Alone without a second, Prajapati asked himself how he could procreate. From within his vast completeness he drew forth exertion and produced Agni through his mouth. Being thus created, it was natural for Agni to be an eater of food. Brought forth before the other gods, it was fitting that he should take his name fromagre,meaning 'he comes in front'. Prajapati paused to observe his progeny and thought, "Here is an eater of food whom I have generated, and as there is nothing other than myself here that is food, I can only hope that he will not wish to eat." At that time all was barrenness. The earth was not and there was no life anywhere. Even as Prajapati considered this problem, Agni turned towards him with open mouth. Prajapati became afraid and his greatness, in the form of speech, departed from him.
He sought an oblation within himself, thinking to appease the Devourer. He rubbed his forehead and obtained a ghee offering, but it was mixed with hairs; so he rejected it, pouring it upon the newly born earth. He ordered the earth to "suck it quickly", and where it was absorbed, plants and trees arose. He rubbed his forehead a second time and obtained another oblation which met with his approval. His own greatness urged him to offer it ("my own greatness [sva] has spoken [aha] it to me"). Thus he offered it, saying"Svaha"(which accompanies the oblation in the earthlyagnihotra),whereupon the one that gives out heat (the sun) arose, followed by the one who ventilates (the wind). Only then did Agni turn away, and only thus, by offering the reproduction of himself, did Prajapati save himself from death. It is said that he who offers theagnihotraknowing this, reproduces himself, saving himself from the death of Agni, who is about to consume him.
Agni's three powers in three stations have reference to this 'reproduction' of Prajapati, this manifest universe. But even prior to its manifestation, his triple fire resides in the Invisible Sun. With creation, Agni expresses himself in the trinity of Agni-Vayu-Surya, the three occult degrees of fire which emanate his Seven Tongues, identified with the Sapta Rishis who overbrood and influence the descent of the Sons of Fire into the world. This can be traced in the mystical doctrine of the Forty-Nine Fires, each of which has a distinct function and meaning in the spiritual and physical worlds as well as a correspondence to one of the human psychic faculties. His three 'sons' are Pavaka (Purifier), representing electric orvaidyutafire, Pavamana (Purifying), or the fire of friction, and Suchi (Purity), the solar fire. From these three spring the forty-five fires associated with the Pitris, the Asuras and the gods, bringing the total to forty-nine.
Emphasizing principle instead of Being, the same notion is expressed in the Vedic assertion that Agni originates in the 'womb' ofrita,the great truth of Reality inherent in cosmic order and moral law as the living, moving fire of God, the Great Breath expanding and contracting as the divine heartbeat of the universe (the first Fire), spreading out as the vesture ofakasha(the second Fire), and partaking of water born of fire to produce the Sons of the Fire Mist (the third Fire). Arising out of the 'mouth' of the One, Agni can be identified with Kama in the First Creation, desire rooted in truth and omnipotent, omnipresent energy, yielding universal will. In the secondary creation Agni's ubiquitous effectiveness descends unerringly into the manifesting world, laying the basis for the motion and substance of life itself. His three forms – the sun, lightning and fire – become "the structural presences of the cosmos and of the inner life of men".
TheStanzas of Dzyanteach that fire is the 'father' of light. The Dark Fire of the Absolute radiates the light that penetrates the Mother Deep, causing the Eternal Egg to drop the germ that becomes the World Egg. This first ray is described as cold, luminous flame that forms curds out of the ocean of space, which collide and cause a rotating motion, yielding material fire in flames and then comets, whose heat generates vapour, producing water. This forms the basis for the world, motion being inseparable from heat, leading to archetypal expansion, the dissociation of relatively homogeneous and ethereal molecules, and their recombinations, producing slightly altered 'knots' of energy which whirl and cool according to the fluctuations of Agni's breath. In order for water, as we know it, to be produced, carbon is required, an element too gross to play a part on this cosmogonic stage. But a subtle ancestor of something analogous to carbon must have differentiated, something capable of responding to Agni's heat, resulting in the waters ofakasha,thesomaof the macrocosm. The elements that would eventually follow are quaternaries completed by their root, the spiritual fiery Breath of the noumenon, which becomes the electric fire within manifestation. Thus it can be said that air is fluidic fire, water is liquid fire and earth is solid fire – all living expressions of Agni. For thinkers like Paracelsus, fire is life. It bears the 'seed' of life and its internal nature is spermatic and generative.
Generative and omnipresent, Agni is Vaishvanara, the 'all-pervader'. Among all the spheres of elements he is the chief deity, called Jatavedas (All-Possessor), Hutasha (Devourer of Offerings), Saptajiva (Seven-Tongued), Dhumaketu ('his standard is smoke') and Bhuritejas (Resplendent). His colour is red, flickering around eyes of yellow which glow from his two heads. With his four arms he carries a torch, a fan, an axe, and a spoon for the offering. Dressed in black, he carries a banner of smoke and rides atop a ram or in a chariot drawn by flaming red horses. The seven winds are his wheels, and with his seven tongues he licks the ghee of sacrificial oblations. And yet, as in the myth depicting the fiery seed of Shiva which he swallowed, Agni may take the form of a bird who then flies down from the realm of the gods to earth. This theme is widespread in the world and often figures in myths about the divine gift of fire to human beings. It frequently involves stolen fire, as in the stories of the Northwest coastal American Indian tribes, where Raven steals the light of the sun to light up the minds of men. In Agni's case he assumed the guise of a bird in order to interrupt Mahadeva in his dalliance with Parvati and thus obtain the seminal fire of mind, which would incarnate in the world through Shiva's son Karttikeya. Agni provided the means for this just as he provided the fire in the seed.
In his less than omnipotent state depicted in the stories about Shiva and other later gods, Agni was rendered painfully uncomfortable by the burning seed, but even so, he alone of all the gods could bear to touch it, and as the mouth of all the gods he alone could swallow it. Restored to his Vedic importance, Agni is truly the fire in the seed, the mediator between gods and men, and the living, participating witness in the electric current of life on every level. He is Hutasha, the oblation eater, and Havyavahana, the oblation bearer, as well as Vahni, the conveyor. Because he is fundamental in all things and is the connection between all things, it can truly be said that "the understanding of the nature of fire leads to the understanding of the universe".
Bhuranya is a name for Agni meaning 'the rapid' – the rapid carrier of the divine spark, the firebird that brings heavenly lightning to earth. In myth this passage of the spark is frequently made in a narthex rod, a jointed reed like that in which the embryo of Karttikeya fell from Himavat into the Ganges, or in which Prometheus secreted the fire of Zeus. It is thepramantharod, whose name implies rotary motion whilst suggesting the idea of snatching away or appropriating something. Etymologically, it can be traced from the Sanskrit to the Greek, thus linking Prometheus to Promati, the son of Fohat, and both to the notion of awakened intelligence. In the earlyRig Veda,Agni is identified as an Asura and connected with the Sons of the Fiery Breath, the fallen angels who fought with Soma against Brihaspati and brought down the fire of mind. These were the Agnishvatta Pitris, the first beings evolved from primary fire, the unity ofakasha.Their progeny gave the flame to the Agnibhu (Agni- or fire-born), the four races of Kshatriyas, descended from Karttikeya, which had King-Instructors at their head.
Agni always rises upwards. Fulfilled, he becomes mighty in his own home and thither he leads the aspiration of humanity. He is the flame of Divine Will expressed as the force of consciousness in the three worlds. He is the immortal in mortals who use desire and egoism to transcend themselves. Men seem to have sensed this from the earliest of times, for the act of kindling a fire has traditionally been thought a sacred act. Even in modern times, when the notion of the quest for fire has been crudely reduced to the imagined stumblings of a primitive human ancestor, the idea has persisted that its 'discovery' is linked to self-conscious awareness and human speech, followed by all the proliferation and complexity associated with human culture. Intuitive thinkers have always realized that the terrestrial fire that is captured and controlled is analogous to a more powerful fire received from above. And all the wonderful technology men have developed by means of Agni's heat and electricity are merely shadows of the incalculable enlightenment and development that characterizes the awakened human mind. Fire is the instrument of man's power, first and above all, of his mind.
In ancient societies and in households still preserving a sense of the sacred connection between heaven and the domestic hearth, Agni is kept alive. Orthodox Hindus tend all three of his sacred flames within the home, never permitting them to go out. Such fires bring life to a household that cannot be provided by any other thing. It is possible that modern life has lost much of its sensitivity because homes usually no longer have central fires into which one can gaze and enjoy the reverie essential to humanness. How is this possibly true? Sitting before a fire instead of television, one finds oneself naturally centred and given over to thought rather than absorbed (or even mesmerized) by external events. The fire into which one gazes is a controlled fire but at the same time ever changing. Burning, consuming, it seems to hasten life's conclusion – suggesting even death and the funeral pyre. It is vitally alive yet participating in death. In its dancing glow, love, death and fire unite to blazon forth a picture of immortality. Gazing into Agni's flame, the authoress George Sand once wrote, "Death could not exist in that ethereal region to which you are carrying me. . . . My fragile body may be consumed by the fire, my soul must be united with those tenuous elements of which you are composed."
The contemplation of the oneness of life and death frees the mind of the observer from its clutching grasp upon time and circumstance. It floats free to blend with the soul, and the individual basks in an inner warmth of peace and clarity inexplicable in terms of mere physical heat. Psychically, we are created by our abstract musings and dreams. They delineate the limits of the mind wherein imagination works like a flame, sparking and illuminating as it is fed by reverie. In Agni's bosom lies the mirror of the imaginative flame within, and the two merge and feed one another, bridging the gap between the external and the internal on the level, not of the personal, but of the timeless and detachedly contemplative Self.
The voracious Agni turning upon his parent reminds us of the danger of fire, which, more than anything else, embodies good as well as evil. Shining in heaven, Agni also burns in hell, colouring our knowledge of him with strong emotions of liberation as well as of fear and prohibition. The fire of friction, on earth mirrored in the procreative friction producing incarnated beings, is fraught with prohibitions and taboos. The knowledge accompanying this fire is double-edged and forces man to understand that he sees fire by the light of fire, that Agni is the subject, predicate and object of his conscious awareness. This is not an easy realization. It is one thing to accept the old adage about "fighting fire with fire", imagining that it merely refers to some kind of overt use of force, but quite another to apply the idea to one's own complex and fiery nature. Perhaps this is why Agni has been seen primarily as the witness and mediator in ritual observances and formulas. It is easier to use physical fire symbolically in the hope of arousing corresponding effects in Nature and in the human psyche than to identify and master that fire which can subdue the lesser fires within one's own mind.
In preparation for the ceremony of the new fire, the Natchez Indians allowed all the fires kept for the previous year to go out. Before dawn of the new year the priest rubbed two pieces of wood together, chanting all the while. When the sun rose he speeded up, and as he cried"Oah!"fire spurted forth from the wood, catching the tinder. Then shamans set reed hoops afire, which they wound around in a spiral and used to ignite the oak logs placed upon the sacred altar. Thus they produced the seed flame which would provide a renewed spark of life for every hearth in the settlements. This is known as seeding the fire, a ritual act below reflecting that above. With the sun's ray, the heavenly spark arrives and is guided through lightning channels, through caduceus curves, to the fuel-offering of the world. As above, so below; man lives by the divine spark just as surely as he is devoured by its flame. Man lives, his crops grow and his hearth abounds with nourishing food, only to find that he too is food in the great cyclic return that revolves between heaven and earth. At each moment numberless forms of fire devour forms of life which are fuel. The sun itself shines by devouring its own substance. Agni, turning with mouth agape towards Prajapati, marks the beginning of a fundamental feature of manifest existence: the universe is a constant sacrifice, the transformation of life into life.
"To live is to devour life", and on every level of the cosmos all is of the nature of fire and water, Agni and Soma, the Devourer and the Devoured. In the sphere of the Self-born, fire rules supreme, acting as both creator and devourer of the subsequent watery realm which Vishnu rules. Out of this ocean of fuel the fiery solar sphere arises, only to feed upon the field ofsomaincipient to the solidified world. The cosmos is made up of alternating spheres wherein the nature of Agni or Soma dominate, an alternation crowded in consubstantial complexity on the earthly plane of existence. Thus, all existence can be thought of as food(anna)and the devourer(annada).Devouring is the only permanent thing; the other two are but transient aspects of it. Because fire grows immediately when it is fed and dies quickly when it is not, it is a perfect illustration of this, embodying the actual nature of existence itself as well as its luminous source. When existence ceases, the fire goes out, but it does not cease to bein potentia.Even the night ofpralayahas its dark flame waiting to be struck.
All is sacrifice, and the initial offering is made by fire itself. The light that penetrates the Mother Deep is the beginning of generations of fire giving of its essence, penetrating, setting in motion, heating and expanding, producing the nurturing waters. On earth the hydrological cycle illustrates this perfectly, for it is the sun which makes it all possible. Without its fire there would be no motion. All would be inert. One cannot even imagine globes in revolution without its electricity. Water could not exist, and even if it could, it would necessarily be dead, incapable of bearing life in its stagnation. The solar rays of Agni, heating subtle matter, created the waters and drew up their vapours into clouds bringing rain. Agni as Purusha thus dismembers himself into millions of sparks which enliven matter and spin it off into endlessly recombining forms that each play their part in the great cycle of sacrifice. In theChandogya Upanishad,Shvetaketu learns that the cosmos is made up of five great sacrificial fires in which the gods make offerings. They offer 'faith' in celestial fire(ahavaniya),producingsoma; somainparjanyafire, producing rain; rain ingarhapatyafire, producing food; food in human fire, producing semen; and semen in woman fire, producing embryo. Thinking in these terms, the ancients experienced the all-pervasiveness of fire by imitating the gods, who take their very breath through Agni's mouth. Fire became for them the essential instrument of their participation in cosmic sacrifice. Increasingly in Vedic times they imitated in their rituals the process by which the universe itself existed.
They measured off its thirty-three spheres, from the inner fire of immortality(amrita agni)to that of the earth, in concentric regions of sacrifice(ahargana)wherein the immortal flame was brought into the world by degrees. There it was changed into an offering, returning through the transcendent world ofmaharlokato the sphere of the Self-born (Svayambhu Mandala), where the fire becomes an offering ofdik somaandbhasvara soma.In the process, the deities, the gods of the elements and the cosmic forces, each represented by different classes of priests, were all involved. Some of these great sacrifices lasted for several earthly years, employing thousands of priests and necessitating great sacrificial wealth. In them the fire consumed the matter of this world, coming alive as it converted it to smoke. They followed the adage that "to kindle a fire is to call on God", but they did so with exacting precision, striving to create an art form of the kindling process which would reflect accurately the cosmological process. From their meditations they had discovered the various aspects of Agni's nature working within their own nature, so when they invoked him in the ritual, they knew that while he called upon the other gods to share in the sacrifice, he also awakened the corresponding powers within the sacrificer.
All life is in fiery motion producing heat. From the stirring ofritaAgni never ceases to act, heating up matter, creating a continuous tension between heat and the process of cooling. Heat marks incipient change and growth. It is characteristic of the transitory state between the profane and the sacred. One may think of the penetrating power of heat which, unlike light, goes to the interior of things. There is the flame of love which enlivens one at many levels and the heat of fury which produces increased strength and may be difficult to control. There is the sweat-house heat of initiation and the heat of a body which, through fever, is throwing out invasive and disharmonious lives. Then there is the heat of devotion, the ecstasy of the mystic, the boiling blood of long-dead saints, the fiery vision of those who, like Jacob Boehme, perceived the fire within each blade of grass. The practitioner of meditation experiences stages of heat: a burning and tingling of various parts of the body, and the heat lightning arising on the horizon of the mind. With effort the meditator identifies the fires and feeds them with the fuel of his own impurities. He learns to practise controlled burning, gaining mastery over his physical and astral temperature only as a byproduct of a deeper process of mental alchemy. The passions and emotions are consumed in Agni's greater flame, becoming part of his universal truth. Gradually one is made pure through a process perfectly reflected in the action of terrestrial fire as it deodorizes, disinfects and separates substances, thus destroying material impurities.
Agni enjoys and devours the things of life whilst generating its nervous energy that becomes the forces of thought, upheld by Agni, preparing the action of the luminous mind. He acts as Angiras, the manifestation of fire as the power of enlightenment, the lord of sacrifices. He projects himself and yet, like the sun, draws his food from himself, giving back the heat of growth and increased awareness. Man may quicken this process by intensifying his sacrificial efforts, feeding the inner fire which can transform his nature. In his will to engage continually in self-correction, he performs thistapasuntil the fires that were consuming him begin to enlighten, the haphazard passions become deliberate compassions. This amounts to a spiritualization of the emotions, producing purity which, when consciously realized, results in the pouring forth of light. At death it is said that speech(vach)enters intomanas, manasintoprana, pranaintotejas (tapasor heat) andtejasintobrahman.The earnest seeker of self-purification attempts to cross these thresholds during life by igniting the sacrificial fires oftapaswithin. He begins by sacrificing thoughtless speech and ends by becoming one with the radiant sacrifice itself. Thecheladoes this symbolically when he gathers kindling for the guru and tends his fire, providing Agni with fuel, for it is he who will bring enlightenment to the disciple through initiation.
In India, through theashramastages of life, Agni is carefully fed and reigns at the centre of the human struggle for individual and collective wisdom. Theprajapatya agniis given to thebrahmacharinat hisupayanaceremony, and with it he performs theagnihotraoffering, pledging to preserve this fire and feed it with oblations until he becomes an old man and retires to the forest. At the householder stage thegarhapatya agniis brought into the house after the marriage ceremony, where it plays a central role. In its new home it will be the focal point of rituals and will ever be fed with offerings to ensure spiritual generation. When the householder phase of life is over and thevanaprasthagoes off to the forest, he or she takes the three fires. Evensannyasisperform a morning and eveningagnihotra,remaining awake during the night between them. They utter,"Ya te agni yajniya tanur",requesting Agni to enter them in his three guises, inhaling smoke three times and then announcing,"Bhur bhuvah svah"(earth, mid-space and heaven), "I have now entered thesannyasa ashrama. "After this they kindle no external fire and all their offerings are now interior sacrifices. For them the three fires of Agni are contained only in true sacrifice.
According to theSadvimshabrahmana,theagnihotrawas originated by Prajapati, who performed a sacrifice for one thousand years. While observing austerities, he desired to create gods who, when emitted, were themselves desirous of obtaining a home (heaven) by their own austerities. As they performed them, their essence came forth in the form of the earth, air and heaven, produced by the heat of theirtapas.When these realms themselves were irradiated with heat, their essence came forth as theRig Vedafrom the earth, theYajur Vedafrom the air and theSama Vedafrom heaven. Again, through the eating of these, thegarhapatyafire came forth from theRig Veda,thedakshinagnifire from theYajur Vedaand theahavaniyafire from theSama Veda.As these were all irradiated withtapas,Agni-Purusha came forth with a thousand heads, eyes and feet. The gods asked him, "Who art thou?" and he said, "I am Sacrifice by name." Then the gods turned to Prajapati and said, "With our immortal bodies we have been able to accomplish this Great Sacrifice, which mortals, alas) will never be able to accomplish." In response, Prajapati performed the essential form of the sacrifice in 'one day' (an abridgement of twelve days for mortals).
Agni-Purusha thus broke through the seven circles of (his own) fire ('Pass Not') to make manifest the fires of the gods and become witness and means by which humanity could consciously participate in the Great Universal Sacrifice. Following the stages of the twelve-dayagnihotra,one may use the fire of imagination and pursue its analogous course within the sheaths of one's own being. After the sheltering structures have been constructed, a bird-shaped altar is outlined, whose great geometrically measured form represents Agni-Purusha and is emblematic of the Word as well as of a manifesting cycle of existence. Seeds from the field crops are asked to succeed like a victorious horse (in Vedic times sacrificed) and six pairs of male and female pots are consecrated and buried. Then the bricks of the altar are put in place, layer upon layer, until five layers have been laid and Agni-Purusha (who fragmented into a million pieces that the world of differentiation might come into existence) is once again made whole as at the beginning of time. Thesomais enthroned to the south of the altar, the sacrificer enters from the east, and walking between thegarhapatyaand theahavaniyafires (alerting the gods associated with them who repel evil), he circumambulates them before sitting to the south. The priest presides from the north, guiding theyajnamana(sacrificer) in the creation.
At dawn and at nightfall the solar Agni is wed to his altar flame, and heaven, mid-air and earth are brought into perfect alignment. A pot containing the milk of woman is heated in Agni's blaze as an offering made between the three fires (worlds). The priests address Agni withmantrasas the ritual unfolds, eventually culminating in a measured movement to the east. Thither fire in a pot begins its journey from the world of men to that of the gods on the bird-altar. The gods are invited to come to witness thesomaextraction andkushagrass is spread for them. Before sunrise on the tenth day thesomaplant is mashed and an offering is made to them by pouring some of its juice on the fire. The priests then drink thesomaand begin to intone theSama Vedachants, which are marked in their exacting progression by sticks. Entering into a trance, the priests soar upward upon Agni's wings, becoming channels through which the sacrificer enters the pure and unborn world ofarnrita agni,from which he and his wife may be born anew on the last day of the sacrifice.
In reality theagnihotrais far too complex to be described so simply, but the seeker of true spiritual fire can follow the outline and find analogues within his own strivings. The forty-nine fires of Agni are all realizable in the individual human nature. Those which draw their fuel from the stimuli of the world, waxing and waning on the basis of desires, likes and dislikes, are easy to identify. But they cannot simply be snuffed out with the rank breath of fear or doused with the wet blanket of contempt. All fires are sacred. All burn with the unalterable truth of Agni, and all must be used, fighting fire with fire, to purify the whole nature so that one can stand on the altar of the gods. How is this to be done? The lower fires must be kept alive and purified by the higher. The lower fires are polluted by their fuel, not by their essential nature. The waters that should be the sacrificial offerings in our nature are pollutants insofar as they have been allowed to become clouded by objects of desire and fear.
The pure water ofsoma,filling theakashaas well as the buddhic principle in man, is an ocean of fire, suffused with the pure electricity of spirit and fully informed by its will. This is a sublimely fit offering to Agni. But the waters of the personal nature too often tend to flow and mingle with those of the lower astral light, linking us with the dregs of human failure and debasement. Such are not fit to participate in cosmic sacrifice. Letting go of the devouring tendencies of the earth-bound nature and giving up the objects of desire they are endlessly focussed upon, one moves in consciousness to a realization that the devouring is the only real and permanent fact of existence. The subject and object – devourer and devoured – in man are truly an illusion. Freed of thismaya,the waters of one's lower nature become irradiated with a growing flame of higher buddhic awareness. The impurities with which they have been tainted are alchemically treated and transmuted, and become pure streams of oblation fearlessly offered in the one unalterable attribute of life – motion.
The mind may be seen as a fiery devourer, its objects of thought the devoured. But reality lies in the act of devouring, which is metaphysically prior to and transcends the individual mind and object of thought. Therefore, in seeking reality one must use the fire of mind and its object, realizing one is greater than both, capable of controlling the complex heating and cooling processes taking place in their interaction. One can come to do this, affecting the seven fires in all the seven levels of one's being, bringing the lesser reflections of Agni's truth steadily into the unlimited devouring of his universal radiance. He is not a subject acting upon the world or a deity afar to whom men sacrifice. He is the motion of devouring, thetapas,the heat of life consuming itself endlessly in a celebration of that which lies beyond time and space and fiery blaze. He is the spark lighting the hidden inner eye of man, the dark flame glowing in the bosom of the Invisible Spiritual Sun.