The cosmic gods — Agni

I wish to give a short talk on Agni. Agni is one of our cosmic gods. He is second only to Indra. Indra, Agni, Varuna, Mitra and Rudra are some of the cosmic gods and there are many, many others. Today I would like to speak on Agni, the Fire-God.

You all know that the Rigveda is our most ancient, most sacred and most hallowed scripture. It is most sacred and at the same time, most profound, this Rigveda. In the Vedas you will read about Indra, the Lord of the Gods, who is considered the most important of the cosmic gods. Next to him is Agni. About two hundred verses were offered to this particular god, Agni.

Agni means fire. The fire refers to the aspiring flame that rises from our inmost being; again Agni refers to the Fire-God himself. We are all aspirants. We are all seekers after the infinite Truth. It is we who have to embody Agni, the flame of aspiration, in the inmost recesses of our hearts; again we have to grow upwards with this flame until we become the embodiments of Agni, the Fire-God himself.

There are four Vedas: the Rigveda, the Samadeveda, the Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda. The Rigveda happens to be the most ancient, and at the same time, the most significant of the Vedas. In the Rigveda Agni is the first of the cosmic gods to be invoked; not Indra, not any other god. Our Hindu scripture starts with Agni. Before I began this talk, I quoted and sang several times, the following shloka from the Rigveda:

Agni mile purohitam yagnasya
devamṛtvijam hotāram ratnadhātamam

Agni mile means "I adore or I worship the Flame, Agni". Purohitam yagnasya means "the priest, the household priest, of the sacrifice".Devam is "divine" and ṛtvijam is the priest or minister who officiates at the sacrifice. Hotāram is the summoner or the invoker. Ratnadhā means "the one who founds or establishes the jewel of ecstasy, the inner wealth, the nectar"; tamam is the superlative of Ratnadhā. It means now Ratnadhātamam "the one who most founds the inner ecstasy". So the first verse to Agni runs thus in free translation:

"O Agni, I adore Thee, O priest, O divine Minister who officiates at the divine Sacrifice and who is at the same time the Invoker, the Summoner who most bestows the divine wealth upon us."

Now here at this point, I would like to mention one thing. Translation can never do justice to these sublime and profound Sanskrit words. I use the English words priest and minister and so forth, but I beg to be excused for doing so. These English equivalents can never convey the word Ritvik, the Invoker, the Summoner of the Supreme, the one who officiates at the sacrifice. Anyone who knows both Sanskrit and English will immediately feel that there is a yawning gulf between the Sanskrit words ritvik, hotaram and the English words priest, minister and so forth.

Let me explain a little about the priest, Agni. He is at once three different priests: first he is the praying priest. He is praying on our behalf, on behalf of the earth-consciousness. Then he is the officiating priest, closer to what we might call a minister of the church. He officiates at the divine sacrifice on our behalf. In his third aspect he is the priest who bestows the divine wealth upon us. This last priest carries our aspiration to the highest and brings down the message of the Highest for us. As I have said very often, a spiritual Master enters into the disciples' ignorance and carries the ignorance up into the highest. Then he brings down God's Peace, Light and Bliss. So the Master is a messenger boy. Here also Agni plays the part of a messenger. He takes our human aspiration to the Absolute Supreme and brings down Divine Grace into our unlit and crying humanity.

Now I wish to tell you something about the origins of our Sanskrit language. About the beginning of our physical creation, we do not know a great deal in terms of concrete facts. But we know that all the ancient cultures had their own way of understanding and describing the origin of the creation. Hindu books describe the beginning of the universe in various ways. The Bible explains it in another way. Almost all scriptures, even those of the primitive tribes, have their own unique way of dealing with the beginning of creation. Now about the beginning of language or the beginning of human aspiration in the form of language, there is a particular pattern that many languages followed.

In Sanskrit, the mother of all our Indian languages, A is the first letter of the alphabet as it is in English. Agni is the first and foremost priest and his name starts with A. The beginning of the Veda starts with a hymn to Agni, so the Veda starts off with A. Now let us look very briefly at some Western languages. Hebrew begins with aleph and Greek with alpha, the same sound approximately as our A. Latin and the various languages derived from it, such as Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc., also begin with the letter A. So also do the Teutonic languages. In fact, probably all the languages of the Indo-European language group begin with the sound "a" and many other language groups also start their alphabet with this sound. We can be proud of our human oneness. It seems that the first sound that arose from the human consciousness at the very beginning of the awakening of the human race was the sound "a" symbolized by the letter A. When people first tried to communicate with each other, the first sound that came from their lips was undoubtedly "a". Even an infant's first cry is the sound "a-a-a". So A symbolizes our root sound. The source is one; one source.

According to Hindu mythology, Agni has two faces, three legs, three bodies and seven arms in the form of a swastika (of which I shall speak later). He is supposed to have a tawny beard, golden teeth and a burning tongue sticking out of his mouth. Now a spiritual person, when he enters into the highest plane of consciousness, will never see Agni like that. Those descriptions are not at all true on the highest level. Each artist sees the god from his own level of consciousness, according to his own standard and each artist depicts the consciousness he sees. Interestingly enough, even the sages, the Vedic sages, who say that they have seen Agni, describe him as having two faces, a burning tongue and so forth. But they saw a particular form of Agni according to their own individual spiritual growth. The rishis (seers) saw many forms of the gods according to their own individual realisation. For example, when someone invoked the power aspect of Agni, then in the vital world he saw Agni with his tongue out and his hair a mass of flame, etc. Then another aspirant, invoking the benevolent aspect of the god meets Agni as a benign, glowing deity, full of luminous, compassionate power. A third aspirant, after committing some serious moral blunder in the physical plane and thinking that the god will be terribly displeased with him, meets Agni's destructive and angry form. But the real Agni, the cosmic god, in his highest consciousness and in his nitya rupa, his eternal form, will appear in front of a seeker in normal human form with two arms, two legs, and so on. He looks tall and very beautiful.

As most of you are my disciples, I would like to take advantage of your indulgence to tell you that at the age of nineteen I first saw Agni during my highest state of meditation. Long before that, at the age of thirteen, I knew about my own realisation from past lives. But one day at the age of nineteen, while I was meditating very deeply, Agni Devata, the highest god, came and stood in front of me. I was deeply moved to see him thus, for the first time. At the present time, of course, I don't have to meditate deeply to be blessed by Agni; now I am blessed by the Supreme. At any moment, I can approach the Supreme and I can also have a free access to all the cosmic gods and goddesses. They have the same free access to me. At that time, Agni came and stood in front of me and he said to me in English, not in Bengali. (I would like to emphasize that the conversation took place in English. Very often, while I was in India, I used to have conversations with the gods in English.) Agni said to me, "Aspiration is realisation and realisation is aspiration." This was the message he gave me. Then he asked me if I understood him. My immediate answer was, "Yes, I have understood you." Then he said, "Then tell me what it means." I replied, "Human aspiration embodies realisation. Realisation is something we discover; we do not invent it. So inside aspiration, realisation is there. When our aspiration is complete, we see that there realisation looms large. Realisation is not something totally different from aspiration. It is inside the abode of our aspiration. Again it is realisation that tells us that we have to eternally aspire to reach the ever-transcending Beyond."

This was my answer to Agni's question. And I wish to add right now that when one realises God, one has only one obligation and that is to manifest Him. After realisation, if a soul wants to retire, if he does not want to enter into the cosmic game again, if he wants to go into Nirvana, the Void, then he is at perfect liberty to do so. God allows him to take eternal rest in the highest plane of consciousness. But if one wants to come back into the battlefield of life again and fight for the divine life on earth, then his is the life of manifestation. It is he who truly helps the suffering humanity.

But what is this manifestation, if not another form of aspiration? Not only is realisation contained in the highest aspiration, but manifestation also. The moment one is fully realised, he is again in his highest form of aspiration and whatever he does, whatever he is, whatever he becomes, constitutes his divine manifestation. This, of course, happens if he stays in the world and does not withdraw after achieving his realisation. The supreme aspiration becomes the supreme realisation which gradually becomes the supreme manifestation.

This morning while I was thinking of and meditating on today's topic, Agni came to me. It was about 11 o'clock a.m. He was cutting jokes with me and he said, "Can you recollect the experience you had at the age of nineteen?" I replied, "Yes, I was lying on my bed and I was talking to you. You were sitting on the chair in my room and we were having our conversation." He was very pleased that I still remembered the conversation we had, when, for the first time, he had come to me.

Full of divine energy, divine vigour is this Lord Agni. You will see boundless will-power within him and around him. He is very often associated with Indra, who, as I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, is the god of gods. Indra is the most powerful of the cosmic gods. But the one who performs the spiritual rites and religious duties most successfully is Agni. It is mentioned at times in the Rigveda that they are twin brothers, Agni and Indra. Some spiritual masters say that Agni takes human aspiration to the highest in the form of power; Indra brings down light into the earth-atmosphere. Together they move; one goes up and the other comes down, simultaneously.

Now a few minutes ago, I mentioned the swastika in connection with Agni's appearance in the vital plane. "Swastika" is an old Sanskrit word and it refers to the well-known symbol. Indians know the swastika well and it is quite often associated with Agni. But most Americans know only that the swastika was adopted by the Nazis and became the hated symbol of totalitarianism and brutal oppression. I wish to tell you that the swastika is one of the most ancient symbols of inner progress and fulfilment. It is an occult symbol that has been used satisfactorily in both east and west. Some spiritual organisations, like the Theosophical Society, use the swastika as part of their organisation emblem. What does it mean? The exoteric meaning is good luck, prosperity and success. The esoteric significance of the swastika is inner progress, inner achievement, inner fulfilment. The swastika is used as a focal point for concentration, but if you do not know how to concentrate on it properly, then you will get no satisfactory results from it. The symbol is drawn in two ways. In the West it is drawn from right to left with the central figure looking like a "z" drawn backwards and with the left arm pointing upwards and the right arm pointing down.

In India, the central figure is usually drawn exactly opposite, looking like a "z" pointing the right way and with the right arm pointing up, the left arm pointing down.

It does not matter which swastika you use. It is of no importance. But if you do not concentrate on it properly, it will be just like looking at an ordinary picture. You have to focus your total attention on the spot where the vertical and horizontal bars cross in the centre. Then you have to feel that this is the source, the seed, the origin of your divine fulfilment. The arms will appear to you to be the outgrowths of that source. Try to keep in mind this most illumining mantra from the Rigveda:

Agne naya supathā, rāye asmān;
Viśvāni deva, vayunāni vidvān;
Yuyodhy asmaj juhurānam eno:
Bhūyiṣṭhaṃ te nama-uktiṃ vidhema.

"O Agni, O Fire God, lead us
along the right path so that we can
enjoy the fruits of our divine actions.
"You know, O God, all our deeds.
"O God, take away from us all our
unaspiring and binding sins and destroy them.
"To You we offer our teeming,
soulful salutations and prayers, to
You we offer.”

Heart's aspiration is the right path.
God's Compassion is the genuine guidance.
The fruits of our divine actions are peace, light and bliss.
Sin is the smile of self-limiting bondage.
In our prayers and salutations abides God the illumining Saviour.

Here at this point, I wish to tell you a funny story. About four years ago it happened that one day while I was working at the Indian Consulate, my esteemed brother and friend Ramamoorthi was there. He is with us right here today. We were both working in the Passport and Visa Section. Our receptionist, Mr Kripal Singh, called me on the phone and said, "Mr Ghose, can you come here for a second?" So I went. An American gentleman had come to the Consulate with a swastika. He had heard that it had originated in India and wanted to know its significance. Kripal Singh said to him, "Oh, this is a crazy design that some stupid artist has painted. Don't pay any attention to it!" Although the man was not a spiritual seeker, he was not satisfied with the receptionist's answer. "Is there any religious or spiritual person in your Consulate who might know something more?" he asked Kripal Singh. "Yes," answered the receptionist, "we have a crazy fellow, Ghose, who can probably tell you more." I was the crazy fellow and so I came in. The man was very sincere. He said, "Could you please tell me what the swastika means?" I took him into our Consulate Library and I gave him a long explanation. He was so deeply moved that he said, “Only a man like you could have satisfied my inner quest. Your receptionist said that you were a crazy fellow, but only a crazy fellow like you can answer a question like mine.” Well, I told him that when we deal with ignorant people, we are forced to be far, far away from truth.

Now I wish to come back to Agni and Agni's origin. Indian mythology says that he was born in heaven and also on earth. When he was born in heaven, the message was brought down to earth by the cosmic messenger, Matarishwan, who was none other than Agni himself in disguise. When he was born on earth, the legend goes, two sticks were rubbed together and the god, Agni, came into existence, magically. When we are born of human parents, we do not devour them, but in the case of Agni, according to the myth, it was otherwise. As soon as he was born, he devoured his aged parents.

Indian mythology is based on a deep undercurrent of spiritual truth, but this truth is embroidered and veiled when it is converted into charming stories and chronicles which are meant to amuse a very simple human consciousness. The Puranas are the ancient Indian epics that tell all about the gods and goddesses and they are the expression of certain deeper truths, yet made accessible to the ordinary human consciousness.

The real spiritual truth in the legend of Agni devouring his parents is that when he came into existence, he devoured the cosmic ignorance all around him. The earth is full of obscurity, ignorance, imperfection, limitation, bondage and so forth. Agni devoured all these undivine things around him. His parents were symbolic representatives of the earth consciousness. If you think that he devoured his own real parents, it would be a real injustice to Agni, the cosmic god.

Agni is loved by all and sundry, irrespective of age. Sometimes you will notice that an elderly gentleman is admired, adored by his colleagues and the new generation finds it difficult to appreciate the genius in the elderly gentleman. The old and the new do not go together. But in the case of Agni, it was not like that. The second verse in the Rigveda tells us that Agni is adored and worshipped by the ancient sages and at the same time, by the newly born seekers. He can please a little child and, at the same time, he can please an octogenarian. A little child has desires, but he has no words in which to express them. He has no conscious aspiration, yet his desires are his unconscious and groping aspiration. An old man, an octogenarian, knows that desire is something that will not fulfil him. It is aspiration that can fulfil him. He consciously uses aspiration in his life. Both the little child and the old man want to have something which they do not have right now, the child unconsciously, and the old man consciously. The beginning starts unconsciously to achieve something more fulfilling and more satisfying. The real end, the ultimate end comes through conscious aspiration. No matter what we want to have or want to become, we must do it through aspiration. So the beginning and the ending have the same song in two different forms. The child, owing to his ignorance, does not use the means of fulfilment in a divine way whereas the adult applies aspiration in the proper way in order to reach the highest Truth.

The dynamic form of Agni is, at times, associated with Rudra, the Terrible, the Thunder aspect of the Supreme. We see Rudra in the cosmic god Agni in the aspect of dynamic law. Rudra and Agni are friends; they go together. It is my plan to speak on Rudra some other time and if the Supreme gives me inspiration, I shall speak each Sunday on a particular cosmic god.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Agni is a household god in the sense that Agni is cherished most in the family either to fulfil desire or to fulfil aspiration. He is called Griha Pati or Griha Swami, Lord of the House. He is Lord of the House and also guest of the House. He is the Supreme Guest. The sages felt the necessity of cherishing and adoring Agni all the time because they felt that there was no end to their aspiration and that Agni was the only answer to their aspiration. At the same time, they came to realise that the flame of aspiration could be kindled by Agni alone. We need Agni to kindle the flames of aspiration and at the same time for our highest realisation.

Agni is never old. He is ever young and he is being reborn every day. When we kindle our flame of aspiration early in the morning, Agni takes birth. He is a newborn babe. Then again he is the most ancient god because he is the first priest mentioned in the Rigveda.

"O Flame! Master Strength! O Leader! You gather around you all the peoples of the world and bind them together. You burn bright in the high seat of Revelation. You bring us all the Riches."

From the Rigveda,
Mandala 10, Sukta 191.
Translated by Nolini Kanta Gupta

He is human aspiration and divine realisation all at once. If you would like to repeat the name "Agni" silently a few times early in the morning, then you are bound to feel the climbing flame of aspiration within you.

Please repeat "Agni" most soulfully, most devotedly. Then you will feel the bumper crop of divine realisation within you. Now I make a soulful request to you to chant "Agni" seven times along with me.