With the Sākamedha-parvan with the oblations to Agni Anīkavat having just passed, we present a brief note on Agni as the general of the deva army. Agni is presented as the commander of the deva-s in the brāhmaṇa literature. For example, the Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa of the Śuklayajurvedin-s makes the below statement in regard to the ratnin oblations, which are made in houses of the various functionaries of the old Indo-Aryan state. With regard to the oblation to Agnī Anīkavat we hear:
araṇyor agnī samārohya senānyo gṛhān paretyā + agnaye .anīkavate aṣṭhā-kapālam puroḍāśaṃ nirvapati । agnir vai devatānām anīkaṃ senāyā vai senānīr anīkaṃ tasmād agnaye ‘nīkavate । etad vā asyaikaṃ ratnaṃ yat senānīs tasmā evaitena sūyate । taṃ svam-anapakramiṇaṃ kurute । (in Mādhyaṃdina SB 5.3.1 in Kāṇva SB 7.1.4)
Having taken up the two fires (Gārhapatya and Āhavanīya) on the two kindling-sticks, having gone to the house of the commander of the army, he prepares a cake on eight potsherds for Agni Anīkavat. Agni is indeed the leader (anīka) of the gods, and the commander is the head of the army: hence, for Agni Anīkavat. He, the commander, is verily one of his (the king’s) gems. Therefore, for him [the king], he [the commander] is thus consecrated. He [the king] makes him [the commander] his own follower.
Again, in the Gopatha-brāhmaṇa we have the following statement regarding the offering to Agni Anīkavat in the context of the Sakamedha oblations:
aindro vā eṣa yajña-kratur yat sākamedhāḥ । tad yathā mahārājaḥ purastāt senānīkāni vyuhyābhayaṃ panthānam anviyād evam evaitat purastād devatā yajati । tad yathaivādaḥ somasya mahāvratam evam evaitad iṣṭi-mahāvratam । atha yad agnim anīkavantaṃ prathamaṃ devatānāṃ yajati । agnir vai devānāṃ mukham । mukhata eva tad devān prīṇāti । (in GB 2.1.23)
These Sākamedha-s are verily that of Indra. Just as the emperor placing the commanders in the head of his army-formations advances unchecked on his path, so also, he (the ritualist) sacrifices placing the deities to the front. Just as there is the Mahāvrata of the soma sacrifices, this is the [equivalent of the] Mahāvrata for the iṣṭi-s. Now, in that, he sacrifices to Agni Anīkavat (the commander), the first of the deities. This Agni is indeed the mouth of the gods. Thus, he pleases the gods through their mouth.
As an aside, we may note that the Atharvavedic tradition sees the Sākamedha oblations as the equivalent of the Mahāvrata-s for the iṣṭi cycle. The Mahāvrata is performed at the winter solstice. The Sākamedha on the Kārttika full moon is the last full moon in autumn before the winter solstice. Hence, the two are seen as being equivalent. Now, this role of Agni as the commander of the gods is already hinted at by multiple incantations in the Ṛgveda (reproduced in the Atharvaveda) itself. For example, we have:
agnir iva manyo tviṣitaḥ sahasva senānīr naḥ sahure hūta edhi । RV 10.84.2a
Blazing like Agni, o battle fury, conquer! Our commander, the conqueror when you are invoked at the kindling.
Here Manyu (the battle fury) is implied to lead the forces, like commander Agni. We may also consider one of the Agni Anikavat incantations Atri-s:
uta svānāso divi ṣantv agnes
tigmāyudhā rakṣase hantavā u ।
made cid asya pra rujanti bhāmā
na varante paribādho adevīḥ ॥ RV 5.2.10
Also, in heaven, let there be the roars of Agni
with [his] sharp weapons for the smiting of rakṣas-es.
Indeed, in his exhilaration, his fury smashes forth,
the defense of the ungodly do not contain him.
Finally, we also have the famous Rakṣohā Agni incantations of Vāmadeva Gautama (RV 4.4.1-5), which present the most exalted account of Agni’s war-like nature in the entire śruti [Footnote 1]:
kṛṇuṣva pājaḥ prasitiṃ na pṛthvīṃ
yāhi rājevāmavāṃ ibhena ।
tṛṣvīm anu prasitiṃ drūṇāno .
astāsi vidhya rakṣasas tapiṣṭhaiḥ ॥ 1
Make your charge like a broad front.
Move forth like a mighty king with his troops,
thirsting to charge forth slaying,
You are an archer: pierce the rakṣas-es with the hottest missiles.
tava bhramāsa āśuyā patanty
anu spṛśa dhṛṣatā śośucānaḥ ।
tapūṃṣy agne juhvā pataṅgān
asaṃdito vi sṛja viṣvag ulkāḥ ॥ 2
Your swirling [weapons: cakra-s implied] fly swiftly;
touch down on [the foes] impetuously blazing.
O Agni, with your tongue [hurl] blasts of heat, flying [sparks]
unstopped hurl forth firebrands all around.
prati spaśo vi sṛja tūrṇitamo
bhavā pāyur viśo asyā adabdhaḥ ।
yo no dūre aghaśaṃso yo anty
agne mākiṣ ṭe vyathir ā dadharṣīt ॥ 3
Send out spies against (the foes). He is the fastest.
Become the uncheated protector of these people.
Whoever wishes us evil from a distance, whoever from nearby,
O Agni, may no one (enemy) evade your meandering course.
ud agne tiṣṭha praty ā tanuṣva
ny amitrāṃ oṣatāt tigmahete ।
yo no arātiṃ samidhāna cakre
nīcā taṃ dhakṣy atasaṃ na śuṣkam ॥ 4
O Agni stand up, stretch your bow against [our enemies],
Burn down the foes, o one with a sharp weapon.
Whoever makes hostile moves at us, o kindled one,
burn him down like dry shrubs.
ūrdhvo bhava prati vidhyādhy
asmad āviṣ kṛṇuṣva daivyāny agne ।
ava sthirā tanuhi yātujūnāṃ
jāmim ajāmim pra mṛṇīhi śatrūn ॥ 5
Rising upwards, jabbing against [the foes, pushing them]
away from us; make your divine powers apparent.
Slacken the taut [bows] of those incited by yātu-s,
be they kin or non-kin slay forth the enemies.
In the transition between the Vedic and Epic phases of the Hindu literary activity, the role of Agni as the commander of the gods was transferred to his son Kumāra, effectively also the son of Agni’s dual Rudra. The stage for this is set deep in the śruti itself. As noted before, the Kaumāra mythology is closely tied to the famous sūkta of the Atri-s we mentioned above (RV 5.2). Already in the fragmentary Vedic tradition of the Bhāllavi-s, we see the hint of this connection in the deployment of the ṛk-s from RV 5.2 by Vṛśa Jāna for the Ikṣvāku ruler Tryaruṇa. The Śatapatha-brāhmaṇa, explaining the duality of Agni and Rudra, explains that the 8 forms of Rudra culminating in the supreme Īśāna, the lord of all, are the 8 transformations of Agni, with Kumāra as the 9th, evidently alluding to the very same sūkta of the Atri-s:
tāny etāny aṣṭāv agni-rūpāṇi । kumāro navamaḥ saivāgnis trivṛttā ॥ Mādhyaṃdina SB 184.108.40.206
These then are the eight forms of Agni (Rudra, Śarva, Paśupati, Ugra, Aśani, Bhava, Mahādeva, Īśāna). Kumāra (the boy) is the ninth: that is Agni’s threefold state (i.e., 3 3).
This sets the stage for the final ninth form as the son of Rudra-Agni. In this process, Kumāra also inherited to connection to the old equinoctial connection to the constellation of Agni, i.e., Kṛttikā-s – he is also their son, Kārttikeya. Also contributing to the identity of the para-Vedic Kumāra are the aspects of the Vedic sons of Rudra, the Marut-s, who are also seen as leaders of the deva army. For instance, in the Apratiratha Aindra sūkta we have:
devasenānām abhibhañjatīnāṃ jayantīnām maruto yantv agram ॥ RV 10.103.8c
May the Maruts go at the forefront of the shattering, conquering armies of the gods.
Notably, the Maruts are repeatedly referred to as Agni-s (e.g., agnayo na śuśucānā ṛjīṣiṇo bhṛmiṃ dhamanto apa gā avṛṇvata । RV 2.34.1c; na yeṣām irī sadhastha īṣṭa āṃ agnayo na svavidyutaḥ pra syandrāso dhunīnām । RV 5.87.3c; te rudrāsaḥ sumakhā agnayo yathā tuvidyumnā avantv evayāmarut ।RV 5.87.7a; ye agnayo na śośucann idhānā dvir yat trir maruto vāvṛdhanta । RV 6.66.2a). This completes the circle of the connection between Agni and the sons of Rudra, who are the spear-wielding heroes of the deva army.
However, there are rare instances in the itihāsa-purāṇa corpus that furnish descriptions of the martial Agni mirroring his role as commander of the divine army in the śruti. We provide snippets of such accounts below from the third section of the Harivaṃśa, the Bhaviṣya-parvan (sometimes called Appendix I). The first snippet is from the narration of Agni leading the gods in the battle against the daitya Balin, who was subsequently trampled by Viṣṇu:
lohito lohitagrīvo hartā dātā haviḥ kaviḥ ।
pāvako viśvabhug devaḥ sarva-devānanaḥ prabhuḥ ॥
subrahmātmā suvarcaskaḥ sahasrārcir vibhāvasuḥ ।
kṛṣṇavartmā citrabhānur devāgryaś citra ekarāṭ ॥
lokasākṣī dvijahuto vaṣaṭkāra-priyo ‘rcimān ।
havyabhakṣaḥ śamīgarbhaḥ svayoniḥ sarvakarmakṛt ॥
pāvanaḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ tridaśānāṃ taponidhiḥ ।
śamanaḥ sarvapāpānāṃ lelihānas tapomayaḥ ॥
pradakṣiṇāvarta-śikhaḥ śucilomā makhākṛtiḥ ।
havyabhug bhūtabhavyeśo havyabhāgaharo hariḥ ॥
somapaḥ sumahātejā bhūteśaḥ sarvabhūtahā ।
adhṛṣyaḥ pāvako bhūtir bhūtātmā vai svadhādhipaḥ ॥
svāhāpatiḥ sāmagītaḥ somapūtāśano ‘dridhṛk ।
devadevo mahākrodho rudrātmā brahmasaṃbhavaḥ ॥
lohitāśvaṃ vāyucakraṃ ratham āsthāya bhūtakṛt ।
dhūmaketur dhūmaśikho nīlavāsāḥ surottamaḥ ॥
udyamya divyam āgneyam astraṃ devo raṇe mahat ।
dānavāṇāṃ sahasrāṇi prayutāny arbudāni ca ॥
dadāha bhagavān vahniḥ saṃkruddhaḥ pralaye yathā ।
prāṇo yaḥ sarvabhūtānāṃ hṛdi tiṣṭhati pañcadhā ॥
Red, red-necked, the destroyer, the giver, the oblation, the poet;
The purifier, all-consuming, the god, the mouth of the gods, the lord;
The soul of mantras, brilliant, thousand-rayed, full of light;
With black tracks, with wonderful rays, the leader of the gods, beautiful, the sole ruler;
The witness of the worlds, invoked by twice-born, delighting in the vaṣaṭ call, bright;
The oblation-eater, dwelling in wood, self-reproducing, doer of all acts;
The purifier of all beings, the wealth of the gods’ tapas;
The suppressor of sins, with a flickering tongue, full of heat;
With helical swirling flames, bright haired, of the form of ritual;
The oblation-eater, lord of past and future, the partaker of the ritual share, yellow;
The soma-drinker, of good great luster, the lord of beings, the slayer of all beings;
The unassailable one, the purifier, the power, verily the core of beings, Svadhā’s husband;
Svāhā’s husband, the Saman song, the filtered-soma consumer, holding the [soma]-pounding stone;
The god of gods, of great wrath, of nature of Rudra, born of incantations;
Having mounted the chariot drawn by red horses with wind-wheels, the maker of beings,
the smoke-bannered, the smoke-tufted, blue-clothed one, foremost of the gods,
having raised the divine Āgneya missile in battle, the great god
burnt down thousands, millions and tens of millions of dānava-s,
like in the cosmic dissolution, the enraged lord of fire;
He, who is the metabolism of all organisms, situate five-fold in their hearts.
The second short snippet alludes to Agni’s weapons and the manifestation of the other gods with their weapons. This comes from the narration of the fruits of the tapasya of the deities and presents the appearance of Agni within the frame of the old Vedic ritual of the churning out of the fire in the manner of the Atharvan-s of yore:
atha dīkṣāṃ samāsthāya sarve viṣṇumayā gaṇāḥ ।
puṣkarād agnim uddhatya praṇīya ca yathāvidhi ॥
juhuvur mantravidhinā brāhmaṇā mantracoditāḥ ।
haviṣā mantrapūtena yathā vai vidhir eva ca ॥
sa cāgnir vidhivat tatra vardhate brahmatejasā ।
tejobhir bahulībhūtaḥ prabhuḥ puruṣavigrahaḥ ॥
brahma-daṇḍa iti khyāto vapuṣā nirdahann iva ।
divya-rūpa-praharaṇo hy asi-carma-dhanurdharaḥ ॥
gadī ca lāṅgalī cakrī śarī carmī paraśvadhī ।
śūlī vajrī khaḍgapāṇiḥ śaktimān varakārmukī ॥
viṣṇuś cakradharaḥ khaḍgī musalī lāṅgalāyudhaḥ ।
naro lāṅgalam ālambya musalaṃ ca mahābalaḥ ॥
vajram indras tapoyogāc chataparvāṇam ākṣipat ।
rudraḥ śūlaṃ pinākaṃ ca tapasā-dhārayat prabhuḥ ॥
mṛtyur daṇḍaṃ pāśam āpaḥ skandaḥ śaktim agṛhṇata ।
jagrāha paraśuṃ tvaṣṭā kuberaś ca paraśvadham ॥
Having taken the dīkṣā for ritual all the troops [of V1s] imbued with Viṣṇu, churned out Agni from the [lotus/] pond [Footnote 2] and led him forth as per the injunctions [Footnote 3]. Invoked by the brāhmaṇā-s as per the Vedic instructions, and inspired by mantra incantations, and [fed with] offerings purified with mantra-s verily as per the injunctions, he, Agni, as per tradition, blazed forth there with brahman luster. The lord, having become manifold with rays, became anthropomorphic. He is known as the rod of brahman, appearing as though burning [all] with his body. With weapons of divine form, indeed holding a sword, shield and bow. With a mace, plowshare, discus, arrow, shield, battle-pickax, trident, thunderbolt, he is sword-armed and wields a lance and an excellent bow. Viṣṇu is armed with a discus, sword, pestle and a plowshare. Nara of great might is armed with a plowshare and a pestle [Footnote 4]. United with tapas, Indra strikes with the thunderbolt of a hundred edges. The lord Rudra by tapas has taken up the trident and Pināka [Footnote 5]. Yama took the rod, Varuṇa (literally waters), the lasso and Guha the lance [Footnote 6]. Tvaṣṭṛ took up an ax and Kubera a battle-pickax.
While the paurāṇika tradition presents accounts of several of the ancient battles between the deva-s and the daitya-s, all surviving versions aim to downgrade the pantheon as represented in the old Aryan layer of the religion for magnifying their sectarian deities. Nevertheless, we believe that the paurāṇika tradition preserves relatively unmodified fragments from an older layer of narratives. This is supported by the sharing of phrases with the old tradition (e.g., vajraḥ śataparvaṇaḥ or kṛṣṇavartman) and the fact that above snippets are replete with Vedic allusions and metaphors. Both these snippets present Agni in his old martial form; the first might be seen as mirroring and augmenting the presentation of Agni in the famous kṛṇuṣva pāja iti pañca incantations, while the second mirrors his emergence, upon being churned out, presented in the above-mentioned sūkta of the Atri-s. Thus, even with all the religious turnover, some of the primal imagery from the old Aryan past continued relatively unchanged in the paurāṇika tradition.
Footnote 1: Notice the Vedic device of ring-linking in structuring sūkta-s with old IE roots. The words kṛṇuṣva…vidhya from the first are repeated in reverse order in the fifth of the kṛṇuṣva pāja iti pañca as vidhyādhy…kṛṇuṣva to complete the classic ring. Then an intricate network is formed by other linkages; for example: in the first ṛk, the two hemistiches are linked by prasitim. In the second ṛk, they are linked by the root patan+. Then 1 and 2 are linked by the root tap+; prati links 3, 4, 5; 4 and 5 are linked by the root tan+ and so on. For a complete graph, see Figure 1. Such intricate weaving is especially typical of magical incantations, c.f. the Apratiratha Aindra.
Footnote 2: This is modeled after the action of the primordial Atharvan, which is mentioned to in the śruti: tvām agne puṣkarād adhy atharvā nir amanthata । RV 6.16.13a. This is a likely allusion to the fire within water found in the regions closer to the homeland of the early Indo-Europeans.
Footnote 3: The Vedic ritual of Agni-praṇayana with the recitation of the Hotṛ and the carrying forth of the wooden sword along with the fire to the mahāvedi.
Footnote 4: The coupling of Nara and Viṣṇu situates this narration with the Nara-Nārāyaṇa tradition of the epic Vaiṣṇava religion where it is often juxtaposed with the more prevalent Sātvata tradition. This verse hints at their “merger” by furnishing Nara with the iconography of the Sātvata Saṃkarṣaṇa.
Footnote 5: The Pināka should be correctly understood as the bow of Rudra.
Footnote 6: This hemistich has many readings. e.g., The Gītā press text reads: mṛtyur daṇḍaṃ pāśam āpaḥ kālaḥ śaktimagṛhṇata ।; The Pune reading from Parashuram Lakshman Vaidya reads: mṛtyur daṇḍaṃ sapāśaṃ ca kālaḥ śaktim agṛhṇata । We take an uncommon southern reading which more congruent with regard to the weapons and the gods.