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Lecture 7. The Biography of Agni.

Lecture 7.
The Biography of Agni.
Facts against Theories.

We begin to-day the biography of Agni the god of fire and shall try to follow it from the first chapter to the last. That biography may sometimes seem lengthy and wearisome but we must go through all its chapters patiently for the whole question of Natural Religion depends really on the success of our present inquiry. The only successful way of controverting the prevalent theories of the origin of religion is an appeal to facts. I maintain that the ancient records of religion more particularly in India supply historical evidences that the human mind was able by its own inherent powers to ascend from nature to nature's gods and in the end to the God of nature. If we can prove this the verdict cannot be doubtful for even in theological discussion facts are still stronger than theories. In answer to those who have recourse to what they call innate faculties or special revelations we appeal to historical records and where so much is at stake we must not shrink from wearisome labour. Some of the details in the historical evolution of Agni fire may seem unimportant for our purpose but we have watchful and powerful enemies and we must not leave any position in our onward march exposed to surprise and capture.

Premature Generalisation.
Nothing does so much mischief in our sphere of work as premature generalisation. It seems that Professor Weber1 remarked in one of his early publications that ‘Agni is adored essentially as earthly sacrificial fire and not as an elemental force.’ This statement has been repeated again and again till at last it was supposed that Agni was really a mere invention of priests and unknown at all events before the development of the sacrificial system in India. It is perfectly true that Agni as the fire on the altar takes a very prominent place in the Vedic hymns. Agni in fact is together with Indra the Deva to whom most hymns are addressed and in many of them the same praises are repeated and the same epithets used which apply to the sacrificial fire. But there are other passages less numerous no doubt but for that very reason more important to us in which Agni is celebrated without any reference as yet to the fire on the altar.
I shall begin by examining these passages in which Agni is described in his purely physical character.
Agni in his Physical Character.
The first question was Whence did he come? To this many answers are given. We read Rv. II. 1 1:
Tvám agne dyúbhih tvám âsusukshánih tvám adbhyáh tvám ásmanah pári
Tvám vánebhyah tvám óshadhîbhyah tvám nrinấm nripate gâyase súkih.
‘Thou O Agni art born wishing to shine forth thou art born from the skies thou from the waters thou from the stone thou from the wood thou from the herbs thou king of men the bright one.’
Here we learn in one verse all the possible ways in which Agni could have appeared to man. First from the skies as the fiery and scorching sun which by its heat could kindle inflammable substance; secondly from the waters that is from the clouds as lightning; thirdly from the stone which must be meant for the flint though the striking fire out of flint is not recognised in the Veda as a sacrificial act; fourthly from the wood and the herbs that is from the fire-sticks and from dry leaves which like our tinder caught the spark and kept it safe till by means of blowing it would burst forth into flames.
Let us now examine these four kinds of Agni's birth more in detail.
Agni as the Sun.
That Agni was often taken as the sun is proved by many passages in the hymns of the Rig-veda. For instance Rv. VI. 9 1:
Áhah ka krishnám áhah árgunam ka ví vartete rágasî vedyấbhih
Vaisvânaráh gấyamânah ná rấgâ áva atirat gyótishâ agníh támâmsi.
‘The black day and the red day (night and day) turn heaven and earth by their different colours. Agni strides down across the darkness beloved by all men like a born king.’
Here Agni striding down across the darkness is evidently meant for the sun itself. In another verse III. 14 4 Agni is called Sûrya sun.
Yát sokíshâ sahasah putra tíshthâh
abhí kshitî́h pratháyan sû́ryah nrî́n.
‘(Agni) when thou O son of strength stoodst as the sun spreading wide over men and their dwellings.’
In the Brâhmanas it is stated explicitly that Agni in his third character is the sun2. (Yad asya divi tritîyam tad asâv âditya iti hi brâhmanam Nir. VII. 28.) In other passages however the two are distinguished from though also compared with one another. Thus the sun is said to spring from the nocturnal Agni. For instance Rv. X. 88 6:
Mûrdhấ bhuváh bhavati náktam agníh tátah sû́ryah gâyate prâtáh udyán.
‘Agni is the head of the world by night; from him is born3 the sun rising in the morning.’
The two Agni and the sun are compared as when it is said V. 1 4 that ‘the minds of worshippers turn together towards Agni as our eyes turn towards the sun.’ Or VII. 8 4 sû́ryah ná rókate ‘Agni who shines like the sun.’
And again VIII. 43 5:
Eté tyé vríthak agnáyah iddhấsah sám adrikshata ushásâm iva ketávah.
‘These lighted fires are seen scattered like the splendours of the dawn.’
We often read particularly in the Brâhmanas that Agni is the light by night the sun by day. There is a passage often quoted from the Aitareya-Brâhmana VIII. 28 ‘The sun (Âditya) when setting enters Agni and vanishes—Agni flaring up enters the air (Vâyu) and vanishes.’ And afterwards ‘Agni is born from the air the sun is born from Agni fire.’
Agni the Sun or the Fire on the Hearth.
There are other passages where it is doubtful whether the poets thought of the sun rising in the morning and filling the world with splendour or of the fire on the hearth and the altar which may likewise be said to rise in the morning and fill the world with light. For instance Rv. X. 1 1:
Ágre brihán ushásâm ûrdhváh asthât
nih-gaganvấn támasah gyótishâ ấ agât
Agníh bhânúnâ rúsatâ sváṅgah
gâtáhsvâ sádmâni aprâh.
‘Agni stood up mighty at the head of the dawn he approached coming with light out of darkness. Born with beautiful limbs he has filled all dwellings with his shining light.’
And again X. 88 12:
svasmai agním bhúvanâya devấh
vaisvânarám ketúm áhnâm akrinvan
Ấ yáh tatấna ushásah vibhâtî́h
ápo ûrnoti támah arkíshâ yán.
‘The gods made Agni Vaisvânara the light of days for the whole world he who stretched out the shining dawns and drove away the darkness coming with splendour.’
VII. 78 3:
Ágîganan sû́ryam yagñám agním apâkî́nam támah agât águshtam.
‘They the Dawns created the sun the sacrifice the fire; the unloved darkness went away.’ (Cf. VII. 99 4.)
Though the commentators often prefer to apply such passages to the fire on the altar or to look upon that fire when lighted in the morning as a symbol of the rising sun it is quite clear that the idea of Agni as manifested in the sun was perfectly familiar to the Vedic poets.
Sun and Fire in America.
It requires a certain effort with us to understand how two such different percepts as that of the fire burning on the hearth and that of the sun rising in the morning crossing the sky and setting in the evening could be brought into the same mental focus and be conceived as one and the same object. Here however as elsewhere a comparison of other religions more particularly of religions which cannot claim any genealogical relationship with the Veda is very useful in either removing or confirming our doubts and difficulties.
Let us look to the American religions. It is true there are but few cases where fire and sun have actually received the same name. Brinton however in his Myths of the New World p. 143 tells us that the Tezuque of New Mexico use tah both for sun and fire and that the Kolosh of British America derive at least their names for sun and fire from the same root fire being kan sun kakan. But in their accounts of the creation the sun is always spoken of as fire. It is not represented as anterior to the world but as manufactured by the old people (Navajos) as kindled and set going by the first of men (Algonkins) or as freed from a dark cave by a kindly deity (Haitians).
J. G. Müller also in his History of the American original Religions tells us that fire was kept burning in the temples of the Sun as a constant representation it would seem of the solar deity (pp. 54 69 519). Worship of fire he remarks was intimately connected with worship of the sun (p. 125). And again: ‘The worship of fire continued under the Incas but it was brought into the most intimate relation with sun-worship. In the temple of the sun as well as in the house of the virgins of the sun the eternal fire was always kept burning. At the high festival Raymi in winter this fire was lighted as at Rome by means of a golden concave mirror. Only if the sky was clouded did they try according to the most ancient custom to get fire by means of rubbing two pieces of wood.’
In Peru we bear of a fight between two gods one called Con or Viracocha the other Pachacamac. The former is said to be the god of water or fertilising rain the latter of fire particularly of life-giving fire. This Pachacamac is represented as the son of the sun thus showing once more the close relation in which in the imagination of primitive people sun and fire stood to one another.
Sun and Fire among the Fins.
If now we turn for a moment to the Fins who as little as the Americans can be suspected of having borrowed anything from the Veda we find there also that Panu the god of fire is conceived as a son of the sun. Thus we read in the Kalevala4 the famous epic poem of the Fins:
‘O Panu son of the sun
Offspring thou of the dear day
Lift the fire up to the sky.
In the middle of the golden ring
Within the rock of copper
Carry it as a child to the mother
Into the lap of the dear old woman.
Put it there to shine by day
And to rest at night
Let it rise every morning
Let it set every evening.’
Castrén remarks on this passage that ‘it clearly shows how the ancient Fins looked upon the sun as an enclosed mass of fire and upon earthly fire as an emanation from the sun or to adopt the language of the runes as a child of the sun-mother. As therefore sun and fire’ he continues ‘are originally one and the same thing it is clear that with our ancestors the worship of the Fire coincided with the worship of the Sun and that Panu Fire could not be worshipped as an independent deity but only as a son of the sun.’
After these parallels to which many more might be added we shall be better able to enter into the ideas of our own Aryan not Finnish ancestors when they comprehended under the name of Agni both the fire on the hearth or the altar and the sun in the sky.
Agni as Lightning.
We now come to a second class of passages where Agni is said to be the son of Dyaus the sky (Divah sûnuh or sisuh) and likewise to spring from the waters or to be the child of the waters (apấm gárbhah Rv. III. 1 12). Here he must be understood as lightning coming from the clouds. For instance Rv. VI. 6 2:
h svitânáh tanyatúh rokanasthấh.
‘This Agni brilliant thundering in heaven.’
Or again VII. 3 6:
Diváh ná te tanyatúh eti súshmah.
‘Thy fierceness comes like the thunder of heaven.’
Rv. X. 45 4:
Ákrandat agníh stanáyan iva dyaúh
‘Agni rattled like the thundering sky.’
Rv. I. 143 2:
h gấyamânah paramé vyòmani
âvíh agníh abhavat mâtarísvane
Asyá krátvâ samidhânásya magmánâ
prá dyấvâ sokíh prithivî́ arokayat.
‘Agni born in the highest heaven appeared to Mâtarisvan. His splendour when he had been kindled by wisdom and strength lighted up heaven and earth.’
This Mâtarisvan to whom Agni appeared as lightning is frequently mentioned and we here reach a stratum of mythology which crops up again and again in the Veda but which hitherto has resisted all analysis. We do not know what is meant by Mâtarisvan the name admits of no satisfactory etymology5 and seems to date from a remoter period of language. We may gather however from the passages in which Mâtarisvan occurs that he was meant for the air or for the wind that seemed to carry the fire of lightning from heaven through the air to the earth6. I quote again from Rv. I. 143 2:
h gấyamânah paramé vyòmani
âvíh agníh abhavat mâtarísvane.
‘Agni born in the highest heaven appeared to Mâtarisvan.’
In III. 5 10 Mâtarisvan is said to have lighted Agni when he was hidden for the Bhrigus (see also III. 2 13) and these Bhrigus are often mentioned as having spread Agni among men (I. 58 6). In VI. 8 4 Mâtarisvan is called the Messenger of Vivasvat who brought Agni.
It is but natural that this Mâtarisvan who is said to have brought down lightning from the sky to man should have been compared to Prometheus. But though in one point their functions are similar their names are different and we shall have to consider hereafter some other well-known attempts to trace the very name of Prometheus in the language of the Veda.
Fire from Flint.
The striking fire out of a stone seems almost unknown in the Rig-veda. In one passage however II. 12 3 Indra is said to have produced Agni from two stones:
h ásmanoh antáh agním gagấna
‘He who produced fire from two stones’ or as others explain ‘from two clouds acting as stones.’
In either case the mere fact that fire may be struck from a flint seems to have been known in Vedic times.
Fire from Wood.
The fourth process that of eliciting fire by means of rubbing two fire-sticks and catching the spark in dry herbs is mentioned again and again. It was evidently considered to require both force and skill. One of the standing epithets of Agni is ‘the son of strength’ (sûnuh sahasah III. 1 8) and among ancient families the Bhrigus are often mentioned as having possessed the secret of making and keeping a fire in the house7. Thus we read I. 143 4:
Yám eriré bhrígavah visvávedasam
nấbhâ prithivyấh bhúvanasya magmánâ
‘The Bhrigus excited or kindled Agni in the centre of the earth by the strength of man.’
And again II. 4 2:
dvitấ adadhuh bhrígavah vikshú âyóh.
‘The Bhrígus placed Agni twofold among the tribes of men.’
It is curious that the name Bhrigu should correspond letter by letter to the Φλέγυες of Greek mythology.
Mythological Ideas connected with Fire.
This last process of producing fire by rubbing is a very favourite subject of the Vedic poets. Of the two pieces of wood used for rubbing out fire one is called the mother the other the father of Agni. Thus we read V. 9 3:
Utá sma yám sísum yathâ návam ganishta aránî
dhartấram mấnushînâm visấm agním svadhvarám.
‘He whom the two fire-sticks (aranî) produced like a new-born babe Agni the supporter of the tribes of man good at the sacrifice.’
This myth of the new-born babe soon assumes greater proportions. Thus it is said Rv. X. 79 4:
Tát vâm ritám rodasî prá bravîmi gấyamânah mâtárâ gárbhah atti
ná ahám devásya mártyah kiketa agníh aṅgá víketâhh práketâh.
‘O Heaven and Earth I proclaim this truthful fact that the child as soon as born eats his parents. I a mortal do not understand this (act) of a god; Agni indeed understands for he is wise!’
It was considered another wonderful thing as we saw before that a living thing like Agni should be born from a dry stick or that though his mother does not suckle him he yet should grow so rapidly and proceed at once to do his work as messenger between gods and men (X. 115 1). Again (V. 9 4) he is said to be difficult to catch like a brood of serpents and to consume forests as cattle do on their pasture.
But all this is a beginning only. The subject grows and is varied in every possible way. You know how often our critics have expressed their inability to believe that the conversation of the Vedic Âryas should have turned on nothing but the trivial events of every day. I can understand their incredulity so long as they do not open the pages of the Rig-veda. But on every one of these pages they will find facts which are stronger than all theories and which leave us no doubt that the poetry of the Vedic Âryas turned chiefly on the sun the moon the sky the wind the storm and the fire.
The repetition of the same ideas is apt to become tedious but even this tedious repetition contains a lesson if it helps to give us a truer idea of the slow but natural growth of the human intellect where we can best watch it—in the hymns of the Rig-veda; and if it makes us understand that even a belief in Agents whether in the fire or in the sun or in the sky need not be considered as mere paganism and idolatry but as containing healthy seeds which in time were meant to grow into a rich harvest.
Agni as Deva Bright Amartya Undying &c.
We saw how naturally Agni the fire could be called deva bright without any thought as yet of calling him a god. Even when the light of Agni is spoken of as immortal that need not mean as yet any more than that it lasts for ever if properly kept up. We read for instance Rv. VI. 9 4 idám gyótih amrítam mártyeshu ‘See this light immortal among mortals.’ Here immortal might still be translated by the never-dying light. The fire as a masculine or rather as an agent was also called I. 58 4 agara not-aging and the Vedic poets dwelt again and again on the contrast between the undying Agni and his dying friends. Of other Devas also it was said that they were not like human beings subject to decay and death.
Agni the Immortal among Mortals.
But while the ancient poets brought themselves to think of an impassable gulf between the mortals on one side and the immortals on the other this gulf vanished again in the case of Agni. He immortal as he was dwelt among men. He was the guest (átithi II. 4 1) of men often called the immortal among mortals (amrítah mártyeshu VIII. 71 11).
Now this expression ‘immortal among mortals’ seems at first sight of no great consequence. But like many of these ancient phrases it contains germs waiting for a most important development in the future. We may recognise in that simple expression of an immortal dwelling among mortals being the guest the friend the benefactor of mortals the first attempt at bridging over the gulf which human language and human thought had themselves created between the mortal and the immortal between the visible and the invisible between the finite and the infinite. Such ideas appear at first in a very simple and almost unconscious form they present themselves without being looked for but they remain fixed in the mind they gain from year to year in strength and depth and they form at last a fertile soil from which in later ages may spring up the most sublime conceptions of the unity between the mortal and the immortal between the visible and the invisible between the finite and the infinite such as are expressed in the dark words of Heraclitus ἀθάνατοι θνητοί θνητοί ἀθάνατοί. There is a continuity in all our thoughts and there is nothing more important for a true appreciation of our intellectual organisation than the discovery of the coarse threads that form the woof of our most abstract thoughts.
Agni the Friend Helper Father.
If Agni had once been recognised as a friend or as a welcome guest in the house there soon followed a shower of other epithets expressive of man's appreciation of Agni's benefits. I can mention here a few only. He is called master of the house grihapatih I. 12 6; lord of the people vispatih I. 12 2; leader puraetâ III. 11 5; king râgâ I. 59 5. In I. 31 10 we read:
Tvám agne prámatih tvám pitấ asi nah tvám vayaskrit táva gâmáyah vayám.
‘Thou O Agni art our providence our father; thou givest us vigour we are thy kindred.’
II 1 9:
Tvám putráh bhavasi yáh te ávidhat.
‘Thou art a son to him who worships thee.’
VI. 1 5:
Pitấ mâtấ sádam ít mấnushânâm.
‘Thou art always father and mother for men.’
X. 7 3:
Agním manye pitáram agním âpím
agním bhrấtaram sádam ít sákhâyam;
agnéh ánîkam brihatáh saparyam
diví sukrám yagatám sû́ryasya.
‘I hold Agni to be my father I hold him to be my kinsman my brother and always my friend. I worshipped the face of the mighty Agni the holy light of the sun in heaven.’
Agni Helper in Battle.
But Agni was not only beneficial in the house he was also a powerful helper in battle the destroyer of enemies whether human or superhuman. It is easy to imagine what an advantage the possession of fire must have proved in primitive warfare. How easy it was with a well flung torch to set a whole forest on fire or to smoke out enemies who had taken refuge in a cave.
Fireless Races.
The enemies of the Âryas in the Vedic times are called Dasyu8 or even Rakshas and Yâtudhâna giants and devils. These wild tribes are often called an-agni-tra those who do not keep the fire. Thus we read I. 189 3:
Ágne tvám asmát yuyodhi
ámîvâh ánagnitrâh abhí ámanta krishtî́h
púnah asmábhyam suvitấya deva
kshấm vísvebhih amrítebhih yagatra.
‘Agni drive away from us the enemies—tribes who keep no fire came to attack us. Come again to the earth for our welfare sacred god with all the Immortals.’
These fireless races are also called kravya-ad eating raw flesh (κρεοφάγοι) and âmấd (X. 87 7) (ὠμοφάγοι). They are even suspected of feeding on human flesh X. 87 16 (yáh paúrusheyena kravíshâ samaṅkté). They are described very much in the same way in which lower races are described even now by those who covet their land. Thus in Rv. VII. 104 two of the warlike gods of the Vedic people Indra and Soma are invoked by Vasishtha to help him and his people to destroy those who do not worship his gods who do not speak the truth and who keep no fire in their houses.
1. Índrâsomâ tápatam rákshah ubgátam
ní arpayatam vrishanâ tamah-vridhah;
párâ srinîtam akítah ní oshatam
hatám nudéthâm ní sisîtam atrínah.
2. Índrâsomâ sám aghásamsam abhí aghám
tápuh yayastu karúh agnivấn iva
brahmadvíshe kravya-áde ghorákakshase
dvéshah dhattam anavâyám kimîdíne.
3. Índrâsomâ duh-kritah vavré antáh
anârambhané támasi prá vidhyatam
yáthâ ná átah púnah ékah kaná udáyat
tát vâm astu sáhase manyumát sávah.
4. Índrâsomâ vartáyatam diváh vadhám
sám prithivyấh aghásamsâya tárhanam
út takshatam svaryãm párvatebhyah
yéna rákshah vavridhânám nigû́rvathah.
1. ‘O Indra and Soma burn the devils (Rakshas) hold them under throw them down they who grow in darkness. Tear them off the madmen burn them kill them hurl them away slay the gluttons.
2. ‘O Indra and Soma up together against the cursing demon! May he burn and hiss like an oblation on the fire. Put your ever-lasting hatred upon the villain who hates the Brahman who eats flesh and who looks abominable.
3. ‘O Indra and Soma hurl the evil-doer into the pit into unfathomed darkness that no one may come out again—such may be your wrathful strength to hold out.
4. ‘O Indra and Soma hurl from the sky and from the earth the bolt to fell the cursing demon. Shape the rattling lightning from out the clouds to crush the growing devil.’
The descriptions given of these enemies are so real that we can hardly doubt that they refer to the aboriginal inhabitants of India whose descendants survive to the present day speaking non-Aryan dialects. The poets of the Veda often distinguish between their Aryan and non-Aryan enemies. They praise their gods for having destroyed their enemies both Aryan and barbarian (dâsâ ka vritrâ hatam âryâni ka) and we frequently find such expressions as ‘Kill our Aryan enemies and the Dâsa enemies yea kill all our enemies.’
In my letter to Bunsen ‘On the Turanian Languages’ published in 1854 in his ‘Christianity and Mankind’ vol. iii I pointed out that these indigenous races were black-skinned while the Âryas prided themselves on their bright colour. They were called kravyâd eating raw flesh; anagnitra not keeping fire; vrisha-sipra bull-nosed; a-nâsa flat-nosed or noseless &c. These enemies had strongholds and their wealth consisted chiefly in cattle.
Sometimes no doubt these enemies are represented as demons and devils as enemies of the gods rather than of men. But that again is perfectly natural and need not surprise us after we have read more recent descriptions of savage races occupying land which is coveted by the white man. You remember that even Darwin spoke of certain tribes in South America as being more like devils than human beings. On the contrary these warlike hymns which describe the enemies whom the advancing Âryas had to conquer contain some of the few glimpses of real history and are all the more valuable at present when we have so often been told that the Vedic hymns were nothing but the lucubrations of priests when performing their intricate ceremonies. It must be clear that the work on which Vasishtha is bent in this hymn has little to do with intricate ceremonial; it is the simple and always recurring work of men killing men of the stronger depriving the weaker of his land his servants and his cattle—what we now more euphemistically call ‘the struggle for life’ and ‘the survival of the fittest.’
Agricultural Âryas.
From the glimpses which we catch from the hymns of the Veda it is safe to conclude that the Âryas who settled in North-Western India were agricultural tribes. Their very name ârya as I have tried to show (Eneyel. Brit. s.v. Ârya) meant ploughers from ar to plough to ear. Even before the great Âryan separation agriculture must have been known for Greek ☌ρουρα as Benfey has shown and Meyer has not disproved corresponds to the Sk. and Zend urvarâ a cultivated field. The Âryas in India call themselves krishtis tribes and that too is derived from karsh to plough9.
The poets of the Veda begin to complain that the land is not large enough for them. Thus we read Rv. VI. 47 20:
‘O gods we have come to a country without meadows the earth which is wide has become narrow.’
The wealth of these Indian Âryas consisted chiefly in cattle in cows horses sheep goats and in men. Corn was cut with sickles and afterwards thrashed. Their settlements were called vrigana clearings grâma villages; while outside the grâma was the aranya the heath or the forest which belonged to no one. Towns in our sense did not exist though strong-holds and camps are mentioned.
Each family had its house and hearth. Several families together formed a vis vicus or grâma pagus and several of such settlements seem to have formed a gana i.e. kin or clan. We hear of the vispati the lord of a vis of grâmanîs leaders of villages and of kings râgan who are also called gopâ ganasya shepherds of a clan. We even hear of leagues of live ganas or clans. We read of kings both hereditary and elective. They led the armies and received booty and tribute. We also hear of public assemblies samitis or vidathas held in a sabhâ a public hall. The king was present. Discussions took place and likewise social amusements.
The cultivated land seems to have belonged to the village but booty in war seems to have constituted the first private property.
In the struggles between the Âryan invaders and the dark-skinned natives the possession of Agni or fire as an ally was in those distant days as great an advantage as the possession of armour or gunpowder in later days and we may well understand therefore that Agni or fire should have been celebrated till he became a familiar name as a protector a leader a ruler a powerful something whether he was called deva bright or amartya immortal.
What Agni was or what he did was often called a miracle (vápus).
Rv. IV. 7 9:
Krishnám te éma rúsatah puráh bhấh karishnú arkíh vápushâm ít ékam.
‘Thy path is black but there is light before thee when thou shinest;—thy flame moves swiftly—this is one of (many) wonders’
Agni destroying Forests.
More particularly his power of destroying or devouring whole forests imparts to Agni in the eyes of the Âryas a terrible character. We saw before how his flames were represented as tongues licking (I. 140 9) what they meant to consume. These tongues of Agni are called brilliant (II. 9 1) and sharp (tigma IV. 7.10). They are also conceived as teeth golden (V. 2 3) and bright (VII. 4 2) as tusks strong like metal (X 87 2) as jaws strong (III. 29 13) sharp (I. 79 6) and burning (I. 36 16). In VIII. 43 3 we read:
Dadbhíh vánàni bapsati.
‘He eats the forests with his teeth.’
In I. 143 5:
Ná yáh várâya marútâm iva svanáh
sénâ iva srishtấ divyấ yáthâ asánih
agníh gámbhaih tigitaíh atti bhárvati
yodháhsátrûn sáh vánâ ní riñgate.
‘He who cannot be resisted like the blast of the Maruts like a hurled weapon like the heavenly thunder-bolt Agni eats with his sharpened jaws he champs he prostrates forests like a warrior his enemies.’
I. 58 4-5:
Ví vấtagûtah ataséshu tishthate
vrithâ guhû́bhih srinyâ tuvi-svánih;
trishú yát agne vanínah vrishayáse
krishnám te éma rúsat-urme agara.
Tápuh-gambhah váne ấ vấta-koditah
yûthé ná sahvấn áva vâti vámsagah;
abhivrágan ákshitam pấgasâ rágah
sthâtúh karátham bhayate patatrínah.
‘Roused by the wind he moves about among the shrubs everywhere with his tongues and resounding with his sickle. When thou in a moment doest violence to the trees in the forest thy path is black O thou never-aging Agni thou whose waves are brilliant.’
‘With fiery jaws roused by the wind he blows down on the forest like a powerful bull on his herd moving with splendour towards the eternal sky. What moves and stands trembles before the bird10.’
VIII. 43 6-8:
6. Krishnâ rágâmsi patsutáh prayấne
gâtávedasah agníh yát ródhati kshámi.
7. Dhâsím krinvânáh óshadhih bápsat
agníh ná vâyati púnah yán tárunîh ápi.
8. Gihvấbhih áha námnamat arkíshâ
gganâbhávan agníh váneshu rokate.
‘The clouds are black under his feet at his advance when Agni descends to the earth
‘Making the herbs his food Agni never tires eating coming again and again even the tall herbs.
‘Turning about with his tongues of fire as if laughing with his light Agni flares up in the forests.’
I. 65 8:
Yát vấta-gûtah vánâ ví ásthât
agníh ha dâti róma prithivyấh.
‘When roused by the wind he strides about on to the forests. Agni shaves off the hair of the earth.’
His horses also when let loose are said to shave the earth (VI. 6 4) and much the same is meant when Agni is said to lick the garment of the earth (I. 140 9).
Agni's Horses.
Agni's horses are frequently mentioned and they appear in different colours as red (arusha and rohita I. 94 10) as dark (syâva II. 10 2) as bright (harit I. 130 2) and as brilliant white (sukra VI. 6 4). All this is quite intelligible nor is the next step so very bold which leads the poets to speak of Agni himself as a horse. I know that some philosophers would see in this at once a sign of what they call zoolatry whereas to the student of language such expressions particularly if they occur as in the Veda but casually are nothing but poetical metaphor. If the poet has once brought himself to say that Agni chews like a horse (VI. 3 4) or that he shakes his tail like the horse of a chariot (II. 4 4) why should he not say as he does in IV. 15 1:
Agníh hótâ nah adhvaré
gî́ sán pári nîyate
deváh devéshu yagñíyah.
‘Agni our priest is led about at the sacrifice being a horse.’
The leading about is an expression that applies to horses being led round or exercised and the words ‘being a horse’ are no more than a metaphor. They mean that as he is supposed to be a horse therefore he is led about at the sacrifice. And this is exactly what has often to be done with the fire also which at a sacrifice is carried about from one altar to another. This is not zoolatry it is nothing but the natural play of language.
Agni as Sacrificial Fire.
Hitherto it must be clear that all that has been said of Agni in the Veda applies to fire such as it is without any necessary reference as yet to the sacrificial fire. This as we shall see occupies no doubt a very large place in the poetry of the ancient Rishis but all that is said about it tells us very little of what we really care to know the historical genesis of the concept of fire and its elevation to a divine rank.
That the Vedic poets were not entirely overawed by this sacrificial or sacred character of Agni is best shown by their painting the same Agni occasionally in the most hideous colours. We saw how they spoke with horror of the black inhabitants of India as flesh-eaters kravyâd. But they could not help seeing that Agni the fire also was a kind of flesh-eater. He not only served to cook the meat whether for feasts or for sacrifices he also devoured it and he became particularly terrible in the eyes of the Vedic poets when used for cremating the corpses of animals or men. In one hymn of the tenth Mandala (X. 87) he is asked to sharpen his two iron tusks and to put the enemies into his mouth to devour them. He is implored to heat the edges of his shafts and to send them into the heart of the Rakshas and to break their outstretched arms. He is supposed to tear their skin to mince their members and to throw their bodies before shrieking vultures to be eaten by them.
However we have only to open the Veda in order to see that the sacrificial character of Agni is certainly very predominant in our collection of hymns. It began as we saw with the very natural feeling towards Agni that is towards the fire which was carefully preserved on the hearth of every house. Agni the fire on the hearth was the center of the family. Whoever belonged to a family shared the same fire and whoever was driven away from that fire was what the Romans called aqua et igni interdictus11. The fire on the hearth was looked upon as a friend and benefactor round whom the members of a family old and young gathered in the morning and the evening. At meals again and at more solemn festivals the fire was always present and when libations and offerings were introduced either in memory of the departed or in gratitude to the powers above the fire on the hearth was the most convenient place to receive them. The people of Mexico threw the first morsel of their meals into the fire they did not know why12. Many Tungusian Mongolian and Turkish tribes would never dare to eat meat without first throwing a piece on the fire of the hearth13. Here then we see what we call by the grand names of sacrifices and ceremonial springing up in the most natural manner. The people while feasting and enjoying themselves thought in their childish way that something should be given up to their departed friends and that the bright friends also whose presence they thought they had discovered in the genial sky in the seasonable rain or in the cheerful breezes of the morning should not be forgotten. Everything else followed without any effort. The fire burning on the hearth when it flared up with the fat or butter that had been poured upon it was supposed to be carrying the offerings to the sky in clouds of smoke and fire. Or when it consumed itself the more substantial gifts the fire was looked upon as the representative of gods or ancestors accepting and enjoying what had been offered to them (Rv. II. 1 13).
Agni the Messenger between Gods and Men.
Here comes in the very natural idea that Agni is the messenger between gods and men the swift carrier travelling between heaven and earth. At first he is conceived as carrying prayers and offerings to the abode of the gods; but very soon he is also supposed to bring the gods down from their abodes to the abodes of men and more particularly to the places where sacrifices were performed. Thus we read Rv. X. 70 11:
Á agne vaha várunam ishtáye nah
índram diváh marútah antárikshât.
‘O Agni bring hither Varuna to our offering bring Indra from the sky the Maruts from the air.’
Agni as Priest.
All this is still more or less natural but after Agni has once been raised to the rank of messenger he soon assumes the office of priest in all its endless varieties. The Vedic poets never weary of this subject. Agni is called the priest and with the refinements of the priestly offices every special office also is assigned to him. He is called the Hotri the priest who pours out the libation; he is the Ritvig the priest who performs at the great seasons of the year14; he is the Purohita the domestic priest; he is the Brahman the superintending priest who sees that no mistakes may be made in the performance of the sacrifice or if they have been made corrects them. Even the more special ceremonial offices of the minor priests are all assigned to him and nothing gives us so strong an impression of what we should call the modern character of the Vedic hymns as these trivial and paltry ritualistic devices which are actually transferred from the human priesthood to the gods. Still in this case also we must live and learn and it is not for us to say that ancient sages were utterly incapable of follies which we are too much inclined to consider as peculiar to our own age.
However as Agni the sacrificial fire was identified with the sacrificer and the priest he participated like-wise in all the good qualities of his prototypes and was represented as kind as wise as enlightened and as omniscient (visvavít X. 91 3). Thus he is called VI. 14 2 práketâh wise; VII. 4 4 ayám kavíh ákavíshu práketâh the sage wise among the foolish; VI. 14 2 vedhástamah ríshih the wisest poet. If any mistake has been committed Agni is supposed to be able and willing to correct it. For instance X. 2 4–5:
4. Yát vah vayám praminấma vratấni
vidúshâm devâh ávidushtarâsah
agníh tát vísvam ấ prinâti vidvấn
yébhih devấn ritúbhih kalpáyâti.
5. Yát pâkatrấ mánasâ dînádakshâh
ná yagñásya manvaté mártyâsah
agníh tát hótâ kratuvít vigânán
gishthah devấn ritusáh yagâti.
‘If we O gods impair your statutes we ignorant among the wise Agni makes it all good he who knows at what seasons to place the gods.
‘Whatever of the sacrifice weak mortals with their feeble intellect do not comprehend Agni the Hotri priest who knows all rites comprehends it and he will worship the gods at the proper seasons.’
Hymn to Agni.
In order to give you an idea what an ordinary Vedic hymn to Agni is like I shall read you now the first hymn of the Rig-veda which is addressed to Agni. It is a poor hymn in many respects. First of all it belongs to the first Mandala which as I pointed out before contains many hymns merely put together for the sake of the sacrifice and possibly of a later date. It repeats the ordinary praises and invocations of Agni which we find elsewhere in the Veda and treats Agni simply as the sacrificial fire as the divine priest by the side of the ordinary human priests. Yet it contains a few expressions which are of value to us because expressive of a genuine human feeling particularly the last verse where Agni is implored to be ‘easy of approach as a father is to his son.’
ascribed to Madhukkhandas of the family of Visvâmitra written in Gâyatrî metre.
1. Agním île puróhitam yagñásya devám ritvígam hótâram ratnadhấtamam.
‘I implore Agni the chief priest the divine minister of the sacrifice the Hotri priest the best giver of wealth’.
The verb île is not only ‘I praise’ but ‘I implore;’ and the Nirukta explains it by adhyeshanâ solicitation or pûgâ worship. Thus Rv. III. 48 3 we road upasthấya mâtáram ánnam aitta he (the new-born Indra) having approached his mother asked for food; unless we prefer to translate he having approached asked his mother for food making both accusatives dependent on the verb. Cf. Rv. VII. 93 4. The verb îd is construed with the accusative of the god implored with the dative of the object for which and the instrumental of the means by which he is implored; cf. Rv. VIII. 71 14 agním îlishva ávase gấthâbhih. Stress ought to be laid on devam divine the adjective to ritvig minister Agni being here called the divine minister as contrasted with the ministering priests.
2. Agníh pû́rvebhih ŕishibhih î́dyo nû́tanaih utá sáh devấn ấ ihá vakshati.
‘Agni worthy to be implored by former poets and by new may he bring the gods hither!’
Remarkable only for its allusion to former poets or Rishis an expression which frequently occurs.
3. Agnínâ rayím asnavat pósham eva divé-dive yasásam vî́rávattamam.
‘Through Agni man gained wealth satisfying even day by day glorious wealth of vigorous kindred.’
The imperfect asnavat implies that man always gained wealth through their sacrifices. The third person singular is used without a noun in the sense of ‘one gains.’ The adjective vîravattama is well explained by Sâyana and well translated by Benfey helden-reichsten. It implies that the wealth consists in a large number of sons and relations and slaves who constituted the wealth and strength of the ancient Aryan settlers in India.
4. Ágne yám yagñám adhvarám visvátah paribhû́h ási sáh ít devéshu gakkhati.
‘Agni the offering which thou encirclest on all sides unhurt that alone goes to the gods.’
The adjective adhvara unhurt belongs to yagña an offering. There is no necessity for translating adhvara by ‘without fraud’ as Benfey does. Adhvara means originally ‘without hurt’ from a and dhvara root dhvar. The idea that whatever is offered to the gods must be free from hurt and blemish is common to Aryan and Semitic nations. In Homer the victim must be τέλεοις Perfect (Friedrich Realien p. 444) and ἱερὰ τέλεια are perfect sacrifices performed with all rites. Moses (Leviticus iii. 1) commands: ‘And if his oblation be a sacrifice of peace offering if he offer it of the herd; whether it be a male or a female he shall offer it without blemish before the Lord.’ In the ritual Sûtras of the Brâhmans the same idea is constantly expressed and the whole chapter on Prâyaskitta or penance refers to remedies against accidents happening during a sacrifice. Agni in particular is implored net to injure the offering. (Rv. X. 16 1; see also History of Anc. S. L. p. 553 seq. and Nirukta ed Roth. p. xl.) From being originally an adjective constantly applied to sacrifices adhvara masc. came to be used by itself in the sense of sacrifice and adhvaryu became the name of the ministering priest.
5. Agníh hótâ kavíkratuh satyáh kitrásravastamah deváh devébhih ấ gamat.
‘Agni the Hotri priest the wise counsellor15 the truthful the most glorious may he the god come with the gods!’
6. Yát angá dâsúshe tvám ágne bhadrám karishyási táva ít tát satyám angirah.
‘Whatever wealth thou Agni shalt bestow on the sacrificer thine it will be16 forsooth O Angiras17.
7. Úpa tvâ agne divé-dive dóshâ-vastah dhiyấ vayám námah bhárantah ấ imasi.
‘To thee O Agni we come day by day bringing praise in mind O illuminator of darkness.’
To bring praise in mind is to pray. Doshâvastar occurs three times in the Rig-veda. In our passage the commentator explains it as an adverb by night and by day. Rv. IV. 4 9 he allows both meanings either by night and by day or illuminator and dispeller of darkness. In VII. 15 15 he only gives the second interpretation because divâ naktam by day and by night occurs in the same verse. The true meaning therefore seems the second irradiator of night or of darkness from doshâ darkness and vastar a vocative of vastri lightener. With this the accent too agrees. Rv. VII. 1 6 the expression doshấ vástoh occurs meaning by night and by day. Cf. Rv. VIII. 25 21; V. 32 11 &c.
8. Rấgantam adhvarấnâm gopấm ritásya dídivim várdhamânam své dáme.
‘To thee the lord of sacrifices the bright guardian of the law who art growing in thy own house.’
Dîdivi occurs but once in the Rig-Veda. It is formed from div or dyu to shine like gâgrivih. Cf. Unâdi-sûtras IV. 54–56. It might be a substantive as well as an adjective. As however the phrases râgantam adhvarânâm and gopâm ritasya are stereotyped phrases we could not well connect dîdivim with ritasya as it were the lord or ruler of law; but must take it as an adjective. (Râgantam adhvarânâm Rv. I. 45 4; I. 27 1 (sam); VIII. 8 18 (asvinau).) If it were not for this the interpretation of Sâyana might be adopted: ‘To thee the brilliant the guardian of sacrifices the revealer of order.’
Rita means what is settled ordered what is right and holy. This is the primitive meaning which can be perceived in all its manifold applications.
9. Sáh nah pitấ iva sûnáve ágne sûpâyanáh bhava sákasva nah svastáye.
‘Thou then O Agni be gracious to us like as a father to his son; stay with us for our welfare!’
Sûpâyana gracious literally of easy access. The comparison of the god Agni with a father being gracious to his son the worshipper is remarkable. The number of such simple and genuine sentiments is small in the Veda.
The next hymn is less formal though again full of references to the ceremonial. Verse 6 however is probably a later addition.
Mandala I Sûkta 94.
1. Let us skillfully build up this hymn of praise like a chariot for the worthy Gâtavedas (the omniscient Agni); for his protection is blissful to our homestead:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
2. He for whom thou sacrificest succeeds he dwells unhurt he gathers strength. He prospers and evil does not touch him:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
3. May we he able to light thee fulfil thou our prayers; in thee the gods consume the poured-out libation. Bring thou hither the Âdityas for we long for them:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
4. Let us bring wood let us prepare the libations thinking of thee at every phase of the moon. Fulfil our prayers that we may live longer:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
5. He is the guardian of men18 his creatures—all that is two-footed and four-footed—move about freely by night. Thou art the bright and great shine of the dawn:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
[6. Thou art the Adhvaryu priest and the old Hotri priest thou art the Prasâstri and Potri priest and the Purohita by birth; knowing all duties of the priests thou prosperest O wise one:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!]
7. Thou who art always alike19 beautiful to behold on every side thou blazest forth like lightning though being far off; thou glancest forth even above the darkness of the night:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
8. O gods let the chariot of the sacrificer come first let our curse overcome the wicked. Accept and prosper this our speech:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
9. Strike away with thy weapons the evil-wishers and the wicked the devourers whether they be far or near; then make it easy for thy praiser to sacrifice:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
10. When thou hast yoked the two red mares to the chariot quick like the wind then thy roar is like a bull's and thou stirrest the trees with thy smoke-bannered flame:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
11. Then the birds also tremble before thy shout; when thy grass-devouring sparks are scattered about the road is made easy for thee and thy chariot:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
12. This is the marvellous fury of the storm winds for the support of Mitra and Varuna. O have pity on us let their (kind) mind return to us:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
13. Thou art the god of gods the marvellous friend thou art the Vasu of Vasus beautiful at the sacrifice. O let us abide under thy far-reaching protection:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
14. This is thy blessing that when once kindled in his house and fed with Soma thou bestirrest thyself as the most gracious friend and givest treasure and wealth to thy worshipper:—O Agni let us not suffer in thy friendship!
15. May we be of those to whom thou O wealthy god grantest sinlessness O Aditi at all times and whom thou fillest with happy strength and with wealth of offspring.
16. O thou Agni who knowest true welfare lengthen our life O god. May Mitra and Varuna achieve this for us also Aditi Sindhu the Earth and the Sky!
We have now finished the biography of Agni as a purely mythological god. In our next lecture I shall try to show how Agni is slowly being divested of all that is mythological and stands before us in the end with the name of Agni but with the nature of true Divinity.

From the book: