The Vedic fire ritual is a Hindu ceremony of sacrifice to the Gods. This ritual is considered to be a big part of the Hindu religion and traditions. This ritual originated within Hinduism since it first began which was over 300 years ago. From such a historical time to now the ritual has changed and adapted over the many years. There is a caste system within India which the ritual varies in terms of exact methods and measures. Also depending on what part of India (the north or south) the sacrificial ceremony has different ways of being performed. In all parts of India what remains the same is the sacredness and purpose of the sacrifice which is an offering in honour of the Gods (Klostermaier, 2008). The sacrificial ceremonies have in modern times become less important compared with Vedic times (Sen, 2005). The time frame of the Vedic period cannot be placed on an exact time frame however has been predicted to begin between 1700-1100 BCE (Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2012).
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Within the Hindu religion there are hundreds of Gods. However there are the main three which are Indra, Shiva and Vishna. All the other Gods are reincarnations of these Gods. Agni is the God of fire, he is considered to be the most important God within the Vedic Period. Indra is closely related to Agni and it has been suggested that they are twin brothers (Encyclopaedia Mythica, 20012). The story of Agni is uncertain as there are many different interpretations to where he is from. “…another time he is the son of a queen who keeps his birth secret from her king. He was born, like Indra, in full power and vigor. Agni is also said to be the son of ten mothers who are all sisters; these are the ten fingers of man. Another story tells that he consumed his parents when he was born, as they could not provide for him; this is symbolic of the fire born when two sticks are rubbed together which quickly are burned up by it” (Encyclopaedia Mythica, 20012 ‘Agni’). Agni holds great importance within the Vedic fire ritual; as his role is to be the messenger from mankind to the higher power; the great gods (Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2012). In current time Agni is not acknowledged as frequently as he had been in the Vedic Period. Agni is now described as an “older Vedic God” (Walsh, 52).
During the Vedic Period the Vedic Fire Ritual was performed on a regular basis within Hindu communities in India. The ritual is a sacrificial ceremony. The Sacrifices are offerings to the higher powers. The offerings are to the Gods through the fire. There is a fire pit that is the way in which the sacrifices are offered to Agni and all the other Gods. The exact method of this ritual varies from caste and regions of India. It was then later believed if songs of praise were to accompany the sacrifices they might be showing a further element of respect to the gods. There is the Vedic Samhitas which is a collection of prayers and ritual formulae that has been put together in order to assist in the teachings to younger generations. This text ensures that the ritual will not be altered due to misinterpretation. There is a belief that if the procedures are not followed correctly then this could bring about disaster such as death.
Traditionally the Vedic fire ritual was performed by the people in society, and the way in which the rituals were taught was by word of mouth from generation to generation. It was formally a duty of the king to arrange public sacrifice for the well-being of the people (Klostermaier, 2008). As the ritual began to grow so did the necessity of Vedic rights. In order to ensure that the procedures were correctly formed a Vedic Samhitas were created. The Vedic Samhitas is a collection of prayers and ritual formulae for the Vedic Fire ritual (Sen, 2005). The complexity grew so greatly that now only highly trained Brahmans can carry out the processes correctly. A Brahman is a Hindu priest, and is highly respected by all castes. Before being titled a Brahman they must undergo many years of training. They are considered to be highly prestigious and with this status they obtain many privileges (Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2012). The need for a highly trained Brahman to perform the Vedic fire ritual is due to belief that if the procedure were to be incorrectly performed that they could offend the Gods. With this did occur they would fear that there would be serious repercussions such as illness or even death.
Initially the Vedic sacrifice had no need for a temple and was performed in an open space. The spiritual space was referred to as a Vedi which was marked by either being slightly raised or hollowed. Gradually the space where the ritual takes place has changed bringing the ritual inside a temple with fire-alters. The construction of an alter is built in a particular way with bricks (Klostermaier, 2012). Originally there were no images that were associated with the ritual or even the religion as a whole, though today there are many images. There are pictures of the gods that allow you to have an image of who you are worshipping. Agni the god of fire has been illustrate with two faces, seven sharpened fiery tongues, golden teeth with seven arms and three legs. His skin is red and is often accompanied by a ram (Encyclopaedia Mythica, 20012).
Sacrifice is very symbolic as it shows that the worshippers are willing to give something up. Sacrifices are offered to the lord. The idea with these offerings is that they give something to receive something in return (Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2012). Animal sacrifice was traditionally very common with the horse being the most elaborate form of sacrifice. Many other animals were offered as well such as a goat, ram or meat to symbolise. There were times in which human sacrifice has taken part in the ritual, as an offering; however this was not common and happened very rarely. Butter, milk and rice are alternate offerings that were given to the sacred fire which is what is used in more modern times. Some animals were excluded such as the camel, as they did not contain medha. Medha is the substance that makes the sacrifice work. (Klostermaier, 2012).
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The main ambition of performing the Vedic fire ritual is in hopes of receiving a long life and good fortune. This ritual was viewed as indispensible by the Vedic people (Klostermaier, 2012). This fire ritual took place for a great number of reasons. The ceremonies took place in acknowledgement of stages in a person’s life from conception to death. Some of these ceremonies include; conception, during pregnancy, birth, to dedicate infants astrology sign, birthdays, puberty such as a girls first time of menstruating, initiation into adulthood, marriage, asking for good health due to illness, death (where the body is cremated in the fire) (Britannica Encyclopaedia, 2012). These are called samskaras and can also be referred to as sacraments, which are required in order to make a Hindu a full member of the community. Not all of these are performed by each caste as different casts had different traditions. The importance of these sacrifice hold high importance particularly to higher caste-Hindu. The most important sacrament received is the rituals performed in order to receive your name and establishment of horoscope which is performed after birth however formerly during conception. Another crucial samskara is referred to as the second birth which is the initiation into Hinduism at the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. Marriage is the most important samskara which is to ensue fidelity, happiness and progeny. It is common if a marriage fails that people will look for flaws in the sacrificial ceremony. There are also another number of reasons sacrifices are performed such as religious events, full moons, if there were a lack of cattle (Klostermaier, 2008).
The Vedic fire ritual has had a large influence on the culture within Hinduism. However the custom on the elaborate sacrifice is gradually becoming less important since the Vedic age. The main goal of this sacrifice is to invoke good Karma Vidhi from the governors of human destiny. Meaning they are making an offering to the Gods in order to receive a good life -good karma. Over time the ritual grew to become only performed by an expert Brahman. Many of the rituals and prayers have been recorded in the Vedic Samhitas however some have been lost due to being passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth (Sen, 2005). Even though the sacrifice has lost some of its importance it is still acknowledged and performed due to having such a rich historical importance.