Agni, brief view
Devās in the Veda form a hierarchy with Sūrya, the spiritual Sun at the head. However the number of hymns in RV dedicated to Sūrya is small. But Agni has about 200 hymns and Indra, 250 out of about one thousand. The reason for the prominence of Agni and Indra is that human beings in their quest towards the all-sided perfection need the help of Agni and Indra much more and hence pray for them more often. The analogy is that of a student who spends more years at the pre-university level than in the university level itself.
The contribution of every rişhi in the Rigveda begins with several hymns to Agni, then to Indra and then to the other devās. The RV begins with a hymn to Agni. According to tradition, the japa or conscious repetition of this hymn reveals the knowledge this deity stands for.
Agni in the Veda is not merely the fire on the vedic altar or even the deity behind this physical fire. The ordinary fire is a source of heat and light which prompted the vedic sages to symbolise the deity of spiritual Light and spiritual Force by the word Agni. The physical flame gives light all through the night amidst darkness and it impels human beings to study or work otherwise. Similarly the Divine Power of Agni is residing in every human being who is full of ignorance and in conscience pushing him or her towards progress. Agni is the Divine Power of will united with wisdom, denoted by the word kratu. It is not desire; but it embraces desire and surpasses it. In the Veda Agni is essentially Knowledge or Light taking the form of force. Agni is the mental force, will power, necessary for all action. It is Agni who makes the Divine knowledge of the Supreme Sun accessible to human beings.
He has many other functions, particularly the force of concentration tapas, commonly called as austerity or mistranslated as penance. He is the force of combustion in the cosmos and also the fire in the stomach jatarāgni who digests the food in man.
In the RV Agni is said to reside hidden in the cave of the heart, guha. The ordinary human being in his outward activities is unaware of the presence of Agni. Still Agni prompts him/her on the journey.
After a long time, Agni, makes the outer being become aware of the Divine force Agni within. This important event is described as the birth of Agni. He is said to be born in man, jajnāna, janayan in hundreds of verses.
Many translators mistake this phrase, ‘birth of Agni’ as the birth of Agni in the cosmos during the process of Creation. RV refers to the birth of Agni in every human. Agni and other devās are called twice born dvijanma, the first birth being in cosmos, the second in human. Depending on the response of the outer being of the human, the force of Agni, the divine will-force becomes stronger and stronger. Agni is pictured repeatedly as residing within and giving his direction. The worshipper develops a close relationship to Agni like that of son to father, friend, spouse etc. Agni reciprocates with the corresponding feeling.
In the RV, the devās perform not only the cosmic actions of maintaining all life, but also the individual actions, the credit for which performance is claimed by the humans. It is the devās who make the crops grow, trees blossom, digest food in humans and so on. But, human beings take the entire credit. RV views every action as a collaborative effort between the devās and the humans, the human role being nominal or subsidiary. This collaborative action is called as yajňa, which is not a mere rite. Bhagavad Gīta in Chapter 4 reaffirms the vedic view of yajňa.
The first hymn in RV states that Agni is the master of yajňa. He is repeatedly referred to as the performer of yajňa. Often the rişhis request Agni to perform the yajňa and worship the other devāson their behalf. In the Vedic ritual, there are three types of priests, adhwaryu, the controller of path, hotr caller and the udgāthŗ, singer. These three names denote distinct functions which Agni himself does. Agni guides our path to perfection at every step, hence he is the director of theyajňa. Agni calls all the other devās to manifest in the human being, each deva developing a particular aspect of force in the human. Hence, Agni is the caller of the devās. He is also called thedūta, the messenger of the humans to the devās, to request the latter to vitalize the human. Thirdly he is called the singer because he empowers the human being to express his aspiration to the Divine and devās by singing the hymns. Thus Agni the caller himself becomes the speech to be sung. In RV, the chief method of spiritual practice is the chanting of the hymns. This idea is repeated in the Aitareya Upanishad (1.2.4) by the statement, “Agni becoming speech, vāk”. This phrase makes no sense at all if we have not studied the Rig vedic concept of Agni. Agni propels the human aspirant towards perfection and hence is said to create the perfected being, the rişhi.
Agni, the mystic fire
Even a perusal of the 253 titles of the mantras in this book will convince the readers that whatever Agni is, it cannot be described as a simple fire in the fire-altar or even a forest fire.
The ninth verse in the first hymn is a prayer to Agni ‘cling to us like a father a son’. We know the effect of the physical fire clinging to us! Again the same hymn, in verse seven, states that obeisance or salutation to Agni is done by thought. In the first verse, Agni performs the yajňa; there is no mention of a human priest performing the yajňa.
The phrase, ‘kindling of Agni’, does occur as the title for the verse RV (1.26.5), verse 5 of hymn 26. Before we jump to the conclusion that this verse implies the kindling of the physical fire by a human, we have to read the qualifying phrases in the same verse, “The Gods Mitra and Varuņa kindle Agni.” Mitra is the Divine Force associated with friendship and harmony, Varuņa with all vastness, including the vastness of the physical ocean.
Again in RV (1.12.5), there is the Sanskrit word ghŗta, one of its meanings being melted butter, commonly poured into fire. The reader can read the discussion on this verse and convince himself/herself that to preserve the consistency of all the phrases in that verse, the alternative meaning of clarity of thought to ghŗta is more appropriate.
The general impression conveyed by the titles of the verse and later by the translations is that Agni is a Divine Force endowed with consciousness. The epithet Kavi or seer, or one who has supraphysical visions, is commonly used for Agni.
Agni manifests his power in human beings as the commonly used epithet, ‘born in man’, implies. He summons the other divine powers also to manifest in man, hence the name summoner for Agni.Agni can be approached by thought as well by the recitation of the mantra. The rişhi prays to the conscious power Agni, not merely for physical wealth like cows, but, all-round felicities, opulence and ultimately for the supreme knowledge and bliss. It is possible for a human being to enter into a conscious relationship with Agni like a friend, spouse, father, son, etc. We see in Rigveda the beginnings of the yoga of devotion, bhakti yoga, described in later scriptures like SrimadBhāgavatam, Bhagavad Gīta, the works of the ancient South Indian poets, āļwārs and nāyanmārsetc. The last hymn in this collection (1.99) is a prayer to Agni to carry us over all obstacles as in a boat to the shores of Supreme Bliss and Knowledge.
Some of the most poetic and lyrical hymns in the Rigveda are the nine hymns RV (1.65-1.73) by Sage Parāshara. They have a wealth of similes for Agni which are easily understandable only if Agni is understood as a benevolent cosmic divine personality. In RV (1.65.5), we find the simile, ‘Agni sits amidst waters and breathes like a Swan’. Because of the mantra ‘I am He’, aham saĥwhich in repetition or japa becomes hamsa, there is an intense association between persons in deep mediation and the bird hamsa or swan. These epithets to Agni remind us very much of the epithets used in the litanies to describe the Goddesses, as in Lalita Sahasra Nāma (thousand names of Lalita).Obviously these epithets make no sense to translators like Griffith, who insist on regarding Agni as a physical fire. No wonder, these verses are declared as unintelligible by these writers.
Agni Vaishvanara – The Universal Person
Nara in vedic Sanskrit means the hero or the leader whereas in classical Sanskrit it refers to the ordinary person. Vishva means the universe. Here Vaishvānara means the “Universal person, the one who is actively present in the universe, in all things and beings, Gods and men; it also means the leader within of Gods and men, of the Universe and within the Universe” [Kāpāli Sāstry, Vol. 1]. There are about twenty sūktas in the Rigveda where Agni is adored as the Vaishvānara, the Universal Person, or Leader within.
It has been mentioned earlier that whereas the Gods of the Rigveda form a hierarchy with the supreme God being simply mentioned by the phrase “That ONE” (tad ekam), the Seer experienced the ONE through individual Gods, primarily Agni. Agni is not only a distinct power and personality of the ONE, namely the illumined will, the knower of births of all creatures, the youngest God, the God who brings all other Gods into their habitation in the individual human being, etc. He is also seen and experienced as the Universal person or being by several rishis. We clearly see here how the strength of the spiritual experience or sight prevents them from forming groups, each of whom claim superiority for one particular God. For instance, the Seer Nodha Gotama hymns Agni as the Universal person in the sūkta (RV I.59) and in the sūkta (RV 1.61) he adores the deity Indra as the Ancient Person “whose greatness exceeds beyond heaven, earth, and mid region” (RV 1.61.9). The Rigveda is a happy compilation of the distinct and individual experiences of more than one hundred seers with no note of discordance or disharmony. Seer hymns a God with some epithets used by others and some not used by others. If we compile the hymns of different seers to the same God (as Sri Aurobindo did regarding the deity Agni), we can easily see the special powers and personality associated with each deity. For instance, take the word “adhbhuta” or wonderful. It is used more than twenty times in the Rigveda, almost always as an appellation of the God Agni (except once when it is used for Indra). Again the word kumara or jātavedas is used only in connection with Agni. Even though the Gods are described in superlative epithets, the set of phrases describing each God is clearly distinct, indicating that the different Seers who hymn Indra really had the vision of that deity doing the divine tasks attributed to that deity.
It is also important to study the hymns dedicated to the Vaishvānara Agni because they form the basis for the experience of the Upanishadic seers named as “vaishvānara vidya” appearing in theChāndogya upanishad. There are several such bridges between the Rigveda and the upanishads like the doctrine of mystic honey, which will be considered elsewhere.
The glories of Agni Vaishvānara are extolled in about twenty sūktas of the Rigveda. Translations of three of them will be given here with appropriate comments. All other fires are only thy branches. In thee, rejoice all the Gods. Thou, Vaishvānara, art the navel of men and supports them like a pillar (RV 1.59.1).
Agni has several forms depending on his functions. Primarily, Agni is the Divine and Will (kratu) who is eager to take birth in every person to lead him/her to the higher realm. This is the spiritual function. Agni is also the cosmic fire which maintains the universe. He is also the fire in the individual living being, jatara Agni, who coordinates all the forces of digestion and makes life possible. Thus the rishi,Nodasa Gotama, says that all other fires, representative of their different functions, are only your branches. The ritualistic interpretation of the phrase “all other fires” as different sacrificial fires in different houses is too narrow an interpretation.
All the Gods rejoice in Agni because he begins the task in which all of them are involved, namely the divinization of man here on earth. Agni, the Divine force and will, supports every creature just as pillars support a house. Head of heaven, centre of earth, Agni became the messenger of heaven and earth. O Vaishvānara, the Gods manifested thee as Light for the pilgrim sacrificer (1.59.2).
Even though Agni is stationed in the higher realms of heaven, his center of activity is on earth. In the veda, human life is viewed as a pilgrimage from our imperfect state to a perfected condition, envisioned as the heaven. The individual progresses in this journey by means of offering all he has, all he is, all he does to the supreme. Agni provides the Light for this journey. Like the rays are firmly set in the Sun, All treasures are vested in Vaishvānara . Thou art the monarch of all the treasures in the mountains, in the herbs, waters, in men RV (1.59.3). Heaven and Earth got wide extended as it were for their Son. He, the priest, sings our words even as a man. Several are the flame powers of Vaishvānara , superb leader, luminous, with truth-sustaining light RV (1.59.4).
Heaven denotes the pure domain of Mind and earth, the wakeful domain of matter. Agni who is born in the human sacrificer (yajamana) to manifest the power is called as the Son. Both heaven and earth widen themselves in the sacrificer to facilitate the birth of the Son. Agni Vaishvānara performed all the functions of the yajamana, such as chanting the hymns. Agni Vaishvānara , knower of all existences, thy glory exceeds the great heavens. Thou art the sovereign of the striving peoples. Thou has brought the supreme good to the Gods by battle RV (1.59.5). I extol the greatness of the showerer, whom men celebrate as slayer of Vritra. He, the Vaishvānara Agni, slew the Dasyu, Thrust the waters down, cleaving the Shambara RV (1.59.6).
The epithet “knower of all existences” (jātavedas) is used exclusively for Agni in many places, clearly indicating the inadequacy of translating Agni as a mere physical fire. The last line refers to the battle between Gods, the powers of Light and Dasyus, the power of darkness. Even though Indra, the God of Divine Mind, is the leader in this battle, in this rik, he is identified with Agni since Agni is being extolled as the universal Godhead here. Thus the vedic conception of Gods is always subtle and never rigid. This is the Universal Godhead. The lustrous master of sacrifice, the flame with his hundred treasures, who, by his greatness, labours in all the peoples. This is he who has the Word of Truth RV (1.59.7).
The last line is very significant. Agni has the word of truth (Sunratawan) which has the power of fulfillment.
Next we will take another hymn RV (1.98) dedicated to the Agni Vaishvānara . May we be in the grace of Vaishvānara, for he is the foremost to be served, Sovereign of all beings. Spring hence, He beholds the universe and unites with the Sun RV (1.98.1). Set in Heaven, set in Earth Agni pervades all the plants. May Agni Vaishvānara , set in vigour, guard us from the foe day and night. O Vaishvānara, may this truth be attainable to us. May wealth laden with high riches wait upon us. May it be preserved for us by Mitra, Varuņa, Aditi, Ocean, Earth and Heaven. (1.98.3). Agni pervades the entire universe, manifests individually in each person and grows in him/her, and connects each person to the Light above, the Sun (in the first rik). A common feature of the vedic hymns is a prayer to guard us from the foes, the forces of darkness who are opposed to the growth of the force of Light in man. Even though some moderns may scoff at such a conception, the activity of the forces of darkness and falsehood is tangible for all persons who have done some spiritual practice. Only the forces of divine and not any purely human agency can protect us from these forces of falsehood.
The hymn closes with the recognition of the roles played by the various Gods in our divinization and journey to the higher realms of Light.
Some other references to Vaishvānara Agni will be referred here. (Kāpāli and Aurobindo translations modified). The messenger between Earth and heaven; with his Light he envelops the Vast Home RV (3.3.2). He is the measure for the seers and hymnists RV (3.3.4). At thy birth, thou has filled the worlds and earth and heaven Thou are there enveloping them with all thyself RV (3.3.10). I am from my birth the knower of all things I am measurer of the world RV (3.26.7). The heights of heaven were measured by this universal force, They were shaped by the intuition of the Immortal (6.7.6). Vaishvānara at his birth in the Supreme Heaven measured out the vast space (6.8.2). Born in the Supreme Heaven Thou like wind reaches at once the place of Gods (7.5.7). At thy birth, thou fillest the earth and heaven (7.13.2). Thou art the head of the world (10.88.5).
This vedic tradition of the universal Godhead has been preserved in the sadhana of the upanishads named as the vaishvānara vidya. The particular passage occurs in the chandogya upanishad (V. 11-18). The passage is “In all worlds, in all beings, in all selves, he eats the food.” “sa sarveshu lokeshu sarveshu bhūteshu sarveshu ātmasu annam atti.”
In this passage the seer Ashvapathi, who also happens to be the king, instructs his pupils Aruni and others in the art of living in accord with the truths of the Vaishvānara, the universal Person. “As the sustenance of the material body is indispensable for living, he enjoins upon them not to eat the food and live as if the vaishvānara atman (the self of Vaishvānara) were something separate, but to live – and eat for living – with the knowledge of Him as the ONE FIRE who lives aglow in all the creatures. Anyone who so lives, lives also for other souls, for other beings around, for the rest of the whole universe. He lives in conscious union with Him, lives a conscious life aware of the fact that what we call creatures are formations for the housing of the Great Presence of the Universal Fire, the Vaishvānara Agni. When he eats, he knows and feels that it is the awakened Fire of the Universal Person in him that eats. His living is a source of joy and power to the living of others, to the general progress of the world, of all beings and of the human kind in particular that is closer to his/her level.” [Kapali, Vol. 1, p. 215].
The vedic tradition of a deity, who is not only a separate power and personality of the Divine, but who also is viewed as the universal Godhead, has come down into our times as the chosen deity (ishta devata) associated with each person who guides him/her to the highest. We have to remember that the practice of adoring Agni both as a separate power and as the universal Godhead is based on the intuitions and spiritual experiences of the vedic seers and not on any intellectual arguments. When the role of the intellect became stronger and when it was not followed by strong spiritual experiences, we see the development of different cults, each one having with a fixed a rigid hierarchy of Gods, the hierarchy justified by intellectual arguments. Naturally the highest God in one system is not the same in the other leading naturally to the quarrel between the cults. All these quarrels occur because the powers of intellect which insist on the differentiation and distinction, and the power of the heart which leads to unity have not been harmonized. This power of harmony, labeled Vijnara by Sri Aurobindo, is still latent in most of us. We can clearly hope for a time when these diverse and often divisive forces can be harmonized.
Agni, the initiator of Divine Life in Man
More than three thousand riks out of eleven thousand in the Rigveda samhita are dedicated to the God Agni. This feature does not indicate that Agni occupies the highest place in the hierarchy ofvedic Gods – that role is assigned to Sūrya Savitri or Vişhņu. Agni’s preeminence comes from the fact that he initiates everyone to spiritual life and lays its foundation, which obviously takes a long time and effort. Thus every seer acknowledges his/her great debt to the deity by chanting several hymns to him adoring him and describing his glories.
A rough analogy to the role played by Agni in the spiritual life of a person is the primary education given to a child. Even though in the educational hierarchy, the graduate or post graduate education is considered higher than that of the primary school, the important role played by primary school education, clearly signified by its name, is crucial to a person.
Persons of the vedic age pondered on the question of how they can be free of the limitations posed by the material life so that they can behold again the infinite divine mother and become conscious of the infinity surrounding us. This searching attitude can be seen in the famous hymn of the Seer Shunahshepa in the RV (1.24.1). Which auspicious Name of God among Immortals Shall we call? Who is he that will restore us to the mighty Aditi that I may behold the Father and the Mother?kasyu nunam katamasya amritanam manamahe caru devasya nama… (1.24.1).
Father represents the consciousness that is of the pure Mind; the consciousness that extends and is awake in the physical world is Earth, the Mother. The persons of the vedic age had the intuitive perception that a God can be invoked by uttering (manamahe) his auspicious (charu) name (nama).The word manamahe comes from the root “man” which indicates the act of worship, contemplation, meditation, etc. The vedic persons had immense faith in the power of the name. The rik quoted above begins with the word “nunam” (doubt). The person does not know yet the name that can be called which will give the appropriate response.
The answer comes to the praying person.
agneh vayam prathamasya amrtanam manamahe karu devasya nama… The auspicious name of Agni, first among the immortals, (we) utter… (1.24.2).
We have seen earlier that every word carries a force of realization with it. There are many other places in the Rigveda when the aspirant asks “what word is uttered to Agni?” Note that Agni itself is a potent word. In addition, the seer is looking for the correct word which affirms the God and leads to his realization. This word must be illuminative of the power of Agni.
The answer comes in the rik quoted above (1.24.2). The auspicious word for Agni is “prathamasya amrtanam,” the “first among the immortals.” Agni is born first in man and then helps in the manifestation of other gods in us later.
As Sri Kāpāli Sāstry says, “Agni’s function begins as the voice in man, agnir vag bhutah. It is this aspect of Agni that the vedic sages were initially impressed with and used prayers to evoke him so that he may awake and take up the function of being first among immortals and of calling the higher powers. Vak as hymns, prayers addressed to Agni first and other Gods later, was the main instrument of their spiritual effort.” The rishis were clearly not unaware of the spiritual methods used in later times like meditation and concentration on sacred syllables.
The self offering and self giving the rishis was done through Vak, of which the prayer was the motor force. “The inspired nature of the vedic Vak tended to attach greater importance to and enhance the value of the sacred utterance and the result was tangible, and comparatively speaking, unfailing as can be seen from a close study of most of the hymns addressed to the Gods in the Rigveda… Vak was the chief means used to awaken the Great God of the Earth, Agni, seated in the heart of man. Agni, then, is Vak, the power of expression, the voice of call, on the physical plane; in his subtler aspect at the back of the voice, he is the psychic fire whose flame throws up the force of Aspiration in the march toward the Godhead; radically he is the Godhead himself, his will secret in the heart of things.” (Kapali, Vol. 1, pp. 355-356).
The word or laud as the unifying force between Agni and the seer is again brought out in 1.26.9. O immortal, may intimate words be mutual to both, to you and us mortals (1.26.9). In this rik,”prasastayah” means praises, secret words in confidence.
In 1.26.10, the seer calls upon Agni to accept the laud (vachah) and establish happiness in him. Agni is addressed as vision of immortality in 1.13.5 [amrtasya chakshanam].
The hymn 1.77 starts with a similar question. How shall we give to Agni? For him what word accepted by the Gods is spoken?” The answer is heard by the seer. That name is “martyeshu amrita rta barvah”. i.e., Agni who is “immortal in mortals and possessed of the Truth.”
The hymn RV 1.31 is particularly revealing of the problems encountered by the beginner. This hymn is addressed by the Seer Hiranyastupa Angirasa. The first three riks begin with the phrase “tvam agne praithamo,” “You are important or first in the birth of the various Gods like Vāyu.” The beginner laments much about the difficulties in the path. The beginner is labeled “pururavase,” “one who cries or laments to reach the high station.” For such a person, Agni is sukrltarah, the superb doer of Gods.
Another reference for the help given by Agni to the beginner is 1.31.14. “Superbly knowing, thou instructs the immature in all directions.” The word used for immature is “pakam,” that which is to be cooked.
The God Agni helps and leads a devotee even when the devotee or sacrificer is not helpful. The seer prays in (1.31.16). “O Agni, as we have gone far from thee in the path, forgive this offense. Thou art our relative… Thou art the maker of seers of mortals.”
The last line, “martyanam rsikrt,” making seers out of mortals, is the special characteristic of Agni.
Similarly in 1.31.6, the Seer addresses Agni as one who takes the devotee away from the crooked path and leads the person to the divine place that has to be known, vidatha. Agni establishes the mortal man in high immortality for daily inspiration. “amrtatva uttame martam dadhasi divedive.” It is clear that Agni is establishing immortality in man on this earth, not after the physical death of man. The same rik says that Agni creates for the devotee both happiness (mayah) and pleasure (prayah)[1.31.7]. The vedic seers believed in a rich and harmonious life where pleasures were not shunned. They were accepted and enjoyed as gifts from the great God. In 1.31.9, Agni is called upon to fashion a new body for the devotee, (tanu barkrt), a body fit for the divine birth. Similarly in 1.71.4, yoga. Agni is stirred into action by the prana. This is the basis for the statement in svetashvataraupanishad where the devotee calls for a body which has been purified by the Agni yoga (yogagni mayam sariram). Mortals kindle thee O Agni with words of invocation (1.36.7). We pray to Agni, the great, with auspicious words for you all (1.36.1). Youthful Agni, auspicious, in thee alone all oblations are offered, convey it to the Gods (1.36.6).
Agni as a friend and Purifier – Hymns of Seer Kusta
All the hymns of the Seers of Rigveda share a common language. Most of them use the symbolism of fire-ritual. For instance, Kutsa says “may we be able to kindle thee, may we collect the fuel” (1.94). In the same rik, the seer makes clear that he is not referring to the physical fire: “Perfect our thoughts….” Still each rişhi approaches the gods in a different way. Rig vedic hymns are records of spiritual experiences of the rişhis. Just as we do not find any two human beings identical (or for that matter, any two trees or stones), similarly spiritual realizations of two rişhis are distinct from one another. Different rişhis deal with different aspects of spiritual realization and there is no end to it. Still just as each poet has his/her own style of writing, each rişhi has his/her own unique realizations and unique style for expressing them. In addition, the compiler of Rigveda has made sure that contributions of the different seers are complimentary and that each seer makes some unique spiritual observations not made by others.
The Seer Kutsa’s relationship to the Gods like Indra and Agni is that of a friend. Kutsa’s hymns to Indra are reminiscent of the pleadings and prayers of Arjuna to his friend, the great God Krishna in the epic Mahābhārata.
Kutsa dwells on an important aspect of Agni, namely that of purifier. Several commentators say that “veda desires all sins to be atoned for immediately expatriated through fire ritual” (Bose, p. 219) and the basis is the hymn RV. 1.97. Before we go into the role of Agni as purifier, we have to inquire into the ideas of Rigveda on sin itself. The word in veda for sin or evil is “papma” or “Agha.” vedadoes not divide all actions into two rigid classes, the so-called good and evil. Rather, evil or sin is “basically a dark and opposing block of forces that prevents the release of the juice of delight, the flow of Soma (Kapali, p. 1.121). The evil forces enter these persons who offer a welcome as it were to them and the evil forces express themselves through humans in various forms. Rigveda mentions, for example, the person who would bring evil by voice or speech (aghashamsah, 4.4.3, 10.87.20, 6.8.5, 8.60.8), one who expresses evil through actions (aghayatah, aghayan, 4.2.6, 4.2.9). For example, in the much later book, the bhagavad gita, Arjuna asks his friend Krishna “Why does a man commit sin forced as it were.” Sri Krishna answers that the great forces of evil (maha papma) characterizing force of desire and anger (kama esha krodha esha… maha papma…).
We will consider the Rigveda 1.97 for detailed study. Its seer is Kutsa and it has 8 mantras. Each mantra ends with the refrain “May our sin wither in lament.” O Agni, may our sin wither in lament, shine thy wealth on us. May our sin wither in lament (1.97.1). For happy fields, for safe paths, for wealth, we worship thee. May our sin wither in lament (1.97.2). Most auspicious among the lauders be Kutsa. Most auspicious be our wise ones. May our sin wither in lament (1.97.3). As thy worshippers become wise ones, May we, thine, O Agni, become likewise. May our sin wither in lament (1.97.4). As the conquering lustres of Agni go to every side may our sin wither in lament. To every side thy face is turned; Thou art our guardian everywhere. May our sin wither in lament (1.97.6). O thou who facest all sides, Take us beyond the foes as over the river May our sin wither in lament. Do thou convey us beyond, As in a ship for our welfare May our sin wither in lament (1.97.8).
In the entire hymn, there is not even a hint of the idea that the performance of a fire ritual is an atonement for a sin. The refrain “may our sin wither in lament” makes it clear that the Seer prays for Agni to destroy the forces of evil lodged in him so that they may wither. Note the use of the words “wither in lament.” These forces are not abstract things. Rather they are personifications and they resist and lament being dislodged from a habitation in the particular human being.
Each one of the eight mantras indicates a different step or process in the eradication of the sin.
The first mantra says that only if Agni shines his wealth, namely the force of unshakable will, can these forces of evil be dislodged.
The second mantra says safe paths or happy fields are not possible if these forces persist. So the Seer calls upon Agni to destroy these forces.
The fourth mantra is the key. Only as wisdom dawns in the worshipper can these forces be thrown out.
The fifth mantra says that the forces of evil are lodged in every part of our personality. So the conquering lustres of Agni should pierce every side and dislodge these forces.
The seventh and eighty mantras clearly state that even when the environment may be permeated by these evil forces, Agni takes the worshipper safely across these waters just like a good boat takes a traveler through stormy waters to the destination.
It is also instructive to see how the same Sanskrit mantra may suffer a grotesque translation. Take the example of the first half of 1.97.4. The translation of Griffiths is: So that thy worshippers and we thine, Agni, in our sons may live. The first two lines of the translation due to Kāpāli Sāstry are: As thy worshippers become wise ones May we, thine, O Agni, become likewise. Note the vast difference in the meaning. The translation of Griffiths is incoherent. The difference between the two translations lies in the different meanings given to the word pra-jayemahi. Griffiths translates praja as son as in classical Sanskrit and translates prajayemahi as “to live in our sons.” But the use of the word“surayaha” wise ones is redundant because both wise ones and stupid have children. All through the Rigveda Sri Kāpāli Sāstry assigns for prajayemahi the meaning of “to become wise.” [Also consider Sri Aurobindo’s translation in which he uses praja in two different ways.]
Let us now consider the Kutsa’s hymn to Agni emphasizing his friendship (1.94). Kutsa uses the words associated with the physical ritual like fire, but quickly adds phrases like “perfect our thoughts,” etc., to emphasize the fact that he is using the physical ritual only as a symbol of the spiritual transformation occurring in his inner worlds. In Kutsa’s hymns, it is clear that Agni himself is the sacrificer and not any human. Agni accomplishes everything for the human worshipper. He accomplishes unobstructed, He gains heroic might for whom, O Agni, thou sacrifices, Evil does not touch him. May we not, O Agni, suffer separation in thy friendship (1.94.2). May we, O Agni, collect the fuel, prepare the oblations reminding ourselves of the successive steps. Perfect our thoughts to prolong our life. May we not, O Agni, suffer separation in thy friendship (1.94.4). Graceful of form, O Agni, thou art alike on every side. When we see him from afar, yet he seems near to us, So brilliantly he shines across the gulfs. He sees beyond the darkness of our night May we not, O Agni, suffer separation in thy friendship (1.94.7). God among Gods, O Agni, thou are a great friend. Handsome, thou confirms the riches in the sacrifice. Under thy most wide protection, may we dwell, May we not, O Agni, suffer separation in thy friendship (1.94.13).
Each mantra in this hymn of fifteen mantras, ends with the refrain “May we not, O Agni, suffer separation in thy friendship.” As mentioned earlier, Kutsa uses some aspect of the esoteric or physical ritual as a symbol of the inner sacrifice. For instance, in (1.94.7), the phrase “thou art alike on every side” means that Agni is equally effective in illuminating all the different (inner) aspect of the Seer Kutsa, which may be illumined or in a state of obscurity. The phrase “darkness of the night” refers to the state of consciousness which is completely dark and has not been penetrated by the light.
Agni Jatavedas – Knower of the Birth
The epithet jātavedas for Agni is found in many hymns. We will consider one such hymn, 1.99, for discussion It is the shortest sūkta in the Rigveda, having exactly one mantra. It is repeated in later upanishad literature such as Mahanārāyaņa upanishad (anuvāka two) as part of durga sūkta, thesūkta dedicated to durga. It is used extensively in the tantric literature and is part of thePrapanchasara tantra. It is recited to purify the environment in all vedic rituals.
The rishi of this hymn (I-99) is Kashyapa of, the son of Maricha. The metre is trishtubh. Agni is called knower of the births or knower of the worlds because he knows entirely the five worlds, the worlds in which, respectively, Matter, Life-energy, Mind, Truth and Beatitude are the essential energies. They are respectively bhur, bhuvar, svar, mahas, and jana or mayas (Sri Aurobindo). This is also the classification of worlds in the taittireya upanishad. Even though veda speaks of seven worlds, there is no conflict here because the world jana mentioned here represents the higher triple world of sat, chit, ananda or Existence, knowledge and bliss, in the other classification involving seven worlds.
jātavedase sunavama somam aratiyato nidahati vedah sa nah parshadati durgani vishva naveva sindhum durita ati agniĥ (1.99.1). To jātavedas, we offer the Soma, May he burn up the knowledge of our enemies. May Agni carry us through all difficulties, through grief as in a boat across a river.
What is the Soma mentioned here? If it is the herb, what connection could there be between an herb and the knower of all births? Western translators are fond of repeating that Soma is an intoxicating herb. However, all the Indian medicinal texts on herbs, both ancient and medieval, mention several plants belonging to the Soma family, but none of them possess any intoxicating properties. We have to look into Rigveda itself to understand the nature of Soma. The entire ninth book of Rigveda is dedicated to Soma. For instance, consider the following instances: Soma with thy natural powers thou pervades the all and flows Thou art the king and Lord of all the whole world (9.85.6). When they crush the herb, one thinks he has drunk the Soma, But no one ever tastes him whom brahmanas know to be Soma (10.85.3). These two quotations dismiss all notions of Soma as a creeper or Soma. The real meaning of Soma is “sarva anubhuti rasam,” the distilled essence and delight of all experiences. Everything in this universe from the smallest particle to man exists only because it has in it the “rasa” or delight of existence. When we perform any work without expecting any return, the work releases its hidden Soma which brings us a touch of delight, the basis of the later karma yoga. Soma, the essence of all of our actions and experiences, is purified and offered to the knower of all births.
We have mentioned earlier that Agni represents both Light and force. The rishi prays to Agni to protect his pilgrimage to the higher worlds from the onslaughts of the non-human evil powers who do not want the humans to progress and thus go beyond their grasp. Agni is called upon to destroy the wealth and knowledge of these non-human enemies. An interesting feature of this mantra is the analogy of the spiritual journey of the aspirant to one on a boat in a rough river or sea. Just as the sea has unfriendly creatures like crocodiles, the spiritual journey has also unfriendly powers. Just as a boat protects us from direct contact with the unfriendly creatures in the sea, Agni creates a protective environment around the aspirant so that he is free from unfriendly attacks. Recall the mantra (1.1.4) in which Agni is called upon to offer a protective enclosure to the onward path of the aspirant. The English word navy is derived from the Sanskrit word nava and this is one of the earliest references in history to travel by a boat.
Agni, the illumined will (RV 1.77)
- How shall we give to Agni? For him what Word accepted by the Gods is spoken, for the lord of the brilliant flame? for him who in mortals, immortal, possessed of the Truth, priest of the oblation strongest for sacrifice, creates the gods ?
- He who in the sacrifices is the priest of the offering, full of peace, full of the Truth, him verily form in you by your surrenderings; when Agni manifests for the mortals the gods, he also has perception of them and by the mind offers to them the sacrifice.
- For he is the will, he is the strength, he is the effecter of perfection, even as Mitra he becomes the charioteer of the Supreme. To him, the first, in the rich-offerings the people seeking the godhead utter the word, the Aryan people to the fulfiller.
- May this strongest of the Powers and devourer of the destroyers manifest by his presence the words and their understanding, and may they who in their extension are lords of plenitude, brightest in energy, pour forth their plenty and give their impulsion to the thought.
- Thus has Agni, possessed of the Truth, been affirmed by the masters of light, the knower of the worlds by clarified minds. He shall foster in them the force of illumination, he too the plenty; he shall attain to increase and to harmony by his perceptions.
Gotama Rahugana is the seer of this Hymn, which is a stoma in praise of Agni, the divine Will at work in the universe.
Agni is the most important, the most universal of the Vedic gods. In the physical world he is the general devourer and enjoyer. He is also the purifier; when he devours and enjoys, then also he purifies. He is the fire that prepares and perfects; he is also the fire that assimilates and the heat of energy that forms. He is the heat of life and creates the sap, the rasa in things, the essence of their substantial being and the essence of their delight.
He is equally the Will in Prana, the dynamic Life-energy, and in that energy performs the same functions. Devouring and enjoying, purifying, preparing, assimilating, forming, he rises upwards always and transfigures his powers into the Maruts, the energies of Mind. Our passions and obscure emotions are the smoke of Agni’s burning. All our nervous forces are assured of their action only by his support.
If he is the Will in our nervous being and purifies it by action, he is also the Will in the mind and clarifies it by aspiration. When he enters into the intellect, he is drawing near to his divine birth-place and home. He leads the thoughts towards effective power; he leads the active energies towards light.
His divine birth-place and home, – though he is born everywhere and dwells in all things, – is the Truth, the Infinity, the vast cosmic Intelligence in which Knowledge and Force are unified. For there all Will is in harmony with the truth of things and therefore effective; all thought part of Wisdom, which is the divine Law, and therefore perfectly regulative of a divine action. Agni fulfilled becomes mighty in his own home – in the Truth, the Right, the Vast. It is thither that he is leading upward the aspiration in humanity, the soul of the Aryan, the head of the cosmic sacrifice.
It is at the point where there is the first possibility of the great passage, the transition from mind to supermind, the transfiguration of the intelligence, till now the crowned leader of the mental being, into a divine Light, – it is at this supreme and crucial point in the Vedic Yoga that the Rishi, Gotama Rahugana, seeks in himself for the inspired Word. The Word shall help him to realise for himself and others the Power that must effect the transition and the state of luminous plenitude from which the transfiguration must commence.
The Vedic sacrifice is, psychologically, a symbol of cosmic and individual activity become self-conscious, enlightened and aware of its goal. The whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary. Self-fulfillment by self-immolation, to grow by giving is the universal law. That which refuses to give itself, is still the food of the cosmic Powers. “The eater eating is eaten” is the formula, pregnant and terrible, in which the Upanishad sums up this aspect of the universe, and in another passage men are described as the cattle of the gods. It is only when the law is recognized and voluntarily accepted that this kingdom of death can be over passed and by the works of sacrifice Immortality made possible and attained. All the powers and potentialities of the human life are offered up, in the symbol of a sacrifice, to the divine Life in the Cosmos.
Knowledge, Force and Delight are the three powers of the divine Life; thought and its formations, will and its works, love and its harmonisings are the corresponding human activities which have to be exalted to the divine level. The dualities of truth and falsehood, light and darkness, conceptional right and wrong are the confusions of knowledge born of egoistic division; the dualities of egoistic love and hatred, joy and grief, pleasure and pain are the confusions of Love, perversities of Ananda; the dualities of strength and weakness, sin and virtue, action and inaction are the confusions of will, dissipaters of the divine Force. And all these confusions arise and even become necessary modes of our action because the triune powers of the divine Life are divorced from each other, Knowledge from Strength, Love from both, by the Ignorance which divides. It is the Ignorance, the dominant cosmic Falsehood that has to be removed. Through the Truth, then, lies the road to the true harmony, the consummated felicity, the ultimate fulfillment of love in the divine Delight. Therefore, only when the Will in man becomes divine and possessed of the Truth, amrtah rtava, can the perfection towards which we move be realized in humanity.
Agni, then, is the god who has to become conscient in the mortal. Him the inspired Word has to express, to confirm in this gated mansion and on the altar-seat of this sacrifice.
“How must we give to Agni?” asks the Rishi. The word for the sacrificial giving, dasema, means literally distribution; it has a covert connection with the root das in the sense of discernment. The sacrifice is essentially an arrangement, a distribution of the human activities and enjoyments among the different cosmic Powers to whose province they by right belong. Therefore the hymns repeatedly speak of the portions of the gods. It is the problem of the right arrangement and distribution of his works that presents itself to the sacrificer; for the sacrifice must be always according to the Law and the divine ordainment (rtu, the later vidhi). The will to right arrangement is an all-important preparation for the reign of the supreme Law and Truth in the mortal.
The solution of the problem depends on right realization, and right realization starts from the right illuminative Word, expression of the inspired Thought which is sent to the seer out of the Vast. Therefore the Rishi asks farther, “What word is uttered to Agni?” What word of affirmation, what word of realization? Two conditions have to be satisfied. The Word must be accepted by other divine Powers, that is, it must bring out some potentiality in the nature or bring into it some light of realization by which the divine Workers may be induced to manifest in the superficial consciousness of humanity and embrace openly their respective functions. And it must be illuminative of the double nature of Agni, this Lord of the lustrous flame. Bhama means both a light of knowledge and a flame of action. Agni is a Light as well as a Force.
The Word arrives. yo martyeshu amrtaĥ rtava. Agni is, pre-eminently, the Immortal in mortals. It is this Agni by whom the other bright sons of Infinity are able to work out the manifestation and self-extension of the Divine (devaviti, devatati) which is at once aim and process of the cosmic and of the human sacrifice. For he is the divine Will which in all things is always present, is always destroying and constructing, always building and perfecting, supporting always the complex progression of the universe. It is this which persists through all death and change. It is eternally and inalienably possessed of the Truth. In the last obscuration of Nature, in the lowest unintelligence of Matter, it is this Will that is a concealed knowledge and compels all these darkened movements to obey, as if mechanically, the divine Law and adhere to the truth of their Nature. It is this which makes the tree grow according to its seed and each action bear its appropriate fruit. In the obscurity of man’s ignorance, – less than material Nature’s, yet greater, – it is this divine Will that governs and guides, knows the sense of his blindness and the goal of his aberration and out of the crooked workings of the cosmic Falsehood in him evolves the progressive manifestation of the cosmic Truth. Alone of the brilliant Gods, he burns bright and has full vision in the darkness of Night no less than in the splendours of day. The other gods are usarbudhah, wakers with the Dawn.
Therefore is he the priest of the offering, strongest or most apt for sacrifice, he who, all-powerful, follows always the law of the Truth. We must remember that the oblation (havya) signifies always action (karma) and each action of mind or body is regarded as a giving of our plenty into the cosmic being and the cosmic intention. Agni, the divine Will, is that which stands behind the human will in its works. In the conscient offering, he comes in front; he is the priest set in front (purah-hita), guides the oblation and determines its effectiveness.
By this self-guided Truth, by this knowledge that works out as an unerring Will in the Cosmos, he fashions the gods in mortals. Agni manifests divine potentialities in a death-besieged body; Agni brings them to effective actuality and perfection. He creates in us the luminous forms of the Immortals.
This work he does as a cosmic Power labouring upon the rebellious human material even when in our ignorance we resist the heavenward impulse and, accustomed to offer our actions to the egoistic life, cannot yet or as yet will not make the divine surrender. But it is in proportion as we learn to subjugate the ego and compel it to bow down in every act to the universal Being and to serve consciously in its least movements the supreme Will, that Agni himself takes form in us. The Divine Will becomes present and conscient in a human mind and enlightens it with the divine Knowledge. Thus it is that man can be said to form by his toil the great Gods.
The Sanskrit expression is here a krnudhvam. The preposition gives the idea of a drawing upon oneself of something outside and the working or shaping it out in our own consciousness. A krcorresponds to the converse expression, a bhu, used of the gods when they approach the mortal with the contact of Immortality and, divine form of godhead falling on form of humanity, “become”, take shape, as it were, in him. The cosmic Powers act and exist in the universe; man takes them upon himself, makes an image of them in his own consciousness and endows that image with the life and power that the Supreme Being has breathed into His own divine forms and world-energies.
It is when thus present and conscient in the mortal, like a “house-lord”, master in his mansion, that Agni appears in the true nature of his divinity. When we are obscure and revolt against the Truth and the Law, our progress seems to be a stumbling from ignorance to ignorance and is full of pain and disturbance. By constant submission to the Truth, surrenderings, namobhih, we create in ourselves that image of the divine Will which is on the contrary full of peace, because it is assured of the Truth and the Law. Equality of soul created by the surrender to the universal Wisdom gives us a supreme peace and calm. And since that Wisdom guides all our steps in the straight paths of the Truth we are carried by it beyond all stumblings (duritani).
Moreover, with Agni conscious in our humanity, the creation of the gods in us becomes a veritable manifestation and no longer a veiled growth. The will within grows conscious of the increasing godhead, awakens to the process, perceives the lines of the growth. Human action intelligently directed and devoted to the universal Powers, ceases to be a mechanical, involuntary or imperfect offering; the thinking and observing mind participates and becomes the instrument of the sacrificial will.
Agni is the power of conscious Being, called by us will, effective behind the workings of mind and body. Agni is the strong God within (maryah, the strong, the masculine) who puts out his strength against all assailing powers, who forbids inertia, who repels every failing of heart and of force, who spurns out all lack of manhood. Agni actualizes what might otherwise remain as an ineffectual thought or aspiration. He is the doer of the Yoga (sadhu); divine smith labouring at his forge, he hammers out our perfection. Here he is said to become the charioteer of the Supreme. The Supreme and Wonderful that moves and fulfils Itself “in the consciousness of another”, (we have the same word, adbhuta, as in the colloquy of Indra and Agastya), effects that motion with this Power as charioteer holding the reins of the activity. Mitra also, the lord of Love and Light is even such a charioteer. Love illuminated fulfils the harmony which is the goal of the divine movement. But the power of this lord of Will and Light is also needed. Force and Love united and both illumined by Knowledge fulfil God in the world.
Will is the first necessity, the chief actualizing force. When therefore the race of mortals turn consciously towards the great aim and, offering their enriched capacities to the Sons of Heaven, seek to form the divine in themselves, it is to Agni, first and chief, that they lift the realizing thought, frame the creative Word. For they are the Aryans who do the work and accept the effort, – the vastest of all works, the most grandiose of all efforts, – and he is the power that embraces Action and by Action fulfils the work. What is the Aryan without the divine Will that accepts the labour and the battle, works and wins, suffers and triumphs?
Therefore it is this Will which annihilates all forces commissioned to destroy the effort, this strongest of all the divine Puissances in which the supreme Purusha has imaged Himself, that must bestow its presence on these human vessels. There it will use the mind as instrument of the sacrifice and by its very presence manifest those inspired and realizing Words which are as a chariot framed for the movement of the gods, giving to the Thought that meditates the illuminative comprehension which allows the forms of the divine Powers to outline themselves in our waking consciousness.
Then may those other mighty Ones who bring with them the plenitudes of the higher life, Indra and the Ashwins, Usha and Surya, Varuna and Mitra and Aryaman, assume with that formative extension of themselves in the human being their most brilliant energies. Let them create their plenty in us, pouring it forth from the secret places of our being so as to be utilizable in its daylight tracts and let their impulsions urge upward the divinising thought in Mind, till it transfigures itself in the supreme lustres.
The hymn closes. Thus, in inspired words, has the divine Will, Agni, been affirmed by the sacred chant of the Gotamas. The Rishi uses his name and that of his house as a symbol-word; we have in it the Vedic go in the sense “luminous”, and Gotama means “entirely possessed of light”. For it is only those that have the plenitude of the luminous intelligence by whom the master of divine Truth can be wholly received and affirmed in this world of an inferior Ray, –gotamebhir rtava. And it is upon those whose minds are pure, clear and open, vipra, that there can dawn the right knowledge of the great Births which are behind the physical world and from which it derives and supports its energies, – viprebhir jatavedah.
Agni is Jātavedas, knower of the births, the worlds. He knows entirely the five worlds and is not confined in his consciousness to this limited and dependent physical harmony. He has access even to the three highest states of all, to the udder of the mystic Cow, the abundance of the Bull with the four horns. From that abundance he will foster the illumination in these Aryan seekers, swell the plenty of their divine faculties. By that fullness and plenty of his illumined perceptions he will unite thought with thought, word with word, till the human Intelligence is rich and harmonious enough to support and become the divine idea.