Can you imagine being a human before fire?
Would that existence even be human in the way we think of it?
It has been at least 400,000 years since humans have had fire to use for safety, cooking, extending the day to make time for working and socializing after dark. The use of fire made using resins, pottery, and eventually metals, possible. Fire is at our core; a tool that, once mastered, helped us evolve from Homo Erectus into the species we are today, Homo Sapien.
Given its importance in our evolution is it surprising that fire and the principles fire conveys have played a significant role in the beliefs and religions of many ancient cultures? Vedic tradition (and by extension Ayurveda) with its continuous threads that go deep into human history and psychology, hold fire, or Agni, as a central concept. Agni is embodied in the original fire-god Agni and contemplated in the symbolism of fire which consumes, transforms, and conveys. Agni is the god of sacrifice, carrying (burnt) offerings from humans to gods. Agni is light that dispels the darkness of ignorance. Agni is one of 5 mahaboutas (constituent structures) that make up all of creation along with Akash (space or ether), Vayu (air), Aap (water), and Prithvi (earth).
Agni the deity is not directly invoked much these days, but the importance of Agni in Ayurvedic physiology is still central. Within the digestive system Agni consumes potential nourishment, discerns what it is, transforms it into something usable, and eliminates what is not usable. In modern terminology Agni makes nourishment ‘bio-available’. Wherever our body is making one thing into another that is Agni at work. Agni makes what it not us into us. Agni is the gatekeeper that perfects and purifies whatever we expose ourselves to so that we can build strong bodies and fuel all our activities.
It is common in Ayurveda to say ‘you are not what you eat; you are what you digest’ what we mean is that if you eat something that your Agni can not process you will not be nourished by it. No matter how potentially ‘nourishing’ something is, if you can not digest it it will simply be waste.
Ayurveda considers Agni to be life; when Agni is gone life is over. The most human of characteristics is to transform and process and make something new. When we can no longer do that we are no longer living. Without Agni we are inert and dead.
The actions of Agni are not just physical but emotional, intellectual and psychological. Experiences must be processed by Agni so that we can learn from them, incorporate them into our experience, and eliminate what does not benefit us. Agni is discernment.
The prevalence and normalization of digestive problems in our society is something I (and other Ayurveda practitioners) am worried about. Digestive Agni is not able to do its job thanks to excess consumption, denatured foods, stress, poor eating habits, and a myriad other individual causes.
The prevalence and normalization of mental and emotional problems in our society is something I am worried about too. These are a sign that Agni of the mind is not able to do its job thanks to culturally prevalent over-consumption of stimulus, stress and distraction, insecurity (material and emotional), not to mention illogical and confusing messages that we are all forced to consume every day.
Our society is manifesting disorders that are rooted in common causes: mental and physical indigestion. The 2 are of course tied together because when Agni is not functioning optimally none of the actions of Agni will work properly. The ‘gut-brain connection’ is really just the principle of Agni operating in 2 different spheres. The good news is that when you work to increase one aspect of Agni you will improve the health of all others. And the culturally prevalent pathology of poor Agni can be improved by correcting the cause.
Mental and physical indigestion can be reduced by taking a break. Simplify your diet, simplify your media consumption. Take a break from screens and processed foods. Let yourself get hungry. Allow Agni to grow strong and speak to you. Let your hungry Agni tell you what it desires as an offering. Use the light of Agni as consciousness to illuminate your impulses and desires by watching them and responding with awareness. Yes you may be craving something sweet. Choose to satisfy that craving with something healthy (carrots sauteed in ghee? a juicy date with an almond stuffed inside? a cup of warm milk with spices and maple syrup?)
Honor Agni by stepping away from bad habits for a moment. Strengthen Agni by listening to the urges that those bad habits are responding to. Choose the right choice with the illumination of Agni. The conscious use of Agni is vital to being human, a deep symbol for us and significant in our evolution. Perhaps returning to a place of reverence for Agni is part of our path back to fulfilling our potential as humans.