Agni's powers of transformation have for long been invoked by sadhakas to make rapid progress in their spiritual journey.
Rajarshi, a sadhaka and adherent of the Sanatan Dharma, is a technical writer by training, and a spiritualist by passion, currently working as a Contributing Editor for SirfNews.com
ॐ अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवमृत्विजम् । होतारं रत्नधातमम्||
AgnimILe purohitaM yajñasya devamRtvijam | hotAraM ratnadhAtamam ||
I worship the Fire God, who is the divine priest of the ritual of the sacrifice, who bestows excellence.
It can be assumed that the first instances when early humans interacted with fire must have been from lightening strikes, or by observing the remnants of some half burnt tree or shrub in the wilderness. Then, at least 1.9 million years ago hominids started controlling fire, though it became really widespread only around 100,000 years ago. One of the earliest known evidence of the controlled use of fire comes from Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel, about 7,90,000 years ago [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15118160]. This one single act, of fire-control, no doubt caused a vast evolutionary and cultural change in our behavior, health and energy expenditure. Not only that, it gave us a new way of looking at the world around, a supremacy which probably did not exist in an ancient era driven by predatory forces and drives. While the animal kingdom is physically apt, agile and better suited than humans to survive in the wild, they all have an instinctive fear of fire. Important too is the fact that the art of cooking food caused our bodies to absorb more nutrients resulting, eventually in a shrinking of the long intestine and a rapid expansion of the brain and its capabilities, which otherwise, may not have been possible. In short, it would not be an exaggeration to say that fire humanized us!
Agni - a Deva
But Agni is not merely a natural process, a study in combustion, but also a integral part of most Indo-European religious thought. He is regarded verily a god in his own rights! The Rig Veda starts with a hymn to Agni, calling on fire to act as the first priest, the officiator of the vedic sacrificial rituals, and the one who brings the deva-s to our realm. Since at least the Treta Yuga, when Lord Rama was supposed to have lived, fire has been an integral part of rituals for Sanatana Dharma. Not just in Hinduism, evidence suggests that most ancient cultures are known to have revered fire in some manner or the other as a symbol of the Divine, and its power of burning and illumination was used for making ritual offerings to other deities. While Zoroastrians are known for their fire worship and fire temples, the Graeco-Roman tradition had deities connected to fire like the Greek Vesta and the Roman Vulcan. The Titan Prometheus, in Greek mythology, is supposed to have stolen fire from the gods and gifted it to the humans. In Celtic mythology Belenus is connected to fire, as was Svarog, (cognate of the Sanskrit word Swarga) of Slavic religions. Even the earliest Semitic texts contain references to fire sacrifices performed by prophetic figures like Noah. The word Holocaust from Greek Holokautein (ὁλοκαυτεῖν) in its pristine sense refers to a complete and thorough sacrifice of fire where no remnants of the original offering is left behind.
The vedic fire rituals were grand, elaborate affairs often involving mass community participation as well as individualistic efforts. These were known as yajña and played a great role in the karmakandic – ritualistic – worship preferred by the Mimamsaka school and its adherents. Complex, geometrical fire altars were created, strict rules of offering were made, and Rishis conducted these ceremonial yajñas for the overall material and spiritual benefit of the whole community. Over time the term yajña came to mean any kind of sacrifice or offering, and eventually spreading out into the five forms – bhuta yajña, manushya yajña, pitr yajña, deva yajña, brahma yajña - but in the historical context it was primarily an offering through fire.
As yajñas became less frequent, homas (from the root hu, meaning "offering into fire") became more popular. These are much small scale fire rituals that can be performed by individuals, either with specific aims or for general spiritual progress. Historians say that evidences of homa-like rituals can be found across Asia from ancient Samarkand to Japan for at least 3000 years. Philosophically there are two distinct ways in which fire is regarded as a medium of worship in IE religions. First, as a vehicle of sending our oblations to the realm of the gods, while bringing down gifts and benedictions from them. But also, where Agni is regarded as one of the five great elements of creation, whose special potency it is to swiftly invoke the energies of the other divine beings within, because it is extremely pure and untarnished. Hence one of the ancient names for Agni is pAvaka. Thus, a homa involves a pranapratisthapana of the deity inside the flames of Agni using appropriate mantras and mudras and then making offerings onto the deity. It must be remembered that the basic idea of worship and sadhana is always to use one of the five main constituent elements – prithivi, jal, Agni, vayu, akasha - as the conduit or medium through which the Shakti of the Deva is to be accessed. So when a murti is worshiped, it is akin to using the prithivi tattwa to approach the devata, while a homa uses the Agni tattwa.
Each of these tattwas has its own specific attributes which need to be kept in mind while using them. For example, the prithivi tattwa is slow and steady, therefore to infuse Shakti into an idol may take years of worship, whereas Agni is fast and transformative, that is, it can turn any substance into ash. This quality makes worship through Agni produce quicker results. Anyone who has performed fire rituals for a sufficient time will notice that Agni has the ability to cause a subtle vitalization of thoughts and in effect, the mantras being chanted near the fire result in a deeper resonance inside the consciousness of the individual. This particular ability of Agni has tremendous significance in spiritual practices. Further, the smell from the burnt offerings causes an astral purification of the area, where homas are regularly performed. There is no magic here but only a process and the realization that comes through consistent practice and observation. Not so long ago fire rituals were a regular part of Hindu households. Even Naga Sadhus, a branch from within the ascetic sects of Hinduism, while renouncing everything else, including clothes, still maintain their dhunis – constantly burning fires, where they perform regular worship.
Agni as Other Devatas
The chief attribute of Agni which make it a potent internal symbol as well as an external deity is its ability to transform everything, purifying all that is added onto it and bringing them to sameness, the ash, or vibhuti. Its constant upward face while burning is considered to be a sign of righteousness, a single pointed focus on the realm of the devas. There are, in fact, some other popular deities in Hinduism who are believed to have a link to Agni. For example, the southern face of Siva, known as Aghora – that which is non-terrifying – is linked to Agni. It could also be due to the swift and dreadful nature of this path that it has been linked to fire. Among the avatars of Vishnu, the man-lion form of Narasimha has clearly, an unmistakable link to fire. It may be apt to recall here Sri Aurobindo's commentary on the ten principal avataras and the progress of consciousness across various life forms on earth for more effective and varied self-expression. Narasimha represents the stage where consciousness progresses from the animal forms into the human, hence the symbolism of transition surrounding the story of this avatara. He was neither animal nor man, appearing in the interlude between day and night, from an object that is so simple and unexpected – a pillar. As if an intense and powerful force erupted out of the normal status quo of animal life and gave birth to another level of consciousness which needed a newer and more capable adhara, a human being. What could this be if not fire, which when introduced into the world of hominids produced such a quick and tremendous evolutionary progress?
The Agni Within
The red-glowing mass of him is seen: a great god has been delivered out of the darkness - Rig Veda V.1.2
Sri Aurobindo in his writings on the psychic being, or “chaitya purusha”, makes a brilliant connection that the fire's inner symbolism, apart from its function in external worship, relates to the birth of the spiritual aspiration in the depth of one’s heart, without which no progress is ever possible. Indeed only those who have this fire in them, will probably move towards a greater expansion of the chit-shakti, in spite of many difficulties and obstacles which are anathema to spiritual life. In this sense too, Agni acts as the priest officiating between the human world and the realm of aspiration of the devas. In yogic parlance a human being has at least two different kinds of Agni inside him – the jatharagni, which digests food, and the bhutagni which digests intellectual matter. Both of them cannot be equally active simultaneously. When great concentration is applied on any subject, spiritual or secular, it increases the bhutagni in the individual thus reducing hunger in the physical body. The importance of this intellectual fire cannot be overstated, for without this, no amount of spiritual practice bears tangible results. One may perform various complex sadhanas, but one will have no ability to digest the results of those and integrate them into his waking consciousness unless this Agni is burning bright inside one’s mind and subtle body. Consequently a constant and powerful bhutagni, will reflect in the personality as an increase in Tejas, Ojas and subtle Prana, a greater life-force and a resplendent intellect. Ayurveda further subdivides this bhutagni again into five divisions corresponding to the five fundamental elements, while clearly describing its overall aim to metamorphose and subsequently absorb into the mind-body complex all that is needed for growth and development, both material and spiritual. On the other hand, a vitiated inner Agni results in an imbalanced metabolism, showing an increase in pitta, one of the three primary doshas in Ayurveda. It is interesting to note that in the Greek story of Prometheus, the punishment meted out to him by Zeus for stealing fire of the gods was that he would be chained to a rock where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated at night due to his immortality. Now any basic text of Ayurveda will tell us that source of pitta in the human body is the liver. Maybe this myth was a way of conveying the truth that misuse of fire element inside the body can lead to a regular aggravation of pitta in daily life, which of course can get pacified by a good night's sleep!
However, the greatest inner spiritual manifestation of the fire is the coiled up evolutionary force in the human mind-body, known to Tantric Yogis as the Kundalini Shakti. Having the nature of fire, it marks an upward journey of metamorphosis, transforming the animal within to the human and the human to the Divine, eventually. Even a regular simplified worship through the medium of Agni purifies both the inner and the outer atmosphere around such a sadhaka. Negatives are stopped or their intensity reduced, positives are enhanced, and blessings of the gods are brought forth into one’s life. The shastras describe a constant war between the devas and the asuras in the various non-physical realms, which spill over into our world in the form of drastic and painful events. In this battle between Light and Darkness, regular and consistent worship of fire acts as a significant boost, an invitation to the Divine forces to participate in the world of mortals and tip the scales of this endless war in the favor of all that adheres to dharma and satya. It was not for nothing that the ancient Rishis would conduct such elaborate fire rituals on a regular basis!
Having performed regular homas for a decade to various deities as an act of individual sadhana, and having interacted with other sincere seekers who perform similar spiritual practices, this author can vouch for the powerful consciousness altering capacity of Agni- rituals. The Rigveda uses an epithet for Agni: jātaveda – one who knows all things. But what does it really mean? To find out, one must build a relationship with Agni and let its radiant might infuse the seeker's mind, for some things are better experienced than read.
Homa Variations: The Study of Ritual Change Across the Longue Durée by Timothy Lubin
The Life Divine by Sri Aurobindo