|God of Fire|
Agni, the fire god
|Mantra||Om agnaye svaha|
Agni (Sanskrit: अग्नि Agni), (Tamil அக்கினி Akkiņi) is a Hindu deity, one of the most important of the Vedic gods. He is the god of fire and the acceptor of sacrifices. The sacrifices made to Agni go to the deities because Agni is a messenger from and to the other gods. He is ever-young, because the fire is re-lit every day, and also immortal.
Agni occupies a prominent place in the Vedas and Brahmanas works. The ancient Indians recognized it as the power of heat and light and the will-power united with wisdom, they knew the human will-power to be a feeble projection of this power which they believed could be strengthened by the Rig Vedic chants to Agni.
The Vedic people developed the worship of Agni, personified and deified Agni as the sacrificial fire, the priest of the gods and the god of the priests, who through yajna carries the oblations to the gods, the celestial controllers of the mysterious and potent forces of nature, to ensure the continuance of conditions favourable to mankind. In Vedic deities Agni occupies, after Indra, the most important position. In the Rig Veda there are over 200 hymns addressed to and in praise of Agni. Agni is the Rishi (hymn-seer) of Sukta X.124 of the Rig Veda, and along with Indra and Surya makes up the Vedic triad of deities.
Agni, the Vedic god of fire, has two heads, one marks immortality and the other marks an unknown symbol of life. Agni has made the transition into the Hindu pantheon of gods, without losing his importance. With Varuna and Indra he is one of the supreme gods in the Rig Veda. Due to the link between heaven and earth, and deities and humans, he is associated with Vedic sacrifice, taking offerings to the other world in his fire. In Hinduism, his vehicle is the ram.
The word agni is Sanskrit for "fire" (noun), cognate with Latin ignis (the root of English ignite), Russian огонь (ogon), Polish "ogień", Slovenian "ogenj", Serbo-Croatian oganj, and Lithuanian ugnis—all with the meaning "fire", with the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European root being h₁égni-. Agni has three forms: fire, lightning and the Sun.
In Hindu scriptures, Agni is the God of Fire, and is present in many phases of life such as honouring of a birth (diva lamp), prayers (diva lamp), weddings (Yajna where the bride and groom circle seven times) and death (cremation).
There are five kinds of Agni (fire) – Kala-agni ('the fire of time'), Ksuda-agni ('the fire of hunger'), Sita-agni ('the cold fire'), Kopa-agni ('the fire of anger') and Jnana-agni ('the fire of knowledge'). Agni is also the name of one of the Saptarishi of the Svarocisa Manvantara, one of the Saptarishi of the Tamasa Manvantara and one of the Saptarishi of the Indrasavarni Manvantara which is yet to come. Agni is the name of the son of Dharma and Vasordhara, of an Acarya and of a disciple of Indra.
Tattva – Mahābhūta
Wŭ Xíng (五行)
Agni is the first word of the first hymn of the Rigveda (Sukta I.i.1) revealed to Rishi Madhuchchandah Vaishvamitah in Gayatri metre, which reads:
- अग्नि॒म् ई॑ळे पुरो॒हि॑तं यज्ञ॒स्य॑ देव॒म् ऋत्वि॒ज॑म् ।
- होता॑रं रत्नधा॒त॑मम् ॥
With this mantra the Rig Veda begins with a prayer to Agni, the receiver, holder and distributor of energy, who leads the devtas to victory in their battles against the asuras, and confers wealth of various kinds to the performers of yajnas. The first line of the first mantra of the first sukta of the first mandala of the Rig Veda consists of six words. The first word is agnimeeley, which is a compound word. This word is made of two words agni (energy) and eeley (initiate or pray). The Vedic mantras were the direct perceptions of the seers - ऋचः ऋषीणां दृष्टयो भवन्ति ||. The purport of the aforecited important mantra (Rig Veda I.i.1) is: 'I aspire intensely for Agni, the adorable, the leader who carries out the yajna; who does and gets done the yajna in due season, who is the summoning priest capable of bringing the gods to the yajna performed here, and the one who establishes excellent felicities in the aspirants'. Agni is the Mystic Fire, adored by the ancient and the present seers, to whom obeisance is carried by thought, and who endowing inner plenitude to the performers of yajnas, leads the yajna and through seer-will, and as the summoning priest takes them forward on the journey leading to God who is Truth. Agni is the envoy, the carrier of offerings, who born in the human aspirant, awakens the gods, burns the opposing foes - the demons. Agni, the youthful lord of the house who has the flame-tongue for his mouth, is invoked (kindled) by Agni - अग्निनाग्निः समिध्यते कविर्गृहपतिर्युवा | हव्यवाड् जुह्वास्यः ||, who is the destroyer of afflictions, the purifier possessing the power that fills and fulfils.
Agni is the supreme director of religious ceremonies and duties, and figures as messenger between mortals and gods. Vedic rituals all involve Agni, for example, the elaborate Agnicayana , which is the piling of the fire-altar, and the Agnihotra , which is making offerings to Agni. The Rig Veda often says that Agni arises from water or dwells in the waters; the sage says that Agni manifesting in the waters and seated in the lap of the winding waters, flaming upward, increases; Agni was born by the prowess of Tvashtr (Rig Veda I.95.5). He may have originally been the same as Apam Napat, the supreme god of creation, who is also sometimes described as fire arising from water. Hydrogen burns easily and Oxygen is required to inflame the fire. This is the important physiological phenomenon in any living body, which in a natural explanation may have referred to flames from natural gas or oil seepages surfacing through water, or as the seven rays or bands of light of a rainbow. Other Rigvedic names, epithets or aspects of Agni include Matarishvan, Jatavedas, or Bharata.
Agni is a deva , second only to Indra in the power and importance attributed to him in Vedic mythology, with 218 out of 1,028 hymns of the Rigveda dedicated to him. He is Indra's twin, and therefore a son of Dyaus Pita and Prthivi. However, he is also said to have two mothers, or has two parts of the firedrill used to start the fire, and ten servant maids (the fingers of the man who is lighting the fire) or as the twice-born. He is one of the Guardians of the directions, representing the southeast. Rishi Medhatithi Kanva of the Rig Veda (I.xiii.3) calls Agni - मधुजिव्हम meaning the sweet-tongued. In the Mundaka Upanishad (I.ii.1-5) it is said that Agni, here meant the Ahavaniya Fire, has seven tongues or flames – Kali (black), Karali (terrible), Manojava (speedy as the mind), Sulohita (very red), Sudhumravarna (coloured like thick smoke), Sphulingini (emitting sparks) and Vishwaruchi (having the fuel as the Sun) – तस्मादग्निः समिधो यस्य सूर्यः (II.i.5). Agni, who is addressed as Atithi (guest), is also called – जातवेदसम् meaning the one who knows all things that are born, created or produced (Rig Veda I.xliv.4), thus Rishi Praskanva states that Agni represents great learning and enlightening wisdom which ought to be sought, located and humbly approached. Agni excites Buddhi (reason and intellect), the perceiving and the determining factor, and by illuminating the mind it makes one understand and comprehend the truth – प्रचेतसोऽग्ने देवाँ इह द्रवत् (Rig Veda I.xliv.7). The Rishis of the Rig Veda knew knowledge to be the quality of the Atman which quality inheres in the Atman and is in the nature of manifestations as physical and mental objects that exist in Time and Space.
Nature and significance of Agni
According to Agni Purana, which is the eighth in the list of eighteen Puranas, no god is approachable without the medium of Agni, and no divinity is without the presence of Agni; his element is earth. At the command of Bhrigu, Agni was brought down from the heavens for man’s use by Matarishvan, in the later writings Agni is described as a son of Angiras who happened to discover fire and its uses. Agni as the immortal guest is the witness of all actions, supremely powerful, all consuming and unresistible but who commands all earthly and heavenly riches i.e. all temporal good. His most destructive aspect is when he acts as Kravyad.
Agni has two forms: Jataveda and Kravyada. Jataveda is invoked to burn and carry the offerings (except flesh) to the respective Gods. Kravyada is invoked to burn the flesh (corpses and animal parts).
In the Jataveda form, Agni, god of fire, acts as the divine model for the sacrificial priest. He is the messenger who carries the oblation from humans to the gods, bringing the Gods to sacrifice, and interceding between gods and humans (Rig Veda I.26.3). When Agni is pleased, the gods are generous. Agni represents the cultivated, cooked and cultured aspects of Vedic ritual. Together with Soma, Agni is invoked in the Rig Veda more than any other gods.
The Rishis of the Rig Veda held Agni to be responsible for the manifestation of gods for the mortal being who then comes to know them and worship them by the mind -
- अग्निर्यद् वेर्मत्तार्य देवान्त्स चा बोधाति मनसा यजाति (Rig Veda I.77.2),
therefore, they pray to Agni to increase its own strength or power that is within all human beings for them to cultivate strong conviction and firm belief (shraddha) without which there cannot develop a meaningful faith and deep devotion to support a dedicated mind. Agni is the essence of the knowledge of Existence, with its increase is wholly destroyed ignorance and all delusions, there is no nescience to be taken for granted and the human form assumed by Brahman is erased from the mind. Shraddha is that which supports and upholds Truth; it indicates a state of harmony.
Shatapatha Brahmana (SB 22.214.171.124) tells us that Prajapati was generated through the tapas of the rishis (equated with the non-existent of the Beginning), thereafter, through his own tapas Prajapati generated all the gods and all the creatures. He also generated Agni as the sacrificial fire and as the second self having wearied himself his glow and essence of him heated up and developed Agni (SB 10.6.5.2). Ritually Agni, as the altar built by the sacrifice, reconstitutes Prajapati. After one’s death at the time of cremation Agni heats up and burns the body only, the body which is the impure human condition. (SB 126.96.36.199).
In Hindu scriptures, Agni is depicted with two or seven hands, two heads and three legs. He has seven fiery tongues with which he licks sacrificial butter. He rides a ram or in a chariot harnessed by fiery horses. Agni is represented as red and two-faced, suggesting both his destructive and beneficent qualities, and with black eyes and hair, three legs and seven arms. He rides a ram, or a chariot pulled by goats or, more rarely, parrots. Seven rays of light emanate from his body. One of his names is Saptajihva, "having seven tongues". Another one of his epithets is Abhimani (from Sanskrit: abhi towards + the verbal root man to think, reflect upon) meaning dignified, proud; longing for, thinking. Agni is worshipped as the symbol of piety and purity; as expression of two kinds of energy i.e. light and heat, he is the symbol of life and activity. When Agni is worshipped all gods (gods are symbols of life) lend their powers to this deity. The ancient seers had divided Agni into three parts – grahapasya (for general domestic usage), ashvaniya (for inviting and welcoming a personage or deity) and dakshina (for fighting against all evil).
Agni is the chief terrestrial deity personified by the sacrificial fire which is the centre of the ritual poetry of the Rig Veda. The earth enveloped in darkness and the sky, become visible when Agni is born; the acquisition of fire by man is regarded as a gift of the gods. Agni is only compared and not identified with the Sun. Yāska states that his predecessor Sākapuni regarded the threefold existence of Agni as being in earth, air heaven as stated by the Rig Veda but a Brāhmana considered the third manifestation to be the Sun. Agni, who is more closely connected with human life than any other god, is often identified with other gods, especially with Varuna and Mitra, in the evening he becomes Varuna, when it rises in the morning it becomes Mitra. And, his priesthood is the most salient feature of his character. A sage of the Rig Veda (Sukta IV.iii.11) states that the Sun became visible when Agni was born.
In the collection at Bharat Kala Kendra (Benares Hindu University), there is a First century CE, red sandstone sculpture identifiable as Agni shown in the garb of a Brahmin, very much like sage Kashyapa on the Govindanagar Rsyasrnga doorjamb. In the Panchala coins of Agnimitra there is deity with a halo of flames and on Kushana coins there is engraved an Iranian deity under the name of Athos (Agni?); in Gupta sculptures, Agni is shown as a Brahmanical deity with a halo of flames round the body and also with a beard, pot-bellied and holding amrtaghata (nectar-pot) in his right hand.
Agnihotra means sacrificial fire; the Agnihotris once maintained a perpetual fire in their homes. This ritual ceremony was conducted on important and auspicious occasions; in many homes prayers are still offered to Agni (fire). The sage of the Atharvaveda (19.55.3) prays to the fire for happiness and peace, for a happy temperament, resolve and good health, for strength and mental contentment, and as the ladder to spirituality. The sage also states – अग्नेर्होत्रेण प्रणुदे सपत्नान् - that Agnihotra destroys enemies (Atharvaveda 9.2.6). Even Gautama Buddha had explained the importance of the yajna of Agnihotra as the ocean amongst rivers, a king amongst people and Savitri amongst the verses (Sutta Nipata 568/21).
Indian people consider it as the duty of the man who has established his fires, as of the man who has no fires, to daily, morning and evening, to perform Agnihotra. If the fires are kept perpetually alight, then they are required only to be brightened up for each occasion, if otherwise then it has to be taken from the Garahpatya. The main offering is milk, and at the end the sacrificer offers four water oblations i.e. to the gods, to father and the fathers, the seven seers and Agni on earth. Shatapatha Brahmana (SB 188.8.131.52) tells us that Agnihotra should be performed knowing that he will gain the strength and victories gained by Agni who conquered the earth, Vayu, the air and Surya, the sky, with whom he shares the world, and the same text further tells us that the Agnihotra, doubtless, is the Sun.
For the Vedic people Agni was the multifaceted psychological power connected with will, action and related powers, Isha Upanishad focuses on this tradition of Agni as the Divine Will which motivates and executes. In the Kena Upanishad, Agni reveals his identity as the heat energy and the ever-burning flame of the conscious force in matter that makes up the entire world. The gods sent first Agni to find out the nature of Brahman, which means it is Agni that releases the energy which is latent in all beings. Moreover, the sage of the Kena Upanishad refers to the functional differentiation and specialization of body parts on which account the life-stream progresses when he speaks of Agni becoming the speech and entering the mouth and Vayu becoming breath and entering the nostrils.
Pravahana Jaivali, who was well-versed in udgitha, held that the Universe exhibits at every stage the principle of sacrifice in as much as the heaven by itself is a great altar in which the sun is burning as fuel from the oblation that is offered in this sacrifice, namely shraddha, rises the Moon; looking at the sky again it is seen that parjanya is the great altar in which the year is burning as fuel from the oblation offered in this sacrifice, namely the Moon, rises Rain; then again the whole world is a great altar in which the earth burns as fuel from the oblation offered in this sacrifice, namely Rain, rises Food; man himself is a great altar in which the opened mouth is the fuel from the oblation offered in his sacrifice, namely Food, rises Seed; and finally woman herself is a great altar in which Seed being offered as an oblation, rises Man. This is his celebrated "Doctrine of the Five Fires". Before Satyakama Jabala, in bodily form arose the Three Sacrificial Fires to instruct him, the three fires were – i) the Garhapatya who told him that the ultimate reality was to be found in the sun, ii) the Anvaharyapachana who told him that it was to be found in the moon, and iii) the Ahavaniya who told him that it was to be found in the lightening, but to whom Upakosala explained that the ultimate reality was to be found not in these three but in the image of the person reflected in the human eye. And from Katha Upanishad becomes known about Yama taught Nachiketa the secrets of the fire that leads to heaven and what bricks were required to build the altar.
Agni is the eldest son of Brahma. In Visnu Purana, Agni (Abhimani) the fire god is said to have sprung from the mouth of the Virat purusha, the Cosmic Man. His wife is Svaha. Abhimani had three sons of surpassing brilliancy: Pavaka, Pavamana, and Suchi, the personifications of the three fires that produced our earth and humanity (VP 1:10). All these three names indicate purity. Abhimani, his three sons, and their 45 sons constitute the 49 mystic fires of the Puranas and theosophy. (cf Agni Purana.) Agneya is the Hindu Goddess of Fire and the daughter of Agni.
Agni’s three sons, according to the Vayu Purana, stand for three different aspects of Agni (fire): Pavaka is the electric fire, Pavamana is the fire produced by friction, and Suchi is the solar fire. Interpreted on the cosmic and human planes, these three fires are "Spirit, Soul, and Body, the three great Root groups, with their four additional divisions" (SD 2:247). They are said to have been cursed by the sage Vasishtha to be born again and again (cf BP 4:24,4; SD 2:247–8). "Every fire has a distinct function and meaning in the worlds of the physical and the spiritual. He has, moreover, in its essential nature a corresponding relation to one of the human psychic faculties, besides its well determined chemical and physical potencies when coming in contact with the terrestrially differentiated matter" (SD 1:521).
In some Hindu symbolism, Agni's parents are said to be the two components of the firedrill used to start the fire, and when young he was said to be cared for by ten servants who are represented by the ten fingers of the man who starts the fire.
Agnipariksha or 'the Fire ordeal' has Agni as the witness. Sita was forced to undergo this ordeal to prove her virtue. Agni redeemed the original Sita from the wrath and condemnation of her husband and her community.
Agni is an important entity in Ayurveda. Agni is the fiery metabolic energy of digestion, allows assimilation of food while ridding the body of waste and toxins and transforms dense physical matter into subtle forms of energy the body needs. Jathar-agni determines the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, Bhuta-agni determines the production of bile in the liver, Kloma-agni determines the production of sugar-digesting pancreatic enzymes and so forth. The nature and quality of these agnis depend on one’s dosha which can be – vata, pitta or kapha.
Agni is also known as Vaisvanara. In Shrimad Bhagavad Gita (Sloka 15.14) it is said:
- अहं वैश्वानरो भूत्वा प्राणिनां देहमाश्रितः |
- प्राणापानसमायुक्तः पचाम्यन्नं चतुर्विधम् ||
- "Taking the form of fire lodged in the body of all creatures and united with the Prana (exhalation) and Apana (inhalation) breaths, it is I who consume the four kinds of food."
Here, the digestion of the food is referred to as Vaisvanara. The four kinds of food are – a) Bhaksya, solid food that requires mastication before swallowing, b) Bhojya, food that can be directly swallowed without mastication, c) Lehya, food that can be licked and d) Cosya, that which is sucked. Just as the illuminating power in the fire is a part of Lord’s own effulgence even so the heating power in it i.e. its digestive and appetizing power is also a part of His energy or potency.
Water is needed in all physiological reaction; water is either produced or consumed in form of Hydrogen combining with Oxygen. Pandurang Shastri Athavale of Swadhyaya Parivar has narrated this beautifully in his discourses of Ishopanishad. The Vedic people attributed special healing power to 'water' or to 'fire'; the Kauśika Sūtra, which constitutes the oldest system of Indian Medical Science, relies on the so-called Vedic magical chants which chants or songs actually give with great clarity the symptoms of the various diseases.
The Arya Samajists, who call heaven and hell as the conditions of the soul, do not worship the fire, but perform yajnas to recite Vedic mantras and that too mostly on special occasions  even though Agni is of central importance in their religious practices. At the performance of those yajnas, and as part of Samidadhana ('fuel-adding'), fire is placed in the vedi with a prayer for the yajmana (the performer of the yajna) to accomplish the desired performances, then that fire placed in the vedi lights up the woodfuel (samidha) which is the power of endurance to fire which is present in all created things, which fire is kept enkindled by ghee and to which to begin with oblations are offered meant for jatavedas agni and the angiras agni alone.
In Newar, Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism, he is a lokapāla guarding the Southeast. In the Tibetan text Jigten lugs kyi bstan bcos it says "Make your hearth in the southeast corner of the house, which is the quarter of Agni". He also plays a central role in most Buddhist homa fire-puja rites. A typical praise to Agni starts "Son of Brahma, Lord of the World, King of fire gods empowered by Takki, Whose supreme wisdom burns all delusion [...]" In Mikkyō tradition Agni is known as Katen (火天). In the Philippine Mythology, Agni is also the god of fire as their local beliefs in pre-Spanish times have some Hindu influences.
All faiths have fire rites. The Hebrews offered their children to Agni as Maloch. The serpent is also an emblem of Agni. Mazdeans in Persia worshipped fire as god, that Ahirman commanded fire. Parsees still see him in their Atash-ga. Fire is one of man’s earliest divine ideas; Ag is a Turanian root; it impregnated earth, for Orphean mystics said – "without heat nothing germinates"; and the Japanese kosmogonies teach that from fire and water sprang mountains and rivers. The Akkadian fire symbol represents the fire stick. The Celts and the Greeks walked round the fire holding grass (kusha) in their hands, and the Romans spoke of fire as the focus of the hearth and of family life.
In Greek Mythology, Prometheus, the ancient Greek god of Fire, who had aided Zeus in his fight against his father Cronos, was the son of the Titan, Iapetus. He is believed to have brought fire to earth after stealing it from Zeus for use by mankind as an essential of civilized life; he is credited to have given man weapons of war, and also all miseries.
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