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284th Meeting - Tuesday, February 13th 2007

'Altar of Fire' A Vedic Ritual

A talk and film presentation by Frits Staal

"I will show a splendid new copy of the 45 min film called "Altar of Fire" by Harvard film maker Bob Gardner and myself about the 1975 performance of a Vedic ritual. It is a 16 mm film which I would introduce in a few words, then play it, then answer questions as long as the audience wants." (F. S.)

Altar of Fire (1976): A Documentary by Robert Gardner and J. F. Staal for The Film Study Center at Harvard University

Abstract 1: This film captures what is, in many ways, the last vestige of an ancient culture. The Agnicayana, the world's oldest "surviving" ritual and one of the centerpieces of Vedic religion, is a sacrifice to Agni, god of fire; Vedic sacrificial rites in India have been replaced by modern Hindu practice such as puja. The ceremony requires the memorization of hundreds of lines of text passed down orally through the generations; it is also exclusively male. The ceremony was performed (or resurrected, some say) in 1975 at the instigation of an American scholar and a wealthy American donor; the end result is this documentary, which briefly explains the origins of the ritual and then records a group of Nambudiri brahmins enacting their sacrifice for Robert Gardner's cameras. The circumstances under which the film was produced raise as many questions as the ritual itself, making it ideal for scholarly or classroom use. ~ Sarah Welsh, All Movie Guide

Source: http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=217022

Abstract 2: This film records a 12 day ritual performed by Mambudiri Brahmins in Kerala, southwest India, in April 1975. This event was possibly the last performance of the Agnicayana, a Vedic ritual of sacrifice dating back 3,000 years and probably the oldest surviving human ritual. Long considered extinct and never witnessed by outsiders, the ceremonies require the participation of seventeen priests, involve libations of Soma juice and oblations of other substances, all preceded by several months of preparation and rehearsals. They include the construction, from a thousand bricks, of a fire altar in the shape of a bird.

Around 1500 B.C., nomads who spoke an Indo-European language entered India and evolved a complex ritual involving the cults of fire and Soma, a hallucinogenic plant that grew in the Western Himalayas. Their Vedic language developed into Sanskrit, the classical language of Indian civilization. Among the later religions of India, Hinduism accepted and Buddhism rejected the Vedic culture. But both retained many of its ritual forms and recitations. Some of these have traveled all over Asia. Agni, the fire, is still worshipped with the help of Vedic mantras in Japanese Buddhist temples. In India itself, the preservation of the Agnicayana, though partly explained by the extraordinary conservatism of the Vedic Brahmins and their dedication to the culture of their spiritual ancestors, remains one of the miracles of history.

Robert Gardner of Harvard University is an ethnographic filmmaker (Dead Birds and Rivers of Sand) and Frits Staal of the University of California, Berkeley, is a philosopher and Sanskrit scholar (ExploringMysticism and Agni, The Vedic Ritual Of The Fire Alter).

Source: http://www.der.org/films/altar-of-fire.html

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