Agni the Fire God--Source of Life--The Divine Priest--Myths regarding his Origin--The Child God--Resemblances to Heimdal and Scyld--Messenger of the Gods--Martin Elginbrodde--Vayu or Vata, the Wind God--Teutonic Vate and Odin--The Hindu "Wild Huntsman"--Rudra the Howler--The Rain God--Sublime Varuna--The Omniscient One--Forgiver of Sins--Mitra, an ancient Deity--Babylonian Prototype--A Sun God--A Corn God--Mitanni Deities--Surya, the Sun God--The Adityas--Ushas, Goddess of Dawn--Ratri, Night--Chandra, the Moon--Identified with Soma--The Mead of the Gods--A Humorous Hymn--Sources of Life--Origin of Spitting Ceremonies.
AGNI, the fire god, was closely associated with Indra, and is sometimes called his twin brother. The pair were the most prominent deities in Vedic times: about 250 hymns are addressed to Indra and over 200 to Agni.
Indra gave the "air of life" to men; Agni symbolized the "vital spark", the principle of life in animate and inanimate Nature; he was in man, in beast, and fish; he was in plants and trees; he was in butter and in intoxicating Soma. The gods partook of the nature of Agni. In one of the post-Vedic Creation myths he is identified with the Universal soul; Brahma existed in the form of Agni ere the worlds were framed and gods and men came to be. Agni was made manifest in lightning, in celestial sun flames, in the sacred blaze rising from the altar and in homely household fires. The fire god was the divine priest as contrasted with Indra, the divine warrior.
In the Vedic invocations there are evidences that
several myths had gathered round the fascinating and wonderful fire god. One hymn refers to him as a child whose birth was kept a secret; his mother, the queen, concealed him from his sire; he was born in full vigour as a youth, and was seen sharpening his weapons at a distance from his home which he had forsaken. 1 Sometimes he is said to have devoured his parents at birth: this seems to signify that he consumed the fire sticks from which holy fire was produced by friction. Another hymn says that "Heaven and Earth (Dyaus and Prithivi) fled away in fear of (the incarnation of) Twashtri when he was born, but they returned to embrace the lion". 2
Agni was also given ten mothers who were "twice five sisters", 3 but the reference is clearly explained in another passage: "The ten fingers have given him birth, the ancient, well-loved Agni, well born of his mothers". 4
Dawn, with its darkness-consuming fires, and starry Night, are the sisters of Agni; "they celebrate his three births, one in the sea, one in the sky, one in the waters (clouds)". Typical of the Oriental mind is the mysterious reference to Agni's "mothers" owing their origin to him. The poet sings:
Professor Oldenberg, who suggests that the waters are the "mothers", reasons in Oriental mode: "Smoke is Agni, it goes to the clouds, the clouds become waters". 5
In his early humanized form Agni bears some resemblance to Heimdal, the Teutonic sentinel god, who has
Click to enlarge
AGNI, THE FIRE GOD
From a painting by Nanda Lall Bose
(By permission of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta)
nine mothers, the daughters of sea-dwelling Ran, and is thus also a "son of the waters"; he is clad in silvern armour, and on his head is a burnished helmet with ram's horns. Horsed on his swift steed, Gulltop, he watches the demons who seek to attack the citadel of the gods. . . . His sight is so keen that he can see by night as well as by day. . . . Heimdal is loved both by gods and by men, and he is also called Gullintani because his teeth are of gold. There was a time when he went to Midgard (the earth) as a child; he grew up to be a teacher among men and was named Scef. Scef is identified as the patriarch Scyld in Beowulf, who came over the sea as a child and rose to be the king of a tribe. Mankind were descended from Heimdal-Scef: three sons were born to him of human mothers--Thrall, from whom thralls are descended; Churl, the sire of freemen, and Jarl from whom nobles have sprung. 1
In Mahabharata there is a fragment of an old legend which relates the origin of Karna, the son of Queen Pritha and the sun god: the birth of the child is concealed, and he is placed in a basket which is set afloat on the river and is carried to a distant country. 2
One of the Vedic references to Agni, as we have seen, suggests an origin similar to Karna of the epic period. He was connected with the introduction of agriculture like the Teutonic Scef, which signifies "Sheaf". Agni is stated to have been "carried in the waters. . . . The great one has grown up in the wide unbounded space. The waters (have made) Agni (grow)". 3 Agni is "sharp faced" (i, 95); he is "the bright, brilliant, and shining one" (iv, I. 7); he is "gold toothed" (v, 22); he sees "even over the darkness of night" (i, 94. 7); he "makes
all things visible"; he conquers the godless, wicked wiles; he sharpens his two horns in order to pierce Rakshasas (giants) (v, 2). "O Agni, strike away with thy weapons those who curse us, the malicious ones, all ghouls, be they near or far" (i, 94. 9). Heimdal blows a trumpet in battle; Agni is "roaring like a bull" (i, 94. 10).
As Heimdal, in his Scef-child form, was sent to mankind by the gods, "Matarisvan 1 brought Agni to Bhrigu as a gift, precious like wealth, of double birth, the carrier, the famous, the beacon of the sacrifice, the ready, the immediately successful messenger. . . . The Bhrigus worshipping him in the abode of the waters have verily established him among the clans of Ayu. The people have established beloved Agni among the human clans as (people) going to settle (establish) Mitra" (i, 60). Oldenberg explains that people going anywhere secure safety by ceremonies addressed to Mitra, i.e. by concluding alliances under the protection of Mitra. Another reference reads, "Agni has been established among the tribes of men, the son of the waters, Mitra acting in the right way". Oldenberg notes that Mitra is here identified with Agni; Mitra also means "friend" or "ally" (iii, 5. 3, and note). Scyld in Beowulf, the mysterious child of the sea, became a king over men. Agni "indeed is king, leading all beings to gloriousness. As soon as born from here, he looks over the whole world. . . . Agni, who has been looked and longed for in Heaven, who has been looked for on earth--he who has been looked for has entered all herbs" (i, 98). 2 To Agni's love affairs upon earth there are epic references, and in the "Vishnu Purana" he is mentioned as the father of three human sons.
The reference to the Bhrigus, to whom Agni is carried, is of special interest. This tribe did not possess fire and were searching for it (Rigveda, x. 40. 2). In another poem the worshippers of Agni are "human people descended from Manush (Manu)" (vi, 48. 8). The Bhrigus were a priestly family descended from the patriarch Bhrigu: Manu was the first man. Two of the Teutonic patriarch names are Berchter and Mannus.
Agni was the messenger of the gods; he interceded with the gods on behalf of mankind and conducted the bright Celestials to the sacrifice. The priest chanted at the altar:
Agni, whatever sacrifice and worship thou encompassest on every side, that indeed goes to the gods. Thou art King of all worship. . . . Conduct the gods hither in an easy-moving chariot. 1
Like Indra, Agni was a heavy consumer of Soma; his intensely human side is not lost in mystic Vedic poetry.
Thou dost go wisely between these two creations (Heaven and Earth) like a friendly messenger between two hamlets . . .
His worshippers might address him with great familiarity, as in the following extracts:
These appeals are reminiscent of the quaint graveyard inscription:
The growth of monotheistic thought is usually evinced in all mythologies by the tendency to invest a popular deity with the attributes of other gods. Agni is sometimes referred to as the sky god and the storm god. In one of the hymns he is entreated to slay demons and send rain as if he were Indra:
Indra similarly absorbed, and was absorbed by, the wind god Vayu or Vata, who is also referred to as the father of the Maruts and the son-in-law of the artisan god Twashtri. The name Vata has been compared to Vate, the father of the Teutonic Volund or Wieland, the tribal deity of the Watlings or Vaetlings; in old English the Milky Way was "Watling Street". Comparisons have also been drawn with the wind god Odin--the Anglo-Saxon Woden, and ancient German Wuotan (pronounced Vuotan). "The etymological connection in this view", writes a critic, "is not free from difficulty." 1
[paragraph continues] Professor Macdonell favours the derivation from "va" = "to blow".
The Indian Vata is invoked, as Vayu, in a beautiful passage in one of the hymns which refers to his "two red horses yoked to the chariot": he had also, like the Maruts, a team of deer. The poet calls to the wind:
These lines recall Keats at his best:
A stirring hymn to the wind god loses much of its vigour and beauty in translation:
The gusts arise and hasten unto Vata,
Like women going to a royal banquet;
In that bright car the mighty god is with them,
For he is rajah of the earth's dominions.
When Vata enters on the paths of heaven,
All day he races on; he never falters;
He is the firstborn and the friend of Ocean--
Whence did he issue forth? Where is his birthplace?
He is the breath 1 of gods: all life is Vata:
He cometh, yea, he goeth as he listeth:
His voice is heard; his form is unbeholden--
O let us offer sacrifice to Vata. Rigveda, x, 168.
Another wind or storm god is Rudra, also the father of the Maruts, who are called "Rudras". He is the "Howler" and "the Ruddy One", and rides a wild boar. Saussaye calls him "the Wild Huntsman of Hindu Mythology". He is chiefly of historical interest because he developed into the prominent post-Vedic god Shiva, the "Destroyer", who is still worshipped in India. The poets invested him with good as well as evil qualities:
Give unto me of thy medicines, Rudra,
So that my years may reach to a hundred;
Drive away hatred, shatter oppression,
Ward off calamity. Rigveda, ii, 33.
The rain cloud was personified in Parjanya, who links with Indra as the nourisher of earth, and with Agni as the quickener of seeds.
Indra's great rival, however, was Varuna, who symbolized the investing sky: he was "the all-enveloping one". The hymns impart to him a character of Hebraic grandeur. He was the sustainer of the universe, the law-giver, the god of moral rectitude, and the sublime sovereign of gods and men. Men worshipped him with devoutness, admiration, and fear. "It is he who makes the sun to shine in heaven; the winds that blow are but his breath; he has hollowed out the channels of the rivers which flow at his command, and he has made the depths of the sea. His ordinances are fixed and unassailable; through their operation the moon walks in brightness, and the stars which appear in the nightly sky,
Click to enlarge
SHIVA'S DANCE OF DESTRUCTION, ELLORA
(see pages 147-8)
vanish in daylight. The birds flying in the air, the rivers in their sleepless flow, cannot attain a knowledge of his flower and wrath. But he knows the flight of the birds in the sky, the course of the far-travelling wind, the paths of ships on the ocean, and beholds all secret things that have been or shall be done. He witnesses men's truth and falsehood." 1
He is the Omniscient One. Man prayed to him for forgiveness for sin, and to be spared from the consequences of evil-doing:
O Varuna, whatever the offence may be
That we as men commit against the heavenly folk,
When through our want of thought we violate thy laws,
Chastise us not, O god, for that iniquity.
Rigveda, vii, 89. 2
His messengers descend
Countless from his abode--for ever traversing
This world and scanning with a thousand eyes its inmates.
Whate’er exists within this earth, and all within the sky,
Yea, all that is beyond, King Varuna perceives. . . .
May thy destroying snares, cast sevenfold round the wicked,
Entangle liars, but the truthful spare, O King!
Rigveda, iv, 16. 3
In contrast to the devotional spirit pervading the Varuna hymns is the attitude adopted by Indra's worshippers; the following prayer to the god of battle is characteristic:--
The sinner's fear of Varuna prompted him to seek the aid of other gods. Rudra and the Moon are addressed:
Associated with Varuna was the God Mitra (the Persian Mithra). These deities are invariably coupled and belong to the early Iranian period. Much controversy has been waged over their pre-Vedic significance. Some have regarded Mithra as the firmament by day with its blazing and fertilizing sun, and Varuna as the many-eyed firmament of night, in short, the twin forms of Dyaus. Prof. E. V. Arnold has shown, however, that in the Vedas, Mithra has no solar significance except in his association with Agni. The fire god, as we have seen, symbolized the principle of fertility in Nature: he was the "vital spark" which caused the growth of "all herbs", as well as the illuminating and warmth-giving flames of sun and household hearth.
Mitra as Mithra with Varuna, and a third vague god, Aryaman, belong to an early group of equal deities called the Adityas, or "Celestial deities". "It would seem that the worship of these deities", says Prof. Arnold, "was already decaying in the earliest Vedic period, and that many of them were then falling into oblivion. . . . In a late Vedic hymn we find that Indra boasts that he has dethroned Varuna, and invites Agni to enter his own
service instead. We may justly infer from all these circumstances that the worship of the 'celestials' occupied at one time in the history of the race a position of greater importance than its place in the Rigveda directly suggests." 1
The following extracts from a Mitra-Varuna hymn indicate the attitude of the early priests towards the "Celestial deities":--
These did the gods establish in royal power over themselves, because they were wise and the children of wisdom, and because they excelled in power.
They are protectors of hearth and home, of life and strength; Mitra and Varuna, prosper the mediations of your worshippers. . . .
As the sun rises to-day do I salute Mitra and Varuna, and glorious Aryaman. . . . The blessings of heaven are our desire. . . . Prof Arnold's translation.
In Babylonian mythology the sun is the offspring of the moon. The Semitic name of the sun god is Samas (Shamash), the Sumerian name is Utu; among other non-Semitic names was Mitra, "apparently the Persian Mithra". The bright deity also "bears the names of his attendants 'Truth' and 'Righteousness', who guided him upon his path as judge of the earth". 2
It may be that the Indian Mitra was originally a sun god; the religion of the sun god Mithra spread into Europe. "Dedications to Mithra the Unconquered Sun have been found in abundance." 3 Vedic references suggest that Mitra had become a complex god in the pre-Vedic
[paragraph continues] Age, being probably associated with a group of abstract deities--his attributes symbolized--who are represented by the Adityas. The Mitra-Varuna group of Celestials were the source of all heavenly gifts; they regulated sun and moon, the winds and waters and the seasons. If we assume that they were of Babylonian or Sumerian origin--deities imported by a branch of Aryan settlers who had been in contact with Babylonian civilization--their rivalry with the older Aryan gods, Indra and Agni, can be understood. Ultimately they were superseded, but the influence exercised by their cult remained and left its impress upon later Aryan religious thought.
The Assyrian word "metru" signifies rain. 1 The quickening rain which caused the growth of vegetation was, of course, one of the gifts of the Celestials of the firmament. It is of interest to note, therefore, in this connection that Professor Frazer includes the western Mithra among the "corn gods". Dealing with Mithraic sculptures, which apparently depict Mithra as the sacrificer of the harvest bull offering, he says: "On certain of these monuments the tail of the bull ends in three stalks of corn, and in one of them cornstalks instead of blood are seen issuing from the wound inflicted by the knife". 2
Commenting on the Assyrian "metru" Professor Moulton says: "If this is his (Mithra's) origin, we get a reasonable basis for the Avestan (Early Persian and Aryan) use of the word to denote a 'contract', as also for the fact that the deity is in the Avesta patron of Truth and in the Veda of Friendship. He is 'the Mediator between Heaven and Earth, as the firmament was by
its position, both in nature and mythology: an easy corollary is his function of regulating the relations of man and man."
The character of an imported deity is always influenced by localization and tribal habits. Pastoral nomads would therefore have emphasized the friendliness of Mithra, who sent rain to cause the growth of grass on sun-parched steppes. Both Mithra and Varuna had their dwelling-place in the sea of heaven, the waters "above the firmament" from which the rain descended. Ultimately the Indian Mitra vanished, being completely merged in Varuna, who became the god of ocean after the Aryans reached the sea coast. In post-Vedic sacred literature the priestly theorists, in the process of systematizing their religious beliefs, taught that a great conflict took place between the gods and demons. When order was restored, the various deities were redistributed. Indra remained the atmospheric god of battle, and Varuna became the god of ocean, where, as the stern judge and lawgiver and the punisher of wrongdoers, he kept watch over the demons. In the "Nala and Damayantí" epic narrative, the four "world guardians" are: Indra, king of the gods; Agni, god of fire; Varuna, god of waters; and Yama, judge of the dead.
It may be that the displacement of Varuna as supreme deity was due to the influence of the fire-worshipping cult of Agni, who was imported by certain unidentified Aryan tribes that entered India. Agni did not receive recognition, apparently, from the other Aryan "folk-wave", which established a military aristocracy at Mitanni in Mesopotamia, and held sway for a period over the Assyrians and some of the Hittite tribes. An important inscription, which is dated about 1400 B.C., has been deciphered at Boghaz-Koi in Asia Minor by Professor
[paragraph continues] Hugo Winckler, who gives the names of the following deities:
[paragraph continues] Mitra, Varuna, Indra, Nasatya. The latter is Nasatyau, the Vedic Aswins, twin gods of morning, who have been compared to the Greek Dioskouri (Castor and Pollux), sons of Zeus.
A Vedic triad, which suggests a rival cult to that of the worshippers of Varuna and other Adityas, is formed by Vayu (wind), Agni (fire), and Surya (the sun).
The Indian sun god Surya, like the Egyptian Ra, had three forms. The rising sun was Vivasvat; the setting sun was Savitri.
Vivasvat was the son-in-law of Twashtri, the artisan of Nature; he was an abstract deity, and apparently owed his origin to the group of Adityas.
Savitri, who had yellow hair, was of pre-Vedic origin. He was the "Stimulator". When he commanded Night to approach, men ceased their labours, birds sought their nests, and cattle their sheds. 1
During the long centuries covered by the Vedic period many "schools of thought" must have struggled for supremacy. The Vivasvat myth belongs, it would appear, to the time before the elephant was tamed by the Aryans. Aditi, the mother of the Adityas, who is believed to be of later origin than her children, had eight sons. She cherished seven of them; the eighth, which was a shapeless lump, was thrown away, but was afterwards moulded into Vivasvat, the sun; the pieces of the lump which were cast away by the divine artisan fell upon the earth and gave origin to the elephant, therefore elephants should not be caught, because they partake of divine nature.
Click to enlarge
SURYA IN HIS CHARIOT
From the Kailasa Temple, Ellora.
Surya is an Aryanized sun god. He drives a golden chariot drawn by seven mares, or a mare with seven heads; he has golden hair and golden arms and hands. As he is alluded to as "the eye of Varuna and Mitra", and a son of Aditi, it is evident that if he did not originally belong to the group of Adityas, he was strongly influenced by them. In his Savitri character, which he possesses at morning as well as at evening, he stimulates all life and the mind of man. One of the most sacred and oldest mantras (texts) in the Vedas is still addressed by Brahmans to the rising sun. It runs:--
The feeling for Nature pervades the ancient religion and literature of India. Priests were poets and singers in early Vedic times. A Rishi was a composer of hymns to the gods, and several are named in the collections. Every great family appears to have had its bardic priest, and its special poetic anthology which was handed down from generation to generation. Old poems might be rewritten and added to, but the ambition of the sacred poet was to sing a new song to the gods. The oldest Vedic hymns are referred to as "new songs", which suggests that others were already in existence.
These Rishis looked upon Nature with the poet's eye. They symbolized everything, but they revelled also in the gorgeous beauty of dawn and evening, the luxuriance of Indian trees and flowers, the serene majesty of Himalayan mountains, the cascades, the rivers, and the shining lakes. The wonder and mystery of the world Inspired their hymns and their religion. Even the gods took delight in the songs of birds, the harping of forest
winds, the humming of bees, the blossoming trees, and the flower-decked sward. Heaven has its eternal summer and soft scented winds, its lotus-gemmed lakes and never-fading blooms.
The effulgence and silence of dawn inspired some of the most beautiful Vedic hymns. Dawn is Ushas, the daughter of Dyaus; she is the Indian Aurora:
The Vedic poets "looked before and after". One sang:
Night, Ratri, is the sister of Dawn. The one robes herself in crimson and gold; the other adorns her dark raiment with gleaming stars. When benevolent Ratri draws nigh, men turn towards their homes to rest, birds
seek their nests, cattle lie down; even the hawk reposes. The people pray to the goddess to be protected against robbers and fierce wolves, and to be taken safely across her shadow:
The moon is the god Chandra, who became identified with Soma. Among ancient peoples the moon was regarded as the source of fertility and growth; it brought dew to nourish crops which ripened under the "harvest moon"; it filled all vegetation with sap; it swayed human life from birth till death; it influenced animate and inanimate Nature in its periods of increase and decline; ceremonies to secure offspring were performed during certain phases of the moon.
Soma was the intoxicating juice of the now unknown Soma plant, which inspired mortals and was the nectar of the gods. The whole ninth book of the Rigveda is devoted to the praises of Soma, who is exalted even as the chief god, the Father of all.
"The sun", declared one of the poets, "has the nature of Agni, the moon of Soma." At the same time Agni was a great consumer of Soma; when it was poured on the altar, the fire god leapt up joyfully. The beverage was the "water of life" which was believed to sustain the Adityas and the earth, and to give immortality to all the gods; it was therefore called Amrita (ambrosia).
As in Teutonic mythology, the Hindu giants desired greatly to possess the "mead" to which the gods owed their power and supremacy. The association of Soma with the moon recalls the Germanic belief that the magic mead was kept for Odin, "the champion drinker", by Mani, the moon god, who snatched it from the mythical children who are the prototypes of "Jack and Jill" of the nursery rhyme. 2 Indra was the discoverer of the Soma plant and brought it from the mountains. The Persian mead (mada) was called Haoma.
The priests drank Soma when they made offerings and lauded the gods. A semi-humorous Rigvedic hymn compares them to the frogs which croak together when the rain comes after long drought.
There are references in the Rigveda to the marriage of Soma, the moon, and Suryá, the maiden of the sun.
In Vedic religion many primitive beliefs were blended. We have seen, for instance, that life was identified with breath and wind; the "spirit" left the body as the last breath. Agni worshippers regarded fire as "the vital spark". Soma worship, on the other hand, appears to be connected with the belief that life was in the blood; it was literally "the life blood". The "blood of trees" was the name for sap; sap was water impregnated or vitalized by Soma, the essence of life. Water worship and Soma worship were probably identical, the moon, which was believed to be the source of growth and moisture, being the fountain head of "the water of life". In Teutonic mythology the "mead" is taken from a hidden mountain spring, which issued from "Mimer's well" in the Underworld. Odin drank from Mimer's well and obtained wisdom and long life. The "mead" was transported to the moon. The "mead" was also identified with saliva, the moisture of life, and spitting ceremonies resulted; these survive in the custom still practised in our rural districts of spitting on the hand to seal a bargain; "spitting stones" have not yet entirely disappeared. Vows are still taken in India before a fire. References to contracts signed in blood are common and widespread.
20:1 Rigveda, v, 2.
20:2 Rigveda, i, 95.
20:3 Rigveda, iv, 6. 8.
20:4 Rigveda, 23. 3.
20:5 Rigveda, i, 95. 4, and note, Oldenberg's Vedic Hymns (Sacred Books of the East, vol. xlvi).
21:1 Teutonic Myth and Legend, pp. 16 and 187-9.
21:2 See Chapter X.
21:3 Oldenberg, Rigveda, iii, 1.
22:1 A demi-god.
22:2 Vedic Hymns, trans. by Oldenberg. (Sacred Books of the East, vol. xlvi.)
23:1 Rigveda, i, 13 and i, 26 (Oldenberg).
24:1 Art. "Aryan Religion", Hastings' Ency. Rel. and Ethics.
25:1 The air of life = the spirit.
27:1 Muir's Original Sanscrit Texts, v, 58, ff.
27:2 Professor Macdonell's A History of Sanskrit Literature.
27:3 Indian Wisdom, Sir Monier Williams.
29:1 The Rigveda, by Professor E. Vernon Arnold, p. 16 (Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance, and Folklore).
29:2 The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, by Dr. T. G. Pinches, p. 68.
29:3 Frazer's "Golden Bough" (Adonis, Attis, Osiris, p. 255, n., third edition).
30:1 Professor H. W. Hogg, in Professor Moulton's Early Religious Poetry of Persia, p. 37.
30:2 "The Golden Bough" (Spirits of the Corn and Wild, vol. ii, p. 10).
32:1 Rigveda, ii, 38.
33:1 Indian Wisdom, p. 20.
34:1 Indian Wisdom, Sir Monier Williams.
35:1 Indian Wisdom, Sir Monier Williams.
36:1 Muir's Original Sanskrit Texts, v, 130.
36:2 See Teutonic Myth and Legend.
37:1 Kaegi's Rigveda, Arrowsmith's translation. This was apparently a rain charm; its humour was as of the unconscious order, of course.