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

{Art by Mukesh Singh}

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

The Shatapatha Brahmana has an interesting story that mentions how fire helped in setting up of kingdoms to the east of river Gandiki in the early days by helping clear the jungle and taming the marshy land. 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. The Shatapatha Brahmana mentions that the gods chose Agni as their messenger as well as priest and tells us how the rules of the Yagnya came into play.

But without getting into those specifics let us understand that fire-sacrifices hold a very important place in Hinduism. 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. This is quite similar to how the Zoroastrians perform the fire ceremony called Yasna with two priests where the chief-priest is called Zaotar.

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. The most common offering to the gods however was the Soma which again is similat to the Haoma that is still offered to the gods by the Parsis.

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 let me clear one misunderstanding here - Rama never asked Sita to jump into the fire, it was Sita's own decision to give an Agni Pariksha!

It may sound surprising 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 man (or in this case a woman) 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!

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 [] 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:


  1. Such a fiery post ..... :))))))))
    Seriously Vineet how are you able to collect so much info about a single thing only ????? You have taught about everything related to Fire, including the World Mythologies, which amazes me the most specially the reference to Prometheus..........
    Hats off to you Buddy ..... I just love the way you form your posts, teach me someday ........

    1. Thanx a lot buddy! its a passion for me to understand our ancient rituals and legends by means of a scientific approach.. i keep researching on obscure topics and posting them on the blog.. m glad u like what I am doing :)

    2. Nice passion keep it up and keep posting and amazing me :D

  2. Nidhi Singh SharmaJuly 2, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    Agni, god of fire acts as the divine model for the sacrificial priest. He is the messenger who carries the oblation from humans to the gods, bringing the gods to sacrifice, and interceding between gods and humans (RgV.1.26.3). When Agni is pleased, the gods are generous. Agni represents the cultivated, cooked and cultured aspects of Vedic ritual. Together with Soma, Agni is invoked in the Rig Veda more than any other gods.[5]

  3. Agni is a taatva, which is most imp in manifestation and sustenance of the world. along with soma and vaaayu, the world is made and is running, sounds so simple but when u actually understand this, you ll realize nothing is beyond it :-)

  4. I like your Blogger name "Man on a Mission." What's your mission? :)

  5. Hahaha thanx Alyssa Davis... the mission is to find a common ground btw religion and science.. even in today's day and age, the two remain as separate from each other as in the previous century.. rather i see more n more people especially of certain religious affiliations denouncing science and stressing on following religion blindly.. AMoAM wants to resolve the conflict and find the LCM so to say in both :)

  6. great to know about the Ten different forms of Agni.. and seems like hindu and greek mythology have been walking hand in hand.. keep writing about the greatness of Hinduism

  7. @Jayati thanks for finding the time to comment ;)

  8. Fire cleans and purifies everything.. Except Soul, There is nothing in this universe that fire cannot burn.

  9. fire symbolises purity

  10. Oh Man! you are awesome please give an iota from your brain I will pass my candidacy..

    1. Hahaha m turning crimson man!! m not that gud for sure but thanx a ton for ur appreciation :)

  11. Thanx @vidyanath, Vinay and MK for ur inputs :)

  12. Early Rigvedic People lived in cold areas so that perspective can also be used.

    Rigvedic people took every part of life from birth to death as a ritual,Agni was brother to them and it was the producer of strength.

    it was the part of dharma and was adored by all sages.
    अग्निः पूर्वेभिर्र्षिभिरीड्यो नूतनैरुत | Rig 1-1-2
    Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.

  13. That is correct. Also the fact that five elements like water, fire, earth, sky being holy and purifying to Dharmic faiths.
    Fact that these religion originated from cold regions made fire an obvious blessing. Whereas Abrahamic faiths which originated from heat of Arabia and desert land of Israel saw fire as curse and mean to punish. Hell fire or dozakh ki aag were tantamount to misery. That also reflects upon how the mortal remains are cremated among Dharmic faiths and Abarahamic faiths. Many Muslims and Christians just cannot make sense on how Hindus or Sikhs burn the remains of their loved ones. Going by abrahamic logic it makes no sense whatsoever. Its fascinating how culture and religion evolved as per conditions as prevailed in areas where they originated from.

    1. Very true @Ashish.. i was having the same discussion with a muslim friend some days back :)

  14. Prabhaker SaraswatJuly 11, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    There is attribute of fire which is still more relevant to the knowledge of truth. As the fire’s flame rises upward it is visible only to an extent and then disappears into the vast space; it becomes invisible. The same is the case with the knowledge of truth; it is related with its knower only to a small extent and then it disappears into that which is unknowable. The visible part of reality is very tiny in comparison with its invisible part which is immense and infinite.

    For all these reasons fire became a very useful and powerful symbol of knowledge. and Krishna ushered in jnan-yajna. Worship of knowledge is like worship of fire.

  15. Hi Vineet. You say you love 'delving into the scientific aspects of mythology', which is my interest too. The other day i was trying to get the scientific aspects of Rashis (Zodiacs) and Hindu Jyotisha, trying to relate astrology with astronomy and am still on it. If you have done any research or published any article here, I would be highly interested.

    1. Hi RK,

      coincidentally, I was thinking about the same topic yesterday :) it certainly seems intriguing enough to do some research on but I havent explored it yet.. will update u when I do :)

  16. Fire is most superior of Panchabhootas. Only fire have the ability to purify without getting impure. No other Panchabhoota have this quality and hence fire is seen as sacred.

  17. Fabulous..:-) keep going..

  18. Hi bro, what a superb coolection that you have. Excellent work bro.
    we all proud of you.
    keep it up and keep going.
    Al d best

    1. Thanx bro for the encouragement :)gud to know ur reading my blog finally!

  19. Hi again, Vineet, I thought the new HISTORY™ channel episode on Fire may interest you:

    Till next time, Nicolaas

    1. Hey that's so nice of you Nicholas to have shared the link!! Will definitely check it out :)

  20. Whether our Rishis and Kings like Shri Rama, Shri Krishna was were non-veg?

    1. It is quite likely Shri Rama being a Kshatriya was non-veg but Shri Krishna grew up as a cowherd so he was probably vegetarian. Also rishis were a mixed lot till one of them ordained that rishis in the future will not consume meat henceforth

  21. Very informative winnie...thanks for putting detailed information on a simple topic "fire"...really a good post

  22. Great, very comprehensive article, thanks! I wanted to ask about the poem at the beginning. Have you written it? It's amazing

    1. Thanx a lot :) I remembered reading somewhere the first line of the poem so made up the rest of it!

    2. Wow! Do you write poems generally. Would love to read more.

    3. Hmm yeah sometimes.. you can visit my FB page: i post stuff there off and on :)

    4. Hi vineet , uhave done a great job ..gone throuhh most of the blogs..feeling enlightened..keep it up an may lord krishna help u in ur mission!


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