There are four Vedas: the Rig Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda. You all know that the Rig Veda is our most ancient, most profound, most sacred and most hallowed scripture. In the Rig Veda you will read about Indra, the lord of the gods, who is considered the most important and most powerful of the cosmic gods. Next to him is Agni. About two hundred verses in the Rig Veda were offered to this particular god, Agni. In the Rig Veda, Agni is the first of the cosmic gods to be invoked; our Hindu scriptures start with Agni, not Indra.
About the beginning of language or the beginning of human aspiration in the form of language, we know a little. We know that 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 Rig Veda starts with a hymn to Agni, so the Vedas start 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 romance languages derived from it also begin with the letter A. So also do the Germanic languages. In fact, probably all the languages of the Indo-European language groups 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 of ‘a’ symbolised 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 symbolises our root sound, our source.
‘Agni’ means fire. This fire refers to the aspiring flame that rises from our inmost being; again, ‘Agni’ also refers to the fire god himself. We are all aspirants; we are all seekers of the infinite Truth. It is we who have to embody Agni, the flame of aspiration, in the inmost recesses of our hearts. We also have to grow upwards with this flame until we become the embodiment of Agni, the fire god himself.
I wish to offer you the following sloka from the Rig Veda:
Agni mile means “I adore or worship the flame, Agni.” Purohitam yagyasya means “the priest, the household priest, of the sacrifice.” Devam means divine and rtvijam is the priest or minister who officiates at the sacrifice. Hotaram is the Summoner or the Invoker. Ratnadha means “the one who founds or establishes the jewel of ecstasy, the inner wealth, the nectar"; tamam is the superlative of Ratnadha. Ratnadhatamam is “the one who more than anyone else establishes the inner ecstasy.” So the first verse in the Rig Veda dedicated to Agni runs thus in free translation:
“O Agni, I adore Thee,
O priest, O divine minister
Who officiates at the divine Sacrifice,
Who is also the invoker, the Summoner,
Who most bestows the divine wealth upon us.”
I would like to say that translation can never do justice to these sublime and profound Sanskrit words. I use the English words ‘priest’ and ‘minister’, but I get to be excused for doing so. These English equivalents can never convey the meaning of the word rtvik, 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 rtvik and hotaram and the English words ‘priest’ and ‘minister’ and so forth.
Let me explain a little about Agni in his role as priest. He is at once three different priests. First he is the priest who prays. He is praying on our behalf, on behalf of the earth-consciousness. Then he is the officiating priest, which resembles what we might call the minister in a church. He officiates at the divine sacrifice on our behalf. In his third aspect, Agni is the priest who bestows the divine wealth upon us. In this role, he carries our aspiration to the Highest and brings down the message of the Highest for us. He is like a spiritual Master who enters into his disciple’s ignorance, carries it up into the Highest and then brings down God’s Peace, Light and Bliss. The Master is a messenger and Agni also plays the part of a messenger. He takes our human aspiration to the Absolute Supreme and brings Divine Grace down into unlit and crying humanity.
Agni is very often associated with Indra. It is mentioned at times in the Rig Veda that Agni and Indra are twin brothers. But the one who performs the spiritual rites and religious duties most successfully is Agni. Some spiritual Masters say that Agni takes human aspiration to the Highest in the form of power, while Indra brings down Light into the earth atmosphere. Simultaneously they move; one goes up and the other comes down.
Full of divine energy and divine vigour is this lord, Agni. You will see boundless will-power within him and around him. The dynamic form of Agni is, at times, associated with Rudra, the Terrible, with the Thunder aspect of the Supreme. Rudra and Agni are friends. They go together. We see Rudra in the cosmic god Agni in his aspect of dynamic law.
According to Hindu mythology, Agni has two faces, three legs, three bodies and seven arms in the form of a swastika. He is often depicted as having a tawny beard, golden teeth and a burning tongue sticking out of his mouth. But a spiritual person, when he enters into the highest plane of consciousness, will never see Agni like that. Those descriptions are not all true on the highest level. But we have to know that an artist sees Agni from his own level of consciousness, according to his own standard, and he depicts the consciousness that he sees. Interestingly enough, even 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 which was a reflection of their own individual spiritual growth.
One will see different forms of the gods, according to one’s own individual realisation. For example, when someone invokes the power aspect of Agni, then in the vital world he sees Agni with his tongue out and his hair a mass of flames. But another aspirant, invoking the benevolent aspect of the god, will see 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, in his highest consciousness and in his nitya rupa, or eternal form, will appear in front of a seeker in normal human form with two arms, two legs and so on. He will look tall and very beautiful.
Indian mythology says that Agni 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, Matarisvan, 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 magically came into existence. When we are born of human parents, we do not devour them; but in the case of Agni, according to the myth, 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. They express certain deeper truths and make them accessible to the ordinary human consciousness. The real spiritual truth in the legend of Agni’s devouring his parents is this: when he came into existence, he devoured the cosmic ignorance all around him. The earth is full of obscurity, ignorance, imperfection, limitation, bondage and other undivine things. His parents were symbolic representatives of the earth-consciousness. But if you think that he devoured his own real parents, it would be a real injustice to Agni, the cosmic god.
When seen in the vital plane, Agni has seven arms in the form of a swastika. ‘Swastika’ is an old Sanskrit word that is quite often associated with Agni. Most Americans know only that the swastika was adopted by the Nazis and became the hated symbol of totalitarianism and brutal oppression. But I wish to tell you that the swastika is one of the most ancient of symbols. It is an occult symbol that has been used in both East and West. Some spiritual organisations, such as the Theosophical Society, use the swastika as part of their emblem. What does the swastika 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 often 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, with the left arm pointing upwards and the right arm pointing downwards.
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 and the left arm pointing down.
It does not matter which swastika you use for concentration. But if you do not concentrate on it properly, it will be 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, whereas the arms will be the outgrowths of that source. While concentrating on the swastika, try to keep in mind this most illumining mantra from the Rig Veda:
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
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.
Agni is loved by all and sundry, irrespective of age. Sometimes you will notice that an elderly gentleman is admired and adored by his colleagues, whereas new generations find it difficult to appreciate his genius. The old and the new do not go together. But in the case of Agni, it is not like that. The second verse in the Rig Veda 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 he also can please an octogenarian. A little child has desires, but he has no words in which to express them. He has no conscious aspiration; 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 only aspiration that can fulfil him, so 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 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 beginning starts unconsciously to achieve something more fulfilling and more satisfying. 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.
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, we need Agni to achieve our highest realisation.
Agni is never old. He is ever young and he is being reborn every day. When we kindle the 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 Rig Veda:
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.
Agni 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.