In Ayurveda, fire is the element of transformation. Just as fire turns bread into toast, the fire element in the body turns food into cells, and thoughts into actions. The nature of fire is to change things.
Humans have had a relationship with fire for over half a million years. They had to learn how to create, build and tend to fires in order to survive. It provided warmth as well as a means of turning hunted and gathered food into something edible. Humans realised early on that fire could be both their making and breaking, so needed to learn how to harness this powerful force with humility.
There are five elements in Ayurveda, these are called the panca mahabhutas, and they have an order to them. First there is ether (the field, and atmosphere that lies behind everything), then air, fire, water and finally earth element. The chronology of these elements starts with the most ethereal and pervasive (ether) and ends with the most robust and material (earth). Fire sits at the very centre of this list, for it is the turning point between that which is subtle and that which is substantial.
Fire Ignited Life On Earth
The Vedic texts refer to three basic forms of fire: the sun, lightning, and fire on earth. Without the sun, there would be no plants nor photosynthesis; it is the origin of life. Without the sun, we would have no day, and no light, we would not be able to see. Just as the fire element in our retina helps transform that which we are surrounded by into form and vision. The sun gives us all forms of light, and therefore the colour spectrum. Fire element in Ayurveda is known to have the qualities of form, vision, and colour.
Lightning is the connector between the sun and earth. It is like a rod that connects the two. It was a lightning bolt that gave us that first spark of ignition on earth, meaning we would then have fire to work with. And this leads to the last of the three: fire on earth, as it is built and maintained by humans, giving us warmth, protection and food. (As well as the internet, electricity and lightbulbs!)
The first lines of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, touch on the primacy of fire: In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep…And God said let there be light: and there was light (Genesis, ch.1 v.1-5)
Similarly, The first hymn of the first Veda – The Rig Veda (The Book of Hymns) – is an invocation and homage to the fire of creation, and god of fire, Agni. It reads: Agnimile purohitam, yagyasya devamrtvijam I hotaram ratnadhatamam II (Agni who is adored, and stands before the Lord and god who seeeth truth, is a warrior and gives us delights, I bow down to you).
Fire’s Spiritual Power
Agni is the Hindu god of fire. He is called the king of men, as he is said to be the protector, and just as fire element is the bridge between subtle and substantial materiality in the five elements, Agni is the mediator between the realm of gods and mankind.
In Hinduism, rituals are started with fire. My teacher in India has a holy fire or havan burning below his Ayurvedic clinic throughout the hours the clinic is open. He has holy men tending to it, reciting mantra and feeding it with ghee and prayer all day long. The ash that is then left over becomes holy ash that is given to each patient by way of a blessing as they are treated by my teacher. It holds spiritual power, as well as reminding them that they need to tend to the fire of their life, because of the fine line between their living and their going back to being ash. It serves as a reminder of the constant cycle of life and its destruction.
It is not just the Vedic traditions that see fire to be so sacred, in Shamanism and Indigenous American tribes it is also so. I have attended Najavo ceremonies, and it is an important role to be the fire tender. Grandfather Fire, as he is called in these traditions, is seen as the heart of the ceremony that gives clarity and courage to meet life’s challenges. When offered to and asked for advice, he will answer questions about life and deepen the asker’s connection to the world of spirit. Like Agni, Grandfather Fire is seen as a portal between the human realm and the world of spirit. He is the god of fire and sometimes called the original god in Aztec, American and Central American traditions.
In Hinduism, the sacred fire ritual is called a homa or havan. It is such a potent ceremony, because of the nature of the fire, that it’s said it will multiply and return whatever prayer is offered to it. When I was first initiated by my teacher in India, he made a havan for me, we offered ghee and mantra to it by way of blessings for my study and work. These fires are also said to make us lighter, for they burn off heavy loads of karmic baggage we might otherwise be carrying around. The fire is therefore the means by which we can move towards spiritual evolution.
The Fire Within
The digestive fire or agni as it’s called in Sanskrit, is the means by which life is maintained and disease is warded off in the body. The word ignite is rooted in this Sanskrit word of agni. Illness is often caused by malfunctioning agni. One of the most fundamental aspects of Ayurvedic medicine is how well this agni is working. It needs to be tended to, fed enough of the right types of food to keep it alive, and not smothered and put out by excess.
Then there is the fire of the mind and spirit which also needs to be tended to, kept alive with breathing practices and steady meditation, and not put out by excess anxiety which acts like a gust of wind.
Excess fire in the mind and body also leads to inflammation, acidity, burning sensations, anger and irritation.
Nurturing Our Relationship With Fire
We can use fire to burn off that which is no longer serving us. As always there is a balance to strike. It needs to live, to be respected and kept alive with air, space and time. But not allowed to proliferate, leading to aversion and explosive reactive states of mind.
Most people today don’t interact with an open flame. We are missing out on the warmth and light of this fire. As well as an understanding of what it takes to keep the flame alive inside our cells, tissues, digestive system and spiritual life. Electricity and electro-magnetic frequencies are a form of micro-fire, and they have replaced the relationship with real flame, but this is to the detriment of living beings. For phones and computer screens – although they have colour and form and can change – do not add to our feeling of being alive, rather, they diminish it. They mesmerise us into a false sense of integration with the natural world, leaving us less time and energy to actually be with these elements.
I urge you to nurture and foster a relationship with fire. It will help soften your mind, burn off that which is no longer serving you, as well as help you to understand life and the precious line between the material realms and those that are more subtle.
How You Can Start Working With Fire
Some ideas for doing this: camp under the stars and build a fire to keep you warm, and cook your food over. Build a small ceremonial fire in a fire place or container, see what it takes to create a sturdy one, and thank it for the life and light it gives us. They say that anything we offer to or ask of from a fire will be returned and multiplied, so be wise with your thoughts and intentions in front of a flame.
By Selina Van Orden