THE CONCEPT OF ‘AGNI’ (SAMYA MUKHERJEE)
The term ‘Agni’ is a Sanskrit word meaning fire and connotes the fire- God of Hinduism. ‘Agni’ is also the guardian deity of the south-east direction and is typically found in the south-east corners of Hindu temples. In classical cosmology of Indian religions, ‘Agni’ as fire is one of the five inert impermanent elements – ‘Tej’ (energy), ‘Akash’ (space), ‘Vayu’ (air), ‘Ap’ (water) and ‘Prithivi’ (earth). These five elements combined as ‘Panchabhuta’, to form the empirically perceived material existence (Prakriti). The term ‘Agni’ is used in many contexts - ranging from fire in the stomach, the cooking fire in the home, the sacrificial fire in the altar, the fire of cremation, the fire of rebirth, the fire in the energetic saps concealed within plants, the atmospheric fire in lightning and the celestial fire in the sun. In the Brahmanas layer of the Vedas, such as, in section 5.2.3 of Shatapata Brahmana, Agni represents all the gods, all concepts of spiritual energy that permeates everything in the universe. In the Upanishads and the post-Vedic literature, Agni additionally became a metaphor for immortal principle in man and any energy or knowledge that consumes and dispels a state of darkness, transforms and procreates an enlightened state of existence. ‘Agni’ is famously known as : ‘Pavaka’ (sanctifier of everything), ‘Havyavahana’ (one who carries the sacrificial butter), ‘Saptajihvi’ (one with seven tongues or flames; consumes the sacrificial butter very fast), ‘Vahni’ (travelling with wind), ‘Anala’ (as one of the Vasus), ‘Hutashana’, ‘Chitrabhanu’ (colourful light), ‘Jvalana’ (glowing), ‘Vaiswanara’, ‘Vibhavasu’ (whose light is wealth). Other names include ‘Sikhi’, ‘Pingesa’, ‘Plavanga’, ‘Bhuritejah’, ‘Rudragarva’ and ‘Hiranyakrit’.
Evidences on ‘Agni’ based on textual references : According to Vedic literature, Agni is a major and soft-invoked God along with Indra and Soma. Agni is considered as the mouth of the gods and goddesses and the medium that conveys offerings to them in a homa (votive ritual). He is conceptualized in ancient Hindu texts to exist at three levels - on earth as fore, in the atmosphere as lightning and in the sky as the sun. This triple presence connects Him as the messenger between gods and human beings in the Vedic thought. The relative importance of Agni is declined in the post-Vedic era, as he was internalized and his identity evolved to metaphorically represent all transformative energy and knowledge in the Upanishads and later Hindu Literature. ‘Agni’ remains an integral part of Hindu traditions, such as being the central witness of the rite passage of the ritual in traditional Hindu weddings called ‘Saptapadi’ or ‘Agnipradakshinam’ (seven steps and mutual vows) as well being part of Diya (lamp) in festivals such as Diwali and Arati in puja. Again in the early Vedic Literature, ‘Agni’ primarily connotes the fire as a God, one reflecting the primordial powers to consume, transform and convey. ‘Agni’ is a term that appears extensively in Buddhist texts and in the literature related to the Senika; hereby debate within the Buddhist traditions. In the ancient Jainism tradition, ‘Agni’ (fire) contains soul and fire-bodied beings, additionally appears as ‘Agni-kumara’ or fire-princess in its theory of rebirth and a class of reincarnated beings and is discussed in its texts with the equivalent term ‘Tejas’.
Philosophical context on origin of ‘Agni’ : There are many theories about the origins of God ‘Agni’, some tracing it to Indo-European mythologies, others tracing to mythologies within the Indian tradition. The myth found in many Indo-European cultures is one of a bird, or bird like being, that carries or brings fire from the gods to mankind. Alternatively, this messenger brings an elixir or immortality from heaven to earth. In either case, the bird returns every day with sacrificial offerings for the gods, but sometimes the bird hides or disappears without trace. ‘Agni’ is moulded in similar mythical, in some hymns with the phrase “the heavenly bird that flies”. The earliest layers of the Vedic texts of Hinduism such as section 6.1 of ‘Kathaka Samhita’ and section 1.8.1 of ‘Mayitrayini Samhita’ state that the universe began with nothing – neither night nor day existed, what existed was just ‘Prajapati’ (also refered to as Brahman). Agni originated from the forehead of Prajapati, assert these texts. With the creation of Agni, came light and with that were created day and night. Agni state these samhitas, as same as the concept of Brahman (the truth, the eye of manifested universe). These mythologies develop into more complex stories about Agni’s origins in the later layers of Vedic texts, such as in section 2.1.2 of the ‘Taittriya Brahmana’ and sections 2.2.3-4 of ‘Shatapata Brahmana’. Agni is originally conceptualized as the ultimate source of the ‘creator-maintainer-destroyer’ triad; then one of the trinities, as the one who ruled the earth. His twin brother Indra ruled the atmosphere as the God of storm, rain and war; while Surya ruled the sky and heavens. His position and importance evolves over time, in the ‘creator-maintainer-destroyer’ aspects of existence in Hindu thought. The ‘Shatapata Brahmana’ mentions there have been three previous agnis and current one is the fourth in the series – “Fourfold, namely, was Agni (fire) at first. Now that Agni whom they at first chose for the office
of Hotri priest passed away. He, also whom they chose the second time passed away. He, also whom they chose for the third time passed away. Thereupon the one who still constitutes the fire in our own time, concealed himself from fear. He entered into the waters. Him, the gods discovered and brought forcibly away from the waters – 1:2:3:1” .
Symbolism of ‘Agni’ : Agni is the symbolism for psychological and physiological aspects of life, states ‘Maha Purana’ (section LXVII, 202-203). There are three kinds of Agni inside every human being, states this text, the ‘krodha-agni’ (fire of anger), ‘kama-agni’ (fire of desire), ‘udara-agani’ (fire of digestion) - these respectively need introspective and voluntary offerings of forgiveness, detachment and fasting; if one desires spiritual freedom and liberation. Agni variously denotes the natural element fire, the supernatural deity symbolized by fire and the inner natural will aspire for the highest knowledge. Heat, combustion and energy are the realm of Agni which symbolizes the transformation of the gross to the subtle; Agni is the life-giving energy. Agni represents the spark of life and energy within all people as that spark ‘Agni’ is present in all living beings. Agni also represents the divine knowledge that guides yogis towards the gods. ‘Agnibija’ is the consciousness of tapas (proto-cosmic energy), agni (the energizing principle). With the inner concept, the sun represents the Reality (Brahman) and the Truth (Satya). ‘Agni’ is addressed as ‘Atithi’ (guest), is also called ‘Jatavedism’, meaning ‘the one who knows all things that are born, created or produced’. Agni is the fire of sun and lightening as well as the one who conveys sacrifices to the gods. Agni is also the lord-protector of home and hearth, and as such, is a mediator between gods and people – thus today ‘Agni’ is still worshipped and His blessing is sought at marriages, deaths and other occasions. Agni symbolizes will-power united with wisdom. ‘Agni’ is the essence of the
knowledge of existence. Agni destroys ignorance and all delusions. Agni also symbolizes ‘wisdom’ and ‘the mind swiftest among those that fly’.
Ideas on ‘Agni Tattva’ : ‘Agni Tattva’ is the fire of Kundalini energy, which rises through the practise of yoga. When ‘Agni Tattva’ is balanced, it helps with digestion, which provides physical energy for the body and sustains life, but it also provides emotional digestion and absorption. The symbol of ‘Agni Tattva’ is the red triangle. ‘Agni Tattva’ is one of the five elemental forces of nature in Hinduism, Tantrism and other faiths and philosophies with roots in the Indian subcontinent. ‘Agni Tattva’ is associated with the Manipura (navel or solar plexus) chakra, which is the centre of personal power and inner fire. When this chakra is balanced, self-esteem and the confidence are high. Thus, in the ancient practice of Ayurvedic medicine, ‘Agni’ is considered as a form of energy. It is the biological fire that controls metabolism, digestion and immune system. By balancing the Agni energy and digestive system through Ayurveda, the individual enjoys better health, reducing stress and making the mind calm. There is also yoga-practice related to ‘Agni’ – the practice of Agni Yoga does not involve asanas, mantras, meditation or a teacher/master. It emphasizes individuals striving to live a moral life, free from prejudices and dogmas of the past. Agni-yoga encourages to discover spiritual and moral guideposts and an inner fiery energy, helping to govern life and promote the common good. This Agni-yoga was founded in 1920 by Nicolas and Helena Roerich to emphasize living an ethical life, bringing spiritual consciousness into the moment.
Ritualistic ideas on Agni : Fire and heat play a central role in the understandings of the people from the Vedic age, within the cosmos. Fire is at once the most intimate and the most universal of all elements – it can simultaneously inflict pain and bring purity and it will make a person blind or give him vision at an instant. Fire is most fascinating to the Aryans, however, because of its capacity for domestication (with the taming of fire). The Vedic mastery of fire took place within the ritual context. As the rituals developed, a system of correspondances was devised whereby priests could manipulate the fires and fire hearths to create and control a tripartite cosmos – 1) Agni as the heavenly fire or sun (resided in the western hearth within the gods and goddesses), 2) Agni as the atmospheric fire or moon (resided in the southern hearth with the ancestors) and 3) Agni as the earthly fire or domestic flame (resided in the western hearth with human beings). This system of homologies also made reference to the newly emerging class system – the heavenly or offering fire representing the priest (Brahmana), the atmospheric or protecting fire representing the warrior (Kshyatriya) and the earthly or producing fire representing the merchant (Vaishya).
As the central civilizing agent, the ritual fire played a special role in the development of the domestic liturgy, particularly in the marriage-rites (‘Bibaha’) and funeral ceremony (‘Antyesti’). As the symbol and agent of transformative process, fire with its heat stood midway between the coolness of celibate studenthood and restrained householdership and between his life and the next. Marriage itself was affected by circumambulating the fire clockwise seven times and true wifehood implied the continual presence of the cooking fire. Similarly, passage beyond death required the special translational properties of the cremation fire, because it destroyed, purified and reconstituted the old-self into a new one; was treated cautiously by priests.
Furthermore in a practice known in India, at least as early as the epics and officially banned previously in 1828 – the inhuman practise of ‘sati’ (a wife joining her husband in the funeral pyre), thereby ensuring the spiritual mutation by fire of the entire sacrificial unit of the husband and wife into the next world. Fire was also used to test the truth of a person because Agni was the god who presided over speech, the truth of an individual’s words, was demonstrated by Agni as the defendant walked through fire, or endured an assault by fire – the best-known example of this is in epic Ramayana where Sita after being released from Ravana’s citadel in Lanka, is made to prove her fidelity to Rama by publicly entering into the flames.
Mythological outlook : The personality of Agni, as developed early in Vedic thought, delineates both the specific functions of the ritual and divine models as similar to behaviour of the human beings. Next to Indra, Agni is the most prominent Rig Vedic god and His anthropomorphic qualities are taken directly from physical fire. For example : smoke (bannered), flame (haired), tawny (bearded), sharp (jawed), bright (toothed) and seven (tongued). The God Agni has horns and bellows like a bull, He has a trail and is groomed like a horse and he is winged like the eagle of the sky.
Agni is literally the product of powerful friction produced by the hands of the priest or figuratively a manifestation of a victoriously procreative cosmic power. By far the single most significant element in Agni’s personality is his priesthood, as fire, Agni must officiate at every sacrifice; thus he is not only the divine counterpart of the human priest but also the prototype for and most eminent exemplar of all priestly activities. Meditorial nature of Agni is related to the offerings to the gods and goddesses as well as blessings to humanity. Agni’s
central relation is to ‘Prajapati’ and the joint figure ‘Agni-Prajapati’ becomes the cosmic person who is projected into being through dismemberment. The various searches of Agni culminate in the ritual-collection and reassembly of Agni (as sacrifice and cosmos) in the ‘Agnikanya’ and serve to reaffirm the presence of fire in every element.
Heat and Ascetic tradition : With the shift in emphasis from sacrifice of Vedic age to sacrifice in Brahmana period, the abstract qualities of the fire’s heat (tapa) become interiorized : the heat of flame , of the sweat of the priests and of the cooked food become part of an internal sacrifice within the body of a patron to become priest. As humanity itself is identified with the sacrificial process and with the cosmos, an elaborate system of correspondences is set up homologizing the micro-cosmic fires of the universe, the whole system is manipulable through the asceticism of yoga. A long haired ascetic, first seen holding the fire and riding the wind in Rig Veda 10.136, now becomes the ascetic thoroughly possessed by Agni : in His head - the fire of mind and speech, in His arms - the fire of sovereign power and in His belly - the fire of productivity.