Whatever inspired the early man to rub two stones to discover fire, changed his world forever. The early man was a survivor, a hunter and a gatherer staving off vicious carnivores and struggling with darkness every day. Fire was a boon to him. It endowed him with a sense of supremacy over nature like nothing else did. Fire must have been intimidating, petrifying and even mesmerising, but he developed the skills to control it and use it in his everyday life.
To this day, fire has the same effect. Yes, we can light it whenever and wherever, with a flick of a matchstick or the click of a lighter and extinguish it just as easily–it remains integral to our existence. The discovery of fire altered the course of history and affected everything, including man’s spiritual journey. As mankind evolved, fire gained a significant spot in cultural and religious activities. The immense significance of fire in our lives is evident from the fact that many cultures worship it.
Venerating the fire god
The Hindus worship fire in the form of Agni. A powerful god, he is believed to be an immortal residing in the mortal realm and is often depicted as a red man with black eyes, seven arms and three legs, sitting astride a ram. Legend has it that he swallowed his parents when he was born. This action is considered symbolic of two sticks being consumed by the same fire created by them.
Considered to be extremely important in Hinduism, this element is central to almost every major ritual, be it marriages or funerals. What’s more, you can’t just light fire anywhere. While fire used for sacrifices to the gods should face east, the one used for cooking should face west. If intended for sacrifices to spirits, the fire should face the south.
Keepers of the flame
The Iranian Zoroastrians and Parsis venerate fire–calling it the Sun’s son. Their deity Ahura Mazda is said to be formless. More than a physical element in Zoroastrianism, it appears as a sacred symbol in the holy book Avesta. The Fire Temple or Agiary is the place where the holy fire burns. What makes this fire special is that it has to burn for eternity.
In the Bible, hell is described as a place for eternal punishment with fire playing a significant role.
Hell fire of Jahannam
In some religions, the concept of hell is incomplete without fire. Probably used as an element capable of keeping the deeds of believers in check, it finds a place in Islam as a part of hell–Jahannam–where sinners burn in a fire called Jaheem for eternity.
The Holy Ghost
In Christianity, fire appears in the form of a candle flame, symbolic of light and purification. It is often equated with the Holy Ghost–one of the Holy Trinity–and used in the context of hell. In the Bible, hell is described as a place for eternal punishment with fire playing a significant role. The mention of the element recurs in the Bible as Eternal Fire, Lake of Fire, Furnace of Fire, Judgement by Fire, Unquenchable Fire and Hell Fire.
In the Book of Exodus, the holy book of the Jews, God speaks to Moses from a bush on fire. According to the story, Moses, on seeing a bush ablaze on Mount Horeb, approaches it and notices that while on fire, the bush stays intact. It is here that God picks Moses to lead the Jews out of Egypt. The book also mentions an ‘angel’ that God sends to the Jews to help them during the exodus. It is said that the angel guides them as a pillar of cloud in the day and pillar of fire for light in the night.
Supremacy of fire
From the beginning of time, fire has symbolised a multitude of concepts. For example, the processes of alchemy and cooking represent transformation. Being one of the primary elements used to burn away impurities, fire also stands as a symbol of purity. It annihilates and, at the same time, embodies light which nurtures life. While we don’t need fire to keep us safe from the unknown, it still fights for us. Always in motion, the flame consumes everything in its path.
The place of the blaze in all our cultural and religious practices–as an element and as a manifestation of god–is irreplaceable. Without fire, there would be no life as we know it.