Flames and aromatic fumes rose from a small pit as a family gathered around the Agnihotra, a sacrificial fire and special ceremony held Sunday at the Arya Samaj Greater Houston and Vedic Culture Center.
The whole temple chanted traditional mantras, verses from the Veda, the four sacred and ancient books of Hinduism, specifically related to mother earth, as the family fed the fire with special, traditional ingredients.
"In India, families perform this every day, sometimes twice a day," said Dev Mahajan, 76, who noted that this ceremony was focusing on Earth Day.
Every Sunday, the Hindu service at the temple begins with a fire ceremony, followed by hymns, the pravachan - a sermon given by the Acharya Ji, or Hindu priest - and concluding with the Shanti prayers, where people ask for universal peace.
Tending the fire
According to Mahajan, families sign up weeks before to be the hosts who tend to the fire. Families sign up to celebrate special events in their lives.
The fire is made by arranging wood, dousing it with clarified butter and lighting it with a camphor stone. Once the fire starts, water is added for a steam effect; and for every mantra chanted, families offer the samagree, a mixture of herbs followed by a small amount of food. The use of fossil fuels has always been prohibited.
The samagree was formulated in ancient India to confer disinfectant properties to vapors produced by the fire. The light of the flame signifies a symbol of knowledge replacing ignorance, and the mantra chanting the enlightening of the mind.
In India, the ceremony is usually done outside so the fumes can purify the environment. At Arya Samaj Greater Houston they have a yagyashala, a large outdoor structure for major events.
"We're not worshipping the fire, we're in the spirit of sacrifice," said Kusum Vyas, coordinator for Earth Day at the center. "It's recognizing the importance in our survival, a reminder of our own contribution of what we should be doing to preserve resources of mother earth."
"God lives in us, in the environment. Nature to us is sacred," she said. Surya Narayana Nanda, 44, the Hindu priest, said Earth must be protected for the future. "The ancients taught us to take a care of Earth. People should be at peace with the air, sky, earth, fire and water," he said.
Sanjay Jain, 49, a member of the temple, spoke about the sermon. "Earth is that one loan from God no one keeps for themselves," he said. "By doing an offering of pure products, it actually purifies the environment."
Young people also saw the importance of protecting the planet. "There's a spirituality aspect to this," said Sohum Chanchlani, 18. "Our Earth is like our mother, we have to help it and nourish it like it has nourished us."