Agni is the most popular god of the Rigveda as is evident from the
hymns addressed to him in the scripture. Fire is central to all vedic rituals.
As the most potent and visible form of energy, useful but destructive
at the same time, it was both feared and revered by the vedic
people. Almost every mandala
or division of the Rigveda starts with a hymn to Agni. The vedic hymns
praise him copiously often describing him as the supreme god and
creator. The Upanishads describe Atman or soul as a flame of the size
of a thumb. Other gods and elements such as the earth, the air are but
his manifestations. He is the thunderbolt of Indra's weapon, the light
of the Surya. In the later vedic period he became, one of the
Ashtadikpalas as lord of the
southeast quarter. Agni is the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice, the hotar,
who lavishes wealth and dispels the darkness. Sapient-minded priest,
truthful, most gloriously great, ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law
eternal, radiant One, no sacrifice is complete without his presence.
His presence verily ensures the success of a sacrifice, because
whatever sacrifice he accepts goes to the gods. Agni is the messenger,
the herald, master of all wealth, oblation-bearer, much beloved, who
brings the willing Gods from the heavens and makes them sit on the
grass with him near the sacrificial altar. Agni along with Indra,
the lord of the heavens and Surya, the lord of the skies, constitute
the first trinity of Hinduism. Their places were latter assigned to
Siva, Brahma and Vishnu respectively. In the Puranas, Agni is
subordinated to other gods. We see in them a clear decline in his
popularity and significance. The Agni Purana, for example, is not
about the significance of Agni but of Vishnu as the lord of the
universe. Agni is a mere recipient of divine knowledge like other
According to tradition Agni has ten forms, which are described
below. Of these the first five are his material or natural forms and
the next five his ritual forms.
- The ordinary fire
- The sun
- The digestive fire (jatharaagni)
- Destructive Fire (forest fire, fire that is going to consume the
worlds at the end of creation and so on)
- Fire produced using sticks for the purpose of sacrificial
- Fire given to a student at the time of his initiation (upanayana)
- The fire kept in the house for domestic rituals.
- The southern fire of the ancestors used in certain rituals.
- The funeral fire used in the cremation rituals.
Agni is appointed by Manu as the priest. He is often invoked along
with Indra, with whom he shares the passion for soma drink. He is also
invoked along with Maruts probably to ward off the dangers of forest
fires. Agni, was the earliest Angiras, a Seer. After his holy
ordinance the Maruts, were born with their glittering spears.
Addressed as immortal Jatavedas, many-hued effulgent gift of Dawn,
bearer of offerings and the charioteer of sacrifice, Agni is the Lord
of Red Steeds, who loves songs. Kind and bountiful giver of gifts, of
wondrous fame, Agni is the friend of all, loved by many in their
The Vedic Aryans were well aware of his destructive ability, as he
sets the forests aflame. "Urged by the wind he spreads through
dry wood as he lists, armed with his tongues for sickles, with a
mighty roar. Black is thy path, Agni, changeless, with glittering
waves! when like a bull thou rushes eager to the trees, with teeth of
flame, wind-driven, through the wood he speeds, triumphant like a bull
among the herd of cows, with bright strength roaming to the
everlasting air: things fixed, things moving quake before him as he
flies." We also know some thing about his origins.
Matariswan brought him down from the heavens and handed him over to
the Bhrigus for keeping.
In some of the hymns like the following ones, we see Agni being
elevated to the status of a supreme god, " Agni is the
Vaivashnara the center of all people ... He is in the sky as well as
at the center of the earth." A similar notion can be found in
this hymns also. "Commingling, restless, he ascends the sky,
unveiling nights and all that stands or moves, as he the sole God is
preeminent in greatness among all these other Gods."
In the images, Agni is depicted with two heads, long flowing hair,
a pot belly, six eyes, seven hands, four horns and three legs. His
seven hands represent the seven flames and the three legs represent
the three worlds which he reigns. His pot belly denotes his love for
rich oily food. His consorts are svaha and svadha. Being a dhoomaketu,
smoke is his banner. The Ram is his vehicle, and the ram being a
typical sacrificial animal, his association with it denotes his
connection with sacrificial rituals.
Suggested Further Reading