Chapter 19: Rituals, Fire and Knowledge
Questioner: Yajnas or rituals have an important place in spiritual discipline, and there are many forms of yajnas or sacrificial rituals mentioned in the scriptures. But the Gita attaches special importance to japa-yajna and jnana-yajna - the rituals of chanting and knowledge. Talking about the significance of japa or chanting, you mentioned ajapa or wordless chanting. So please explain to us the significance of japa-yajna, jnana-yajna and ajapa as envisioned by the gita.
Rituals have an important place in human life; what we call life is ninety percent ritual. human mind is such that it takes recourse to many seemingly unnecessary activities so that the harshness of life’s journey is mitigated.
In the course of man’s long history thousands of such rituals - I would like to call them plays - have been developed. If they are taken playfully they add juice to life, they become occasions for celebration. And if we take them too seriously they become pathological, an aberration.
It was a D-day in the whole life of the human race when fire was discovered for the first time. It is the greatest discovery ever made throughout man’s history. We do not know the name of the person who first discovered fire; whoever he was, he made the greatest revolution in man’s life. Since then man has discovered many other things. There has been a galaxy of great names like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Einstein, Max Planck - but none of them teaches the height of that unknown person who first discovered fire. Even the splitting of the atom and landing on the moon are not that important.
Now the same fire is such a common and ordinary thing in our day-to-day life - we have captured it in a tiny matchstick - that we cannot comprehend its pristine glory; but it was not so ordinary in the distant past. We are indebted to fire for most of the growth and progress our civilization and culture have achieved down the ages. Human civilization today is essentially the product of fire. None of the great inventions of history would have been possible without this igniting spark called fire. Fire is foundational to everything in our life.
Evidently when it was first discovered, we celebrated the occasion by dancing around it in utter ecstasy. This celebration, now turned into a ritual, was so natural and spontaneous - as if it had exploded on us from nowhere. There was no other way to express our gratefulness to existence except by dancing and celebrating. And we said fire was God, because it occupied such a central place in man’s life.
Every religion in ancient times grew around fire or the sun. The night was frightening it was full of darkness and danger and man was terribly afraid of wild animals and snakes and reptiles. And the day was comforting, full of light and warmth. One could look around and take care of himself against any danger. So darkness looked inimical and the sun seemed friendly. With darkness there was danger and death. With light there was hope; fear disappeared and everything was relatively safe. So human beings worshipped the sun as God. When fire was discovered, it heralded man’s victory over darkness, and so he began to love fire more than anything - including the sun. Naturally many beautiful things like song and dance, love and festivity grew around fire.