While the ritual practices of tantric Buddhism include many and varied rituals (sadhanas, pujas) and yogic practices, such as visualizations, the homa (Chinese guoma, Japanese goma, Tibetan sbyin sreg) is perhaps the most widely shared tantric ritual practice. In different forms it is found throughout the Tantric world—Hindu, Jain and Buddhist alike—and has spread from the Indian subcontinent to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and more recently to Europe and America. The ritual is basically a votive offering made into fire and has roots extending back to Indo-European religious practices.
The tantric homa rite originates from Vedic ritual practices. Often described as sacrificial, Vedic rites and their tantric successors may also be considered more specifically as votive—that is, in the sense of making an offering to a deity with the expectation of receiving something in exchange. Vedic ritualism is considered to date back approximately two millennia BCE. Though there does appear to have been a very high level of continuity, claims that the rites are totally unchanged are rhetorical. At the least, substitutions are known to have been made for key ritual elements, a pattern that continues as the homa becomes a tantric ritual and moves out of India. Cross-cultural comparisons of Vedic rituals are in Knipe 1975. Vedic rituals are discussed in Staal 1983, Sparreboom and Heesterman 1989, and Krick 1982. The agnihotra and agniṣṭoma are two rituals performed within the Vedic corpus that may have provided antecedent exemplars for the tantric homa. See Caland and Henry 1906, Dumont 1939, Payne 2004, and the Agnihotra database.
German-language webpage on the performance of the Vedic agnihotra, the twice-daily offering into the household fire traditionally required of Brahmins. Valuable in that it includes photographic illustrations of the hearth-altar and offerings. Particularly valuable are the audio recordings of exemplary mantras.
Caland, Willem, and Victor Henry. L’agniṣṭoma: Description complète de la forme normale du sacrifice de soma. 2 vols. Paris: Leroux, 1906.
The agniṣṭoma is one of the most extensive Vedic sacrificial or votive rites, though not as lengthy as the agnicayana discussed in Staal 1983. This is a soma rite; that is, one in which the soma plant (its identity still a matter of discussion) is pressed and the juices rendered are offered into a ritual fire. During the agniṣṭoma rite this is done three times in one day. The ritual also includes a special consecration of the ritual sponsor (yajamāna).
Dumont, Paul Émile. L’agnihotra: Description de l’agnihotra dans le rituel védique. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1939.
French translation of several agnihotra ritual manuals. These extend from very simple versions to more complicated and lengthier versions of the manual. See Payne 2004 for an English translation of one manual from this collection.
Knipe, David M. In the Image of Fire: Vedic Experiences of Heat. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.
Studies the issues of the number of fires employed in Vedic ritual and the imagery of interiorization. A revised edition of the author’s University of Chicago dissertation, done under the influence of Mircea Eliade’s theories of the universality of religious structures. As such it also places the study of Vedic tropes of heat into a cross-cultural context, including African religions and European Christian mysticism.
Krick, Hertha. Das Ritual der Feuergründung (Agnyādheya). Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1982.
The most detailed study of the Vedic rite of establishing a fire. Examines the relevant materials from all of the Vedic literatures. An essential resource for the study of the Vedic background of the homa.
Payne, Richard K. “Ritual Syntax and Cognitive Theory.” Pacific World: Journal of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, 3d ser., 6 (2004): 195–227.
Includes a translation of the Vaitāna Sūtra version of the agnihotra, one of the agnihotra rituals from Dumont 1939 (pp. 204–209). The introductory essay examines the utility of syntactic analyses of rituals, following Frits Staal’s methodology. Includes a diagrammatic analysis of the agnihotra ritual text translated.
Sparreboom, Marcus, and Johannes C. Heesterman. The Ritual of Setting Up the Sacrificial Fires according to the Vādhūla School (Vādhūlaśrautasūtra 1.1–1.4). Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1989.
This includes a translation of the section on establishing ritual fires from one Vedic manual considered to be a Black Yajurveda text. The setting up of fires (agnyādheya) is the essential preliminary step in the career of a practitioner moving from the performance only of “domestic” (gṛhya) rituals to performance of the “solemn” (śrauta) rites. This is perhaps the single most significant transformation of social status found in Vedic culture.
Staal, Frits, ed. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities, 1983.
This massively detailed study of the agnicayana, the most extensive of Vedic fire offerings (identified by its being performed on an altar shaped like a bird), as performed in 1975 by Namudiri Brahmins in Kerala. Many of the details recorded in Volume 1 are relevant to both the historical background of the Buddhist homa and understanding specific actions of the rite. Volume 2 comprises ancillary essays, those related to Buddhism cited individually. Illustrated.
Tachikawa, Musashi, and Madhavi Kolhatkar. Vedic Domestic Fire-Ritual, Sthālīpāka: Its Performance and Exposition. Delhi: New Bharatiya, 2006.
Important photographic record of this Vedic gṛhya (domestic) fire ritual. Includes a ritual manual for performing the rite in Devanagari, Roman transcription, and English translation.
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