Agni (अग्नि)is not just the Physical Fire
The word अग्नि agni in Sanskrit usually refers to the physical fire. But the Vedic Rishis recognized Agni as the power of aspiration that initiates man’s journey towards achieving fulfillment and perfection, towards the Truth and the Vast. It is this flame of aspiration that eternally burns in the heart of all beings and it is the true leader.
Does the word अग्नि agni have this meaning deep within its structure? Etymologically the word अग्नि agni is derived from the root-sound अग् ag with the component नि ni joining it at the end. The root-sound अग् ag refers to an upward movement targeting the summit. We find this sense in the word अग्र agra meaning foremost, first, prominent, chief, tip, front, summit, in front etc. The root-sound अग् ag further conveys the sense of a forceful state, feeling, movement, action, light. Let us see how the two sounds अ a and ग् g separately contribute towards this meaning of their combined form अग् ag. The sound अ a essentially means, ‘to be’, and transitively, ‘to have’. It expresses being in its widest and barest sense without any idea of substance or attribute. So, in its original sense it refers to absolute existence. The sound ग् g suggests application, contact, or a gentle force or insistence. The combined form of अ a and ग् g therefore can mean being or having with an application of force to action, to men, to things. From this comes the sense of strength, force, excellence, pre-eminence, brilliance. So, in the word अग्नि agni the root-sound अग् ag refers to strong, brilliant and forceful. The suffix नि ni ( न् n with इ i) denotes substance and actuality. (The above interpretation of the word ‘agni’ is based on Sri Aurobindo’s Vedic Philology)
For the Vedic Rishis, अग्नि agni was bright and strong, the brilliant god of fire, the powerful, the burning god of tapas, heat and force. As per the Vedic conception अग्नि agni accompanies the process of seeking and तपस्या tapasyaa right from the beginning up to the end. It is the fire that prepares and perfects. It carries the aspiration of the seekers to the higher Powers and brings back in return their force and light and joy into our humanity. Truth, सत्यम् satyam, right, ऋतम् ritam and vast, बॄहत् brihat are its own home where it burns eternally.
The nasalized form of अग् ag is अङ्ग् ang from which we get the word अङ्गार angaara meaning a burning charcoal. The word angiras is also from the same root which basically means ‘flaming or glowing’, ‘the burning powers of light’. So the अङ्गिरस् angiras is used in the sense of ‘flaming force of the divine consciousness with its twin qualities of Light and Power’. Agni, in the Vedas, is the first and foremost and original अङ्गिरस् angiras, प्रथमो अङ्गिराः prathamo angiraah. The आङ्गिरस aagnirasa Rishis are regarded as the powers and sons of अग्नि agni. They are pilgrims of light, fighters for the cows or rays, and they bring the illumination of the divine Truth. In the work of Vedic sacrifice they appear as the divine seers as well as human fathers. For more clarity on the aangirasa Rishis one can read the following chapter of the ‘Secret of the Veda’ by Sri Aurobindo: https://incarnateword.in/cwsa/15/the-angiras-rishis
Here are few Sanskrit names of fire with their etymological and spiritual significances:
1. अग्नि-agni: This word comes from the root-sound अग्- ag, meaning ‘to move upward’. The flame, because of its upward movement is known as अग्नि. This is the flame of aspiration rising upward.
2. वह्नि-vahni: This word comes from the root-sound वह्-vah, meaning ‘to carry, to take care’ etc. The significance of Agni as vahni is that it is that force which mediates between God and man. It carries the prayers and aspirations of man to the God and brings the man in contact with gods.
3. पावक-paavaka: This word comes from the root-sound पू-puu, meaning ‘to purify’. Agni is ever pure and purifies everything that comes in contact with it.
4. अनल-anala: This word is formed from two words न meaning not, and अलम् meaning ‘enough’. So the whole meaning of the word is ‘not enough’. This indicates the all-devouring nature of Agni. Indeed, Agni is ever dissatisfied. The entire creation can go into the mouth of Agni, but still it’s not enough for Agni.
5. शुष्मा-shushmaa: This word comes from the root-sound शुष्-shush, meaning ‘to dry’. Fire is called shushmaa as it dries up everything. In a deeper sense, in the presence of pure flame, the negetive energies in us become dry, lose all their power. Agni not only dries them up but transforms them into pure, positive energies by purifying them.. Tansforming tamas into pure inner tranquility, rajas into pure dynamism, sattva into pure light.
6. जातवेदस्-Jaatavedas: This word is formed by the combination of two words — जात-jaata meaning ‘born’, and वेदस्-vedas meaning ‘one who knows’. Agni being ever present in everything and being, has the knowledge of all that is born or manifests. Ishopanishad therefore addresses Agni by saying, विश्वानि देव वयुनानि विद्वान्.
7. ज्वलन-jvalana: This word coming from the root-sound ज्वल्-jval meaning ‘to burn’ signifies the ever burning nature of Agni. That which is radiant and brilliant, and shines eternally in everything and being.
ओम् अग्नये स्वाहा इदमग्नये इदं न मम
om agnaye svāhā idamagnaye idaṃ na mama