At his earliest appearance in the Rigveda, Agni was a complex deity. He was the fire of the sacred sacrifices that were the heart of Vedic religion as well as the central rituals of a semi nomadic warrior culture. Agni was addressed as the deva who ruled earth, a third of the entire cosmos. Two other gods with the characteristic of fire formed a triad with Agni. The solar fire (deified by many names, especially that of Surya) was ruler of heaven; and the fire of the middle air, lightning, was deified as Indra, god of storm and god of war. A few Rig Vedic hymns addressed Agni as one of the supreme triad (India’s first set of three), with Surya and Indra. Agni was also the purifier of the offering to a Vedic pantheon and was next to Indra in the number of hymns dedicated to him. (Later this function as purifier of offerings was the only important role left for him.) Phrases from these hymns suggest an Agni myth cycle and a separate cult. He was fathered by Dyaus (sky) and the waters, or born of Indra between two clouds, had a triple existence (in heaven, middle air, and earth), and was lord of the house, friend of man, enemy of rakshasas (whom he crushes in his teeth), beloved of the hotri (priests who make the Vedic sacrifices), and the one who knows when to make the offerings that gain boons from the other gods.
S. M. Bhardwaj, in his study Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India, uncovered a connection between the Agni cult and the Aryanization of the regions eastward along the Gangetic plain, north toward the Himalayas, and slowly south along the coast but barely into the interior. Recorded in the Mahabharata, the world’s largest myth about an ancient war, were the places sanctified by Agni that provided great merit for those who visited and worshipped at these sacred sites (tirthas). They had become places to perform a fire ritual (i.e., they had been Aryanized). Thus Agni seems to have been central in spreading Aryan (literally, “noble”) culture from its beginnings in northeast India throughout the subcontinent.
In the Atharvaveda, Agni takes the soul of the deceased from the funeral pyre to one of the worlds (lokas) of heaven (svarga), Indraloka or Brahmaloka, or to hell (naraka). Fortunately for Agni, later accounts give this function to Yama, god of death.
There are many forces at work in Agni’s reduction over the centuries to a minor deity. There was the attack from outside the Vedic tradition by Buddhists and Jains on the Vedic triad and its sacrificial system. The Agni cult included the killing and eating of animals. One of the responses inside the Vedic tradition was to begin to internalize sacrifice, and another was to adopt the principle of ahimsa (noninjury, or literally “no murder”). In addition, later devotional Hindu traditions that championed minor Vedic gods like Vishnu or non-Vedic gods and goddesses like SHiva and Devi had a more subtle effect on Agni’s role. As these divinities rose to supreme importance, Agni became a messenger to the gods and one of the eight guardians of the universe (ashta-dikpalakas).
Finally, in the Puranas, Agni becomes the name of a class of gods; his sons and grandsons were also Agnis. In the medieval period Agni had a scripture named after him, the Agni Purana, as he became merely the recipient of a revelation from the rest of the devas. This scripture is a vast collection dealing with the incarnations of Vishnu, injunctions relating to the worship of gods, and a variety of subjects such as astrology, architecture, sculpture, and drama. In the scripture, Agni himself was completely overshadowed by Vishnu, who is presented as the supreme lord of the universe.
The Holi Festival (a two-day holiday at the end of winter in February or March) is connected to Agni. According to one version of the myth that explains the connection, he had been cursed by a sage (and great sages and yogis could become more powerful than the gods by practicing austerities, tapas). This brahmin was named Bhrigu. He worshipped Agni every day, feeding him with ghee (clarified butter). While Bhrigu took his morning bath, he would leave his beautiful wife Puloma under Agni’s care and protection. But the asuras (demons) came one morning while Bhrigu was away and fed Agni so much ghee that he fell asleep. And they promptly stole Puloma. Bhrigu became so angry that he cursed Agni so that he began to die. Vishnu was able to get the old sage to modify his curse, but once a sage’s curse had been made it could not be taken back. So now, only on the day before Holi are worthless offerings thrown into the fire. On Holi Agni again receives his due—and is saved by divine grace. Another version has GanesSa, the elephant-headed son of SHiva, taking pity on Agni and fanning his flames back to life with his ears.
In the Karthigai Festival in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Siva is worshipped in the form of the five elements, including Agni (fire). Another Shaivite festival worshipping Siva as lord of the elements (i.e., the universe) is the Bate- sar Mela at the ancient pilgrimage site of Bhuteshwar. It is quite likely that this was originally a pilgrimage site (tirtha) of the ancient Agni cult.
Agni was given a role in many Puranic myths: in the birth of SHiva’s son Skanda, in numerous battles with the asuras, as a dart emanating from Siva, and in the chorus of gods pleading their many cases with Brahma, Vishnu, or Siva. But none of these roles indicated any memory of Agni in his glory in Vedic India.
Early verbal descriptions gave Agni two heads, four horns, three feet, and seven arms. Centuries later Agni was sculpted in stone or carved in wood with one or two heads, two or three eyes, and two or four hands. He was given a chariot drawn by four parrots or was shown riding his animal vehicle, the ram. These images included a wife, Svaha.