Agni as Divested of His Material Character.
Later Development of Agni.
WE saw in our last lecture how Agni the fire grew as it were before our eyes from a mere spark of light to the dignity of a kind and omniscient being a Deva or if you like a god. Nowhere in the annals of the human intellect have we an opportunity of watching this natural theogonic process in such fulness as in India for I need not tell you that the specimens which I was able to place before you form but an insignificant portion of what the Vedic poets have to say about Agni. The most important lesson which the evidence so far as we have examined it should teach us is this that there is nothing that is not perfectly natural and intelligible in the development of this concept up to the stage which we have now reached where Agni stands before us in every respect the equal of such beings as we are accustomed to call gods I mean Apollo in Greece or Mercury in Italy or Odin in Germany. We saw that Agni like other gods could boast of many fathers and mothers and like other gods in Greece and Italy he also has acquired a wife Agnâyî (Rv. I. 22 12; V. 46 8) though we do not know much more of her than her name. Agni so far has become what we should call a mythological god.
But his career does not end there; on the contrary it becomes more and more interesting and important to us as showing how the natural theogonic process which we have hitherto watched does not stop there but forms the foundation only and the only safe foundation from which in later times the highest the truest nay from which something exactly like our own conception of the Deity has sprung.
If you remember the many things that were said of Agni the various names by which he was called the different phenomena of nature in which his presence was suspected you will find it easy to understand how behind these various apparitions a more and more general character grew up a being that was Agni but was nevertheless distinct from all these individual manifestations. We saw how Agni was perceived in the fire on the altar in the spark produced by a powerful friction of fire-sticks in the lightning that sprang from the sky and the clouds and consumed vast forests like a horse champing his hay and finally in the immortal light of the sun.
Now it is clear that Agni who was all these things could also be divested of every one of these attributes and yet remain Agni. This led to two trains of thought. Agni was either identified with other Devas who likewise represented the sun the sky and the lightning or he was more and more divested of his purely material attributes and recognised as a supreme deity in every sense of the word.
Agni identical with other Gods.
The first process that of identification is very prominent in the Veda. It could hardly be otherwise but that after nature had been peopled with ever so many Devas some of them should encroach on each other's domains and be no longer distinguishable one from the other. This has been very well brought out by Professor von Schroeder in his book on the Literature and Culture of India (p. 77). ‘It should be pointed out’ he says ‘that many of the Vedic gods coincide from the beginning in their spheres of action and cover one another almost entirely in their character and functions so that each may be said to represent but a slightly varying conception of the same phenomenon. Thus Dyaus was the sky as shining but Varuna also was originally the sky as all-embracing. Sûrya was the sun but Savitar also was the sun as imparting movement and life to all creatures. Pûshan also was the sun as giving prosperity to the flocks and light and leading to the wanderer on his journey. Vishnu lastly was the sun as striding across the regions of the sky. Indra was the powerful lord the begetter of storm thunder lightning and rain. But the same is said of Pargany a and Brihaspati also performs much the same work. Rudra is the storm the Maruts are the storms Vâta is the wind and so is Vâyu. It seems clear that this peculiarity of the Vedic gods is closely connected with what has been called their henotheistic character and that it contributed to its formation.’
What Professor von Schroeder here calls the henotheistic character is indeed a very important and instructive feature in the development of all religious thought though it is nowhere so prominent as in the religion of the Veda. It was formerly supposed that there were only three forms of religion possible Polytheism Monotheism and Atheism. But in the Veda and elsewhere also it has become necessary to distinguish Polytheism from a previous stage which may best be called Henotheism. What we mean by Polytheism is a belief in many gods who by the very fact that they are many and stand side by side are limited in their divine character. They generally form together a kind of Pantheon and are mostly though not always represented as subject to a supreme god. Polytheism therefore implies the admission of a number of beings who all claim a kind of equality so far as their divine character is concerned who are conceived in fact as members of one class and whose divinity is consequently a limited divinity or if we hold that divinity cannot be limited no true divinity at all.
But there are as I said just now clear traces of a totally different phase of religious thought in the Veda. No doubt the number of gods invoked in the hymns of the Rig-veda is very considerable and in this sense the Vedic religion may be called polytheistic. In many hymns where different gods are invoked together the conception of divinity shared by them all is as limited as in Homer. But there are other hymns in which the poet seems to know for the time being of one single god only. That single god is to him the only god and in the momentary vision of the poets his divinity is not limited by the thought of any other god. This phase of thought this worship not of many nor of one only god but of a single god I called Henotheism
a name which is now accepted by the most competent authorities as representing an important phase in the development of religious ideas1
. It may be that India where social life was chiefly developed in families clans and village-communities favoured the growth and permanence of this worship of single deities more than any other country; but from a psychological point of view it seems as if all polytheism must have passed through this previous phase and as if everywhere whether consciously or unconsciously the progress must have been from the single to the many and finally to the one.
But apart from all theories the fact remains that in the religious childhood of India as represented to us in the hymns of the Veda we can see this henotheistic tendency fully developed. We can see a poet or a family or a clan or a village believing in this or that god as for the time and for certain purposes the only god yet quite ready under new circumstances to invoke the help of another god who again stands supreme or more correctly stands alone before the mind of the suppliant as his only helper in distress.
Henotheism in Finland.
The same henotheistic character was pointed out by Castrén in his Lectures on Finnish Mythology. He described it fully though he did not give it any definite name. ‘In general’ he writes ‘the single deities of the Finnish mythology do not as in Greek and Roman mythology seem dependent on each other. Each god however small he may be acts in his own sphere as a free and independent power or if we use the language of the runes as host in his own house. As among mortals so among immortals one host is rich and powerful possessed of wide-stretching lands large flocks numerous man- and maid-servants while another has but a small property a small family or none at all. Yet within their own walls each enjoys the same independence. The god of a star rules only over an insignificant spot in the sky but on that spot he is his own host and master.’
I must protest against the supposition that I had ever represented the whole of the Vedic religion as henotheistic. I seldom speak of the whole of the Vedic religion for the simple reason that it does not form a whole but represents to us in its numerous hymns several phases of the early religious thought of India. That is the very thing which makes the Veda so instructive to students of religion. There are hymns in which the gods have been counted and represented as all alike none greater none smaller. There are others in which one god is praised as greater than another god nay as greater than all other gods. It could not be otherwise. The great natural phenomena of which the gods were supposed to be the secret agents though they might seem all powerful by themselves showed also clear traces of their mutual limitations. When the fire was seen quenched by water or the sun was seen hidden in the clouds or sunk into the sea the poet could only repeat what he saw that Agni was hidden in the water that the sun was swallowed by the clouds. We saw how these ideas were expressed mythologically but they acted also in a different direction. They provoked the first doubts in the omnipotence nay in the very existence of certain gods of nature.
We find traces of this early scepticism in the well-known dialogue ascribed to Abraham and Nimrod2
. Here it is said that fire should not be worshipped because water can quench it; nor water because the clouds can carry it; nor the clouds because the winds tear them; nor the winds because even men can withstand them3
The same scepticism appears in the remarkable story of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui as told by Garcilasso (viii. 8). Though it may have been embellished by the Jesuit Blas Valera on whose authority Garcilasso tells it it seems to have had an historical foundation. That Inca though himself reputed a son of the sun began to doubt the divine omnipotence of his divine ancestor4
At a great religious council held at the consecration of the newly-built temple of the Sun at Cazco about 1440 he rose before the assembled multitude to deny the divinity of the Sun. ‘Many say’ he began ‘that the Sun is the maker of all things. But he who makes should abide by what he has made. Now many things happen when the Sun is absent; therefore he cannot be the universal Creator. And that he is alive at all is doubtful for his journeys do not tire him. Were he a living thing he would grow weary like ourselves; were he fire he would visit other parts of the heavens. He is like a tethered beast who makes a daily round; he is like an arrow which must go whither it is sent not whither it wishes. I tell you that he our Father and Maker the Sun must have a lord and master more powerful than himself who constrains him to his daily circuit without pause or rest.’
Surely this speech forms one of the brightest moments in the whole history of religion and our bold Inca deserves a place by the side of Luther at the Diet of Worms.
Exchange of Gods.
If I have succeeded in making the henotheistic phase of religious thought clear to you you will understand how rightly Professor von Schroeder remarked that the later identification of several gods which is also very prominent in the Veda is closely connected with this henotheistic tendency. If two families or two villages each having their own name for the god of fire came into closer contact nothing was more natural for them than to say What you call the morning sun we call the dawn; what you call Agni fire we call Dyaus light; what you call Sûrya the sun we call Savitri the enlivener. If Agni as we saw meant light and fire and warmth in its various manifestations no wonder that the Vedic poets identified Agni with the various names under which light and fire and warmth had assumed a certain individuality in their ancient religious phraseology. Thus we read Rv. V. 3 1–2:
Tvám agne várunah gâyase yát
tvám mitráh bhavasi yát sámiddhah
tvé vísve sahasah putra devấh
tvám #237;ndrah dâsúshe mártyâya.
Tvám aryamấ bhavasi yát kanî́nâm
nấma svadhâvan gúhyam bibharshi
añgánti mitrám súdhitam ná góbhih
yát dámpatî sámanasâ krinóshi.
‘Thou O Agni art Varuna when thou art born; thou art Mitra when thou art kindled; in thee O son of strength are all the gods; thou art Indra to the generous mortal.
‘Thou art Aryaman when with the girls thou bearest a secret name. When thou makest the husband and wife to be of one mind they anoint thee with butter as a welcome friend.’
Or again in the Atharva-veda5
(XIII. 3 13) we read:
Sáh várunah sâyám agníh bhavati
sáh mitráh bhavati prâtáh udyán;
sáh savitấ bhûtvấ ántarikshena yâti
sáh índrah bhûtvấ tapati madhyatáh divám.
‘In the evening Agni becomes Varuna; he becomes Mitra when rising in the morning; having become Savitri he passes through the sky; having become Indra he warms the heaven in the centre.’
In another place the idea that Agni is or comprehends all other gods is expressed metaphorically. Rv. V. 13 6:
Ágne nemíh arấn iva devấn tvám paribhû́h asi.
‘O Agni thou surroundest the gods as a felly the spokes of a wheel.’
In other hymns6
this idea of identifying Agni with every possible god is carried to excess and may be merely the fancy of individual poets.
But that the common character of certain gods was clearly perceived by the people at large we can see best in a number of dual names which have become the recognised titles of certain deities7
. Thus we find hymns addressed to Agni and Indra as one deity called Indrâgnî; to Agni and Soma then called Agnîshomau—a process similar probably to that which in Greek led to such combined names as Phoebos Apollon
and Pallas Athene
where two originally distinct names were likewise recognised as to all intents and purposes identical names and the gods as identical gods.
Reconciliation of the Solar and Meteoric Theories.
A clear recognition of this religious syncretism or rather of the common foundation of three such gods as those of the sun the lightning and the fire may help us to remove a difficulty which has hitherto divided Comparative Mythologists into two hostile or at all events separate camps. The two schools called the solar and meteorological were often driven to explain the same myth as developed originally from solar phenomena such as the sudden effulgence of the dawn the fight of the sun against the darkness of the night and the victorious return of the light of the morning; or from meteoric events such as the sudden effulgence of the lightning the fight of the storm-god against the dark clouds and the victorious return of the blue sky at the end of a thunder-storm.
These two systems of mythological interpretation which for a time seemed irreconcilable may after all find their common justification in the fact which we discovered in our analysis of the growth of Agni recognised as present not only in the sun but in the lightning also both being manifestations of the same bright power both performing similar deeds though under different circumstances. Professor Tiele in his excellent essay Le Mythe de Kronos 1886 (p. 17) has shown very clearly that there are deities who are at the same time gods of the dawn the sun and the thunder.
Supremacy of Agni.
But besides this process of identification which led to such conceptions as the Visve Devâs the All-gods and in the end to the more or less well-founded suspicion that all the names of the gods were names of one nameless power there was another result springing from what I explained before as the henotheistic tendency of the Vedic Rishis namely the exaltation of one or other of these single gods to the rank of a supreme deity.
This last stage in the development of divine beings is again very fully represented in the case of Agni. Other gods also share the same fate8
. Indra for instance is constantly celebrated as the strongest and most heroic of gods and in one of the hymns addressed to him every verse ends with the words vis
vasmâd Indra uttarah
‘Indra is greater than all’ Of Varun
a it is said that he is lord of all of heaven and earth that he is king of gods and men that he rules the world that he knows the past and the future and that he rewards the virtuous and punishes the evil-doer. Nor is this character of supremacy ascribed to such mighty gods only as Indra and Varun
a. Soma a god of whose original character we perceive but few traces in the Veda and who has become identified simply with an intoxicating drink used at the sacrifice is nevertheless praised as the king of heaven and earth of men and gods the giver of life nay the giver of immortality.
Let us now return to Agni. Let us remember that Agni was at first simply ignis the fire. It was a name for certain luminous manifestations comprehended under the name of Agni which so far as we know meant originally not much more than agile quickly moving.
The General Name of Deity.
Let us remember also that in accordance with the fact that most words are formed from roots and most roots are expressive of human acts Agni the agile had to be conceived and named as an agent an actor though nothing was said as to who that actor was. It was enough that he was known and named from one of his manifestations as a quick mover or runner. Other names and epithets were added from time to time to make him better known and better named in every one of his modes of acting and modes of being but he always remained Agni the quick.
We saw also that one of his earliest epithets was deva bright and that he shared that epithet with many other unknown agents the sun the sky the dawn and others who were all called Devas the bright. Now it is clear that when a number of different objects are comprehended under the same name that name becomes ipso facto a general name. These general names mark a most important period in the growth of language and what is the same in the growth of the human mind. Individual objects when brought under a general name are divested for the time of their distinguishing features and named or known by one prominent feature only which they all share in common and which is expressed by the general name. On the other hand the general name applied to them all becomes likewise less definite than it was when applied to one object only so that in the end it expresses not much more than some very general quality shared in common by a number of otherwise quite different beings.
When Agni fire was called deva bright there could be little doubt what was meant. But when the sun the sky the dawn the day the spring and the rivers were all called deva the brightness they shared in common had become if I may say so a very diluted brightness. On the other hand the different objects or agents now comprehended under the name of Devas had so far to surrender their respective characters or their peculiar modes of agency that when they had all alike become conceived as Devas deva could mean hardly more than sunny cheerful kind and beneficent. If then Agni fire and Dyaus the sky and Ushas the dawn and all the rest were all called Devas or sunny cheerful kind and beneficent agents unknown agents powerful agents never ceasing never dying immortal agents—had not the word Deva then reached very nearly the general or abstract meaning of gods at least of what we call the gods of the ancient world?
Evolution of Concepts.
So far I think it will be admitted that nothing of what is called supernatural no miracles in the modern sense of that word no superhuman revelation were required to account for the simple and perfectly intelligible evolution of the concept of deity. What should we give if in any realm of nature we could watch that wonderful process of evolution of growth or development so clearly as here in the realm of thought? If some students of physical science come to us and tell us of the great discovery of evolution in the nineteenth century and express a hope that we also we poor metaphysicians and psychologists and philologists should become evolutionists one hardly knows what to say.
What have we been doing all this time but trying to understand how things have become what they are how from a few roots language by an uninterrupted growth developed into the endless varieties now scattered all over the world; how from a few simple concepts the infinitude of thought was evolved which represents the intellectual wealth of mankind; and how philosophers as distant from one another as Kant and Thales are nevertheless held together by an unseen chain in the historical march that led them nearer and nearer to the truth.
Really to be told as we were lately by Professor Romanes in his Origin of Human Faculty
p. 240 that ‘the idea that language was the result of natural growth could not be appreciated in its full significance before the advent of the general theory of evolution’ that ‘till the middle of the present century the possibility of language having been the result of a natural growth was not sufficiently recognised’ and that it was ‘the same year that witnessed the publication of the Origin of Species
(1859) which gave to science the first issue of Steinthal's Zeitschrift für Völkerpsychologie und Sprachwissenschaft’
is enough to take away one's breath9
. It is nearly as bad as when Mr. M. Conway tells us that not a single society for the protection of animals existed before the publication of Darwin's book. The Origin of Species
appeared in 1859; the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in 1824. The idea of evolution was more fully recognised and more clearly defined by the students of language than it has ever been by the students of nature and they certainly did not wait for the advent in 1859 before explaining what was meant by genealogical what by morphological classification; what was meant by dialects (varieties) by families of speech (genera); what was meant by the constant elimination of useless words which is but another and a more correct name for natural selection. If Professor Romanes says Even
Professor Max Müller insists that ‘no student of the science of language can be anything but an evolutionist for wherever he looks he sees nothing but evolution going on all around him’ what is the meaning of that even? Even
before Professor Romanes joined the ranks of evolutionists I had in the warmest terms greeted the discoveries of Darwin as a biologist because they lent such strong support to the theories put forward long ago by comparative philologists and they enabled them to see many things far more clearly by their analogies with his theories. Unfortunately Darwin had been misinformed as to the results obtained by the Science of Language having consulted some personal friends whom he trusted and who were not quite competent to give the necessary information. It was in the interest of the true theory of evolution in support of true against false Darwinism that I published my criticism of Darwin's Views on Language not as an opponent of the theory of evolution. That theory has no stronger fortress than the Science of Language of Thought and of Religion. For it is here that evolution stands before us as a simple fact and not as is so often the case in nature as a mere hope and desire. We have here no missing links but one perfect and unbroken chain.
The Highest Concept of Deity.
And now we have another and a much more important step to make. Many philosophers many historians many students of the evolution of the human mind would readily grant that the human mind unassisted by any but the great natural miracles by which it finds itself surrounded from the first moments of its conscious life might have reached the concept of gods such as we find it in the ancient religions of the world in what have often been called natural religions as distinct from supernatural religions. But they would demur if asked to admit that the highest concept of God such as we find it among Jews Christians and possibly among Mohammedans was within the reach of unassisted human reason. We need not inquire why they should have so strong a wish that it should be so and why others should wish with the same intensity that it should not be so. If it can be shown that the highest and purest concept of deity has been the result of a natural and perfectly intelligible evolution all we have to do is to study the facts which history has preserved to us and then to draw our own conclusions. Let those who hold that the highest concept of deity is unattainable without a special revelation put down those attributes of deity which they believe are outside the ken of natural religion. Let us then put by the side of them the divine attributes which are the property of natural religion and if there remain any that cannot be matched let us then freely admit that these were unattainable by man as placed in this world though it is a world of unceasing miracle and of never-ending revelation.
There is one powerful prejudice against which all believers in evolution have to guard. When we see the last result of an evolution we are loth to identify it with its simple and often apparently very mean beginnings. When we see the mouth of the Thames which can be as wild and as terrific as the ocean itself we can hardly believe that it began with the few trickling rills on the south-eastern slope of the Cotswolds. When we look up to the towering branches of an ancient oak tree we cannot realise how it should have sprung from one of those small decaying acorns that lie scattered round its roots. And when we admire the beauty of a full-grown man we almost shrink from the idea that not many years ago that noblest work of nature was nothing but a plastic cell undistinguishable to our eyes at least from any other cell that might in time develop into a dog or an ape.
It is the same with our words. Their original meaning is often so commonplace and so material that nothing but downright facts can force us to believe that for instance such abstract terms as to perceive and to conceive are derived from capio to lay hands on a thing. But because aspiration and inspiration come from the same source as respiration and perspiration they lose nothing of that sublime meaning with which in the course of time they have been invested. If therefore we should find that the highest and purest concept of divinity had slowly been elaborated out of the primitive material concept of fire that would in no way lower the divine concept. On the contrary it would only serve to impress upon our minds the same lesson which nature teaches us again and again namely that the highest achievements are often connected by a continuous growth with the meanest beginnings and that we are not to call common or unclean what has been cleansed by the spirit.
Agni as Creator Ruler Judge.
With these warnings as a preface let us now watch the latest phases in the growth of Agni. We saw him in the Veda as one of many single gods afterwards as identified with other gods whose nature and functions he shared. We shall now see him still with the name of Agni though with little of his original physical character left as the Supreme God.
From an Indian point of view the idea of a creator of the world is by no means the highest idea of deity. Some Indian philosophers regard the character of a creator whether explained as a maker or architect or operator of any kind as even incompatible with their sublimest idea of God. But in the Veda Agni is still distinctly conceived as the creator. In I. 96 4 it is he who is called g
the progenitor of heaven and earth; and in VII. 5 7 it is said that he produced all things bhúvanâ g
anáyan. Sometimes this act of creation is represented as a spreading out of heaven and earth as in III. 6 5 táva krátvâ ródasî ấ tatantha; or as a stretching out of heaven and earth like the stretching out of skins VI. 8 3 ví k
î iva dhishán
e avartayat ‘he unfolded heaven and earth like two skins.’ At other times it is said that Agni supported earth and heaven I. 67 5 and that he kept heaven and earth asunder VI. 8 310
Being the maker the creator the progenitor of the world he is likewise the supreme lord (samrâg) the king of men (rấgâ krishtînấm mấnushînâm I. 59 5). Not only does his greatness exceed that of heaven I. 59 5 but his wisdom also is infinite. He knows all worlds III. 55 10 and his laws cannot be broken (II. 8 3; VI. 7 5).
Nor are his moral character and his kindness towards sinful man forgotten. For in IV. 12 4 he is invoked in the following terms:
Yát kit hí te purushatrấ yavishtha
ákittibhih kakrimá kát kit ấgah
kridhí sú asmấn áditeh ánâgân
ví énâmsi sisrathah víshvak agne.
‘If we have committed any sin against thee through human weakness through thoughtlessness make us sinless before Aditi O Agni loosen our misdeeds from us on every side.’
And those who worship him and obey his commands do not prosper here on earth only but it is believed that he can also impart to them immortality; I. 31 7:
Tvám tám agne amritatvé
uttamé mártam dadhâsi.
‘Thou placest that mortal in the highest immortality.’
Now I ask can we ourselves form a much more sublime conception of the deity than what we see the conception of Agni to have become in the Veda? Of Agni the fire there is little nay there is nothing left in that supreme god whose laws must be obeyed and who can at the same time forgive those who have broken his laws nay who can promise to those who worship him eternal life.
It is quite true that by the side of these sublime conceptions we find also the most homely and childish ideas entertained of Agni by some of the Vedic poets. But that is not now the question. There is an ebb and flow in all religions. At present we want to know the highest mark which the tide of Vedic religion has ever reached in order to understand what the human mind left face to face with the natural revelation of this world can achieve. Trusting to the fragments that have been preserved to us in the Veda to the remains of the most childish as well as the most exalted thoughts we may say that natural religion or the natural faculties of man under the dominion of the natural impressions of the world around us can lead nay has led man step by step to the highest conception of deity a conception that can hardly be surpassed by any of those well-known definitions of deity which so-called supernatural religions have hitherto claimed as their exclusive property.
What I have just stated are either facts or no facts but if they are facts they should be accepted and inwardly digested in the same spirit in which St. Paul accepted and inwardly digested the facts that met his eyes when standing before the very altars of the heathen world. ‘Whom ye ignorantly worship’ he said ‘Him declare I unto you’—not a new god not a god different in origin from their own but the same god who had been ignorantly worshipped in the childhood of the world who is ignorantly worshipped even now but for whom the human heart and the human mind have always sought in the bounds of their habitation if haply they might feel after him and find him though he is not far from every one of us.
The Dark Side of Vedic Religion.
Let us now look at the dark side of Indian religion. There could be no greater mistake than to attempt to hide it for that dark side also has many lessons to teach us.
In the later Sanskrit literature and in the epic poetry already there is a decided falling off in the high conception of Agni as the supreme deity such as we saw it in the Veda. Or at all events there is a most puzzling mixture of different conceptions of Agni. In some places he is described as a man or if you like as a god with dark yellow eyes (pingâksha) a red neck (lohitagrîva) and seven tongues that is flames. He appears in full armour with bow and disc (kakra) driving along on a chariot drawn by seven red horses. He is one of the eight Vasus generally the first among them. These Vasus are the bright gods Agni fire; Soma moon; Ahas day; Anila wind; Pratyûsha dawn; Prabhâsa light; Dhara (earth?); and Dhruva (sky?). His father is Brahmâ his mother Sândilî. Other fathers and mothers of his are also mentioned according to the different ways in which fire takes its origin. Sometimes Anila wind is called his father; sometimes Âpas the waters the clouds his mothers. He is sometimes called his own father because he was produced from himself and by himself (tanûnapât svayoni etc.). According to an old tradition Agni is represented as the brother of Dyaus the sky and the uncle of Indra who though perhaps mightier and more popular than Agni is nevertheless a younger god. Indra is not a Vasu but a Vâsava a descendant of Vasu probably of Dyaus. He is more the god of the Brâhmans while Indra is more the god of the Kshatriyas.
Agni has even his love-affairs like any of the Greek gods. In the Rig-veda already I. 66 8 he is called g
kanî́nâm pátih g
ánînâm the lover of girls the husband of wives. His wife Svâhâ often complains about his fancies for other ladies. He fell in love for instance with Mahishmatî11
the daughter of king Nîla and as a consequence the fire on the altars of the palace would never burn except when blown by the sweet breath of the young princess. The king is much incensed but as Agni refuses altogether to burn in the palace except on condition of receiving the princess as his wife the king has to yield and Agni becomes his son-in-law and his protector.
The same story happens a second time when Agni refuses to burn at the sacrifice of king Duryodhana unless he gives him his daughter Sudarsanâ. Here also the king has to yield and Agni in the form of a Brâhmana marries the young princess.
But in spite of this mythological and dramatic colouring which Agni has received more particularly in the Purân
as and in the ordinary superstitions of the day the memory of his divine and supreme character has never entirely perished. Agni is known in the Mahâbhârata12
also as omnipresent and omniscient as the witness of all our acts whether good or evil. He is conceived not only as visible but likewise as invisible and dwelling within all things that have life. He is not only the lord of all things of the world of gods and men but the creation of the world is ascribed to him and it is said of him that he who created the world will when the time comes (prâpte kâle) destroy it also (Mahâbhârata I. 232 8417):
Srishtvâ lokâns trîn imân havyavâha
kâle prâpte pakasi punah samiddhah
tvam sarvasya bhuvanasya prasûtis
tvam evâgne bhavasi punah pratshthâ.
‘O Havyavâha thou having created these three worlds ripenest them (lit. cookest them) again when thou hast been kindled at the right time. Thou art the origin of the whole world and thou alone art again its refuge.’
The purifying power of Agni is frequently put forward and though he is said to hate all crimes yet his favour can be gained even by the sinner by prayer and truthfulness. There is a prayer in the Mahâbhârata (II. 30 1152) addressed by Sahadeva to Agni where we can see the most curious mixture of his mythological and divine characters and gain a valuable insight into the chaotic state of religious ideas in the later ages of Hinduism.
‘O thou whose path is black this undertaking is for thy sake adoration be to thee! Thou art the mouth of the gods thou art the sacrifice O purifier! Thou art called the purifier (pâvaka) because thou purifiest thou art the carrier (havyavâhana) because thou carriest the sacrificial offerings. The Vedas were produced for thy sake and therefore thou art G
. O Vibhâvasu thou art K
itrabhânu (with brilliant light) Suresa the lord of gods Anala (fire) the doorkeeper of heaven the eater of offerings the flaming the crested. Thou art Vais
vânara (belonging to all men) with dark yellow eyes the monkey possessed of great splendour the father of Kumâra (god of war) the holy the son of Rudra (Rudragarbha) the maker of gold. May Agni give me splendour Vâyu breath the Earth strength and the Waters happiness! O thou son of the waters powerful G
âtavedas lord of gods mouth of the gods O Agni do thou purify me by thy truth! O thou who art always well worshipped at the sacrifices by Rishis Brâhman
as gods or demons do thou purify me by thy truth! O thou with smoke as thy banner crested destroyer of sin born of wind always abiding within living things do thou purify me by thy truth!’
Such ideas as we here find mixed up together may seem to us quite incompatible.
But we must not forget that the anthropomorphic tendencies in man are well-nigh irresistible. The old commandment ‘Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth’ has been broken by nearly all religions if not by making likenesses at least by conceiving the Deity in the likeness of man. In the ancient Vedic religion there is no sign as yet of graven images and though many human qualities are attributed to the gods they never assumed that plastic human character which they have in Greece. Still the anthropomorphic tendency was there particularly in later times.
The Sage Nârada.
There is a curious legend preserved by Al-Birûnî (I. 116) of an Indian sage called Nârada a son of Brahman. He had but one desire that of seeing God and used to walk about holding a stick. If he threw it down it became a serpent and he was able to work other miracles with it. One day being en-grossed in meditation on the object of his hopes he saw a fire from afar. He went towards it and then a voice spoke to him out of the fire: ‘What you demand and wish is impossible. You cannot see me save thus.’ When Nârada looked in that direction he saw a fiery appearance in something like a human shape. Henceforward it has been the custom to erect idols of certain shapes!
There is a deep meaning in this story a consciousness of our human weakness to conceive God except in the likeness of man. However the story may be late and the writer may possibly have been acquainted with the story of Moses.
Influence of Children on Religion.
No doubt the childish legends about the gods may originally have grown up among the uneducated classes; they may have been intended for children only who could not be fed on stronger food. But what we have learnt in our childhood is surrounded by a halo which often lasts for life and what is old and has been handed down from mother to child retains a sacredness of its own often beyond the reach of reflection or argument. We must never forget that all religions particularly in their earliest stages represent the thoughts of the highest and the lowest layers of society and that many a story told at first in good faith by an old grandmother may in time become a sacred narrative.
If all the stories that are told by the common people in Roman Catholic countries about St. Peter as the doorkeeper of heaven and his very free-and-easy conversations with God the Father; if all the miracles of the childhood of Christ contained in the spurious Gospels; if all the circumstances attending the supposed apparitions of the Virgin in ancient in mediaeval and even in modern times had been reduced to writing we should then have something corresponding to the silly stories about Agni and other gods which we find in India in the epic poems and in the Purân
as. However as the level of civilisation and good taste is higher in Europe than it is in India it is certainly true that in Europe the corruption of religion has never gone so far as in India. There are some portions of the Bible which I believe most Christians would not be sorry to miss. But that is nothing in comparison to the absurd and even revolting stories occurring in Sanskrit books which are called sacred. In that respect it is quite true that there is no comparison between our own sacred book the New Testament and the Sacred Books of the East. Nevertheless the study of these Sacred Books of the East is full of lessons and full of warnings. If we see Agni the god of fire and light conceived as the highest god as the soul of the world (âtman) he being in the universe and the universe in him14
and then read of the same Agni as in love with a young princess we can learn by an extreme case how religion being the common property of the young and the old of the wise and the foolish is exposed to dangers from which nothing but perfect freedom of thought and perfect freedom of speech granted to all its followers can save it. But we can also learn another lesson namely that every religion being the property of the young and the old the wise and the foolish must always be a kind of compromise and that while protesting against real corruptions and degradations we must learn to bear with those whose language differs from our own and trust that in spite of the tares that have sprung up during the night some grains of wheat will ripen towards the harvest in every honest heart.