Sym­bol­isms and Fiery Fig­ures Across Re­li­gions

Asian Geographic - - Feature | Burning With Desire -

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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