Agni (अग्नि: Sanskrit, meaning "fire") is one of the most ancient and important gods (deva) in Vedic Hinduism that plays a central role in sacrificial rituals (yajna). As the god of fire, Agni is the conduit and messenger between the human realm and the celestial realm. Burnt sacrifices made through him are believed to go directly to other deities in heaven. During the Vedic age, Agni was frequently propitiated as an integral part of the animal sacrifices during this period. In modern times, Agni continues to be a central part of the traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, which revolves around a fire-altar.
Veneration and awe for fire in some form or another is to be found in every religious and metaphysical system. Candles and votive exist in Western traditions from Wicca to Roman Catholicism, and in ancient Israel, God was worshiped with the fire of burnt offerings. Yet in the historical habit of regarding one's own tradition alone as true and all others as false, Christians have tended to deride gods such as Agni as primitive and idolatrous. Yet the only direct encounter with the living God recorded in the Bible has God (YHWH) appearing as fire. Thus, in the Hindu pantheon, Lord Agni exists as the manifestation of what is clearly divine, and forever mystical and evocative in the nature of fire.
The theonym agni derives from the root *ngni-, one of the Proto-Indo-European words for "fire," which can be easily linked to other Indo-European words referring to fire such as Latin ignis (root of the English ignite). It has also been shown that the very similar name Ak/gniš was used to identify a god of destruction in a Hittite text found at Bogazköy, Turkey. Although fire plays an important role in many systems of myths and rituals that took root in the Indo-European lineage, such as the Irish, Roman and Iranian traditions, the divine persona of Agni was just as likely to have been spawned as a result of the sheer importance of fire in Vedic ritual.
In Hindu art, Agni is depicted as deep red in color. He has two faces, suggesting both his destructive and beneficent qualities. He has three legs, seven arms, and seven tongues. His eyes are black, as is his hair. On his head he often bears the horns of a bull with a tail groomed like that of a horse, and 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 way of the friction of the two sticks; but he is also immortal, the oldest of the presiding priests. He lives among humanity, making his home within the element wood, in which he hid himself until revealed by the flames of the altar. Agni is not limited to the terrestrial realm, however. In heaven he is the sun, and in the atmosphere he is within the storm cloud as the power of lightning. In this way, he spans all three realms of the cosmos. Agni is even said to arise from, or dwells in, water (see "epithets" below).
In Vedic mythology, Agni is a deva, second only to Indra in importance. He is Indra's twin brother, and therefore a son of Dyaus Pita, the sky god, and his consort Prthivi. However, many alternative accounts of his progenitors exist. In some versions, he is a son of Kashyapa and Aditi or else a queen who kept her pregnancy secret from her husband. He is also said to have ten sisters (alternatively ten mothers or ten maidservants), who represent the ten fingers of the individual who lights the fire. Considered in this way, his parents are the two aranis, or fire sticks, with his father represented by the upper stick and his mother by the lower. When rubbed together swiftly, these sticks create fire. It is sometimes said that Agni destroyed his parents when he was born because they could not care for him. Agni is also said to have had seven brothers, the names of each signify particular flames. Three of Agni's nine sons, Uttama, Tamasa, and Rajvata, became the Manus.
Agni has a number of epithets, each of which stresses certain functions of his personality. The name Vaisvanara refers to the power of fire over all people. The name also celebrates humanity's control over light and warmth as a result of fire. For the Aryans, the domestication of fire meant not only the taming of the flame, but also as the taming of the entirety of nature, therefore symbolizing the foundations of all civilization. The epithet Jatavedas focuses on the hearth's maintenance of the family and ancestors as well as its consistent ritual presence. The epithet Apam Napat, or "Offspring of the Waters," suggests Agni's connection to the primeval bodies of water and their procreative powers. Another epithet attributed to Agni is Sapta jihva, referring to his “seven tongues.”
Agni the Priest and Messenger
Agni is the supreme director of religious ceremonies and duties, serving as a high-priest who carries oblations directly to the gods from human beings. He is afforded this role since his jurisdiction spans both heaven and earth, which allows him to become the meeting point between the celestial and terrestrial worlds. His many tongues are said to consume sacrificial offerings, and then transfer them in the form of smoke so they may be presented to the gods above. Not only does Agni provide the offerings from men to gods by way of his flames, but he also brings the gods to the altar. He is singularly responsible for transmitting the boons of the gods to humanity. The very first verse of the Rg Veda lauds his power:
- I extol Agni, the household priest, the divine minister of the sacrifice, the chief priest, the bestower of blessings.
- May that Agni, who is to be extolled by ancient and modern seers, conduct the gods here.
- Through Agni may one gain day by day wealth and welfare which is glorious and replete with heroic sons.
- O Agni, the sacrifice and ritual which you encompass on every side, that indeed goes to the gods. (Rg Veda I:1)
Although Agni enjoys pervasive power in the heavens and in the atmosphere, he also humbles himself as the household fire, the focal point of domestic rituals. Considering his immense significance in both public and private sacrifice, Agni has been given many honorific titles. He is considered the first to have conducted the sacrifice, and no performer of sacrifice is older than he is, suggesting the eternal nature of Agni's role. As such, he is the prototype for the ideal priest.
Agni as Witness
Fire was also used as a test of credibility, rendering Agni as a witness apt in discerning what was truth and what was a lie. Since Agni presided over speech, the truth of one's words was sometimes evaluated by making a speaker walk through (or else in proximity of) fire, a practice called Agni-priksha. Successful negotiation of such a trial was thought to demonstrate the veracity of one's speech. Taking Agni as a witness is a very old tradition, dating back as far as the Vedas, which describe him as such:
- O Agni...each fault done in a village or in forest, in society or mind, each sinful act that we have committed to Shudra or Vaishya or by preventing a religious act, even of that sin, you are the expiation... (Yajurveda, Hymn i.8.3.d)
One particularly famous story in the Ramayana describes how Lord Rama asked his wife Sita to affirm her chastity in the presence of fire after she had been unwillingly confined in the harem of Ravanna. Sita obliged, swearing an oath confirming her chastity and denying all complicity in Ravanna's scheme; since she did so in the presence of fire, all parties in attendance were satisfied. In the Valmiki Ramayana, where Rama and Sugreeva vow that they will help each other and circle the fire thrice as a seal of their bond. Similarly in the epic Mahabharata, Susarma and his brothers the Trigartas swear by the fire to either defeat Arjuna or die at his hands. This tradition stems from the idea that fire is the purest, and therefore the holiest, of all natural elements. Thus, as the personification of fire, Agni embodies the truth of this purity and holiness.
Agni was also given various other roles and functions. Not only does he have the ability to shape human life during the moment of sacrifice, but he also influences the fate of each human being after death, as well, which is evident in the ritual of creation (see below).
According to the ancient Indian medical practice of Ayurveda, Agni is the biological fire that governs digestion, metabolism and the immune system. For instance, Agni creates the heat which is required to digests food when it is in the stomach. Creations attributed to him include the stars, which were formed from the sparks which result from his flames, as well as the Agneyestra a fire weapon. Due to his characteristic vigilance and persistence, it is not surprising that in some stories about the Hindu gods, Agni is the one who is sent to the front in particularly dangerous situations. In the Puranas, Agni is said to serve as one of the Guardians of the directions, representing the southeast.
Ritual and Worship
In the context of Vedic worship, no god was as functionally important as Agni, and few ceremonies were considered complete without the performance of some oblations to him. Agni was essential in sacrificial ceremonies, where he was the deity of primary invocation. Since Agni was related to the three parts of the cosmos, a number of fire hearths were corresponding to these various parts. As the heavenly fire, Agni was said to reside the western adhavaniya hearth along with other gods. As the atmospheric fire, Agni took abode in the southern daksinagni hearth along with deceased ancestors, and as the earthly fire, Agni resided in the western garhapatya hearth with human beings. Each of these various fires also corresponded with one of twice-born castes. The heavenly fire was used for offerings and represented the Brahmins, or priests, while the atmospheric fire served to protect, and thus symbolized the Kshatriyas, or warrior class. The earthly fire was seen as the producer, and thus represented the Vaisyas, or merchants. Manipulation of these fire hearths, it was believed, allowed Vedic priests to control these various corresponding aspects of reality and thereby demonstrate their mastery over society and the cosmos as a whole. These public fire rituals were called agnihotra.
Traditionally, Brahmins were directed to make the first of their daily oblations to Agni. A specific ritual called the Agni-Mathana, the Ancient Indian method for making fire, was (and still is) used to ignite Agni. In this process, wooden pieces from the Arani tree (belonging to the family of Ficus religiosa or Urostigma religiosum) are rubbed together to create vigorous friction, which generates fire. Each of the sticks are regarded as his parents, thus, Agni is said to be miraculously reborn each day through this ritual. Agni's rituals survived the transition from ancient Vedic times to modern Hinduism, and the sacred method for starting the temple-fire by friction is still used today. Today, there are fire-priests (agnihotr) whose specific duty is still to watch over Agni's rituals.
Fire also assumed a central role in the performance of the domestic, or gryha liturgies, as well, such as marriage and funerary rites. In the context of marriage, fire was linked with the stages of life for a Hindu male. The heat of the fire was symbolic of the middle stage between the celibacy of a student and the restraint of a householder. In the marriage ceremony itself, the wedding of husband and wife was sanctified by having the couple circle the fire seven times. Although the Vedic fire-sacrifice (yajña) has largely disappeared from modern Hinduism, 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 guardian its sanctity.
In the context of death, Agni represented the heat that exists between this life and the next. The cremation fire was thought to have the ability to help the deceased individual pass through death while shaping their old self into a new self. As such, the cremation fire was treated with great reverence by priests, for fear that any action to the contrary could evoke the wrath of Agni as kravyād, the "flesh-eating" deity. Due to the significance of Agni in shaping the journey to the next life, it was not uncommon throughout history for wives to throw themselves upon the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands, a practice called sati (literally: "virtuous wife"). Such self-sacrifice was performed so that the fire would ensure the passage of both husband and wife into the next incarnation. Sati was prevalent in India until the nineteenth century, when thr [[British Empire[[ officially banned the practice.
In the Upanishads, Agni was related to various aspects of Brahman, the monistic essence of the universe. As such, he was attributed with the powers of a supreme god, including omniscience and omnipresence. This sentiment was furthered, not surprisingly, in the Agni Purana, where Agni is acknowledged as the Supreme Lord. Despite this veneration, Agni was not commonly worshipped in the theistic movements that would develop in medieval India.
Additionally, the understanding of Agni in ritual changed. In the Upanishads, the concept of sacrifice shifted from an external undertaking to a metaphorical process which had to occur within individuals. The significance of fire, accordingly, changed towards a greater focus on the abstract qualities of fire's heat (or tapas). Now, heat as it occurred in the flame, the sweat of the priest, and cooked food, among other things, became parts of a sacrifice that occurred within the body of an individual. The ostentatious public fire rituals of the Rg Veda and the Brahmanas became the ascetic tradition of the internal fire ritual, or anagnihotra. The microcosmic fires of human physiology came to correspond with the macrocosmic fires of the universe, and yoga became the means by which to manipulate the entire system. Now the fire was said to rage in the head as intellect and speech, in the arms as sovereignty, and in the genitals as the fire of reproduction.
- Findly, 133.
- Embree, Ainslee T. (ed.). The Hindu Tradition. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. ISBN 0394717023
- Findly, Ellison Banks. "Agni." Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Mercia Eliade. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1987. 133-135.
- Moor, Edward. The Hindu Pantheon. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 2000. ISBN 8177550292
- Zaenher, R. C. Hinduism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. ISBN 019888012X
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