· In Greek and Roman Tradition
· Birth and Family
· Agni and Kartikeya
· Agni Nakshatra or Kruttika Nakshatra
· In Vedic Traditions
· Forms of Agni
· In The Upanishads
· In the Puranas
· Agni Purana
· In the Ramayana
· In the Mahabharata
· King Shibi
· In Ayurveda
· Agni as element (Tattwa)
· Bhrigu and Agni
· Agni becomes the great sage Agasthya
· Relation of Agni with other Gods
· Agnihotra Yagya
· Agni Rahasya
· Agni Tirtham
· Agni Lingam
· Temples of Agni
· Shlokas on Agni
The deities in Hinduism have evolved from the Vedic era, each of them having distinct personalities with mythologies and legends revolving around them. They are represented as icons, sculptures and paintings and are consecrated and venerated in temples. The Vedic era deities were those connected to nature but as the concept of Brahman gained precedence, some of these deities were replaced by medieval era deities. One of the most famous deities of the Vedic period was Agni, the God of fire and sacrifice. Fire has been an important element of all religions and cultures from prehistoric times and is vital for the development of civilisation.
In Greek and Roman tradition
Fire is one of the classical elements in ancient Greek philosophy which has been associated with the quality of energy, passion and assertiveness. Many Greek legends refer to ‘fire’ being stolen from the gods to protect humans. In alchemy, the chemical element of sulphur was often associated with fire and it was fire in the womb of the earth that transformed ores into metals. In ancient Greek medicine, fire was associated with yellow bile.
Aries, Leo and Sagittarius are said to symbolise fire and people born under these signs are said to have dominant fire personalities. They exhibit positive traits of being active, passionate, brave and enthusiastic and negative traits of being hot-tempered, angry and uncontrollable. In Tarot, fire symbolises passion and is associated with rods and wands appearing in magic. Fire is the guardian of the South East quarter being one of the eight Lokpalas and his region is called Purajyotis.
The word ‘agni’ denotes fire in Sanskrit and is said to be derived from three verbs, ‘a’ from the root ‘i’ which means to go, ‘g’ from the root ‘anj’ meaning to shine or ‘dah’ meaning to burn and ‘ni’ meaning to lead. The fire God is also called Agni as he is said to be ‘Agrani’ the first principle of thought which manifests as speech in all rituals(yajnas) and the leader who is the ever awake disseminator of knowledge. He is said to have three forms namely fire, lightning and the sun. The name is also close to the English word ‘ignite’ and the Latin ‘ignis’. The various names of Agni are Saptajihva (one with seven tongues to lick the sacrificial butter), Vahni, Pavaka, Anala, Vaiswanara (son of Viswanara), Abjahasta (lotus in hand), Dhumaketu (whose sign is smoke), Hutabhuj or Hutasa (devourer of offerings), Sukra or Suchi (the bright), Rohitaswa (having red horses), Chhagaratha (ram rider) and Tomaradhara (javelin bearer)
In Hindu scriptures, Agni is represented by two heads, one head marking immortality and the other marking an unknown symbol of life. He is said to have two or seven hands and three legs. The ancient seers divided Agni into three parts, Garhapatya (for general domestic use), Aahavaniya (for inviting and welcoming a deity or personage) and Dakshinagni (for fighting against all evil). His vehicle is said to be the ram which is a sacrificial animal and connected with rituals. His descriptions are varied and in some legends, he is clothed in black mounted on a chariot drawn by red horses and the seven winds are the wheels of his car. He carries a flaming javelin in one of his hands. His seven hands are depicted in the form of a Swastika which is one of the most ancient symbols of Hinduism as it symbolises prosperity, success and good luck. Its esoteric significance is inner achievement, inner fulfilment and inner progress. The Swastika is also used as a focal point for concentration while reciting the shlokas from the Rig Veda.
Birth and family
Agni is said to be the eldest son of Brahma. In another version, he is said to be the son of Dharma (eternal law) and Vasubhaarya (wife of light). The Vedas state that when Agni was born, the Sun became visible. In later writings, Agni is said to be the son of Sage Angiras who discovered fire and its uses. At the command of Sage Bhrigu, Agni was said to have been brought down by Matarishvan from the heavens for man’s use. He is said to have married Svaahaa who was one of the daughters of Daksha and Prasuti, her name also signifying invocation offerings and fathered three sons, Suchi (purity), Paavaka (purifier) and Paavamaana (purifying). They in turn had forty five children, all different aspects of fire. He is considered as the grandson of Sandila.
Agni and Kartikeya
There are many legends on the birth of Kartikeya and the role that Agni played in his birth. According to one legend when Devi Sati married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father Daksha, during a Yagna conducted by Daksha, Shiva was insulted and humiliated by him. In anguish, Sati self immolated and from then on fire or Agni was cursed which would cause unbearable and extreme inflammation in Agni’s body due to the fluid from Shiva’s body. Only Shiva could lift the curse and he advised Agni to transfer the fluid from his body to the womb of a woman to relieve him. Agni then proceeded to look out for a woman who would bear Shiva’s child. He reached a far off place where he found six Kritikas taking shelter from the bitter cold. He then transferred the fluid into their wombs and all six became pregnant. When they returned home, their husbands accused them of adultery and cursed them to become a constellation in the sky. It is said that before they became a constellation, they aborted their foetuses in the Himalaya Mountains. The holy Ganges then carried the foetuses to a secluded place extensively covered with reeds called Sara Vana and later Kartikeya was born with six heads. Thus he is said to have come from six mothers. Another legend states that instead of the fluid from his body, Agni carried six sparks that fell from Lord Shiva’s third eye. He deposited the sparks in a lake in Sara Vana where six children were born. The Kritikas nursed the babies and took care of them. Later Goddess Parvati merged their bodies into one but the six heads remained. Hence Kartikeya is referred to as Shanmukh or Lord of six faces and born in Sara Vana, he is also called Saravana.
Agni Nakshatra or Kruttika Nakshatra
This Nakshatra is dedicated to Agni in Tamil Nadu and hence is referred to as Agni Nakshatra. It occurs in the peak summer season and special pujas are arranged in Muruga (Kartikeya) temples during this period. This period is considered inauspicious for performing weddings, travelling and is dedicated to the circumambulation of the Giri Mountain and worship of Lord Kartikeya.
In Vedic traditions
The Rig Veda states that Agni was born by the prowess of Tvashtr, the first born creator of the universe or from Apam Napat, the Supreme God of creation. Agni manifested in the waters and its flames increased upwards. Agni was the God of fire and sacrifice, of divine knowledge, action and energy and is also associated with water. It is the sacred spark and the first emanation inherent in all beings. Out of 1028 hymns, 218 of them are dedicated to Agni, who is one of the Supreme Gods in the Vedas. He is the priest of the Gods, taking offerings to the other world in his fire. Through Yajnas (sacrifices) he carries the oblations to the Gods and without the presence of Agni, no God or divinity is approachable. He is supremely powerful and is the immortal witness to all actions. He is said to confer wealth and satisfy all desires to those who perform his Yagnas. The invocation in the Vedas ‘O Agni, lead me onto the right path’ implies that Agni should transform the energy and create a balance between the Ida and Pingala Nadis putting it on the straight path.
Forms of Agni
Agni is said to have two forms Jataveda and Kravyada. As Jataveda, Agni is identified with Brahman and infinite knowledge and is invoked to burn and carry the offerings (except flesh) to the respective Gods. He is the pure form, the sacrificial priest and divine messenger who intercedes between humans and Gods and thus pleasing Agni, in turn, is said to please the Gods. Agni and Soma (the Vedic ritual drink) are invoked in the Rig Veda more than any other God. As Kravyada, Agni is obtained from the rays of the sun and is invoked to burn flesh (animal parts and corpses) in the Pitru Yajna. It is the fire of the funeral pyre and hence as such is said to be the impure form which is much feared. Agni is said to symbolise Knowledge, the mystic fire which leads man to God. It is expressed as two forms of energy namely heat and light and is the symbol of activity and life, piety and purity. Agni is also called Arka or radiance of the sun which is an accessory to worship. He is referred to as Marut or storm God and as one of the Saptarishis.
Agni is traditionally said to have ten forms, the first five are his natural or material forms. They are the ordinary fire, the sun, lightning, the digestive fire (Jatharaagni) and destructive fire like forest fires. The next five are his ritual forms like fire produced by using sticks for sacrifices and rituals, fire given to a student during Upanayanam or thread ceremony, fire kept in the house for domestic rituals, southern fire of the ancestors used in certain rituals and the funeral fire used in rituals during cremation.
In the Upanishads
The Katha Upanishad relates the story of Nachiketa who was taught the secrets of the fire (Agni Rahasya) that leads to heaven. In the Kena Upanishad, Agni is said to be the ever burning flame in matter that makes up the entire world. Agni is said to become the speech and enter the mouth and Vayu is said to become the breath and enter the nostrils. In the Isha Upanishad, Agni is revered as Divine Will and action to surrender lower egoistic nature and to guide and lead man to Brahman. The Chandogya Upanishad describes the meditation of five fires, the Panchagni Vidya and explains the interrelationship between all creation.
In the Puranas
Agni is called Abhimani (proud, dignified) and is said to have sprung from the Virata Purusha (the Cosmic Being). In the Puranas, Agni’s three sons indicate three aspects of Agni, Paavamana or the fire produced by friction, Paavaka or the electric fire and Suchi or the solar fire. They also represent body, soul and mind. Agni is also associated with the birth of Kartikeya and the Krittika Nakshatra.
The Agni Purana is one of the eighteen major Puranas and it was recited by Agni to Sage Vasishta when the sage wished to attain knowledge of the Brahman. Vasishta later recited it to Sage Vyasa who compiled all the Vedas, Puranas and many other texts. There are nine chapters in the Agni Purana, the first few chapters describe the various incarnations. The other chapters describe religious rituals, description of the earth, stars and other constellations. It also includes the duties of Kings, places of pilgrimage and various Dharmas and Ashramas. Abhimaani, his three sons and their 45 sons constitute the 49 mystic fires of the Vayu and Agni Purana and are mentioned in the other Puranas.
In the Ramayana
In the Ramayana when Ravana came to kidnap Sita, she is said to have prayed to Agni and sought his protection. He is said to have provided a protective shield over her. Agni then created Maya Sita who took her place and remained in Ravana’s captivity. After the battle when Ravana was destroyed, before being accepted by Rama, Sita underwent Agni Pariksha or the ordeal by fire to prove her chastity. The Maya Sita then entered the fire and Agni then handed over the original chaste and pure Sita to Rama. From time immemorial, the veracity of one’s speech was tested by walking over fire referred to as Agni Pariksha. In another instance in the Ramayana, Rama and Sugreeva vow to help each other by circling the fire thrice as a seal of their bond. There are numerous such instances of Agni being used as a test of credibility, as a witness in discerning truth and untruth in Hindu mythology.
In the Mahabharata
Once when Krishna and the Pandavas were in Indraprastha, a Brahmin came to meet Arjuna. He had a luminous appearance and his body glowed and his eyes shone brightly. He informed Arjuna that he was unable to satisfy his hunger and asked their help to assuage it. Arjuna immediately promised him that he would solve his problem. The Brahmin then revealed that he was Lord Agni. He wished to devour the Khandava forest but Indra was restricting him as his friend Takshaka the King of snakes resided there. When Agni would begin to burn it, Indra would cause his thunder clouds to pour rain dousing the flames. He then asked Arjuna’s protection while devouring the forest. (According to legends, Agni had consumed a lot of clarified butter due to the prolonged yagnas of King Swetaki and hence had become pale and lost his golden lustre. He then approached Brahma to find a solution to cure his sickness. Brahma informed him that the Khandava forest had become the haunt of demons and snakes and devouring the forest would cure his stomach ailment. However, since Indra and the other Gods had friends in the forest Agni was unsuccessful and hence had approached Arjuna and Krishna). Arjuna agreed but stated that he required powerful weapons to withstand the might of Indra. Agni then decided to request Varuna for his divine bow Gandiva as Varuna owed him a favour and would willingly oblige. He also decided to give his chariot to Arjuna. Krishna then assumed charge of his Sudarshana Chakra and mace called Kaumodaki. Agni then assumed his primeval raging elemental form and began devouring the forest. Indra was furious and with the help of the other Gods Yama, Varuna, Kubera and Rudra came armed for battle. The battle raged on and finally a heavenly voice informed Indra that he could not be victorious against Arjuna and Krishna as they were Nara and Narayana incarnate. Indra and the other Gods then relented and finally Agni’s hunger was appeased. He blessed them with victory and gifted to Arjuna the Gandiva bow and the heavenly chariot.
This famous story is mentioned in the Vana Parva of the Mahabharata. King Shibi was the son of Usinara, a famous King of the Lunar dynasty though later legends claimed that he was from the Chola dynasty. He was known for his exemplary generosity and charitable disposition. Once the Gods decided to test him and Indra took the form of a hawk and Agni took the form of a dove. The hungry hawk chased the dove across the sky. Finally the dove reached the palace garden of King Shibi and in sheer exhaustion fell at the great King’s feet. It pleaded with the King to save it. The hawk arrived and asserted his moral right to eat the dove. The King was in a dilemma but his innate goodness and his Kshatriya dharma compelled him to protect the dove. At the same time he could not take away the right of food of the hawk. He begged the hawk to spare the dove and when the hawk refused to yield, promised it that he would do anything to save the dove’s life. The hawk then asked him to offer a portion of his own flesh equal to the dove’s weight to satisfy its hunger. King Shibi immediately cut a portion of his flesh and weighed it against the dove’s weight in a balance but the weight of the dove proved to be greater. He then cut more and more of his flesh but the weight of the dove always proved to be greater. Finally as he was about to offer his whole body and life, both Agni and Indra assumed their original forms and blessed him for his generosity and compassion.
Agni is an important entity in Ayurveda. It creates the heat and is the biological fire that governs digestion, metabolism and the immune system. Jathar Agni determines the production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, Kloma Agni determines the production of pancreatic enzymes which are necessary for the digestion of sugar in the stomach, Bhuta Agni determines the production of bile in the liver and so on. Depending on one’s dosha whether Vata, Pitha or Kapha, the nature and quality of these Agnis can be determined. This in turn enables treatment and cure of the patient.
Agni as element (tattwa)
Among the five cosmic elements, Agni or fire is the third element which links Prithvi (earth) and Apas (water) with Akasha (ether) and Vayu (air). It is the fire of Agni that is said to refine the grossness of the first two Prithvi and Apas into the subtle Akasha and Vayu. In the esoteric sense, the energy lying coiled in the seat of the Prithvi element represented by the Mooladhara Chakra passes through the fire of Agni and gets transformed into the light of consciousness. Thus the test of fire or Agni Pariksha refers to this event. The inner meaning of Sita’s Agni Pariksha refers to her being captured by Ravana of the ten heads representing ten senses that keep man bound to the world of pleasure and pain. The fire of Tapas or Agni then tears this bondage resulting in the ascent of Kundalini. Tapas is often called the fires of penance and is referred to as Panchagni and when the five external fires are lit with rites of purification, they destroy the five internal fires of Kama (passion), Krodha(anger), Lobha(greed), Moha(attachment) and Matsarya(jealousy). Thus Sita who represents Shakti or energy had to break loose the shackles that bound her by passing through the test of fire to reach Rama who symbolises Ultimate Divine Consciousness. The fire of Agni can be lighted only by Bhakti or devotion. Similarly the role of Hanuman who sets Lanka ablaze indicates that he crossed Prithvi and Apas to discover Sita and ignite hope and confidence in her.
Bhrigu and Agni
Sage Bhrigu was one of the Brahma Rishis in Hindu mythology. He had a devoted and virtuous wife named Puloma. When she was enceinte, Bhrigu entrusted her to the care of Agni before he went to perform his religious rites by the river. A demon named Puloman who was earlier betrothed to her but had been rejected by her father later came to the ashram. Noticing Agni he asked him about Puloma’s marital status and Agni declared that Sage Bhrigu had married her as per Vedic scriptural rites. Agni protected her but Puloman took the form of a boar and abducted her. In fear, Puloma’s unborn son fell out of the womb and looking at the baby, the demon Puloman was scorched to death by his luminosity. When Bhrigu returned and heard the events, in a fit of anger he cursed Agni to become omnivorous (to eat all things) for revealing the truth to the demon. Agni was furious that Bhrigu had cursed him for speaking the truth. He asserted that only clean offerings to him were accepted by the Pitrus (ancestors) and Gods so it would be highly improper to consume impure things. He also reiterated that he could also curse Bhrigu but refrained from doing so as he was a Rishi and thus had to be revered. Agni then went into seclusion. Brahma then informed Agni that even if his flames consumed impure things, his physical body would remain pure and unsullied. Agni was mollified and resumed his role in the universe.
Agni becomes the great sage Agasthya
According to some legends, Agni was reborn as Sage Agasthya. From time immemorial the Gods and the Asuras were enemies, always at war with each other. Once the Lord of Gods Indra gave an order to Agni and Vayu to pursue the Asuras and destroy them. Both of them followed the Asuras and destroyed many of them. But a few of them hid themselves inside the ocean. When Agni and Vayu returned to inform Indra, he instructed them to complete the task and destroy the remaining Asuras also. But Agni and Vayu were worried that if they dried up the ocean, all the creatures in it would die. Indra was angry and cursed them to be born on earth. He commanded Agni to drink up the ocean and dry it during his sojourn on earth. Subsequently Agni and Vayu were born as Agasthya and Vasishta on earth. As Agasthya, Agni’s contribution to earth was immense. He was a great seer with extraordinary spiritual powers. The Lalitha Sahasranama Stotra was revealed to Agasthya by Hayagreeva, a manifestation of Vishnu. The Aditya Hridayam Stotra dedicated to the Sun God was taught by Agasthya to Rama before his battle with Ravana. He is also said to have composed the Saraswathi Stotra and contributed to the Eshwar Nadi Astrology. There are a number of instances in the Ramayana and Mahabharata of the glory and stature of Agasthya.
Relation of Agni with Other Gods
Agni is often identified with other Gods. Agni is said to be Indra’s twin. In the morning he rises to become Mitra and in the evening he becomes Varuna. Agni is addressed as Rudra in the Rig Veda and in the Linga Purana, the Shiva Linga appearing before Brahma and Vishnu represented that pillar of fire which is Agni. In the Vedas, Agni along with Soma and Vayu are the principal deities. Agni along with Jala and Vayu are said to be the fundamental qualities of intelligence.
This ritual or sacrifice mentioned in the Vedas is a process of purifying the atmosphere using healing fire. It is performed twice a day, during sunrise and sunset. A small fire using cakes of cow dung is placed in a small copper pyramid of specific shape and size into which grains of rice and ghee are added while chanting two specific mantras. Tremendous energy is said to be released into the surroundings during this process providing physical and psychological benefits to all. In recent times, there has been increasing awareness worldwide on the effects of the Agnihotra Homa. Its holistic benefits include increased energy levels, reduced stress, clarity of mind, improvement in health and positive feelings of peace and love. This process is explained scientifically. Cowdung is a natural disinfectant so it reduces bacteria in the air. The copper pyramid generates negative ions which clears the air of hazardous particles. Pure ghee is said to be a natural detoxifying agent and dissolves all toxic contents in the air. Rice is said to offer a balance of the ying-yang effect. The chanting of the Agnihotra mantras is said to activate special vibrations and create resonance in line with the biorhythm. Finally the smoke from the Homa Kunda is said to neutralise the harmful radiations in the air. The effects of this ritual is said to reach up to 12 km into the biosphere, nourishing and reactivating all forms of life.
Agni Rahasya or the Secrets of the celestial fire in Yoga and Ayurveda is the esoteric interpretation of the fire altars which are the terrestrial world, sun, sky and air. Symbolically the fire altar is said to represent the mind with the ‘mano vrittis’ or mental modes correlated to the bricks of the altar. There are said to be thirty six thousand mental modes, one for each day of a life span of hundred years. The teacher of this doctrine was said to be Tura Kaavasheya who built a fire altar to the Gods as mentioned in the Aitreya Brahmana and the Shatapatha Brahmana. He was the Purohit of Parikshit’s son Janamejaya to whom the Mahabharata was recited and had received this knowledge from Prajapati. In ancient Vedic thought, the individual soul was like a secret flame (symbolised by fire) deep within the heart as a witness through all states of consciousness of waking, dreaming and deep sleep. This fire was said to be the witness through all sojourns of the soul in various planes of existence, through every birth and death of various lifetimes. The fire sacrifice indicated all thoughts and actions offered to the soul to help it to grow and evolve to its ultimate source or Brahman. Agni was derived from Agra-ni meaning the inner guide who contains all the essence of who we are and what we can become and is the doorway to the infinite. Thus, the journey of Agni is the journey of the individual soul. It is the power of outer and inner illumination and the key to all knowledge.
It is one of the 64 sacred Tirthas in Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and is on the eastern shore opposite to the Ramanathaswamy temple. Thousands of pilgrims take a dip in this holy sea every day. A number of sacred rituals are performed on the shores of the Agni Tirtham. It is believed that childless couples who bathe in the holy river will be blessed with children. It is also believed to be the place where Lord Rama offered his prayers to Lord Shiva after killing Ravana.
The Agni lingam at Thiruvannamalai is dedicated to Lord Shiva as Arunachaleshwar or Annamalaiyar and his Divine consort Unnamalai Amman. This temple is one of the Pancha Bhoota Sthalas (five temples associated with the five cosmic elements (earth, wind, fire, water, space) of Lord Shiva associated with the element of fire. According to legends, there was an argument between Brahma and Vishnu as to who was the greatest. They decided to have a competition with Shiva as the judge. Lord Shiva then stated that whoever could reach the crown and feet of the Shiva Lingam would be judged supreme. Shiva then transformed himself into the Agni Lingam or Jyoti Lingam. Vishnu took the form of a boar and began digging deep into the earth but he could not reach Shiva’s feet. Brahma took the form of a swan and flew high but was unable to reach the crown of Shiva. Both of them accepted defeat and requested Shiva to cool down from his ‘Agni’ form. He then cooled down and transformed into a Shiva Lingam called the Agni lingam.
Temples of Agni
There are a number of temples dedicated to Lord Agni like the Agneeshwarar temple in Thirukkolikadu, Agni Dhruveshwar temple in Varanasi, Agni temple in Kolkata, Kanpur, Kerala and in almost all the states of India. There are temples dedicated to Agni in most of the Far East nations following Buddhism though Agni is known by another name like Ka-ten in Japan and so on.
Shlokas on Agni
Om Mahajwalaaya Vidmahe
Tanno Agni Prachodayat
Let us meditate on the great God Agni with his blazing flames. May his radiant form inspire and illumine our mind and understanding
It is the first hymn of the Rig Veda of which one shloka is given below-
Agnih Saptim Vaajambharam Dadaatyagnir Veeram Shrutyam Karma NishThaam |
Agnee Rodasee Vicharat Samanjan Agnir Naareem Veera Kukshim Purandhim || 1 ||
Fire refashions everything, completely altering its form, taste and smell. It acts as a catalyst of change sometimes bringing about destruction and formation of a totally new product. Lord Agni is one of the most important deities of the Hindu pantheon who has been propitiated from the beginning of time. He is all powerful and supreme in ceremonies and rituals but also humble as the household fire and a focal point of all domestic rituals. By burning all negative tendencies in the fire of his infinite wisdom, man has to strive to attain greater heights of self-realisation and truth.