Agni is said to be one of the closest connected gods with humans than any of the other deities in the Hindu tradition. The god Agni is identified with being the producer of fire and referred to as being Indra’s (god of thunder and lightning) brother (Macdonell 57). There are many different myths as to how Agni was born; some say that the deity was born three times, once from water, then air and last on Earth. A common myth is that Agni was made from the coupling of the god of the earth (Prthivi) and god of the heavens (Dyaus) and is said to be the son of Brahma. Agni was born fully-grown and was said to be ravenously hungry which led him to devour his parents (McLeish 1996). Agni is the intercessor between the deities and humankind, and is of the few gods in the Hindu tradition that has retained its power to this day (Chandra 9-10).
Agni is identified as one of the first deities to take human form. He is said to be a red man who has seven tongues with which he licks up the butter offered in sacrifices. He is also portrayed as having seven arms, three legs and two heads. Agni is almost always portrayed with a ram as his vehicle, and is occasionally shown riding in a chariot with fiery horses or goats (Jansen 64). His eyes and hair are both black, and on his head he often bears the horns of a bull. He is usually seen wearing a yellow waistcloth. He appears to be young man, which is due to his rebirth everyday through the friction of two sticks. Agni is immortal and lives amidst humankind, yet in heaven he is portrayed as the sun. Agni’s image of fire is a symbol of destruction, which explains why his attributes include an axe, torch and flaming spear, as well as prayer beads (Jansen 64).
Soma (the moon) is a deity who is regarded as a link between the human and the divine, just like Agni. Soma is identified with the moon, which is said to “contain the ambrosia of immortality” (Flood 46). Agni and Soma are said to be the most significant gods (devas) placed at the level of the Earth. They are connected in the sense that the moon is identified with Soma, as Soma is with Agni, and Agni is with the Sun. The public (srauta) rites are primarily focused on Agni and Soma in which vegetarian and non-vegetarian items are offered into multiple sacrificial fires. The (srauta) rites require the burning of three sacred fires. Items such as milk, animals, vegetable cakes and stalks of the soma plant are all offered into the fires (Flood 41-54).
Agni is addressed in approximately one third of the hymns in the Rg Veda. He was central in sacrificial ritual because it was the fire that transformed the offerings into something accessible to the gods (Fowler 98). Agni was a very important deity, and this was evident through the high degree to which he was worshipped. He is described as a divine sage and a swift messenger between the gods and humans, which is why he is still widely worshipped to this day. His worshippers are said to thrive and have a prolonged life (Wilkins 24). He announces hymns to immortals and brings them down from heaven above to sacrifice them. Without Agni, the deities do not experience any satisfaction. Agni is worshipped in many forms such as, a wise director, a protector of all ceremonies and a successful accomplisher (Wilkins 23).
Agni is portrayed in the Mahabharata as being drained of all his energy. Through devouring the Khandava forest he regains his strength. In that story, Indra attempts to stop Agni, but with the assistance of Krsna, Agni ends up consuming the forest (Wilkins 27). Agni is known by multiple names such as, Vahni which means “burnt sacrifice”, Jivalana as “He who burns”, and Dhumketu which is “He whose sign is smoke” (Wilkins 27). Agni is said to have formed heaven and earth and is spoken of as the son of both worlds. He is said to have created the sun and decorated heaven with stars.
The importance of fire in Hindu rituals remains today, as does the deity Agni. Among the directional guardians, Agni was in control of the southeast, which is where dawn breaks. Agni was born fully mature and was able to consume everything, pure and unpure. (Andrews 8). Fire was widely worshipped because it represented heat and light and was believed to have come from the sun. Fire was a very important part in Hindu rituals because it allowed people a way to give sacrificial offerings to the gods. This is why Agni is still important in today’s society. Agni is known to forgive sin, and offers boons that usually have to do with offspring, prosperity and domestic welfare. Indra’s boons give power, glory and victory (Macdonell 98). All gods had equal power at one time, but after acquiring immortality through sacrifices, Agni, Indra and Surya became grander than the other gods (Jansen 63). The god of war, Skanda, later became the successor of Agni and Indra.
In the epic Ramayama, the king of demons abducted Rama’s wife Sita. After Rama wins a battle with the army of demons, he is able to take his wife home, but doubts her loyalty. He accuses her of being unfaithful while she was away from him and in response, Sita throws herself into a fire to prove herself loyal. Agni, god of fire, did not harm Sita in any way and placed her into Rama’s arms without injury. This led Rama to believe his wife’s words (Jansen 78). This reveals aspects of how Agni has the power to control outcomes such as Sita being harmed or not.
Agni takes part in blessings at occasions such as marriages and deaths, and he commands riches in earth and heaven. He is prayed to by individuals and worshipped as a forgiver of sins, and it is said that he surrounds other gods as the “circumference of a wheel does the spokes” (Wilkins 24). The god Siva has three eyes: the sun, the moon and fire. His third eye is the eye of inner vision and is often invoked at the time of meditation. The third eye also burns with desire (Kama) (Badlani 95).
Agni is also said to be the son of Angrias and grandson of Sandila who is one of the great sages. Agni is the eldest son of Brahma and his wife is Swaha. Through this marriage, he has three sons, Pavak, Suchi and Pavman, and forty-six grandsons for a total of forty-nine descendants (Chandra 10). Agni’s attendant, Matarisvan, is a minor messenger god (Chandra 220). Agni symbolizes a spark in nature through the image of two pieces of wood being rubbed together. This produces the fire in that Agni dwells. (Andrews 8).
Another story in the Mahabharata is one in which Bhrigu curses Agni. Bhrigu married a woman named Puloma who was promised to a demon. Through seeing her exquisiteness, Bhrigu decides to take her away without the knowledge of anyone. Agni assists the demon in finding the bride’s hideaway and claims her back. Bhrigu curses Agni because he helped the demon and says, “from this day you shall eat everything.” Agni did not understand why he was being cursed because he had been honest and accomplished his task of assisting the demon in finding the bride’s hideout. He refers to himself as the mouth of the gods and ancestors. Bhrigu alters his curse by changing it so that Agni purifies all that is passed through him (Wilkins 366). Agni is a Kravyad (flesh-eater), and is represented under an unsightly form. He is called upon to devour meaning he places his enemies into his mouth and engulfs them. He sharpens his tusks and eats his enemies (Wilkins 27).
Agni is the lord of knowledge and fire; he is the chief deity and he is the power of inner and outer illumination. He is the mouth of the gods and the wealth giver (Danielou 64). He is said to have two shapes: one being fearful and the other benevolent. He is called Rudra. Agni is known as a devourer and a god of many powers, one being fire. He is of great importance and is highly worshipped. He is one of the highest gods in the Hindu tradition.
References and Related Readings
Andrews, Tamra (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press.
Badlani, Hiro G (2008) Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom. New York: iUniverse Inc.
Chandra, Suresh (1998) Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.
Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.
Findly, Ellison B. 2005. “Agni.” In Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, 178-179. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Accessed February 3, 2016.
Flood, Gavin D (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fowler, Jeaneane D (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.
Jansen, Eva Rudy (1993) Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning. Havelte: Binkey Kok Publications.
Leeming, David (2005) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Lochtefeld, James G (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group
Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1898) Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agni.” Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: Accessed February 4, 2016.
Wilkins, W.J (2003) Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: W. Thacker and Co.
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Article written by: Kimberly Sitter (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.