AGNI is the god of fire in ancient and traditional India. Derived from an Indo-European root, the Sanskrit word agni ("fire") is related to such other forms as Latin ignis and Lithuanian ugnis. A cognate appears in a Hittite text found at Bogazköy in the name Ak/gniš, identifying a god of devastation and annihilation. Although his mythological and ritual roots are reflected in Old Irish, Roman, and Iranian sources, the peculiar development of the god of fire as Agni owes as much to the ritualizing tendencies, the priestly vision, and the strong asceticism of the Indian context as it does to the god's Indo-European heritage.
The Ritual Context
Fire and heat play a central role in Vedic people's understanding of themselves within the cosmos. Fire is at once the most intimate and the most universal of elements; it can simultaneously inflict pain and bring purity, and it will, in an instant, make a person blind or give him vision. Fire is most fascinating to the Aryans, however, because of its capacity for domestication: with the taming of fire (and therefore of nature at large) come both the foundations of civilization and the means for release from it.
The Vedic mastery of fire took place within the ritual context. As the solemn (śrauta ) ritual developed, a system of correspondences was devised whereby priests could manipulate the fires and fire hearths to create and control a tripartite cosmos: Agni as the heavenly fire, or sun, resided in the western āhavanīya hearth with the gods; Agni as the atmospheric fire, or moon, resided in the southern dakṣiṇāgni hearth with the ancestors (pitara s); and Agni as the earthly fire or domestic flame resided in the western gārhapatya hearth with humans. This system of homologies also made reference to the newly emerging class system: the heavenly or offering fire represented the priest (brāhmaṇa ), the atmospheric or protecting fire the warrior (kṣatriya ), and the earthly or producing fire the merchant (vaiśya ).
As the central civilizing agent, the ritual fire played a special role in the development of the domestic (gṛhya ) liturgy, particularly in the marriage rite (Vivāha) and funeral ceremony (Antyeṣṭi). As the symbol and agent of the transformative process, fire with its heat stood midway between the coolness of celibate studenthood and restrained householdership, and between this life and the next. Marriage itself was effected by circumambulating the fire clockwise seven times, and true wifehood implied the continual presence of the cooking fire. Likewise, passage beyond death required the special translatory properties of the cremation fire, which, because it destroyed, purified, and "reconstituted" the old self into a new one, was treated cautiously by priests, who feared the potentially demonic qualities of Agni the kravyād ("flesh-eating one"). Furthermore, in a practice known in India at least as early as the epics and officially banned by the British in 1828, the wife as satī joined her husband on his funeral pyre, thereby ensuring the spiritual mutation by fire of the entire sacrificial unit (e.g., husband and wife) into the next world.
Fire was also used to test a person's truth. Because Agni was the god who presided over speech, the truth of an individual's words was demonstrated by Agni as the "defendant" walked through (or endured an assault by) fire. The best-known example of this is in the Ramāyāṇa where Sītā, after being released from Rāvaṇa's citadel in Lanka, is made to prove her fidelity to Rāma by publicly entering the flames.
The Mythology of Agni
The "personality" of Agni, as developed early in Vedic thought, delineates both the specific functions of the ritual and the divine models for the behavior of man. Next to Indra, Agni is the most prominent of the Ṛgvedic gods, and his anthropomorphic qualities are taken directly from the physical fire: for example, smoke-bannered, flame-haired, tawny-bearded, sharp-jawed, bright-toothed, and seven-tongued. As the mouth of the gods, Agni becomes butter backed and butter faced on receipt of his food, the sacrificial ghee (clarified butter). He has horns and bellows like a bull; he has a tail and is groomed like a horse; and he is winged like the eagle of the sky. Ever renewed in the ritual hearth, Agni is both the youngest and the oldest of the gods, and although born of Dyaus, the sky god, his real parents are the two araṇī s ("fire sticks"): the upper his father and the lower his mother (or, alternately, both his mothers). He is called sūnuḥ sahasaḥ ("son of strength"), literally, the product of powerful friction produced by the hands of the priest or, figuratively, a manifestation of a victoriously procreative cosmic power.
By far the single most significant element in Agni's personality is his priesthood. As fire he must officiate at every sacrifice; thus he is not only the divine counterpart of the human priest but also the prototype for and most eminent exemplar of all priestly activities, especially that of the hotṛ priest, the reciter of the liturgy. Moreover, the mediatorial nature of Agni's office charges him with the safe transport of offerings to the gods and, in return, blessings to humanity. Since successful travel as messenger (dūta ) between earthly petitioners and heavenly benefactors is insured by priestly eloquence, a quality derived from a combination of skill in language and insight into the cosmic mysteries, Agni is not only the preeminent priest but the preeminent seer (kavi ) as well.
Agni's personality stresses certain key functions that come to be referred to by a system of epithets. Vaiśvānara, the fire with power over all humans, for example, represents both the fire become sun during the liturgical magic of dawn and, supported by the Matarisvan myth, the ritual fire as symbol of Aryan superiority, protecting and empowering the nation against all enemies. As a civilizing agent, Vaiśvānara represents humanity's control over light, warmth, and the demarcation of time (Agni as sun) as well as his concern for national boundaries and the establishment of an unrivaled peace (Agni against the barbarians). Jātavedas, the fire in possession of the creatures, stresses Agni's function as keeper of the Vedic family and preeminent advocate of humans, for his unbroken ritual presence, his service in strengthening and uplifting the domestic community, and his role (via the cremation fire) in guaranteeing the proper transformation of the deceased into an ancestor make him the supreme guardian of the generations as well as the perpetuator of Aryan culture. Again, Apam Napat, the fire as child of the waters, stresses both the vital and procreative powers of natural water and the intoxicating and transformative powers of ritual water.
In the Brāhmaṇas, Agni's central relation is to Prajāpati, and the joint figure Agni-Prajāpati becomes the cosmic person who is projected into being through dismemberment. The various "searches" for Agni (see, for example, his flight in Ṛgveda 10.51) culminate in the ritual collection and reassembly of Agni (as sacrificer and cosmos) in the Agnicayana and serve to reaffirm the presence of fire in every element. Moreover, in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 18.104.22.168ff., Agni appears as Vaiśvānara and is carried in the mouth of Māthava, king of Videgha, toward the east. Jumping from the king's mouth at the mention of butter, Vaiśvānara burns his way to the Sadānīrā River, indicating by this the contemporary extent of the Brahmanic yajña ("worship"). In the Upaniṣads, Agni is identified with various aspects of the all-pervading brahman, and in the Purāṇas, notably the Agni Purāṇa, Agni is identified with the high god. In spite of this, however, and despite examples of known iconographical representations of Agni (particularly in stone), the extent of his worship in the later theistic context is marginal.
Heat and the Ascetic Tradition
With the shift in emphasis from sacrifice to sacrificer in the Brāhmaṇa period, the abstract qualities of the fire's "heat" (tapas ) become interiorized: the heat of the flame, of Soma, of the priest's sweat, and of the cooked food become part of an internal sacrifice within the body (antaryajña ) of the "patron become priest." What was in the period of the Brāhmaṇas the elaborate fire ritual (agnihotra ) becomes in the ascetic tradition the "interiorized fire ritual" (antaragnihotra ). As humanity itself is identified with the sacrificial process and with the cosmos, an elaborate system of correspondences is set up homologizing the microcosmic fires of the human body with the macrocosmic fires of the universe, the whole system manipulable through the asceticism of yoga. The long-haired ascetic (muni ), first seen holding fire and riding the wind in Ṛgveda 10.136, now becomes the ascetic thoroughly possessed by Agni: in his head is the fire of mind and speech, in his arms the fire of sovereign power, and in his belly and loins the fire of productivity.
The standard and most comprehensive catalog of Agnian lore in the Ṛgveda remains A. A. Macdonnell's Vedic Mythology (New York, 1974). Macdonnell not only lists each of Agni's traits but gives textual citations as well. An important discussion of one of Agni's epithets within the larger Vedic context can be found in Jan Gonda's Some Observations on the Relations between Gods and Powers in the Veda, à Propos of the Phrase Sunuh Sahash (The Hague, 1957). Expanding on the detailed study of tapas in Chauncey J. Blair's Heat in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda (New Haven, 1961) is the excellent, and most provocative, discussion in David M. Knipe's In the Image of Fire: Vedic Experiences of Heat (Delhi, 1975). Focusing primarily on Brahmanic sources, the latter interprets the Agnian material from the vantage of the history of religions. A comprehensive account of the performance and symbolism of the Agnicayana is Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols. including tapes (Berkeley, Calif., 1970, reprint 2001), by Fritz Staal in collaboration with C. V. Somayajipad and M. Itti Ravi Nambudiri. Indian Fire Ritual, by Musashi Tachikawa, Shrikant Bahulkar, and Madhave Kolhatkar (Delhi, 2001), explains the basic ritual of Iṣṭi, using original texts and photographs of sacrificial performances made in Pune, India, in 1979.
Ellison Banks Findly (1987 and 2005)
AGNI The name of both the Vedic Hindu god of fire and sacrificial fire itself, Agni is an Indo-European word cognate with Latin ignis. The Rig Veda, the oldest text of ancient India (c. 1000 b.c. at latest), places his name as the initial word in the first of its 1,028 hymns: "Agni I praise . . ." as purohita (domestic priest), as god of yajña (sacrifice), as invoker of gods. Of all deities, only Indra is addressed more often; Agni is celebrated in some 200 hymns. The mystery of Agni is the mystery of fire that appears miraculously from churning fire sticks, but may as suddenly disappear. The hidden Agni, even his concealment in the depths of cosmic waters or plants (Rig Veda 10.51), is a constant theme, for he must be recovered to maintain both the fire for household daily offerings and the great world-maintaining sacrificial fire. As receiver of offerings, he is mediator between human and divine realms. Agni's heat and brightness frequently relate him to the fiery solar orb, Sūrya or Savitr.
The Vedic student does agnikārya, daily offering to Agni and, according to tradition, after completion of Vedic study, when Agni is established in the house by a married couple the god is present in one, three, or five offering fires. The single fire is aupāsana, but tretāgni, a triple form, is standard for a sacrificer. If the householders maintain ritual fires routinely for the daily morning and evening offerings of fresh milk, a ritual known as agnihotra, both husband and wife are eligible to project the fires onto a larger arena in order to perform solemn soma and animal sacrifices or other large-scale rituals involving as many as sixteen or seventeen priests. The initial, paradigmatic soma ritual, agnishṭoma, is "praise of Agni," following which householders are entitled to perform other soma sacrifices such as agnicayana, the creation of a cosmic Agni, reintegrating all of time and space into an eagle-shaped altar with five layers of a thousand or more bricks, a rite requiring a year or more in antiquity, as much as forty days in contemporary performance by some Vedic Brahmans still active in South India. The sacrificer carries a pan of embers and is thereby identified with Agni and another Vedic god, Prajāpati, as world-creator.
In post-Vedic classical Hinduism, Sanskrit epics and Purān. as (e.g., the Agni Purāṇa) continued some of Agni's mythic roles, often in connection with Indra, Varuṇa, Vishnu, Shiva, Skanda, Soma, and Yama. His ritual centrality, however, gradually diminished, and temples, sculptures, or paintings of Agni are rare. Domestic and temple pūjā (worship) prominently maintained ārati, the waving of burning incense or camphor before a god or goddess, although homa (offerings) into an actual fire still continued. Yoga and other ascetic practices became prominent, many involving tapas, an interior heat or fire that could replace Agni with a cosmic-human body, simultaneously sacrificer, medium, and recipient.
Although not always recognized ritually by name, Agni still is present in contemporary Hinduism in life-cycle rituals, particularly marriages and cremations, both involving circumambulation of fire. The latter is antyeshṭi, a "final offering" to Agni kravyād, "consumer" of the body. In addition to a long history in Hinduism, Agni and homa rituals are evident in Jainism and Buddhism, and in the latter have been carried in various guises across Asia.
David M. Knipe
Knipe, David M. In the Image of Fire. Vedic Experiences of Heat. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975. Situates Agni in the history of religious symbols of fire and the dynamics of heating and cooling.
Macdonell, A. A. Vedic Mythology. 1897. Reprint, Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1963. Detailed description of Agni, primarily from Rig Veda and Atharva Veda hymns.
O'Flaherty, Wendy Doniger. Hindu Myths. Baltimore: Penguin, 1975. Ch. 3, selected Agni motifs from Vedic Saṃhitās to Mahābhārata.
Staal, Frits. Agni. The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities, 1983. Monumental work on 1975 Agnicayana sacrifice in Kerala; excellent plates.