The Chandogya Upanishad lays down a unique template that maps out each activity in the universe through the prism of chants, as the term Chandogya is etymologically derived from Chhanda, poetic meter. And even as it presents a five-to-sevenfold chant structure, through which all human and natural phenomena are seen, the Chandogya, at another level, goes deep into the metaphysical dimension of this empirical world. The Chandogya posits the theory of the five fires, the panchagni vidya and asserts it is central to the understanding of the laws of the universe. The Panchagni doctrine is presented through the narration of the story of Svetaketu, the learned son of Sage Uddalaka, who, in the course of his travels, turns up at the court of King Pravahana Jaivali. Having welcomed Svetaketu, the king poses some questions to Svetaketu to comprehend how much the young man has learnt. His first question, “Do you know where mortals go to after death?” perplexes Svetaketu, who is at a loss for words. The second question, “Do you know from where people come when they are reborn?” confuses Svetaketu.
The third and fourth questions, “Are you aware of the two paths through which the soul ascends?” and “What is the reason this world is able to contain so many people and yet not overflow?” further stump the young scholar.
The last question, “Are you aware of the five oblations that are offered and how the fifth as water/ liquid becomes a human?” leaves Svetaketu at his wit’s end. He realises that there are fundamental principles of which he is unaware, despite his learning and scholarship. He turns to his father, but Uddalaka, too, does not possess insight into such matters. Uddalaka turns to the king for answers.
The king initiates Uddalaka into the principle of the five fires in which the cosmos/ sky is in itself metaphorically seen as a great altar, to which the fuel of the burning sun is offered, from which rises the moon. The Upanishad lays down this as the first fire, stating that all existence follows this cycle of fire. The next altar is of the clouds and fuel is the air from which rain emerges. The third altar is Earth, where the fuel is time, from which arises food. The fourth altar is man, where the fuel is food, from which arises semen, the seed. The fifth and last altar is woman, in which the seed is offered as oblation and from which arises the foetus.
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