Agni is the Sanskrit word for ‘fire’. Agni is one of the foremost among the Vedic deities. In regard of the number of Vedic hymns (sūkta; sukta) attributed to the deities, Agni comes only second to Indra (almost two hundred hymns have been dedicated to Agni). Since Agni’s deeds and actions are mainly observable on the Earth, he is known as a deity of the Earth – agniḥ pṛthivīsthānaḥ.
- Much has been discussed in Nighantu, the Vedic lexicon, about the etymology of the word agni. The word is a result of joining the verbal root nī with the noun agra (meaning ‘first’, ‘foremost’ or ‘prior’). Just as a general leads an army from its head, Agni too leads the Gods like the vanguard – agnirvai devānāṃ senānīḥ. The name Agni also has its origin in the legend that he was born before all the other gods – sa vā eṣo’gre devānāmajāyata tasmādagnirnāmeti. [See Commentary of Durgasiṃha (Durgasingha)].
- As he was born before all elements animate and inanimate, as he occupies the foremost position in a yajña (yajna), and as he cooks meals and burns sacrificial fuels in a yajña with his own body, he is called agni – jātō yadagre bhūtānāmagraṇīradhvare ca yat/ nāmnā sannayate vāṅgaṃ stuto’gniriti sūribhiḥ.
- On whatever Agni or fire sets, in whom it ‘seeks shelter’, it engulfs the substance and makes it a part of its own body. That is why another opinion suggests that the word agni might be derived from attaching the verbal root nī with the Sanskrit word aṅga (anga; meaning ‘body’). Yāska, in his quest for the roots of the word Agni, refers to the opinion held by his former preceptor Sthaulāṣṭhīvi (Stahulashthibhi) and Śākapūṇī (Shakapuni). Also, later grammarians hold the opinion that the word agni can be derived by attaching the suffix ni with the verbal root agi (denoting motion), as fire carries the sacrifices and the essence of other burnt offerings to heaven – aṅgati svarge gacchati havirnetumagniḥ. [Comments Sāyanācārya (Sayanacharya)].
Ṛgveda (Rigveda) describes Agni’s nature and works in various manners. The Vedas have referred to Agni as Jātavedā (Jataveda). As for the origin of this word, Yāska says that as Agni knows everything that is born or created (jāta; jata) and as everything that is born or created is aware of him as well, Agni is known as Jātavedā. Here the word veda is used in the verb form, which means ‘to know’. Again, as from him come all the wealth (Sanskrit vitta), he has been called Jātavitta (Jatavitta; ). There was a common saying which asked one to wish for wealth from Agni – dhanamicched hutāśanāt. Aitareya Brāhmaṇa (Aitareya Brahmana) narrates a legend. Once the subjects (prajā; here referring to mankind) created by Prajāpati [Prajapati, or Brahmā (Brahma)] left him behind with the intention of not returning to him. Prajāpati then encircled them with a ring of fire and they came back to Agni. From then on, they have remained with Agni. Prajāpati then said – “My creations (jātaka; jataka) have gained substance (vitta) with the help of Agni.” That is how Agni came to be known as Jātaveda, where the part of the word veda is a derivative of the verbal root vind, which indicates ‘to gain’. Maitrāyanī Saṁhitā (Maitrayani Samhita) says that as soon as Agni had been born or had come into existence, he became the master of many animals – that is why he is known as Jātavedā. According to the Atharvaveda, these animals are the cows, horses, human beings, goats and sheep. This statement was perhaps made in view of the indispensability of Agni in the society that existed in the early phase of creation. Agni is also credited as the presiding deity of Suvarṇa or gold – agniḥ suvarṇasya guruḥ.
- Some deities in Vedas resemble human beings while some do not. It is likely that the deities representing the natural forces are are categorised as apuruṣavidha (apurushavidha; ‘non-human-like) deities. Agni is apuruṣavidha.
- Agni is dubbed aknopana (Sanskrit knopa means ‘to moisten’) as fire does not have soothing properties. This name owes itself to the the fact that Agni dries up all kinds of fat and liquid – na knopayati na snehayati.
- Agni is described as sudatra – i.e., one who blesses with welfare. Other epithets of Agni include jyotiṣī (jyotishi; derived from the root jyoti, which means ‘light’) and yugmajyoti (literally meaning ‘double light’) as lightning and the Sun also are called Agni.
- Apart from these names, the Vedas, in view of Agni’s other achievements and activities, have bestowed several other titles on Agni; for instance dhāmacchat (dhamachchhat), svarbidi, divaspṛśi (divasprishi), draviṇodā (drabinoda), vṛṣākapi (vrishakapi), vanaspati, tṛtīyapati (tritiyapati), tristhānabhāgī (tristhanabhagi) and so on.
- Agni is the mouth of the gods – agnirvai devānāṃ mukham. [Kauṣitakī Brāhmaṇa (Lindner) 3.6. P. 12]Gods receive the oblations made to them by human beings through the mouth of Agni – tasmāddevā agnimukhā annamadanti. Agni is the messenger of the gods – agnirera devānāṃ dūta āsa. In a yajña Agni acts as hotā, the high priest who summons the gods by chanting Ṛgvedic hymns and makes oblations, as ṛttvika and purohita (priests of various levels) himself. He is the master of ceremonies of a yajña, the master of homestead and acts as an envoy of the public – mantro hotā gṛhapatiragne dūto viśāmasi. Agni is the Lord of food and is also the son of food at the same time – annādo vā eṣonnapatiryadagniḥ. Agni is the life force, soul and consciousness of all creatures. He is omnipresent and is represented by all gods. More than one hymns in the Vedas identify Agni with Indra, Viṣṇu (Vishnu), Brahmā, Varuṇa (Varuna), Aryamā (Aryama), Savitā (Savita) and even with Aditi (Aditi) and Sarasvatī (Saraswati). Such identification (and amalgamation) of Agni with other deities encapsulates the philosophical basis of non-dualism. This has been stated clearly in one hymn – ekaṃ sat viprā vahudhā vadanti/agniṃ yamaṃ mātariśvān-māhuḥ. [Ṛgveda 10.164.46]
- Many characteristics of the natural world have been envisioned as qualities inherent in various Vedic deities. As a result, the powers and qualities of many Vedic deities have come to be incorporated in Agni. The general appearance, power and attributes of the radiant deities like Sūrya (Surya), Ūṣā (Usha) and others have been manifested in Agni. Even one concept professes that as all the radiant solar deities enter Agni in nighttime, Agni or fire is luminous even from a great distance at night. At daybreak, Agni reentered Sūrya, and that is why it appeares dim in the presence of sunlight. Ṛgveda says – “During nighttime, Agni becomes the head of the entire universe, and at daybreak Agni himself rises as the Sun” – mūrdhā bhuvo bhavati naktamagnistatah sūryo jāyate prātarudyan.
- The Purāṇas, too, have conjured a similar vision of Agni. The setting sun bestows Agni with a quarter of its energy and for this reason Agni becomes brighter during nighttime. Again, when the sun rises, a quarter of Agni’s energy is passed on to the sun and this causes the sun to become very hot during daytime. The reason for this oneness of Sūrya and Agni is the similarity in their characteristics and general nature, more specifically their powers and their ability to produce heat and energy. Both Agni and Sūrya dispel darkness, enlighten the world and have heat in common – prakāśyañca tathoṣñañca sauryāgneye tu tejasī/ paramparānupraveśādāpyāyete divāniśam. The Vedas have imagined Agni to appear with a threefold essence or tristhānabhāgī (tristhanabhagi; ‘partaining to three places’) due to him being a representative of energy. The word tristhāna denotes three domains – namely, the Earth, the skies and the heavens. On earth, Agni is the earthly fire or pārthivāgni (parthivagni), in the skies Agni is lightning or vidyut and in the heavens he is the Sun or āditya (aditya). Āditya or the Sun, being a celestial deity, is known as uttamāgni or the ‘higher/ best fire’. The lightning or vidyut that flashes across the sky is known as madhyamāgni or the ‘medium/ middle fire’. The Agni or fire that we see and feel and the fire that we use in our day-to-day lives is known as pārthivāgni or the earthly fire. According to the Purāṇas, the fire that is used for cooking is pārthivāgni. The fire that burns in the stomach of living creatures is known as vaidyutāgni (vaidyutagni). Vaidyutāgni is of three types — vaidyuta (vaidyuta), jāṭhara (jathara) and saura. These three forms of fire are related to water. Saura fire sucks water through sun’s ray. When vaidyutāgni enters the fire that burns on a tree (vṛkṣāgni; brikshagni), it cannot be put out with water (just as a tree, when struck by lightning, cannot live anymore). Agni residing in the solar sphere and giving out heat is the ultimate fire or uttamāgni. He is also known as śuci (shuchi; ‘clean’).
- According to a verse by Vṛhaddevatā (Brihaddebata), the one worshiped as Agni on the Earth is revered as Jatavedā in the skies (antarīkṣa) and Vaiśvānara in the heavens (dyuloka) – jātavedā stuto madhye stuto vaiśvānaro dibi. Some of the Vedic sages have referred to uttamāgni Āditya as Vaiśvānara and some have also called madhyamāgni vidyut to be Vaisvānara. Again, in the opinion of Sage Śākapūṇi found elsewhere in the Vedas, Vaiśvānara is pārthivāgni. Again, it has been observed that the Agni which resides in the womb is called Tanūnapāt (Tanunapat). Maybe Agni in the form of lightning, which resides in the clouds is called by this name. When this Agni becomes perceptible, it is known as Narāśaṁsa (Narashangsa). This fire is the medium for offering eulogies to the forefathers. Then again, since this Agni is born from a mother’s womb, he is known as Mātariśvā (Matarishwa; this Agni is conceived of as the hot summer breeze). Mātariśvā is the Agni which is produced when trees are rubbed against each in a powerful wind. Here the trees in turmoil are imagined as the mother’s womb that gives birth to the child, namely fire. [Atharvaveda (Roth and Haug) 12.1.51]Basically, the wonder produced by the discovery of fire towards the early phase of human civilization and its practical usefulness has left its mark on Vedic hymns. The gods created Vedic hymns in the first place. They then created Agni and the articles to be offered as oblations. The Agni which became the protector of the bodily forms of the gods in the form of sacrificial flames of yajña is the Agni who is known to the sky, the Earth and the waters. The last line makes it quite clear that yajña, the skies, the Earth and the waters were the things around which life in India had evolved in those early days of civilisation. This was caused partially by the oneness in form and spirit between Sūrya and Agni. In the evenings, offerings dedicated to Sūrya are made in the fire or Agni. During early morning hours oblations dedicated to Agni are made to Sūrya. This is the custom followed for making a sacrificial fire for oblation whose flames ascend to the heavens. When the sun sets across the horizon, Agni becomes the light of the world. When the sun rises over the horizon, it becomes the source of light – yadā hyeva sūryo’stametyathāgnijyotiryadā sūryo udetyatha sūryo jyotiḥ. [A.A Macdonell Vedic Mythology p. 93]
- A verse in the Ṣrīmadbhagavadgītā (Srimadbhagavadgita), composed at a later period, also becomes significant in this context – annād bhavanti bhūtāni parjanyādannasambhavaḥ/ yajñād bhavati parjanyā yajñaḥ karmasamudbhavaḥ – “It is food that sustains life. It is parjanya or the clouds that produce food or rice that is consumed by living beings. Religious sacrifices or yajña give birth to clouds and the ceaseless endeavor on part of human beings leads to religious sacrifices.” Agni is known as yojaka (yojak) at marriage ceremonies. In caturthī homa (chaturthi hom), Agni is known as śikhī (dhṛti or agni, according to different opinions). During āvasathya (abasathya) yajña, he is known as bhava, and at viśvadeva (vishwadev) yajña he is known as pāvaka. The household fire or gārhapatya agni is known as Brahmā, dakṣināgni (dakshinagni) is known as Īśvara (ishwar) and āhavanīya (ahavaniya) agni is known as Viṣṇu. The sacrificial rite of agnihotra requires all these three Agnis. When one million flames are lit during a religious sacrifice, Agni is called Bahni (Bahni). When a billion flames are lit for a sacrificial rite, Agni becomes Hutāśana (Hutashan). The sacrificial flame of prāyaścita yajña is called Vidhi. Agni is known as Sāhasa (sahas) during pāka yajña. (Ṛgveda refers to Agni as the son of Sahasa or Bala) – acchidrā sūno sahaso no adya… Because fire has its source in forceful rubbing, he is known as the son of Bala (‘force’) and called Sāhasa (‘valour’ or ‘courage’) – balena hi mathyamāno’gnirjāyate (says Sāyana). While acting in the sacrifice for gods, he is known as Havyavāha (Habyabaha); in sacrifices for mens, he is called Kavyavāhana (Kabyabahana). At the time of giving the ultimate offerings in the fire, he is known as Mṛḍa (Mridha) and at the peace rituals he is known as Varada. When he is in the stomach of creatures, he is known as Jaṭharāgni (jatharagni; literally meaning ‘the fire of stomach’). In this respect he is hailed as the child of food, as the fire of stomach is born of and lives on the fuel of food – jaṭharāgneḥ pravartamānāgne-rannaputram (says Sāyana). When fire devours corpses in the crematorium, he is called Kravyād (Kravyad). Fire emerging from the ocean is called Baḍavā (Badaba) and the fire destroying the world is called Saṃvartaka (Sangbartak).
- Fire is one of those natural elements which man started worshipping most primevally. Therefore in most of the ancient civilisations have not only deities related to fire, but in their vocabulary also the corresponding words to ‘fire’ have similarity with the word agni. Agni has become ignis in Latin and ogni in Slavonic. As fire is produced by rubbing (Snkt. manthana) two pieces of wood (araṇi; arani), one of the descriptions of fire is pramantha – a word with which the similarity of the name of the Titan who stole fire from Heaven is very much discernible: Prometheus. In a similar way bharaṇyu has become Phoreneus in Greek and ulkā (ulka; meteor), another form of fire or agni has transformed into the name of the god of fire and smithery in Roman mythology: Vulcan. Vulcan’s Greek counterpart in Hephaestus and Hestia, who also are related to fire.
The divine sage Nārada, while describing the court of Indra, the king of gods, to Yudhiṣṭhira in Sabhāparva of Mahābhārata, mentioned that the divine court is blessed with the presence of twenty-seven forms of Agni, who aid Indra in his works. Although the main verse in this context does not call these twenty-seven forms by individual name, commentators traced the names of the twenty-seven fires from other scriptures. They say that Agni born of Brahmā’s body in aṅgirā (angira). Dakṣināgni, gārhapatya agni and āvasathya agni are three other principal fires. The other names of Agni are: nirmathya, vaidyut, śūra (shur), saṃvarta, laukika, jāṭhara (jathar), viṣaga, kravya, kṣemavān, vaiṣṇava, dasyumān, balada, śānta, puṣṭa, bibhāvasu, jyotiṣmān, bharata,bhadra, sviṣṭtikṛt, vasuman, kratu, soma and pitṛmān, and aṅgirā, the fire born out of body (aṅga). Including aṅgirā, there are twenty-seven kinds of fire –
Brahmaṇo’ṅgāt prasūto’gniraṅgirā iti viśrutaḥ
Dakṣināgni gārhapatyāhovaṇīyāviti trayī.
Nirmathyo vaidyutaḥ śūraḥ haṃvarta laukikastathā
Jāṭharo viṣagaḥ kravyāt kṣemavān vaiṣṇavastathā.
Dasyumān baladaścaiva śāntaḥ puśṭo bibhāvasuḥ
Jyotiśmān bharato bhadraḥ sviṣṭikṛd vasumān kratuḥ
Somaśca pitṛmāṃścaiva pāvakāḥ saptaviṃśatiḥ.
It is true that from the Vedic and Purāṇic descriptions forms no perfect and complete human-like image of him; nonetheless, his image is always imagined to be that of a angry person, reflecting his natural fieriness. Remembering the core of fire to be purity and sanctity, the Vedic people described him to be the white-hued (vetavarṇa, śucivarṇa, śukravarṇa) destroyer of darkness – śukravarṇaṃ tamohanam. Then again in Ṛgveda Agni has been described as fair-complexioned and having golden teeth – hiraṇyadantaṃ śucivarṇamārāt.
His hair is sometimes white, sometimes greenish or golden or tawny – harikeśamīmahe.
Naturally this imagery of greenish, golden or tawny hair and beard reflects the blazing flames of fire – hariśmaśru harikeśaḥ. [Śuklayajurveda (Bombay, 1922). 15.15]
Agni’s description, referring to fire’s voracious appetite and ability of engulfing anything and everything, is lauhadanta (‘iron-teeth’) at one place in Veda.
In Purāṇas Agni is described possessing hazel eyes, red neck and black body.
Agni has three heads or three tongues – a reference to three types of fires.
Elsewhere Agni has been described to have seven tongues, an imagery definitely reflecting innumerable flames of a fire, as the following line from Mahābhārata corroborates – saptajihvānanāḥ krūro lelihāno visarpati. This image of a destructive fire stems from the description of Agni in Śuklayajurveda – samidhaḥ saptajihvāḥ.[Śuklayajurveda. 17.79]
The Purāṇas have also named these seven tongues of Agni. That tongue of Agni which monitors time is called Kālī (Kali); the one to cause doomsday-like tumult is called Karālī (Karali); the one with the yogic quality of laghimā (laghima; ‘lightness’) is called Manojavā (Manojava); the one to satisfy desires of all creatures is Sulohitā (Sulohita); the one to burn away all the diseases of the world is Sadhumravarṇā (Sadhumravarna); the one to cause the birth of each body and soul is called Sphuliṅgiṇī (Sfulingini); and the one to look after everyone’s welfare is named Viśvā (Vishwa).
This humanoid appearance of the fire got so much importance as to be institutionalised in the hymn of meditating upon the Fire-god Agni, and the image we have in this hymn is too interesting to an artist. In this descriptive hymn we find Agni having a red complexion, long locks and garland of flames around his neck. He is gentle. He has four arms, three eyes, a moustache, and four teeth [namely vāgdanta (vagdanta), dhigdanta, dhanadanta and vadhadanta]. He wears clothings of smoke and four smoke-grey parrots adorn his chariot (the four parrots signifies the four Vedas and their smoke-grey hue refers to the antiquity of the Vedas). Vāyu, the Wind-god, drives the chariot. As Indra is accompanied by his consort Śacī (Shachi), Agni is accompanied by his wife Svāhā (Svaha), who holds a jewelled pot in her hand. In each of his two right hands he holds flames and trident, and in the two left hands he holds a rosary of rudrākṣa (rudraksha) and a pot of holy water (kamaṇḍalu; kamandalu). His complexion is scarlet because it reflects the raging energy of the fire:
Raktaṃ jaṭādharaṃ bahṇiṃ kuryād vai dhūmravāsasam
Jvālāmālākulaṃ saumyaṃ trinetraṃ śmaśrudhāriṇaṃ.
Caturbāhuṃ caturdaṃṣṭraṃ deveśaṃ vātaṣārathiṃ
Caturbhiśca śukairyuktaṃ dhūmacihṇarather sthitaṃ.
Vāmotsaṅgagatā svāhā śakrasyeva śacī bhavet
Ratnapātrakarā devī bahṇerdakṣiṇahastayoḥ.
Jvālā-triśūlau kartavau cākṣamālā tu bāmake
Raktaṃ hi tejasā rūpaṃ raktavarṇaṃ tataḥ smṛtaṃ.
According to Saurapurāṇa and Matsyapurāṇa, Agni’s steed is a goat.
The hymn of meditating on Agni is:
Dobhirvibhratamañcitatrinayanaṃ raktābhamagniṃ bhaje.
Bālārkāruṇasaṃkāśaṃ saptajihvaṃ dvimastakaṃ
Ajārūḍhaṃ śaktidharaṃ jaṭāmukuṭamaṇḍitam.
The Vedic texts recounts various versions of the birth of the fire – all of them are natural metaphors. They describe Agni sometimes as the son of Bala or Sahasa; sometimes two pieces of woods (araṅi) which are rubbed together to produce fire are visioned as Agni’s parents; sometimes Agni is also hailed as the eater of his own parents, as Agni burns the araṅi woods from which he is born; Agni is also imagined as the son of the universe elsewhere. In the Purāṇic texts we find no such metaphors – there we find Agni once mentioned as the son of Brahmā, the Creator of the world – brahmaṇo hi prasūto’gni – and specifically as his eldest son another time – brahmaṅostanayo’grajaḥ. Another version maintains that Agni is the son of Vasu, a daughter of Dakṣa (Daksha), fathered by Dharma.
As Brahmā and Dakṣa are known to be the creators of this world and the mortals, they are regarded as progenitors of the fire as well, because fire is the basic and primary necessity of human beings. The account of Matsyapurāṇa (Matsyapuran) illustrates this view further. According to it, at the end of one divine era or kalpa, Brahmā realised that the fire or Agni camouflaged himself, spreading across the universe and the water. In order to reveal Agni and make him usable, Brahmā divided the fire in three types. Thus we have pārthivāgni, the fire for the use of cooking; śuci, the fire which stays in the solar domain and blesses the Earth with heat; and vaidyutāgni, the fire which burns in the stomach of the living beings.
- The Purāṇic texts imagine the burning energy of fire as the wife of Agni and fires used in various Vedic rituals are considered to be Agni’s children. There are more than one mythological tales related to this.
Once upon a time the gods visited Brahmā with the request, “Pray tell us what our food shall be.” Brahmā decided that haviḥ (habi), i.e., clarified butter or ghee made as offerings to yajña, should be their food. But curiously, though men continued to offer haviḥ in yajña, it failed to reach the gods as food. When they informed Brahmā about this, he, on Viṣṇu’s advice, started meditating upon the Prime Goddess, who embodies natural energy. At length she appeared before him in the form of a female deity, representing Nature as the fountainhead of feminine energy, and asked him to wish for a boon. This goddess, representing the feminine and natural energy, was named Svāhā. Brahmā requested her to become the wife and burning power of Agni, because without the energy of burning, Agni could not burn off and digest the offerings made to the gods through him. With this request, Brahmā also blessed the goddess that the gods would not accept the offerings as their food unless her name, Svāhā, is added at the end of the chants uttered while making the offerings into the fire.
When Viṣṇu also made the same request to her, Svāhā acquiesced to marry Agni. Ordered by Brahmā, Agni presented himself before Svāhā and married her observing all necessary rituals. Agni then impregnated his wife and in due course she gave birth to three sons, who were named Dakṣiṇāgni, Gārhapatyāgni and Āhavanīyāgni.
Viṣṇupurāṇa, however, recounts a different version of the birth of these three fires. In the legend of King Purūravā and Urvaśī, the apsarā (apsara), we find the king wishing to get her as a boon or reward from gandharvas (celestial beings adept in music). The gandharvas gave him a pot of fire and suggested him to divide the fire in three and worship them separately. Thus, though there was one and only Agni before this, Purūravā established the tradition of honouring three more fires, namely Dakṣiṇāgni, Gārhapatyāgni and Āhavanīyāgni. In another version we find that Agni had three sons with Svāhā , namely Pāvaka, Pavamān and Śuci.
According to another version, the sacrificial boar in a yajña (the sacrificial boar is traditionally imagined to be the representative of the Supreme Being and presiding deity of the
According to another version, the sacrificial boar in a yajña (the sacrificial boar is traditionally imagined to be the representative of the Supreme Being and the presiding deity of the yajña) has three sons, namely Suvṛtta, Kanaka and Ghora, who respectively produced Dakṣiṇāgni, Gārhapatyāgni and Āhavanīyāgni. According to Vāyupurāṇa (Vayupuran) there are three types of Agni – divya, bhautika and pārthiva (parthiva).
- To be true, all these different forms and identities of Agni has been imagined to reflect the unavoidable presence of fire in numerous aspects of human life. As fire is omnipresent in human life just like the very essence of human being (caitanya; chaitanya), as fire is the life of human beings, Agni is equated with Brahma, the Supreme Being, in Upaniṣadas (Upanishada).
- Agni have been called sarvadevatā (sarvadevata; meaning ‘encapsulating all gods and divinity’) in Vedas. It is said that all gods, when they were threatened by their enemies, entered the fire to seek a safe shelter. Because all of them entered Agni, Agni was bestowed with the essence of all the divinity and became sarvadevatā – te devā agnau tanuḥ sanyadadhata, tasmādāragniḥ sarvā devatāḥ. Saṃ yattā āsan te devā vibhyato’gniṃ prāviśan tasmādāhuragniḥ sarvā devatāḥ
- Such concept of the all-godliness of Agni has traditionally trickled down from the Vedic to the Purāṇic texts. The hymn in praise of Agni composed by the sage Śānti (Shanti), disciple of the sage Āṅgirasa Bhūti (Angirasa Bhuti), declares Agni to be the life of all the gods – tvatprāṇāḥ sarvadevatāḥ. Agni has been identified with the major deities, like, Sūrya, Vāyu, Megha (‘cloud’), Brahmā, Viṣṅu and Śiva.
- The Vedic concept of three different fires on the planes of the Earth (pṛthivī), the sky (antarīkṣa) and the Heaven (dyuloka) generated the images of the three separate Agni for various purposes in human life. Agni was worshiped in three different forms in Vedic households. After his marriage, the head of a family used to build a fire-shed (agniśālā; agnishala) to install consecrated fire. This consecrated Agni was worshiped in three forms – Gārhapatya, Āhavanīya and Dakṣiṇa. In three directions on a high altar in the fire-shed these three Agni were placed. The three Agni were placed at the western, eastern and southern sides respectively on the platform. These fires were kept in small earthen furnaces (kuṇḍa; kunda) built on the platform. The furnace of Gārhapatya was rectangular, that of Āhavanīya was round and that of Dakṣiṇa was semicircular in shape. All the furnaces had same area – they used to be of one arm’s length both in length and breadth.
- Āhavanīya Agni is first mentioned in Ṛgveda in connection with Gārhapatya Agni. [See: Sāyana]
- As we have said, Āhavanīya Agni has a separate kuṇḍa on the platform in the fire-shed of the fire-keeping family. The patriarch was supposed to carry daily the fire from the kuṇḍa of Gārhapatya Agni to that of Āhavanīya to perform his daily ritual of agnihotra. All major yajña, ranging from daśapūrṇamāsa to iṣṭiyāga, somayāga and paśuyāga, needed Āhavanīya Agni to be installed ceremonially before setting off. Āhavanīya Agni is the fire for gods – they receive the oblations (āhuti; ahuti) made to them through this fire. The very name āhavanīya is derived from the word āhuti. As the gods reside in the east and east is the direction ruled by Indra, the king of gods (even today the Hindus prefer facing east while worshiping gods), east was the direction allotted to Āhavanīya Agni. The direction of south is that of the souls of the deceased forefathers and this direction is ruled by Yama, the ruling deity of death and departed souls. Oblations to the ancestors should be submitted through Dakṣiṇa Agni (literally meaning ‘the southern fire’). Gārhapatya or Gārhasthya Agni was the dearest of all fires to a Vedic head of a household. This was the first and primary form of the consecrated fire a patriarch used to install in his fire-shed after entering the family life, i.e. after marriage. Its importance to the Vedic householders can be realised from the fact that this fire could and should never be extinguished – it used to burn ceaselessly through years. Āhavanīya and Dakṣiṇa Agni were not continuously kept alive. For certain rituals of worshiping gods and departed souls they were lit with the fire taken from Gārhapatya Agni. Therefore we find a Purāṇic verse declaring, “O Gārhapatya Agni, you are the source of all activities. Āhavanīya and Dakṣiṇa are the Agni produced by you” – bhagavan gārhapatyāgne yonistvaṃ sarvakarmaṇām/ tvatta āhavanīyo’gnirdakṣiṇāgniṣca nānyataḥ.
- The Vedic people used to seek blessings of Gārhapatya Agni for regular rain, a steady harvest of crops and all other earthly prosperity. Not only this, but they also thought this fire to be a safe place of shelter. That is why when Varūthinī (Varuthini), a beautiful apsarā, tried to seduce a Vedic Brāhmaṅa (Brahman), he said that he desired only the three Agni Gārhapatya, Āhavanīya and Dakṣiṇa, and that the fire-shed only was his shelter. To get rid of Varūthinī, he sought shelter to Gārhapatya Agni and prayed to this Agni for giving him strength to stay unmoved from his principle and truth.
- The relation between a head of a Vedic household and Gārhapatya Agni was one that of to close and friendly relatives. Gārhapatya Agni was considered to be the actual lord of the household – agnirhotā gṛhapati.
- The Vedic people used to consider Gārhapatya Agni their representative whether they were present in the house or not. One of the Purāṇic legends depict the high esteem in which a head of a household used to hold Gārhapatya Agni.
- The great sage Aṅgirā’s (Angira) son was Bhūti (Bhuti), who also was a powerful sage. He was famous for quick temper and his fondness for cursing whoever offended him even slightly. Even natural elements dreaded him so much that the river flowing by his hermitage used to visit him by herself to fill up his water pot everyday. But it was his misfortune that he had no son. So, at one point of time, he undertook tapasyā (tapasya) to fulfill his wish of having a son. But then again, as he was unable to endure much physical strains that a tapasyā demanded (though he did not have to undergo much challenging situations, as all the natural elements absolutely dreaded him), presently he aborted the tapasyā.
- Bhūti’s brother was Suvarcā (Suvarcha), who one day invited Bhūti to his yajña. Before leaving his hermitage for the yajña, Bhūti left his obedient disciple Śānti (Shanti) in charge of his āśrama (ashrama; ‘hermitage’) and instructed him particularly to see that the sacred fire was by no means extinguished. And he left only when Śānti promised.
- One day, when Śānti was busy finding firewood to keep the fire alive and in other errands, the Gārhapatya Agni of Bhūti’s hermitage got extinguished. Śānti was both sad and scared. He was frightened that he might be cursed by both his guru as well as Agni for not observing his duty and letting the fire extinguish. There was no way of lighting the fire once again in the fire-shed of the hermitage, as that would not have been unknown to his guru, who possessed divine eyesight and could see everything. A scared Śānti, seeing no other way out, prostrated on the ground and started praying earnestly to Agni himself. It is the speciality of this hymn composed by him that, besides recounting the Vedic characteristics of fire, Agni has also been identified with the Supreme Being (brahma). For instance —
- Tvamuttamaṃ sattvamaśeṣasattvaṃ/ hṛtpuṇḍarīkastvamanantamīḍyam.
Tvayā tataṃ viśvamidaṃ carācaraṃ/ hutāśanaiko vahudhā tvamatra.
- Appeased by Śānti’s prayer, Agni appeared in front of him in his divine form and allowed him to ask for boons. Śānti requested him to keep burning as Gārhapatya Agni in his guru’s fire-shed like before. As a second boon, he asked for a male heir of his childless guru. He wanted nothing for himself. Agni, pleased with Śānti’s selflessness, agreed to fulfill his wishes and Bhūti’s Gārhapatya Agni suddenly burst up in flames.
- Upon returning home from Suvarcā’s yajña, Bhūti heard the entire ordeal from his loyal disciple, which pleased him immensely. The son he begot as the result of the boon of Agni later became famous as Bhautya Manu.
Gārhapatya Agni was considered so dear a relative to a family that members of a family could share every emotion – love, hate and anger – with Agni. Even Agni was considered eligible to act as witness in major events. With this is connected the tale of Agni becoming omnivorous as the result of being cursed by the great sage Bhṛgu (Bhrigu). It is interesting that Bhṛgu is said to be the son of Agni himself.
The story of the birth of Agni’s sons Bhṛgu, Angirā and so on is entwined with the birth story of Kārtikeya (Kartikeya), the son of Śiva and commander-in-chief of the army of gods, and the story of the creation of gold.
- When the marriage of Śiva and Pārvatī was consummated, the gods were afraid that the sons born of such a powerful union would not only be invincible, but also conquer the entire universe and all of them. So they prayed to Pārvatī not to impregnate Pārvatī with his powerful, burning semen — na devyāṃ sambhavet putro bhavataḥ surasattama. Śiva kept the gods’ request and controlled the discharge of his semen. However, this undue request of the gods infuriated Pārvatī, who dearly wished to bear a son of Śiva. She cursed the gods that none of them would be able to father offspring.
- Although with his immense yogic power Śiva held his ineluctable semen from being discharged, a little of it dropped on the ground. At the same time a very different problem compelled the gods to assemble before Brahmā. Once Brahmā had granted Tārakāsura (Tarakasur), an asura, a boon which made him invincible from all gods and demons. Empowered by such an advantageous boon, Tārakāsura started laying siege on the gods and sages in various ways. The gods complained to Brahmā that it was his boon that had made the asura invincible by them, and that Pārvatī’s curse had left them unable to produce a son, a warrior fit to defeat the vicious asura.
- After listening to the divine pleading, Brahmā responded. He said that only Agni was absent from the panel of gods on whom fell Pārvatī’s curse. Therefore Agni would produce a son who would destroy Tārakāsura, and he would do that by placing into Gaṅgā (Ganga) the little semen dropped by Śiva. So, he said, it was now the gods’ foremost duty to find out Agni.
- Brahmā praised Agni profusely to the gods. He said that Agni was providence to the entire world; he was beyond description; he could reach anywhere and perform every task; he was essential to every living creature and that he was elder even to Śiva.
- These words of Brahmā also corroborate the idea of conceiving Agni or fire as the very soul of life itself on Earth. Because of fire’s essentiality and ancientness in this universe, Agni is hailed as even elder (more ancient) to Śiva. The true significance of finding out Agni is to seek that very essence, very soul of life itself.
- The gods, being advised by Brahmā, set out to look for Agni. But Agni at that time had concealed himself in water (it is from fierce energy, which Agni embodies, that water is produced – so water is the soul of fire). A frog, unable to bear Agni’s heat anymore, surfaced on the water and its eyes fell upon the gods searching frantically for Agni. It informed them that Agni was asleep in pātāla beneath the water and that it was the tremendous heat produced by Agni that had forced it to come out of the water. Suggesting the gods to look for Agni underwater, the frog once again leapt into the water. Realising the treachery of the frog, Agni cursed that from thereon frogs’ tongue would be devoid of taste buds, and left the water for elsewhere. But pleased with the frog’s helpfulness, the gods granted the frogs a good many boons. They said that though they would not be able to experience different tastes on their tongue, they would be able to produce sounds; in spite of their nearly helpless plight beneath the earth and without proper food, the Earth will take care of them, and that they will be able to roam as freely and as easily as in the daylight.
- The gods could not find out Agni in pātāla as well. They continued their search and came across an elephant en route. The elephant informed the gods that Agni had taken shelter in a peepul tree. Knowing the elephants treachery, Agni shifted from the peepul tree to a śamī (shami) plant and cursed all elephants that their tongue would be disfigured. But the gods, out of gratitude for the elephant, redeemed them with the boon that with their disfigured tongue they would be able to eat everything and make shrill and high-pitched sound. Next, a parrot informed the gods about the hideout of Agni in the śamī plant, and Agni again cursed all the parrots of disfigurement of their tongue. Again the gods granted a boon to the parrots, saying that they would be able to produce sweet sounds in near-human voice. Maybe the curious calls of frogs, elephants and parrots had ignited the imagination of an extremely sensitive poet who composed this story of successive curses and redeeming blessings.
- However, at last the gods caught up with Agni and Agni, seeing the distress of the gods, agreed to help them out. The gods recounted everything to Agni – from the oppression of Tārakāsura and Pārvatī’s curse to Brahmā’s advice. They also mentioned that the son born with Agni’s energy would be the slayer of the ferocious demon. Agreeing with the divine scheme, Agni had intercourse with Gaṅgā and impregnated her with the powerful seed of Śiva that had accidentally dropped on the ground. But at length the foetus from the excessively powerful, energetic and burning semen became unbearable to Gaṅgā. Despite knowing that bearing the child meant acting the saviour to the gods, Gaṅgā wished to abort the child, though she was utterly unwilling to do so. No pleadings from all the gods or even Agni could dissuade her from abortion – she aborted the burning fetus on Sumeru Parvata (Mount Sumeru).
- The aborted fetus was pure gold in colour, resembling the blazing energy of Agni. The surrounding mountains was showered in the colour of molten gold by the glow of this fetus. Because Agni had sired this fetus, he was thenceforth hailed as hiraṇyaretā (hiranyareta; ‘one who gives birth to gold’) – though in the Vedic texts Agni is regarded as hiraṇyaretā, hiraṇyanirṇīka and hiraṇyaśmaśru (adjectives related with hiraṇya or gold) by virtue of his own qualities. Since then gold, the most precious of all earthly metals, has been regarded as the offspring of Agni – evaṃ suvarṇamutpannamapatyaṃ jātavedasaḥ. This golden-hued fetus was later fostered in a clump of reeds by Kṛttkās (Krittika), from which Kārtikeya was born. Thus Agni is associated with the births of gold and Kārtikeya, the slayer of Tārakāsura.
We come across the account of another relation between Agni and Kārtikeya elsewhere in Purāṇic literature. Once Śiva and Pārvatī indulged in an extremely lengthy coitus. This made the gods curious and they sent Agni to spy on the lovemaking divine couple and Agni, taking the form of a pigeon, secretly entered the sanctum sanctorum through a ventilator. Yet, in spite of his disguise, Agni could not evade the eyes of Śiva. Śiva, enraged with Agni for prying upon their privacy, punished him by compelling him to preserve Śiva’s extremely potent and energetic semen in his own body. Carrying the blazing semen became unbearable to Agni and at one point of time he relieved himself by throwing it into the water of Gaṅgā. At the same time Agni was summoned by the Saptarṣi (Saptarshi; ‘the Seven Sages’) to attend their yajña on Himālaya. Upon reaching the site, Agni became full of lust for the wives of the seven sages. Svāhā, Agni’s wife, knowing his mind, took the forms of the wives of the sages to unite sexually with Agni. Thus she made love with him six times, taking forms of six of the sage-wives – but she could not’s assume the form of Arundhatī (Arundhati), the wive of Sage Vaśiṣṭha (Vashishtha). Moreover, not even once in the six times she could bear Agni’s powerful semen; each of the six times she dumped it in the Golden Pond on Śveta Parvata (Shwetparvat). Later on, when the enormity of the immorality of having sex with other men’s wife dawned upon Agni, his heart filled up with repentance and out of grief he became intent on killing himself. Precisely at that time a prophecy rang out, disclosing the truth of Svāhā making love with him assuming the forms of the other women and redeeming Agni’s guilt feeling. However, it added, because Agni had nonetheless committed the sin of consciously making love to others’ wives, he would be punished — he would consume so enormous amount of ghee in the yajña of King Śvetaki (Shwetaki) that he would lose appetite and suffer from the most severe kind of indigestion. The prophecy also instructed him to forget the past and visit Śveta Parvata to see his newborn son, who was none other than Skanda Kārtikeya, the child fostered by the six Kṛttkā mothers.
- It may be mentioned in this context that Agni received the boon from Kārtikeya that from then on Agni would receive the offerings submitted to a yajña and like other gods he also would get a share of the oblations made to the deities in a yajña.
- According to another tale, once after a passionate session of lovemaking of Śiva and Pārvatī, the world was on the verge of destruction from the exceptionally powerful semen discharged by Śiva. Viṣṇu then summoned Agni and all other gods prayed to him to rescue them. To save the universe, Agni drank away the potent semen, and as the gods were fed through Agni’s mouth, they all were impregnated as soon as Agni drank it. Then they prayed to Śiva to get rid of their misery and he advised them to vomit up the semen. Acting accordingly, the gods felt better, but it did no good to Agni. When he informed Śiva of his distress, Śiva instructed him to spread the energy of that powerful semen to those who suffer from the terrible bite of winter. Abiding by Śiva’s words, one fine morning Agni took place on the banks of a water tank where the wives of sages were bathing. After completing bathing, they circled around Agni to keep away the cold. At that time Agni spread the heat of the semen in their follicles through his heat and thus got rid of the unbearable semen.
Mahābhārata recounts how the sages Bhūta, Aṅgirā and so on were born out of Agni. However, in Vedas no such story can be found, though according to Nirukta and Vṛhaddevatā, Sage Bhṛgu was born out of blazing flames. When that flame died down, Sage Aṅgirā came out of the still burning embers. After these two were born, the congress of the sages present their prayed that a third one should be born then and there in the same manner, and thus the third sage born was named Atri [atra (‘here’) + tri (three)] – accirṣi bhṛguḥ saṃvabhūva; aṅgāreṣvaṅgirā; atraiva tṛtīyam ṛcchata ityucuḥ asmād atriḥ.
- The birth of sages from Agni did not stop at these three; the wise sages had prophesied that the Vaikhānasa (Vaikhanas) sages would be produced if the fireplace was excavated.
- In this context Mahābhārata recounts that once all the gods and their consorts participated in a yajña being performed by Varuṇa (Varun) (here Varuṇa has been identified with Śiva). As Śiva arrived there, the wives of the other goddess visibly displayed their ecstasy at his sight. This gave Śiva immense pleasure and he could not control his semen from being discharged. Pūṣaṇa (Pushan; another form of Sūrya) took up the dust mingled with Śiva’s semen, enchanted it, and threw it into the fire of yajña.
- As the fire with the enchanted dust engulfed the firewood, Bhṛgu came out of the vivid flames. From Bhṛgu was produced another sage called Kavi. From the rays of the yajña-fire was born Marīci (Marichi), from whom was produced Kaśyapa (Kashyap). From the kuśa (kush) grass of the yajña, the Bālakhilya hermits were born. After the Bālakhilyas were born, the assembly present at the site started screaming, “Here! Here!” – atra atra – and thus the sage born next was named Atri. From the cinders left of the yajña fire were born the Vaikhānasa sages, who lived in the forests. From Agni’s tears the Aśvinīkumāra (Ashwinikumar) brothers were born. From his senses the Prajāpatis (Prajapati) and from his follicles other sages were produced. In this way, Agni is one with all the gods.
Although Sage Bhṛgu was born of Agni, Agni was once cursed by him. With this tale is associated the reverence Gārhapatya Agni used to enjoy in an ancient Indian household. Bhṛgu’s wife was Pulomā (Puloma). One day, when she was pregnant, she was alone at their hermitage as Bhṛgu had gone away to bathe in a nearby water body. There was a rākṣasa (rakshas) also called Pulomā. While the sage was absent, the rākṣasa entered the hermitage and all at once fell in love with the sage’s wife Pulomā. He was intent upon abducting her, when it dawned upon him that this was the same woman whom he had wanted to marry once upon a time. This increased his heartache manifolds.
- Before kidnapping Bhṛgu’s wife, the rākṣasa looked around and suddenly his eyes caught the sight of the fire burning at the site of worship in the house. He implored Agni to give his just opinion on the dispute as to whose wife Pulomā really was. Once the marriage of the beautiful Pulomā with the rākṣasa Pulomā had been settled, and then suddenly her father had treacherously given her away to Bhṛgu. Therefore it could be said Bhṛgu had already abducted the wife chosen by Pulomā the rākṣasa for himself, and that would be indeed a sin then. Then it would be no sin if Pulomā the rākṣasa kidnapped her now to regain what was his justly. But Agni alone had the soul authority to give a verdict on this matter, and the rākṣasa Pulomā pleaded Agni to tell the truth.
- Agni was embarrassed and troubled. He could not lie even to a rākṣasa ethically; but then again, disclosure of the truth to him would but bring on Agni a curse from and enraged Bhṛgu. Agni, wishing to strike a balance, told the rākṣasa that it was true that the rākṣasa had chosen Pulomā for his wife first and that he had a just claim therefore, but it was also true that not only Bhṛgu married her observing all the proper Vedic rituals, but her father also had willingly given her away to the sage. Therefore the truth was that Pulomā was the rākṣasa’s chosen and therefore justly claimed woman as well as the legally married wife of the sage, giving him equal right to claim her for himself.
- Hearing the truth from Agni and organising his own reasons, Pulomā the rākṣasa decided to abduct the sage’s wife for good. But the supernatural powers of Cyavana, the son of Bhṛgu in the womb of his wife Pulomā, protected his mother and killed the rākṣasa in process. Returning from his bath, Bhṛgu was enraged to see the entire ordeal and asked his weeping wife who had revealed her true identity to the rākṣasa, who was at first unsure about Pulomā’s identity as the woman he had first chosen for his wife. When his wife accused Agni of revealing the truth to the rākṣasa, Bhṛgu wrathfully cursed Agni to become omnivorous.
- Agni was disappointed at Bhṛgu’s reaction, because Agni had only observed the duty of a witness to speak up the truth impartially. He did not counter-curse Bhṛgu as the sage was a brāhmaṇa, but grudgingly complained, how could he become omnivorous and eat anything and everything when he was the mouth of all the gods and manes? How would the world sustain if Agni, through which the gods and manes were fed, suddenly started consuming all impure elements of the world as well? An annoyed Agni took his revenge in a unique way – he took himself away from all necessary religious rituals, which put the Vedic system of the society in jeopardy. At this peril of the world, all gods and sages sought advice to Brahmā. Brahmā summoned Agni and consoled him that Agni was the cause of the Creation and its sustenance, that he was the root of all Vedic activities, and that he had no reason whatever of becoming omnivorous and lose his own purity. On the other hand Brahmā also upheld the honour of Bhṛgu’s curse when he said that Agni would not become omnivorous with his entire body; Agni’s flames only would become omnivorous, and Agni in his carnivorous form Kravyāda (the form in which fire cremates corpses) would consume everything. Apart from those parts and that form, Agni would remain as pure and sacred as sunlight. Agni was satisfied with Brahmā’s verdict and once again peace reigned among gods and men.
Mahābhārata, while describing the conquests of Sahadeva, the youngest of the Pāṇḍavas, recounts how while fighting the army of King Nīla (Neel) in his capital Māhiṣmatī (Mahishmati) Sahadeva’s legions suddenly started bursting into flame and turning into cinder in no time. Completely nonplussed, Sahadeva came to know that the city of Māhiṣmatī was under protection of none other than Agni. He also came to know that the citizens of Māhiṣmatī knew Agni as a lecherous person. Nīla had a beautiful daughter, who used to visit the site of his father’s fire-worship (agnihotra) everyday. Until she blew the fire with her ruby-red puffy lips, the fire would not light up properly, howsoever others might try with all other means. Thus Agni fell in love with her gradually and one day, disguising himself as a brāhmaṇa, he attempted to make love with her. But this annoyed King Nīla and he confronted Agni reproachfully. Agni, enraged by the king’s audacity, starts burning down the king’s palace. This scared the king and he, taking a step backwards, gave his daughter away to Agni. Thus appeased, Agni promised Nīla to protect Māhiṣmatī always. Since then whenever the city was under siege, the enemies are consumed by fire presently. Hearing this account, Sahadeva started praying before Agni earnestly and managed to gain his favour. Agni replied to him, “I do understand the wish of King Yudhiṣṭhira and yours, but I must protect the city of Māhiṣmatī till it is ruled by King Nīla’s descendants.” However, Agni made Nīla comply to Yudhiṣṭhira’s vassalage through Sahadeva and pay him tributes.
The fire is employed to burn off all that is undesirable, impure and worthless. Maybe the curse of the fire becoming ‘omnivorous’ stems from the very fact that Agni or the fire, through which all the sacred offerings are made in a yajña, is also the agent consuming all that is defiled and unpleasant. When in the ancient times civilisation needed spreading and fire was employed to burn down the forests to create habitable and cultivable lands, we see the divine image of the fire is much respectfully preserved. One particularly interesting instance of this is the episode of the Burning of the Khāṇḍava (Khandava) Forest in Mahābhārata.
- In ancient times there was a king name Śvetaki (Shwetaki) whose hobby was to perform yajña A ceaseless consumption of ghee (the principal ingredient of the oblations made in a yajña) in these yajña resulted in a severe loss of appetite of Agni; he no longer wished to eat ghee in any yajña and day by day turned pale from indigestion. He visited Brahmā to find a cure for this tremendous problem of his loss of appetite. Brahmā suggested him to burn the great Khāṇḍava Forest in order to consume the burnt flesh of the innumerable creatures that inhabited the jungle – that should bring back his appetite. Time and again Agni attempted to burn the jungle down, but each time the resident creatures poured water on the fire and Agni could not succeed. Again Agni sought advice from Brahmā, who this time advised him to ask Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), who were incarnations of the great sages Nara and Nārāyaṇa, for help.
- Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa, after Yudhiṣṭhira’s ascension to the throne of Indraprastha, one day went to visit the lovely banks of Yamunā (Yamuna) at the outskirts of the Khāṇḍava Forest. Agni appeared in front of them in the disguise of a golden-complexioned, tall and fat brāhmaṇa with tawny hair and beards. Presenting himself as a voracious eater, he prayed to them to feed him sumptuously. When the friends agreed to provide him the food of the amount and nature of his wish, Agni revealed his true identity and expressed his wish of eating up the entire Khāṇḍava Forest. He also informed them that Indra, the king of gods and the god of rain, himself protected the forest, as it was the residence of his friend Takṣaka (Takshak) the Nāga (Naga). Due to Takṣaka’s presence in the forest, all other resident creatures of it also came under Indra’s protection and each time Agni ignited a flame, Indra extinguished it with showers. Therefore Agni was now seeking help from Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna. Would they be so kind as to prevent Indra with their weapons and exceptional martial skill, buying Agni time enough to burn down the forest and cure his loss of appetite?
- Arjuna consented to aid Agni in burning Khāṇḍava, but also expressed his lack of advanced weapons (bow, quiver, chariot and so on) necessary to prevent a stalwart god like Indra in such a big impending battle. He also let Agni know that his friend Kṛṣṇa also needed proper weapons and equipments to combat the lowly demons and creatures living in the forest.
- Hearing Arjuna’s needs, Agni asked Varuṇa to give Arjuna the marvellous Gāṇḍīva bow, the inexhaustible quivers and the supreme battle-chariot named Kapidhvaja (all of these he had received from Candra, the Moon God), and Varuṇa complied. Agni gave Kṛṣṇa the famous weapon Sudarśana Cakra (Sudarshan Chakra), a razor-edged disc with a hollowed out centre. Agni promised Kṛṣṇa that he would be able to slay mortals and immortals alike with that weapon and after slaying the victim the weapon would return to Kṛṣṇa’s hand.
- Receiving necessary weapons, Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna told Agni to begin his work; presently he threw off his disguise and the forest was engulfed by tall flames and clouds of smoke. Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna, riding their chariots, aided Agni by patrolling two opposite ends of the forest. All flesh and feathers of the Khāṇḍava forest started perishing in the fire; the gods and the sages were frightened, seeing the destructive form of Agni. Indra came again to block Agni with torrents of rain, but the combined power of Agni’s heat and Arjuna’s skill did not allow him to succeed. Thanks to Arjuna, none of the living creatures of the forest could escape Agni’s clutch. At the time of the burning of the forest, Takṣaka was away at Kurukṣetra (Kurukshetra), so he was saved. His son Aśvasena (Ashwasen) was saved by his mother’s careful watch and Indra’s supernatural tricks. Apart from him, only the demon (dānava; danava) Maya and four wagtail birds managed to escape the fire.
- These four wagtails were in fact four sons of a hermit named Mandapāla (Mandapal). With the intention of begetting many sons within a short time, he had impregnated a female wagtail called Jaritā (Jarita). When they were still eggs, Agni started burning Khāṇḍava. Mandapāla appeased Agni with extensive pleadings and when Agni agreed to fulfil his desire, the hermit made Agni promise him that his sons would be relieved from burning.
- When the sons were born, the wagtail mother Jaritā cudgelled her brain to find out a way of saving her four newborn babies, but to no result. When at last Agni neared them, the four children – namely Jaritāri (Jaritari), Sārisṛkka (Sarisrikka), Stambamitra and Droṇa (Dron) – started singing praise of Agni. Agni assured them that their father Mandapāla had already prayed to him to save his sons, so they had nothing to fear.
- Saying this, Agni consumed the burnt flesh, blood, hair and feathers of all other creatures of the Khāṇḍava Forest and presently his appetite returned to him. Indra, witnessing the skill of Arjuna and Kṛṣṇa with the amazing weapons, happily went back. After a long stretch of eating the forest for fifteen days (six more days after Agni met the sons of Mandapāla) with their aid, Agni allowed Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna to leave.
In Rāmāyaṇa Agni is associated with the test of Sītā’s (Sita) chastity after her tenure of living at Rāvaṇa’s (Ravan) palace. When Rāmacandra (Ramchandra), afraid of scandalmongering among his subjects regarding him, expressed his suspicion at Sītā’s chastity, an exasperated and ashamed Sītā asked Lakṣmaṇa (Lakshman) to prepare a pyre for her. When the pyre was lit, Sītā confessed to Agni that Rāma had not taken his leave from her heart even for a moment, and Agni, the embodiment of purity and famous worldwide as an impartial witness, should reward her for that by protecting her by all means when she would enter the fire to prove her devotion to her husband. Declaring this, Sītā circled around the fire and then entered it fearlessly. Shortly Agni came out of the flames in his humanoid form, cradling Sītā in his arms, and clearly stated to Rāma that there could be no reason whatsoever of being suspicious of her chastity and devotion towards him, even though she had lived in Rāvaṇa’s palace for a long stretch. Agni’s imperative message to Rāma was that he should never suspect Sītā on such grounds.
- Elsewhere we come across another account which presents Rāma, Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa roaming near the ocean when they were approached by Agni in the guise of a brāhmaṇa. He informed Rāma that time had come for Sītā’s abduction. So it would be better for Rāma to put Sītā, a woman no less reverent to Rāma than his own mother, in the safe custody of Agni. When Rāma agreed, Agni created a false Sītā and promised Rāma that he would return the real Sītā to him at the time of the test of Sītā’s chastity in fire. He also said that it was by divine orders that he was doing this and nobody should know about the secret of this false Sītā. Then and there, without the knowledge of anyone, the real Sītā was exchanged with the false one. Later, after Rāma’s rescue of Sītā from Rāvaṇa’s clutch, when he arrange for Sītā’s test in the fire, Agni gave him back the real Sītā.
When Bali, the king of daityas, blockaded Amarāvatī, the capital of the gods, Agni escaped from there assuming the disguise of a pigeon.
Once upon a time Agni had suffered from the curse of a brahmarṣi (brahmarshi; a sage of the most advanced spiritual tier). Serving relentlessly the Śiva-like Aruṇādri (Arunadri; the Aruṇa Mountains), he got rid of the curse.
When Śiva had sent his own soldiers and other gods to fight the army of the dānava (danav) king Śankhacūḍa (Shankhachud), Agni combated the demon Gokarṇa (Gokarna), one of Śankhacūḍa’s henchmen.
Viṣṇu conquered the five Agni in the battle with Vāṇāsura (Vanasur).
The relation of the great sage Aṅgirā with Agni has been alluded to and discussed a number of times in the Purāṇic texts. In one story recounted in Vanaparva of Mahābhārata Aṅgirā has been presented as near-equivalent to Agni. According to this tale, once upon a time Agni, annoyed with the gods, withdrew himself from the world and took his abode far beneath the water, where he spent his days in tapasyā. In the meantime, Sage Aṅgirā attained Agni-like brilliant splendour by virtue of his own tapasyā and fulfilled the world’s need of Agni with his newfound radiance.
- After long, when nobody came under water to implore Agni and bring him back, Agni thought that Brahmā the Creator must have created another Agni to substitute him. He was depressed and frightened at the thought of losing the status of a god. Thinking hard on how to re-establish himself in divine status, he came out of the water. He was amazed to see Sage Aṅgirā distributing heat and light to the world as Agni in the absence of the real Agni. Seeing Aṅgirā established as the new god of fire, Agni hesitatingly approached Aṅgirā. But Aṅgirā reverentially told him, “Please take your place once again as the Fire God in the world.” Although this pleased Agni, he was still unsure of his position. So he said, “I have lost my divinity – the universe knows you as Agni now.” Then, after a little consideration, Agni added, “I shall leave my status as the primary Agni, the Fire God – you become the primary Agni. I will be the second Fire God in Prājāpatya (Prajapatya) yajña – nikṣipāmyahamagnitvaṃ tvamagniḥ prathamo bhava.
- Aṅgirā realised Agni’s painful distress. Worshipping him respectfully, he returned Agni his lost divine status and said, “Do take me as your son – then there would be no more problem for you to be re-established as Agni, the Fire God.” Agni gladly acknowledged Aṅgirā as his eldest son. This allowed Aṅgirā’s children and their children to be known as the lineage of Agni. The description of this lineage of Agni spans over a number of chapters in Mahābhārata. Agni has been categorised numerously according to the many places where fire operates (i.e. in yajña, at cremation, in the kitchen and even in the stomach). Each Agni is given a distinct name and allotted distinct positions in the lineage of Aṅgirā, which also have been described in great detail in those sections in Mahābhārata.