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Each Vedic Mantra Has Multiple Meanings – Madhvacharya

Madhvacharya proposed a triple interpretation of the Vedas: the traditional-historical, the mystical, and the transcendental-philosophical. All commentators on the Vedas, such as Sayana, are unanimous about the traditional interpretation. They all agree that the first mantra of the Rig Veda eulogizes the fire god, Agni: ‘Agnimile purohitam yajnasya devam-ṛtvijam hotaram ratnadhatamam; I adore Fire, the sacrificial priest, divine ministrant, who presents oblations, [and is] the bestower of riches.’ Even when there is a difference in this type of interpretation, it is not of much significance. Without disputing this interpretation, Madhvacharya goes a step further. The same mantra intends to praise Sri Hari, who, being the inner controller of the god Agni, dwells in him and is also called by the name ‘Agni’. Finally, Madhvacharya offers a philosophical interpretation of the same mantra: that it is in praise of Bhagavan Vishnu who is adhyatma — residing in our bodies along with our selves.

According to the commentary of Madhvacharya, the seer of this mantra is eulogizing the fire god Agni and the supreme deity Vishnu, also known as Agni. Vishnu is the indwelling controller of Agni. The important point here is that though the epithets used to praise Agni and Vishnu are the same, the auspicious attributes conveyed by them are unlimited and uncontrolled in Vishnu, while the same are very much limited and controlled by Vishnu, the antaryamin, in Agni.

According to Madhvacharya’s commentary, the first word of the first mantra of the Rig Veda has the following meanings:

In any sacrifice there are many deities to be worshipped. But, Agni, and Vishnu indwelling in him, are called ‘Agni’ because they are the first to be worshipped.

They are called ‘Agni’ for yet another reason. The word agni also means ‘superior’.

Being the Supreme Being, Bhagavan Vishnu has superiority par excellence. Hence, he is Agni. The fire god, Agni, also has superiority, but in a limited sense. He is superior only to those whom he controls.

The word Agni also signifies another characteristic of Bhagavan Vishnu. It was Bhagavan Vishnu who created the world consisting of the sentient and the insentient, and activated them. Thus, he is the first activator — prathama pravartaka. The fire god Agni too causes activity in the sentient and the non-sentient under the direction of the Supreme Being. Hence, he is also called ‘Agni’.

Attritva, the property of ‘partaking of ’ or ‘being the destroyer’ is another meaning conveyed by the term agni. Bhagavan Vishnu not only creates and sustains the world, he also destroys it when maha-pralaya, apocalypse, approaches. Being the destroyer of the world, he is Agni. The attritva conveyed by the word Agni also has a different shade of meaning. In the yajnas it is mainly fire that partakes of the ghee offered in the sacrificial fire. Fire god Agni, through whom ghee is offered, is also atta, partaker of the ghee. Therefore, he can also be called ‘Agni’.

Bhagavan Vishnu is called ‘Agni’ because he is anga-neta and sharira-pravartaka, the activator of all bodies. Through his presence in the bodies, Agni also activates them. Hence, he too is known as ‘Agni’.

Agni also means ‘aga-neta ’. Aga is that which cannot move on its own. Here movement is not mere motion, but any activity. The whole world consisting of sentient and non-sentient entities, being totally dependent on Brahman, cannot have any activity of its own. Thus, the whole world is aga. It is Sri Hari, present in all entities, who makes them act. Thus, he is aga-neta, and in this sense also he is called Agni.

According to Madhvacharya, the other words in the mantra — such as purohitam, devam, yajnasya rtvijam, hotaram, and ratnadhatamam — also praise the glory of Sri Hari in the main.