In Hindu culture and religion (as well as other religions that originated or existed in past millenniums), fire has occupied a sacred place. It is obvious that the glorious presence of fire as a guide, savior, witness and path-finder was recognised by many civilizations in bygone ages….
How did fire become a part of human civilisation?
There is a beautiful story which links early human communities with fire. It is said that in the millennia gone by, human groups would wander in the forests, saving themselves from wild animals and other dangers of the jungle and go from place to place in search of food and safety. By a chance, two flint stones one night created a spark and the dried wood and hay around it began to burn and spread. This is the first time that human eyes saw fire and wondered how it could be made a permanent part of their settlements. The communities realized that the existence of fire gave them not only warmth but also freedom from fear because they could see if any animals, insects or reptiles that could harm them. Because fire was not easy to generate, these communities started feeding wood or dried leaves to keep it going for night and day. Over a period of time, their community settled around the big fire and decided by common consent that women who are pregnant or with children would remain near the fire to ‘keep the home fires burning’ while the men would go hunting and collecting food for their women and children.
The women, left behind, would collect fruit from around the trees and throw away the seeds nearby. In time, when the rains came, they noticed that the seeds had sprouted and begun to grow as saplings. This, it is said, was the beginning of agriculture. By sheer magical observation, human society learnt that with fire came clear vision and loss of fear; that with water brought new life into plants that yielded fruits, grains or vegetables.
Formation of the concepts of family and property – As the next step, they began to mark out the land where they would plant the food of their choice and as the next step, claimed the ownership of that land for the man and the woman who had borne his children. This was the seed of the formation of a family according to many sociologists. Once human communities stopped wandering and settled around the place where fire and finding of food was easier, they began constructing shelters around fires and near their ‘farms, and the concept of ‘ownership’ began to take shape.
Logically, the men who had lit each fire and created the hut claimed that it was for the use of his woman and their children. 'Social historians’ conjecture is that this was the manner in which the first concept of ‘family’ formed in human society. The next step naturally was that every man – thought to be more mobile and strong to fight any dangers to his ‘family’ – became the ‘head’ of the family and claimed the ownership of the land, house, woman/women and children and wanted the assets of land, water and house to be inherited by only his ‘heirs’!
Bertrand Russell, the Nobel Laureate sociologist and mathematician, in his book Marriage and Morals, offered the theory that this is how the earliest ‘concept of marriage, progeny and asset ownership’ – and hence morals – must have emerged in early human society where women were to ‘keep the home fires burning’ and men were to go out to hunt or gather food and fight any intrusions into their ‘villages or territories. He further says that if the concept of marriage and family is not linked to property, it may not be necessary at all.
So the story of man’s association with fire goes back several millenniums. The omnipresence of fire is a legacy from these long-ago ages and is seen in action in different forms all over the world even today.
However in India, by the time the Vedic age came, fire was well established as the sacred boon given to mankind for various reasons. It dispelled fear by creating light and illuminated the homes and the surroundings; it gave heat, safety, clarity of vision and helped to cook food to the taste of the family. Its use in daily life promoted the need to have pots and pans made of metals or clay to cook food each day. It was eternally present in every home and never allowed to extinguish because lighting it again was an arduous task.
Centuries later, the Rigvedic age brought a more refined concept of fire veneration and made it one of the deities worshipped in every home. Agni, the fire deity, was witness to all human activities and therefore had to be present at every event. As religion and concepts of divinity developed, these concepts became refined and icons of venerated gods such as Agni (fire), Vayu (wind), Akasha (sky), Jala or Aapa (water) and Antariksha (space) were created. These soon became part of Indian society’s cultural heritage. There are prayers recited even today to the deities of that era, such as the Shanti Patha – which prays for peace in the five elements as also in trees, plants and medicinal herbs and all living beings as well as all aspects of nature. Shanti Patha is a famous prayer and is recited in gatherings even to this day.
As language developed, fire, considered sacred and a divine boon, was named Agni and given a prominent status as the Rigvedic deity of fire and the carrier of sacrifices of food and other items offered to the Gods. Agni additionally was also accepted as the deity of divine knowledge and helped early seekers to achieve a state of meditation on the search for the all-pervasive ‘Self’’ and its presence in every creation.
The Rigveda contains several hymns of praise and veneration to Agni or the fire deity. In time, Agni became the witness or Sakshi for all rituals such as the birth of a child, the sacred thread ceremony of a young seeker of knowledge, a marriage where Agni plays an important role as the witness and of course the death or cremation rituals.
Another interesting story related to the Rigveda is that of a young boy called Madhuchhanda. His story relates to the beginning of the Rigveda. It says that he was brought to the ashram of a Rishi – his Guru – for his education and was left there by his parents. When left alone, he did not know what he was expected to do. So he asked his Guru what he should do. The Guru just said one word ‘chara’ meaning walk. The boy was further confused and asked himself where he should walk! Frightened to question the Guru again, he decided to follow the Guru and walk behind him so that he knew where to go. As he walked, it was the earliest hour of the dawn and everything was covered with mist and darkness. As the young boy carefully ventured to the river bank, he noticed that across the river, there was an ashram of another Guru and a lamp burned steadily there. The light immediately gave him confidence that he was not alone. His first lesson therefore was that fire and light give guidance, clarity, confidence and wash away all fear. With this first discovery, the boy proceeded to learn all the principles of life and divinity and became a learned man. Madhuchchanda is credited with writing the first Mandala of the Rigveda and the first stanza of the Rigveda is dedicated to Agni, or fire.
As the ages rushed past and the Vedic concepts were passed on from one generation to the next in India, the Vedic deities became less known as compared with the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as well as the trinity of Lakshmi, Parvati and Saraswati. But Havans and Homas remained a prominent feature of Indian culture and life.
Today, in Hinduism, there are as many deities as there are communities. But all deities have their origin in the six named above. One in all and all in one has been the foundation of Hindu faith. However, Agni or fire remains an essential part of all worship, welcome ceremonies, sacraments like weddings and all religious or festive/cultural functions.
Did you know?
In millions of Hindu homes, a lamp steadily burns in the small altar as a symbol of the search for enlightenment and lustre in life. Indeed in one Shloka from the Bhagwad Geeta, Krishna refers to a lamp in these beautiful words:
“A lamp placed in a windless place burns steadily without flickering. This simile can describe the Yogi whose mind is controlled and who is absorbed in the Self or Me. Such a mind is radiant and in meditation, and perceives the Self or me,
The greatest significance of the flame is that it is equated to the human spirit which, when enlightened, brings us close to divinity and salvation.
Fire Lights on a Temple Wall