review of Homa Variations

I had the opportunity to meet the author of this review, Lisa Kochinski, this last weekend when giving presentations at University of Southern California, and thought that I’d repost it. Lisa is a graduate student at USC, working on hungry ghost rituals, so our areas of interest overlap both in terms of topic and approach.

The following review of Homa Variations appeared in Reading Religion, an online publication of the American Academy of Religion, here.

Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change across the Longue Durée

Editor(s): Richard K. Payne, Michael Witzel

Oxford Ritual Studies
  • New York, NY: Oxford University Press, November 2015.
     448 pages. $39.95. Paperback.
    ISBN 9780199351589.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher’s Website.


This edited volume contains thirteen essays on homa, a ritual of votive offerings that are immolated in fire, often in a ritual hearth. Homa Variations is important in the study of ritual and Asian religions because of its more than 3,000-year old history, its large corpus of descriptive texts and ritual manuals, and its wide dissemination throughout Asia, where it continues as a living religious tradition. While fire and its identification with the ancient Vedic fire-god Agni have been broadly retained, other elements of the ritual have been transformed over time and space. Homa Variations thus provides scholars an invaluable opportunity for historically longitudinal study of ritual change.

Co-editor Richard Payne’s excellent introduction orients the reader to definitional, methodological, and theoretical issues, and dispels the view—now mostly outdated—of ritual as rigid and invariant. The following brief summaries belie the richness of the individual essays.

Section 1 contains symbolic and comparative studies. Holly Grether’s comparison of Hindu and Buddhist tantric homa in medieval India reveals shared ritual technologies that speak to an “overarching tantric ritual universe.” Fire and water are sexually homologized with male and female, using symbols such as fire for the male fire-god Agni, and a hearth for the female earth-goddess Śakti.

Tadeuz Skorupski compares Vedic and Buddhist interpretations of fire. In Vedic doctrine, the fire-god Agni mediates between humans and the gods. In Buddhist tantra, fire is related to the acquisition of wisdom on the mundane path, and to the attainment of enlightenment the transcendent path.

Musashi Tachikawa applies the concept of sacred/profane to analyze the mediation of homa fire between deity and practitioner. He notes that Japanese homa employment of imagery is more similar to Indian puja than to Vedic homa.

Section 2 contains six textual studies. Timothy Lubin counters Frits Staal’s theory of the meaningless of Vedic ritual, asserting that the lexical meaning of ritual words can be understood through the examination of change within Vedic texts as pūja rites were assimilated. He builds on Staal’s theory of ritual syntax, adding the term “interleaving” to describe the process of inserting Purānic ritual elements into the Vedic homa.

Tsunehiko Sugiki compares six tantric texts in order to analyze Buddhist systems of internal fire rituals that developed in South Asia between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Practices include mandalization of the body, the employment of ritual items, and “psychosomatic fire oblation”—a term Sugiki coins to refer to internalized homa rites, including internalized sexual yoga.

Moving to the Tibetan tantric tradition, David Gray examines a tenth-century manual on internal homa practices, while Georgios Halkias probes a Tibetan manual on external homa rites for pacification, enrichment, subjugation, and sorcery. Halkias provides evidence for the early Buddhist rejection of homa—especially the inclusion of blood sacrifice—but he shows how later Mahāyānists legitimated homa as upāya, or skillful means.

Vesna Wallace discusses internal and external homa rituals in the Indian Kālacakra-tantra tradition. Here, external homa is performed as part of larger, complex public rituals for healing, protection, or initiation. The texts include detailed instructions on ritual elements such as fire pits, sacrificial wood of different colors and aromas, utensils, votive offerings, and mantras. The practitioner manipulates these elements in conjunction with symbolic forms, vocalization, and gestures to mobilize and direct invisible forces.

Charles Orzech traces the appropriation of Vedic homa and its development in China from the sixth to the eighth century. In the Vedic tradition, both Brahmins and ordinary householders performed homa rites. In China, however, homa became the purview of trained monastics and imperial elites. Ritual texts stress the superiority of internal practice for a range of functions including exorcism and identification of the practitioner with various deities.

Section 3 contains four descriptive studies. Todd Lewis and Naresh Bajrachrya discuss the development of Newar Buddhist homa in Nepal. The Newar tradition developed local characteristics such as hereditary married monastics who performed homa at transitional life occasions of householders and elites. The authors argue that the assimilation of Vedic rituals demonstrates Buddhist creativity in adapting to Hindu cultural hegemony.

Nawaraj Chaulagain focuses on homa ritual during the rule of Nepalese Hindu kings (c. 1559–2008). The ritual inverts the image of the king as benevolent, and emphasizes power and cruelty through the king’s participation in blood sacrifice that climaxes with the offering of the animal’s liver to Kāli. The transcendent purpose of the ritual is to awaken the feminine to restore cosmic order, while the mundane purpose is to “legitimate royal authority and state-sanctioned violence.”

Payne then analyzes the Shugendō saitō goma (Japanese for homa), highlighting processes of ritual appropriation and adaptation as Shungendō developed within the matrix of esoteric Buddhism. Payne goes beyond description and applies syntactic analysis to a saitō goma ritual text to reveal its genealogical relation to Shingon—Japanese esoteric Buddhism—goma ritual.

Co-editor Michael Witzel examines textual and oral versions of the agnihotra, a complex 100-sequence Vedic fire ritual closely related to the homa. Both versions exhibit Newari influence and localization seen in the ritual deities, the social status of priests, and the incorporation of local mythology. Witzel’s analysis of the ritual structure shows how ritual units are added symmetrically to frame the basic ritual.

These essays make a significant contribution to ritual studies and Asian religious studies by describing the symbolism and procedures in homa ritual, explicating and analyzing a number of ritual homa texts, and illustrating the wide range of homa variations. They destabilize previous ideas about ritual rigidity and contribute to a growing body of scholarly literature that valorizes ritual as a creative, social process. The essays are grounded in research, and discussions of theory support the central narratives. A map of the region and a chronology, however, would have helped to contextualize and integrate the wide range of material in this volume. But overall, Homa Variations is an excellent study with a consistently high caliber of scholarship, and clear and engaging writing. The material may be difficult for undergraduates, but this volume is highly recommended for graduate students and scholars in the field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lisa Kochinski is a doctoral student in religion at the University of Southern California.

Date of Review: 

May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard K. Payne is Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies, Berkeley.

Michael Witzel is Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University.

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