While reading the MN today, I came across this famous simile in Aggivacchasutta:
Fire Simile from MN72
“Well then, Vaccha, I’ll ask you about this in return, and you can answer as you like. What do you think, Vaccha? Suppose a fire was burning in front of you. Would you know: ‘This fire is burning in front of me’?” “Yes, I would, Master Gotama.”
“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you: ‘This fire burning in front of you: what does it depend on to burn?’ How would you answer?” “I would answer like this: ‘This fire burning in front of me burns in dependence on grass and logs as fuel.’”
“Suppose that fire burning in front of you was extinguished. Would you know: ‘This fire in front of me is extinguished’?” “Yes, I would, Master Gotama.”
“But Vaccha, suppose they were to ask you: ‘This fire burning in front of you: in what direction did it go—east, south, west, or north?’ How would you answer?” “It doesn’t apply, Master Gotama. The fire depended on grass and logs as fuel. When that runs out, and no more fuel is added, the fire is reckoned to have become extinguished due to lack of fuel.”
“In the same way, Vaccha, any form by which a Realized One might be described has been cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, exterminated, and unable to arise in the future. A Realized One is freed from reckoning in terms of form. They’re deep, immeasurable, and hard to fathom, like the ocean. ‘They’re reborn’, ‘they’re not reborn’, ‘they’re both reborn and not reborn’, ‘they’re neither reborn nor not reborn’—none of these apply.
When looking for interpretations of this simile I found a paper by Piya Tan where he quotes an article about the Vedic concept of fire by one F. Otto Schräder. This article sets forth the idea that in the Vedic culture (an, by extension, in the Indic culture of the Samana period) the extinguished fire isn’t really extinguished but merely comes back into its primal, non-manifest state. Speaking in more concrete terms, for most of the people back in the day it was Agni the god of fire who literally was the fire and came back to wherever his home was after the fire had been extinguished.
I remember hearing and reading about this idea in lots of other discourses and articles coming mostly from various proponents of the Original Mind theory. However, there is something fishy about it for me:
the article by F. Otto Schräder was published back in 1905, 113 years ago;
F. Otto Schräder quoted the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad as his primary source, and this work could very well be created in the post-Buddha period;
the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad likens the non-manifest state of fire to the state our atman is in, so engagng in contemplative practices can help us ‘kindle’ our atman and let it burn hot and bright. I don’t really think that the Buddha would approve of that analogy, so using it to illustrate his words is contentious at best;
looks like F. Otto Schräder was a theosophist, so his interpretation of the Upaniṣads may not be exactly objective.
However, I don’t feel like I have a strong opinion about this ‘primordial fire’ idea being true or false. I think I need more data to make up my mind, so I would be very obliged if someone could tell me
whether this idea of non-manifest fire is still accepted by modern Indologist (it would be awesome if you could provide some source more recent than 1905 );
if this idea is still accepted as true, it would be great to see whether there is any research about what the Buddha and, more broadly, other authoritative shramanas thought of it.
Thanks in advance