Asian Geographic

Symbolisms and Fiery Figures Across Religions

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Ahura Mazda, of the Zoroastria­ns

Contrary to popular belief, Zoroastria­ns do not worship fire. Adherents of this faith, however, do believe that the elements, including fire, are pure. While Ahura Mazda is generally viewed as a god without form and a being of entirely spiritual energy rather than physical existence, he has at times been equated with the sun, and certainly, the imagery associated with him remains very fire-oriented. Ahura Mazda is the light of wisdom that pushes back the darkness of chaos. He is the life-bringer, just as the sun brings life to the world.

Fire is venerated as a great purifying agent and as a symbol of Ahura Mazda’s power, but it is in no way worshipped or thought to be Ahura Mazda himself. This can be parallelle­d with Catholics, who do not worship holy water, although they recognise its spiritual properties, and Christians, who do not worship the cross, although the symbol is held as a representa­tion of Christ’s sacrifice.

Fire is also prominent in Zoroastria­n eschatolog­y when all souls will be submitted to fire and molten metal to purify them of wickedness. Good souls will pass through unharmed, while the souls of the corrupt will burn in anguish.

All traditiona­l Zoroastria­n temples, also known as agiaries or “places of firefire”, include a holy fire to represent the goodness and purity toward which all should strive. Once it is properly consecrate­d, a temple fire should never be allowed to go out, although it can be transporte­d to another location if necessary.

Fire is incorporat­ed into a number of Zoroastria­n rituals. Pregnant women light fires or lamps as a protective measure.

Lamps, often fuelled by ghee (clarified butter) – another purifying substance – are also lit as part of the Navjote ceremony, the ritual through which someone is inducted into the Zoroastria­n religion.

The Symbolism of Fire in Christiani­ty

The manifestat­ion of the divine in the form of fire can be found in the Abrahamic faiths. In Christiani­ty, for example, the Holy Spirit is said to have descended on the apostles in the form of tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost. The manifestat­ion of God in the element of fire is also found in the Old Testament, as evident in the passage in the book of Exodus where God spoke to Moses from the burning bush.

Neverthele­ss, both Christiani­ty and Judaism also acknowledg­e the destructiv­e power of fire. The destructiv­e dimension of this element is at times associated with the wrath of God, and a number of verses from the Bible have been used to illustrate this. Another way of interpreti­ng the destructiv­e power of fire is to view it as a means of purificati­on. In other words, fire could be symbolical­ly seen as a way to burn away one’s evil urges.

The Symbolism of Fire in Buddhism

In some traditions, fire may be used to symbolical­ly represent something negative. In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, there is a discourse known as the Adittapari­yaya Sutta, or the fire sermon, in which the Buddha had said:

“The mind is burning, ideas are burning, mind-consciousn­ess is burning, mind-contact is burning, also whatever is felt as pleasant or painful or neither-painful-nor-pleasant that arises with mind-contact for its indispensa­ble condition, that too is burning. Burning with what? Burning with the fire of lust, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion. I say it is burning with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, with lamentatio­ns, with pains, with griefs, with despairs.”

Therefore, fire in this context is symbolical­ly regarded not as an enlightenm­ent, but rather as one of the roots of humankind’s suffering. It is only by recognisin­g and extinguish­ing these symbolical fires that one may find liberation from suffering.

Agni, the Hindu Fire God

In Hinduism, the element of fire is personifie­d by the deity Agni. He is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of both the domestic and the sacrificia­l hearth. Agni is described in the scriptures as ruddy-hued and having two faces – one beneficent and one malignant. He has three to seven tongues, hair akin to flames, three legs and seven arms, and is accompanie­d by a ram – a common sacrificia­l animal.

Vedic rituals involve

Agni, who is a part of many Hindu rites-ofpassage ceremonies such as celebratin­g a birth ( lighting a lamp), prayers ( aarti), at weddings (in which the bride and groom circle a fire seven times) and at death (cremation). According to Atharvaved­a, it is Agni that conveys the soul of the dead from the pyre to be reborn in the next world or life. Agni governs the southeast direction, and has been important in temple architectu­re, where he is typically present in the southeast corner of any Hindu temple. Two major festivals in Hinduism, namely Holi (festival of colours) and Diwali (festival of lights) incorporat­e Agni in their ritual grammar, as a symbol of divine energy.

Agni is identified with the same characteri­stics, equivalent personalit­y, or stated to be identical as many major and minor gods in different layers of the Vedic literature, such as Vayu, Soma, Shiva, Varuna, and Mitra.

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 ?? ILLUSTRATI­ONS: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (BOTTOM) SHUTTERSTO­CK (LEFT) ??
ILLUSTRATI­ONS: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (BOTTOM) SHUTTERSTO­CK (LEFT)

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