The material world consists of five gross elements: earth, water, air, ether, and fire, and three subtle elements: mind, intelligence, and false ego. Of the five gross elements, fire plays a very important role in Vedic sacrifices. In fact, almost all major Vedic rituals and ceremonies are performed in the presence of fire.
Fire represents so many different things: heat, light, purity, etc. Fire burns things to ashes, eliminating their presence from the world. Fire serves as heat which is necessary for life to survive. Even in the modern age of great technological advancement, fire still plays a vital role in our everyday life. The internal combustion engine, considered one of the greatest inventions ever, serves as the catalyst for the major forms of transportation today. This combustion is in essence its own fire; a force so strong that it provides enough energy to start an automobile.
“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.9)
Just as combustion is required to start a car engine, the reaction of fire and clarified butter, ghee, is required in order for Vedic sacrifices to bear fruit. The Sanskrit word for a religious sacrifice is yajna. The Vedas themselves give details on many kinds of yajna, but the most important ones are those performed for the satisfaction of Lord Vishnu. Though God has many different names and forms, His original form, adi-purusha, is that of Lord Krishna. Krishna’s direct expansion is Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu then expands Himself into other Vishnu forms, all the way down to the incarnations that appear on earth. Essentially Vishnu and Krishna are interchangeable as far as worship is concerned. When describing the nine processes of devotional service, Prahlada Maharaja mentions vishno-smaranam, which means remembering Lord Vishnu. Prahlada was a great devotee of God, and he used the terms Krishna and Vishnu interchangeably.
There are many different ways to worship Lord Vishnu, but in a formal yajna, there is almost always the presence of a fire. This fire sacrifice is known as homa, or havana. Those growing up in Hindu families are well acquainted with these fire sacrifices. A brahmana or pandita is called to the house and the participants then recite various Vedic hymns and mantras. To conclude the ceremonies, the major participants sit in front of a small pit where a fire is lit. Then after a specific deity is offered obeissances, the participants drop dirt into the fire and say, “Svahah”. Shortly thereafter, the ceremony ends and the fire pit is taken outside so as to limit the amount of smoke in the room. For those unfamiliar with Vedic traditions, this type of ceremony may appear strange, but each part of the process has a special significance.
In the Vedic tradition, there is only God but there are also many demigods who serve as Krishna’s deputies. A demigod is an elevated living entity possessing extraordinary powers. They are not God, but they are god-like. There is a specific demigod assigned to manage each part of the creation. People tend to think that God is directly engaged in every aspect of their life, but He usually is not.
“By Me, in My unmanifested form, this entire universe is pervaded. All beings are in Me, but I am not in them.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.4)
On one level, everything is occurring through God’s direction, but this isn’t on a personal level. The material creation comes from Brahman, God’s impersonal effulgence. At the end of creation, everything then merges back into Brahman. So in this sense, everything is Brahman, meaning everything belongs to God. However, the Lord does not take a personal interest in the day to day affairs of living entities. Our planet is a sort of playground where the living entities can come and falsely enjoy. Issues of fairness are handled by the laws of nature, of which karma is the governing force. In this regard, Krishna does not have a direct stake in our karma.
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 9.29)
The demigods are in charge of distributing the results of karma, or fruitive activity. If someone acts piously, the demigods are required to bestow boons. The opposite situation is true for those who act sinfully. The demigods perform their functions through their particular bodies. Since they are elevated living entities who are in charge of various parts of the material world, the demigods can take forms other than those of human beings. For example, the element of fire is actually governed by the demigod Agni. The earth is known as the demigod Bhumi, the moon as Soma, etc. This may seem like mythology or pantheism, but these are the actual facts provided to us by the Vedas. As human beings, it is impossible for us to take the form of fire, but the demigods are elevated living entities, so they can take forms that seem inconceivable to us.
“O sinless one, these irrepressible flesh-eating Rakshasas attack us during our performance of fire sacrifices (homa), or on other auspicious occasions.” (Sages of Dandaka forest speaking to Lord Rama, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 10.11-12)
Agni, as the fire-god, witnesses all Vedic fire sacrifices and distributes boons accordingly. His wife is Svaha, and she was promised a long time ago to be the first recipient of all oblations poured into a fire sacrifice. Homa is very important, especially when it comes to worshiping Lord Vishnu. Qualified brahmanas always perform these sacrifices with great care and attention. In the above referenced quote, the brahmanas of the Dandaka forest are describing to Lord Rama how the Rakshasas harass them during their fire sacrifices. Lord Rama was an incarnation of Lord Krishna who appeared on earth some five thousand years ago. The brahmanas, the priestly class of men, had taken refuge in the forest since the peaceful surroundings were more conducive to spiritual life.
Rakshasas are demons who are atheistic by nature. Sometimes the term atheist can just mean someone who is unsure of his belief in God, or someone who has not thought about the idea of religion on a deep level. These Rakshasas were more than just atheists; they were asuras. An asura is a devout atheist who believes in material sense gratification as the ultimate aim of life. Religious people are the biggest threat to asuras. Because of this, the demons target brahmanas and do everything in their power to disrupt their religious activities. During Lord Rama’s time, the Rakshasas were ascending in power due to the help of their leader, the ten-headed Ravana.
It is not surprising to see that these Rakshasas would attack the sages during the most auspicious religious occasions. The fire sacrifices for Lord Vishnu were the biggest threat to Rakshasas, for they knew that only God Himself could cause their downfall. Ravana had already defeated many great demigods in battle. Ironically enough, he had performed great austerities in order to please these same demigods. Unlike Lord Krishna, the demigods are required to bestow boons on anyone who adequately worships them. God, on the other hand, only gives His devotees what they need, which isn’t always necessarily what they want.
Ravana had acquired many boons during his ascendency, but he neglected the supremacy of Lord Vishnu. For this reason, the demigods went to the Lord and asked Him to come to earth, and He granted their wish by appearing as Lord Rama. While travelling the forest with His wife Sita Devi and younger brother Lakshmana, Rama was petitioned by sages living in the Dandaka forest. They knew that only God could save them from the attacks of the Rakshasas.
Rama happily agreed to protect the sages. He and Lakshmana would go on to defeat and kill many Rakshasas, including Ravana. God always protects His devotees. If we engage in material activities, the Lord will let us do our business. Krishna is the supreme pure, meaning He is sinless. This is how the sages addressed Rama (anagha), for they knew He was above any material desires. Since the brahmanas were committed to performing fire sacrifices, Rama agreed to help them. This shows that God wants us to take up devotional service. If we are committed to performing activities for His benefit, God will take it upon Himself to protect us. He will make sure that our devotional service will be carried out to fruition.
Categories: protecting the saints