Chapter 19: Rituals, Fire and Knowledge
Jnan-yajna or sacrificial ritual of knowledge stands for a special spiritual path, and every traveler on this path burns his ego, his “I-ness” in the fire of the knowledge of reality. Ordinary fire burns everything that is gross, but it cannot burn subtler elements like thoughts of arrogance, pride and ego. Only the fire of knowing can destroy it.
It is interesting to know that down the centuries the symbol of fire remains alive. And it is not without reason.
The most important reason was that in the life of the primitive man there was nothing like fire which by its nature moved upward. Water moves downward: pour it anywhere and it will find a downward path to flow. But no matter what you do, the flame will always rise upward. Even if you turn a burning torch upside down, its flames will keep going up. So fire became the symbol of ascension - upward journey; its flame reflects man’s highest aspiration to reach the unknown.
Fire was the first thing in the knowledge of man that rebelled against the law of gravitation. The earth seems to have no power over fire. So those who danced around fire and rejoiced over its blessings also nursed a hope and prayer that a day might come in their life when they would go on the upward journey to the highest, the ultimate in existence.
Like water, human mind as we know it is inclined to move downward. There is some similarity between man’s mind and water. Pour a container full of water on the hilltop and it will soon find its way down to the lowest lake in the valley. Such is man’s mind. Therefore the seers who first exalted the fire and danced around it in joyous homage declared their aspiration to become like fire and ascend to the heavens. Their prayer said, “We want to turn our spirit into a flame so that even if it is put in an abyss it will continue to move upward and reach the zenith.” So the ritual of the sacrificial fire was symbolic and significant.
There is another attribute of fire which is still deeper and more meaningful; it is that first it burns its fuel and then burns itself. As soon as the fuel turns into ashes the fire is extinguished. This aspect of fire is deeply representative of knowledge, which first burns the dross of ignorance and then burns itself. It means to say that after one’s ignorance is dispelled, the ego, the knower himself disappears. The Upanishad says, “While the ignorant wander in darkness the knowledgeable wander in blinding darkness.” For sure, this has been said to ridicule the pundits and scholars who subsist on borrowed knowledge. One who attains to true knowledge, what is called wisdom, disappears as an ego, and so there is no way for him to wander in darkness. True knowledge first destroys ignorance and then it destroys the knower too, who ceases to be an ego, an entity. It is like fire, that after burning the fuel extinguishes itself.
So those who came to know the truth realized that knowledge is like fire. It burns ignorance like fuel, and then burns the knower as an ego, who disappears into emptiness. Therefore, he alone can embark on a journey to knowledge who is prepared to become an utter emptiness, nothingness.