Vedā: Agni

Essential nature of Agni in the Rig Veda

The general notion among most people who have heard of the Rig Veda, whether Hindu or non-Hindu, whether layperson or specialist, regarding the contents of the Rig Veda is that it is a collection of stutis, or “praises” of personified forces of nature. So, for example, Agni is the god of fire, Vāyu is the god of wind, Sūrya is the god of Sun, and so on.
While these descriptions of the gods are correct, it is a hundredfold more clear that that is not the end view of the hymns. The tangible forces of nature are seen as manifestations of the gods, so that the gods in and of themselves are something much more. Yāska, the author of the Nirukta the oldest commentary on the Rig Veda outside of the Brāhmaṇas, has it right when he explains the mantras at three levels: adhibhūtamadhidaivatam, and adhyātmam. The first level is the physical phenomenon; the second level is the anthropomorphic theism; the third level is what I like to call the level of Existence. The conventional translation of “adhyātmam” is “spiritual”. But what does it really mean to be spiritual or to talk of spirituality? Pure and absolute Existence or Being is meant. The Universal Spirit is the principle of pure Being and at the root of the mystery of creation. The usual descriptions of all-pervasiveness, absolute singularity and the principle of pure consciousness are remembered.
Agni in the Rig Veda is a symbol par excellence for this Universal Spirit. The use of a divine fire as a symbol for the Supreme One is well-known in many cultures, for example, in Greek philosophy (particularly Heracleitus) and Christian theology. Here, I intend to quote specific verses from the Rig Veda which plainly show what the sages envisioned as Agni.
1. Viśvāmitra Gāthina, RV 3.26.7
  अग्निरस्मि जन्मना जातवेदाः घृतं मे चक्षुरमृतं म आसन् ।
  अर्कस्त्रिधातू रजसो विमानो अजस्रो घर्मो हविरस्मि नाम ॥
agnirasmi janmanā jātavēdāḥ ghṛtaṁ me cakṣuramṛtaṁ ma āsan|  arkastridhātū rajaso vimāno ajasro gharmo havirasmi nāma||
 “I am Agni, by birth omniscient; the light is (or, emanates from) my eye and immortality is (or, originates from) my mouth. I am the three-fold light measuring the universe, I am inexhaustible heat, sacred offering is my name.”
The very first phrase “I am Agni” says it all – the great sage Viśvāmitra is here expressing his realization of absolute unity with Agni, the realization that there is only one consciousness that is the essence of the individual and the universe. This is an exact paraphrase of “अहं ब्रह्मास्मि – aham brahmāsmi“, “I am Brahman” of Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad.
2. Bharadvāja Bārhaspatya, RV 6.9
   अयं होता प्रथमः पश्यतेममिदं ज्योतिरमृतं मर्त्येषु । 4a
ayaṁ hōtā prathamaḥ paśyatemamidaṁ jyotiramṛtaṁ martyeṣu
“He is the first invoker. Look at him – this light immortal within mortals.”
The Sanskrit words used here are significant. In the same breath Agni is called “इमम् – imam“, “him” (male) and “इदम् – idam“, “it” (neuter).  So Agni is at the same time, a god to be worshiped, and the One Existence to be internally realized.
  ध्रुवं ज्योतिर्निहितं दृशये कं मनो जविष्ठं पतयत्स्वन्तः । 5a
dhruvaṁ jyotirnihitaṁ dṛśaye kaṁ mano javiṣṭhaṁ patayatsvantaḥ
“The firm light, which is blissful and subtler than the mind, is hidden within the senses.”
This compares with the “आत्माऽस्य जन्तोर्निहितो गुहायाम् – ātmā asya jantoh nihito guhāyām“, “The Spirit is hidden within the creatures” of Kaṭha Upaniṣad.
  वि मे कर्णा पतयतो वि चक्षुर्वीदं ज्योतिर्ह्ृदय आहितं यत् ।
  वि मे मनश्चरति दूरआधीः किं स्विद् वक्ष्यामि किमु नू मनिष्ये ॥ 6
vi me karṇā patayato vi cakṣurvīdaṁ jyotirhṛdaya āhitaṁ yat  |
vi me manaścarati dūraādhīḥ kim svid vakṣyāmi kimu nū maniṣye ||
“My ears and my eye fly forth striving to see the light that is spread wide within the heart. My mind wanders far away – what can I speak of, and what can I think?”
This verse almost appears modern in its candid description of the internal processes when the sage is in rapture of his vision of the Light, when he has lost himself in the One Consciousness, such that he is beyond speech and thought. The last phrase “किं स्विद् वक्ष्यामि किमु नू मनिष्ये – kim svid vakṣyāmi kimu nū maniṣye” is an exact paraphrase of “यतो वाचो निवर्तन्ते अप्राप्य मनसा सह – yato vāco nivartante aprāpya manasā saha“, “From which speech and mind turn back, not having reached” of Taittirīya Upaniṣad.
  विश्वे देवा अनमस्यन् भियानाः त्वामग्ने तमसि तस्थिवांसम् ।
  वैश्वानरोऽवतूतये नोऽमर्त्योऽवतूतये नः ॥ 7
viśve devā anamasyan bhiyānāḥ tvāmagne tamasi tasthivāmsam |  vaiśvānaro’vatūtaye no’martyo’vatūtaye naḥ ||
“All the gods bowed down to you in fear, O Agni, when you were dwelling in the darkness. May the Universal Man protect us, may the Immortal protect us for well-being.”
Now, the curious part here is that Agni was dwelling in darkness. How can the paragon of light be in darkness? This opens up a whole discussion on the deeper Vedic metaphysics that Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has propounded. We shall see more on that in a future post. “Vaiśvānara“, Universal Man, is a famous name of Agni. Yāska’s Nirukta gives the etymology as “viśvebhyo narebhyaḥ jāyate, viśveṣu nareṣu vidyate iti va“, “he is born from all men, or that he is within all men.”
3. Trita Āptya, RV 10.5
   एकः समुद्रो धरुणो रयीणामस्मद्ध्ृदो भूरिजन्मा वि चष्टे ।
   सिषक्त्यूधर्निण्योरुपस्थे उत्सस्य मध्ये निहितं पदं वेः ॥
ekaḥ samudro dharuṇo rayīṇāmasmaddhṛdo bhūrijanmā vi caṣṭe |   siṣaktyūdharniṇyorupasthe utsasya madhye nihitaṁ padaṁ veḥ ||
“He is the One Ocean, container of all matter, having many births he sees inside our hearts. He suckles in the lap of the secret couple, the dwelling place of the Bird is within the fountain.”
This one is very cryptic in its symbols. The four feet of the verse all seem disjointed. Ocean is a very common symbol in the Rig Veda for the all-encompassing and infinite Supreme Unity, and here it is enhanced by the word “Eka“, one, which fortifies the concept. The meaning of “bird dwelling in the midst of a fountain” eludes me.
This entire hymn is full of intricate symbolism, most of which is at present beyond my understanding. But it only goes to prove that Agni (and other gods) are complex concepts with an advanced metaphysics behind them. I shall present a few fragments, and one or two full verses from this hymn.
  ऋतस्य पदं कवयो नि पान्ति गुहा नामानि दधिरे पराणि । 2b
ṛtasya padaṁ kavayo ni pānti guhā nāmāni dadhire parāṇi
“The sages protect the dwelling place of the Cosmic Order (or Motion), and take on higher secret names.”
  ऋतायिनी मायिनी सं दधाते मित्वा शिशुं जज्ञतुर्वर्धयन्ती ।
  विश्वस्य नाभिं चरतो ध्रुवस्य कवेश्चित्तन्तुं मनसा वियन्तः ॥
ṛtāyinī māyinī saṁ dadhāte mitvā śiśum jajñaturvardhayantī |  viśvasya nābhim carato dhruvasya kaveścittantum manasā viyantaḥ ||
“The Cosmic moving pair, endowed with powers copulate and create the Baby, themselves growing. The Baby is the center of all that moves and moves not. They weave the thread of the Sage with deep insight.”
Obviously the Baby is Agni as Kumǟra, the ever-newly born. That he is described as the center (hub or navel) of the universe (i.e., all that is stationary or moving) is significant as he is also described elsewhere as the First Manifested Principle. So he is the unaffected effector of all creation, the state of convergence of opposites.
  असच्च सच्च परमे व्योमन् दक्षस्य जन्मन्नदितेरुपस्थे ।
  अग्निर्ह नः प्रथमजा ऋतस्य पूर्व आयुनि वृषभश्च धेनुः ॥ 7
asacca sacca parame vyoman dakṣasya janmannaditerupasthe |  agnirha naḥ prathamajā ṛtasya pūrva āyuni vṛṣabhaśca dhenuḥ ||
“He is both non-existence and existence in the highest sphere (“parame vyoman“), Dakṣa’s birth from Aditi’s womb! Agni is surely our first-born of Cosmic Order, in the primeval state he is both the Bull and the Cow.”
Parame vyoman” is difficult to translate – another translation is “highest heaven or Empyrean, etc. But essentially the idea is that of a non-physical state, prior to creation and prior to space and time cognition. So, it is a state of unity, absence of opposites or multiplicity, but a state of potentiality from which all opposites come out. “Pūrve āyuni” is not a specific point in time, rather it is the cyclical state of undifferentiated existence before creation. Similarly, when Agni is called “first-born”, it is in regard to his first manifestation after a new creation has emanated. “Both bull and cow” shows that Agni is the source of the principles of creation.
        Aditi is in mythology Dakṣa’s daughter – Aditi Dākṣāyaṇī, and Dakṣa is the foremost progenitor (Prajāpati). However in this verse, the relations are reversed. When a duality emerges from an original singular unity, the two parts of the duality can only be seen as creating one another. In terms of metaphysics, the idea of a ‘second’ has meaning only in context of a pre-existing counterpart, the latter in turn presupposing the existence of the former. Yāska describes the gods as “itaretarajanmānaḥ“, born from one another.
In this verse, we clearly see that Vedic Agni is identical to Brahman of the Upaniṣads, described in terms of opposites, and the ultimate state of unity from which come all opposites.
4. Vasuśruta  Ᾱtreya, RV 5.3.1
   त्वमग्ने वरुणो जायसे यत्त्वं मित्रो भवसि यत्समिद्धः ।
   त्वे विश्वे सहसस्पुत्र देवास्त्वमिन्द्रो दाशुषे मर्त्याय ॥
tvamagne varuṇo jāyase yattvaṁ mitro bhavasi yatsamiddhaḥ |
tve viśve sahasasputra devāstvamindro dāśuṣe martyāya ||
“You, Agni, are Varuṇa when born, and you are Mitra when kindled. O Son of Strength, in you are all the gods, and you are Indra to the mortal worshiper.”
In this verse, it is clear that Agni is identified with all the other gods, and in fact is said to envelop all gods. The verses following this one elaborate on Agni’s identity with other named gods. A similar theme is found in Gṛtsamada Bhārgava‘s hymn RV 2.1 where Agni is literally identified with nearly all the named gods of the Vedic pantheon. No other god is accorded this kind of universal description.
An observation is that the concept of Agni preceded the use of fire as his symbol, rather than the other way around. Most modern scholars start with the physical fire and then attribute a “development” to an abstract god. However, the few verses quoted here show that fire is just one aspect of Agni even in the oldest hymns. In other words, physical fire and the act of offering in yajña were implemented as being the most excellent form of Agni, the Universal Spirit.
5. A few more verses:
    अग्ने कदा त आनुषग्भुवद्देवस्य चेतनम्  ।  RV 4.7.2a  Vāmadeva Gautama
“O Agni, when shall I have a flash of insight (consciousness – cetanam) of you, God?
   मा निन्दत य इमां मह्यं रातिं देवो ददौ मर्त्याय स्वधावान् ।
  पाकाय गृत्सो अमृतो विचेता वैश्वानरो नृतमो यह्वो अग्निः ॥  RV 4.5.2  Vāmadeva Gautama
mā nindata ya imām mahyaṁ rātim devo dadau martyāya svadhāvān |
pākāya gṛtso amṛto vicetā vaiśvānaro nṛtamo yahvo agniḥ ||
“Don’t criticize that the omnipotent God has given me, a mortal, this Bliss – to me, immature, Agni the Blissful, the Immortal, the Wisest, the Universal, the manliest, the youthful.”
   त्रिरस्य ता परमा सन्ति सत्या स्पार्हा देवस्य जनिमान्यग्नेः ।
  अनन्ते अन्तः परिवीत आगाच्छुचिः शुक्रो अर्यो रोरुचानः ॥  RV 4.1.7  Vāmadeva Gautama
“There are three highest truths, the desirable births of the god Agni. He came clothed in the infinite, pure, white, benevolent, brightly shining.”
          Saying that Agni is clothed in the infinite, is tantamount to saying he is infinite. The significance of the three births are explained in different ways: his 3 forms of fire, lightning and sun; the three sacrificial fires of GārhapatyaDakṣiṇa and Ᾱhavanīya; the Father, the Mother and the ever newly born Son.
   शतधारमुत्समक्षीयमाणं विपश्चितं पितरं वक्त्वानाम्  ।
  मेळिं मदन्तं पित्रोरुपस्थे तं रोदसी पिपृतं सत्यवाचम्  ॥  RV 3.26.7  Viśvāmitra Gāthina
“The inexhaustible fount of a hundred streams, the wise, the father of all sacred speech, the sparkler, rejoicing in the parents’ lap, him do you, Heaven and Earth, satiate, the speaker of truth.”
परि प्रजातः क्रत्वा बभूथ भुवो देवानां पिता पुत्रः सन्  ।   RV 1.69.2  Parāśara Śāktya
“You are born all around by your greatness, being the son of the gods, you are also their father.”
This is very significant, that Agni is both the father and son of the gods. Further explanation will be needed to expand this metaphysics.
   क इमं वो निण्यमा चिकेत वत्सो मातृृर्जनयत स्वधाभिः ।
  बह्वीनां गर्भो अपसामुपस्थान्महान्कविर्निश्चरति स्वधावान् ॥   RV 1.95.4 Kutsa Ᾱṅgirasa 
“Who has seen him, the Hidden One? This child has generated his mothers by his power. The offspring of many, he the omnipotent, the great sage has come forth from the womb of the waters.”
विश्वेषामदितिर्यज्ञियानां विश्वेषामतिथिर्मानुषाणाम् ।
अग्निर्देवानामव आवृणानः सुमृळीको भवतु जातवेदाः ॥   RV 4.1.20  Vāmadeva Gautama
“Aditi of all the gods, guest of all humans, Agni bringing here the protection of the gods, may he the Omniscient be benevolent to us.”
         Here, Aditi in the primary sense of the word, is the mother of all the gods. Etymologically, “Aditi” means infinite. Both senses of the word are very appropriate in this verse – as seen from above, Agni has been called infinite, the father of the gods, and both male and female (Bull and Cow). It follows naturally that Aditi = Agni.
In the foregoing, some verses pertaining to Agni have been translated. These verses are in plain and simple language, without the use of intricate symbols. Although such verses form a small percentage of the hymns, they show the heart of the Rig Veda. This has also been an exercise in interpreting a coherent whole by stitching together parts taken from different verses. By ensuring to always keep the whole in view, each individual verse can be meaningfully explained. As seen above, a consistent metaphysical doctrine of Agni emerges naturally from the hymns.

Agni : Supreme singularity, reconciliation of opposites

May 31st, 2015

In the previous post, some examples were given of Agni verses from the Rig Veda, that were in simple and non-cryptic language. These clearly showed that the sages conceived of Agni as the Supreme Unity of Existence, Consciousness and Bliss. The proportion of such simple and straightforward statements are few and far between. Even as it was demonstrated in Trita Āptya’s hymn RV 10.5, use of intricate and cryptic symbolism is the norm. Although it is impossible to unravel every bit of symbolism in the Rig Veda, some linked verses and some explanations from the Brāhmaṇa literature help reveal the deep metaphysics behind some of the topics.

Here is one example that requires a little more explanation than the simple verses.

1. Vāmadeva Gautama, RV 4.40.5
    हंसः शुचिषद्वसुरन्तरिक्षसद्धोता वेदिषदतिथिर्दुरोणसत् ।
    नृषद्वरसदृतसद्व्योमसदब्जा गोजा ऋतजा अद्रिजा ऋतम् ॥
haṁsaḥ śuciṣad vasur antarikṣasad-dhotā vediṣad atithir duroṇasat |
nṛṣad varasad ṛtasad vyomasad abjā gojā ṛtajā adrijā ṛtam  ||
“The Swan present in the waters (or light), as Vasu in the atmosphere, as the priest in the altar, as the guest in houses. In men he is present, in gods, in Cosmic Order, in space – he is born from the waters, from the earth, from the Cosmic Order, from the mountains. He is Cosmic Order.”
Although this verse is attributed to Sūrya, it is obvious that most of the epithets are those of Agni – not that there is any real difference between Agni and Sūrya in the highest level. However, when dealing with the hymns attributed to individual gods, it is consistent to observe what epithets are used for each god.
Now, Hamsa is the swan, which although not an aquatic animal, still spends most of its life on water. It breathes air, can fly and walk on land, but chooses to sit in water. As such, the swan is a beautiful and apt symbol for the Supreme One, which chooses to express itself in manifestation of the world. In the Rig Veda, waters (plural) are the symbol of the universe with its potentialities. The universe is infinitely capable of producing and reproducing forms and life-forms. Hence, the Supreme One by choice, for play, has come into the universe as consciousness in living creatures. The Swan is the Samsārī, the Eternal Migrant, who is always on the move, in the form of space and time.
         The only other occurrence of a single swan in the Rig Veda is in Parāśara Śāktya, RV 1.65.9:
                               श्वसित्यप्सु हंसो न सीदन् क्रत्वा चेतिष्ठो विशामुषर्भुत्
                          śvasityapsu haṁso na sīdan kratvā cetiṣṭho viśāmuṣarbhut
Agni “breathes sitting in the waters like a swan, by his power he is omniscient, waking at dawn for men.” Clearly the Swan is Agni.
‘Priest of the altar’ and ‘Guest in the home’ are well-known descriptions of Agni. “Amṛto martyeṣu – the immortal within mortals” as Agni is described (e,g., RV 4.2.1) matches “nṛṣad – in men”. Three terms are related: ṛtasad, ṛtajā, ṛtam. The first one means “is present in Cosmic Order”, the second “born of Cosmic Order”, the third “is the Cosmic Order”.  These three terms coming together in this verse demonstrate the very core of Vedic philosophy. In a majority of hymns the gods are described as born from Cosmic Order, adhering to Cosmic Order, keepers of Cosmic Order, etc., resulting in a popular (especially among Western Indology specialists) notion that the gods are somehow subservient to, and are “governed” by, Cosmic Order. The image that these Western scholars create is that of a rowdy bunch who are kept in discipline by this matronly Cosmic Order. However, in this verse, Agni is the Supreme All-in-One. He is the Cosmic Order, he is the soul of Cosmic Order, he embodies it, and is the child of Cosmic Order. By extension, all the gods are an embodiment of Cosmic Order, which is an expression of their essential nature.
Moreover, this triple epithet of Agni only reflects the consistent metaphysics that we will see below.

Supreme singularity, or reconciliation of opposites

A supreme, all-encompassing, spiritual principle which is the material and efficient cause of the universe is expected, not surprisingly, to be described in terms of opposites. This supreme “singularity” would be the state of neutralization of worldly opposites, a state of existence where the manifested opposites of worldly existence have no meaning, or from which state the opposites emerge to form the structures of the world. This state of singularity is the supreme, self-luminous Observer who knows his own existence, and who exists both before the universe comes into being and after the universe is dissolved.

The Upanishads and Vedanta declare this non-dual state of existence as the ultimate reality. Not surprisingly, the Rig Veda is already full of such descriptions with regard to Agni. Comparing this to the Big Bang theory of modern physics, the energy is the state of singularity when there was no space, time or matter. The total energy content cannot increase or decrease, so it will always exist regardless of the specific structure of matter, space or time. However, the one missing piece in this theory is an absolute observer that validates the existence of this state.

Here we will see some specific ways in which Agni is described as a unity of opposites or dualities.

1. Energy and Matter, or Eater and Eaten, or Consumer and Consumed
This duality is perhaps the most fundamental in the universe. In fact, this duality is the basis for the separate existence of things that make up the structure of the universe. If everything was one, then what would eat what? Then there would be no grass, no deer, no tigers, no separate entities, no protons, neutrons or electrons or atoms or molecules. However, because there is evidence of recycling of things in the universe, there must be a single source of all opposites. This is what the sage Viśvāmitra Gāthina (RV 3.26.7) realized as his identity with Agni:

अग्निरस्मि जन्मना जातवेदाः घृतं मे चक्षुरमृतं म आसन् ।

  अर्कस्त्रिधातू रजसो विमानो अजस्रो घर्मो हविरस्मि नाम ॥
agnirasmi janmanā jātavēdāḥ ghṛtaṁ me cakṣuramṛtaṁ ma āsan|  
arkastridhātū rajaso vimāno ajasro gharmo havirasmi nāma||
 agnirasmi janmanā jātavēdāḥ I am Agni, omniscient by birth” – here the sage has a flash of illuminating realization that he and the universal observer are one and the same. “ajasro gharmo havirasmi nāma I am Eternal heat, as well as the sacred food offering.” – here the symbols of the sacrificial ritual are used to denote the universal opposites of energy and matter, eater and eaten. He is both of them. This is the realization of the oneness behind all forms that recycle interchangeably.

2. Male and Female
This duality is another fundamental aspect of the manifested universe. Mythologies of all ancient cultures have a creation myth that has a first male and first female that produce the world. Even modern genetics expounds two fundamental types of chromosomes in DNA, X and Y that are gender-related. And yet, when the ultimate origins are questioned, logically there would have had to be a gender-neutral state from which the duality emerged, because neither a male nor a female by itself could produce the universe – by their very definition, they need to come together for any production or reproduction. Here by ‘male’ and ‘female’ we should understand ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ or ‘force’ and ‘potential’, which denote more universal metaphysical  ideas than mere sexual identity in mammals.
To recognize and realize the state of gender-neutrality requires insight into the deeper reality of all things, which is an absolute, universal observer.  This is what the sage Trita Āptya (RV 10.5) realized as Agni:

असच्च सच्च परमे व्योमन् दक्षस्य जन्मन्नदितेरुपस्थे ।

  अग्निर्ह नः प्रथमजा ऋतस्य पूर्व आयुनि वृषभश्च धेनुः ॥ 7
asacca sacca parame vyoman dakṣasya janmannaditerupasthe |  
agnirha naḥ prathamajā ṛtasya pūrva āyuni vṛṣabhaśca dhenuḥ ||

pūrva āyuni vṛṣabhaśca dhenuḥ Before creation, he was both Bull and Cow” – here the very culturally universal symbols of bull and cow are used for male and female. Before the manifestation of the universe, the potentialities of maleness and femaleness were undifferentiated in Agni, but then came forth as concrete forms in the manifested universe.

Another observation in the hymns to Agni is that although he is a male deity for all practical purposes, he is identified with all the female deities as well. For example:

Vāmadeva Gautama (RV 4.1.20) 
विश्वेषामदितिर्यज्ञियानाम् – viśveṣām aditir yajniyānām – Of all gods, he is Aditi” It is well-known that Aditi is the mother of all gods.

Gṛtsamada Bhārgava (RV 2.1.11)
“You, Agni, are the goddesses Aditi, Bhārati, Iḍā and Sarasvati.”

3. Father and Son; Father and Daughter
Another fundamental duality in relationships is that of progenitor and offspring. In the universe, for all practical purposes, the father of a creature cannot be the creature’s son. Nor is it logical to say that a father is his daughter’s son. This generational differentiation is a linear progression that is a natural outcome of reproduction.

However, after realizing the non-duality of existence, there is no escape from the knowledge that such relationships of the universe have no meaning behind or beyond the universe. Or, from the perspective of first origins, the son cannot have been without the existence of a father, but the father would have to be someone’s son. So the ideas of ‘father’ and ‘son’ are of mutual origin from a source where there is neither father nor son.  This is the realization of the sage Parāśara Śāktya (RV 1.69.2) regarding Agni:

“परि प्रजातः क्रत्वा बभूथ भुवो देवानां पिता पुत्रः सन् ”
pari prajātaḥ kratvā babhūtha bhuvo devānām pitā putraḥ san
“Manifested everywhere by your power, you have become the father of the gods, being already their son.”
So the sage is reiterating the realization that Agni is all and all is Agni.

Moreover, from the Trita Āptya verse quoted above, it is seen that Agni’s primeval state of non-duality implies that Dakṣa is born from Aditi, who is his daughter. As observed above, this is due to the metaphysical need for a first origin. This same  Dakṣa-Aditi symbolism is elaborated in another hymn RV 10.72.4:

“अदितेर्दक्षो अजायत दक्षाद्वदितिः परि”
aditer dakṣo ajāyata dakṣād u aditiḥ pari”
“From Aditi was born Dakṣa and from Dakṣa was Aditi born”

4. Unmanifest and Manifest, or Non-existence and Existence, or Non-being and Being
This duality is a rather subtle subject of metaphysics and philosophy, but no doubt it is much closer to the question of first origin and to the absolute non-dual reality. In all of Indian philosophy, this duality has two words: Asat and Sat. However, these same two words are used in slightly different meanings in different contexts in the Rig Veda and Upanishads, hence the three different pairs of dualities in the heading.

Subtle distinctions need to be made between the three pairs of dualities. ‘Non-being’ is a null, an absolute nothing. ‘Being’ is the opposite – a ‘something’, a final, irreducible absolute state of “is-ness”. When this ‘Being’ has not taken on a specific mode, it is ‘Non-existence’, whereas ‘Existence’ is a mode of ‘Being’. ‘Unmanifest’ is the state of ‘Existence’ that is imperceptible to a set of mind and senses, whereas ‘Manifest’ can be perceived by a mind and a group of senses.

For sure, neither Rig Veda nor Upanishads teach a state of pure nothing or null as it goes against all spiritual experience. So undifferentiated ‘Being’ is the ground zero or absolute reality of the Rig Veda and Upanishads. From this clarity, we can understand that in chapter 6 of Chandogya Upanishad, Sat means ‘Being’, which is why it is asked, “How can Being arise from Non-being? It cannot be so. Hence Being alone was in the beginning.” Similarly, in Rig Veda 1.164.46, Sat could mean ‘Being’ or ‘Existence’, “There is one Being or Existence, though sages describe it in many ways.”

Harking back to the Trita Āptya verse quoted above, Agni is said to be “Asat and Sat at the highest level (parame vyoman – literally “highest heaven” or “highest space”, meaning the highest state or sphere of existence, above and beyond the mundane world)”. In the next line, Agni is called “the first-born of Cosmic Order”. We have to reconcile these two descriptions. Since Cosmic Order implies a fully functional universe, Agni is here the “first ray of the light of consciousness” in a specific universe. In other words, he is the personal God. However, in the highest state, far removed from the universe, where there is no notion of Cosmic Order due to the absence of a Cosmos, Agni is “both Existence and Non-existence”, in other words, he is undifferentiated Being. This line of thought is confirmed by the last quarter of the verse “before creation, both Bull and Cow”. So, what will become the gender duality of bull and cow within the Cosmos, is undifferentiated Bull-Cow before creation, i.e. before Cosmos, i.e. both Existence and Non-existence, i.e. Pure Being in the highest state, i.e. the state of non-dual singularity. This same concept is also found in the famous Nasadiya hymn, RV 10.129: “There was neither non-existence nor existence then”, “That One breathed without breath on its own.”

5. Moving and Stationary; Moving and Unmoving
Aristotle is pretty famous for the concept of the “unmoved mover” as a first principle. However, this concept was nothing new. Thousands of years before Aristotle, the Rig Veda is full of such descriptions of the Supreme Unity, the Absolute Singularity of Existence and Consciousness in terms of opposites.

Viśvāmitra Gāthina (RV 3.55.7) describes Agni as:
द्विमाता होता विदथेषु सम्राडन्वग्रं चरति क्षेति बुध्नः।
dvimātā hotā vidatheṣu samrāṭ anvagraṁ carati kṣeti budhnaḥ

“The one who has two mothers (heaven and earth), or the one who is the creator of two (heaven and earth), who is the sovereign in spiritual conferences, he moves ahead even while he rests as foundation.”

First, the description of Agni as “son of two or creator of two” shows again the fundamental concept of Agni as the unifying “bridge” who transcends opposites and yet from whom opposites emerge. Then he is said to move even as he sits. This is an exact paraphrase of Īśopaniṣad, “तदेजति तन्नेजति, “It moves, it moves not“.

Also, Trita Āptya (RV 10.5.3) says, “विश्वस्य नाभिं चरतो ध्रुवस्य – viśvasya nābhiṁ carato dhruvasya – He is the center or origin of all that moves and all that is stationary.” In other words, Agni is the single source of opposites created in the universe. Or rather, Agni is the state of Existence-Consciousness that transcends worldly opposites.

Any genuine metaphysical description of the ultimate reality can only use negations of worldly opposites, as the state of ultimate reality is one of uniform, undifferentiated, “non-lumpy” existence as well as pure awareness of the existence. Existence and knowledge of existence are inseparable because if I don’t know I exist, then I am a null, a non-existent. These ideas lead to the root of all knowledge and experience, and to the deepest truth of all, which we shall see in the next post. 

We have explored some deep spiritual (or, more accurately, metaphysical – which means “beyond physical” – which actually represents the idea of “spiritual” in the sense of non-corporeal) conception of Agni in the Rig Veda that correspond perfectly with the teachings of the Upanishads. Agni is realized and recognized by the sages as the non-dual singularity and the absolute observer that is the Brahman of Upanishads. In the next post, we shall see a much deeper level of meaning in some of the Rig Vedic verses that are only rarely seen in the Upanishads.

I must mention Ananda K. Coomaraswamy here as my inspiration and indirect teacher. He is a true sage in the likeness of the Vedic sages in his deep insight into the meaning of Vedic and Upanishadic texts, and his profound wisdom in connecting all texts into a systematic whole. His collected writings on the Vedas are published as “Perception of the Vedas” by Manohar Publishers, and is available on Amazon.

AKC completely rejects the methods of modern Western oriental scholars who look at the Rig Veda as a document of history devoid of metaphysical and spiritual content. He considers the Rig Veda as just the opposite – as dealing with eternal matters and not of any historical events, and this is also the traditional view. He shows with scholarly rigor and precision that each of the terms in the Rig Veda have a specific interpretation in metaphysics and that the Vedic verses were composed with the intention of expressing these metaphysics. The sages of the Rig Veda took the underlying metaphysical theory for granted when composing the verses so that there is no systematic exposition of the doctrine, but AKC recovers it by consolidating scattered verses throughout the text. He also shows the complete equivalence of the Vedic verses with the later Upanishads excepting linguistic changes in modes of expression. Another important discussion is on the real meaning and purpose of Vedic yajna (sacrifice) which is always an emulation of the “First Primal Sacrifice” done by the Gods to create the universe.

In summary, these essays are an insightful presentation of the theory of Vedic metaphysics on universal and individual Consciousness, God and the source of God, and other topics of spiritual significance.

This book is a must-have, if you are a lover of metaphysics and like to ponder deeply on questions about the nature of “God” and the universe, and the relation of individual multiplicities of existence to the single unity of undivided existence, and how different traditional systems are set up to lead to enlightenment.

Agni : Divine Darkness, or Light within the Darkness, or Divine Death, or Death before Life

Aug 2nd, 2015
If you are reading this before the articles “Agni – Part 1 and Part 2”, it is strongly recommended that you read them first as they will prepare the way for ideas discussed here.

I must once again express my gratitude and reverence to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (AKC), one of the pioneers of Perennial Philosophy, who was a true Vedic sage – a rishi – in his comprehensive and integral, but at the same time deep and genuine, understanding of Vedic metaphysics. I also continue his use of ‘metaphysics’ in preference to ‘philosophy’ or ‘spirituality’, as the former term accurately describes the system of ideas, concepts and teachings of the Vedic literature and deep enlightenment regarding the “non-physical” or “beyond-physical”, i.e. “meta-physical” state that should result from the triple action of ṥravaṇa, manana, nididhyāsana (learning, pondering and meditating) that is the famous classic path of Vedanta. Truly, there is no difference between what has been called “Rig Veda, etc.”, i.e. the “Karma Kāṇḍa” and the “Upanishads”, i.e. the “Jñāna Kāṇḍa” except the age of the language and turn of phrase. But then, there is the real difference that the older Rig Veda uses much more complex symbolism than the younger Upanishad. The trick to unraveling symbolism is that the same symbol can stand for many things at many levels.

At the outset, I would like to emphasize my shortcomings in comparison to the genius of AKC in his energetic synthesis of different verses of the Rig Veda and Upanishads. Although every essay of his has countless gems of interconnected deductions, the following essays in particular contain material that is pertinent to my present endeavor:
1. A New Approach to the Vedas
2. The Darker Side of Dawn
3. Angel and Titan: An Essay in Vedic Ontology
4. The Vedic doctrine of ‘Silence’
5. The Tantric doctrine of divine biunity
6. Kha and other words denoting ‘zero’ in connection with the Indian metaphysics of space
7. On the one and only transmigrant
8. Vedic ‘Monotheism’
9. Vedic Exemplarism

I shall proceed to list key ideas and concepts in as logical an order as I can think of, with references from the Rig Veda and other texts that AKC has used and also a few more that are obviously in context. The overarching goal is to show by interconnecting the texts, that the rishis of the Rig Veda had fathomed the deepest secret, the deepest and most profound truth about the nature of reality. They had experienced the ultimate, irreducible state of “enlightening darkness” which level of oxymoron is the only way to describe that supreme, absolute, irreducible state of Existence-Knowledge.

1. Agni and other “Gods of Light/Heaven” are in fact “dark” in their origin. Their original state, i.e. before creation and manifestation of the universe is described.

Pañcaviṁśa Brāhmaṇa 25.15.4: सर्प्या: वा आदित्याः   sarpyāḥ vā ādityāḥ   The Gods are really serpents.

AKC reiterates that the descriptions of Gods prior to “coming into the light” is ophidian (serpent-like). This should not connote any vicious, terrifying or repulsive images that one may have of real-world snakes. The deep significance of the intricate symbol of serpent is noteworthy.

The long and unsegmented body of the serpent symbolizes the totality of all Being or Existence in its undifferentiated state. In fact, the most prominent myth in the Rig Veda is that of Indra cutting up the serpent Vritra into pieces that become parts of the universe. However, the myth that precedes this shows Indra and Vritra as best friends before creation of the universe. Therefore, antecedent to separation of things in creation, all Existence was in the form of a serpent, so to speak.

2. Agni is in fact explicitly described as a serpent, or with actions of a serpent.

Gotama Rāhūgaṇa (RV 1.79.1): अहि: धुनिः  ahiḥ dhuniḥ    A raging serpent

 Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 3.36: एष ह वा अहिर्बुध्न्यो यदग्निर्गार्हपत्य:   eṣa ha vā ahirbudhnyo yad agnir gārhapatyaḥ   This Agni Gārhapatyaḥ (i.e. the foundational fire) is truly the serpent of the deep.

 Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa अद्भ्य उपोदासृप्तं पुष्करपर्णे   adbhya upodāsṛptaṁ puṣkaraparṇe     He had crept out of the waters onto a lotus leaf. 

In the last reference, Agni is likened to a serpent slithering out from the water onto a lotus leaf. This description is loaded with several related doctrines. The lotus (puṣkara) is the symbol of an individual manifested world. As Agni is the First Manifested Principle (i.e. “God”) in any world (prathamajā ṛtasya), it is consistent with other references linking Agni to the lotus (for example, RV 6.16.13: Atharvan churned Agni from the Lotus, from Viśva’s head).

3. Agni is ‘endless’ or ‘infinite’ before manifestation or creation

The last reference tells us Agni was a slithering unsegmented Being until he crept up onto a lotus leaf, at which point, he is in a world that he created by virtue of his creeping up onto it. Before that, he is said to have no hands or feet. This is significant as the foot is a discrete mode of motion. A foot needs a solid distinct “ground” upon which to move in finite, discrete, measured “quanta”. However, slithering needs no “ground” as it is a continuous, non-discrete motion that is non-differentiated or “unmeasured”. Thus, the foot is the symbol for a distinct manifestation or a created world. Hence, the footless serpent is the symbol for the state prior to creation, prior to distinct entities.

Vāmadeva Gautama (RV 4.1.7): अनन्ते अन्तः परिवीत आगात्  anante antaḥ parivīta āgāt  Enveloped in the infinite, may he come to us. 

 Vāmadeva Gautama (RV 4.1.11): स जायत… बुध्ने रजसः अस्य योनौ … अपादशीर्षा गुहमानो अन्ता   sa jāyata… budhne rajasaḥ asya yonau… apādaśīrā guhamāno antā   He is born in the depths of space (or waters – compare Ahi Budhnya, serpent of the deep, above) in his own womb… Without feet and without a head, he conceals his ends.

‘Conceals his ends’ essentially means infinite. Here again, the image of a serpent with its tail in its mouth comes to mind, such that the Being is continuous, unsegmented (without intervals or gaps), full of infinite potentialities prior to manifestation.

Because Agni is infinite, he is never exhausted after emptying out all the potentialities to manifest the universe. This is corroborated by Viśvāmitra Gāthina (RV 3.26.9): “शतधारमुत्समक्षीयमाणं  śatadhāram utsam akīyamāṇam  –  He is an inexhaustible fountain of a hundred streams.

4. Agni dwells in the Darkness prior to creation

The idea of Agni, the exemplar of worldly light, dwelling in darkness is very paradoxical and strange at first. However, this reveals the highest conception of the Vedic sages which they symbolized as Agni. Perhaps we might get a better understanding by looking at the instances in the Rig Veda:

Bharadvāja Bārhaspatya (RV 6.9.7): विश्वे देवा अनमस्यन् भियानाः त्वामग्ने तमसि तस्थिवांसम्  viśve devā anamasyan bhiyānāḥ tvām agne tamasi tasthivāṁsam  –  All the Gods bowed in fear to you, Agni, when you dwelt in the Darkness.

RV 10.51.5: एहि … तमसि क्षेष्यग्ने सुगान्पथः कृणुहि देवयानान् वह हव्यानि सुमनस्यमानः  ehi … tamasi kṣeṣi agne … sugān pathaḥ kṇuhi devayānān vaha havyāni sumanasyamānaḥ  –  Come … you are dwelling in the darkness … make our paths easy-faring and carry sacred offerings, being of good will to us.

 RV 10.124.1: इमं … यज्ञमेहि … असो हव्यवाळुत नः पुरोगाः ज्योगेव दीर्घं तम आशयिष्ठाः  imam yajñamehi aso havyavāḍuta naḥ purogāḥ jyogeva dīrgham tama āśayiṣṭhāḥ  –  Come to this sacrifice, O Life-eternal, carrier of sacred offering and our leader. You have stayed too long in darkness.

These verses show the fundamental doctrine in the form of myth, i.e. by the use of Gods as personalities pleading Agni to come out of the darkness and set the sacrifice “rolling” by creating paths and carrying offerings between the worlds, which in effect causes the worlds to be created.

There is a more profound metaphysical doctrine hidden in those descriptions of Agni dwelling in the darkness. As already pointed out, it is a paradox that the paragon of light should stay in darkness. This should give us the clue that physical light is not meant here. Agni is the pure self-consciousness and existence that is the foundation of all empirical experience. Agni is the pure “I” that is the final and ultimate irreducible state of singular existence-consciousness from which worlds are created and into which they dissolve. Such a state is characterized by complete absence of multiplicity of names and forms, which implies absence of the Light of Creation that exposes, differentiates and defines the forms and names that constitute the universe.

In contrast, this “Agni dwelling in darkness” is a “Dark Light”Compare this to Chandogya Upanishad 1.6, “The white light of the sun is ‘sa’ and the extremely dark blue black light is ‘ama’ and together they make ‘saama’.” So Vedic tradition symbolizes a dark light that is behind the white light of the sun. This ‘Dark Light’ is the ‘Agni dwelling in darkness’ which is a Silent Observer existing alone in inaction. This is the state of Brahman of the Upanishads. The famous Nāsadīya Sūktam (RV 10.129) confirms the same concept:

तम आसीत्तमसा गूळ्हमग्रे … आनीदवातं स्वधया तदेकं तस्माद्धान्यन्न परः किञ्चनास   tama āsīt tamasā gūḷham agre … ānīd avātam svadhayā tadekam tasmāddha anyan na paraḥ kiñcanāsa   In the beginning darkness was covered by darkness … That One breathed without breath; other than That One there was nothing else.

The above Rig Veda verses depict the myth of creation where the “Gods” are eager for Agni to come out of the darkness, i.e. project the First Ray of Universal Light, which is also depicted in different myths. One of them is that Agni-Ahi Budhyna the Primordial Serpent crept up on a lotus leaf. Another one is  Indra slaying the Primordial Serpent under the name Vritra and cutting him up into parts that become the universe (along with releasing the waters of life). The true meaning of the Vedic yajna is to realize the original unity of the Serpent, and ritually effect the conjoining of the parts of Agni or Prajapati to make him whole. This is the true meaning of Agnicayana. This inner meaning of the ritual was adopted by Upanishad sages to various degrees, for example, as the Inner Fire Ritual (āntaram agnihotram) to be effected intellectually to realize the Primordial Unity.

Thus, it has been shown that Vedic metaphysics has always been consistent in its essential doctrine, while only changing in language and idiom.

The continuity has been carried on into Puranic symbolism. The most conspicuous example of Vedic serpent symbolism is the mythology of Vishnu resting on the thousand-hooded serpent Ananta Shesha.

The name of the serpent is variously Ananta (Infinite), Shesha (Remnant), Adi Shesha (Primordial Remnant). So obviously this is the same infinite Vedic serpent Agni-Ahi Budhnya. Shesha is what remains after creation. But he is Ananta Shesha, i.e. Infinite Remnant, which is an overstatement of the concept that what is infinite is never emptied out.

Vishnu is the Supreme God of the universe, whereas Ananta is the Godhead, the source of the God. This may come as a little shock to devout Hindus. Vishnu emerges out of Ananta, and rests on Ananta as his foundation. Vishnu is manifested in the universe, “visible” and active as the universal consciousness. Ananta is unmanifested, “invisible” as the Silent Observer existing alone in inaction. Of course, in the end Vishnu and Ananta are one and the same.

Author: Ram Abloh
Aug 14th, 2017
Full profile of this Author can be viewed at :

The Nature of Agni in RigVedā:

The Rigvedic philosophy is not much difficult to get if one removes the hunt for a supreme God or the notion that “my supposed vision is going to be the A-Z of the Rigveda”. Analyzing Rigveda is a tougher job only when you are closed to its poetic beauties, you do not pay heed to its own voice and instead, you approach it with words of someone else. Unfortunately, the people who have managed to work to find the Rigvedic essence of philosophy and you happen to think yourself small before them does not indicate they are “condescending”.

Let’s see what the Vedic Agni means, in the light of Rigvedic mentions.

The Agni, as we see, has a multitude of depth in its symbols, though it is based on a physical symbol associated with it – the fire. Agni is the hotar, the “invoker” who invokes the concepts of God on behalf of the devotee. Agni is the one on whose kindling a relationship is established between the spiritual mind and the physical mind (Remember the symbols – heaven dyaus and earth prthivi) His kindling, thus brings the concepts of God to our mind, and he is thus the bringer of concepts of God. ( sa devaan eha vakshati)

The Agni is thus the spiritual fire. His fire burns as the never stopped fire in the spirit of life, and also as the fire that needs to be kindled in the spiritual realm. His kindling is synonymous with the spiritual dawn, and Agni is thus, the firstborn in the spiritual realm. All concepts of God are seen by the worshiper through Agni. Agni is the seat (barhis) for the concepts of God. Agni the spiritual fire is the medium by which the devotee worships the divine. It is that divine seat of concepts of God that extends from the point in the physical mind to the apex of spiritual realms of the mind. Thus, Agni is said to extend from “the centre of earth” (centre of earth is a common Vedic symbol for the sacrificial spiritual fire in the physical mind, compare Dirghatamas, 1.164 ) to the “apex of sky/heaven” (spiritual realm, spiritual mind). This is a common description of Agni in Rigveda, like for example :

Agnir murdhaa divah kakut patih prthivyaa ayam.

The Agni also dispels darkness, (doshaa /tamas..) through his light brings the spiritual awakening into the mind. Agni is the abode of True concepts. Agni makes the devotee thus conscious of the Truth as the guardian of immortality. (Barhaspatya Bharadvaja 6.9) Agni being the son of “who”, the Reality, thus knows what exactly are the warps and woofs that made this creation. (ota-prota, 6.9)

The Agni accepts our offerings and rises to the “summit of heaven” from the “centre of earth”. (Gathina Vishvamitra 3.5.9) Thus, he pillars the spiritual realms of mind onto the physical mind. He is thus the “messenger” of the physical mind of the devotee. (duuta) The Agni is also present in the sun as heat. Since Sun of Rigveda represents the embodiment of Reality in the spiritual realm, its rays being the concepts of God, Agni who focuses the concepts of God in Himself is nothing but a form comparable rays of Sun. Thus, Agni is in the Sun, Agni is in the lightning, Agni is in the sacrificial fire. Agni’s light pervades all the seven realms of spiritual existence and His summit reaches the Truth. (The seven realms of spiritual existence are called the vyaahrtis present in the pranaayama mantra associated with Gayatri mantra in Yajurveda)

Agni is also the life present in all the organisms. He is also the spiritual life. Agni is thus present everywhere, and He spreads truth and light everywhere.

Why is Agni related to Bhūḥ, Vāyu to Bhuvaḥ and Sūrya to Svaḥ? (June 28th, 2020)

Agni as fire is what that permeates across earth, Vāyu is the air that permeates across the mid-space and Sūrya is the sun who permeates the sky.

But the words, being “vyāhṛtis”, are supposed to be mystic and implying word-plays. They indeed do. Bhūḥ reminds of “bhū” – implying “be”. Agni is the basic quality that exists then, fueling what is to be – it is an upward push towards existence. Bhuvaḥ reminds one of “bhuva-”, something that has been “becoming”. Vāyu exists as life then – it is dynamic and without a specific path or limit. Svaḥ reminds one of “sva” – the “self” which is when one has become self-conscious – it is reflecting back on you. And no surprises for our already known association of sun with the self.

Author/Researcher: Kiron Krishnan