Fires of knowledge: Ashes of wisdom

Shiva with Vibhuthi on his forehead from Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists (1914) Author: Nivedita, Sister, 1867-1911.
Shiva with Vibhuthi (ash) on his forehead from Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists (1914) Author: Nivedita, Sister.

Ash is a product of fire.

When fire burns, things perish. Ash remains.

As a symbol of purification, ash is the essence that remains when all else burns away. Carl Jung speaks of such things. He says:

‘Ash’ is an inclusive term for the scoriae left over from burning, the substance that ‘remains below [1]

Ash, as a symbol, is closely linked to the innermost Self (Ātman). The Self, like ash, is that which “remains below.”

A basic premise of Vedic philosophy, as illuminated by Adi Shankara, is that there are two forms of the Self. One is the individual self as empirical, finite, temporal; the other is the supreme Self as eternal, infinite and self-luminous. For Adi Shankara, all Gods are forms of the Self. 

This conception of the Self sounds quite a bit like Carl Jung’s idea that Gods are images of the Self. One might mistakenly believe Shankara was a Jungian Analyst; Shankara, however, was not an analyst or psychologist. Shankara lived in the 8th century and was an Indian philosopher and theologian who distilled the doctrine of Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta.

Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta interprets the Sruti (the great texts of Indian philosophy). He clarifies the identity of the Self. In his commentary on the Kena Upanishad, Shankara says: “The well-ascertained drift of all Vedanta is that the Self (Atman) of every knower is Brahman.”  Later he adds, “Brahman, the supreme Self.” [2]

In Shankara’s view, meditation may bring about knowledge of the Self. In the Brahma Sūtras, Shankara tells us that “through the injunction of meditation the mind is cleared, and that a clear mind gives rise to direct knowledge of Brahman (the Self)” (ibid). Shankara understood that meditation brings about a “purifying [of] the mind” [3]. Self-realization is a form purification of the Self, burning away the illusions we hold regarding the empirical world and empirical self.

In Indian iconography, it is the fires of Shiva (as form of the Self) which purify the mind. Shiva’s fire is a fire of Self-knowledge. Shiva’s fire burns away our attachments and illusions regarding the empirical world and empirical self.

An Indian religious text titled the Brahmanda Purana (the history of the universe) illustrates the potency of the fires of the Self. In the narrative, a group of sages go into the forest to seek out Shiva (Sanskrit: Śiva, ‘The Pure One’). There they meet the fierce form of Shiva, covered in ash (ch 27, verse 10-115). Shiva tells the sages of the importance of fire and ash:

“I shall explain this to you….
I am Agni accompanied by Soma…
all the worlds have resorted to the fire made and unmade.
The whole world, mobile and immobile, is burned many times by fire….
Everything can be achieved through ash.
It is excellent and sacred. (verse 106- 107)

Shiva tells the sages: ‘I am Agni accompanied by Soma.’ Agni is fire. Carl Jung has something to say about Agni. He says Agni is “an emanation of the inner libido-fire… the sacrificial flame” (Cw 5, para. 246, see post on Jung’s view of Agni). Soma is the elixir of immortality, connected to the moon and the mother goddess [4].

Shiva tells the sages: ‘all the worlds have resorted to the fire.’ Worlds resolve and dissolve through cosmic purification. This parable illustrates more than just a cosmic tale of the creation and destruction of worlds. It is a story which illustrates the potential of Self-realization. Shankara understands that Shiva, just like all the other Gods, is an image of the Self. While worlds come and go, the Self remains. Shiva creates worlds, and when the universe burns up, Shiva (as Self) remains.

Fire, in Shaivism, is the fire of knowledge. This is called Jñãnãgni: Jñãna translates as knowledge and ãgni translates as fire. With knowledge of the supreme Self all our illusions and delusions regarding the empirical world, or object world, are burned away. The product of such fires of knowledge is ash. In a commentary on the Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta [5], Yogaraja says:

“For him who has knowledge, whose seeds [of action] within those sheaths have been burnt up by the fires of knowledge (Jñãnãgni), there is no occasion at all for apprehension, nor is anything to be obtained or avoided. (Karika 58)

According to Vedanta, a sheath is a covering of the Self. With the fires of knowledge the ‘seeds of action within the sheaths are burnt up.’ With knowledge of the Self there is nothing else to be sought or avoided.

Shiva tells the sages: ‘Everything can be achieved through ash.’ Ash is a symbol of creation and regeneration, as much as  purification. From the ash of Shiva (the Self), the universe will again emerge. Ash is that which remains below, that which exists beyond all the illusions and delusions we hold regarding the empirical world and empirical self.

The object relations school of psychoanalysis is quite Vedic in its approach. A core theory of this school of thought is that the individual self has illusory mental and emotional images of the empirical-object world (such as a significant other) called internal objects.

Internal objects are formed along with our psychic development through several avenues: (a) repeated subjective experience; (b) parts of our own self projected into the object (c) later experiences which may alter the representations. These internal objects may or may not hold accurate representations of real external others; most often they are not accurate. A core premise of psychoanalysis is that our object representaions are prone to illusion and delusion, altering our relationship to the real.

Both psychoanalysis and Vedanta point to knowledge of the Self as a means of loosening these illusions of the object world. Psychoanalysis is much less clear about the nature of the self.

As we saw above, in Shaivism the fires of Self-knowledge destroy the empirical world, revealing the essential.We might say that the fires of Self-knowledge, as experienced in meditation, burn away the illusions we hold regarding our internal object representations. In Shankara’s terms, it is the knowledge of Brahman (the Self) that destroys these illusions. In a commentary on the Mundaka Upanishad, Shankara says as much:

“He who knows that he himself is this Brahman (the Self) the highest and the immortal placed in the hearts of all living beings, destroys the dense tendencies of ignorance.

While psychoanalysis uses analysis (Greek analuein ‘unloose,’ from ana- ‘up’ + luein ‘loosen.’) to dissolve illusions regarding the internal objects, Vedanta uses meditation, symbolism and mystic practice. These practices aim at the cultivation of Self-awareness. They are often associated with the Self as experienced in the heart. It is the practice itself which cultivates Self-awareness. In the Brahmanda Purana it is said:

“Let a man smear his body until it is pale with ashes and meditate upon Bhava in his heart, and then even if he does a thousand things that one ought not to do, by bathing in ashes he will cause all of that to be burnt to ashes as fire burns a forest with its energy.

In the Upanishads, Meditation on the supreme Self residing in the heart is the most direct path to Self-knowledge. In the Mahānārāyaṇa Upanishad it is said:

“In the citadel of the body there is the small sinless and pure lotus of the heart which is the residence of the Supreme. Further, in the interior of this small area, there is the sorrowless Ether. That is to be meditated upon continually.

Through meditation on the supreme Self, in the heart, we pull back our projections regarding the empirical world. Meditation supports a form of phenomenological reduction: a suspension of the illusions, delusions and judgments we hold of the object world. Meditation opens us to that within ourselves which exists beyond words, or thought, or even symbols– known only as that which ‘remains’ when all the illusions and delusions burn away.

Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.


  1. The Collected Works of C. G. Jung: Mysterium coniunctionis by Carl Gustav Jung, para. 135
  2. Eight Upanishads, with the Commentary of Sankaracarya, translated Swami Gambhirananda
  3. Brahma sutras. Note: I am using a copy titled ‘The Vedânta-sûtras’, Śaṅkarācārya, 1904 edited by Max Muller, Chapter 10, Verse 20
  4.  In the Brahmanda Purana, Shiva himself makes the connection between Soma and the mother Goddess.
  5. An Introduction to Tantric Philosophy: The Paramarthasara of Abhinavagupta by Lyne Bansat-Boudon, Kamalesha Datta Tripathi

6 thoughts on “Fires of knowledge: Ashes of wisdom

    1. Thank you Tom for your comment. I have not read Robert Bly’s book yet, so I read a bit of the chapter titled “Road of Ashes” on Google books. Wow! What a wonderful writer and thinker Bly is. Thanks for referencing the book. In my short read, I note that Bly speaks of ashes in relation to periods of life transition:

      Childhood transition: “Initiation asks the son to move his love energy away from the attractive mother to the relatively unattractive serpent father. All that is ashes work.”

      Middle-age transition:”and by 35 all these dreams are ashes.”

      Spiritual transition: “In the Old Testament Job covered himself with ashes to say that the comfortable Job was dead; and that the living Job mourned the dead Job.”

      Although he does not say it directly, Bly is speaking to ash as a “symbol of transformation” (Carl Jung’s CW5). Ash is a symbol which appears in times of change, initiation, and transformation– as it occurs throughout the life course. In Vedic philosophy, ash is also a symbol of transformation. In this case ash represents an initiation from the empirical self into the supreme Self, through the fires of Self-knowledge. With such awareness there is no further transformation: “no occasion at all for apprehension, nor is anything to be obtained or avoided” (Karika 58). In this way ash can be a symbol of a ‘final transformation.’ The Shaivite calls this Moksha, which means emancipation or liberation. For the initiates, who rub themselves in ash, the practice marks an initiation into the eternal, and freedom from Samsara, the cycles of birth, aging, and death.

  1. “The fires of Self-knowledge destroy the empirical world, revealing the essential.”
    Thank you for your work, this is a very clear and nice explanation about the ash symbolism.

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