Fire as Conceived in Other Religions.
Fire widely Worshipped.
THOUGH we cannot hope to find in other religions any documents in which to study as we can in the Veda the successive stages through which the worship of fire passed from its simplest beginnings as the fire on the hearth to its highest stage as the creator and ruler of the world we may at all events try to collect some fragments of the worship of Fire preserved in other religions whether united genealogically with the Vedic religion or independent in their origin.
Next to the worship of the sun there is probably no religious worship so widely diffused as that of Fire. ‘Since there has been fire it has been worshipped’ is a saying of Bashshar Ibn Burd quoted by Al-Birûnî (vol. ii. p. 131). But we must distinguish. Fire has been worshipped for very different reasons and the very name of worship comprehends many heterogeneous kinds of reverence esteem gratitude and even prudential considerations which were called forth by the benefits and services rendered by fire to the different races of man. Nevertheless I believe we shall find that there is nothing or very little in the religious philosophical and mythological conceptions of fire whether entertained by civilised or uncivilised by ancient or modern races that does not find some analogy and to a great extent some explanation in the rich religious philosophical and mythological phraseology of India.
Fire in the Avesta.
The nearest relations of the ancient Âryas of India were no doubt the Âryas of Media and Persia of whose religion we obtain some interesting though fragmentary information from the Zend-avesta. The idea once so prevalent that their religion consisted entirely of Fire-worship has long been surrendered by scholars though it crops up again and again in popular writings. From the first acquaintance with the original texts of their sacred writings it became clear that Fire occupied only a subordinate place in their religious system.
If we call the religion of Zoroaster fire-worship we must apply the same name to the religion of India nay even to the religion of the Jews. Almost every religion which recognises burnt offerings exhibits at the same time a more or less prominent reverence for the sacrificial fire itself. To outsiders in particular and to casual observers the fires burning on the altars of temples or on the hearth of every house seem to be the principal manifestation of religious worship and of religious faith. Thus it happened that like the religion of Persia that of India also was often represented as fire-worship. Al-Birûnî for instance (vol. i. p. 128; vol. ii. p. 139) declares that the Rig-veda treats of the sacrifices to the fire as if it treated of nothing else. He is however more correct when he states (vol. ii. p. 131) ‘that the Hindus highly venerate the fire and offer flowers to it’ though we ought to remember that there are many things besides flowers which were sacrificed in and to the fire.
Ormazd not Fire.
In the Zend-avesta Agni as a separate god of fire occupies in fact a far less prominent place than in the Veda. The real object of veneration with Zoroaster and his followers was Ahura-mazda whom we call Ormazd. Ahura-mazda was a deity whose deepest roots we shall discover in the concepts of heaven light and wisdom. He was not Fire though he is often represented as the father of Fire. This shows his close relationship with the Vedic Dyaus the sky who was likewise conceived as the father of Agni.
The name of fire in Zend however is not Agni but Âtar a word which in Sanskrit is supposed to exist in the name Athar-van one of the early sages who kept the fire the supposed ancestor of the family of the Atharvans to whom as we saw the Atharva-veda was attributed. It is sometimes used also as a name of Agni himself. The word âtar has no etymology so far as we know1
whether in Sanskrit or in Zend.
It seemed strange to students of the Parsi religion that Âtar fire should be the son of Ahura-mazda and that his mother the wife of Ahura-mazda should be water. From what we now know however from the Rig-veda this becomes perfectly intelligible. Fire is the son of the sky whether in his character of the sun or of lightning and he is the son of the waters whether as rising from the clouds in the morning or as issuing from the clouds as lightning in a thunderstorm2
Âtar's Fight with Azi Dahâka.
This Âtar or fire in the Avesta represents in some respects both Agni and Indra for the battle against Azi Dahâka the fiendish snake is waged in the Avesta by Âtar alone who frightens the fiend away and recovers the light (hvarenô). Trita who in the Veda takes sometimes the place of the conqueror of the fiend is called Âptya the descendant of the waters which shows his close connection with Agni as Apâm napât the offspring of the waters or the clouds that is the lightning. In the Avesta this Trita appears as Thraêtaona Âthwya who kills Azi Dahâka in the four-cornered Varena originally a name of the sky corresponding to Greek οὐρανός and Sanskrit Varuna.
This battle between Agni or Trita and Ahi in the Veda between Âtar or Thraêtaona and Az
i Dahâka in the Avesta which was originally a purely mythological representation of the battle between light and darkness whether in a thunderstorm or in the diurnal struggle between day and night became after a time a mere legend. And it was one of Burnouf's most brilliant discoveries that in what was formerly accepted as genuine Persian history namely the overthrow of king Jemshîd by the usurper Zohâk and the overthrow of Zohâk by Ferîdûn he recognised once more our old Vedic friends Trita Ahi and Yama brought down from the sky to the earth and changed from divine and mythological powers into human and historical characters3
Plurality of Âtar.
When by the side of the one Âtar we find also many âtars (S. B. E.
xxiii. 8) mentioned in the Avesta we have only to remember that in the Veda also there were many agnis or fires in which the presence of Agni was discovered and acknowledged. This subdivision of Fire was carried on even further in the Avesta than in the Veda. In the Veda we can distinguish three fires sometimes called Agni nirmathya fire obtained by rubbing Agni aushasya fire rising with the dawn solar fire and Agni vaidyuta the fire of lightning. In the Avesta (Yasna XVII) we meet with five fires:—(1) the fire that was before Ahura-mazda (2) the fire that dwells in animal bodies (3) the fire in trees and plants (4) the fire in the clouds (5) the domestic fire (6) the Nairya-sangha fire also called the Behram fire which is to be kept burning in temples4
Besides the three principal fires in the Veda the fire obtained by rubbing the fire of lightning and the fire in the sun two more are often mentioned the g
ara that which resides in the stomach and cooks or digests food and another that is supposed to reside in plants. This identity of the fire on the hearth with the fire in the human body was expressed with great definiteness by a Shawnee prophet. ‘Know’ he said ‘that the life in your body and the fire on your hearth are one and the same thing and that both proceed from one source5
.’ When however Agni is invoked as residing in all things and also as a witness abiding in our own body this is not meant for the g
arâgni but involves a higher conception of Agni as an omnipresent power. Thus we read Râm. VI. 101 30:—
Tvam agne sarvabhûtânâm sarîrântar agokarah Tvam sâkshî nâma dehasthas trâhi mâm devasattama.
‘Thou O Agni art invisible inside the body of all creatures thou art called the witness in the body save me O best of gods.’
The Agni residing in the plants may be the warmth that ripens them (Rv. X. 88 10 sáh óshadhîh pakati visvárûpâh); but more frequently he is conceived as dwelling within trees and plants because he can be called forth from them by friction. He is called VI. 3 3 vanegâh born in the wood; II 1 14 gárbhah vîrúdhâm the child of the plants; and he is often represented as hidden in certain trees which were used for producing fire.
The three sacrificial fires are the Gârhapatya Dakshina and Âhavanîya to which the Âvasathya and Sabhya are sometimes added so as to make five.
Âtar Son of Ormazd.
But Âtar had also a divine personality of his own. His constant name is the son of Ahura-mazda. He is called a warrior driving on a blazing chariot (S. B. E. xxiii. p. 153) a benefactor a source of glory and a source of healing (l.c. p. 15). In the Âtas Nyâgis (l. c. p. 359) we read not only of sacrifices and invocations offered unto Âtar but he himself is called worthy of sacrifice and invocation. He is implored to burn for ever in the house until the time of the good and powerful restoration of the world. It is said to be well with a man who worships Âtar with sacrifices holding in his hand the sacred wood the baresma and the meat. For Âtar can bestow not only fulness of life and welfare but also knowledge sagacity quickness of tongue a good memory an understanding that goes on growing and that is not acquired through learning. In a prayer addressed to him the poet says: ‘Give me O Âtar son of Ahura-mazda however unworthy I am now and for ever a seat in the bright all-happy blissful abode of the holy ones. May I obtain the good reward a good renown a long cheerfulness of soul.’ And Âtar is supposed to bestow the following blessing on his worshippers: ‘May herds of oxen grow for thee and increase of sons; may thy mind and thy soul be master of its vow and mayest thou live on in the joy of the soul all the nights of thy life’ (xxiii. p. 360; and xxxi. p. 313).
Difference between Âtar and Agni.
Remember all this is addressed to Âtar originally simply a name of fire. It is much the same as what we saw addressed to Agni in the Veda. But there are differences also between the Vedic Agni and the Avestic Âtar. We saw that Agni in the Veda was made a sarvabhaksha a devourer of all tilings that he resented the affront but that in the end everything was supposed to be purified by fire. Thus the Vedic Indians burnt their dead in the fire and afterwards buried the ashes. To the Zoroastrians both these acts would have seemed sacrilegious for such was their belief in the holiness of fire and of the earth that they would have considered both polluted by any contact with unclean things6
. The very breath of man or of woman which as we saw Agni was so fond of was believed by the Zoroastrians to contaminate the fire7
and hence the Paitidâna8
a kind of veil worn by the priest and reaching from the nose to the chin the modern Penom9
Is the Avestic Religion dualistic?
It is generally supposed that the religion of the Avesta differs from that of the Veda by being dualistic10
. In one sense this is perfectly true. The Zoroastrians recognise an evil spirit Angra Mainyu by the side of the good spirit Ahura-mazda. In some respects these two spirits are equals. The good spirit did not create the evil spirit nor can he altogether prevent the mischief that is wrought by the evil spirit. The Zoroastrian religion having a decidedly moral character recognises in this struggle between good and evil the eternal law of reward and punishment good always begetting good and evil evil. In the same manner as the good spirit opposes the evil spirit every man is expected to fight against evil in every shape. Zoroaster himself was supposed to have been appointed by Ahura-mazda to defend the good people it may be the agricultural population against the attacks of their enemies the worshippers of the Daêvas. The oldest prayers in the Avesta are supposed to have been addressed by Zoroaster to Ahura-mazda imploring his help and mourning over the sufferings of his people.
All this is perfectly true but if we once know from the Veda what the fight between good and evil between light and darkness meant in the beginning we shall understand why after all in the dualism of the Avesta the good spirit is always supreme as Indra is supreme over Vritra Agni over Ahi Âtar over Azi Dahâka. The fact that Indra or Agni or Âtar has an enemy that light is sometimes overwhelmed by darkness does not annihilate the belief in the supremacy of one of these two contending powers. The gods are always conceived as different in kind from their opponents. The gods are worshipped the demons are feared. If therefore we call the ancient religion of Zoroaster dualistic the same name might be applied to the Vedic religion so far as it recognises Vritra and other powers of darkness as dangerous opponents of the bright beings. Indeed I doubt whether there is any religion which is dualistic in the sense of recognising two divine antagonistic powers as perfect equals. Even so-called Satanic races who offer sacrifices to evil spirits only and seem to neglect the good spirits do so because they can trust the latter but are afraid of the former. Wherever there is a belief in a devil the devil may be very powerful but he can never become supreme. He is by its very nature a negative not a positive concept. No doubt the powers of evil in the Avesta are different from the powers of darkness in the Veda. They have assumed a decidedly moral character. But they are the same in origin and it is owing to this that they never have never could have attained to perfect equality with the Good and Wise Spirit Ahura-mazda.
The most important lesson which we may learn from the Avesta particularly when we do not lose sight of its antecedents in the Veda is that we may see how physical religion leads on almost unconsciously to moral religion. It is the distinction between night and day between darkness and light that foreshadows and predetermines the distinction between what is lovely and unlovely between what is evil and good between what belongs to the powers of darkness and the powers of light. Nature as the voice of the God of Nature awakens in the heart of man the first conception of that eternal Dualism which is manifested in night and day in darkness and light and in the works of darkness and in the works of light. And as night is the negation of day not day of night as darkness is the negation of light not light of darkness a deep conviction was left in the mind of man that evil also is the negation of good not good of evil. The light of the sun might be absent for a time but it was hidden only it could never be destroyed and as every morning proclaimed the victory of light the ancient worshippers of nature and of the gods of nature never doubted that the final victory must belong to the powers of light that Vritra must succumb that Ahriman must be vanquished and that light and truth and righteousness must prevail in the end.
Fire in Egypt.
But it is not only the religion of Persia which receives its true explanation from India it is not only the Zoroastrian Âtar whose true historical antecedents are preserved to us in the hymns addressed to the Vedic Agni. In this case there is really a genealogical relationship between the two religions and between the two deities. But even where there can be no thought of such a genealogical relationship we shall often find in the most distant countries the most striking similarities with the conceptions of fire as elaborated by the Vedic Indians.
In some cases mythological ideas which seemed utterly irrational become at once intelligible by a mere comparison with Vedic ideas. We saw how many different characters were ascribed to Agni in the hymns of the Veda. In one hymn he was clearly the fire on the hearth the protector of the family; in another the lightning the destroyer of the demons of darkness; in another again the sun the light of the world the giver of life and strength. Being all this and representing such different powers he soon was conceived as something different from each and all of these manifestations something behind and above them all and thus was raised at last to that divine supremacy which as we saw marks the highest stage which religious speculation has reached at any time. If we have clearly understood this process and then turn our eyes to Egypt we shall find it repeated there in almost every detail.
Modern Character of the Egyptian Religion.
Only while in Egypt we can no longer discover the motives that led to this syncretism these motives are fully disclosed to us in the hymns of the Veda. It is strange but it is recognised as a fact by the best scholars that in Egypt where the actual monuments are apparently so much older than in India we seldom if ever can discover the deepest roots and feeders of religion. Professor Chantepie de la Saussaye in his able résumeé of the recent researches of Egyptologists remarks (§ 51): ‘Our knowledge of the first dynasties has been greatly enlarged by Maspero's discoveries during the last years but we have not come any nearer to the original sources of Egyptian civilisation. Our knowledge does not reach beyond Menes who governed a fully organised kingdom. The religion also of the oldest periods was quite complete at least we find there almost all the elements of religious thought but we cannot discover their beginnings. Everything even architecture and plastic art is already so fully developed that we must look for a more ancient antiquity and that is entirely withdrawn from our sight.’
Under these circumstances a comparative study of religions can alone throw light on those periods in the development of the Egyptian religion which lie confessedly beyond the earliest monuments. Though we cannot admit a common historical ground from which the religions of Egypt and India branched off we can admit a common human foundation in which they had their deepest roots. Even if the Veda did not allow us an insight into the workings of the Indian mind which produced for instance that strange syncretism of a terrestrial celestial and atmospheric Agni the mere fact that the same puzzle presented itself to the Indians and to the Egyptians would lead us to look for a common cause simply in their common human nature and thus facilitate the solution of the riddle. But if in India we still find the key left as it were in the lock we have a perfect right to try whether the same key will not turn the bolts in the Egyptian lock. If it does we have done all that we can do. If we have not perfect certainty we have at all events high probability that the problem can be and has been successfully solved in Egypt as well as in India. I quote once more from M. Chantepie de la Saussaye: ‘We first draw attention’ he writes (§ 49) ‘to the general identification of the gods with one another. We perceive at once how impossible it is to distinguish from each other the attributes of the individual gods or the spheres of their activity. From this arises the assertion made by many Egyptologists that fundamentally the Egyptian gods all meant the same thing; the gods represented the sun the goddesses the mothers or something else. This is most certainly not the case. But at a very early date the gods were almost all represented as being gods of light. Hence the combined names of Amon-Ra Ra-Osiris and many more. This is the reason why it is so difficult to fathom the nature of the gods from the texts. Originally Ptah was probably not a sun-god. Still he is most distinctly called the sun-disc. The fact that Set appears in the boat of the sun does not determine his original nature.’ All this as we saw before would be applicable to the Vedic religion as well as to the religion of Egypt. Let us now consider some individual gods in Egypt that show some similarity with Agni.
When we read the account given for instance of Ra we almost imagine that we are reading an account of Agni in his character as sun-god. Nearly all the gods are identified with Ra. He is the sun-god the creator and ruler of the world. He daily conquers his enemies particularly the dark cloud-serpent Apep (Sk. Ahi). His nearest relatives are Shu and Tefnut the children of the sun (Asvinau divo napâtau). Ra is identified with Tmu the setting sun (Yama) and with Harmachis the daily sun travelling from East to West (Vishnu).
In Osiris again most Egyptian scholars have now discovered a solar deity. He is the oldest child of Seb goddess of the earth (Pri
thivî) and Nut goddess of heaven (Dyaus). He is married to his sister Isis (Yama and Yamî11
) killed by his brother Set but avenged by his son Horus. Osiris becomes lord of the lower world and judge of the dead (Yama); and his worshippers look forward after death to admission into his kingdom. As Agni is Yama and Yama Agni so Ra is called the soul of Osiris Osiris the soul of Ra (l. c. § 47).
Another Egyptian deity Ptah (the opener?) is often identified with Osiris. Both are represented in the form of mummies and like Osiris Ptah also is invoked in the end as the creator of heaven of earth and of man. Ptah represents in fact another phase of the sun the sun that has set and become invisible but that returns again at the end of the night or at the end of winter12
And while Ptah thus receives light from Agni both being the light by night as distinguished from the sun the light by day Ptah also reflects light on Agni at least in one of his special developments.
We saw how Agni the sacrificial fire was not only used by the priest as a means of conveying offering to the gods but was very soon by a very natural transition of thought conceived as himself a priest. In a very similar manner the fire which was used by the smith for melting metal and fashioning it into tools and weapons was likewise conceived as himself a smith and an artificer. We see this change very clearly in the Greek Hephaestos in the Roman Vulcan and in the Egyptian Ptah. For Ptah is not only the nocturnal sun Ptah is the former and artificer the worker of metals from gold to iron13
he is the lord of artists and to him is naturally ascribed the forging of the vault of heaven and of the sun. By another (l. c. p. 512) step he advances to the dignity of a maker of the world father of the beginnings creator of the egg and father of the gods. Nay like Agni he is said to have generated himself (p. 514).
Tvashtri in the Veda.
A similar concatenation of ideas seems to have led to the conception of a Vedic deity otherwise difficult to explain namely Tvashtri. Tvashtri means the artificer the maker and shaper but it is clear that originally this name belonged to Agni. In some of the Vedic hymns Tvashtri is still used as a synonym of Agni (I. 95 2; 5); in others he is identified with Savitri visvarûpa the sun of many forms (III. 55 19; X. 10 5). His character in the Veda is by no means coherent and intelligible but if we admit Agni the solar fire as his foundation we can account for his more special character as the fire applied to every kind of workmanship as the forger of the thunderbolt the maker of the sky and lastly as the creator of the whole world (Vâg. Samh. XXIX. 9) and the giver of life (Rv. X. 18 6). In the end his original character as Agni was so entirely forgotten that in one passage Tvashtri is actually represented as having fashioned Agni also (Rv. X. 46 9).
But though the Egyptian Ptah explains some characteristic features in the Vedic Tvashtri there is much that still remains mysterious in the legends told about this Indian Hephaestos particularly the marriage of his daughter (Saranyû) and the murder of his three-headed son Visvarûpa (X. 10 5; X. 8 9).
Fire in Greece Hephaestos.
If now we turn our eyes from Egypt to Greece and Rome we find hardly anything for which we are not fully prepared. Anything like pyrolatry or worship of fire as a mere element is foreign to the character of the Greeks. All their gods had become thoroughly personal and almost human long before we know anything about them. Hence though we can discover an elementary background in Hephaestos his personal character preponderates so decidedly that it has almost obliterated every trace of his origin. According to Homer (Il. i. 577; Od. viii. 312) Hephaestos was the son of Zeus and Hera just as Agni was the son of Dyaus and of the waters. These waters represented not only the clouds but the whole bright atmosphere where fire as light or lightning was supposed to dwell. Here
(ἭHρη) corresponds to a Sanskrit form *Svârâ a feminine of Svar sky from which also Ἥλιος the sun. Here
though recognised as the principal wife of Zeus represented but one out of the many phenomena of nature with which Zeus the highest god of heaven was supposed to have produced offspring. We have only to remember that in the Veda Dyaus was often assigned to Agni as his father and the waters and the dawn as his mothers14
in order to understand the Homeric conception that Hephaestos was the child of Zeus and Here. The idea that Hephaestos had no father but that Here out of spite brought him forth by herself as Zeus had given birth by himself to Athene is but one of the many half-poetical half-philosophical and often purely imaginative expansions of mythology which abound in Greece more than anywhere else. The statue of Here mentioned by Herodotus (vi. 82) which represented her as emitting fire from her breast is the truest image of her as the bright atmosphere sending forth lightning from the clouds. As Agni is often called the child of the waters without any mention of a father Hephaestos may possibly in that sense also have been called the offspring of Here. Even the lameness of Hephaestos may find its explanation in the fact that Agni in the Veda is called footless (apâd) and that his movement is unsteady and vacillating. The violent catastrophe when Zeus hurls Hephaestos from the sky is again a mythological rendering of Zeus hurling his thunderbolt upon the earth while the myth that it took Hephaestos a whole day to fall from the sky to the earth and that he touched the island of Lemnos with the setting sun may contain a recollection of the identity of Agni as lightning with Agni as the setting sun. Even the hiding of Hephaestos during nine years may be a faint echo of the many stories told in the Veda of Agni wishing to absent himself and hiding in the waters (cf. Il. xviii. 398). In the mind of Homer however the elementary antecedents of Hephaestos exist no longer. With him he is the crafty smith or carpenter or artist and it is difficult to say whether Charis or Aphrodite was assigned to him as his wife because originally she represented the Dawn or whether this myth was merely intended to indicate the grace and charm of the art of Hephaestos.
The name of Ἥφαιστος is difficult to explain. I thought15
it might be traced back to the Vedic yávishtha
a constant epithet of Agni meaning the youngest or the always young. Thus we read Rv. II. 4 5:
gugurvấn yáh múhur ấ yúvâ bhû́t.
‘Agni when he had grown old became always young again.
Rv. I. 144 4:
divâ ná náktam palitáh yúvâ agani.
‘By night as by day having become grey he was born young.’
But there are phonetic difficulties as I pointed out which make this derivation doubtful16
Fire in Italy Vulcanus.
The deity which in Italy corresponds to the Greek Hephaestos and the Vedic Agni is Vulcanus. His name is very clear. It is connected with Sk. ulkâ a firebrand a meteor. This word occurs in the Rig-veda IV. 4 2:
ásamditah ví sriga víshvak ulkấh.
‘Unfettered scatter about thy sparks.’
The fuller form of ulkâ would be *varkâ instead of which we find várkas light lustre vigour.
Rv. III. 22 2:
Ágne yát te diví várkah prithivyấm
yát óshadhîshu apsú ấ yagatra
yéna antáriksham urú âtatántha
tvesháh sáh bhânúh arnaváh nrikákshâh.
‘O Agni the lustre which is thine in heaven in earth in plants and in the waters O worshipful wherewith thou hast stretched out the sky wide that light is brilliant waving all-seeing.’
Vulcan was therefore a god of fire but in Italy he became pre-eminently the representative of subterraneous or volcanic fire and then possibly by Greek influence the clever craftsman.
Philosophical Aspects of Fire in Greece.
But while in the Greek and Roman religious mythology the representatives of fire occupy a rather subordinate place as compared with the position assigned to fire in India and Persia in Egypt and Babylon we find that in Greece the concept of fire led from very early times to philosophical speculation. It is a mistake to draw a very sharp line of demarcation in ancient times between religion and philosophy. The religious sentiments of the Greeks or at least of the more thoughtful among the Greeks were far more profoundly swayed by the teachings of Thales Pythagoras and Herakleitos than by the Homeric poems. It is too often forgotten that Herakleitos considered himself a far higher authority on religion than Homer whose theology he stigmatised as flippant infidelity17
while Pythagoras declared that he saw (and no doubt he wished to see) the soul of Homer in Hades hanging on a tree and surrounded by serpents as a punishment for the unseemly things which he had said of the gods.
There certainly is more of what we mean by religion in Herakleitos than in Homer and I believe that our right appreciation of early Greek philosophers has been much impeded by our forgetting that those early philosophers were religious even more than philosophical teachers. Even Aristotle (Metaph. i. 3) to whom most of us owe our first acquaintance with the ancient sages of Greece treats them far too much as mere philosophers and discusses their doctrines as Hegel did in later times far too much from his own philosophical point of view18
The Fire of Herakleitos.
With Herakleitos fire the πυ̑ρ ἀείζωον or αἰώνιον the ever-living or immortal fire was not merely an ἀρχή in the Aristotelian sense of the word or what we call one of the four elements. It was the primordial being the origin of all things a higher conception than that of the gods of the populace whom Herakleitos tolerated though he did not believe in them. ‘Neither one of the gods he declares19
nor of men has made this world the same for all but it always was and will be ever-living fire catching forms and consuming them.’ when Herakleitos used the word fire we should now probably use motion warmth or life. In one place he actually used κεραυνός lightning instead of πυ̑ρ when he declares that lightning rules everything τὰ δὲ πάντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός. From another of his sayings it seems clear that he recognises his fire in the sun also though he speaks of it as never setting. ‘For how’ he says ‘could anybody hide himself from that which never sets?’
There is no doubt a distant similarity between the eternal fire of Herakleitos and the fire as conceived by the followers of Zoroaster. But the dissimilarities are far greater than the similarities and the idea advanced by certain historians of Greek philosophy particularly by Gladisch20
that Herakleitos borrowed his opinions from the Persians is uncalled for and unsupported by any historical evidence. What was possible in Persia was possible in Greece and the idea that fire was the beginning of all things is no more opposed to Greek ideas than the teaching of Thales or that of Anaximenes that water or air were the beginnings of all things.
Fire and Water in the Brâhmanas.
We find the same ideas in the Vedic Brâhmanas also but we should not therefore say that Herakleitos borrowed his ideas from India. In the Brâhmanas we read that in the beginning there was water or there was fire or there was Brahman or there was being and not-being. Thus the Taittirîya-Samhitâ VII. 1 5 1 says: Ấpo vấ idám ágre salilám âsît tásmin pragấpatir vâyúr bhûtvấ z karat. ‘In the beginning this (world) was water the sea and Pragâpati the Lord of creation moved on it having become wind.’ How like this is to the language of Genesis ‘And the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters’—and yet who would say that the writer of Genesis borrowed from the Taittirîya-Samhitâ or vice versâ?
In other cosmogonic accounts which we find scattered about in the Brâhmanas the old cosmogony has generally been modified into some kind of emanation from or creation by Brahman or Pragâpati the Lord of creatures. But when we leave out this first link Brahman or Pragâpati we find a large number of cosmogonic theories probably much older than the Brâhmanas and older than the first conception of such abstract deities as Brahman or Pragâpati. In some passages it seemed as if it had not been quite forgotten that the place which was assigned to Brahman and Pragâpati was originally held by Agni. We read for instance in the Satapatha-Brâhmana VI. 1 1 5:
Sa yah sa purushah Pragâpatir abhavad ayam eva sa yo z yam Agnis kîyate.
‘He who became Pragâpati is the same as Agni kindled on the hearth.’
But as a rule Brahman or Pragâpati comes first and afterwards fire and water and all the rest. In the Taittirîya-Samhitâ for instance VII. 1 1 4 the successive stages in the development of the world beginning with Pragâpati are represented (1) by Agni the Brâhmana (the priest) and the goat; (2) by Indra the Râganya (the warrior) and the sheep; (3) by the Visvedevas the Vaisya and the cow; (4) by the Sûdra and the horse.
In the hymns also similar cosmogonic guesses are uttered from time to time though we must remember that ideas about the beginning of all things are generally late and that hymns containing cosmogonic theories cannot be counted among the earliest relics of Vedic poetry. Thus we read Rv. X. 190:
Ritám ka satyám kâbhî́ddhât tápasó z dhyagâyata
táto rấtry agâyata tátah samudró arnaváh.
Samudrấd arnavấd ádhi samvatsaró agâyata
ahorâtrấni vidádhad vísvasya misható vasî́.
Sûryâkandramásau dhâtấ yathâpûrvám akalpayat
dívam ka prithivî́m kântáriksham átho svãh.
‘The right and true was born from kindled heat then the night was born and the surging sea. From the surging sea the annual sun was born he who orders day and night the lord of all that sees. The creator made sun and moon in turn the sky and the earth and the air and then the heaven.’
In another place the Ribhus discuss among themselves whether water is best or fire Rv. I. 161 9 ấpah bhû́yishthâh íti ékah abravît agníh bhû́yishthah íti anyáh abravît which probably refers to the question as to what was the beginning of all things whether water or fire. In one hymn X. 121 7 it is decidedly implied that the waters gave birth to fire or Agni (ấpah ha yát brihatî́h vísvam ấyan gárbham dádhânâh ganáyantîh agním). One of the earliest commentators in the Taittirîya-âranyaka I. 23 9 explains what he thought the true meaning of this verse by ‘adbhyo vâ idam samabhût’ ‘this world arose indeed from water.’
When we see with how much freedom these various cosmogonic theories or guesses are started we begin to feel how little necessity there is for supposing that Herakleitos borrowed from India or Persia simply because he looked upon fire as the moving principle of the world.
We saw that Herakleitos like the Vedic poets recognised the same power as dwelling in the fire in the lightning and as it would seem in the sun also. And this is again so natural a conception that we can perfectly well understand how it arose independently both in India and in Greece. If we look further we find a very similar conception of the identity of fire sun and lightning even among Semitic nations but who would say that therefore the Semitic nations borrowed from the Vedic poets or the Vedic poets from Semitic sources?
Fire as worshipped in Babylon.
It is generally admitted I believe that the chief deity worshipped at Babylon was a solar deity21
. He was called Bilu
the lord and many of the Babylonian gods might claim that name. This Bilu
appears in the Old Testament as Baal
in the plural Baalim
and in Greek as Βῆλος. Now the Bilu or Baal of Babylon was Merodach the lord of Babylon originally a representative of the sun. But we are told22
that he represented not only the sun but that he absorbed also the god of fire. ‘Among most primitive people’ Professor Sayce remarks ‘fire is endowed with divine attributes. It moves and devours like a living thing; it purifies and bums all that is foul; and it is through the fire upon the altar—the representative of the fire upon the hearth—that the savour of the burnt sacrifice ascends to the gods in heaven. Fire is itself a messenger from above. It comes to us from the sky in the lightning flash and we feel it in the rays of the noontide sun. The Fire-god tended therefore to become on the one side the messenger and intermediary between gods and men and on the other side the Sun-god himself.’
You see in this description of the Fire-god in Babylon the exact counterpart of Agni in the Veda. But there is in this case also this great difference that while we see in Babylon the last results only we can watch in India the whole course of development from the first perception of a burning log to the highest concept of a Supreme Being. We should never say that in the Veda fire had been endowed with divine attributes because that would presuppose the very thing which we want to explain. What we learn from the Veda is the very evolution of these divine attributes arising from the ever-varying concepts of fire and of similar both natural and supernatural phenomena. When we once have arrived at a Fire-god and a Lightning-god and a Sun-god our task is really done. Our first chapter ends with the Fire-god the Lightning-god and the Sun-god. It begins with fire lightning and sun.
The True Antiquity of the Veda.
This is what imparts to the Veda its unique character among the historical monuments of the old world. Tradition assigns to the Sacred Books of China an enormous antiquity and the students of Babylonian and Egyptian antiquities claim without hesitation for the earliest written relics of these two countries a date far beyond that which we assign to the Veda. But though more modern if we measure antiquity by the revolutions of the heavenly bodies the Veda is far more ancient than anything in China Babylon or Egypt when we measure antiquity by the evolution of ideas. If we found the Veda to have been the composition of the inhabitants of an unknown island and to be not older than the last century its value for our studies the analysis of religious ideas would be but little impaired. India was a kind of unknown island in the ancient history of the world its ancient literature was thoroughly autochthonous its earliest religion untouched by any foreign influence. All attempts at discovering Semitic or Egyptian influences in the ancient that is in the Vedic literature of India have totally failed and at the present moment to attempt to derive the ideas of the Veda from Babylon or Egypt would be as hopeless as former attempts to derive Sanskrit from Hebrew or from the language of the pyramids. The trunklines of ancient language thought and religion are sufficiently well known by this time to enable us to declare certain crossings as impossible and there is no scholar now living who would venture to say that the ancient lines of Indian religion could have been crossed by trains of thought which started from China from Babylon or from Egypt.