Symbolism of Agni as Brahman, The Supreme Self
Agni the resplendent light
Summary: In this essay we have presented Agni, the Primal God of Fire, the Most Ancient Deity and the First God in Vedic Sacrifices as Brahman, the Universal God, and the Source of All.
Agni was most likely the first divinity (deva) the Vedic people worshipped. Many ancient cultures worshipped fire and made ritual offerings to it. Zoroastrians also worshipped fire and performed sacrificial rituals. I am convinced that the secret knowledge of the universal and liberating fire as the source of all was the foundation of the Vedic tradition and the basis for its ritual and spiritual beliefs and practices most of which are still considered important in present-day Hinduism and still practiced by many Hindus.
It appears that as time went by Agni lost his importance, just as Brahma, Indra and other Vedic deities. However, since people continued to practice Vedic rituals, although ritual knowledge and practices were downgraded as inferior knowledge (avidya) by the Upanishadic seers, Agni continued to enjoy a central place in fire sacrifices as the messenger and carrier or ritual offerings to the gods. In the following verses, I tried to reconstruct the symbolism and hidden significance of Agni as the Supreme Brahman himself. The scope of this discussion does not permit me to create a thesis out of this. Neverthless, I have no doubt that there is ample evidence in the four sections of the Vedas to corroborate this argument. I hope in future a Vedic student or an Indologist would attempt to gather enough evidence to support it.
I present here are a few passages from the Katha and Isa Upanishads which, in addition to the hymns in the Rigveda, convinced me that Agni was worsheed in the early Vedic tradition not only as a deity just as Indra or Varuna but also as Brahman, the supreme deity. The Rigveda extols him as the Chosen Priest or the Brahman Priest, who silently supervised sacrificial rituals as a passive witness.
The Katha Upanishad provides a brief glimpse into those times when Agni was worshipped as such. According to the Upanishad, Lord Yama taught Nachiketa the secret wisdom of fire in these words (1.1.14), “Listen to me and understand, O Naciketas, with attention, as I declare to you that very fire which leads to heaven, which I know well. That fire, which is the means to attain the infinite world and which is also the foundation (of all), know that it is hidden in the secret cave (of the heart).”
After teaching him the secret wisdom of the liberating fires and naming them as the Nachiketa fires, the Lord of Death reinforced the same idea in another verse (1.1.17). “Through the three fires of Naciketa, threefold union and threefold work, one crosses over birth and death. Knowing him who is born of Brahman, the radiant and adorable deity, and realizing him, he attains endless peace.”
The Isa Upanishad also alludes to the elevated status of Agni as the supreme deity. For example, one of the verses states, “He is spread in all directions, bright, without body, without debility, without muscles, pure, untouched by sin, omniscient. The seer, ruler of the mind, the transcendental Lord, self-created, he duly allotted duties to the endless years.” In the following verse the symbolism of Agni as the all-knowing witness Self is even more direct, “O Agni, O God, knower of all our thoughts and deeds, lead us along the auspicious path according to the fruit of our good karma. Remove from us all crooked and deceitful sins. We offer you many words of obeisance.”
Those who are conversant with Hinduism cannot fail to notice the unmistakable, symbolic connection between Agni and the gods of Trinity. The reason Lord Shiva spends most of his time in the cremation grounds (smashana) is because as the Supreme Lord, Isvara, and as the Lord of Death, he shares the same essential nature as Agni. His trident (trishul) represents the three fires which Lord Yama revealed to Nachiketa and through which one attains immortality. As the destroyer of the worlds and lord of death, Shiva shares many qualities of Agni. His third eye represents the enlightening as well as the destructive power of fire.
As a solar deity, Lord Vishnu also shares many qualities with Agni. He represents the same light (fire) of the sun (Surya) as Agni. Just as Vishnu is extolled in many Puranas as the Supreme Being and Lord of the universe, Agni is extolled in the Rigveda as the ruler of sacrifices, guardian of eternal law, radiant One and master of wealth. Many such descriptions of Agni found in the Vedas equally apply to Vishnu also who in the early Vedic tradition was just an Aditya, a solar deity. Agni was probably the first God in the Vedic tradition who was worshipped not only as a deity in the Vedic pantheon but also as supreme Brahman and the source of all. Subsequently, the same recognition was granted to Shiva and Vishnu also. They are worshipped as the gods of Trinity as well as Supreme Brahman.
Agni Vidya - Knowledge of Agni as Brahman
Note: I have presented this in the format of a sutra or an Upanishad. Each of the verses is complete in itself and may or may not have continuuity with the next, which is the same pattern found in many Upanishads and Sutra texts.
1. Fire is the Universal Light and the most ancient deity who shines in all.
2. Fire was the first born, the most ancient, the very Self of all. Fire verily is Brahman. Fire was before all that manifested here and elsewhere. At the end of creation, fire will remain hidden in itself a fire, as desire and as the seed of all the fires which will manifest anew in the next cycle of creation.
3. Without fire nothing will ever exist or manifest. It is the source of all. It is also the end of all. Fire is the Creator.
4. Fire is the Lord of Death, Kala, Mahakala, Shiva, Yama, Mara and Bhairava. In his fieriness, he howls as Rudra, consumes all and digests all.
5. There is nothing greater than fire that burns eternally in the womb of the universe as the light of all, the source of all, the support of all forms.
6. Creation begins with fire. Life originates from fire. The worlds, gods and beings manifest from fire only and exist as long as fire burns in them as light and heat. He spreads his warmth to all without consuming them or destroying them.
7. When that fire is enveloped in the smoke of impurities, it leads to duality, delusion, loss of knowledge and intelligence, desires and attachments, bondage and suffering.
8. Fire created the worlds by heating up the Cosmic egg which emerged from the ocean of existence. Fire separated the earth from the sky, the oceans from the earth and the worlds from each.
9. Fire sustains life upon earth, keeping the fires in all the bodies burning, letting the sun, the moon and the stars shine.
10. The fire which burns in the sun becomes in the body prana, the vital energy. Moving through subtle channels, it nourishes the organs and the deities who preside over them.
11. That fire which burns in the sun and radiates from it in all directions nourishes the world and sustains all.
12. That fire which burns in the heart as the effulgent light and illuminates the internal organ, reveals to the departing souls different hued paths and leads them to their destinations according to their karma.
13. In the end, that same fire which burns in all and which remains hidden in the universe as the primal source becomes the destroyer of all and burns down everything into ashes.
14. Know which fires create, which fires sustain and which fires destroys. Know how to worship them and when to invoke them according to your essential nature.
15. Know which fires delude, which fires purify and which fires liberate. Know how to gain control over them and become the bearer of the sacred fire by which all this is sustained.
16. Know by which fires you can attain the highest wisdom and the supreme state and escape forever from the fires of the mortal world.
17. In the predominance of sattva, fire becomes the purifying and liberating sacred fire. It is the same fire which burns in the sun.
18. In the predominance of rajas, fire becomes the vital fire of passions and delusion and leads beings in a wild chase of dreams and desires. It is the same fire which illuminates the moon.
19. In the predominance of tamas, fire turns into smoke and envelops knowledge and discernment, leading the defiant ones towards sunless worlds. It is the same smoke which envelops the sunless worlds and keeps them dark and cold.
20. Thus, creation begins and ends in fire only and by fire only. Fire is Brahma. Fire is Vishnu. Fire is Shiva. Fire is Shakti. Fire is the moving force in all the gods and goddesses. Fire is verily Brahman himself.
21. Those who know how to control the fires in them and keep them pure and blazing in their respective spheres know how to please the gods in them and secure peace and happiness through the four aims.
22. Fire is the power which illuminates the objects in the mind when the senses interact with them.
23. Fire is the intelligence which shines in the internal organ as its very reflection.
24. Fire is knowledge, wisdom, consciousness and the dynamic force (chaitanyam) in all the sentient beings.
25. Fire is your very Self. It shines in your heart as a flame of the size of a thumb and manifests in your meditative states as the resplendent sun.
26. That Fire burns continuously in everyone as life, as light, as consciousness, as dynamism, as awareness, as breath, as knowledge, as intelligence, as willpower, as desires and devotion.
27. Through austerities that fire transforms into pure energy (tapas) which helps the seers and sages purify themselves and become enlightened.
28. Fire is speech, which connects minds, which connects worlds and humans with their gods.
29. In pure devotion that fire becomes the power of the mind and carries mantras and prayers to the gods in the heaven. Igniting the fire which is hidden in the sacred utterances with the fire of devotion and austerity, it connects worshippers with gods in heaven and helps them nourish each other.
30. That Fire keeps life going in the mortal world. It nourishes the mortal beings with life breath, food, comfort and riches, and keeps them shining with light, vigor and knowledge.
31. When the fires in the body burn brightly, people experience hope, happiness, peace and prosperity as the gods in them also shine brightly with the vigor of the sacrificial food.
32. When they grow weak and lusterless due to neglect and lack of nourishment, sorrow and suffering descend upon those who ignore their duties and fall into evil ways.
33. That Fire burns in everyone as the warmth in the body, as feelings, sensations, emotions and as mental brilliance (medhas) in the mind, and as consciousness which pervades them and contains them as their support.
34. In the sentient beings, that fire becomes consciousness in wakeful state, dreams in dream state, ignorance in deep sleep and all-knowing awareness in transcendental state.
35. Eventually, that fire (vibhuti) become death (bhasma) and turns everything into ashes. When that fire is withdrawn, darkness spreads. Everything turns icy cold.
36. Therefore, know that life begins with fire; life is sustained by fire; life is destroyed by fire.
37. In the end, it is fire which consumes all. It will devour the earth, all the planets, stars, constellations and the whole universe, leaving a fathomless void in which it will remain hidden as the spark for the next cycle of creation and origin of new worlds, gods and life forms.
38. That Fire which creates, which preserves and which destroys is Shiva himself. He is Agni, the thunder wielding Indra, the solar deity Vishnu, Maha Kala, the Lord of Death, who is the first to manifest and the last to depart, and all the things that are pure and radiant in all the worlds.
39. That Fire is burning right now at this very moment in each of us. It becomes speech, it becomes knowledge, it becomes awareness, it becomes strength it becomes will, it becomes desire, it becomes love, compassion, strength, intelligence, and so on.
40. But when one loses control, it becomes lust, anger, pride, fear, envy, egoism, delusion, and so on. It consumes and destroys everything in its wake.
41. Therefore, keep the home fires in you burning and pure. Let them not be polluted by passions and evil thoughts. Let the fire in you burn brightly and resplendently as the fires in the Sun and in eternal Brahman.
42. Let that fire guide you, purify you, connect you to the gods and to your very source. Let that fire shine through you as your intelligence, mental brilliance, knowledge, virtue, divinity, bodily heat, spiritual vigor and pure consciousness.
43. Obeisance to that pure light, to that sacred Fire, to that fiery Death from which none can escape. Obeisance to that great Shiva who burns in all as prana, as consciousness and as digestive Fire and keeps our bodies active, alive and vigorous.
44. Through austerities, that fire becomes tapas, heat in the body, which then transforms into mental brilliance and spiritual energy. It purifies and transforms yogis and devotees and leads them on their way to enlightenment and liberation.
45. When that fire departs, life departs. The day ends. Everything comes to rest in silence.
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