The Journey of the Soul through the Kingdoms of Nature
In ancient Vedic thought, the individual soul was symbolized by fire. Our inner soul, hidden like a secret flame deep within our hearts, abides inextinguishable throughout all our states of consciousness of waking, dream and deep sleep. It endures as the witness through our every birth and death, through all the many sojourns in the various worlds and planes of existence of our soul's vast manifestation.
The Rigveda-the oldest of the Vedas and perhaps the key to our ancient spiritual heritage as a species-begins characteristically with the image of the fire sacrifice as a universal metaphor, the underlying process of all existence. This spiritual fire sacrifice indicates that all our thoughts and actions are offerings to our soul in order to help it grow and evolve in consciousness as it moves through the world of nature on its way back to the Godhead or Brahman.
This fire was called Agni, meaning the inner guide (agra-ni). Agni is the Divine child, seed or embryo (kumara, putra, sunu, sishu, garbha, napat), the spiritual consciousness that enters into creation and builds it up from within. Agni contains the essence, the source and the matrix of who we are and all that we can become. All the forces of nature are the mothers of this Divine child that nothing can limit or overcome. Agni is the mystery of our birth and death and the doorway to the infinite and the eternal.
Let us take a quick look at the journey of this Divine flame or Agni because it is the journey of our own souls. Of course, one could write volumes on this process. In this short article, we can however touch a few of its rays and shadows on the different levels of our world.
Agni, symbolically the Divine fire child, represents the soul on Earth that evolves through the world of nature. The soul is like a flame that moves through the kingdoms of nature both creating them and participating in them. It is the fire that develops their particular substances and structures and becomes the beings or life-forms which inhabit them. Yet this Agni is not only fire but also color, heat and light, which are the outer factors of fire, and inwardly life, perception and consciousness, which are the inner factors of light.
Each one of us is a flame, a form of Agni, which is the light that lights our body, senses, breath, mind and consciousness. We are fire beings, not simply as portions of a material fire but as manifestations of a spiritual and universal fire (symbolized by the God Shiva or Rudra). All that we see is a form of fire, light, color, heat, energy or motion and spiritually is the great God Agni. And as a manifestation of Agni, we are all that as well.
Where does this flame of the soul come from? It is a portion of the solar fire that has descended into the Earth, which in turn the Sun receives from the light of consciousness (Chit-tejas) behind time and space and from the lords of universal life and karma (the Bhrigu and Angirasa Rishis).
The Soul in the Mineral Kingdom
Agni or fire is the ruling deity or spirit of the Earth in Vedic thought, just as the Wind or Vayu is deity of the Atmosphere and the Sun or Surya is the deity of Heaven. This is not only a statement of mysticism or Yoga but also one of science. The planet Earth has a fiery core as science has revealed. This is its portion of the solar fire that it received at the time of the formation of the solar system.
Agni or the individual soul's (Jivatman's) first level of manifestation is the mineral kingdom. Science teaches us that all the rocks on Earth originate, directly or indirectly, from only one source, which is volcanic activity, or through the Fire inherent in the Earth as it bubbles to the surface. This 'mineral fire' is a manifestation of the Earth fire or fire at the planet's core.
The mineral or volcanic fire has several forms. The first is the fire that erupts in volcanoes, which builds up extrusive igneous or fiery rocks. The second is the fire that builds up the great mountain ranges of the Earth. It does not reach the surface in a molten form and builds up intrusive igneous or fiery rocks, like granite, which become the backbones of the continents.
The dominant mineral on Earth is silica and quartz, which has a capacity to reflect light, showing its connection to Agni. The mineral kingdom manifests various qualities of Agni like color, heat and light. This is most obvious in gemstones and in metallic ores, particularly gold, which is the main and purest form of Agni in the mineral realm. The mineral fire builds up various crystals that are the first forms of life and possess great conductive powers for cosmic, spiritual and physical healing forces. That is why gemstones are so important in Vedic healing.
The most obvious outer mineral or Earth form of Agni is the mountains. Mountains are built up by Agni or volcanic activity deep within the earth and rise like a flame to reach the Heavens. Indeed the mountains are said to be the houses of the Gods or cosmic powers that can descend and perceive this earth through the eyes of the mineral kingdom. The mountain is the main mineral manifestation of Agni or the soul, which reflects the cosmic mountain as a universal image, the different levels on the pyramid of existence. There are many sacred rocks, like sacred pillars, in which the Divine fire can be worshipped or like Shiva lingas.
This Earth Fire is connected to the Water Fire, which is also part of the mineral realm and the interrelated rock and water cycles. The third form of the mineral fire is the 'oceanic fire' that builds up the ocean floor, which exists in the mid-ocean ridges. The oceanic fire both heats and energizes the waters, and strange new forms of life have recently been discovered deep in the ocean, living on its heat and the sulphur-based minerals that arise from it.
Water on the surface of the Earth brings in an additional portion of the solar fire from the sunlight that is reflected upon it. Water can receive light and through it conceive life. The solar fire descends and impregnates the Waters. This is quickened by an additional spark of fire that comes into water from the lightning and is transmitted through the rain. Lightning is part of the atmospheric fire, which itself is magnetically connected to the earth or volcanic fire.
The atmosphere also participates in the unfoldment of the mineral soul. Atmospheric forces break down the rocks through the wind and water-
the forces of the weather-and help turn them into the soil necessary to nourish plant life. The soil is the ultimate product of mineral evolution and sets the stage for the plant evolution to follow.
The mineral kingdom itself has many domains as igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock, as minerals, metals, gems and fossils, as the continental plates and the ocean floors. Those who look deeply into the forms of the mineral kingdom can discover their own soul and contact the Divine fire working through it.
The Soul in Plants
The combination of these earthly, watery, mineral, atmospheric and solar fires gives rise to life through the plant kingdom, which is the second level of manifestation of Agni or the individual soul (Jivatman). Plants use minerals to build up their tissue structure, which is earthy in form. The bioelectric or lightning fire gives plants their Prana. The sap of plants carries a fiery energy or heat. It is a kind of pranically energized water containing nutrient minerals. So the plant fire is more of a water fire, while the mineral fire is more an earth fire.
Agni, the soul that was asleep in the rock, now wakes in the plants. It develops a new form which is the Agni or fire of photosynthesis. The digestive fire of the plants has the unique ability to digest sunlight and turn it into energy, which it conducts through its water or juice.
Plant material contains fire in many forms. Plants are generally combustible as in the case of wood, dry grass or peat. Plant remains in the Earth like oil and coal create our fossil fuels, which are our main energy sources today. Plants manifest fire in the form of color in a more evident way than the rocks, particularly as flowers, but also as colored fruit, bark and leaves. Fiery plant derivatives include spices, oils and resins that can burn. All of these plant qualities are new plays of Agni, new displays of our own soul, which finds a feminine beauty in the plant kingdom. The plant kingdom itself has many domains as trees, herbs, grasses, lichens and mosses.
Plants are also dwellings of the Gods, particularly the Goddesses, who dwell in flowers and herbs. The most developed of plants is the tree, which is the main plant form of Agni or the soul. Trees are the human beings in the plant kingdom and they carry the energies of the Gods who can descend into them. Trees mirror the universal process of the One being becoming many forms and branches, which is the image of the cosmic tree. That is why sacred trees are common objects of worship in ancient and nature-based religions. Great yogis and mystics have always frequented forests where the plant force and energy of peace acts as a powerful catalyst for their meditations.
In Vedic thought, the fire that is naturally produced through the rubbing of the wood of certain sacred trees is especially powerful. It is the very life fire in manifestation, not simply a material fire. Through such a natural fire Divine forces can descend into our environment and purify them. In fact, all creatures and all worlds are essentially plant-that is, organisms which contain fire and convert sunlight or starlight into energy and consciousness.
Connected to the mineral soul which sustains, the plant soul dwells in the ground, particularly in the roots of plants, where it is held in the bosom of the mineral fire. The plant is unable to move or to heat itself, so it requires the protection of the heat of the earth.
Those who look deeply into the forms of plant kingdom can discover their own soul and contact the Divine fire working through it.
The Soul in Animals
The plant soul or Agni over time evolves into the animal soul, which produces a new abundance of mobile creatures. Agni that woke in the plants now moves in the form of the animals. The animal realm brings in several powerful new types of Agni.
First is the digestive fire or fire in the belly (Jatharagni) that is able to digest food, whether of plant or animal origin. While plants passively get food from light, animals must actively find it. Each animal contains a zone of fire within it, a digestive system around which its physical body is built.
Second are the appropriate sense and motor organs designed to find and grasp food, along with the mind necessary to direct the process of food-seeking. Animals develop limbs mainly to find food or to catch it. Their sensory acuity develops mainly in the search for food. Their mental cunning develops primarily from hunting or searching for food. They are the intelligence of food.
Third is breathing or respiration, which allows animals to move. In this regard, Agni or fire brings in Vayu or wind, the atmospheric force, which allows such motion to occur. Vayu descends into the animal through the help of the digestive fire, which in turned is sustained by the heat of the breath. The animal is a living fire in motion. The digestive fire and the fire of respiration go together and are connected through the circulatory system. The animal fire, centered on food, is connected to other vital passions like sex and the development of territorial boundaries. It builds up the kingdoms of the senses and of instinct. The animal kingdom itself has many domains as amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals, humans and even insects.
Animals demonstrate many aspects of fire in their colors, bodily heat and passions. Their fur, feathers, markings and sense organs reflect the forms of fire. Animal matter is not as combustible as plant matter, but oils and fats derived from animals are flammable. Of these, the best animal oil is ghee or clarified butter, which is the ultimate material transformation of sunlight through grass and cow's milk. Ghee is said to be the best offering for the sacred fire. Its quality is that of the nerve tissue (Majja dhatu) in creatures.
In fact, in Vedic thought, the main animal manifestation of Agni or the soul is the cow. This is the basis of the sacred cow in Hindu culture. The cow symbolizes the nurturing force of nature in general that suckles and carries our soul or Agni. Another important sacred Agni animal is the horse, which manifests speed, energy or Prana.
While minerals manifest the earth fire and plants manifest the water fire, animals have a more 'fiery fire', as it were. In them fire is quite impetuous and hard to tame or control. Animals are like a wild fire on the earth. Mammals, the most evolved of animals, are very fiery creatures. Their digestive fire is strong and allows them to live in cold climates (as opposed to reptiles that are cold-blooded). It produces a warm red blood, along with powerful and aggressive senses and great powers of movement and adaptation. Generally, carnivores have stronger animal fires than vegetarian animals. It makes them more cunning but also more prey to powerful hunger and thirst.
Those who look deeply into the forms of animal kingdom can discover their own soul and contact the Divine fire working through it.
The Soul in Human Beings
The human soul or Agni is the ultimate result of the evolution of the animal soul and of the plant and mineral realms as well. It evolves a new type of Agni as intelligence (called buddhi, dhi, prajna, kratu or medha in Vedic thought), manifested by our manual and vocal skills, our unique hands, mouths, brains and nervous systems.
Humans have not only an instinctual mind that can find food and protect the body, but an intelligence that can digest ideas and discover the nature of truth beyond all bodily concerns. They can look beyond the outer forms of nature to its inner spirit. They have a conscience and can discern right from wrong and truth from falsehood. Through this higher intelligence, they can develop philosophy, art, religion and spirituality.
The human fire of intelligence can extend the range of the sense and motor organs by developing various tools, machines, vehicles and instruments, which has produced modern computers and the mass media. We can delve into nature with such tools and extract her animal, plant and mineral essences as metals, gems, fibers, dyes, spices, oils and medicines. We can develop our own plants varieties and breeds of animals, becoming mini-creators of our own.
The human kingdom itself has many domains or breeds including different races, ethnicities, cultures and languages and various social orders as priests, warriors, merchants, farmers, intellectuals, artists and so on, each with its own type of Agni, fire or activity.
However-and most unfortunately-our human species is not yet very evolved, being probably a young species that has yet to manifest its real potential and the higher aspects of its intelligence. The animal fire still burns strong within us, but without the grace of nature that the animals have to keep it in harmony with the world of nature. We have cultivated an artificial animal fire through meat-eating, the use of intoxicants, excessive sexuality and a cult of aggression and violence that pervades much of our culture extending even to our religions. Instead of using our higher intelligence to breed a higher human type, we have turned it into an artificial cunning that is destroying the very planet on which we live. We have bred a human species that is against both nature and the spirit, trapped in a world (a concrete jungle) not of spiritual intelligence but of artificial intelligence and artificial cravings.
The human soul that should be the crowing glory of nature and the protector of the Earth is trampling upon the very animals, plants and even rocks through which it evolved and which are its mothers. This is because we have forgotten our soul, our Agni, our flame portion of the Divine light. We have lost touch with our heart, our origin and our goal. Our artificially cultivated ego has become our dominant motive force and it is fed with the dark fires of greed, lust and ambition. This is the tragedy of our current civilization and the global crisis it has created. Instead of promoting the Divine light, we have created a false Agni or fire of consumerist desires that may end up destroying ourselves as well as our environment. In little more than a century, our species, almost like a disease, has devastated the beautiful planet that gave it birth.
As human beings, we are or should be the intelligence of fire. Fire was our first guru and guide in the infancy of our species. It taught us how to cook our food, how to forge metal and many other skills of early humanity. It taught us our first religion, our most ancient rituals, and functioned as our first doorway into the cosmic mind. Today we need to return to that original fire spirit and discover its inner message.
While minerals represent the earth fire, plants the water fire, and animals the fire fire, humans can manifest the air fire. Through the cosmic air element the human fire can transcend form and enter into the cosmic spirit. We can liberate the soul fire from its bodily limitations so that it can freely move through the entire universe. We can free the bird of the soul from its bodily shackles.
The Soul in Yoga
Yoga's main concern is a higher human evolution-the manifestation of the soul or Agni in its full glory, to turn the human being into a universal being. The fire of Yoga is meant to turn our crude human nature into something genuinely spiritual, to replace our egoic mindset with pure awareness beyond desire. It can help us realize our higher human potential which is universal.
One of the earliest sections on Yoga in the Upanishads states, "First yogically controlling the mind and extending the power of intelligence, discerning the light of the fire from the Earth, the solar Creator carried it upwards." (Svetasvatara Upanishad II.1).
The Agni or flame within us naturally seeks to return to his Divine solar home. Our soul's fire is the Divine will within us to return to God. We must bring that spiritual fire out of the Earth of our hearts to illumine our lives and reconnect us with the greater universe of consciousness.
All the different practices of Yoga serve to develop Agni on different levels. Asana practice purifies and balances the digestive fire (Jatharagni). Pranayama purifies, balances and energizes the pranic or breath fire (Pranagni). Pratyahara or internalization purifies and internalizes the fire of the sense and motor organs (Indriya-agni), particularly the eye and speech, which are the main forms of Agni in the sense and motor organs. Dharana or concentration focuses and heightens the fire of the mind (Manasa-agni). Dhyana or meditation increase the fire of wisdom (Buddhi-Agni). Samadhi or absorption merges us into the Divine fire to transform our consciousness at a soul level (Jiva-Agni).
So too, the different paths of Yoga cultivate different forms of fire. Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of knowledge burns our samskaras and karmas in the fire of knowledge (Jnana-agni). Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of devotion burns our lower passions in the fire of Divine Love (Prema-agni). Karma Yoga burns our egoistic impurities in the fire of sevice (Seva-agni). Raja Yoga, the integral Yoga, burns our conditioned habits in the fire of Samadhi. Hatha Yoga, the Yoga of psycho-physical practices, use Yoga postures and Pranayama to purify the body and mind.
We must learn to sublimate our fire from an animal to a Divine level. This is not to suppress it or try to put it out but to take it to a higher level of manifestation. It requires the fire of austerity and simplicity (tapas), recasting the base metal of our lower humanity into the pure goal of the enlightened nature. This is the Yogic fire alchemy. In this process, a new form of the Divine fire, the Kundalini force, which is a higher aspect of the Pranic fire, arises from the base of the spine and carries our consciousness upwards out the top of the head and into the higher consciousness beyond all time and space.
The Universal Soul
Through the process of Yoga, the individual soul can expand into the universal soul, which is the real goal of our journey through Nature. In Vedic thought, the individual soul is called Agni Jatavedas, the knower of all births. As the Rishi Vishvamitra states (RV III.1), "Oh Agni, these your eternal births for you the ancient we proclaim anew. Hidden in all births is the knower of all births. By the sages he is enkindled inextinguishable." We must learn to awaken at the level of the soul and the spiritual heart, as beings of consciousness seeking immortality through many bodies and many births. We must awaken to our Divine mission of Self-realization, not just for our individual needs but for the evolution of life and consciousness in the world of nature.
This Divine fire is born within all creatures as their soul and sense of Self. Through Yoga it expands into the universal and becomes Vaishvanara Agni, meaning the fire as the universal soul person. In the process Agni unfolds all the Gods or Divine powers (the Vasus, Rudras and Adityas of Vedic thoughts) and takes us through all the worlds or realms of consciousness from the Earth to the highest formless heavens (the Lokas and Rochanas of Vedic thought). Notably, Agni unfolds the Lords of Dharma as the great Gods, Varuna and Mitra, who symbolize the truth principles of purity and compassion. Agni merges with the descending Vayu or electrical/lightning force of Indra (truth perception), which destroys all ignorance and brings the soul into the infinite.
As the Rishi Bharadvaja states,
"The eternal light is placed within us for the vision, the swiftest consciousness among the moving senses. All the Divine powers of common mind and common perception follow perfectly that single Will.
Wide moves my ears and wide my eyes facing this light that is placed within the heart. Wide moves my mind in a deep understanding. What can is say, indeed what could I think?
All the Gods surrendered to you in awe, Oh Fire, as your enduring throughout the Darkness. May the universal soul (Vaishvanara) protect us with his grace. May the immortal one protect us with his grace."
Bharadvaja, RV VI.9.7
Whatever we see on Earth is a form of Agni. All human beings are forms of Agni. The Sun, Moon and stars in the sky above are also forms of Agni. The highest form of Agni is the Brahmagni (Agni or Brahman or the Absolute). This is the Agni of pure being (sat). This is Shiva, the fire that creates, preserves, destroys and transcends the entire universe.
May that Agni awaken in you! May all human beings manifest the Divine Fire and restore the Divine Light to this troubled world!
Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.
"May we abide in the favor of the universal Fire, for he is the ruler resplendent over all the worlds. Manifesting from us he perceives the entire universe. The universal Fire spreads himself through the Sun.
Present in Heaven, Agni is present on Earth. Present here he has entered into all the plants. The universal Fire by his sudden power is present everywhere. May he protect us by day and by night."
Rishi Kutsa, RV I.98.1-2