The Bhagavad Gita’s approach to death is cool and unsentimental. In the second chapter Krishna tells Arjuna: ”For one who is born, death is assured; for one who dies, rebirth is assured; therefore, for what is inevitable, you should not grieve.” However, human relations are not as simple as this advice may sound.
In life we go through so many different experiences that involve relationships of varying degrees of intimacy. The husband and wife relationship is the closest physically, emotionally and spiritually, in a way symbolising the union of male and female as in the unique figure of Shiva depicted as Ardhanarishwara, half-male, half-female.
Recently my wife passed away in the sixtieth year of our marriage. Having married when we were teenagers, we virtually grew up together, becoming an integral part of each other’s lives. As I watched my elder son light the funeral pyre, it struck me that fire had defined our relationship when it began and now after 60 years, when it ended. We were married when we circumambulated the sacred fire seven times, it being witness to the union. When it was time to say goodbye, again, it was fire that bore witness to our separation with her departure.
In Vedic tradition, fire has always been held to be sacred. Aurobindo calls his translation of the Vedic verses ‘Hymns to the Sacred Fire’. Several Vedic hymns are on Agni, the interlocutor between the human and the divine, and which, through Yagna, conveyed human aspirations to the higher power. In several western cultures also fire has a special place. The brave Prometheus brought down fire from the heavens to humanity, for which the jealous Gods punished him with eternal torment. The Zoroastrians have their fire temples. The discovery of fire by early humans marked a major milestone in human evolution.
With its dual quality of having potential to remain benign as well as to be destructive, fire has been cherished down the ages. A Rig Vedic hymn to Agnideva says: “Virtuous Agni, we set thee, a sage, around us as a fort, thee triumphant in thy colour, day by day, destroyer of the treacherous foe. Through Agni man finds prosperity, nourishment from day to day, glory and greatest pride in heroes. To thee, Agni, dispeller of night, we come with prayer day by day, offering thee our obeisance.”
Shiva as Nataraja carries fire in one of his hands and is often depicted dancing within a fiery nimbus. The Isha Upanishad closes with the verse: ”O Agni, lead us by the fair path that we may reap the good we have sown. Thou knowest all our deeds. Lord, destroy all sin in us. We salute Thee with our words again and again.”
The outer fire is but a symbol of the spiritual flame that burns in our hearts. Fanning the spiritual spark into the blazing fire of divine realisation is the true, deeper purpose of our existence. However, there are lower dimensions of fire also, as in the insatiable desire for worldly possessions, or negative aspects such as emotionally disturbing manifestations of anger and revenge. Robert Frost’s poem titled Fire & Ice says it all: “Some say the world will end in fire/ some say in ice./ From what I’ve tasted of desire/ I hold with those who favour fire./ Though if it had to perish twice/ I think I know enough of hate/ to say that for destruction ice/ is also great and would suffice.
The contours of our inner life will depend on which dimension of fire we choose to embrace.