Etymology and meaning
Agni (fire) is a part of major rites-of-passage
rituals such as weddings and cremation in Indian religions.
Sanskrit Agni continues one of two core terms for fire reconstructed to *h₁n̥gʷnís, other reflexes of which include Latin ignis (the root of English ignite), Sclavonian ogni; Russian огонь (ogon), Polish "ogień", Slovenian "ogenj", Serbian oganj, and Lithuanian ugnis, all meaning "fire".; synchronically, the ancient Indian grammarians variously derived it:
- from root aj, which in Sanskrit means "to drive" and mirrors in Indo-European languages (Latin ago, Greek ἄγω) in the sense of "nimble, agile".
- from agri, the root of which means "first", referring to "that first in the universe to arise" or "fire" according to Shatapatha Brahmana section 6.1.1; the Brahmana claims this is cryptically called as Agni because everyone including the gods are known to love short nicknames.
- according to the 5th-century BCE Sanskrit text Nirukta-Nighantu in section 7.14, sage Śakapūṇi states the word Agni is derived from three verbs – from 'going', from 'shining or burning', and from 'leading'; the letter "a" (अ) is from root "i" which he claims implies 'to go', the letter "g" (ग्) is from the root "añj" meaning 'to shine' or "dah" meaning 'to burn', and the last letter is by itself the root "nī" (नी) which means 'to lead'.
In the early Vedic literature, Agni primarily connotes the fire as a god, one reflecting the primordial powers to consume, transform and convey. Yet the term is also used with the meaning of a Mahabhuta (constitutive substance), one of five that the earliest Vedic thinkers believed to constitute material existence, and that later Vedic thinkers such as Kanada and Kapila expanded widely, namely Akasha (ether, space), Vayu (air), Ap (water), Prithvi (earth) and Agni (fire).
The word Agni is used in many contexts, ranging from fire in the stomach, the cooking fire in a home, the sacrificial fire in an altar, the fire of cremation, the fire of rebirth, the fire in the energetic saps concealed within plants, the atmospheric fire in lightning and the celestial fire in the sun. In the Brahmanas layer of the Vedas, such as in section 5.2.3 of Shatapatha Brahmana, Agni represents all the gods, all concepts of spiritual energy that permeates everything in the universe. In the Upanishads and post-Vedic literature, Agni additionally became a metaphor for immortal principle in man, and any energy or knowledge that consumes and dispels a state of darkness, transforms and procreates an enlightened state of existence.