AGNI, the god of Fire, is one of the most prominent of the deities of the Vedas. With the single exception of Indra, more hymns are addressed to him than to any other deity.
Various accounts are given of the origin of Agni. He is said to be a son of Dyaus and Prithivi; he is called the son of Brahmā, and is then named Abhimāni; and he is reckoned amongst the children of Kasyapa and Aditi, and hence one of the Ādityas. In the later writings he is described as a son of Angiras, king of the Pitris (fathers of mankind), and the authorship of several hymns is ascribed to him. In pictures he is represented as a red man, having three legs and seven arms, dark eyes, eyebrows and hair. He rides on a ram, wears a poita (Brāhmanical thread), and a garland of fruit. Flames of fire issue from his mouth, and seven streams of glory radiate from his body. The following passage, for every sentence of which Dr. Muir quotes a text from the Vedas, gives a good idea of the character and functions of this deity in the Vedic Age.
Agni is an immortal who has taken up his abode with mortals as their guest. He is the domestic priest who rises before the dawn, and who concentrates in his own person and exercises in a higher sense all the various sacrificial offices which the Indian ritual assigns to a number of different human functionaries. He is a sage, the divinest among the sages, immediately acquainted with all the forms of worship; the wise director, the successful accomplisher, and the protector of all ceremonies, who enables men to serve the gods in a correct and acceptable manner in cases where they could not do this with their own unaided skill. He is a swift messenger, moving between heaven and earth, commissioned both by gods and men to maintain their mutual communication, to announce to the immortals the hymns, and to convey to them the oblations of their worshippers; or to bring them (the immortals) down from the sky to the place of sacrifice. He accompanies the gods when they visit the earth, and shares in the reverence and adoration which they receive. He makes the oblations fragrant; without him the gods experience no satisfaction.
Agni is the lord, protector, king of men. He is the lord of the house, dwelling in every abode. He is a guest in every home; he despises no man, he lives in every family. He is therefore considered as a mediator between gods and men, and as a witness of their actions; hence to the present day he is worshipped, and his blessing sought on all solemn occasions, as at marriage, death, etc. In these old hymns Agni is spoken of as dwelling in the two pieces of wood which being rubbed together produce fire; and it is noticed as a remarkable thing that a living being should spring out of dry (dead) wood. Strange to say, says the poet, the child, as soon as born, begins with unnatural voracity to consume his parents. Wonderful is his growth, seeing that he is born of a mother who cannot nourish him; but he is nourished by the oblations of clarified butter which are poured into his mouth, and which he consumes.
The highest divine functions are ascribed to Agni. Although in some places he is spoken of as the son of heaven and earth, in others he is said to have stretched them out; to have formed them, and all that flies or walks, or stands or moves. He formed the sun, and adorned the heavens with stars. Men tremble at his mighty deeds, and his ordinances cannot be resisted. Earth, heaven, and all things obey his commands. All the gods fear, and do homage to him. He knows the secrets of mortals, and hears the invocations that are addressed to him.
The worshippers of Agni prosper, are wealthy, and live long. He watches with a thousand eyes over the man who brings him food, and nourishes him with oblations. No mortal enemy can by any wondrous power gain the mastery over him who sacrifices to this god. He also confers and is the guardian of immortality. In a funeral hymn, Agni is asked to warm with his heat the unborn (immortal) part of the deceased, and in his auspicious form to carry it to the world of the righteous. He carries men across calamities, as a ship over the sea. He commands all the riches in earth and heaven; hence he is invoked for riches, food, deliverance, and in fact all temporal good. He is also prayed to as the forgiver of sins that may have been committed through folly. All gods are said to be comprehended in him; he surrounds them as the circumference of a wheel does the spoke.
“In a celebrated hymn of the Rig-Veda, attributed to Visishtha, Indra and the other gods are called upon to destroy the Kravyāds (the flesh-eaters), or Rākshas, enemies of the gods. Agni himself is a Kravyād, and as such takes an entirely different character. He is then represented under a form as hideous as the beings he, in common with the other gods, is called upon to devour. He sharpens his two iron tusks, puts his enemies into his mouth, and devours them. He heats the edges of his shafts, and sends them into the hearts of the Rākshasas.”
“In the Mahābhārata, Agni is represented as having exhausted his vigour by devouring too many oblations, and desiring to consume the whole Khāndava forest, as a means of recruiting his strength. He was [at first] prevented from doing this by Indra; but having obtained the assistance of Krishna and Arjuna, he baffled Indra, and accomplished his object.”
According to the Rāmāyana, in order to assist Vishnu when incarnate as Rāma, Agni became the father of Nila by a monkey mother; and according to the “Vishnu Purāna,” he married Swāhā, by whom he had three sons — Pāvaka, Pavamāna, and Suchi.
Brihaspati and Brahmanaspati are generally regarded as being identical with Agni. Nearly the same epithets are applied to them, with this additional one — of presiding over prayer. In some few hymns they are addressed as separate deities. In “The Religions of India,” M. Barth, regarding these as names of one and the same deity, thus describes him: —
“Like Agni and Soma, he is born on the altar, and thence rises upwards to the gods; like them, he was begotten in space by Heaven and Earth; like Indra, he wages war with enemies on the earth and demons in the air; like all three, he resides in the highest heaven, he generates the gods, and ordains the order of the universe. Tinder his fiery breath the world was melted and assumed the form it has, like metal in the mould of the founder. At first sight it would seem that all this is a late product of abstract reflection; and it is probable, in fact, from the very form of the name, that in so far as it is a distinct person, the type is comparatively modern; in any case, it is peculiarly Indian; but by its elements it is connected with the most ancient conceptions. As there is a power in the flame and the libation, so there is in the formula; and this formula the priest is not the only person to pronounce, any more than he is the only one to kindle Agni or shed Soma. There is a prayer in the thunder, and the gods, who know all things, are not ignorant of the power in the sacramental expressions. They possess all-potent spells that have remained hidden from men and are as ancient as the first rites, and it was by these the world was formed at first, and by which it is preserved up to the present. It is this omnipresent power of prayer which Brahmanaspati personifies, and it is not without reason that he is sometimes confounded with Agni, and especially with Indra. In reality each separate god and the priest himself become Brahmanaspati at the moment when they pronounce the mantras which gave them power over the things of heaven and of earth.”