Resources of the Himalayan Yoga Tradition

Of Fire and Water

Fire and Water are almost “classical” opposing forces; after all they potentially destroy each other.  We think of them as far apart as black and white or “male and female”.

I have had the great privilege to spend three month in the company of Fire and Water; i.e practicing three month Silence in which the Fire-offering played a big part a few yards away from the holy river Ganga. This meant sitting several hours a day, more or less absorbed in each.

Neither of these Elements are particular unfamiliar for me. I worked for many years with open Fire as a ceramic artist and sculptor; and I lived nearly all my life near the sea.  So one might expect they are “all too familiar”. The unusualness of this situation came from being in Silent Retreat; distractions kept to a minimum, deepened the focus.

So much has been written about Fire and Water, whole books have been filled since ancient times. In the Vedic culture of India (root of the Yoga tradition) fire played the central part; but every culture and every indigenous tradition has its own wisdom teachings and customs around fire, and that includes the European traditions, ancient and modern.

Heraclitus, the Geek philosopher, for example, claimed “all things are One”, but appear as opposing forces in permanent interchange. This permanent interchange, we could call it action-power, or transformative power for Heraclitus, was Fire.

He refers to the world as "ever-living fire" and makes statements such as "Thunderbolt steers all things," (the Vedic God Indra/ Germanic Thor) alluding to the directive power of fire. “All things are an exchange for fire and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods.”  Fire becomes an ongoing process governing all change, just like different ever-changing waters flow in the same river!

Parmenides a scientist and contemporary of Heraclitus, taught that ultimately behind all these changes, “be they of Fire or Water” is the Great Goddess, she “who dwells in the middle of all things”.

These few examples might suffice here; what about today?

We still like to watch the Fire, bonfires, camp-fires; we sit in front of the fire place and dream; (It is said, that both Einstein with his Relativity theory and Planck with Quantum physics, started their explorations by watching the fire/light in a fire-place).

Even if we are not aware why, we light candle/fire at birthdays, celebrations, when worshipping or even when remembering the deceased. We mark the passage of time with fire, mark change with fire, even now.

What is it about “Fire”?  Fire is continuous, fast change, action power!  Just watch the ever moving flames; their constantly changing forms; such intensity of change.  Change uses energy and sets energy free, disperses it:  We say it gives off radiance; and we call that “light”.

The biggest Fire we know of is the sun; it burns continuously with the power of ten-thousand atomic explosions.  The radiance dispersed, the light given off by the sun is the light and warmth that allows life to grow on earth.  So sunlight or its origin, fire, is the source of life.  This light/ heat/energy of sunlight is assimilated and stored by photosynthesis in all living things, especially in plants i.e. trees.  So we cut the tree and burn the wood to free the trapped sunlight and warmth.  No wonder in Ayurveda and Chinese medicine there is the principal of “Fire existing in Wood”.

So what is fire? Solar energy/light on a path of permanent changing forms; i.e. what we call fire is a moment in a process of changing one form into another; this we call trans-formation. During the process, some of the energy is “lost” (released as heat and light). The trapped sunlight is freed, its ultimate direction/goal is to return to its original existence as light.

All life is - in effect - solar energy on this return journey to light. And it is that which we “tune into”, recreate, celebrate in the various types of fire-ceremonies. On some deep level of ancestral knowledge or consciousness, we know that we are sunlight! Hence mankind has always worshipped the sun, which has led to an enormous variety of myth and legends, culminating in anthropomorphic Gods, representing the power of the sun and its different facets of burning power. So what is fire? It is the gross manifest form of Light.

On a subtler level there is the light of intelligence by which we can see, think, and finally reach enlightenment. Swami Rama calls the subtle light behind all light “light of life”, which, in its subtlest form we can not describe.  For it we have no name, the scriptures call it: The light of a thousand suns”.

But let’s return to the simpler level of contemplation: fire is the power/the energy which allows one form to “dissolve” (one action, one self interest, one understanding, one form of knowing) in order to create a new one; as we said before, fire is permanent change; life is permanent change. Is fire and life then the same?

Let’s go back to sitting in front of the Fire-pit.

Contemplate: I am very much alive, and so are you, when you read this. Every cell in our body is continuously changing food into energy, air into energy, sunlight into usable energy etc. We even say: our body burns energy (after all what else is the metabolism). Every cell of my body constantly repeats this very same process of change. That means I not only exist because of the fire/warmth/light of the sun, but my every cell is performing that very job of  “Fire” (burning/transforming). I am indeed millions of little fires burning! More poetically: I am many flames of one fire – or in short: I am – you are - Fire!

And this process goes on through form after form, life after life until “it” has become so pure it has returned to light. Remember Heraclitus saying: “Thuderbolt steers all things”, i.e. it has direction. The force of the process of fire compels it to change from the light into the light.

Now the ancient Yogic/Vedic wisdom of honoring Fire makes sense.

Fire is, in its different forms, not just source of our existence, but presence as well as destiny; destiny in the sense that our goal is to become light; to reach enlightenment!

We are in fact on the path from Fire to Light, or even through fire to Light!

Now let our contemplation look at a different angle. There are differences in how one cell of our body works as transformer of energy from another. Anybody working with alternative medicines (of whatever shade) will immediately understand; it’s simple: the cells of our heart have a different job than the cells of our bladder!

Taking that into the above example, it means there are different types of energetic forces; different frequencies used and being released, radiating, energizing different parts of our body.

Meaning, in traditional yogic speak, fire illuminates, fire shines so there are there are different radiant, shining ones in different parts of our body. The word for “the shining ones” is Deva, hence our body is a temple housing many Devas!

Now please let your mind not wander into thinking Devas are some cute little angel fairies! Devas are powerful energies that move you into life, they are Shaktis, or Shakti in many different types, each with their own intelligence. You might think: “So you tell us there are “little Gods” in our fingertips and they are intelligent? You must be out of your mind!”

Well, rephrase that:

There are different kind of energies, with different inherent intelligence (such as is encoded in your genetic make-up) - for example “in each of your fingertips” . So for the ancients, the authors of the original yogic texts, each of your finger tip houses a “Deva”.

Most people involved in Yoga know about Agni, the digestive fire.  That is cutting very short the idea that there are living intelligent powers in us; one power is talked about as Lord Agni, a major Deva (shining One) that the ancient wise ones of the Himalayas recognized. But let’s not forget:

Western culture (built on Greek thinking) knew the same:  Hestia, a virgin Goddess that was also ‘wise woman”, was the center of the house, household (and body). Her altar was a continuously alight fire in the center of the house. She had many temples but no statues were made of her; Why? Because she was “the radiant One”, the living flame was her form! Her symbol was the circle with a dot in the center, just like the symbol for Shakti. To serve HER was to serve the Mother, Goddess, Shakti etc.

Modern times? Any memorial to victims of wars, has an “eternal flame”! It’s all there, but we forgot how to connect the dots!

The Vedas, Yoga, the ancient wise ones across the globe had a way of expressing wisdom and we need to learn from it! For that we need to try to understand what the “wise ones” meant. Please don’t just dismiss their wisdom as archaic language, and irrelevant symbolism or you miss the point. You were right, “I am out of my mind”, because to see what they understood one needs to leave the exclusive, rational behind. Sensing, intuiting what is meant, is asked for.  Once we can “see” their wisdom, including the parallels to the knowledge of our times (what we call science) it is obvious and much of it is a question of getting out of our compartmental modern thinking into more holistic “seeing”.  We have to learn to see by the light of that fire we call subtle intelligence, learn to see by the subtle light within. Practicing Silence is the training ground for that.

Now let’s leave fire behind and go across to the Ganga, the ancient river and its sacred waters.

Sitting there, contemplate: just as Fire is ‘worshipped” by many cultures as the beginning of life, so is Water! There is the Vedic tradition of Varuna, the Lord of the cosmic waters that where there at the beginning. It says in the beginning of the Old Testament (Judeo-Christian Tradition) that “the Spirit (Baruch) moved over the Waters; in the Zulu tradition of Africa the Spirit before creation moved over the Ocean of Nothingness. In ancient Japanese lore, the sky-kami gives  a sword to Izagami to stir the ocean, thus creating the first island; but most known of course is the description of the TAO  as the Watercourse way in Chinese tradition. If we want to be modern and ‘scientific,’ we can recall that science says: Life started within water . 

Observing Water, we can easily see its cycle; permanent change of form! Now it’s a dewdrop, now the life-sap in the roots of a tree, now its in the juice of the fruit, now in your belly, now in the river, now in the ocean, now evaporated in the air, in the cloud, in the raindrop, in the moisture of the earth, now in the dewdrop, etc. So Water constantly changes form, just like Fire, just at a slower pace.

Well, sitting at the Ganga, what I see in front of me is a passive, peaceful flowing river. HMmmm; the river might have been like this for a long time, but not always (it changed its course several times). Furthermore, further upstream it is/was a gurgling spring, a glazier, was water from ancient times, mixed with raindrops from our ‘polluted sky”. HMm (we will leave that). So the river itself changed, and of course the water in it changes constantly (Yes, just like fire); it’s constantly on the move, always adapting into new shapes. Yet it has a direction, it always flows to the Ocean, somehow or other, however complicated its way might appear it seeks the ocean. It has direction.  As fire’s goal is light, water’s goal is ocean. What did Heraclitus say? “Fire becomes an ongoing process governing all change, just like different ever-changing waters flow in the same river!”

We considered that on a higher, subtler level fire illuminates, the fire of the intellect (buddhi) leads to enlightenment. How about water? Well it has memory (principle behind homeopathy)! Emoto, the well known Japanese scientist who photographed water-crystals has proved beyond doubt that water remembers. Meaning, the waters in the river we call Ganga has memory; it remembers the purity and piety of glacial mountains, it remembers a golden age and harmony, it remembers the vibrations of sacred plants growing in it and at its banks and it remembers the innumerable acts of worship of people. Even nowadays the dedication and worship of people living by its banks is unparalleled. Every evening I observe the village-women gathering at the waters edge to offer worship with prayers, chanting, flowers and light.

All of this makes the river and its water special, just like the waters of Lourdes or other sacred springs. (For how long is a question, as plastic, paper and all sorts of materials are constantly being added).

OK, water has memory and is worshipped in many traditions and cultures just like fire.

Why? Because there is no life without water just as there is no life without fire!

Sitting at the Ganga I contemplate: Every cell of my body contains water; in fact the most important parts of my body (brain, spinal fluids, blood etc.) are mainly water. It’s a well known fact that our body consists almost entirely of water; we even breath-in water (air without moisture can’t be absorbed). Sitting there, I exist, breath, think by the grace of water, in fact I am Water, just as I am Fire.

Fire and Water - different yet the same. The difference? It’s easy to see:  Water always remains water.  Its form changes but in essence it remains the same. Fire changes by dying to itself (surrender/leaving behind) in the process of trans-forming. We have to take it to the next level of subtlety, to see that fire eventually becomes what it always was: Light.  As light, its essence never changes. There lies our problem: We don’t see that our body dies but on the subtler level, as light, we never die!

In fact Fire and Water, if we go beyond the gross level, are energy in different forms. (This is easily supported by science). The two appear only as opposites, but are one life-giving, life sustaining energy in two different forms. Again we have shifted level of understanding to a subtler level.

Now let’s go back to when contemplating Fire.  We said that the powerful life-sustaining energies were called “Devas” by the ancients of the Vedic/Yogic tradition. “Devas are powerful energies that move you into life, they are Shaktis, or Shakti, expressing as many different types, each with their own intelligence.”

So Water and Fire both are Devas, Shaktis.  They appear as different on the manifest level but with subtler understanding, we “see” them simply as different facets of the one Great Shakti, the Mother of all existence, as She who has many names, amongst them Parvarti and Prakriti.

Meaning: there is only one powerful energy which moves the universe and me; it appears, amongst others, in these two forms; hence, there is on the level of subtle existence no difference between Fire and Water!

What did Parmenides (ancient Greek scientist) teach? Behind all changes, “be they of Fire or Water” is the Great Goddess, SHE “who dwells in the middle of all things”.

We can expand on this and say: SHE doesn’t just dwell in the middle of things, but SHE is all
ever-changing things.

I have been asked about “fire worship” and rejected it (the intellectual me, has insisted on calling it “fire-offering”); I have been asked why worship Mother Ganga: nowadays it’s “just a dirty river”.  Now I “see” the world differently.

We exists within the body of the Great Mother, the Divine Shakti whose ultimate subtle form is light. Both Fire and Water are Her Rays. As we are composed of Fire and Water, we are the Rays of Her Light.

And if you find the language of talking about “Rays of the Goddess” too quaint, then stay neutral and simply realize that Fire and Water are two forces to which we owe life, thus they deserve our love and respect. (Use that language to understand; then go beyond it, and allow yourself to explore another dimension).