Agnisala: Visit to a fire temple – About the Mystery of Fire

Agni, the God of Fire, is the oldest and most revered god in India. During my visit to Agnisala, the temple dedicated to him in Patan, Nepal, I experienced a special and powerful manifestation of spiritual intelligence that calls us on the path out of temporal limitation to return to the Father's house, to Nirvana.

Agnisala: Visit to a fire temple – About the Mystery of Fire

The Vedas belong to the very old religious traditions of mankind. They originate from the religion of the Aryans, who migrated to India around 1500 BC. When the Bible speaks of divine fire in many places (e.g. in Hebrews chapter 12: “our God is a consuming fire”), this is a preservation and continuation of an ancient human heritage. Today, in our time, there are indications of a renewed, powerful influence of divine fire. High spiritual vibrations are descending from the supra-temporal into the temporal. Are we receptive to them? Can we experience them in our souls, as the ancients could? They distinguished and personified the efficacies of fire.

Agni (Sanskrit m., अग्नि), the God of Fire of the (Rig) Veda, is the oldest and most revered god in India. He is one of the three great Vedic deities: Agni, Vayu and Surya and also all three (in one) as he is the triple aspect of fire: in the sky as the sun (Surya), in the atmosphere or air as lightning (Vayu), on earth as ordinary fire. Agni belonged to the early Vedic Trimurti [1], before Vishnu was given a place of honour and before Brahma and Shiva appeared as deities.[2]

I heard of an old, nondescript temple in the old city of Patan, Nepal, the Agnisala, where Vedic fire sacrifices are still celebrated at sunset and sunrise and at various lunar positions. I decided to seek out this temple and, if possible, participate in a ritual.

I have to bow deeply

My pre-sunrise walk to Agnisala takes me through the narrow streets of the former royal city of Patan. The path seems to end at a tree that has grown over the alley, the Baruna Brikhyas [3] (Baruna Tree). I must bow deeply to pass under the tree, which is part of the Agnisala compound, as well as through the low entrance gate that leads to a simple, clean courtyard. Legends say, the tree has been growing in the courtyard of the Agnisala since the Rigveda period (i.e. for more than 3000 years).

After stooping through the gate, an atmosphere of calm and serenity envelops me, noticeably different from the hustle and bustle in and around the other temples of Nepal. Through a window I can see into the interior of the Agnisala and make out various fireplaces in the smoke of the smouldering fire, as well as a young priest sitting on the floor, engrossed in reading/murmuring ancient Sanskrit scriptures. He is preparing the ritual of invoking Agni at sunrise. Women (rarely men) assemble their offering plates on a platform opposite the building. They contain all the offerings common to other temples in Nepal, such as flowers, rice, incense, spices and also a small bundle of wooden sticks, a special feature of the Agni offering, which are used to light the Agni fire. The priest interrupts the reading of the texts, receives the offerings, blesses them and returns the offering plate with prasad, consecrated flower petals, which those offering put in their hair. The sacrificers give themselves their ticka, the red dot on the forehead, from a waiting bowl and say goodbye without words.

I remember the invocation of Agni at the beginning of the Rigveda [4]:

To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
bringing thee reverence, we come,
ruler of sacrifices, guardian of Law eternal, radiant One,
increasing in thine own abode.
Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us to salvation.


Agni embodies light and warmth

This invocation of Agni shows its significance in the deity world of the Vedas and Hinduism: Agni, who embodies light and warmth, is present in all created and uncreated beings. He is the primordial essence of the universe and is worshipped by all gods and humans. In medieval Hinduism, Agni usually became Vishnu, and only a few special Agni sacrificial sites survived that time. However, the invocation of Agni and sacrifices to him are still an integral part of the Hindu life cycle. Beginning with the sacrifices at and after the birth of a child, through those at various stages of development, to marriage and the burning (Agni!) of corpses. The hearth fire, which is kept burning in every (traditional) family, plays a special role. The sacrifices at sunset and sunrise are a daily ritual in the Agni sacrifice sites and in many Hindu families. In the sunset ritual, Agni is invoked and asked to protect the sun on its (invisible) passage through the darkness of the night. In the sunrise ritual, Agni is thanked that the sun again illuminates, warms and radiates through the world.[5] Alongside this cosmic aspect is the worship of Agni as a messenger between humans and the gods, to whom one can turn with personal requests and wishes.

Agni acts in all worlds

As I ponder the meaning and origins of Agni and still linger in contemplation on the offerings and the temple and courtyard, I sink into the otherworldly serenity of the place and the priest’s murmured offering. The brightly blazing fire on the Agni fire place brings me back to reality. The priest has piled the sacrificed wooden sticks on the square fireplace and lit them on the embers of the ‘eternal’ fire. I can perceive two processes taking place simultaneously, the impersonal sacrifice and thanksgiving to Agni on the one hand, and the puja rituals focused on the earthly needs of the sacrificers on the other, and sense their difference. Two other young priests light the sacrificial fires on the two other hearths, while the main priest sits down again in front of the fire consecrated to Agni and continues the ritual by reading the Sanskrit prayers. My thoughts try to grasp and understand the two realities of the sacrifice or worship of Agni as divine-spiritual fire (the invisible, all-encompassing but never fully comprehensible Agni) and the pujas focused on earthly life and aspiration. Clearly, I see before me, in the motions of the physical fire, our world subject to change, and at the same time feel within me the intangible, unknowable greatness of Agni, the spiritual fire of the kingdom that is not “of this world”.

Lost in thought, I quietly leave the courtyard of Agnisala. Outside “in the world” I see a woman, crouching on the ground with a butter lamp in her hand, celebrating her daily morning ritual on the sacrificial stone set in front of every Nepali house. My thoughts circle around questions about the meaning and position of the Agnisala and its rituals. Is this place one of the ancient and still preserved fire temples that all religions and esotericists talk about? Does it represent a “ladder to heaven” (as with Jacob) in its spiritual aspect, or is it a beautiful, ancient tradition that has been reduced to formalistic rituals over the centuries? Who am I to give answers to these questions?

My intuition tells me that the Agnisala is a special and powerful manifestation of spiritual intelligence that calls or wants to call us on the path out of temporal limitation to return to the Father’s house, to Nirvana. I see, as in a picture, three circles or spirals rising from the Agnisala. First there is the sacrifice in one’s own interest, the request for worldly goods, health etc., which Agni is supposed to carry to the gods through the smoke of the sacrificial fires. Another, narrower circle shows me how the sacrificers ask questions about the meaning and purpose of their lives and the world. Agni is asked to give answers to the great questions of humanity. The smoke of the sacrificial fires also carries these requests and questions into the immeasurable universe. The innermost part of my picture, it seems to me, shows the omnipresence of fire in its innumerable forms, the omniscience, connected with all that is created and uncreated, Agni, the God of Fire.

The Immersion of the Fire

I read about the mystery of fire in Jan van Rijckenborgh’s explanations:

There is unknowable fire and emerging from it recognisable fire. The unknowable fire is the Virgin Spirit. And the recognisable fire is the Spirit that enters into contact with the astral substance. Every disciple [on the spiritual path] theoretically knows the path to the immersion of the Spirit, the path to transform the unknowable fire into recognisable fire. The classical Rosicrucians called this the “art of gold-making”. The original gold-makers were the brothers and sisters who walked the path of the Spirit according to which they knew how to bring the Golden Fire, the Golden Flame into existence.

Fire worship was originally Spirit worship. The cult of the sun is a spiritual cult. However, one must not remain with such a cult, with the worship of the Spirit […]. What is important is the realisation of the fire itself, the making of gold itself. […]

As humanity we stand anew in the phase of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Again, the Pentecostal fire is kindled. […] It means learning how to handle the most powerful force in the universe, to work with it and to respond to it. […] The contact between the Spirit and the astral field of the disciple causes a flame of fire, a constantly fiery blazing light, as a breathing field, as a life field. The candidate has then become a son, a child of the fire. He possesses the “body of the Spirit”. Thus the living soul-body was built up in a laborious striving and struggling on the path, but the spiritual body has come into being like a flash of lightning.[6]

It becomes clear to me: there is a universal teaching about the relationship between man and God. It reveals itself when we go the path into the depths of our own being, into the depths in which the roots of human existence are anchored.

[1] Trimurti (Sanskrit त्रिमूर्ति Trimūrti; “three forms”) is a concept of Hinduism that represents the union of the three cosmic functions of creation, preservation and destruction or transformation through the visualisation of the great gods Brahma as the creator, Vishnu as the preserver and Shiva as the destroyer. The Trimurti symbolises the origin of all divine effects in one unity, as the three aspects are mutually dependent and complementary; it represents the formless Brahman and expresses the creating, preserving and destroying aspects of this supreme Being. (see Wikipedia}.
[2] H.P. Blavatsky: The Theosophical Glossary, Los Angeles 1918, S.17
[3] Latin:: Crataeva religiosa
[4] T.H. Griffith, Translator: The Rig Veda: Ralph, (1896); British Library, Sacred Hindu Texts
[5] For a detailed description of the Sunset and Sunrise rituals see: Bodewitz H.W.; The daily Evening and Morning Offerings (Agnihorta); E.J.Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1976
[6]  Jan van Rijckenborgh, The Egytian Arch-Gnosis, Vol. 3, Haarlem (NL), chapter The mystery of the fire

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Date: October 11, 2023
Author: Horst Matthäus (Nepal)
Photo: yoga-AKumar auf Pixabay CCO

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