The first word of Rigveda is agni ( Cp. ignes, igneous, ignite, ignition). It was due to the Buddhist influence that the Hindus began to sculpt images1. The Vedic religion was primarily that of worshipping divinities through the medium of fire. Very complex fire altars with geometric precision were built. What is now known as Pythagoras’ theorem is called Bodhayana’s theorem by many Hindus as it appears in Bodhayana’s text (14th century BC) on the construction of fire altars.
The Vedic worship through fire is different from the Mazdayasnian ( =Zarathushtrian=Parsi) worship. In the Mazdayasnian religion the fire itself is the divine presence. In the Vedic, Agni is a divine being who not only receives offerings in his own right but more prominently is also the messenger of humans , carrier of the offerings of humans, to the devas, as well as the messenger of devas to humans.
The Vedic fire offerings remain at least half of all Hindu ritual and liturgy.
The fire altar is a pit of defined shape which is consecrated. The presence of Agni is invoked with mantras.
Samagri and ghee are burnt with mantric recitations. Samagree may differ form season to season and for different purposes that the yajamana ( one for whom, by whom, or on whose behalf the service is being performed, Cp. Household that may request a special Mass to be said) may have in mind2.
Samagree is a mixture of as many as 36 ( or more or less) barks, roots, leaves, herbs etc. mixed by traditional formulations and are supposed to have therapeutic and depollutant effect.
Ghee, the essence of anna ( food) has many spiritual associations.
Dry samagree being burnt is very hard on the nose; ghee softens it, too.
A homa, or more commonly called yajna, may last from a few hours to many weeks.
One may choose to recite a mantra just 108 times or have it recited as many as 10 million times. The power of the intonation, and the concentration of mind experienced is remarkable.
Each recitation is completed with the enunciation of the word svaha (all the way from Tibet to Japan, they pronounced the word as Soha). It is a potent word , difficult to translate, like OM. Roughly, I make this offering in truth and sincerity and surrender.
The phrase na mama or idam na mama is pronounced. Not mine. Not mine. I offer all my claims of ego as an offering of worshipful surrender. I burn all my desires and claims in the fire3.
Repeated 108 times. 125000 times. 10 million times. Each time the hand extending and pouring the fragrant offering into the fire.
This is the briefest essence of the fire ceremony.
On the last day, all remaining ghee etc. must be poured in holocaust.
Let me explain (not the Nazi brutality) the Greek holocaust. The Greeks also made ‘burnt offerings’ as did the Hebrews of the Old Testament. When an offering poured into the sacred fire was completely burnt it was understood that the gods have accepted the prayer; that was called holocaust by the Greeks. The Indian word is purna-ahuti: the offering of completeness, of perfection which is made with the mantra:
purnam adah purnam idam
purnat purnam ud-achyate
purnasya purnam adaya
(The word purna means filled, fulfilled, complete, perfected, perfect as God).
That is purna; this is purna4.
purna is taken from the purna.
Upon taking purna from the purna
what remains, too, is purna.
(The definition of infinity recited in the fire ritual – as above).
As to the pouring of ghee through long bamboo – just a convenience. When the final offering is to be poured it has to be ample – all that remains of one’s desires, actions, fruits thereof.
That much ghee makes for a very heavy blaze. To stand a little far away and still pour the ghee-offering the long bamboo is used, resting on two cross bamboo poles ! Nothing mystical about it (although one can give a mystical explanation for anything !!).
Most Hindu philosophers and theologians state the concept of life as a yajna as the fundamental Hindu model.
A devout householder is supposed to perform five yajnas daily :
Brahma-yajna = daily meditation, offering into the interior fires of prana, mind and consciousness;
Deva-yajna = worship offering to the Divinities, through fire in the Vedic times, through fire and puja rituals in later Hinduism;
Pitr-yajna = offerings to ancestors, manes, and daily worshipful service to one’s living parents and elders;
Atithi-yajna = worship offering to guests ( the word a-tithi means one who comes without making a date) (hospitality is not a social act but a worship)
Bali-yajna = offering to lesser beings, spreading sugar at ants’ nests, putting aside the first chapatti for the wandering cow, as well as putting aside daily, before cooking, some uncooked rice, daal, grain, flour, for giving away to the temple priest, monk, beggar ( or orphanage nowadays).
Also please see Bhagavad-gita Ch.3, verses 8-17 that explain the philosophy of yajna, which essentially is: make yourself into a worshipful offering and pour yourself into the divine fire.
The fire offering you witnessed is an embodiment of all this teaching and the participants are actually very conscious of it.
1Please abjure the missionary word ‘idols’. The Hindus commonly using it do not know how insulting it is.
2Starting on my religious career in India , back between 1947-52 I often had the honour of serving as a chief priest because a knowledge of the Vedas is considered essential for this position. Many village council or groups would undertake a 7-day or 15-day homa for the purpose of invoking rainfall. In my experience, the rains always came pouring on the last day.
3Please see my summary translation of the sanyasa (the Swami’s Vows ) ceremony, especially the parts in blue which relate to the concept of offering all one’s components into divine cosmic fire.
4“That” always refers to the transcendent and “this” to the tangible material, eminent universe including ourselves.