Thursday, June 21, 2012

On Wings of Fire


The fire in a Hearth, that cackles and burns,
Is a remnant of Life, of Ashes and Urns,
Stored in trees, by breaths of the Sun,
Life giving Life, the Wood bakes the Bun..


Fire, one of the FIVE essential elements or the Panch-Mahabhoot of Hinduism; the element that brings fold images of immense energy; the element that gave humanity the chance to survive; the element that would ultimately destroy everything at the end of Time.

Even though it may appear predominantly Destructive, Fire is a Constructive force which has quite literally ignited the development and growth of Human species. Almost single-handedly, the taming of this devastating force of Nature, led Humanity away from its dark origins and helped in the development of Culture and Civilization.


From Darkness to Light


In this post, I would take you through the origins of the use of Fire by early man and the role it played in the development of Civilization as we know it. We will also take a look at the role it plays in various World mythologies including our own.



Agni, the First god of Rigveda

The Sanskrit word for Fire is Agni and this consequently, is the name of the Fire-god as well.

Most of you would be aware that fire-lamps forms an integral part of Hindu rituals. We see fire being offered to the deity at prayer time; oblations being put in the sacrificial fire of a Yagnya; the seven promises of a marriage ceremony being made circum-ambulating the witness fire; diyas being lit for Diwali and so on...

Rig-Veda, places Agni second only to Indra in importance and we find 1/5th of Rig Vedic Hymns dedicated to the Fire-god! In fact, the very 1st verse of the Rig-veda is dedicated to Agni:

अग्नि॒म् ई॑ळे पुरो॒हि॑तं यज्ञ॒स्य॑ देव॒म् ऋत्वि॒ज॑म्। होता॑रं रत्नधा॒त॑मम्॥
Agni I laud, the High-priest, Invoker, Minister of Sacrifice, Deva and Bestower of Wealth

Agni is represented with TWO faces, suggesting his destructive as well as beneficent qualities. He has THREE legs which represent the three worlds that it is present in and FIVE or SEVEN arms that represent the directions that he covers. He rides a ram, or a chariot pulled by goats which probably is a reference to the use of these animals for sacrifice. Interestingly, most forms of fire-worship in Graeco-Roman religions also involved burning the sacrificed animal on a fire-altar in front of the temple. 


Agni, the First god worshiped in Rig Veda



Before we know more about the fire-god, let us understand why the element of Fire could have been considered so important so as to be worshiped as a god.



Life before Fire

A report published in 2010, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, shows that there was a very real risk of extinction for our ancestors.

The study declares that the effective population of humans living 1.2 million years ago was just about 18,500. This implies a really really tiny population size, especially if you compare with the population sizes of chimpanzees (21,000) and gorillas (25,000) during the same time period!!

Man was in fact quite vulnerable - he was poorly insulated because of no fur; had nails and teeth unsuitable for defense or hunting; and was completely ill-equipped to tolerate the fluctuating extremes of the Climate. Left on our own, we might have PERISHED like numerous other species in the history of our planet! What changed our fate was the 'Discovery of Fire'.

Early Man probably first encountered bush-fires in summers or lightening strikes that set fire to tall trees. It would have taken him some time to actually get control of it and even more time to actually PRODUCE fire on his own.


Forest Fire, probably the First form of Fire encountered by Early Man



Claims for the evidence of use of fire by various species of Hominids are made from almost 1.5 million years ago (mya) however, most historians believe that the controlled use of fire started with Homo erectus some 400,000 years ago. Once tamed, Fire helped early man ward off the DARKNESS that tormented him at night. It provided him security and let him survive in the harshest WINTERS especially during the ICE-AGEs.

Fire provided PROTECTION from dangerous predators and kept them at bay. It facilitated the conversion of forests into FIELDS and helped bake UTENSILS and forge TOOLS. Fire let human-beings COOK food and make it more edible, a feat which most scholars agree led to various modifications including some in our anatomy.

As human diet became easier to chew and swallow, the tooth size decreased and the jaws became less prognathic or ape like. There was also the shift from eating-in-the wild to eating-in-the-kitchen which further strengthened the community bond and led to the appearance of the first rudimentary Hearths and Homes.


Communities evolved by eating together


Humans could now stop worrying about defense and safety and use their brains for development of new ideas. Both directly as well as indirectly, Fire initiated INDUSTRY and  has led mankind to the EXPLORATION of Space, the Final Frontier.

Therefore, it is not surprising, that the Early Man developed deep reverence for this Primal force of Nature. In fact, some World Mythologies worship Fire as the Supreme God Himself. Let us explore some of these beliefs and understand the importance it held in the life of the ancients.



Coming back to Agni the Fire-god

Agni is described as the son of Dyaus Pita and Prithvi Mata and hence Indra's twin, both of them performing complimentary functions. While INDRA transmits energy to the Earth in the form of his thunderbolt, AGNI takes energy from the Earth to the Heavens in its swirling smoke.

Rigveda surprisingly, also mentions that 'Agni dwells in the waters' and may even be born from it! This may appear confounding till we think of fire arising from lightening-strikes, natural gas surfacing through water, or even the under-water volcanic eruptions! Because of the same reason, the Persians therefore referred to him as Apam-Napat.

Accordingly, there are said to be Ten different forms of Agni :
  1. Regular Fire,
  2. Sacrificial Fire produced by rubbing the fire-sticks (Arani or Idhma),
  3. Initiation Fire at Upanayana ceremony of a child coming of age,
  4. Fire kept in the house for Domestic rituals,
  5. Fire spread by Lightening,
  6. Fire in the Sun,
  7. Southern Fire for ancestors,
  8. Funeral Fire used for cremation,
  9. Digestive Fire (Jatharagni), and the last but most potent of all,
  10. Destructive Fire  or Davagani that initiates the process of Maha-pralaya.

In Ayurveda, Agni is the first guardian of health and manifests through “Jatharagni”, the digestive fire. Each time we eat, we are in a sense making an offering to the digestive fire and these offerings are transformed into nutrition or Prana for the body.

Agni is also appointed as one of the Ashta-digpals and is the guardian of the South-East direction. His wife is Svaha and his sons are Pavak, Pavaman, and Shuchi, who according to the Vayu Puraan, stand for Electric fire, the fire produced by Friction, and the Solar fire respectively. Svaha's name is mentioned each time an offering is poured into the sacrificial-fire. This suggests that the husband-wife duo is to be appeased together and reflects a rarely researched proximity between the two.

Agni and Svaha from a Mughal miniature painting



The legends talk about a messenger of Surya, Matarishwan (identified in the Upanishads as Vayu) who brought the secret of controlling Fire down from the Heavens and gave it to the ancient Bhrigus for safe-keeping. This reminds me of the Greek myth of Prometheus where fire was stolen from the King of Gods Zeus and given to Man. As a punishment, Zeus chained the Titan to a rock on the Caucasus mountains where the giant eagle Ethon would eat at his Liver everyday!


Prometheus being punished for bringing Fire to Man


It is in stark contrast to the Hindu legend where Gods themselves send Fire for the benefit of Humans, but probably highlights the gods' concern that Humans probably can not handle such immense power. I, for one, wouldn't blame them for such a thought ;o)

At this point, let us take a look at Fire-worship in the other World Mythologies as well.



Fire-worship in different mythologies

Did other civilizations also venerate Agni to the extent that the Vedas do? Indeed there appear to be numerous references linking fire to God in various world traditions.

In Native American traditions, Fire is the eldest family member and ancient dwelling of Spirit. 
  • Aztecs worshiped the turquoise-colored god Xiuhtecuhtli, as the 1st Lord of Creation and the god of Fire, Day and Heat.
  • The Incas venerated a fire-god known as Manco Capac, who was created by the Sun-god Inti and was the first king of the Incas.


The Aztec Fire-God Xiuhtecuhtli


  • In Norse mythology, there exists a World of Eternal Flame called Muspelheim, which is ruled by Surtr the fire-giant who is the personification of Fire.


Surtr, the Norse Fire-giant



  • In Jewism the Supreme God Yahweh Himself manifested as a pillar of fire to guide the Israelites out of the Pharaoh's land (reminds me of the story where Shiva appeared as a pillar of Fire).
  • Moses got the Ten commandments from a burning bush, Elijah ascended to the heavens in a chariot of fire and the Menorah or the seven-branched ancient lampstand made of gold has been the symbol of Judaism since ancient times.


Yahweh guides Moses and his people in the form of a pillar of Light


  • In the Roman/Greek traditions, Fire had two separate forms: one of the 'Hearth' and  the other of the 'Forge'.
  • Hearth worship was dedicated to Goddess Vesta, protector of the home, who had an eternal sacred flame tended to by Vestal Virgins in the city of Rome.

Vesta, the Roman goddess of Hearth and Home


  • Closer home, Atar is the Parsi concept of Holy fire. In Yasna 17.11, Atar is the Master of the house, and it is only with its assistance, the other six creations can begin their work (Bundahishn 3.7–8; and Zatspram 3.77–83).

Zoroastrians evidence of fire-worship exists from around 1500 BCE, together with the first evidence of cremation. The tradition is still followed in the Indo-Iranian branch of Hindus where Agni is considered an agent of purity.

The Greeks also used to cremate their dead like the Hindus instead of burying them in graves. Probably the Biblical statement 'Ashes to Ashes; Dust to Dust' also stems from the same tradition.




Agni, the First Priest

Agni, is called the First and Foremost of the Priests. He is a friend of the humans and always within reach. In Hinduism, Fire-sacrifices hold a very important place. The Bhagavat Puraan declares Yagneshwara (Lord of yagya) to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and Dakshina (donation), the embodiment of Goddess Lakshmi as his consort. Thus, performing a Yagnya is equivalent to appeasing Lord Vishnu.


A Vedic Yagnya in progress



Agni is worshiped in Rig Vedic verse 5.3.1-2 as the embodiment of all gods. He is the priest who prays to other demigods on behalf of humans; he is the officating priest of a Yagnya; and lastly, he is the bestower of the gifts of gods to us humans.

Accordingly, the human priests are also classified into three categories based on the roles they play in a Yagnya - Hotri, Adhvaryu and Udgatri. The Sacrifices performed could be of various types depending on the intended beneficiary.

For example, a Brahma-yagnya is performed to please the Supreme Brahman, while a Dev-yagnya aims to appease the Devas. A Pitri-yagnya is performed for the benefit of the Ancestors, Manushya-yagnya for that of men and a Bhuta-yagnya for the benefit of all life forms.


A Deva-Yagnya being performed to appease the Devas


There are numerous instances of special Yagnyas being performed by the Kings and Emperors of yore in order to fulfill their desires. Some examples are the Putra-kameshthi Yagnya performed by Dashrath and Yuvanashva; the Ashwamedh Yagnya performed by Lord Rama and the Rajasuya Yagnya undertaken by the Pandavs.

Rishi Kashyap obtained Garuda, a son stronger-than-Indra through a Yagnya while Draupadi, the nemesis of the Kuru family, and her twin brother Dhristadyumna also emerged from the sacrificial fires of Drupad's Yagnya.

Agni is also chronicled as the bestower of advanced weaponry and he gifted Shri Krishna and Arjuna the Sudarshan Chakra and Gandiva bow respectively after they helped Agni get back his glory. Similarly, the demon-king Bali Maharaj obtained invincible armour and chariots by means of a Yagnya and was able to defeat Indra with their help.




Agni, the Celestial Witness

Shukla Yajur Veda 21.3 refers to Agni as the 'Master of all branches of Knowledge'.  He is believed to be the symbol of righteousness and truth and hence appointed the witness and the priest for all Vedic ceremonies.

This position he attains by  virtue of being present in all the Three Worlds at all times, in all the dwellings of the sentient beings. Because of this unique presence in all spheres of life, Agni is the ideal witness in case of disputes. Therefore, in ancient India, promises were made and agreements solemnized in front of a sacred fire. For the same reason, Agni is also the witness of a Hindu Marriage Ceremony.


Hindu marriage ceremony performed with Agni as the witness
{Image courtesy - Imagesbazaar}


Because of this omniscience, Agni was also made the arbitrator of disputes that couldn't be settled by human intellect. The most important example is that of the Agni-Pariksha of Lady Sita.

Many people today criticize the incident giving it a chauvinistic tinge, but the truth is that in ancient times, Agni was the Highest Judge (somewhat like the Chief-justice of our Supreme Court today!). Those were the times when Devas and Asurs freely intermingled with humans and it was not uncommon for a human of good standing to call upon Agni as his witness.

The process is more elaborately detailed in Zoroastrian texts which describe Fire as Atar and a medium through which judgement is passed. This ordeal-by-heat is known in Avesta as Garmo-varah.

An individual who has passed the fiery test, has attained physical and spiritual strength, wisdom, truth and love with serenity Yasna [30.7].  Atar is spoken of in the third person masculine singular: "He detects sinners by hand-grasping" Yasna [34.4] and altogether, there are said to have been 30 kinds of fiery tests in all!

Till now, we have seen the benign and beneficient properties of Agni, let us now take a look at the destructive aspect of his personality.



Fire as the Destructive Force

The most potent representation of the destructive poweres of Agni is seen in the Rudra manifestation of Shiva when the Third Eye of Shiva opens to release a laser beam of destrucion.

Legend has it that Parvati, the daughter of Himalayas fell in love with Shiva. She performed severe penance to obtain the Lord as her husband and was unknowingly supported by the demigods in this endeavor. Kama, the god-of-love, and his consort Rati tried to draw Shiva into the charm of Parvati's beauty but Shiva was in no mood to be swayed from his penance and in His anger, he opened his Third Eye and incinerated Kama to ashes!


Kamadev is reduced to ashes by Shiva's glare
{Image courtesy - India Authentic Issue - Uma}


Therefore, one of the epithets of Kamdev is Anang or bodiless. By destroying his body but letting his soul remain, Lord Shiva highlighted the supremacy of spiritual LOVE over physical LUST. (The story later had a Happy ending when Shiva was finally united with Parvati and Kama reborn as Krishna's son Pradyumna was re-united with Rati.)

Shiv Purana [2.3.20.14-19] states that the fall off of this energy fell like lightning from Shiva’s third eye and Brahma had to take it to the ocean and keep it safe there else it would have burnt the entire creation. This mare shaped sub-marine fire at the bottom of the ocean, is known as Vadava.

Normally, the fire is kept in check with the waters of the Global Ocean. But as Mahabharat verse 12.248.13-17 state, the end of the Day of Brahma is nigh that Rudra sparks off the fire again and this explosion of fire from the mare's mouth in the Southern Ocean will begin the process of Pralaya.

Could this sub-marine fire actually refer to underwater volcanoes that keep spewing out magma from the Earth's core. Maybe the end of our days will be initiated by an under-water volcanic eruption that sets a chain of events in motion leading to the annihilation of life as we know it!


Under-water volcano eruption


Interesting possibility and we shall dwell on it in a later post. For now, let us thank Agni, the catalyst of our development and conclude this post with a homage to him by Shri Chinmoy.


Agni, the god of beginnings and end


O Light of the Supreme!
Kindle the flame of Liberation within me,
Pour down the ocean of Compassion,
Into my heart,
You are my Immortality,
Accept my Darkness, Bondage, Ignorance, Death;
And release me from this Mortal frame.

.
Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti:
.

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