Indian mythology constitutes praying to elemental Gods. These deities are talked about as immortal but are not believed to be self-existent beings. In fact, their parentage in the majority of the cases is observed to be contrasting in different sections of the Vedas. Diverse cultures and philosophies around the globe have discussed the ‘five elements’ of life.
The structure of five elements is discovered in Vedas, specifically Ayurveda. They are referred to as ‘Pancha Mahabhuta’ or ‘five great elements’ of the Hindu Dharma. The entire cosmic creation commences from the point of the Pancha Mahabhuta. The five elements that are worshipped are Akash (Space), Vayu (Air), Agni (Fire), Jal/Varuna (Water), and Prithvi/Bhumi (Earth).
Let us get into detail about the Agni Dev (Fire):
Who is Agni?
In Sanskrit, the term ‘Agni’ suggests ‘fire’ and the name implies the ‘Fire God’. Agni is thought to be one of the most significant Vedic deities, who is believed to rule over the earth. He is the most mentioned God in the ancient Rig Veda, which has glorified him with numerous hymns and observed him as the supreme deity, along with Vayu – the Wind God and Surya, the Sun.
Agni is also considered to be the guardian deity of the southeast direction and is commonly observed in southeast corners of Hindu temples. In the classical cosmology of the Indian religions, Agni as fire is deemed as one of the five inert impermanent elements (Pancha Mahabhuta) along with Akash (Space), Jal (Water), Vayu (Air), and Prithvi (Earth), the five merging to create the analytically perceived material existence (Prakriti).
Occasionally, Agni is believed to be the twin brother of Lord Indra, King of the Heavens, and is often intimately related to him. In the Vedic era, he was assumed to have the most vital position after Indra. Along with Surya and Indra, he is said to make up the holy trinity of Vedic deities. Agni is considered to be both – a friend as well as the protector of humanity as he believed to shield the house.
Diverse forms of fire are related to Agni that constitutes the sun, lightning, comets, sacrificial fire, domestic fires, the fire of the funeral pyre and the digestive fire present within all humans. Apart from playing a dominant role in sacrificial rituals (yajna), Agni is considered to be a channel and messenger between the human realm and the celestial realm. Fire sacrifices that happened via him are considered to go directly to other divinities in heaven. During the Vedic era, Agni was often observed as a vital element of animal sacrifices. In modern days, Agni has continued to play an essential role in a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony, which involves a fire-altar.
Origin of Agni in Hindu Scriptures
In the Vedas, it is scripted that Agni, Vayu and Soma are considered to be the representation of Fire, Water and Air. They were significant deities in the Vedic era. Numerous animal sacrifices were performed during this time. Since Agni was regarded as the symbol of every other deity, they had to use the Fire God for this purpose. The animals who were going to be sacrificed were usually tied to an octagonal wooden stake, referred to as Yupa. During the ‘Ashwamedha’ ritual, animals were generally sacrificed to either Prajapati or Soma.
The Agni Purana, one among the eighteen Puranas, declared that an individual cannot get in touch with any other deity without making use of Agni as a medium. No celestial being can make their presence felt without Agni. It was also written in certain texts that Agni was believed to be the son of Agniras, who found out about fire and its various uses. His most damaging form is the Kravyad form.
Agni was thought to have had three births. His first birth was in the heavens, where he emerged as a bolt of lightning. His second birth was among humans as Jataveda and his third birth occurred in water. Jataveda is considered to be the form used to incorporate the offerings to Gods by devotees conducting yajnas. It is believed to be devout and knowledgeable. On the other hand, Kravyad is the manifestation utilized to char the dead bodies of humans or animals after their death in the Pitru-yagna and Agni is acquired from the rays of the sun for this reason.
Agni is regarded as the messengers who convey all the prayers and requests of worshippers to the deities. When Agni is pleased, the divinities are large-hearted and listen to the prayers of the devotees. Along with Soma, Agni is summoned the most in the Rig Veda among all the deities. As per the Vayu Purana, the three sons of Agni represent his three forms. Pravaka denotes the electric fire, Pavamana stands for the fire generated by friction, and Suchi signifies the fire of the sun. They are believed to have been cursed by Sage Vashishta and take rebirths again and again in this universe.
In the Upanishads, Agni was connected to various features of Brahman, the monistic spirit of the universe. He was credited with the powers of a supreme god, including omnipresence and omniscience. The idea of sacrifice moved from an external task to a metaphorical procedure that had to happen within people. The implication of fire changed towards more of a focus on the abstract attributes of the fire’s heat (or tapas). The extravagant public fire rituals of the Rig Veda and the Brahmanas became the ascetic convention of the internal fire ritual. Now, the fire was believed to exist in the head as intellect and speech, in the arms as sovereignty, and in the genitals as the fire of reproduction.
Agni in Hindu Iconography
Agni is depicted as a red man with seven tongues, symbolizing how swiftly he eats the sacrificial butter. He is showcased with seven arms, four horns, three legs, and two heads. His seven hands denote the seven flames. His three legs stand for the three worlds he is ruling.
Agni is assumed to have three forms – namely - fire, lightning and the sun. Occasionally, the Fire God’s icon is showcased with three heads or three legs. He is sometimes depicted wearing a garland of fruits or flowers, epitomizing the offerings made into the fire. He is showcased as a muscular-looking man, at times bearded, with a huge belly since he consumes everything offered into the flames. He is portrayed with golden-brown hair with eyes and a moustache matching the colour of the fire.
Agni is sometimes portrayed riding on a chariot with powerful horses or goats. But sometimes he is depicted with the ram (sheep with big horns) as his vahana (mount or vehicle). He is generally clad in a yellow waistcloth. Agni is portrayed with two heads. One head is believed to be a symbol of immortality while the other denotes life.
Agni is not often portrayed in sculptures as a stand-alone figure. However, he is incorporated in one of the most identifiable and popular poses, the Dancing Shiva Statue (Nataraja). Lord Shiva is carrying the burning flame in the palm of his left hand. The flame denotes the Hindu God of Fire, Agni.
Mythology surrounding Agni
When Agni attended a Yagna, he fell in love with the wives of the Saptarishis who had accompanied their husbands. But he was aware that none of them would betray their spouses. Feeling miserable, Agni decided to go on a stroll in the woods. Swaha, the daughter of Daksha, had desired to marry Agni for a long time. Taking advantage of the situation, she disguised herself as Angiras’s wife. She succeeded in seducing Agni. She then went on to disguise herself as six of the spouses of the Saptarishis. When she attempted to assume the form of Arundhati (Vashistha’s wife), Agni understood the deception. This is because Arundhati is extremely committed to Vashishta.
Agni told Swaha that due to her he was able to fulfill his desire of making love to the wives of the Saptarishis without breaching the rules of marriage. He was very happy with her and asked her to be his wife. Swaha was thrilled with the proposal and accepted it wholeheartedly. After Agni and Swaha were married, he declared that he would not receive an offering until the word ‘Swaha’ was uttered. This is why priests pronounce Swaha before pouring anything into the fire.
In another tale, Agni is believed to have offended Sage Bhrigu. He cursed him to always be hungry and swallow everything. Later, Lord Brahma felt sympathetic and rectified the curse by making Agni the purifier of everything he touched.
There is a story from the Mahabharata that discusses Agni. He was in disguise when he proceeded towards Lord Krishna and Arjuna, looking for adequate food to satisfy his hunger pangs. When he was asked about the type of food that he desires, Agni wished to eat the Khandava woods that is safeguarded by Indra for the sake of Takshaka, ruler of the Nagas. Helped by both Sri Krishna and Arjuna, Agni was able to gulp down the Khandava Forest. It burnt for a fortnight with only Aswasena Maya and the four birds, referred to as sarangakas, spared. Immediately, Indra caused a rainstorm but Arjuna fashioned a canopy of arrows above the jungle to obstruct the rain. Soon, the whole forest was burnt to ashes and Agni was able to satiate himself.
There is another legend that features Agni. In this story, King Shibi is assessed by the Fire God, who shows up in the form of a pigeon and seeks refuge from the ruler as he was chased by Lord Indra who had assumed the form of a hawk. The compassionate king guards the pigeon and offers his flesh to the hawk to satiate his hunger. The happy deities bestow their blessings on the noble ruler.
Vahana of Agni
Agni is occasionally showcased riding a ram. He is sometimes depicted on a chariot drawn by goats or horses. In Khmer art, Agni has been portrayed with rhinoceros as his mount.
Significance of Agni
Vedic rituals include Agni. Several Hindu rites – ceremonies like celebrating birth, prayers and death incorporate the deity. It is cited in Atharvaveda that Agni carries the soul of the dead from the pyre to be reborn in the subsequent world. He has been significant in temple architecture and is usually present in the southeast corner of a Hindu shrine.
In Vedic literature, Agni is vital and frequently summoned alongside Indra, Vayu and Soma. Agni is usually assumed to be the intermediate that sends offerings to other deities. In ancient Hindu texts, he appears to be present at three levels on earth as the fire: in the sky as lightning, as the sun, and as the messenger between humans and Gods.
Agni is also a vital entity in Ayurveda. He is considered to be in control of the sustenance of life. Agni is thought to assist in many physiological functions of the body. In Hinduism, Agni exists in numerous phases of life, such as honoring birth, birthdays, weddings, prayers and death.
Interesting Anecdotes about Agni
- In ancient hymns, Agni is believed to reside in the two pieces of wood that generate fire when rubbed together.
- Agni’s growth as a child is considered a phenomenon. This is because he is born to a woman who cannot feed him. Instead, he obtains his nutrition from offerings of clarified butter emptied into his mouth.
Benefits of Worshipping Agni
In ancient days, the fire was venerated as a powerful deity, and prayers were offered to him in the form of the Agni Puja. Even though worshipping Agni as a primary deity has declined, Agni continues to have a unique position in religious ceremonies. Since Agni is a deity who is believed to get rid of all types of impurities, worshipping Lord Agni is thought to eliminate all negativities and impurities, thereby freeing devotees from sufferings and miseries in their life.
Festivals Dedicated to Celebrating Agni
Two major Hindu festivals namely Holi and Diwali integrate Agni in their rituals. For Holi, Hindus have a bonfire known as Holika, on the night of the spring festival. The bonfire honors Agni Dev. In rural India, mothers are observed carrying their babies around the fire in the clockwise direction on Holika to mark their respect to Agni. During Diwali, traditional small fire lamps, referred to as diyas, are included in the festivities.