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Cupping the Vedic Flame

In May 1990, a near-extinct Vedic ritual, the most ancient system of worship to have survived, came alive in an obscure little village. The objective: to foster universal well-being.  This is a record of that event.

Inflation is rampant on the dirt track leading to the hallowed zone where a great Vedic ritual holds the attention of the world.

As the crowds draw near the thatched complex called the yagnasala, the air reverberates with Vedic chants. The juxtapositions grow stark, tenses mingle, past and present fuse. Time flips back 3,000 years as a fossilised tradition is resuscitated with the breath of the present.

The Sagnichitya Athiratra Somayaga that held sway for 12 days in the sleepy village of Kundur in Trichur district in Kerala, South India, served as much to preserve a tradition on the verge of extinction as to foster universal well-being. To observe the mechanics of the process, a bevy of scientists arrived with expensive equipment and wired the ritualists for data.

This heightened interest brought into the limelight a field of knowledge fast fading from public cognizance. Vedic rites have traditionally passed on from one generation of Namboodiris, the priestly community, to the next, but the graph is a tapering one. Modern Vedic scholars despair the disintegration of ancestral links. With modern-day pressures, it may not be possible to stage these elaborate, ancient rituals in the  future.

This anxiety motivated Frits Staal, an authority on the Vedas, to rustle up funds and organise an Athiratra Yajna at Panjal in Kerala in 1975. Namboodiri doyens were persuaded to impart their knowledge to a select team of ritualists, both young and old. The result was a two-volume work by Staal entitled Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, which today serves both as a reference text and as an authoritative ritualistic textbook. The yajna organised by Staal came 20 years after a 1956 performance of the same ritual.

The Sagnichitya Athiratra Somayaga combines two Vedic rituals that complement each other. The first, the Mahagnichayana, is a fire ritual which involves the construction of a fire altar made from a thousand clay bricks, which finally take a form resembling an eagle with outstretched wings. The laying of each brick is heralded by the recitation of mantras from the Yajur Veda. The altar consists of five layers with 200 bricks in each layer. The sacred fire is placed on this altar.

The other complementary ritual is the Athiratra Somayaga, in which the main offering is the juice of the soma creeper - believed to be symbolic of the nectar of the gods - which is poured into the sacred fire. The Athiratra is known to exist as an independent ritual. But in Kerala, it is always performed together with the Mahagnichayana.

The Somayaga, perhaps the most ancient system of worship to have survived, is an elaborate ritual meant primarily to engender universal prosperity through the potent vibrations emitted during the recitation of the Vedic mantras. The mantras are thought to have a beneficial effect on human beings, animals and the environment - a line of inquiry that drew a team of scientists to Kundur. 

The 12-day yajna is a collage of picturesque rites which opens with the kindling of the sacred fires - garhapatya, ahavaneeya and dakshinagni - and the preparation of the eagle- shaped, brick fire altar onto which the juice of the soma creeper is poured as the most important offering of the ritual. In mythical lore, the juice of the soma creeper symbolises the amrith or nectar brought from the heavens by Gayatri, in the form of an eagle (garuda). The soma juice is poured continuously, round the clock, for two days.

The preparation of the ukha pot in itself is an important prelude. The pot is crafted with the clay that has been ritualistically trampled upon by a horse and then carried on the back of a donkey. The pot is heated in one of the sacred fires, the ahavaneeya. Combustible materials like coconut fibres, twigs and cowdung cakes are crammed into the pot, resulting in the generation of fire. The pot is later placed in the brick altar.

An eye-catching highlight is the mode of producing fire by 'churning' the wooden layers, a process that could take from minutes to hours. The fire thus generated is used in the conduct of the crucial rites. The run-up to the last three days - undoubtedly the most crucial phase in the entire ritual - is marked by pravargya and upaasad, a series of protracted propitiatory rites.

The yajna has its own nomenclature. The person who oversees the proceedings is called the yajamanan. He undergoes severe austerities during the days when the ritual is in progress, and is not allowed to eat or wash himself. He is assisted by 15 functionaries known as ritwicks, who help execute the ritual and recite or chant the Vedic mantras. The austerities undergone by the yajamanan are meant to prepare him spiritually for the final rite - the offering of the soma juice. 

The Athiratra ritual has three stages. The first is the preparation of the implements and materials necessary for the ritual. The second is its execution. And the third involves the disposal of all the material left behind after the completion of the ritual.

It is as part of the third stage that the brick altar is set ablaze, generating a visual spectacle that marks a grand finale to the 12-day ritual. The conflagration symbolises the surrendering of all materials unto nature.

The scriptures lay down specifications of locale and time for the conduct of the Sagnichitya Athiratra Somayaga. The site must constitute level ground close to a natural water source. The yajna should be conducted on a day marked by a 'divine constellation' (deva nakshatra).

The meaning and symbolism behind the ritual is a subject of speculation among Vedic scholars. The operation manuals for conducting these rituals are called the sroutha sutras in Vedic parlance. And those texts that attempt to explain the rationale behind the rites are known as the brahmanas. While the sroutha sutras are explicit as regards the modus operandi to be followed, the brahmanas are a complex corpus of largely speculative and interpretive ideas that try to explain the significance behind the rituals.

Charles Malamoud, a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at the Ecole Des Hautes Etudes (School for Advanced Studies), Paris University, observes: "Abstract and speculative thoughts first started in India with these rituals. Such yagnasalas were the first laboratories of mental devices such as what is principal, what is subsidiary, what is whole, what is part of whole, what is the original form and what is the variation". These concepts are basic to the quest for knowledge, and govern the practice of the Vedic rituals.

One possible interpretation for the construction of the fire altar is that each brick is the concretisation of an abstract Vedic mantra. They add up to a thousand bricks, which is the total number of mantras rendered during this phase.

The Vedas are not without a controversial dimension, a feature that often hounds such performances. Animal sacrifices are a prescribed prerequisite for the Athiratra ritual. Even the mode of killing is graphically described. The Yajur Veda prescribes the slaughter of 11 goats by strangulation on the main day of the ritual. In fact, all Somayagas (of which the Athiratra ritual is one) have the animal sacrifice element as a Vedic stipulation. Accordingly, goats were sacrificed during the 1956 yajna. But the practice had to be abandoned during the 1976 ritual when a public agitation erupted over the issue. This year the option was not even considered by the organisers, who resorted instead to innocuous symbolism. The fact remains that the mammoth turn-out at the yajna site consisted largely of an uncomprehending public. Most of those who came were conscious only of standing in the shadow of a momentous event.

What exactly is the yajna meant to achieve? An answer to that must necessarily take us to the very nature of Vedic rituals. There are basically two categories: the drishya and sroutha rituals. The first set of rites pertain to individual welfare and centre around child-naming ceremonies and the like. The second category has as its objective universal well-being, extending to human beings, plants and animals. The two categories exist separately in the Vedas.

The manuals of the sroutha category, called the sroutha sutras, are varied. Those employed in Kerala and at the Kundur yajna are drawn specifically from the Kaushitiki in the case of the Rig Veda, the Boudhayana with regard to the Yajur Veda and the Jaiminiya in relation to the Sama Veda. The yajna employs mantras derived from these Vedic texts.

The operation manuals are in Malayalam and until recently were preserved in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts. The manuals were translated into Malayalam from their original Sanskrit more than 200 years ago. An obvious advantage was that they afforded access to those not well-versed in Sanskrit. But a disadvantage was that it kept local ritualists from bothering with the orginal Sanskrit texts. It also isolated them from scholarly interaction outside Kerala. 

This could lead to pitfalls as evidenced at the Kundur yajna. The yajamanan originally announced for the ritual was Kavapramarath Shankaranarayanan Somayajipad. A birth in his family polluted him, creating an unprecedented crisis which could be resolved only by referring to the original Sanskrit text for guidance. But none of the leading figures among the ritualists in Kerala was proficient enough in Sanskrit for the purpose. It was finally resolved that a new yajamanan would be named.

The yajna performance is preceded by long years of training and practice. A ritualist entrusted with reciting the Vedic mantras must do it alone for several hours non-stop, without committing a single error in tone, pronunciation or textual accuracy. There is, therefore, a paucity of such experts. Two acknowledged names in Kerala are C V Somayajipad and Nellikkat Mamunnu Neelakantan Akkithiripad. Somayajipad, an expert on Rig Vedic and Yajur Vedic mantras, died in March 1990 at the age of 89. That left the 85-year-old Akkithiripad, a Sama Veda expert, to carry the torch alone. And after him, who will?

This is the daunting question that prompted the setting up of an organisation to preserve the yajna system from irretrievable loss. Under the tutelage of Somayajipad and Akkithiripad, 50 Vedic students were trained in the skills of performing yajnas.

The scientists who attended the yajna used their sophisticated equipment to evaluate its impact on the ritualists, the spectators and the environment. Areas of special focus included the effect of the mantras on plants and animals, on brain tissue, blood pressure, respiration and heart-beat rate. Also installed was a Kirlion camera to detect electromagnetic radiation emanating from human bodies.

Preliminary observations indicated that the yajna had the effect of dramatically reducing fungal spores around Kundur. Long-suffering asthma patients reportedly experienced relief.

One question, however, has continued to haunt the public imagination. Will the yajna produce rain? The organisers say no such claim exists in the Vedas. It did rain at the end of the yajna performed in 1975. But the organisers would like to think of it as a coincidence.

The association between the yajna and rain is indelible. Did it rain on May 9, 1990?

It did.



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