the internal. We are just the body like a semi-permeable membrane which facilitates this flow and when you restrict that flow by considering yourself to be a solid individual, it then is nothing but ego. This is how it was seen, so in order to overcome these tendencies of pride, arrogance and egoism this kind of a symbolism was invented. A ritual was invented where you pour oblations wholeheartedly towards the supreme lord and whatever you have to offer it is meant for universal life to thrive. I have taken from life I give back as my collective responsibility – that is the spirit of Yagna. Sri Bhagwan says in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita:

यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत् |
यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम् ||

yat-karoṣi yad-aśnāsi yaj-juhoṣi dadāsi yat |
yat-tapasyasi kaunteya tat-kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam || BG 9.27 ||

Meaning: Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice, whatever you give away, whatever austerity you practice, O Kaunteya, do that as an offering to Me.

Today we have a very diluted version of that in the form of the Homa (fire rituals) in so many houses, done many a times for so many kinds of purposes/gains. It is a Sakam Yagna which is done nowadays. Even in the Vedic times there were the Sakamya Yagnas like the Putrakameshti Yagna, the Rajasuya Yagna , the Ashwamedha Yagna which means they were performed for a particular purpose but the original Vedic idea was that it is symbolic of your participation in the cosmic Yagna that is going on and your desire to rejuvenate life, revive and renew life and pay for what you have received from life. That was the actual meaning behind the Yagna fire. It is symbolic of the cosmic rhythm. It is a beautiful sacred word which finds a lot of use in the Vedic literature performed to harmonize in the rhythm of universal life and  becoming one with it by replenishing life at every step in your life by these sacrifices, through the gifts of offering. All this comes from Bhagwan’s words itself in the Srimad Bhagavad-Gita. It’s not just the offerings of grains or ghee. You can do it through gifts, you can do it through penance, you can do it through yoga, you can even do it through knowledge, you can do it through acts of kindness and caring about all sentient beings, all these are also called Yagnas in the Srimad Bhagavad-Gita. So the Yagna fire was symbolic of offering whatever you have to give, offered in deep gratitude, freely, respectfully, willingly and lovingly as a detached action.

There is a curious mention by some Gurus that Agni is the veritable foundation of the Universe. But is it really the foundation? Can we find some scriptural injunction which corroborates this observation?

Let’s go to Sukta 67, verse 5-6

अ॒जो न क्षां दा॒धार॑ पृथि॒वीं त॒स्तंभ॒ द्यां मंत्रे॑भिः स॒त्यैः ॥

प्रि॒या प॒दानि॑ प॒श्वो नि पा॑हि वि॒श्वायु॑रग्ने गु॒हा गुहं॑ गाः ॥

These above verses are mighty important as they prove just that. The verse 5 reads: “Like the unborn (Sun), Agni has sustained (upheld) the earth and he has also propped up (upheld) the heavens with the mantras proclaiming universal Truth. This is derived from the ancient Vedic idea that the Devatas were worried by the obliquity of the region of the Sun and hence upheld this by using the Vedas. This act is attributed to Agni himself!” Thus he becomes the upholder of the heavens, without whose worship, the world itself might end.

Let’s move on to verse 1-2 of the same Sukta;

वने॑षु जा॒युर्मर्ते॑षु मि॒त्रो वृ॑णी॒ते श्रु॒ष्टिं राजे॑वाजु॒र्यं ॥

क्षेमो॒ न सा॒धुः क्रतु॒र्न भ॒द्रो भुव॑त्स्वा॒धीर्होता॑ हव्य॒वाट् ॥

The verse refers to Agni who is born in the forest (woods) and protects his worshiper as a Raja favours someone who is capable (kind as a defender and like the one who brings prosperity). Here the verse again refers to Agni as the Invoker of the Devatas.

This idea of Agni being a protector of one who worships him is taken further in a verse of the previous Sukta 66, verse 5-6

दु॒रोक॑शोचिः॒ क्रतु॒र्न नित्यो॑ जा॒येव॒ योना॒वरं॒ विश्व॑स्मै ॥

चि॒त्रो यदभ्रा॑ट् छ्वे॒तो न वि॒क्षु रथो॒ न रु॒क्मी त्वे॒षः स॒मत्सु॑ ॥

This verse refers to the unmatched brightness (shining nature) of Agni. He is described as being vigilant here (that is to say that he protects against the ritual being disturbed by Rakshasas). Here Agni’s innate power is described. Don’t we feel a sense of safety when we light a fire and does not a diya dispel darkness and gloom at once? The beautiful brightness of Agni is compared to a woman in her dwelling and he is described as the Sun amongst men, bright and shining about to proceed for a battle. (Verse translations are from RgVeda Samhita bhashya by Sayanacharya, Arya and Joshi).

So how exactly would the Yagna take place?

There are very specific requirements for Yagna fire. There were definite priests who used to perform very specific tasks in the Yagna. There was a defined Yagna Vidhi and there were the four types of priests. The first one was called Hotra or Hotri which means one who chanted the mantras of the Rigveda. Each of these priests were well versed in one of the Vedas. Then the second one was called Adhvaryu who was also a priest. He would prepare the altar for the Yagna and the actual place with the specific measurements and arrange the firepit, light the fire, get the sacrificial wood and place the vessels. Then there was the udhgatri who was the chanter of the Samaveda hymns which are very important hymns chanted during the Yagna. Then there would be the actual performer of the Yagna who was answerable to the Yajmana. The priest who was performing the actual Yagna was called the brahma priest who would chant from the Atharvaveda. All of them together would perform the Yagna and when these Yagnas later on became integrated with the upasana techniques, the meditation techniques developed in the Vedic age so then it was called Yagnuropasana which means with every upasana, a Yagna also was performed in order to reinforce into oneself and all around, the sacrificial nature of interconnected life. So the chants had I offer…, I offer…, I pour myself…, kindly accept this offering oh almighty! This was the kind of prayer for these Yagnas which means so many other types of types of rites and rituals and meditation techniques got added on to this Yagna upasanas and then gradually there were Sakami Yagnyas. Today it has condensed into the modern Homa fire or Havan but the spirit behind Yagna is something we must really grasp, that is why so much importance is being given to Yagna in the Srimad Bhagavad-Gita. If you perform Yagna with this spirit acknowledging the fact that you are part and parcel of the cosmic Yagna of the divine which is constantly going on, which is responsible for maintaining this planet and all sentient life as it is today then you will remain in tune with life and will align yourself to the cosmos, to the will of god and this is the way to move forward in the spiritual path. That is why the word Yagna has been used again and again in the Bhagavad-Gita.

May we be able to value these ancient Sanatan systems of Vedic life and inculcate the spirit of Yagna in our life.

To be continued in Part 3…..

Jai Sri Hari!

Sri Krishnarpanamstu!

Cover pic source: The Sadhana App Yagna