Agni: Balancing it Right
Agni (अग्नि), a multifaceted, prominent Rig Vedic God, has maintained its status through the changing times. The complex nature of Agni has simplified through time as few of its functions were delegated to others, and few rituals lost significance with time. However, still, Agni ruled the world with its three levels of presence and as one of the Panchamahabhuta (पंच महाभूत) which made this world and all things that we perceive. With many Rigvedic gods assuming lesser positions in the post-Vedic period and some Gods renamed, Agni holds the same significance and heterogeneous nature as in the Vedic period. Commonly, Agni is perceived as the sacrificial Fire and acts as the messenger of gods. Hardly any ritual or Samsakas (संस्कार) are performed in its absence.
Agni (अग्नि- Fire) is one of the oldest Gods (Deva) mentioned in the Rig Veda. Rig Veda commences with the prayer of Lord Agni.(अ॒ग्निमी॑ळे पु॒रोहि॑तं य॒ज्ञस्य॑ दे॒वमृ॒त्विजं॑ । होता॑रं रत्न॒धात॑मं ॥ ). Agni, also called the guardian of Rit (ऋत-Dharma), occupies a prominent position in Vedas, next to Lord Indra in the number of dedicated hymns. Agni was also part of the Rigvedic triad of Indra, Agni and Surya (sun), existing at three levels. In his commentary on Upanishads, Shri Aurobindo says that Indra, Vayu, and Agni represent the cosmic Divine on each of the three planes: Indra on the mental, Vayu on the vital, and Agni on the material.
Numerous stories are related to Agni Deva, and it has its source in Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharat, Brahmans and Puranas. Agni Purana (अग्नि पुराण), one of the important Purana, is named after the Fire god. It is believed that Lord Agni had revealed the nature of Brahman to Rishi (ऋषि-sage) Vashisht, who in turn narrated this to Vedavyas, who wrote Agni Purana. Agni also exposed a part of the nature of Brahman to Jabala Satyakam in Chandogya Upanishad.
Agni is agrayatvat ( अग्र्यत्व।त), the first in this universe, meaning someone who existed before anyone was born. Agni is agrani (अग्रणीत्वात अग्नी) or the leader. Not limiting to the leader or the first one in the universe, he is also one of the Asta Digpal (अष्ट-दिक्पाल), the guardian of directions, and the southeast direction is attributed to Fire. It is said to exist at three levels: Fire on the earth, sun in the sky, and lightning in the atmosphere. Agni is considered the messenger of sacrifices offered during Yajnas (यज्ञ) to God. Displaying the utmost respect for the feminine divine power, his wife Swaha (स्वाहा) is addressed first with the offerings to please Lord Agni. Swaha is the Prakriti (प्रकृति), and Agni is the Purush (पुरुष) - the combination completes the sacrificial Fire.
Agni is the purifying (pavaka -पावक) and transformative element. It purifies Goddess Sita after she returns from Lanka, as she spent a considerable length of time in the captivity of the Asuras (असुर- demon). Sita's Agni parikshan (अग्नि परीक्षण) symbolises burning away of the negativities arising out of association with unethical and negative people.
In Yusdhisthira and Yaksha samvad (संवाद -dialogue), in Vana Parva (वन पर्व) of Mahabharata, Yaksha asks several questions to Yudhisthira as a condition to bring to life his dead brothers. Out of the various questions, two questions pertained to Agni; Yaksha asked, "What is the remedy for biting cold? ". Yudhisthira replied, "Fire is the remedy for biting cold, "and at another point, Yaksha questioned, "Who is the welcome guest for all? "Yudhishthira replied, "Agni is the welcome guest for all."
Sahdeva, Yudhisthira's younger brother, had to take the permission of Agni when he wanted to cross Mahishmathi kingdom during Yudhisthir Rajsuya yagna. However, Agni is given the status of a guest (अतिथि-Atithi), except for the domain of Mahismati, where he resides and guards the kingdom for the love of life, Sudarshana. Sudarshana वास king Nila's daughter, and Agni fell in love with her. However, King Nila did not agree to this proposal of Agni to marry Sudharsana. On refusal of his marriage proposal with Sudarshana, Agni got upset and disappeared from King Nila's sacrificial Fire. In the absence of Fire, no sacrifices or yajna could be conducted. Sacrifices and yajna were essential means to accumulate the merits and power of the king. King approached the learned sages, and they all tried, but in vain. Finally, King Nila agrees to give his daughter in marriage to Agni but on the condition that Agni will forever stay in Mahismat. It was only in the kingdom of Mahismati that Agni would dwell forever; at other places, he had to be invoked, invited, and worshipped to complete the Yajnas or other rituals.
Out of the numerous stories associated with Agni, one amusing story talks about how Swaha gets near Agni by disguising as the wives of the six Rishi to lure Agni to get closer to her. Swaha had set her eyes on Agni, and Agni was oblivious to this fact. Meanwhile, Agni saw the seven wives of the Saptarshi during a yajna and wanted to possess these seven women of boundless beauty and intellect. However, knowing the power of the rishis and that these women were devoted to their husbands, he knew this was impossible. Agni wandered restlessly in thoughts of those beauties. Swaha, upon learning the intentions of Agni, disguises in the form of wives of those Rishis and approaches Agni. Agni was pleased each time to see one of the Rishi wives he had wanted to possess and would accept the proposal of Swaha in disguise. Swaha managed to disguise six of Rishi's wives but could not hide in the form of Arundhati as she was too pure and powerful to be masked. However, when Swaha tried to disguise as Arundhati, Agni understood that it was Swaha in the disguise of the six Rishi wives. Agni accepts Swaha as a wife and states that Swaha should be offered first, and only then will he accept any offer. It's also understood by many that Skanda was the son of Agni and Swaha, and few believe that he was the son of Shiva and Parvati, born outside the body of Parvati.
Agni is one of the five elements (Pancha bhuta- पंच भूत) combined to form the perceivable material existence. The other four are space (Akash- आकाश)। water (Jal- जल), air (Vayu- वायु) and earth (Prithvi- पृथ्वी). Fire or Agni represents heat, desire, and motivation and allows transformation. The panch Mahabhutas are also related to the functioning of the five sensory organs; Fire is related to vision.
Agni is symbolic of psychological and physiological aspects of life. According to Maha Puranas, there are three kinds of Agni inside every human being: the krodha-Agni (क्रोध अग्नि) or "fire of anger", the kama-Agni (काम अग्नि) or "fire of passion and desire", and the Udara-Agni (उदार अग्नि) or "fire of digestion". All three need offerings of forgiveness, detachment and fasting if one aspires to a harmonious life. Ayurveda further differentiates the metabolic Fire of digestion as Jathar-Agni (production of hydrochloride acid in the stomach), Bhuta-Agni( production of bile acids in the liver) and Kloma-Agni (production of sugar digesting Pancreatic enzymes).
Interpretation and understanding of Agni kept changing from Vedic to Upanishadic to Puranic times, but its pre-eminence was never replaced. The essential life-giving Agni of the universe remained necessary for humans in the form of desire, passion, transformation, purificatory power and digestive power. Every ritual from Birth to Death needed the presence of Agni.
The two forms of Agni: Jataveda (जातवेद ), which carries the offerings from humans to Gods and Kravyada (क्रव्याद), the Agni of the funeral pyre, which symbolises transmigration, rebirth and recycle, has a deep semblance with humans. Jataveda is that Fire within us that generates the aspiration to be one with the divine and cultivate divine qualities. The power to burn off our vices, fears, and weaknesses and keep evolving is the Kravyada fire that transforms us.
Let's keep our inner Fire (Agni) alive as it symbolises inner and outer transformation. As the nature of Agni is to rise above or ascend, we must pray to Lord Agni to help us grow beyond material pursuits and balance our spiritual goals.
ॐ अ॒ग्निमी॑ळे पु॒रोहि॑तं य॒ज्ञस्य॑ दे॒वमृत्विज॑म्। होता॑रं रत्न॒धात॑मम्॥१॥ (Rigveda -1.1.1)
"I offer my prayers to you, 'Agni', the prime 'tattva' of 'Parmatma' by performing this Vedic Yagya. You, "Agni", is primordial; you were there before there was anything. With you, 'Agni', the creation started. You are the giver of everything. I pray to you, 'Agni', in all days, in every season. You, 'Agni', are the sustainer of all creation and consumer of all at the end. 'Agni', you are the giver and source of all the beautiful things of life".