Agni – the God of Fire in the Vedas
Esoterics, lore and the role of fire
“अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवमृत्विजम्।
होतारं रत्नधातमम्” ॥१॥
“Agnimīḷe purohitam yajñasya devamṛtvijam,
“Agni, I adore, who stands before the Lord, the God who sees Truth, the warrior, strong disposer of delight.”
This is the very first hymn of the Rig Veda and it’s addressed to Agni.
The Atharva Veda states:
“There is a Divine fire in the Earth and in the plants. The Waters carry the fire and the same fire dwells in the rocks. There is a fire within human beings, within the cows and the horses.”
“The Divine fire shines from heaven as the Sun. The Divine fire extends the wide atmosphere through the wind. Mortals enkindle the fire that carries their prayers, which gives clarity.”
In the Hindu pantheon, Agni exists as the manifestation of what is clearly divine, and forever mystical and evocative in the nature of fire. He is depicted as being deep red in colour. He has two faces, suggesting both his destructive and beneficent qualities. He has three legs, seven arms, and seven tongues. His eyes and hair are black. He appears to be crowned with the horns of a bull and has a tail like a well-groomed horse. He wears a yellow waist cloth. His vehicle is most commonly a ram, or else a chariot pulled by goats. Seven rays of light emanate from his body. He is ever-young, symbolic of the fact that he is miraculously reborn each day by the friction of the two sticks; but he is also immortal, the oldest of the presiding priests. He lives in the world, hidden in all types of wood and reveals himself when lit in the altar. However, Agni is not limited to the terrestrial realm. In heaven he is the sun, and in the atmosphere he is the power of lightning. In this way, he spans all three realms of the cosmos.
Traditionally, Brahmins make their first daily oblations to Agni. There is a specific ritual called the Agni-Mathana which is the ancient Hindu method for making fire. In this process, wooden pieces from the Arani (kind of fiscus) tree are rubbed together to create vigorous friction, which generates fire. Each of the sticks are regarded as his parents – Aditi and Kashyapa. Thus, Agni is said to be miraculously reborn each day through this ritual.
The sacred fire was the main tool used by the rishis for communication with both inner and outer worlds. Using fire as a medium they could contact channels of universal thought and energy as easily as we can tune into different broadcasting stations. Meditating on the consecrated fire linked them with the sacred order of life. These rituals are known as yajnas or yagas. These are sacrifices made to the gods through the medium of the glowing hearth. In these yagas it was as if they themselves became the sacrifice, as it were, offering their lives into the cosmic fire. The human personality of the officiating priests became charged with a transcendental glow.
They lit the flames on their altars and in their hearts and felt the Divine Consciousness entering into them through the medium of the fire. Agni was their messenger, their herald, master of all wisdom, who brought the gods from the heavens and made them sit around the havan kund (sacrificial altar) in order to listen to their pleas.
These yagas were the mediums through which they achieved a state of consciousness far above what we can imagine in this current age. The Rig Veda explains that this inner fire or Agni is the principle of light in nature and in our own selves as the spiritual entity called the atman.
Many of the yagas which were done in olden times are not commonly done any more. However, it is still the accepted mode of ritual in any modern Hindu marriage, where Agni is said to be the chief sakshi or witness of the marriage and the guardian of its sanctity.
Agni was also used as a test of credibility. Agni was a witness in discerning between truth and falsehood. Since Agni presided over speech, the truth of one’s words was sometimes evaluated by making a speaker walk through fire, a practice called Agni-Pariksha. Taking Agni as a witness is a very old tradition, dating back as far as the Vedas. Thus, Agni embodies truth, purity and sanctity.
The heat that we carry in our bodies is caused by the element of fire. If that fire withdraws, the body becomes cold and the person is considered to be dead!
In the context of death, Agni represents the heat that exists between this life and the next. The cremation fire has the ability to help the deceased to pass through death and to shape their entrance into a new self. Hence, he is always invoked and used in all funeral rites.
According to the ancient Indian medical practice of Ayurveda, Agni is the biological fire that governs digestion, metabolism and the immune system. Agni creates the heat which is required to digest food in the stomach. This is known as the Vaishwanara fire. Even though we cook our food before eating, it is said that this food is again cooked and digested in the stomach by that fire and separated into different components like blood, bile, bones, marrow etc. which make up the body of the individual. All animals know that they have to eat to live, but their knowledge ends when the food is put into their mouths. After that neither the animal nor the human being knows what happens to the food. How does it nourish our body? This is done by the Vaishwanara fire or the fire of digestion which is in our body.
The most obvious element of fire found in the outside world is the sun. The earth is a solar-powered planet and without the sun, all life on this planet would perish! Hence, the ancient Hindus were sun worshippers. One of the most powerful mantras in the Vedas is the Gayatri Mantra which is addressed to the Sun God – Surya who is the “pratyaksha devata” or the god that we can perceive with our eyes.
The discovery of the existence of “fire” in the outside world was something which changed the whole course of the life of the human species. It was much more important than the discovery of electricity. The discovery that we could create a fire by rubbing two sticks or two stones was of supreme importance not only for our physical life but also for the vague aspirations that the human species had to find the “light” of something they knew not what! The sacred fire is the spiritual ancestor of all people all over the world.
Thus, fire was the basis of human culture from the days when cavemen built their first fires and took the initial step towards an easier way of life. It was the knowledge of how to make fire that gave them superiority over the animal kingdom.
No wonder that in the dawn of civilisation when the Vedic hymns were cognised, Agni was the foremost of all the gods. There are many hymns addressed to him. In fact almost every mandala or division of the Rig Veda starts with a hymn to Agni.
In terms of importance, he is next only to Indra, the Lord of the Vedic deities. Fire is central to all Vedic rituals. All the offerings in the Vedic sacrifices are invariably offered to Agni and through him to other gods.
His consort is Swaha. The word swaha means “let it be so” or “well said.” In the yagas which were an integral part of Vedic life, any mantra with which the oblation was offered into the fire ended with the word “swaha” – “so be it.”
Agni along with Indra, the lord of the heavens and Surya, the lord of the skies, constitute the first trinity of Hinduism. Their places were later assigned to Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu respectively.
But as we have seen with all Vedic and post Vedic writings, the apparent scenario was only a cloak for some deeper truth. Our great spiritual teachings happened in an age which delighted in symbols. They said that the Supreme loved the mysterious and disliked the obvious. This is most apparent in the way the world has been created. Nature has cloaked so much of her deepest truths in the most unlikely garments which she releases very, very slowly. Hence, we find that the western scientist keeps “discovering” scientific truths which are contradicted at a later time.
Our rishis, however, did not do this. Their cognition of scientific truths was intuitive and therefore they have never been contradicted. However, they knew that most people could not see or accept the Truth even in its most obvious forms, so they never stated anything directly! They reserved the Truth for those true seekers whose minds were receptive to it. They never wanted to thrust their views on anyone. But they gave us numerous clues by which we could find the hidden treasure for ourselves.
The fact is that spiritual truths and experiences transcend the physical. Ordinary language can never explain them fully. In fact, the rishis said that whatever is put into words and passes through the mouth becomes profane. It is capable of distortion. Truth is like the fire that lies hidden in the wood. One has to cajole it to come out and burn and give us light and heat!
Regarded as the God of Knowledge, Agni guides us along the path to Truth. He is the light that resides within the depth of our subconscious mind and subsequently brings inanimate life into being.
However, in order for Agni to bring consciousness to life and lead us to “truth” – that is to say our true selves – we have to sacrifice desires that are born from the ego-centred mind. Thus, fire is mostly associated with sacrifices that are required to obtain purity of heart and mind. This is how we attain “enlightenment.”
Agni is also connected to the chakras. He is said to ride a chariot drawn by red horses with seven wheels – supposedly representing the seven winds. As a matter of fact, the chariot represents the mind, the wheels are the seven energy centres (or chakras) which are responsible for transferring and transmuting energy.
The Vedas teach us that spirituality must be linked with the whole of nature in order to be authentic. This is reflected in the science of yoga that shows us how to harness the forces of body, breath, sound and consciousness for inner transformation. True spirituality works through the divine spark within us (our atman) and connects it with the nature around us (the spirit), using not just the external forms of nature but also the inner consciousness.
It is crucial that we restore this much older and more natural form of spirituality that is not just mere nature worship but which uses nature as an experiential path to the transcendental. We are prone to think of our ancestors as primitive. However, our ancient ancestors did not have “primitive” minds. When you interpret the earliest writings of our culture, it is evident that they were far more advanced than we are.
They had advanced knowledge of science and medicine. They understood the human condition – how the elements can transform and heal. They experienced different states of consciousness and knew how to transcend the material plane.
Although this knowledge has been available to us for thousands of years, it has been forgotten, ignored and suppressed. Today, as the world falls apart around us, people are beginning to awaken to this timeless wisdom. The Adiveda Sangham has been started for this purpose to awaken the new generation of Hindus to the deep esoteric knowledge that has been forgotten by our previous generation.
How to bring the spiritual benefits of fire into our house:
In olden days we used to cook on a blazing fire but this has been replaced in various ways. In Bharat, however, even though we have forgotten the reason for it, many houses still light a small diya or lamp in the evening at sunset or sandhya. By this small act we are actually connecting ourselves to that important element of fire in our lives. It is wonderful to use mud lamps for this but if these are not available you can use metal lamps. These lamps should be filled with ghee or til oil with a cotton wick. They cast a pleasant, soothing glow in the room and dispel negativity.
We might not be able to conduct big yagas and yajnas, yet each one of us can do a small havan or fire ceremony in our own house at sunrise or sunset. It has been found that this havan will help to cleanse the air of all negativity. If we scatter the ashes into the garden or into our flower pots we will find that the flowers bloom faster. It is as if the whole of nature responds to this type of natural cleansing which comes from a yajna.
Aum Agnaye Swaha!
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