The Glory of Bhasma

Swami Vibhooti Saraswati

Bhasma or vibhooti is the sacred ash from the dhuni or fire of a yogi or avadhoota, or from the sacrificial fire or yajna, where special wood, ghee, herbs, grains and other auspicious and purifying items are offered in worship along with mantras. It is believed that bhasma destroys sins (paap), and that it links us with the divine. It is called ‘bhasma’ because it has the power to consume all evils. Any matter, broken up through the process of fire is reduced to its ‘bhasmic’ form, which is infinitely more refined and pure than the original matter, devoid as it is of all impurities niranjan. The grossness of matter obscures the subtle essence inherent within it, just as wood hides fire and milk conceals butter and cheese, but when it is burnt (or churned in the case of milk) only the pure essence remains. Similarly, the great heat of tapasya and the churning of the mind in meditation reveals the underlying subtle spirit or atman.

Literal and symbolic meaning of bhasma

The Sanskrit word bhasma literally means ‘disintegration’. Bha implies bhartsanam (to destroy), while sma implies smaranam (to remember). Bhasma is thus a reminder to us of the ephemeral nature of life. Also, if we wish to unite with God (or the ‘supreme self’) and remember him constantly, our ego or ‘little self’ has first to be disintegrated or burnt to ashes. Bhasma is a symbol of this process. It is also called raksha because it protects one from all fears. When applied to the forehead before sleep, it is said to keep away spirits or ghosts, whether external or those which manifest from the depths of the mind in the form of nightmares.

Bhasma symbolises the burning of our false identification with the mortal body, and freedom from the limitations of the painfully illusive cycle of birth and death. It also reminds us of the perishable quality of the body, which will one day be reduced to mere ashes. As it says in the Bible, “Ashes to ashes; soul to soul” – the body will return to dust but the soul will continue its journey until it unites with God. All the saints and sages beseech us to remember the ephemeral nature of our earthly existence. In the Rubayyat of Omar Khyyam the poet tells us to, “ . . . make the most of what we yet may spend, before we too into the dust descend, dust into dust, and under dust to lie.” Here he calls for us to seek the eternal, not the temporal. Ash or dust, on the other hand, can be said to represent permanency (or the soul itself), because the ash, just like imperishable truth, does not itself decay. The realised soul is said to rise from the ashes (of the individual self) as the mythical phoenix. The Sufis say, “To reach the goal we have to be burned with the fire of love, so that nothing remains but ashes, and from the ashes will resurrect the new being. Only then can there be real creation!”

The power of bhasma

Bhasma is also called ‘vibhooti’, because it gives spiritual power. The Sanskrit word, vibhooti means ‘glory’, as it gives glory to one who applies it, protection (raksha) from ill health and negative forces, and attracts the higher forces of nature. Another meaning of vibhooti is ‘healing power’, and it is widely used as a medicinal treatment in both Ayurveda and Chinese and Tibetan medicine, which are all ancient and profound systems for the rejuvenation of life. Gold, silver, copper, pearls, mica and other precious stones and metals have curative properties which can quite safely and most effectively be taken into the body after being reduced to ash using great heat.

In Indian villages you will find tantric healers called ojhas who say certain mantras over the ash, which the sick person then applies to the body or eats. These healers can take some earth in their hands, hold it up to the sun, repeat some mantras, and the earth turns into the most beautifully scented ash for curative purposes. Vibhooti is also the name given to siddhis (perfections or psychic powers), as it acts as a vehicle for them. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras devotes an entire chapter to yogic siddhis. Vibhooti also means ‘dominion’, and is the subtle power lying behind creation, from which all things manifest. From vibhooti or bhasma, anything can be created by a tantric and aghora, because the potential of creation lies within it, and he has penetrated the law and controlled the elements.

Maha Yogi Shiva, father of tantra, is usually depicted naked in sadhana, his whole body covered in bhasma. The first verse of the Shiva Panchakshara Stotram gives the following description: Naagendrahaaraaya trilochanaaya, bhasmaangaraagaaya maheshwaraaya. Nityaaya shuddhaaya digambaraaya – ‘Salutations to the mighty three-eyed Shiva, eternal and pure, wearing the king of snakes as his garland, naked and besmeared with sacred ash.’ Some other names given to Lord Shiva are Bhasmashayaaya (abode of bhasma) and Bhasmabhootaaya (covered with bhasma). Covering the body with ash is considered to be an auspicious act for discovering one’s Shiva nature. Shiva is said to be responsible for mahapralaya, the dissolution of the universe at the end of each kalpa. At this time he dances his tandava nritya, the dance of destruction.

The great tantric siddha Avadhoota Dattatreya was referred to as Bhasma Nishta – one who loves bhasma. Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead, while many sadhus also apply it on the arms, chest and stomach. Some ascetics, especially nagas (naked ascetics) rub it all over the body. While applying it, many devotees also consume a pinch. Shaivites use only bhasma from cremated bodies, which is believed to be very powerful. Bhasma has the power of fire. Agni, the inner fire, scorches and reduces all impurities in the body. It is said that one who smears ash on the body is purified as if bathed in fire. This is known as ‘the bath of fire’. After smearing the body with ash, one should reflect on and realise the highest truth.

Tripundra

Sannyasins wear three lines of bhasma on the forehead. These three lines (tripundra), with a red dot of kumkum underneath, between the eyebrows, symbolise Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe). The lower line represents tamoguna (the state of inertia and darkness), the middle line represents rajas (activity and dynamism) and the top line represents sattwa (balance and illumination). The red dot or tika represents the power of shakti through sadhana, which can take the sadhaka beyond the three gunas or qualities to the state of turiya, the fourth dimension of existence. This is the state of trigunatita – beyond the three gunas.

Swami Niranjanananda says, “The three stripes represent the tradition of the paramahamsas. Jignasus are one stripe sannyasins, representing the drive and motivation to overcome the tamasic tendency. Karma sannyasins are given two stripes, representing their drive to overcome the rajasic along with the tamasic tendencies. Poorna sannyasins are given three stripes, which represent their motivation to transcend the three gunas and attain inner sublimation. The red dot represents the spiritual power or energy that gives us the strength to control the three gunas. It is the awakening of that shakti which is the real aim of sannyasa.”

Bhasma and tattwa shuddhi

Consciousness manifests as energy, which then condenses into matter. In the tantric practice of tattwa shuddhi, in order to experience consciousness free from matter, we reverse the process of evolution back through more and more subtle dimensions to its original cause. Bhasma is an integral part of tattwa shuddhi sadhana, as a symbol of purification on the physical, subtle and causal realms of consciousness. The process of disintegration undergone in tattwa shuddhi is the breaking down of conscious awareness. Just as we reduce matter to its bhasmic form, the ‘fire’ of this practice leads us to the realisation of our essential essence. The stages of pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and dharana (concentration) take us through the more subtle states of consciousness, culminating in samadhi, the ultimate experience or ‘Shiva consciousness’. The journey is from gross matter to pure consciousness.

At the end of the practice of tattwa shuddhi, bhasma is applied to the forehead with the repetition of mantras. It is taken on the middle and ring fingers and wiped slowly on the forehead from left to right, repeating the mantra Om Hraum Namah Shivaya. Sannyasins use the index, middle and ring fingers, and repeat the mantra Om Hamsa. The bhasma used in tattwa shuddhi is prepared from gobar or cow dung. The word gobar literally means ‘gift from the cow’; it is also known as go-maya. The cow is a pure and sacred animal, full of auspicious qualities. It is even said to contain all the devas and devatas within it. Not only does gobar have mystical qualities, but it also contains useful hormones with germicidal properties. The word go also means ‘senses’. So bhasma is also symbolic of the disintegration of the senses which keep us trapped and bound in the gross material world. The transformation of gobar to bhasma is parallel to the transformation from the material world to cosmic consciousness that we find in tattwa shuddhi.

Panchagni bhasma

During the Sat Chandi Mahayajna, and on other auspicious occasions at Rikhia Dham, devotees receive the precious prasadam of panchagni bhasma. This is much prized by sadhakas, because as it has the power of Swami Satyananda’s sadhana behind it, it quickly helps to raise the consciousness at the time of mantra japa and other sadhana when applied to the forehead. Just keeping it in the pooja room is auspicious. This bhasma given is from the Maha Kaal Chita Dhuni, where the previously fierce fires of Sri Swamiji’s panchagni tapasya now lie smouldering quietly under ashes in their shanta roopa or peaceful form. Dhuni is the yogi’s fire, which is the witness or sakshi to his sadhana. It is also where he cooks, takes warmth, and chants the name of God. (Maha means ‘great’, kaal is ‘time’ and chita is ‘consciousness’).

This akhanda dhuni, eternal fire, has been burning in Sri Swamiji’s pooja area ever since he first came to Rikhia in 1989 and devotees come daily for its darshan. It was the centre and support of his life during his austerity, and is the very heart of the Rikhia Ashram (next to Sri Swamiji himself). Although Sri Swamiji no longer goes to this area, the fire is still tended daily. The ashes are moved to the side and the burning embers taken out. Balls of dried cow dung mixed with purifying herbs (vanaspati) are then placed inside along with fresh wood. The embers are then replaced, and the whole area is covered over once more with the ashes. From time to time the ash is removed, carefully sieved through fine cloth, and given as prasadam (that which has been blessed by a divine power.

For the panchagni sadhana itself, Sri Swamiji prepared his own bhasma to protect his body from the great heat, according to the formula prescribed in the Devi Bhagavat Purana. This special bhasma is called mahabhasma and is made from pure cow dung cakes, reeds and ghee. It is treated eleven times with many herbs, honey and other ingredients, being re-burnt each time. Bhasma is smeared on the body only during the first few days of the panchagni sadhana, and is applied in the morning. Sri Swamiji’s dog-cum-companion Bholenath, in whom he manifested the spirit of Bhairava, also took part in the tapasya. “Alsatian dogs can’t bear the heat,” commented Sri Swamiji. “I would put bhasma on him in the morning and he would sit with me.”

Tantric siddhas like Maha Yogi Shiva, Avadhoota Dattatreya and Sri Swamiji are extremely rare beings, and a gift to us beyond our understanding. They belong to a great tradition and leave behind for us a great spiritual legacy. The parampara, the line of avadhootas (those who have become immortal), continues, just as the Mahakaal Chita Dhuni continues to smoulder, unseen beneath the symbol of their glory, their bhasma – the sacred ash.