In two previous blogs I discussed the ancient Vedic practice of personifying the elements. One reason to give the elements features and personalities is to get more experientially in touch with the qualities they each possess. Through stories and pictorial representations you identify with and relate to fire, earth, wind etc as living beings, as allies that show you the pitfalls to avoid in practice and how to gain wisdom and go further into Yoga. I'll continue that theme by looking at Agni, the God of fire. Agni is an important Vedic deity who is the 'vital spark', the element of life in everything animate and inanimate. 'He is the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of the hearth of worship, and is the divine personification of the fire of sacrifice'. In art Agni is portrayed as a red man with 2 flaming heads (one benevolent, one malevolent) , 3 legs and 7 arms. He rides a Ram and wears a garland of fruit. Agni has 7 tongues (each with a special name) to better lick up the offerings of ghee added to the sacrificial fire. The offerings are poured into Agni's mouth and he then passes them on to the Gods. He also conducts the Gods to the sacrificial locations on earth. Thus Agni is known as a messenger between earth and heaven, between men and Gods. I've included 3 stories about Agni at the bottom of the page. I've used themes contained in those stories as references in my article, so you may find it helpful and inspiring to read them.
The fire sacrifice is the heart of Vedic worship and is a religious ceremony conducted by one or more priests who build a fire in a specially constructed pit that serves as the altar. The priest then chants sacred verses in sanskrit from the Vedas while throwing various offerings of ghee (clarified butter), flowers, and herbs into the fire. The purpose of the ritual is to bring the participants in direct contact with God by connecting them with the elements, the underlying forces that cause life. Agni is the God of fire and is known as the hotr: the head 'priest' who presides over the sacrifice. In India, during the peak of Vedic times, the ritual sacrifices became lengthy and elaborate requiring hundreds of priests, large amounts of money and months or even years to perform. At some point these rituals ceased to provide spiritual nourishment to growing numbers of people. Perhaps, in reaction to the increasingly complex Vedic rituals, people began experimenting with completely opposite alternatives. Some of them withdrew into solitude and created Yoga and Meditation practices; began to map the world within the body in order to connect with Divinity. They found that using imagery to create the entire fire ritual within the body brought transformation and wisdom.
Modern Yoga has roots in this lineage. Daily, in your Ashtanga practice, you have the opportunity to beautifully enact a fire sacrifice. Using bandha's, dristi, and ujjayii your torso becomes the fire pit altar. Awareness is the fire and your sacred movement of asana's are the oblations that you continually offer to the fire. You are Agni with seven tongues licking up the offerings and carrying them to your core where the wisdom of your heart is nourished.
Because fire is THE most important element in practice, you must work consciously with your fieriness or lack of. It can require tremendous energy to get to a place where fire presides over your practice, where tapas leads you– where action, will, effort, concentration, perseverance, care, love, and enthusiasm all lead you. These are the qualities that spark and ignite your creative fire. You utilize the basic techniques in practice to bring forth your benevolent fire, to generate the right kind of heat in the right proportions. The techniques are meant to give you the ability to skillfully manage fire, to generate or dissipate heat at will. That is why it is so vital to study these fundamentals and to continue to refine them and become more skilled in applying them. When you are unskilled, either through lack of experience or negligence, you have less access to your fire, to your passion, and less access to caring about what's most important to you. Hence you may have to work harder to generate heat and to access your mental power. And you may not be accurate in your perception of what and where your center is in relation to your fire. As you become skilled, you see how proper breathing generates fire, applying bandha's generates fire, dristi creates fire, meditation and focus generate fire, and work with the flow of vinyasa sequencing generates fire. You learn to work with fire adeptly and with care as a craftsman or artisan; as does a chef or a blacksmith or a steeler at steel forge. According to Rumi: "The cook says: I was once like you fresh from the ground. Then I boiled in time and boiled in the body. Two fierce boilings. My animal soul grew powerful. I controlled it with practices and boiled some more and boiled once beyond that…"
Agni has two heads, one benevolent, one malevolent. Benevolent fire nourishes, gives warmth, light, and thus Agni is welcome in every home. He sustains life. He gives comfort, has charisma, joins people together and brings a magical, joyous glow to any gathering. In practice you cultivate the benevolent fire within to ride the flowing vinyasa lines that combine effort and receptivity. You hone in on just the right rhythm, depth and tone of breath in conjunction with subtle action of bandha's. You continue to work with your mind tuning in to thoughts, emotions, memories, longings and all the variety of turnings. Since he is known as 'the fire of the sun', Agni is associated with Surya the sun God. Agni sometimes accompanies Surya on his daily ride across the sky in his chariot led by seven horses. Surya's realm in the heavens is a symbol for the head and so his light represents consciousness and spiritual intelligence. Visnu's (God as sustainer) celestial weapon of choice is called the sudardarshan cakra, known as the discus of light and is fashioned from fragments of the sun's rays. Visnu takes unerring aim, hurls this discus, and chops off the heads of offending demons. Visnu's discus is the ultimate symbol for consciousness, the mental qualities of fiery brilliance, laser like intensity and ability to cut through ignorance. In practice you become an observer, a shaper, and a friend of the powerful, fiery quality of mental energy and you learn to direct this energy where you choose. When you work intimately with fire in practice you cultivate Tapas, the heat caused by the friction of reining in the mind and redirecting the energy of the senses. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois said that when you're established in tapas: "impurities are destroyed, the antah karana (inner instrument, made up of mind, intellect, ego, and the faculity of discrimination) becomes purified and the body and sense organs are perfected".
Fire's qualities also include burning, destruction, and episodes of disappearance and hiding. Agni has a malevolent head; he burns and destroys, can ravage virtually everything in his path. Through his destruction, Agni brings death, sorrow, loss, and pain. To be in relationship with fire is to accept risk and hence the necessity to respect its power in your practice because uncontrolled fire will burn leading to pain and injury. Agni has red skin, the same color as anger, tension, lust, and inflammation. Too much fire can make you frustrated, irritable, intolerant, narrow minded, and prone to extreme emotions and bursts of temper. Excessive fire can lead to pushing, bullying your self and others, and possibly even lead to disease. Agni is known to be unpredictable, wild, and reluctant to be yoked to the domestic hearth. But also not generating enough fire can be equally detrimental. If you can't really access your fire you may not be in touch with your center, with your creative purpose. The body may remain cold and get stuck, and be difficult to open. Injury can result from attempting postures when the body is not sufficiently heated and malleable. More importantly lack of internal fire can prevent purification and transformation. The fiery qualities of passion and enthusiasm help you overcome lethargy and resistance and give you the energy to persevere through challenges and enjoy the beauty that you create on the mat each day.
Because he represents purification and renewal, Agni's benevolent role in the inner imagery of practice takes on further dimensions. Due to the softening of Brgu's curse (see story #3), Agni purifies everything he consumes. Agni is known to be a friend of Vayu (the life breath of the Gods) whom he strengthens and helps. When you use ujjayii to cultivate the free flow of Prana throughout the torso you awaken the body's innate ability to purify and cleanse itself by way of breath. With Ujjayi you also stimulate the Vishuddhi cakra in the throat area. Vishuddhi means purity. Working intimately with the throat and palate releases the jaw, relaxes the brain, enhances the cycle of the breath and enables Prana to pervade the body. Vayu and Agni work in tandem to purify the body from the surface layers of skin to the core, going specially into the heart and the depths of consciousness. Purification comes from the sacrifices you make when you choose to practice Yoga seriously.
Sacrifice literally means 'to make holy', or the offering of anything to God, or to a divinity. This is the real heart of Yoga practice: to use your creative fiery life force to find your connection with Divinity and to share that connection somehow. You also use your fire to face what blocks you from connection. Sacrifice means simplifying, reining in, choosing to abstain or let go, to center, to respond to the necessity for growth, to an urge for depth and renewal. You choose to follow your deeper more soulful longings over shallower more external and immediate longings. You make the effort to bring what is unconscious to consciousness. You face things about your self that you'd rather hide from. You face your anger, your greed, your dependence, your lethargy, your doubt and cynicism. You face your past, how you were raised, what sorts of negative experiences, habits, and beliefs you've been carrying around with since childhood. You experience and move through your pain from the past, the hardships you've encountered that now cause conditioned negative habit responses. Agni loses his ability to successfully perform the sacrificial rites because he gets fat taking in too many offerings. He's too sluggish and lacking in fire to prevent small disturbances from stopping him. Practice gives you strength and stamina, gives you the ability to adopt a positive outlook even in the midst of apparently overwhelming contrary evidence, without blindness or naivete. The vigor and physical challenge of practice is like getting an opportunity to burn the Khandava Forest each day. You abstain from eating and drinking before and during practice, you empty out, breathe, and sweat. You blaze and flow and have another chance for renewal today. When Agni saw his 3 brothers preside over the sacrifice (as 3 fire sticks), he saw them burn and then die. Fearing death he hid and could only be coaxed back by being granted a long life and a share of the offering in the form of Soma, the elixir. Perhaps this means in order to benefit from practice you have to commit and become steady, you can't continue to hesitate or doubt, nor can you afford inconsistency, the pattern of stopping and starting or trying one thing then another. Unless you dedicate your self to your creative fire long term, it will continue to hide and elude you. Even when you show up to practice everyday fire is whimsical, some days it's plentiful and robust, other days it seems absent or a difficult kindle to stoke. When your creative fire hides look for it in the feet and thigh bones. Look for it within the pelvis and the rhythmic movements of the pelvic floor. Look for it at the end of the out breath and at the origin of the in breath. Look for it within the torso, along the spine, and in the space between the pelvis and head. Look for it within your vinyasa rhythm as you create flowing transitions. Look for it within your throat and voice and the sound of your breath. Look for it in the circulation of Prana throughout the body. Everyday you are compelled to feed this fire and steadily work with your inner evolution.
One common theme in Agni stories is that he's always being searched for because he either disappears or hides. In one such myth, Agni hides when he sees that his three brothers, symbolized as three fire sticks, die after performing their duties as presiders over the sacrifice. Agni is next in line for the job, but fears death, and also has a distaste for the domestic duties of hotr, leader of the fire sacrifice. So he goes into hiding in one of three places. He hides in the earth (wood and plants), in 'the waters', and in the sky. After a prolonged search by men and gods, Agni is found in the plants. To win his agreement the gods offer him immortality; he also demands and receives a share of the sacrifice in the form of soma (the elixir, or intoxicating beverage). Agni is thus bribed into coming back to perform his duties as hotr.
The Sage Brgu has carried off a betrothed woman to his home. The Rakshasa (demon) who had intended to marry her went searching for her and the Sage. He came upon Agni and demanded to know where he and his betrothed resided. Agni was known for not being able to tell a lie as well as being able to go into the hearth fire of every home. Thus he knew where the woman and Sage lived. Since Agni told the Rakshasa where his woman was, Brgu cursed Agni and said he would be an 'omnivore', and would consume everything, pure and impure, indiscriminately. Agni protested this curse as unfair and disappeared from every hearth. The cosmos went dark and cold. Brahma coaxed him back. He was able to soften the curse by stipulating that Agni, no matter what he burned, would remain pure and that everything he burned, both pure and impure, would be purified. Mollified, Agni returned to action bringing warmth, light, and fierce leader of the fire sacrifice.
A story from the Mahabharata features Krishna and Arjuna as well as Indra (the most important Vedic God), and Agni (the second most important Vedic God). Agni has grown fat by consuming too much of the ghee that was offered to him by his worshippers and has become too heavy and sluggish to properly maintain the sacrificial fire. Indra known for his jealousy of Agni, saw an opportunity to take advantage of Agni's weakened state; he sent a small rain shower or a gust of wind down upon each of Agni's sacrifices, easily put out the fires, and thus prevented the success of the rites. Agni went to Brahma, the creator, to complain and to try to save his job. Brahma chastised Agni for his gluttony and greed. Agni showed heart felt repentence and so Brahma gave him a chance to slim down and regain his strength. The hero's of the Mahabharata (The Pandava's) had been unjustly awarded a wild, unkempt tract of land in place of the inheritance of their rightful kingdom. Rather than protest or fight the injustice, Krsna and Arjuna, on behalf of the Pandava's, decided to clear the land and build The Pandava kingdom there. First they required the entire overgrown tract of forested land (called the Khandava Forest) to be cleared. They enlisted the services of Agni with the special instruction that he was not to be offered any Ghee to assist him in burning the forest down. Agni went to work, burned everything to the ground, regained his strength, and was able to oversee the sacrificial rites of humanity again.