Based on instructions in the Brāhmaṇa texts – which were intended for the instruction of Vedic priests, and not for random schlubs like me, but such is the wonder of the Internet that I get to read them despite my schlubbiness – I keep fast at both Amāvasyā (New Moon) and Pūrṇimā (Full Moon) each month. However, it’s Amāvasyā that has my heart. It’s my favourite day of every month.
Most Hindus would not consider this day so special. The darkness of the moon is not considered auspicious for anything except the practice of austerities. But it’s sacred to Indra as slayer of Vṛtra. Its significance ties deeply into the triumph over evil, the defeat of enemies (including the aspirant’s inner enemies, like despair and selfishness), and the value of sacrifice, “giving back” to the Devas what they give to us. The text, to me, suggests that it is also the one day each month when anyone might, in a sense, “offer Soma.”
In the Vedic worldview, Man has an essential place in the right order of the universe. And during the vulnerable times of transformation, the junctions – such as Amāvasyā, a time between one moon and the next, poised between darkness and light – people have specific actions to perform. Even though most of us today do not, and cannot, perform the full lunar sacrifices enjoined in the traditional texts, knowing and contemplating these duties may teach much about the right order of the universe, the Ṛta.
But why is Amāvasyā so vital? What has Indra – known best to modern Hindus as the god of war and rain – to do with the Moon?
To get some ideas, we turn to the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, specifically section I.6.4, which gives a very interesting description and explanation of certain sacrificial rites to be performed at the New Moon (Amāvasyā). I’ve provided a translated excerpt beneath the cut.
It’s not crucial to read the entire thing – it’s long and can be a little confusing – but I will be mentioning some parts of the story in my next post. So if you want to know what the heck I’m talking about, the relevant excerpts are given in bold print.
“When Indra had hurled the thunderbolt at Vṛtra, thinking himself to be the weaker, and fearing lest he had not brought him down, he concealed himself and went to the farthest distances. Now the gods knew that Vṛtra had been slain and that Indra had concealed himself.
Agni of the deities, Hiranyastūpa of the Rishis, and the Brihatī of the metres, set about searching for him. Agni discovered him and stayed with him (as a guest) that (day and) night. He (Indra), namely, is the Vasu of the gods, for he is their hero.
The gods said, ‘Our Vasu (Indra), who has gone to live away from us, is this day dwelling together (with Agni)’, and as one would cook a dish of rice or a goat in common for two relatives or friends who have come to stay with him–for such-like is human fare as the sacrificial food (havis) is that of the gods–in like manner they offered to those two together that sacrificial food, the rice-cake on twelve potsherds for Indra and Agni. This is the reason why there is a rice-cake on twelve potsherds for Indra and Agni.
Indra said, ‘When I had hurled the thunderbolt at Vṛtra, I was terrified, and (in consequence of this fright) I am much emaciated. This (cake) does not satiate me: prepare for me what will satiate me!’ The gods replied, ‘So be it!’
The gods said, ‘Nothing but Soma will satiate him: let us prepare Soma for him!’ They prepared Soma for him. Now this king Soma, the food of the gods, is no other than the moon. When he (the Moon) is not seen that night either in the east or in the west, then he visits this world; and here he enters into the waters and plants. He is indeed a treasure for the gods, he is their food. And since during that night he here dwells together (amā vas), therefore that (night of new moon) is called Amāvasyā (the dwelling together, or at home).
They prepared it (Soma for Indra), after having it collected, part by part, by the cows: in eating plants (they collected it) from the plants, and in drinking water (they collected it) from the waters. Having prepared and coagulated it, and made it strong (pungent), they gave it to him.
He said, ‘This does indeed satiate me, but it does not agree with me; devise some means by which it may agree with me!’ They made it agree with him by means of boiled (milk).
Now although this (mixture of sweet and sour milk) is, indeed, one and the same substance–it being milk (payas) and belonging to Indra–they, nevertheless, declare it to be (two) different (substances). Since he said ‘it satiates (dhī) me,’ therefore it is sour milk (dadhi); and since they made it agree (sri) with him with boiled milk (or, by boiling), therefore it is (fresh) boiled milk (srita).
Just as the soma plant will grow strong, verily thus did Indra grow (strong) with this (offering of cooked milk and curds) and destroyed the evil yellowness. This is the sense of ‘amāvasyā’. He who knowing thus makes the sānnāyya (offering of curd and milk mixed together)–he verily prospers thus with progeny and cattle and destroys evil. Therefore they say, ‘One who has not performed the Soma sacrifice shall not perform the ‘sānnāyya,’ for this (sānnāyya) is indeed like the offering of soma. This is not accepted (permitted) for one who is not a Soma-sacrificer.” There, one (who has not performed the soma offering) may well perform the sānnāyya offering. Indeed we have not heard it (said by Indra) about this (in this context), ‘Surely sacrifice to me with soma. And then you will make the sānnāyya offering to me.’ He indeed said, ‘This does not please (satiate) me; prepare for me that which may satisfy me.’ Therefore, even one who has not performed the Soma sacrifice may verily offer sānnāyya.
This ‘havis’ which is offered on the full moon day is indeed what belongs to the killer of Vṛtra. For Indra killed Vṛtra with this. What is offered on the new moon day is also for the slayer of Vṛtra, for they prepared this invigorating thing thus for this one (Indra) who had slain Vṛtra.
This (havis) which is offered on the new moon day is indeed for the slayer of Vṛtra. It is this moon which indeed is Vṛtra in that it was not seen in the east and was not seen in the west (on the new moon day). He (Indra) kills him (Vṛtra) thus entirely and leaves over nothing of him. He who knows this to be thus verily destroys entire evil and leaves over nothing of the evil…
Then, this night (of the new moon) the food of the gods slips down, from yonder (heaven) and it reaches this world. Those gods observe,’How can it be (made) that this (our food) will not be away from us and how will it come back to us?’ They have their hope only on those who offer the sānnāyya, thinking, ‘These (performers of sānnāyya) only will offer to us, having collected (it). He who knows this thus–in him do his own kinsmen and strangers have hope. They have hope in him who verily attains supremacy.
And then, that he (the moon) is not seen this night in the east and is not seen in the west (is due to this); this one that blazes (the sun) is indeed Indra, and this one, the moon, is verily Vṛtra. He (the moon Vṛtra) is a born enemy of this (sun-Indra). Him does he (the sun) devour. Therefore, even though earlier he rises far away, this night he floats down near him and he (the moon Vṛtra) reaches the open mouth of this (sun-Indra). He (the sun) rises, having devoured him. Therefore he (the moon) is not seen in the east and is not seen in the west. For he (Indra-sun) indeed devours his hateful enemy. About him, who knows it thus, they say, ‘This person alone exists and not his hateful enemy.’
Having sucked him completely, he (the sun) throws him out. This one (the moon) is (later) seen in the west like one who has been completely sucked out. He grows again verily for (serving as) the food of this very one (the sun). His hateful enemy who thrives by trade or any (other) (means) prospers only to be the food of this person who knows this to be so.”