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The Purity of Agni

VENERATION of nature is characteristic of Indian tradition. The Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture focusses on nature worship such as that of air, water and fire.

In a world ridden with squandering of natural resources, pollution and greed, the Rig Veda teaches us to respect nature and to live in harmony with the biosphere. Natural phenomena are personified as different divinities; yet they are inter-linked into a holistic oneness, a supreme power.

Indra, armed with lightning and thunder, stands for rain, cattle and destruction of evil. Varuna is the God of sky and waters. Rudra symbolises fury of nature. Thunder that reverberates through the firmament is his roar; he is the father of Maruts, the storm deities, who rage through the skies, sending rain, whose approach makes the Earth fertile.

The waters from the mountains carry the powers of healing herbs and have a purifying quality. The Indian tradition attaches great importance to theerthayatra, literally pilgrimage to holy waters. The sun God or Surya gives us day and night and seasons.

Agni, the fire God is an important Rig Vedic divinity. The use of fire, which started 400,000 years ago, is the most important step in the progress of the human race. Voluminous mythology was woven around fire. Greek mythology says Prometheus stole and brought fire from heaven to the Earth. The Tasmanians and the Koreans never let their house fires go out. The Russian peasant carries fire to his new house and says, ``Welcome grandfather, to the new home''.

As times changed, most Vedic deities underwent transformations; but Agni's sway over us continues. The Hindu household keep a lamp burning before the gods. The Hindu marriage is solemnised before the sacred fire. At funerals, the sacred fire is carried to the burning ground. The spirit of the dead person is believed to rise with the smoke to the heaven.

Agni is prayed for food, cattle, prosperity, happiness, progeny and for destruction of evil.

The Vedic religion preserved the fire cult of the ancient inhabitants of Earth who gazed with awe at fire-seething volcanoes and brilliant streaks of lightning that ignited primeval forests into fast-spreading flames. Rig Veda refers to the fierce and radiant woodland fires accompanied by Maruts, which ``roared like lions''.

The notion of fire as a purifier is universal. Christianity believes in the purificatory fires of the purgatory, and the eternal fires of hell. Sita's fire walk, to prove her purity shows that such practice existed in ancient days. Fire-walking exists to this day in many parts of India.

To the devotees, passage through the embers unharmed signifies purity and undiminished faith. The Rig Veda says, ``Burn away from us the sin, flame out on us the bliss. When the fire is kindled we speak indeed the truth''. Agni dispels darkness or tamas that fills the world. Spiritual yearning of the ancient Hindus is evident when they prayed to Agni, for discriminating between virtue and vice.

Agni strides forth in his golden chariot drawn by red horses. Wild fires blow away burning fragments that set off spot fires miles away. Vivid images of this particular aspect of Agni can be seen in the modern times.

The report of the British Royal Commission examining bush fires in Victoria in 1939, said: "The spread of the fires was appalling. They leapt from mountain peak to mountain peak, far on to the lower country, lighting the forests six or seven miles in advance of the main fire."

The Vedic bard appeals, "Grant, brilliant Agni, happiness to our sons and grandsons...to ourselves". Fire is the intermediary between people and gods and receives oblations from the humans. It sends up to the skies whatever is burnt at the altar. Judicious use of the energy of fire is the key to human progress.

Lord of the dwelling and friend of Man, Agni needs to be approached reverentially. Agni is "mortal, divine, all-wise" truly a divinity that is worshipped by us.

The Hindu temple is the continuation of the Vedic fire altar, that was in the open air. The innermost sanctuary of the temple, the Garbagraha, is built on a square plane, the basic shape of the Vedic altar. Indiscriminate dealings with Agni will be catastrophic and is the main cause of human woes. Let Agni lead mankind from darkness to light. 

Just as fire, though one, entering the world
Adopts the shapes of the different objects it burns,
Similarly, the one atman of all living things, though one,
Assumes the forms of the various objects He enters
And exists also beyond.




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