Agni, the Hindu god of fire, is an important deity in the Hindu religion. He is seen as the friend and protector of humanity, particularly as the guardian of the home. In Hinduism, fire is associated with many forms, including the sun, lightning, comets, sacrificial fire, domestic fires, the fire of the funeral pyre, and the digestive fire within all humans.
In ancient Vedic times, Agni was particularly important and the Vedas contain more hymns to him than to any other deity. Today, while he may not be directly worshipped, he is still considered omnipresent. Agni is believed to be aware of all people’s thoughts and is a witness to all important actions, which is why fire is used in many important Hindu ceremonies, such as marriages. In Hindu literature, Agni is referred to as the ‘Oblation-devourer’ and the ‘Purifier’. In art, Agni is often depicted with flaming hair and riding a goat. Additionally, in some myths, Karttikeya (Skanda), the Hindu god of war, is said to be Agni’s son, born from Agni’s conquest of the Pleiades, the wives of the Seven Sages.
Agni & Various Fires
Agni, the Hindu god of fire, is deeply connected to the element of water. According to Hindu mythology, Agni is the son of the Celestial Waters and fire is believed to be carried down to earth within rain. It is thought that when two sticks are rubbed together, fire appears because it is drawn up by vegetation. Agni is also responsible for lightning, which is born from the god’s union with the cloud goddess.
In addition to his association with lightning, Agni is also closely associated with the funeral pyre. In this role, he is believed to lead the dead to their final judgement by Yama, the ruler of the Underworld. However, perhaps Agni’s most significant association is with sacrificial fires. In Hindu tradition, it is believed that Agni carries the offerings of humans to the gods. According to myths, Agni was initially hesitant to take on this duty as his three brothers had been killed while performing it. However, after being discovered and punished by the gods, Agni reluctantly took on his role again and was granted the boon of everlasting life and a share of the sacrifices he carried to the gods. Furthermore, Agni’s final hiding place was inside a Sami tree, which is considered the sacred abode of fire in Hindu rituals and its sticks are used to make fires.
In Hinduism, Agni is seen as the embodiment of all forms of fire and things that burn well or have a certain lustre. In the “Brhaddevata”, it is said that at one point Agni is dismembered and distributed among earthly things. The god’s flesh and fat becomes guggulu resin, his bones the pine tree, his semen becomes gold and silver, his blood and bile are transformed into minerals, his nails are tortoises, entrails the avaka plant, his bone marrow sand and gravel, his sinews become tejana grass, his hair kusa grass, and his body hair becomes kasa grass which was used in sacrificial rituals.
Over time, Agni’s importance as a god diminishes. This is explained in the “Mahabharata” as due to his overindulgence in consuming too many offerings. In the “Visnu Purana”, he is described as the eldest son of Brahma and Svaha is his wife. Together they had three sons, Pavaka, Pavamana, and Suchi, who in turn had 45 sons, which, including their fathers and grandmother, totals 49, the number of sacred fires in the “Vayu Purana”.
Agni also has a darker side, which is described in one Rigveda hymn attributed to the sage Vasistha. Similar in nature to the ‘flesh-eater’ demons, the raksasa, he has two wickedly sharp iron tusks and he devours his victims without mercy. However, when called upon by the gods, Agni destroys the raksasa with his flaming spears. This episode illustrates Agni’s fall from the pinnacle of the pantheon, where he becomes a servant of the gods.
Agni in Hindu Art
In Hindu art, Agni is often depicted with black skin, two heads, four arms, and riding either a goat or a chariot drawn by red horses which has seven wheels, representing the seven winds. He is often shown with two heads, which spout flames, representing his association with two types of fire: the domestic hearth and the sacrificial fire. He is also shown with seven tongues which are used to lick up the ghee butter given as offerings.
Typically, Agni is depicted carrying a fan, which he uses to build up fires, a sacrificial ladle, an axe, and a flaming torch or javelin. He may also be represented as the Garuda bird, which carries the seed of life, the fire-bird which carries ambrosia to the gods, and the goat-headed merchant who represents the sacrifice made to the gods. In later Hindu art, Agni is also represented as one of the Dikpalas, the eight guardians of the directions of space. Agni is the protector of the south-east quarter, Purajyotisa.