torsdag den 29. maj 2014

Panch agni, or 'five-fire-austerity'

Only sadhus belonging to the Ramanandi sect perform the five-fire-austerity, panch agni tapas, as it is called or, more commonly, dhuni tap.As one of the oldest forms of ascetic penance panch agni tapas is mentioned in ancient Hindu mythology. 
Originally it involved surrounding oneself with four fires, sitting in the bright and hot midday sun which would be the fifth fire.
Nowadays is executed with varying numbers of fires, starting with five, and progressively increasing in number in the course of eighteen years, until the fires form a circle and the tapasvi carries a pot with fire on the head.
I must remark here that dhuni tap is executed in various degrees of seriousness and corresponding length of time per session. Some babas go through the motions and are finished in 15 minutes, others take 45 minutes to an hour.
There is some ostentatiousness involved too (as with most extreme austerities), for dhuni tap is usually done by the roadside, where pilgrims will certainly notice it. Awed, the pilgrims might be more willing to part with some donation. 
Dhuni tap confers status in the sadhu community.
At the Ujjain Kumbha Mela of 1992, I noticed offerings of dung-cakes to dhuni tap babas just as it is portrayed on the 1729 engraving published in Tavernier.
An integral part of the exercise is the ritual offering of foodstuffs to the smouldering heaps of cowdung, the holy fire, under the acompaniment of muttering mantras.
In this ascetic ritual the sadhu symbolically sacrifices himself to the fire, he has become the offering.
Having made offerings to his fires, the baba blows the shankh, or conch-shell, to invoke the deity. It is the musical instrument with which Vishnu produces the primordial sound of Creation, and it is only used by Vaishnavas.
This concludes the preliminary rituals, and now the Baba can sit in meditation.
Panch-agni-tapasya must be done for eighteen consecutive years, going through various stages.
The first stage involves surrounding oneself with five fires. 
During the next stages there are seven, twelve, and eighty-four fires, culminating in ‘innumerable’, i.e. a circle of fires, and in the final stage a pot with fire is balanced on the head. Each stage is performed for three consecutive summers.
Each session of the fire-austerity is usually concluded with the performance of some hatha-yoga exercises.
Panch-agni is quite popular nowadays.

Preparing for his fire-austerity, a baba purifies the place with fresh cow-dung, arranges the heaps of fuel and the ritual paraphernalia, and takes a bath. Many babas smoke a chilam or two, to get in the right mood.
Then they sanctify their body by applying tilak. 
When a group of ascetics is assembled, as for instance at a festival, they will perform dhuni-tap at the same spot, but each will do it more or less in his own time. Since the meditation and the repetition of the Lord’s name is a private affair, the Babas may cover the head with a cloth. It serves an even more practical purpose as well, for often the cloth is made wet, and so offers some insulation against the intense heat. 
(see also plate of Picart, offerings of dung cakes by the faithful)

The final stage of the fire-austerity is calledkapar-dhuni, that is the fire (dhuni) in the bowl (kapal) on the skull (kapal). 

The circle of ‘innumerable’ fires around the Baba is never completely closed, so the spirit may enter. Besides, a full circle would presume perfection, which only the Lord may claim.

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