Agni is an immortal who has taken up his abode with mortals as their guest. He is the domestic priest who rises before the dawn, and who concentrates in his own person and exercises in a higher sense all the various sacrificial offices which the Indian ritual assigns to a number of different human functionaries. He is a sage, the divinest among the sages, immediately acquainted with all the forms of worship; the wise director, the successful accomplisher, and the protector of all ceremonies, who enables men to serve the gods in a correct and acceptable manner in cases where they could not do this with their own unaided skill. He is a swift messenger, moving between heaven and earth, commissioned both by gods and men to maintain their mutual communication, to announce to the immortals the hymns, and to convey to them the oblations of their worshippers; or to bring them (the immortals) down from the sky to the place of sacrifice. He accompanies the gods when they visit the earth, and shares in the reverence and adoration which they receive. He makes the oblations fragrant; without him the gods experience no satisfaction.
Agni is the lord, protector, king of men. He is the lord of the house, dwelling in every abode. He is a guest in every home; he despises no man, he lives in every family. He is therefore considered as a mediator between gods and men, and as a witness of their actions; hence to the present day he is worshipped, and his blessing sought on all solemn occasions, as at marriage, death, etc. In these old hymns Agni is spoken of as dwelling in the two pieces of wood which being rubbed together produce fire; and it is noticed as a remarkable thing that a living being should spring out of dry (dead) wood. Strange to say, says the poet, the child, as soon as born, begins with unnatural voracity to consume his parents. Wonderful is his growth, seeing that he is born of a mother who cannot nourish him; but he is nourished by the oblations of clarified butter which are poured into his mouth, and which he consumes.
The worshippers of Agni prosper, are wealthy, and live long. He watches with a thousand eyes over the man who brings him food, and nourishes him with oblations. No mortal enemy can by any wondrous power gain the mastery over him who sacrifices to this god. He also confers and is the guardian of immortality. In a funeral hymn, Agni is asked to warm with his heat the unborn (immortal) part of the deceased, and in his auspicious form to carry it to the world of the righteous. He carries men across calamities, as a ship over the sea. He commands all the riches in earth and heaven; hence he is invoked for riches, food, deliverance, and in fact all temporal good. He is also prayed to as the forgiver of sins that may have been committed through folly. All gods are said to be comprehended in him; he surrounds them as the circumference of a wheel does the spokes.
"Bright, seven-rayed god, how manifold thy shapes
Revealed to us thy votaries: now we see thee
With body all of gold; and radiant hair
Flaming from three terrific heads, and mouths,
Whose burning jaws and teeth devour all things.
Now with a thousand glowing horns, and now
Flashing thy lustre from a thousand eyes,
Thou’rt borne towards us in a golden chariot,
Impelled by winds, and drawn by ruddy steeds,
Marking thy car's destructive course with blackness."
"Great Agni, though thine essence be but one,
Thy forms are three; as fire thou blazest here,
As lightning flashest in the atmosphere,
In heaven thou flamest as the golden sun
"It was in heaven thou hadst thy primal birth;
By art of sages skilled in sacred lore
Thou wast drawn down to human hearths of yore,
And thou abid’st a denizen of earth.
"Sprung from the mystic pair, * by priestly hands
In wedlock joined, forth flashes Agni bright;
But, oh! ye heavens and earth, I tell you right,
The unnatural child devours the parent brands.
"But Agni is a god; we must not deem
That he can err, or dare to comprehend
His acts, which far our reason's grasp transcend;
He best can judge what deeds a god beseem.
"And yet this orphaned god himself survives:
Although his hapless mother soon expires,
And cannot nurse the babe as babe requires,
Great Agni, wondrous infant, grows and thrives.
"Smoke-bannered Agni, god with crackling voice
And flaming hair, when thou dost pierce the gloom
At early dawn, and all the world illume,
Both heaven and earth and gods and men rejoice.
"In every home thou art a welcome guest,
The household tutelary lord, a son,
A father, mother, brother, all in one,
A friend by whom thy faithful friends are blest.
"A swift-winged messenger, thou tallest down
from heaven to crowd our hearths the race divine,
To taste our food, our hymns to hear, benign,
And all our fondest aspirations crown.
"Thou, Agni, art our priest: divinely wise,
In holy science versed, thy skill detects
The faults that mar our rites, mistakes corrects,
And all our acts completes and sanctifies.
"Thou art the cord that stretches to the skies,
The bridge that scans the chasm, profound and vast,
Dividing earth from heaven, o’er which at last
The good shall safely pass to Paradise.
"But when, great god, thine awful anger glows,
And thou revealest thy destroying force,
All creatures flee before thy furious course,
As hosts are chased by overpowering foes.
"Thou levellest all thou touchest; forests vast
Thou shear’st, like beards which barber's razor shaves.
Thy wind-driven flames roar loud as ocean's waves,
And all thy track is black when thou hast past.
"But thou, great Agni, dost not always wear
That direful form; thou rather lov’st to shine
Upon our hearths, with milder flame benign,
And cheer the homes where thou art nursed with care.
"Yes! thou delightest all those men to bless
Who toil unwearied to supply the food
Which thou so lovest—logs of well-dried wood,
And heaps of butter bring, thy favourite mess.
"Though I no cow possess, and have no store
Of butter, nor an axe fresh wood to cleave,
Thou, gracious god, wilt my poor gift receive:
These few dry sticks I bring—I have no more.
"Preserve us, lord; thy faithful servants save
From all the ills by which our bliss is marred;
Tower like an iron wall our homes to guard,
And all the boons bestow our hearts can crave.
"And when away our brief existence wanes,
When we at length our earthly homes must quit,
And our freed souls to worlds unknown shall flit,
Do thou deal gently with our cold remains.
"And then, thy gracious form assuming, guide
Our unborn part across the dark abyss
Aloft to realms serene of light and bliss,
Where righteous men among the gods abide."
Vahni, "He who receives the hom, or burnt sacrifice."
Vītihotra, "He who sanctifies the worshipper."
Dhananjaya, "He who conquers (destroys) riches."
Jivalana, "He who burns."
Dhūmketu, "He whose sign is smoke."
Chhāgaratha, "He who rides on a ram."
Saptajihva, "He who has seven tongues."
"This Soma is a god; he cures
The sharpest ills that man endures.
He heals the sick, the sad he cheers,
He nerves the weak, dispels their fears;
The faint with martial ardour fires,
With lofty thoughts the bard inspires;
The soul from earth to heaven he lifts;
So great and wondrous are his gifts,
Men feel the god within their veins,
And cry in loud exulting strains: 'We've quaffed the Soma bright
And are immortal grown:
We've entered into light,
And all the gods have known.
What mortal now can harm,
Or foeman vex us more?
Through thee, beyond alarm,
Immortal god, we soar.'"
When Soma was brought to the gods, a dispute arose as to who should have the first draught. At length, this was decided by a race. Vāyu first reached the goal, Indra being second. Indra tried hard to win, and when near the winning post proposed that they should reach it together, Vāyu taking two-thirds of the drink. Vāyu said, "Not so! I will be the winner alone." Then Indra said, "Let us come in together, and give me one-fourth of the draught divine!" Vāyu consented to this, and so the juice was shared between them. *
Soma is said to have had thirty-three wives, the daughters of Prajāpati; of these Rohini was the favourite. Being dissatisfied with the partiality shown to their sister, the other wives returned to their father. Soma asked that they might come back to him; the father consented to restore them, provided Soma would treat them all alike. Soma promised to do this; but, failing to keep his promise, he was smitten with consumption for breaking his word.
In the verses descriptive and songs in praise of Soma, the actual juice, and the god supposed to dwell in and manifested by it, are not at all distinct. All the gods drink of it; and Soma, the god in the juice, is said to clothe the naked and heal the sick. Many divine attributes are ascribed to him. He is "addressed as a god in the highest strains of adulation and veneration. All powers belong to him; all blessings are besought of him, as his to bestow." He is said to be divine, immortal, and also to confer immortality on gods and men. "In a passage where the joys of paradise are more distinctly anticipated and more fervently implored than in most other parts of the Rig-Veda, Soma is addressed as the god from whom the gift of future felicity is expected. Thus it is there said, "Place me, O purified god, in that everlasting and imperishable world, where there is eternal light and glory. O Indu (Soma), flow for Indra! Make me immortal in the world where Vaivasvata lives, where is the universal sphere of the sky, where those great waters flow."
"Like Agni and Soma, he is born on the altar, and .thence rises upwards to the gods; like them, he was begotten in space by Heaven and Earth; like Indra, he wages war with enemies on the earth and demons in the air; like all three, he resides in the highest heaven, he generates the gods, and ordains the order of the universe. Tinder his fiery breath the world was melted and assumed the form it has, like metal in the mould of the founder. At first sight it would seem that all this is a late product of abstract reflection; and it is probable, in fact, from the very form of the name, that in so far as it is a distinct person, the type is comparatively modern; in any case, it is peculiarly Indian; but by its elements it is connected with the most ancient conceptions. As there is a power in the flame and the libation, so there is in the formula; and this formula the priest is not the only person to pronounce, any more than he is the only one to kindle Agni or shed Soma. There is a prayer in the thunder, and the gods, who know all things, are not ignorant of the power in the sacramental expressions. They possess all-potent spells that have remained hidden from men and are as ancient as the first rites, and it was by these the world was formed at first, and by which it is preserved up to the present. It is this omnipresent power of prayer which Brahmanaspati personifies, and it is not without reason that he is sometimes confounded with Agni, and especially with Indra. In reality each separate god and the priest himself become Brahmanaspati at the moment when they pronounce the mantras which gave them power over the things of heaven and of earth."