Agni is the third tattwa that constitutes the body. It links prithvi (earth) and apas (water) with vayu (air) and akasha (ether). Without the fire of agni the grossness of the first two tattwas cannot be refined into the subtle vayu and even subtler akasha.
The principle applies in meditation too. When the energy lying coiled in mooladhara, the seat of prithvi tattwa, passes through the fire of agni, it begins to shine with the light of consciousness. Then the spiritual experiences begin. The term agni pariksha, or the test of agni, refers to this event.
Sita underwent it before she could unite with Rama at Lanka. Prior to that she was locked up in the house of a demon with ten heads. The allegory of ten heads is easy to understand. They represent the ten senses that keep man forever bound to the lower energy centres. Craving for sensual experience is caused by the energy being locked up there. In order to release the energy from its bondage the fire of tapas, another name of agni, is essential. Fire alone can tear that bondage asunder. Sita too undertook this austerity for Rama.
The ascent of kundalini is beautifully allegorized in the union of Rama and Sita, after the agni pariksha. Rama could not accept her till she had passed that test. In order to rise, Sita, who represents shakti or energy, had to break loose from its shackles. Even though he too was striving for that union Rama, who represents consciousness, did not come down. If, instead of energy rising, consciousness descends to the lower centres to unite, the individual is destroyed. Those centres simply cannot handle that power.
The science of kundalini explains that once the energy passes beyond manipura chakra, the seat of agni, it will not descend to lower planes. Prior to that, even if it awakens it can revert back to dormancy. After it passes agni, the power of consciousness draws it up to its abode in sahasrara. This happens in exactly the same way as a magnet pulls iron filings. The two polarities meet and an explosion takes place.
There is another very important point to consider here. The key to open the lock, release energy from its captivity and carry it safely to its destination to unite with consciousness may lie in the fire of agni, but the code for the key lies with bhakti. No other power can accomplish this task. Bhakti is untainted devotion in which there is no room for the slightest procrastination, deceit, hypocrisy or doubt. Just as darkness is transformed into light under the luminosity of the sun, in the same way tamas and rajas transform into sattwa when bhakti flows from its abode in the heart cavity.
This too has been so intelligently illustrated in the Ramayana through the wonderful example of Hanuman. He is the symbol of steadfast, pure and faultless devotion to Rama. In releasing Sita from the captivity of Ravana he plays the most important part. Without him Rama could not have united with his beloved Sita. He crossed the earth (prithvi) and seas (apas) to discover Sita pining for Rama. By the fire (agni) of his tapas he sets Lanka ablaze and for the first time since captivity Sita sees a ray of hope that soon she will unite with Rama. The allegories are amazing! Hanuman tears his heart open for bhaktas to reveal the Lord Rama seated there with Sita hand raised in blessing.
'O Agni, lead me onto the right path', an invocation in the Vedas, gives the idea that agni transforms the movement of energy and by creating a balance between the two nadis, ida and pingala, puts it onto the straight path. Prior to that the movement of energy is erratic, unbalanced and also absent at times.
When the energy reaches manipura chakra, the seat of agni tattwa, it has two options: to either return to sleep once again coiled as kundalini; or to pierce the heat of agni and travel towards the light emanating from anahata chakra where consciousness rests in the heart cavity.
Agni refashions everything that comes in contact with it. At times it can completely alter the appearance, touch, smell and taste, giving it a new look and perhaps a new destiny. It acts as a catalyst for change through alteration and, often, total annihilation. A new product emerges.
Fire has been the object of worship since the distant past. It gave man his first sight of the forms around him. It made him realize his own identity and existence apart from others. In that sense it introduces you to your ego. In Four Chapters on Freedom, Swami Satyananda has said that the ego continues with man very far into deep states of meditation. Traces of ego are found even in savikalpa samadhi, the stage preceding nirvikalpa samadhi. It would not be wrong to say that it even acts as the cause for the experience of nirvikalpa or total annihilation of the ego. It consumes the same ego to which it gave birth to create a new form that of unified awareness. After this the role of agni is over. Or, more aptly, agni merges into thar pure effulgent Self which has the power to illumine itself.
Fire is the symbol of agni. The quality of fire is to spread itself; it cannot remain confined. So agni, seated in manipura chakra at the navel centre, spreads its intensity downwards to mooladhara in the coccygeal plexus and stirs the high voltage energy sleeping there, coiled like a serpent. Pulling it upwards when it rises with a hiss, it then accompanies the energy until the very last when it reaches sahasrara. This means that the tapas of agni extends to a very large radius.
No wonder then that it is said again that spiritual experience can be had by tapas alone. The generation of heat and intensity is tapas. One of the ways to accomplish this is through the yogic practice of pranayama. There are several others. Devotion to the Lord is one. Service of the Lord is another.
Because it spreads itself in every direction, it is present everywhere. This gives agni the quality of omniscience and omnipresence. Since it is everywhere, it sees everything. Thus its role as witness is established. It acts as the seer. In all sacrifices fire is the sakshi that bears witness to the event. Oaths are taken in front of fire. In that sense it also stands for truth as it cannot be contaminated. It is a symbol of purity, a necessity in all rites of purification.
Agni is the link between heaven and earth, sahasrara and prithvi. It has been called the heavenly fire because even though it spreads in all directions its motion is always upwards. It carries everything that it consumes and purifies, upwards. In the form of fragrant smoke it reaches out to the heavens, carrying with it the sankalpa that has been poured into it as oblations, which thus receives divine attention and attains fulfilment in the form of a boon.
It is this heavenly fire that has been elucidated in the form of a dialogue between a young lad, Nachiketas, and Yama, the Lord of Death. Being impressed with the spiritual fervour of the young boy, Lord Yama describes in detail the heavenly fire that leads to the other world and the means to ignite it. This exchange between them is narrated in the Kathopanishad.
As a tribute to the spirit of dedication for truth and metaphysical knowledge shown by the young boy, Yama named this fire after him. Thus it came to be known as the threefold Nachiketas fire. The foundation of this fire rests on three acts: tapas (austerity), daan (charity) and dhyana (meditation).
Endurance of the five fires is austerity. It is known as Panchagni. Panchagni is a rite of purification known as prayaschitta. In Panchagni, first five external fires are endured: four fires are lit and the fifth fire is that of the sun. Then the five internal fires raging within: kama (passion), krodha (anger), lobha (greed), moha (attachment) and matsara (jealousy), are endured. This is also known as the Pashupati vrata, which is a sacred vow undertaken to become master of the animal nature. Then follows the five meditations on fire.
Panchagni is practised during Uttarayan when the sun is in the northern hemisphere from Makar Sankranti (mid- January) to Karka Sankranti (mid-July). There are two paths for liberation known as the northern and southern. Panchagni is the northern path of light and luminosity. It is the path to follow for liberation of the soul. After that the soul can assume any form it chooses. Thus immortality can be attained through this austerity. The southern path limits the soul to the clutches of destiny. It follows the cycle of birth and death.
The gains from this austerity are then given to others in the form of grace and blessings. This is the highest form of charity. Charity leads to spontaneous and unbroken meditation. In that state the meditator and object of meditation merge into each other.
Mastery over the elements in their physical as well as metaphysical form is one of the requisites for this practice. Pure, unflinching devotion is another. It stands to reason that stamina and a vast quantum of energy are also required. This vow can be undertaken for twelve years, nine years, three years or one year.
In the year 1990, soon after arriving at Rikhiadham, Swami Satyananda undertook the vow of Panchagni for nine years. In the first year he endured one fire for six months and all five fires on Poornima and Amavasya. In the second year he lit two fires on all days and five on Poornima and Amavasya. In this way one fire was added each year and after the fifth year was over he endured five fires each day for one year. This was endurance of the five external fires.
After six years the fire was transferred to a special altar where it was concealed with ash but kept alight and burning inside. This concealed fire, representing the five internal fires, was attended for two years. This was followed by worship of the fire with mantra for the last year after which poornahuti or the final oblation was done. His vow of Panchagni culminated in 1998. The Panchagni lit by Sri Swamiji is still burning at Paramahamsa Alakh Bara and is worshipped daily at sunrise and sunset with aromatic herbs.