When the river Ganges reaches Benares in the middle of India’s Great Plain, it turns sharply to the left and drifts for a while northward — vast and silent, garlands of marigolds and cups of burning camphor floating serenely upon its surface. At about the mid-point of its slow journey past this “Jerusalem” of India, the river reaches Manikarnika Ghat. There, in the darkness sloughed off by a sun that has just marked its daily retreat to the underworld, half a dozen cremation fires glow and sparkle. The fires are a beautiful, irresistible sight as they gaily light up the night — flames dancing right and left, sparks streaming weightlessly upward, like rivers of golden stars.
Human corpses lie on the pavement, pointed this way and that, like grain tossed on the ground, seed kernels wrapped in golden husks of fine cloth. Each looks so small, so benign, and yet powerful on account of the immediacy of death that it silently conveys. The funerary workers have just placed one body atop a square stack of logs. The deceased’s eldest son — dressed in white and head shaved — awkwardly, dutifully, performs the ancient rituals, while trained experts casually instruct him in his uncomfortable task. The family gathers near to watch. The fire is lit, using an ember from the eternal fire that burns there at the ghat. The smoke rises, forming a long black curl that grasps the sky. The golden cloth surrounding the corpse begins to burn, and then the flesh begins to cook. Atop another fire, a body is nearly consumed, and above the smoldering coals of a third, funerary workers chat casually, warming themselves against the cool, evening air.
The Brahmin priests teach that Manikarnika Ghat is both the womb of the city and the navel of the new emergent universe. Thus, the cremation of a person’s body does not just have implications for the soul of the individual who has died; it also has implications for the entire world. The sacrificial oblation of a single corpse into the funeral pyre is the oblation of the entire cosmos, and it regenerates the cosmos as nothing else can do, but to perfect this cosmic regeneration, the offering must be a worthy one, and the soul’s renunciation of life in the earthly body must be total.
A thousand miles southwest of Manikarnika Ghat, the diamond-shaped continent of India is adorned, along its western coast, by a maze of estuaries that wind like cobras through a landscape of rice paddies and palm forests. The banks of these meandering waterways are dotted by tent-like fishing nets, each with a small light attached at its peak to attract fish into the net. At night, these lights look very much like the camphor fires that float on the surface of the Ganges so far to the north.
On the verandah of a small temple nestled beneath the coconut palms at the bank of one of these coastal estuaries, in the pure hours just before dawn, a Brahmin priest performs the daily fire sacrifice. The fire rises toward the sky, its smoke streaming through small openings in the verandah’s roof, and outside, the monsoon rains pour down, easing the South Indian summer heat. The shadow of the priest’s lean, erect body flickers on the smoke-stained wall behind the low platform on which he sits. He wears only a waistcloth and has the three-finger-stroke markings of Shiva drawn in ash across his limbs, chest, and forehead. His complex hand gestures tell a ritual story that, like a pantomimed poem, only reveals itself indistinctly, in fragmented suggestions of meaning. The vibrations of carefully articulated mantras resonate in the air, making palpable the mystical teaching that God created this world from sound.
A few people have emerged from the shadows of pre-dawn darkness to bathe in the light of the fire sacrifice. They gaze down at the shining brass implements, the golden butter dripping from the priest’s ladle into the fire, the flames licking upward toward the smoke-blackened beams overhead. The priest feeds the sacred fire with bits of coconut, fragrant wood, grass, flower petals, jaggery, nuts, rice, and other grains. Then, the priest stands and pours the remaining butter into the fire, all at once. The flames suddenly rise up as tall as a man, and the people who are watching bow their heads to the floor in unison. For a second, perhaps, they glimpsed the deity of the fire, like a picture projected among the dancing flames.
Butter is the refined essence of cream, which is the refined essence of milk, which is the refined essence of the cow. The cow’s milk is truly her own precious vitality, which she pours out lovingly as food for her newborn calf, and butter is the vigor of that milk. Thus, it is the cow, not mere butter, that is being placed on the fire — it is her life that pours out from the ladle in the form of melted fat.
Long strings of butter fall gracefully into flames that leap upward to meet their Lord. The rain falls down in streams that fertilize a chaste soil that is heaven’s bride. Is this small temple in South India somehow the same as Manikarnika Ghat? Is it the same as the ancient temple in Jerusalem? Is it Calvary Hill? Is it Auschwitz? What ties these disparate images together? Sacrifice, of course. The fire sacrifice is a beautiful, versatile metaphor, but for the faithful, it is so much more; it is an enactment of one’s own being. On the verandah of that small temple in South India, one is able to witness one’s own innermost self, dramatized before one’s eyes. One’s own self is the butter being poured out. One’s own self is the flame rising up to receive it. One’s own self is the firepit. One’s own thoughts are the fragrant wisps of smoke rising toward the sky. One is the sacrificer, the sacrifice, the fire, and its victim. (On the Vedic fire sacrifice, see here.)
As noted, the book of Leviticus was the handbook the priests followed in their service at the Jerusalem temple, including the details of the fire sacrifice that they conducted at that temple. Scholars assert that Leviticus was probably added to the Torah at a relatively late date, perhaps as a result of a priestly redaction of the Torah’s five books long after the construction of the Jerusalem temple. The conceptual content of Leviticus, however, is very ancient. Fire sacrifice as a method of worship probably originates with the domestication of fire, and the methods and principles that the priests in the Jerusalem temple followed were those that had been passed down to them through the generations.
As we know, however, Roman soldiers destroyed the Jerusalem temple nearly 2,000 years ago. Since that is so, are not the details of the temple service a matter of mere academic interest? What practical need have we today to study these things? The answer to that question lies in fractal geometry. If the temple rite is a multiform of the human being, and the latter is a multiform of the universe, then the book of Leviticus — the manual of the priests — is really about us and our relationship to the world around us. In that case, Leviticus is arguably the most relevant, not the least relevant, book of the Torah.
The foregoing is an excerpt from the introduction to Part Three of Torah Nondualism: Diversity, Conflict, and Synthesis in the Pentateuch. For a detailed and inspiring explication of the Jewish fire sacrifice, please read the book.
Please click here.
Please “like” or “share” this website on Facebook:
You can also “like” or “share” this page of the website using these buttons:
Copyright © 2011 James H. Cumming