- The agnichayana, or “ritual of building the fire altar,” was one of the grandest rituals in the Vedic sacrificial tradition; it played an extremely important role in the development of Hinduism. It is most completely described in the sixth book of the SHATAPATHA BRAHMANA, which is attached to the YAJUR VEDA. The ritual involves building a temporary shelter of posts and roof thatching to serve as the site for the ritual and all of its adjuncts, which last for more than two weeks. Once the shelter has been created, a huge falcon is built from consecrated bricks. This bird is homologized or understood to be PRAJAPATI or the PURUSHA, the Universal Being. Seventeen special-ized priests are required for this most elaborate of Vedic rituals. A sacrifice of 14 goats formed a central part of the early ritual.The agnichayana is understood as a renewal or re-creation of the universe through ritual. A late verse in the RIG VEDA recounts how the Primordial Man offered himself in sacrifice to create all of the universe; the agnichayana reenacts this process. SOMA, the special drug taken by the Vedic BRAH-MINS, was used during this ritual.The agnichayana ritual, and the theory that developed around it, helped define Indian notions of ADVAITA or non-duality—the equation of the individual self with the Universal Self or Real-ity. The Shatapatha Brahamana, where this ritual is described, says that it must be understood as the universe itself. As the later Vedic texts, the Aranyakas, show, this Vedic ritual can be done esoterically within the body and being of one person. If the agnichayana is the Universal Reality and a person’s being is the ritual, then one can conclude that a person’s being is the Universal Reality, or all that is. This insight leads to the philosophical identification of the individual self and the Ultimate Reality, later found explicitly in the Upanishads.Further reading: Julius Eggeling, trans., The Satapatha-Brahmana, Part 1, According to the Text of the Madhyan-dina School (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1982); J. Frits Staal, AGNI: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Robert Gardner and Frits Staal, Altar of Fire (videorecording) (Cambridge, Mass.: Film Study Center at Harvard Uni-versity, 1983).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.