The Origin & Appearance of Agni
Various accounts are given of the origin of Agni. He is said to be a son of Dyaus and Prithivi; he is called the son of Brahma, and is then named Abhimani; and he is reckoned amongst the children of Kasyapa and Aditi, and hence one of the Adityas. In the later writings he is described as a son of Angiras, king of the Pitris (fathers of mankind), and the authorship of several hymns is ascribed to him.
In pictures, he is represented as a red man, having three legs and seven arms, dark eyes, eyebrows and hair. He rides on a ram, wears a poita (Brahmanical thread), and a garland of fruit. Flames of fire issue from his mouth, and seven streams of glory radiate from his body.
The Many Hues of Agni
Agni is an immortal who has taken up his abode with mortals as their guest. He is the domestic priest who rises before the dawn, and who concentrates in his own person and exercises in a higher sense all the various sacrificial offices which the Indian ritual assigns to a number of different human functionaries.
He is a sage, the divinest among the sages, immediately acquainted with all the forms of worship; the wise director, the successful accomplisher, and the protector of all ceremonies, who enables men to serve the gods in a correct and acceptable manner in cases where they could not do this with their own unaided skill.
He is a swift messenger, moving between heaven and earth, commissioned both by gods and men to maintain their mutual communication, to announce to the immortals the hymns, and to convey to them the oblations of their worshippers; or to bring them (the immortals) down from the sky to the place of sacrifice.
He accompanies the gods when they visit the earth, and shares in the reverence and adoration which they receive. He makes the oblations fragrant; without him the gods experience no satisfaction.
The Uniqueness of Agni
Agni is the lord, protector, king of men. He is the lord of the house, dwelling in every abode. He is a guest in every home; he despises no man, he lives in every family. He is therefore considered as a mediator between gods and men, and as a witness of their actions; hence to the present day he is worshipped, and his blessing sought on all solemn occasions, as at marriage, death, etc.
In these old hymns Agni is spoken of as dwelling in the two pieces of wood which being rubbed together produce fire; and it is noticed as a remarkable thing that a living being should spring out of dry (dead) wood. Strange to say, says the poet, the child, as soon as born, begins with unnatural voracity to consume his parents. Wonderful is his growth, seeing that he is born of a mother who cannot nourish him; but he is nourished by the oblations of clarified butter which are poured into his mouth, and which he consumes.
The Might of Agni
The highest divine functions are ascribed to Agni. Although in some places he is spoken of as the son of heaven and earth, in others he is said to have stretched them out; to have formed them, and all that flies or walks, or stands or moves. He formed the sun, and adorned the heavens with stars. Men tremble at his mighty deeds, and his ordinances cannot be resisted. Earth, heaven, and all things obey his commands. All the gods fear, and do homage to him. He knows the secrets of mortals, and hears the invocations that are addressed to him.
Why do Hindus Worship Agni?
The worshippers of Agni prosper, are wealthy, and live long. He watches with a thousand eyes over the man who brings him food, and nourishes him with oblations. No mortal enemy can by any wondrous power gain the mastery over him who sacrifices to this god. He also confers and is the guardian of immortality. In a funeral hymn, Agni is asked to warm with his heat the unborn (immortal) part of the deceased, and in his auspicious form to carry it to the world of the righteous.
He carries men across calamities, as a ship over the sea. He commands all the riches in earth and heaven; hence he is invoked for riches, food, deliverance, and in fact all temporal good. He is also prayed to as the forgiver of sins that may have been committed through folly. All gods are said to be comprehended in him; he surrounds them as the circumference of a wheel does the spokes.
Agni in Hindu Scriptures & Epics
In a celebrated hymn of the Rig-Veda, attributed to Visishtha, Indra and the other gods are called upon to destroy the Kravyads (the flesh-eaters), or Rakshas, enemies of the gods. Agni himself is a Kravyad, and as such takes an entirely different character. He is then represented under a form as hideous as the beings he, in common with the other gods, is called upon to devour. He sharpens his two iron tusks, puts his enemies into his mouth, and devours them. He heats the edges of his shafts, and sends them into the hearts of the Rakshasas.
In the Mahabharata, Agni is represented as having exhausted his vigour by devouring too many oblations, and desiring to consume the whole Khandava forest, as a means of recruiting his strength. He was [at first] prevented from doing this by Indra; but having obtained the assistance of Krishna and Arjuna, he baffled Indra, and accomplished his object.
According to the Ramayana, in order to assist Vishnu when incarnate as Rama, Agni became the father of Nila by a monkey mother; and according to the Vishnu Purana, he married Swaha, by whom he had three sons-Pavaka, Pavamana, and Suchi.
The 7 Names of Agni
Agni has many names: Vahni (who receives the hom, or burnt sacrifice); Vitihotra, (who sanctifies the worshipper); Dhananjaya (who conquers riches); Jivalana (who burns); Dhumketu (whose sign is smoke); Chhagaratha (who rides on a ram); Saptajihva (who has seven tongues).
Source: Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, 1900 (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co.; London: W. Thacker & Co.)