192. Suparṇaḥ सुपर्णः

Suparṇa refers to the mystic bird discussed in Rig and Yajur Vedas.  The shape of a bird is used as fire altar in agnisayana.  Agnisayana is a huge Vedic fire ritual spread over a period of twelve days. It is interesting to know why ṛṣi-s  have chosen the shape of a bird to perform this ritual.  The shape of a bird is conceived to carry the yajamāna (on whose behalf and at whose expense this sacrifice is performed) of the ritual to the heavens. Mostly these types of rituals are performed for the benefit of the people in general, engaging several learned scholars well versed in all the four Vedas. Those days kings used to fund these types of rituals and such kings are called yajamāna. The construction of a huge altar for the agnisayana is mainly for the purpose of restoring Prajāpati also known as Brahmā, the god of creation. It is said that Prajāpati sacrificed his life for the creation of the universe. Prajapati’s body is said to be mortal and his breath – prāṇa, apāna, vyāna, udāna and samāna is said to be immortal. The significance of this agnisayana is to resurrect Prajāpati, who has initially manifested beneath the fire altar. The agnisayana altar is of five layers constructed with specially made bricks. The first, the third and the fifth layers are also filled with pebbles to enable Prajāpati to breathe. From non-ritualistic point of view, these three layers are considered as earth, air and ākāśa. The second and the fourth layers represent fire and water. These are the five sheaths of body referred in Vedānta as pañcakośa.

From the ritualistic point of view this bird is considered to carry the yajamāna of the ritual to the heavens. Yajur Veda says that the bird’s head is Tṛvṛt or Stoma (the verses in the Vedas that give protection to the yajamāna), its eye as Gāyatri (the famous Gāyatri mantra for seeking noble mind and thoughts. It also refers to gāyatri meter), its body as Vāmadeva Sāman (verses of Sāma Vdea), it’s both the wings as bṛhat and rathantara (both are names of melodies in Sāma Veda), its tail as the place for conducting this yajña, its limbs as meters (number of letters in a mantra. This is also calledchandas and Gāyatri meter is supposed to be the best), its hooves as the masters of knowledge, its name is Yajur mantras and the bird is called as garutmat (possibly meaning the bird garuḍa. Garuḍa is one of the vāhana-s used by Lord Viṣṇu, who is the ultimate authority for any yajña.). One of the soma oblations in this yajña is Gāyatri mantra. Interestingly the Gāyatri mantra finds a place in Yajur Veda next to the verses on suparṇa, the Vedic bird. Gāyatri mantra finds a place both in Rig and Yajur Vedas. Finally a request is made to this bird to go to the heaven and then fly to the world of light, carrying the yajamāna. The five of its parts viz. its head, trunk, left wings, right wings and tail are mainly identified with five basic elements and manifestation of these five elements such as organs of action, sensory organs, organs of perception, five sheaths etc.

Muṇḍaka Upaniṣad (III.i.1) also refers to two mystical birds by saying dvā suparṇā.  These two mystical birds refer to self (individual soul) and the Self (Brahman). The Upaniṣad says that these two birds exactly look alike, conveying the truth that there is no difference between the individual soul and the Brahman. The individual self (the first bird) eats the fruits of the tree in which these birds are seated watched by the Cosmic Self (the other bird).  The mental condition of the first bird changes depending upon the quality of the fruits it eats.  Since the other bird is merely a spectator, its mental condition does not change. Though these birds are the same, only their attitude differs. Upaniṣad beautifully highlights the ‘difference’ between the self and the Self.  

Since Viṣṇu is the Lord of all fire rituals, He is adored here as Suparṇa.  It can also be said that Viṣṇu is praised here as the One, whose vāhana is Garuḍa, the mystic bird.