Stele with Agni
Central India, 12th century
Sandstone, 27¼ x 17 x 10 in. (69.2 x 43.2 x 25.4 cm)
Crow Museum of Asian Art of The University of Texas at Dallas, 1983.7
Agni, as the God of Fire and Heat plays a significant role in Hindu theology and culture. As the fire of life, Agni manifests at the hearth, at the beginning of life and in the digestive juices of the stomach. In this image, carved in buff sandstone in the twelfth century, we see Agni in a human form: soft belly, princely crown, bejeweled and four-armed: all symbols of a deity-status. In his primary hands he holds the water pot (kamandalu) and the boon granting (varada) gesture. Against the backdrop, one can observe in three separate registers: attendants and devotees, possibly human beings in the lower section, and the leogryphs motif (rampant lion upon elephant) in the middle. The upper register has two subsections with the makara (crocodile) and dancing gandharvas (dancers and musicians) on the border and two pavilions with deities on either side of Agni’s flaming halo. Brahma is present inside the left pavilion and it appears that a seated Shiva is present on the right. Along with Vishnu, who may have been the deity in the now damaged upper portion, this register depicts the realm of the gods. Agni’s striking centrality links the accompanying registers together while perhaps illustrating his role as an intermediary between humans and gods.However, it is the halo of fire, I wish for us to see: a beautiful rippled aura around his head representing his medium of fire: powerful, life-giving and source of seeing and knowing.
From the Sama Vedas: Thou, 0 Agni, like the Sun which is white, and another which is red ; thou manifested in the two forms of day and night, and art landed like the canopy of heaven. 0 possessor of food, you preserve the understanding of all men. 0 nourishing, grant that we may receive prosperity-causing presents this sacrifice.
In this sculpture, the craftsmen use tiny repeated lines to represent fire: part crown, part halo, lines which infer energy and power: stretching up into infinite space between, just as Agni is, earth and heaven. In this sculpture the fire takes us with Agni, into the beyond. Light depicted in stone, a challenge to any skilled stone worker.
As the God of Fire, Agni plays an important role in our personal health and longevity: Ayurveda teaches us that “Agni is responsible for life span, complexion, strength, health, enthusiasm, lustre, immunity, energy, heat processes and prana. Agni is the root cause of both health and disease” (Charaka Samihita. Chikitsa Sthana. Ch.15 v1-2). One of our dear friends and Ayurvedic Practitioner, Sapna Punjabi-Gupta, teaches us that Agni represents the metabolic function by which the food we eat is digested, ingested and the nutrition derived from it. It is a metaphor for digestion, sense perception, and even cellular metabolism. Agni is the ignition switch for digestive enzymes to start work and when agni or digestive fire is in balance, then the doshas are in balance. Sleeplessness, anxiety and poor eating patterns and choices can alter our balance of Agni and thereby the doshas: healthy living and Agni are deeply connected.
And so, as we look out on the tabula rasa of 2021, I wish you balance and perspective: may Agni manifest in healthy ways in your hearth, your health and in your new beginnings. And may we see how simple lines in stone, carved almost 900 years ago as “light” can shift how we see and experience the world.
Amy Lewis Hofland