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Playing with Fire!

 

 

 All life, in its myriad variety, is sustained by the Five Elements—Earth, Atmosphere, Water, Fire and the Wind. The absence of even one of these would make life, as we know it, impossible to live. If there is no Earth, where do you stand or sleep? Without air, can you breathe at all? And the skies are the residence of the Sun and the Moon, which sustain life forms everywhere. 

 

Needless to say, Water is an extremely essential input to life, its absence spelling doom, as many of Chennaiites must have felt in months past. And Fire is perhaps the most essential

component of life-saving equipment that the Lord has blessed us with, be it for cooking or warming oneself against biting cold. It is the last-mentioned element that we shall be looking at in some detail in this piece.

 

The importance of Fire, or “Agni”, as it is called affectionately by the Shruti, is chronicled quite elaborately in the Vedas, with more than two hundred Sooktas in its praise. It would be no exaggeration to term Fire as among the most important of the Vedic Pantheon of Deities. Two

of the four Vedas begin with eulogies to Agni. The very first hymn of the hoary Rig Veda is devoted to this mighty bull among deities—“Agnim eedE PurOhitam Yagyasya dEvam Ritvijam” says the first verse, exhorting us to pay obeisance to Agni as the leader and the deity of all

sacrifices. This is no mere flash in the pan, for we find the venerated Sama Veda too devoting its very first verse to this fiery god—“agna AyAhi veetaye, griNAnO havya dAtayE”.

 

What is the reason for the extremely high pedestal on which the Shruti places the FireGod? Why should this august body of unauthored wisdom devote litany after elaborate litany to this element? Though the other four elements are no less in importance, we find the Vedas almost obsessive in their focus on Fire. The reasons are not far to seek. It is Agni, which makes Sacrifices, the various Yagas and Yagyas, possible. As we know, everything has its roots in Yagyam--all Creation came out of a Yagyam performed at the Cosmic Beginning, as described by the Purusha Suktam.

Yagyas are indispensable for the sustenance of mankind—“YagyE sarvam pratishtthitam”—And Agni is indispensable for the performance of Yagyas. Is it any wonder then that the Shruti waxes eloquent in praise of this sine qua non of Sacrifices?

 

What exactly does the word “Agni” mean? A study of the etymology reveals the profound regard the Shruti has for Fire, for the Fire God is termed a “Leader”, (“agram nayati, iti Agni:”) one who leads us forward to better things, to better worlds, through the performance of Yagyas.  Agni is also termed “Purohitam”, (refer the opening verse of Rig Veda) one who knows well what is good for us and instructs us accordingly. Due to his indispensability in the household, Agni is also called the Master of the House—“Griha pati:” (“Agnim grihapatim abhisamvasaana:”). Because he carries the offerings meant for various other deities (since propitiation of all deities is done by offerings in fire with intonation of “Svaahaa”), he is known too as a venerated Emissary, a “Doota” (“Agnim dootam vriNeemahE”).  It is to Agni that we pray for leading us on a safe

and comfortable path, in this minefield of  Samsara—“AgnE naya supathA rAyE asmAn”. It is to this Fire God that we pray time and again for everything—“bhooyishtthAm tE nama uktim vidhEma”. Due to Ghee (clarified butter) being his staple food, Agni is also known as “Ghrita

nirNik”, “Ghrita mukha:”, “Ghrita kEsa:” etc. Because he leaves everything he touches black, he is known as “KrishnavartmA” .Due to his indispensability to life, Agni is glorified as the very creator of beings—“Agni: prajaanaam prajanayitaa”. When he carries offerings to Devas, he is

known as “Havya vaahana:” and when the recipients are Pitru devataas, he is called “Kavya vaahana:”

 

The Aruna Prasnam of the Taittiriya Aranyakam enumerates another set of eight haloed names of this blazing deity—“Agni”, “JAtavEdA, SahOjA, Ajiraaprabhu:, Vaisvaanara: Naryaapasa:, Panktiraadhasa: and Visarpa:”.

 

It is another measure of greatness of this deity that his worship is stipulated as a daily duty (“nitya karma”) for everyone. “Agnihotram” and “OupAsanam” are supposed to be performed twice a day, in the morning and evening, just like Sandhyavandanam. And the beneficial effects of

this Agnihotram were demonstrated for all to see, during the Bhopal gas disaster, when only the family, in whose house Agnihotram was performed, remained unaffected by poisonous fumes of the Union Carbide Pesticides plant, when thousands of others perished. Times have come to such a pass that this daily duty of “Oupasanam” is performed these days, only as a prelude to some other major Vaidika karma such as a Marriage, Seemantonnayanam or Shraddham. Time was, when this Agnihotram was performed by a large number of vaidikas, who used to preserve the Agni in pots of chaff, never to be extinguished till their last breath. The importance attached to Fire Worship can be fathomed from the fact that this is compulsory for all men from age eight onwards, when they undergo “Upanayanam”. From the day they adorn themselves with the Sacred Thread and become Brahmachaaris, boys are supposed to perform “Samidaadaanam”

twice daily. Upon marriage, they take on the duties of “Agnihotram” and “Oupaasanam”, to be performed by every man till life leaves his body. Interestingly, SanyAsis are exempted from Agni Kaaryam—the moment they don the ochre robes, they are relieved of any duties to the sacrificial

fire.

 

Another little-known piece of information—every bride, before becoming the wife of a man, is offered to Agni, says the Mantra Prasnam—“Soma: prathamo vivide, Gandharvo vivida uttara: triteeyo Agnishte pati: tureeyaste manushyajaa:”. Thus, according to this mantra, all married ladies would have to call themselves, “Mrs. Agni”, irrespective of other appellations they may sport.

 

In the order of Creation, Agni is the third to emerge, the first being Atmosphere, says the Shruti—“Atmana Akaasa: sambhoota:, Akaasaat Vaayu:, Vaayo: Agni:”. Only from Fire did the other two elements, Earth and Water, came into being—“Agne: Aapa:, Adbhya: Prithivi”. The Purusha

Sukta ascribes exalted origins to Agni—right from the Lord’s face (mouth)—“Mukhaat Indrascha Agnischa”.

 

Apart from being one of the five basic elements, Agni is also acclaimed to be the hidden essence of Water—“na apsu mootra pureesham kuryaat--guhyo vaa esha: Agni: iti vadanta:”. The very same Shruti tells us that birds do not stay on earth in the night, because it appears to burn in

the night. Thus, Agni’s influence extends over the other elements too.

 

Devas were readying themselves for their one of their frequent battles with Asuras. The question arose as to which Deity was to be propitiated first, to ensure victory in the ensuing encounter. Agni, the Leader, declared boldly, “Worship Me first!”. And wonder of wonders, other

Deities, who were quite egoistic, did not dispute Agni’s claim and, recognising his supremacy, were quite content to be worshipped next. The Devas worshipped Agni first (Soma, Savita and Vayu later) and, as a result, emerged victorious, says the Prathama Ashtakam—“sa: Agni: abraveet, maam agre yajata,…te Agnina mukhena asuraan ajayan:” Since he burned down

Rakshasas, Agni is also known as “Rakshoghna:”—“Agnaye Rakshoghne svaahaa!”

 

Agni’s primacy is on display throughout the Shruti. He is the lord of the very first star too, among the twenty-seven. The Krittika aphorism has Agni as its devata—“Krittikaa nakshatram Agni: devata”. Vedas recognise Krittika as the first nakshatram, contrary to our practice of

counting Asvini first. Why then is Asvini allowed to usurp Krittika’s place as the first among stars? The Shruti itself tells us the reason—because deeds done under this star are likely to burn down the doer’s household, people prefer to relegate Krittika to the third place—“Agni

nakshatram iti apachaayayanti, Grihaan ha daahuko bhavati”.

 

The Yaju: Samhita narrates another interesting tale about Agni. The Fire God had three elder brothers, (“Agne: trayo jyaayaamso bhraatara aasan”) all the four carrying out unfailingly their arduous job of carrying the offerings by human beings to their respective celestial recipients.

The three brothers, due to the heavy workload and meagre returns, came to a bad end ultimately. Demoralised by their fate, Agni decided not to function as a mere carrier anymore and hid himself deep in the ocean. Denied of their diet of sacrificial offering, Devas searched for the

Fire God high and low. When they entered the waters and enquired among marine inhabitants, the Fish gave away Agni and revealed his hiding place. Angered at this, Agni cursed that Fish should meet their end daily, being killed by fishermen who would catch them as and when they wished. We see this happening till date. When Devas requested Agni to resume his services, he agreed subject to the condition that all material , which fell outside the sacrificial fire, while being offered, should reach his late brothers. Devas readily agreed and Agni too became the

divine carrier once more.

 

Management experts speak of having a “Fire in the Belly”, to describe an unquenchable urge for achievement. They would be surprised to know that everyone has fire in their belly—achievers as well as others. Shastras tell us that it is the “Jaataraagni” or the digestive fires located

in the intestines, which enable assimilation of food and afford nutrition to the body. The Lord says in the Gita that it is He Himself, who resides in beings as this “Jaataraagni” and enables digestion of all kinds of food—“aham Vaisvaanaro bhootvaa praaninam deham aasrita:

Praana apaana samaayukta: pachaami annam chatur vidham”.

 

The BrihadaaranyakaUpanishad too bears out this proposition of the Lord being the Digestive Fire, without whose aid no food could be assimilated—“ayam Agni: Vaisvaanaro yo yam anta: purushe yena idam annam pachyate”

 

If you wanted to see the Paramatma, where do you think you would find Him? The Lord is to be found in the form of the sacrificial Fire, says Srimad Bhagavatam—“Agnou tishtati vipraanaam”. All important events which require witnessing, are done in front of the sacred fire—whether they

be bonds of matrimony or those of friendship. We are told that when Sri Rama and Sugreeva sealed their agreement of friendship and mutual assistance, they did it with the Fire as witness—“chakaara sakhyam Ramena preeta: chaiva Agni saakshikam”

 

What are the various types of Fire? At the time of marriage, the Fire with which marriage rituals and Oupaasanam are performed first, is divided into two (with the aid of a specific ritual known as “Agnyaadhaanam”). The first of these Fires becomes the Grihyaagni, with which further

Oupaasanam is performed twice daily. The other part acquires the name “Shroutaagni”. This again is divided into three categories—Gaarhapatyam (which is to be preserved without ever going out) Dakshinam and Aahavaneeyam. It is these three that Sri Tirumangai Mannan refers to as “Mutthee naanmarai iyvagai velvi”. One who worships these two Agnis (Grihya

and Shrouta) is himself known as an “Aahitaagni”.

 

Forgetting that he is after all another creation of the Paramatma, Agni dares to oppose Sri Krishna, in His encounter with Baanaasura and is thoroughly vanquished, says Sri Nammazhwar—“Tiripuram chettravanum maganum pinnum Angium por tulaya”. In the relative commentary, Sri Periyavaacchaan Pillai tells us that Fire is of forty-nine categories, all of

which met their nemesis in Sri Krishna.

 

With all this, and after heaping all sorts of encomiums upon Agni, the Veda Purusha lets the Fire God down with a bump, when he calls Agni the lowest of all Gods and Vishnu, the highest—“Agni: avamo devataanam, Vishnu: parama:”. While the supremacy ascribed to the Lord is

understandable, why this rough treatment to the Fire? Perhaps because he acts as a mere messenger, conveying the offerings of human propitiators to their divine recipients?

 

All this is interesting, but how should we Prapannas, who have surrendered ourselves to Sriman Narayana, regard the Fire God? Do we worship him as called for in innumerable Veda vakyaas? Do we accord him the exalted status he obviously enjoys among the Vedic Deities?

 

As people who have entrusted our fortunes here and in the higher worlds to the Lord of all Lords, Sriman Narayana, we have no call to worship any other deity, for whatever purpose. All the mantras addressed to Agni, Indra, Varuna and other devas, which we use in our nitya karmas like

Sandhyavandanam, are in fact meant for the Lord, who is as much the Inner Dweller of these Devatas, as He is of us. Hence, whenever we worship Agni in our nitya karmas, we do it with the full recognition that Agni is the mere body of the Lord, as we too are, and the prayers are in

fact addressed to the Antaryaami of all beings.

 

This apart, Agni has an extremely close association with Emperuman. We find that in the Ramavatara, the Lord could very well be said to owe His origins to the (Putrakaameshti Yaga) fire, from which the Yaksha with the Paayasam emerged, upon imbibing which Kousalya and other wives of Dasaratha gave birth to the brothers Rama. Again, to demonstrate His

closeness to Fire, we find Sri Varadaraja emerging from the fires of the Asvamedha Yaga performed by Brahmaa at Kanchi. To commemorate this, we can see Sri Varadan’s celestial countenance still looking slightly scorched. Though no fire can really affect Emperuman, He sports such a visage to remind devotees of the extents to which He would go, to gladden

their hearts.

 

Agni can boast of an extremely close association with Piratti too. For, when She wanted to prove Herself to the whole world to be pure as driven snow, it is Fire built on the shores of Lanka that She enters. Agni presents himself before Sri Raghava and proudly proclaims Piratti to be

the purest of pure. From that day, Agni Pariksha or Ordeal through Fire, has come to be regarded as the greatest test of one’s bona fides. Earlier too, Sita Piratti prays to Agni not to hurt Hanuman, whose tail had been set afire by Rakshasas—“seeto bhava Hanoomata”

 

The destructive potential of Agni is on full display, when Sri Hanuman sets fire to Lanka, transferring the fire of sorrow raging in the mind of Sita Devi to the city of Lanka, burning it down—“ya: shoka vahnim Janakaatmajaaya: aadaaya tenaiva dadaaha Lankam”. With his burning tail, Maruti leaps over the houses of Ravana’s courtiers, choosing with care

the magnificent residences of ministers and military commanders. With a mild swipe of his tail, Hanuman sets fire to these residences, which crumble to mere embers in a matter of minutes, due to the intensity of the heat. Paradoxically, Agni Bhagavan, who has no effect on the Monkey

God, rages with all the fury at his command while burning down the Lankan houses. The list of victims reads like a Who’s Who of the Lankan high society—Prahasta, MahApArsva, Vajradamshtra, Suka, SAraNa, Indrajit, JambhumAli, SumAli, RashmikEtu, Suryashatru, HrisvakarNa, Damshtra, ROmasa, Vidyutjihva, KumbhakarNa and so on. Amidst all this spree of

arson, Agni carefully spares the residence of Sri Vibhishana, venting his fury instead on the splendorous palace of Ravana. From a glorious and teeming city filled with beautiful mansions with towers studded with gems, pearls and precious stones, roads and pathways full of rich

adornments and valuable vehicles, Lanka is transformed within seconds into a blazing inferno, with huge tongues of fire leaping with facility from one beautiful building to another. The raging fire is fuelled by strong winds fanning the flames and fuelling their destructive potential.

Viewed from the sky, Lanka resembles a huge burning ground, with most of its dastardly inhabitants forming live fuel for the raging fire. In the space of an hour, the entire city of magnificence and incredible beauty is reduced to glowing embers and burnt cinders. Azhwars too adulate the Lord for burning down arrogant Lanka—“Ilangai eri ezha chettra villi”.

 

The influence of Agni in our lives is all-pervasive. Most of the forty Samskaaraas or enabling processes that human beings are supposed to undergo, are with the aid of Agni, be it Upanayanam, marriage or others. And when we finally leave our mortal coils, it is again to the flames that the physical remains are consigned. This act of cremation is held in

high esteem and deemed to be the final sacrifice or Ishti that the human being participates in. During one’s lifetime, one is supposed to perform many Yagyams with differing materials as “Ahuti” (food for fire).

 

In this Antyeshti, it is the body itself which is offered as sacrificial material. Thus, from birth to death, our association with Agni is extremely close. Paradoxically, this Holy Fire is more beneficial to us, the closer we get to it, and tends to scorch us only if we stay away due to indolence or ignorance. That is to say, the more we perform the rituals ordained

upon us, the more Agni protects us with all his might.

 

It would appear from all this that “Playing with fire” is indeed good.

 

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri

Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

dasan, sadagopan

 

athAto "brahma" zignAsA - Then thereafter be inquisitive to enquire about "the Absolute"