Editor’s note: We feature here selections from Sri Aurobindo’s ‘The Secret of the Veda’ which give us a magnificent description of the flaming godhead, Agni. Who is Agni? What is the work of Agni? How does it lead the aspirant’s inner journey to Truth? How is it born? What are the images given in the Veda which speak of this Divine Will-force?
These and a few other questions are addressed in this selection. Only a few minor formatting edits such as highlighting a few passages and including sub-headings are done by the editors.
The name of this flaming godhead, Agni, derives from a root whose quality of significance is a pre-eminent force or intensity whether in state, action, sensation or movement; but the qualities of this essential significance vary.
It means a burning brightness, whence its use for fire; it means movement and especially a curving or serpentine movement; it means strength and force, beauty and splendour, leading and pre-eminence; it developed also certain emotional values which have perished in Sanskrit, but remain in Greek, angry passion on one side, on the other delight and love.
The Vedic deity Agni is the first of the Powers, the pristine and pre-eminent, that have issued from the vast and secret Godhead. By conscious force of the Godhead the worlds have been created and are governed from within by that hidden and inner Control; Agni is the form, the fire, the forceful heat and flaming will of this Divinity.
Flaming Force of Knowledge
As a flaming Force of knowledge he descends to build up the worlds and seated within them, a secret deity, initiates movement and action. This divine Conscious Force contains all the other godheads in itself as the nave of a wheel contains its spokes. All puissance of action, strength in the being, beauty of form, splendour of light and knowledge, glory and greatness are the manifestation of Agni.
And when he is entirely delivered and fulfilled out of the envelope of the world’s crookednesses, this deity of flame and force is revealed as the solar godhead of love and harmony and light, Mitra, who leads men towards the Truth.
But in the Vedic cosmos Agni appears first as a front of divine Force compact of burning heat and light which forms, assails, enters into, envelops, devours, rebuilds all things in Matter. He is no random fire; his is a flame of force instinct with the light of divine knowledge.
Agni, the Seer-Will
Agni is the seer-will in the universe unerring in all its works. Whatever he does in his passion and power is guided by the light of the silent Truth within him. He is a truth conscious soul, a seer, a priest and a worker,—the immortal worker in man.
His mission is to purify all that he works upon and to raise up the soul struggling in Nature from obscurity to the light, from the strife and the suffering to love and joy, from the heat and the labour to the peace and the bliss. He is, then, the Will, the Knowledge-Force of the Deva; secret inhabitant of Matter and its forms, visible and beloved guest of man, it is he that guards the law of the Truth of things in the apparent aberrations and confusions of the world.
The other gods awake with the Dawn, but Agni wakes also in the Night; he keeps his divine vision even in the darkness where there is neither moon nor star; the flame of the divine will and knowledge is visible even in the densest obscurity of inconscient or half-conscient things. The infallible worker is there even when we see nowhere the conscious light of the guiding mind.
Agni, the Leader of the Sacrifice
No sacrifice is possible without Agni. He is at once the flame on the altar and the priest of the oblation.
When man, awakened from his night, wills to offer his inner and outer activities to the gods of a truer and higher existence and so to arise out of mortality into the far-off immortality, his goal and his desire, it is this flame of upward aspiring Force and Will that he must kindle; into this fire he must cast the sacrifice.
For it is this that offers to the gods and brings down in return all spiritual riches,—the divine waters, the light, the strength, the rain of heaven. This calls, this carries the gods to the house of the sacrifice.
Agni is the priest man puts in front as his spiritual representative (purohita), a Will, a Force greater, higher, more infallible than his own doing for him the works of the sacrifice, purifying the materials of the oblation, offering them to the gods whom it has summoned to the divine ritual, determining the right order and season of its works, conducting the progress, the march of the sacrificial development.
These and other various functions of the symbolic priesthood, represented in the outward sacrifice by different officiating priests, are discharged by the single Agni.
Agni is the leader of the sacrifice and protects it in the great journey against the powers of darkness. The knowledge and purpose of this divine Puissance can be entirely trusted; he is the friend and lover of the soul and will not betray it to evil gods.
Mounts Higher and Higher
Even for the man sitting far off in the night, enveloped by the darkness of the human ignorance, this flame is a light which, when it is perfectly kindled and in proportion as it mounts higher and higher, enlarges itself into the vast light of the Truth.
Flaming upward to heaven to meet the divine Dawn, it rises through the vital or nervous mid-world and through our mental skies and enters at last the Paradise of Light, its own supreme home above where joyous for ever in the eternal Truth that is the foundation of the sempiternal Bliss the shining Immortals sit in their celestial sessions and drink the wine of the infinite beatitude.
It is true that here the light is concealed. Agni, like other gods, figures here as a child of the universal parents, Heaven and Earth, Mind and Body, Soul and material Nature.
This earth holds him concealed in her own materiality and does not release him for the conscious works of the Father. She hides him in all her growths, her plants, herbs, trees—the forms full of her heats, the objects that keep for the soul its delights. But at last she shall yield him up; she is the lower tinder, the mental being is the upper tinder; by the pressure of the upper on the lower the flame of Agni shall be born. But it is by pressure, by a sort of churning that he is born. Therefore he is called the Son of Force.
Outwardly Obscure in Workings
Even when Agni emerges, he is outwardly obscure in his workings. He becomes, first, not a pure Will, though really he is always pure, but a vital Will, the desire of the Life in us, a smoke-obscured flame, son of our crookednesses, a Beast grazing in its pasture, a force of devouring desire that feeds upon earth’s growths, tears and ravages all upon which it feeds and leaves a black and charred line to mark its path where there was the joy and glory of earth’s woodlands.
But in all this there is a work of purification, which becomes conscious for the man of sacrifice.
Agni, the Purifier
Agni destroys and purifies. His very hunger and desire, infinite in its scope, prepares the establishment of a higher universal order. The smoke of his passion is overcome and this vital Will, this burning desire in the Life becomes the Steed that carries us up to the highest levels,—the white Steed that gallops in the front of the Dawns.
Delivered from his smoke-enveloped activity he burns high in our skies, scales the ether of the pure mind and mounts upon the back of heaven. There on that rarer level its god Trita Aptya takes this high-flaming force and forges it into a weapon of sharpness that shall destroy all evil and ignorance.
This Seer-Will becomes the guardian of the illuminations of knowledge—herds of the Sun that graze in the pastures of life secure from the Sons of division and darkness, protected by the warrior force of the Will that knows. He attains the immortality and maintains unhurt its law of truth and joy in the human creature.
In the end we overpass all crookednesses of falsehood and error, emerge from the low and broken and devious ground to the straight path and the high and open levels. Will and Knowledge become one; every impulse of the perfected soul becomes conscious of the essential truth of its own self-being, every act fulfils it consciently, joyously, victoriously.
Such is the godhead to which the Vedic Fire exalts the Aryan who does the sacrifice. The Immortal conquers in the mortal and by his sacrifice, Man, the thinker, fighter, toiler, becomes a seer, self-ruler and king over Nature.
Splendid Images of Divine Flame in the Veda
The Veda speaks of this divine Flame in a series of splendid and opulent images.
Throughout the Veda it is in the hymns which celebrate this strong and brilliant deity that we find those which are the most splendid in poetic colouring, profound in psychological suggestion and sublime in their mystic intoxication. It is as if his own flame and cry and light had seized with a burning ecstasy on the imagination of his poets.
Birth of the Divine Flame
Amid this crowd of poetical images there are some of a symbolic character which describe the many births of the divine Flame. They are recounted with an extraordinary variety. Sometimes he is the child of Heaven, the Father—Mind or Soul—and of Earth the Mother—Body or material Nature; sometimes he is the flame born from these two tinders; sometimes Heaven and Earth are called his two mothers, when the figure is more explicitly symbolic of the pure mental and psychical and the physical consciousness.
He is also hymned as the child of the seven Mothers—for his complete birth is a result of the manifestation of seven principles which constitute our conscious existence—three spiritual of the infinite, three temporal of the finite, and one intermediate—and which are, respectively, the foundation of the seven worlds.
Like other gods, he is said to be born of the Truth; the Truth is at once his birthplace and his home.
Sometimes it is said that the Seven Beloved brought him into birth for the Lord; and here the symbol seems to carry back his source to that other principle of pure Bliss which is the original cause of creation.
He has one form of the solar light and flame, another heavenly in the mind, a third which dwells in the rivers. Night and Dawn are delivered of him, the Knowledge and the Ignorance suckle alternately the divine Child in their successive occupation of our heavens.
And yet again it is Matarishwan, Master of Life, who has planted him for the gods secret in the growths of earth, secret in her creatures, man, animal and plant, secret in the mighty Waters. These Waters are the seven rivers of the luminous world that descend from heaven when Indra, the God-Mind, has slain the enveloping Python; they descend full of the light and the heavenly abundance, instinct with the clarity and the sweetness, the sweet milk and the butter and the honey.
Agni’s birth here from these fostering Cows, these Mothers of Plenty, is the greatest of his terrestrial births; fostered by them as the swift Mares of Life he grows at once to his divine greatness, fills all the planes with his vast and shining limbs and forms their kingdoms in the soul of man into the image of a divine Truth.
The variety and flexible use of these images—they are sometimes employed in a rapid succession in the same hymn—belongs to a period of conscious symbolism in which the image has not hardened and crystallised into the myth but is constantly a figure and a parable whose sense still lives and is still plastic in the originating imagination.
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[Agni] participates in the legendary actions of Indra, the Python-slaying, the recovery of the herds, the slaying of the Dasyus; his own activity is universal but in spite of his supreme greatness or perhaps because of it he seeks no separate end and claims no primacy over the other gods. He is content to be a worker for man and the helpful deities.
~ Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 15, pp. 387-392
~ Design: Beloo Mehra