Friday, June 11, 2010

Agni in Rig Veda

                Contrary to popular belief, the Vedic rishis did not live a life of renunciation but enjoyed every bit of this worldly life. They found joy in each and every object they saw and every sound they heard. They viewed life just like a child does. The child is not bored at seeing a familiar thing like the little ant repeatedly and wondering at it. This child - like sense of wonder is perceptible throughout the hymns of Rig Veda. 

While they observed the nature like a child, they expressed their observations as an experienced poet endowed with a fertile imagination. In the subsequent posts we will see some of the Vedic hymns where these two are harmonized.
             Aravinda Ghosh says that in the Vedic hymns on Agni, poetry is at its best. The resplendence of Agni, as it were, has gone into the hymns on him.

                Here is a collection of the attributes showered on Agni in Rig vedic hymns. Let us enjoy the beauty of the metaphors.

                The Rishi sees the flames rising up and wonders, “How is it that, unbound and not supported, he falls not although directed downward? By what self power moves he? Who has seen it?”

                Fire spreads from one object to another near it and travels very far. The Rishi describes Agni as having an easy car.

                One fire lights many others. Thus Agni creates himself from his own self. The description of the poet is that Agni is his own son.

                When the sun sets in the evening, we light up a lamp with Agni. Darkness is dispelled. Such a common place occurrence becomes a fine poetry in the words of the Rishi, “Spreading thy web with mightiest horses you come, rending apart the black-hued mantle. The rays of Surya, tremulously shining, sink the darkness in the waters.

                We have specific places for Agni, like our hearths, homa kundam etc. We do not allow it to go beyond these places. The Rishi fondly calls Agni as one who grows in his own home.

The prowess of Agni          

                Who can compete with Agni in destroying the enemies? Who can obstruct his movement? So the Rishi describes him as the 'Conqueror with mighty jaws' and as the 'Son of strength'. "He slays many in war by the hands of few"; "His course is uncheckable and he passes all in might."

                Unlike water or air Agni can not be polluted. So he is called ‘the pure’. Not only that, he is also ‘the purifier’ of others.

                The presence of Agni is indicated by the smoke. So he is called ‘the smoke bannered.’

                Though we use Agni for lighting in the night, its use increases from the dawn, for performing homams and for cooking. So he is called ‘the bright gift of the dawn’ and ‘herald of the dawn’ “He begot, and will beget, the dawnlights”.

                The Rishi admires the beauty of the burning flames. “You spring up when worshipped well; the drops of butter are your joy when ladles are brought near to you.”

                He is called ‘the seven tongued’, ‘the many-hued fulgent gift of Dawn’ and ‘the bull with hair of flame.’

The birth of Agni

                When we strike a match, the resultant fire eats up the match. So also with the arani blocks used in those days to produce fire. The generated fire eats away a little of both the blocks. This is narrated as follows. “This holy law I tell you, Earth and Heaven: the Infant at his birth devours his Parents.”

                We use Agni in the night for lighting, and in the day for homam, cooking and other purposes. Agni is nourished, like a child, throughout day and night. The poet says that Agni is suckled by two mothers, day and night alternately.

“Night and Dawn, changing each the other's colour, meeting together suckle one same Infant: Golden between the heaven and earth he shines. The Gods possessed the wealth bestowing Agni”.

                Agni is spoken of as the son of two mothers and twice born in a number of places in Rig Veda.

                When we light a fire, the flame is too weak to withstand the blowing wind. So, to protect it, we cup our fingers around it till it grows bigger. The Rishi calls the fingers tenfold secret dwelling. They are also called sisters attending on the infant Agni.

“In many places, Agni Jatavedas, we sought you hidden in the plants and waters.Then Yama marked you, God of wondrous splendour! effulgent from thy tenfold secret dwelling.”

“Tvastar's ten daughters, vigilant and youthful, produced this Infant borne to sundry quarters. They bear around him whose long flames are pointed, fulgent among mankind with native splendour.”

“Him the ten fingers, the devotions, animate: we mortals call on him a God to give us help.”

“Him, nobly born of old, the fingers ten produced, him whom his Mothers counted dear.”

“The sisters ten, unwedded and united, together grasp the Babe, the new-born Infant.”

Agni has affection to us

                In rig Veda, Agni is regarded not only as a deva but he is loved as a dear father, son, friend and what not. He is very kind to everybody and helps each. He is called ‘the maidens' lover and the matrons' Lord’. He is easily accessible to one and all. He does not discriminate between rich and poor in showering his blessings. Here one poor devotee, with no cow to make ghee for the homam and no axe to cut chunks of wood to offer to Agni, has perhaps brought only picked-up dried samith. He prays to accept his humble offering and bless him.

“ No cow have I to call mine own, no axe at hand wherewith to work, Yet what is here I bring to you. O Agni, whatsoever be the fuel that we lay for you, Be pleased therewith, Most Youthful God.”

To know how fire is produced with wooden blocks- USSSP: Fire by Friction

Forest Fire

                There are many references to the forest fire in Rig Veda. Agni is likened to a bull rushing fast. Wherever he goes, the paths become blackened. The wild animals run helter-skelter. All the trees, plants and grass on his path disappear. He is said to lick the dress of his mother earth with his sickle-like tongues. He is also said to shave the earth, just as a barber shaves off the beard.

                Here are a few examples of the poetic beauty of the description of the wild fire.

“Urged by the wind he spreads through dry wood as he leans, armed with his tongues for sickles, with a mighty roar. Black is your path, Agni, changeless, with glittering wave, when like a bull you rush eager to the trees.

“O Friend of men, these your horses are yoked, impatient, lightly running, ploughing blackened lines. Discordant-minded, fleet, gliding with easy speed, urged onward by the wind and rapid in their course.”

“Licking the mantle of the Mother, far and wide he wanders over fields with beasts that flee apace. Strengthening all that walk, licking up all around, a blackened path, truly, he leaves wherever he goes.”

Agni and sun

                The radiance of Agni resembles that of the sun. In many verses, this similarity is brought out as in the following example.

“He shines refulgent like the Sun, with brilliance and with fiery flame,
decked with imperishable sheen.”

In certain other verses, Agni is called the ‘sun of men’, that is, he manifests himself as the sun to the people.

“To you, strong Agni! Varuna and Mitra and all the Maruts sang a song of triumph,
When to the people's lands you came, spreading them as the Sun of men, with lustre.

“The prudent sages lead him to his dwelling, guarding with varied skill the Ever-Youthful. Longing, they turned their eyes unto the River: to these the Sun of men was manifested.”

                Note the following hymn which occurs in a sooktham entirely devoted to Agni. Here he is identified with the sun. No mention of Agni here, but it is quite apparent that Agni is referred to by the name of the sun.

“He who like thought goes swiftly on his journey, the Sun, alone is ever Lord of riches.
The Kings with fair hands, Varuna and Mitra, protect the precious nectar in our cattle.”

                In some other verses, Agni is called the lord and controller of the sun.

“O Agni, you have made the Sun, Eternal Star, to mount the sky,
Bestowing light on living men.”

Fire in the ocean 

                The Rishis who eulogised the fire in the homes and in the forest, now look up where else Agni resides. They observe smoke coming out of the oceans. (In later literature this was named Vadavagni and a story was built around it.) They knew that there could be no smoke without fire. 

                (Incidentally, the Aryan Invasion theory folks say that the Aryans came through Khyber and Bolan passes and during Rig Vedic period, they lived in Punjab and only later spread eastward. They did not know of sea. Here is an irrefutable evidence to show that they not only knew the sea but had also observed the underwater volcanic emissions.)

                They describe Agni as having clothed himself with the water of the sea. He is called the friend of waters, the son of waters (Apaam Napaat). They called the sea as the confluence of seven rivers. The rivers are called the seven sisters who brought up the infant Agni.   

“Visible, fair, he grows in native brightness uplifted in the lap of waving waters.
When he was born both Tvastar's worlds were frightened: they turn to him and reverence the Lion.”

“To Agni I present a newer mightier hymn, I bring my words and song unto the Son of Strength,
Who, Offspring of the Waters, bearing precious things sits on the earth.”

“The Gods discovered in the midst of waters beautiful Agni with the Sisters' labour.”

“Amid men's homes has Agni been established, Friend, germ of waters.
Loved and adored, the height he has ascended, the Singer, object of our invocations.”

“WE as your friends have chosen you, to be our help,
The Waters' Child, the blessed, the resplendent One, victorious and beyond compare.”

“This Agni, have maternal Waters brought to life.”

“As Savitar's productive Power, as him who sends down bliss, I call
Agni who clothes him with the sea.”

“Him, Blessed One, the Seven strong Floods augmented.”

Agni = life force

                The rishis who found Agni in the homa kundam, in the forest, in ocean-bed volcanoes, knew that whatever is outside, should exist inside also. (அண்டத்தில் உள்ளது பிண்டத்தில்)  They looked in and found that the living beings (men, animals, plants) have warmth in their bodies. They inferred that it is due to the presence of Agni. Without Agni no living being can exist. So they called him Jatavedas, (knower of all that is born). The following quotations show that Agni exists inside all living beings as the life force. 

“Abider with men, he is King supreme o'er all things living.”

“Fair guest of living man and King of all our folk.”

“Agni makes his home in front of all things living.”

“Vivasvan's envoy (Agni) living men have taken as their ensign, swift,”

“Him in whose presence, men rejoice; Even him whom worthy ones inflame, and living creatures bring to life.”

“At eve and morn your pious servants bring you their precious gifts, O Priest of many aspects, on whom, all things living, as on firm ground, their happiness have established.”

“Lord of the Living Being.”

“Agni, spread forth, as Ruler, over living things.”

 “All creatures in existence rest upon his head.”

“He stirs with life in wombs dissimilar in kind, born as a Lion or a loudly-bellowing Bull.”

“Agni, you guard the life of all their plants and cattle.”

“Present in heaven, in earth, all-present Agni, -all plants that grow on ground has he pervaded.”

“That light of yours in heaven and earth, O Agni, in plants and in the waters,
Wherewith you have spread wide the air's mid-region-bright is that splendour.”

“The young plants has he entered, Child of Waters.”

“Agni, your home is in the floods: into the plants you force your way,
And as their Child are born anew.”

“In many places, Agni Jatavedas, we sought thee hidden in the plants and waters.”

“The soul of plants, the fatness of the waters, and let there be long life to Agni.”
                In certain places such as the Arani Sticks, his presence is not felt by the warmth. But he springs to life once they are churned. Thus he is like the foetus in the pregnant mother’s womb.

“1n the two fire-sticks Jatavedas lies, even as the well-set germ in pregnant women,”

Agni= appetite

                The rishis looked deeper into their selves and found that the appetite has also the qualities of Agni. In their eulogy to Agni, this appetite also gets praised. He is given a special name when he resides in the stomach; he is called Vaisvanara, which means ‘hero of the universe’ implying thereby that appetite is common to all living beings.  He is called the Lord of food. It is the appetite that makes us walk and live

“Raise us up that we may walk and live, so you will find our worship mid the Gods.”

“Even hard and solid food he crunches with his might, yea, hard and solid food with might”.

”Rudra are you, the Asura of mighty heaven: you are the Maruts' host, you are the Lord of food,
You go with red winds: bliss has you in your home.”

“Yourself are the Sovran Lord of food”

Agni=sexual desire

                The Rishis found that the reproductive urge also has the qualities of Agni. So they call Agni. “former of bodies”. He is also called ‘tanoonapat’ which means “nobly born in body.”

                The following verse makes it explicit that by the term Agni, the reproductive urge is meant.

“As a kind friend, with streams of milk they balm you when you make the wife and lord one-minded.”

Agni = intelligence

                The word Agni, sometimes refers to intelligence also. Agni is called poet, sage and one who knows the future. He is made of intelligence. He is prayed to for removing ignorance. Like Indra, Agni is also called Vrtrahan (destroyer of Vrtra), a rare honour among Devas. Aurobindo and Bharathi, on the basis of Nirukta, aver that Vrtra means one who covers or conceals. Ignorance hides our intellect and so Vrtra refers to ignorance. So, intelligence is figuratively called Agni. Aurobindo prefers to use the term Divine Will. (What that means, I am unable to comprehend.) Bharathi makes it simpler and says that Agni should be understood as அறிவுத் துணிவு.

                The problem with Auroindo’s translation is that the meaning of Divine Will can not be applied in all the contexts. Agni means different things in different situations as we have seen so far.
Agni= friend of mankind

                The rishis pray to Agni to grant them riches, heroic sons, relief from distress, delight, food, fame, nourishment, immortality, unconquerable might, protection from the punishment given by Varuna for violating the rtam, support in battles, the wealth of the enemies etc.. Agni fulfills the prayers of his devotees. He does this as his duty. He is said to be guarding the wealth of the homes

Agni and the pitrus

                Not only to the living, Agni is of service to the dead also. Pretas are entrusted to him. Agni sends them to the world of Pitrus and helps them to attain a new life and a new body. The Rishi  places his father’s body on the pyre with all reverence and requests Agni not to burn up the body but to mature it so that it becomes fit to go to the world of Pitrus. If Agni wants to satiate his appetite, let him have a goat, but not this body. 

Burn him not up, nor quite consume him, Agni: let not his body or his skin be scattered.
O Jatavedas, when you have matured him, send him on his way unto the Fathers.

Your portion is the goat: with heat consume him: let your fierce flame, your glowing splendour, burn him
With your auspicious forms, o Jatavedas, bear this man to the region of the pious.

 Again, O Agni, to the Fathers send him who, offered in thee, goes with our oblations.
Wearing new life let him increase his offspring: let him rejoin a body, Jatavedas.

Agni loves praise

                The Rishis say that Agni loves being praised by men. They say that the Rishis more ancient than themselves had praised him and the tradition is continuing. Agni is praised by all the other devas also. He is interested in listening to newer songs of praise. These songs increase his strength. He grants many gifts to those who praise him. He conveys them good news.

Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.

O Agni, by effulgent flame, by all invokings of the Gods,
Show pleasure in this laud of ours.

So lauded by our newest song of praise bring opulence to us,
And food, with heroes for our sons.

By this our prayer, O Agni, be strengthened.

Tell good things to your praiser, O most youthful God, as richly worshipped, honey-tongued,

Both Gods and men obey this Ruler's order.

The Gods praised their joyous Herald's labour eagerly burning, Agni, in the forests.

Agni= Hota (one who summons), Agni= Havyavahana. (one who carries the sacrificial food)

The Rishis find that Agni is mighty, omnipresent and helpful to one and all. So they call him the greatest of Devas. This honour has been given to various Devas at different times. But Agni’s greatness lies in the fact that he carries food to all the Devas and without him all of them would have to starve. He is the messenger between gods and men. He is the king of sacrifices. He summons all the Devas to the sacrifice. The food for the Devas, ghee and honey are entrusted to Agni. So he is called ghee-ladle-mouthed and sweet- tongued.

Agni and Rtam

                Every natural force has a property/quality of its own and all these properties are controlled by one supreme law. This natural law is variously called rtam or vratam or dharma in Vedic parlance. Agni, a natural force, is said to be born of rtam. He abides by rtam and is the protector of rtam. The rishi says that Agni lies in the lap of rtam and never moves away from it.

Established in ghee is Agni's pasture, on the Gandharava path of rtam.

You are the Eye and Guard of rtam

Agni= embodiment of all gods

                The rishis wonder at the great powers of Agni and praise him  as the greatest of Devas. Not only that, he is the embodiment of all other Devas. He is Brahma, Vishnu, Indra, Brahmanaspati, Rayivid Brahma, Vidhata, Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Amsa, Rudra, Maruts, Pusan, Savita, Baga, Ribu, Aditi, Hotri, Bharati, Ila, Vrtrahan, Saraswati.

                What is the supreme power which has invested Agni with so much powers? The Rishis wondered. They concluded that Agni is the power behind all the Devas and He is the omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient God.

                In the Vedas, the infiniteness of the universe is called Aditi and the eternalness of god is called Satyam.   Agni is also called the infinite and the eternal.

                Thus Agni, which is a common phenomenon for us, is developed in the minds of the Rishis as a god and finally he is raised to the status of the Supreme God.

                In the same way, whatever the Rishis looked at, (say for instance Vayu, Savita etac.) they thought over it, meditated on it, and attributed divinity to it and finally made it the Supreme God.

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