Ritual as Self-Care and Transformative Knowledge

The Prāṇagnihotra Upaniṣad, one of the Sāmānya Upaniṣads, a collection of twenty-two Upaniṣads that are general in their nature and style rather than directed at a specific community or having a particular theological bent. In connection with the broader themes of Upaniṣadic literature, the Prāṇagnihotra provides insight on matters of ritual, describing the Vedic yajña in terms of the individual body (śarīra).

With respect to the anti-ritual sentiments of the bhakti movement, the Prāṇagnihotra appears remarkably prescient. The ultimate teaching of the Upaniṣad appears to be simply to repudiate the classical Vedic focus on ritual orthopraxy, and to initiate a shift to interests in mystical insight, worldly renunciation and opening up of the possibility for any person to attain enlightenment. In my exegesis, however, I aim to go further than the historical context of shifts in Hindu doctrine and apply the insights of the Upaniṣad to the current state of our world, particularly in regard to self-love and caring for oneself. Note: the translation used here is based on the translations of V.M. Bedekar and G.M. Palsule, as well as of A.G. Krishna Warrier.

First Khaṃḍa

  1. Now, therefore, we shall explain that yajña offered with the body, forming the essence of all Upanishads and illuminating the knowledge of saṃsāra. It is by virtue of this that the embodied one becomes free from transmigratory life, even without Agnihotra and the knowledge of Saṃkhya. According to prescribed procedure, setting cooked rice on the ground, one consecrates it with the three verses beginning with “the herbs which are in Soma’s realm” and the two beginning with “Give us, o Lord of Food”:

    “Those herbs which are in Soma’s realm, many different in hundreds of ways, created by Bṛhaspati, protect us from fear.
  2. “Those bringing fruit and those fruitless, the flowering and flowerless, created by Bṛhaspati, protect us from fear.
  3. “I apply to you the vivifying herb naghāriṣa; may it bring you fresh life-force and scare away demons.

After the opening invocation to efficacious learning, the Upaniṣad explains what knowledge is about to be transmitted. It claims that this Upaniṣad’s contents are in consonance with the essential message of the Upaniṣadic corpus, liberating the “embodied one”, the individual jīva with an earthly body, from the cycle of saṃsāra. It then goes on to quote the verses recited in performing a yajña. The offering of herbs and plants is like a salve to the seeker, driving away sickness and ailments. Imitating the process of an actual sacrifice is meant to guide the reader (who might be well-versed in such ceremonies) toward a new model of understanding.

For the modern reader, unacquainted with Vedic ritual, this passage is a lead-in into an explanation of ritual in esoteric, rather than exoteric terms.

  1. “O Lord of food, wholesome and powerful food; lead the sacrificer forward and endow us, two-legged and four-legged alike, with strength.
  2. “The food tasted by Rudras and Piśācas, that which is indigestible, may God make it free from danger and auspicious; svāḥ to the almighty!

The references to food here are important, as it sets up the analogy of the body-sacrifice (śarīra-yajña) in terms that are ostensibly the verses used to perform an external sacrifice. The invocation of the lord of food (annapati) is meant to enliven the offering of food made to the sacrifice, or the body. The Upaniṣad directs our attention to food, drawn from the land and constituted the greater elements, as a manifestation of divine power. Just as Brahman pervades all things, and is infinite and un-diminishable, all food is sacred and vivifying. Food is an essential element of ritual sacrifice, because it inculcates a gratefulness for the yields of the earth and so provides nourishment to the participants.

In addition, verse four indicates that ritual sacrifice should be inclusive in its outlook, conducted not only for the sake of humanity but at also the animal denizens of the world. Humbling the participants by reminding them of their animal origins, the act of sacrifice provides a certain bio-spiritual insight. However, taken in the context of the body-sacrifice, the act of offering food in pursuit of ritual reward is simply the act of feeding oneself. The body-sacrifice inspires a sacred regard for the body through the feeding of oneself. The seeker is the master of the sacrifice and has the power to effect worldly happiness, and unlike the external yajña, the seeker is able to attain the insight and transformative wisdom of ātman. Let us keep this image in mind as we proceed.

  1. “You abide within beings, in the heart, and all places; you are the sacrifice, Brahman, Rudra, Viṣṇu, the exclamation of Vaṣaṭ; you are water, light, essence, Brahman, bhūḥ, bhuvaḥ, svaḥ, oṃ; salutations to you!
  2. “May the waters sanctify the earth, that she may purify me; through the creator, purified by brahman, may I be sanctified. Whatever uneaten food remains, whatever misdeeds I have committed, the gifts of the wicked, may these all be purified in the waters!
  3. “You are aṃrtam and the bed of aṃrtam. You are the amṛtaṃ of the prāṇa, our life-breath; in us you are fed! Svāḥ to prāṇa. Svāḥ to apāna. Svāḥ to vyāna. Svāḥ to samāna. Svāḥ to udāna.”

To take care of oneself, be intimately aware of the connection one has to nature, and to understand food’s connection to the greater universe are all radical acts in the face of careless consumption in the age of climate change. We consume numerous things without regard for the environment, and so disrupt the balance the earth must maintain to sustain life.

The acknowledgement of brahman, through its manifestations such as annapati, in all worlds, forms, gods, and substances allows us to re-orient our understanding of the world. Turning away from an anthropocentric view of life, we may see ourselves as subject to the consequences of our actions in turning away from the humility that is embodied in sacrifice. In doing so, it allows us to make amends for food that is wasted or cast aside, our misuse of natural resources, and the ravages of the earth caused by war and exploitation. Humanity itself rises from nature, which rises from brahman, and we are destined to return to it, encapsulated in the enigmatic description of brahman as tajjalāna (that which is born, sustained, and dissolved). This humility begins with care for the self that is enacted with the understanding of these realities.

It must be noted that the ritual metaphor of the passage cannot be taken to validate external ritual sacrifice as a means to liberation (mokṣa), as the focus on thoughtless ritual is the subject of the Upaniṣad’s criticism. The focus on traditional ritual, which clearly pollutes and wastes resources, plainly disregards the mindset of gratefulness for food and natural resources that the Upaniṣad advises us to have. The text aims to focus our meditation, prayer, and action through the constant awareness of food’s relationship to divinity, and inspire meaning-making beyond the mindless repetition of mantras and use of resources. It is through a mindful attention to our connection to nature can humans rediscover a dynamic and healthier relationship with the natural world.

  1. The offering to prāṇa is made with the little finger and the thumb. With the ring finger and the thumb is made the offering to apāna. With the middle finger and the thumb is made that to vyāna, with the forefinger and the thumb is made the offering to udāna, and with all fingers is the offering made to samāna.
  2. Silently one makes an offering to the ekarṣi (the sun); two to the āhavanīya (in the mouth); one to the dakṣiṇa (the heart); one to the gārhapatya (the navel) and one to the prāyaścitta (the flame of expiation; below the navel).
  3. Then, one says: “You are the covering of immortality, superimposed,” and so rinses their mouth twice with water.
  4. Taking water in the left palm, holding it over against the heart one recites: “The prāṇa is fire; the supreme ātman surrounded by the five vital breaths, which grants peace to all living beings; I shall no longer be born.”

    So ends the first khaṃḍa.

These verses continue the analogy of ritual motions to the care taken to maintain one’s health, and help further visualize the individual’s body as a sacred site, a temple in which ritual worship is conducted. The five fingers used to make offerings to the five vāyus in a Vedic ritual are re-conceptualized as the vayus themselves. These five flows of energy are characterized by motion in the body: prāṇa (life-breath, located in the lungs), apāna (downward flows, located in the hips and abdomen), vyāna (circulatory flows, like blood and oxygen, located throughout the body), samāna (digestive flows, located in the stomach) and udāna (upward flows, located in the throat). The scientific accuracy of such designations here is not important, since they function here primarily as analogies for bodily functions.

The twelfth verse describes a common action of rinsing one’s mouth with water before and after meals, drawing a parallel with similar ritual offerings of water in a yajña. The meaning of such a gesture is to ceremonially remind the individual of the life-giving properties of water, and how it reveals the eternally generative, abundant qualities of brahman. Water, being clear and the basis for biological life, at once conceals and reveals the life-force of prāṇa emanating from brahman.

The oblations made to each of the five “fires” are re-interpreted as nutrition and other modes of care for one’s personal health, which includes a spiritual dimension as well. The need for both material and spiritual nourishment is invoked through the esoteric functions of ritual as divine remembrance as well as the physical character of taking care of health and performing of ritual. Situating the ritual sacrifice in the body indicates that this may be accomplished within the individual who remembers this insight, leading to liberation from saṃsāra, without the aid of complex, rigid rituals such as agnihotra or the intricate philosophy of Sāṃkhya.

Most powerfully, especially in the Vedic era, the Upaniṣad’s characterization of personal care as fulfilling the same purposes of expensive and elaborate yajñas shifts the focus from orthopraxy to orthodoxy. Self-care or self-compassion (स्वकारुण्य — svakāruṇya) as a form of worship develops not only insight into the nature of ātman-brahman. As we see in the subsequent verses, the Upaniṣad’s critical but innovative view on ritual becomes clear, and is useful to constructing useful theological frameworks for modern issues.

The limiting perspective of Vedic ritual toward obtaining heaven or other material benefits (as explained by Yama in the Katha Upaniṣad) blinds us to the limitlessness of brahman because ritual necessarily imagines the seeker or sacrificer as incomplete in the absence of ritual. To correct this misapprehension, the Upaniṣad meditates on the drinking of water as a form of dhyāna, bringing the seeker’s attention to the ātman. The ātman, being identical with brahman, grants peace to those who recognize its presence and know that all things risen, sustained, and dissolved come and go from infinity of brahman. Birth, notionally speaking, implies the finitude of life (i.e. death), when in reality all things rise and fall from brahman. In light of the knowledge that “all this is brahman” (Chaṃdogya 3.14.1), the transitory dichotomy of birth and death ceases to exist.

Second Khaṃḍa

  1. “You (prāṇa) are the world, all beings, multiform, and sustain the universe as you emanate from brahman. All offerings enter into the immortal brahman, within all.”
  2. “That spirit, great and fresh, is established at the ends of the thumbs. I pour water round Them at the end of the fingers, that we might obtain immortality there.”
  3. One should meditate on this ātman and think: “Thus I perform a yajña”, the ātman like a son (foster-child/ward) of all, “may these sacrificial offerings, made in my body, become one with brahman”.

Verses 13–15 continue encourage the seeker to focus on brahman through the analogy of body-sacrifice, which iterates the vibrant, creative capacity of brahman and its endless capacity to bring forth the universe. Ironically, this train of thought repudiates the ritualistic focus of the classical Vedic religion while also being willing to use a ritual metaphor to convey its point. The five fingers, analogized as each of the five vayus (see verse 9), situate agency in the individual jīva through the active symbol of one’s hands. Brahman then becomes within reach, yet is just beyond the ends of the thumbs, pointing to the ineffability of the One. The image allows the individual to be free of dependency on ritual specialists for their liberation and are able to seek insight on their own. The prāṇagnihotra, the “life-breath fire offering” is realized by the life of the jīva, lived in awareness of the transcendent and immanent brahman, seeing its beauty and abundance in all things.

Through this understanding, we can identify a framework that might be termed, “ritual care”. Parts of people’s lives, such as faith, mindfulness or spirituality, as well as physical nourishment, mental health, and other forms meaning-making aid in imbuing the process of ritual worship with real transcendent and temporal meanings. Ritual worship serves both a personal goal of physically practicing worship and has spiritual meaning beyond the individual. Though the ritual takes place within the body, the Upaniṣad’s analogy elucidates the deeper meaning of ritual worship, especially as it pertains to community welfare.

The community-oriented interpretations that may be drawn from the Prāṇagnihotra Upaniṣad can be seen in the text’s child metaphor. Treating the ātman like a son or ward is an interesting comparison here, because it illustrates both the closeness but non-ownership of the ātman. A child does not exclusively belong to a parent like the notion of private property, but shares a familial, emotional, and non-material bond with their parent. A child is not bonded to their parent physically, yet is always close at hand through the bond shared between them. In many ways, this reiterates the meaning of the Īśa Upaniṣad, describing ātman-brahman paradoxically as near yet far, and moving yet unmoving (Īśa 4–5). The Katha Upaniṣad similarly expresses such a sentiment (2.21). This places the child metaphor in a more intelligible context.

Much as it requires a village to raise a child, the Upaniṣad indirectly states the expansive and all-encompassing character of brahman embodied in the child in the care of the world. The Upaniṣad implores the seeker to meditate on ātman in this manner, seeing their role to provide nourishment to not only themselves but to others in their care in all ways. Self-compassion is necessarily connected to the community’s welfare in a way that does not deny one’s own well-being, and is mediated through reason as well as faith. Ritual worship such as pūja then serves as a conduit for many community needs, spiritual and otherwise.

The sharing of prasāda feeds devotees, dāna supports the community, bhakti uplifts the hearts of the people; through these characteristics, the space is transformed into a place of healing for the ailing. This is exemplified in many South Indian pūjas, such as Gauri Habba or Thai Pongal, which enable the community to gather and rejoice in each others’ fortune and share in each others’ suffering. Rather than emphasizing the selfish and finite ends of Vedic yajña, the ritual worship of pūja and other such gatherings make space for the holistic welfare of the individual and community in a dynamic balance.

The willing of the seeker that all offerings to the ritual be joined in brahman can be read as a hope that all efforts made in service of one’s community as well as one’s efforts to care for oneself result in wisdom and insight. In this way, the Upaniṣad’s teaching serves as a valuable tool for re-conceptualizing Hindu worship spaces, communities, and attitudes toward personal development.

  1. There are the four fires, what are their names?
  2. The sun as fire, shaped like the solar disc, sheathed in a thousand rays, abiding in the crown (the head) as the ekarṣi. The fire of vision with its four forms, the āhavanīya, is stationed in the mouth. The bodily fire, promoting digestion takes the oblations, is the dakṣiṇa, shaped like a half moon, stationed in the heart. Then, there is the intestinal fire, the gārhapatya, stationed at the navel and consuming what is eaten, drunk, licked and chewed.
  3. The expiatory flame, the prāyaścitta, is below the navel; as three wives (generating fire, moon, and God) bring about procreation through moonlight, it is produced through the three main arteries.

    Here ends the second khaṃḍa.

This passage reiterates much of the same meanings as previously discussed, mapping the Vedic ritual sacrifice onto the body parts of an individual. This seems to obviate the need for ritual sacrifice in a way that excludes public participation or that requires dependence on a select few for personal liberation. Each part of the body, correlating to one of the five vayus, is also one of the Vedic fires that facilitate the realization of the ritual.

Third and Fourth Khaṃḍa

  1. In this bodily sacrifice, adorned by the girdle round the sacrificial ropes, who is the patron-sacrificer? Who is the wife? Who are the officiating priests (ṛtvij)? Who are the attendants? What are the sacrificial vessels? What are the oblations? What is the altar? What is the northern fire-hearth? What is the wooden container (for the soma)? What is the chariot? What is the sacrificial animal? Who is the officiating priest (adhvaryu)? Who is the invoking priest (hotṛ)? Who is the assistant of the Chief priest (brāhmaṇācchasmi)? Who is the assistant of the assistant of the adhvaryu (pratiprasthāta)? Who is the first chanter (prastota)? Who is the assistant of the hotṛ (maitrāvaruṇa)? Who sings the sāmaveda songs aloud (udgātṛ)? Who are the partners in the feast? Who is the stream-strainer (dhārapotā)? What is the darbha grass? What is the ladle? What is the container of the ghee? What are the two sprinklings of fat? Which are the two parts of the ghee? What are the preliminary offerings? What are the final sacrifices? What is the īḍa libation? What is the recitation? What is the śaṃyorvāka formula? What is the ahiṃsa? What are the patni-saṃyājas (offerings to the wives of the gods)? What is the sacrificial post? What is the rope? Which are the iśṭis (oblations of butter, fruits, etc.)? What is the sacrificial fee? What is the concluding ritual bath?

    Here ends the third khaṃḍa.
  2. In the bodily sacrifice, adorned by the cord round the sacrificial post, the sacrificer is ātman; the wife is the intellect (buddhi). The great officiating priests (ṛtvij) are the Vedas. The ego (ahaṃkāra) is the adhvaryu. The mind-consciousness (citta) is the invoking priest (hotṛ). Prāṇa is the assistant of the chief priest (brāhmaṇācchaṃsi); apāna is the assistant of the adhvaryu (pratiprasthāta). Vyāna is the first chanter (prastota). Udāna is the loud singer of the sāmaveda (udgātṛ). Samāna is the assistant of invoking priest (maitrāvaruṇa). The body is the altar. The nose is the northern fire-hearth. The forehead (crown of the head) is the wooden container of soma. The foot is the chariot. The right hand is the ladle. The left hand is the container of the ghee. The ears are the two sprinklings of fat. The eyes are the two portions of the ghee. The neck is the dhārapotā. The tanmātras are the partners in the feast. The great, gross elements are the preceding offerings. Guṇas are the subsequent offerings. The tongue is the īḍa libation. Teeth and lips are the recitation of hymns. The palate is the the śāṃyorvāka formula. Memory, compassion, forbearance, and non-violence are the four patni-saṃyājas. Oṃ is the sacrificial post. Hope is the cord. Mind (manas) is the cart. Desire is the sacrificial animal. The hair is the darbha grass. The sense organs are the sacrificial vessels. The organs of action are the oblations. Non-violence is the iśṭis. Renouncing the reward of the sacrifice is the sacrificial fee. Death is the concluding ritual bath. In this body reside all divinities.
  3. Either one who dies in Benares or the one who reads this Upaniṣad will attain liberation in one life: This is the secret doctrine.

Further describing each part of the body, both spiritual and physical, as correlated to a specific ritual component, the Upaniṣad aims to drive home the point that ritual sacrifice is like maintain the health and vitality of the human body. Respecting one’s body (and those others) like sacred spaces and efficacious means to liberation enables one to realize the innate sacredness of one’s body, irrespective of gender, race, caste, creed, or any other socially constructed category. All bodily functions are natural to each and every human being, making liberating activity open to all humankind.

Rather than ritual for the sake of preserving some reified vision of culture or religion, or in pursuit of other limited ends like wealth and fame, we are urged to actively participate in the revelation and expression of meaning through ritual worship. Prayer and worship are ours to make, and insistence on rigid forms of ritualistic behavior will simply impede the community’s path to freedom from suffering (duḥkha).

The specific parallels between ritual items and body parts are not important, but rather likely speaks to a reader who is a ritual specialist that the Upaniṣad seeks to persuade. However, the inclusion of things like memory, compassion, forbearance, and non-violence as elements of the body-sacrifice point toward an understanding of spiritual progress and evolution of wisdom that is not purely based on any kind of learning or a restricted set of actions, placed firmly in the potential of the seeker to realize liberation. The text further dispels the notion of mokṣa being exclusively founded on the quashing of emotions and feelings such as hunger or grief, but rather encourages a nuanced and developed perspective on ātman’s relationship to brahman.

The final line of the Upaniṣad’s main verses indicates to us that a liberating death in Benares, on the banks of the Ganga, is equivalent to the liberation afforded by the Upaniṣad’s insight. Death in Benares is commonly held to cause immediate liberation, though this is also said to be because one attains insight as a result of this kind of death. From this, we may conclude that insight is what allows for one to attain jīvanmukti (freedom in life). Death itself does not cause liberation, but rather the knowledge that all things are one in brahman.

This is impactful because it further illustrates that the wisdom from traditional perspectives, embodied in Benares, is equivalent to that found in innovative understandings like that of the Upaniṣad. We are able to cultivate a nuanced appreciation of traditional practices like ritual, while being able to criticize them, in order to attain a refined understanding of our teachings. Even as we move away from the narrow-minded ritualism of Vedic ritual to more modern understandings of ritual worship, the Upaniṣad teaches us to have reverence for the process by which we arrive at this transformative insight.

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