Ritual as Self-Care and Transformative Knowledge

Shashank Rao
15 min readJul 9, 2019

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…

Shashank Rao

Aspiring Hindu theologian and polyglot-in-progress. UChicago MDiv Class of 2024.