The Agni Purana is a tamasika purana. The others in this group are the Matsya, Kurma Linga, Shiva and Skanda Puranas.
The narrator of the Agni Purana is the fire-god Agni. Agni related the subject matter of the Purana to the sage Vashishtha, who in turn, passed on the knowledge to Vyasadeva. Vyasadeva’s disciple Suta learnt the Purana from his teacher.
Many sages had assembled in the forest naimisharanya. The most important of these sages was Shounaka. All these holy men wished to hear what the Agni Purana had to say. And that is how Suta came to relate the Purana.
The Agni Purana has no separate sections as such. It is simply split up into three hundred and eighty-three adhyayas (chapters). One of these chapters, chapter number 380, is rather interesting. It gives in capsule form the essence of advaita brahmajnana. The brahman is the divine spirit and brahmajnana means the knowledge of the brahman. Advaita means one. Advaita brahmajnana teaches of the union of the individual human soul (atman) with the brahman. The sections in the Agni Purana are nothing but a summary of the teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishadas. These holy texts were difficult to understand, there were restrictions on who might read them and who might not. The Puranas were available to everyone. Anyone could read them or listen to their recitations. Thus, this supreme knowledgeof brahmajnana was summarised for the general population through the Puranas.
The Agni Purana is full of rituals. Its chapters are generally not long, they are very brief. And even when the stories are given, they are in greatly summarized form. They can be obtained in far more fascinating detail in the other Puranas. For example, you will wonder why so much has been missed out about Rama. But that is because you are familiar with the story of the Ramayana. And you will also wonder why so much has been missed out about the Kauravas and the Pandavas. But that again is because you are familiar with the story of the Mahabharata.
This is no doubt partly due to the fact that the Agni Purana was written much after many of the other Puranas. It was a supplement to the other Puranas. The stories were already there in the other Puranas, what was missing in them were the rituals. And the rituals are very much part and parcel of the Vedic tradition. The Agni Purana was also written at a time when the brahmana religion had become much more ritualistic. The supremacy of the brahmana as a caste is much more pronounced in the Agni Purana than in the other Puranas.
Tradition too says that the Puranas differ in character because they were written in different kalpas (cycles). The Agni Purana itself with tell you later what a kalpa is.
In the forest that is known as naimisharanya, Shounaka and the other rishis (sages) were performing a yajna (sacrifice) dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. Suta had also come there, on his way to a pilgrimage.
The sages told Suta, “We have welcomed you. Now describe to us that which makes men all-knowning. Describe to us that which is the most sacred in the whole world.”
Suta replied, “Vishnu is the essence of everything. I went to a hermitage named vadrika with Shuka, Paila and other sages and met Vyasadeva there. Vyasadeva described to me that which he had learnt from the great sage Vashishtha, Vashishtha having learnt it from the god Agni himself. The Agni Purana is sacred because it tells us about the essence of the brahman (the divine essence). I learnt all this from Vyasadeva and I will now tell you all that I have learnt.”
Do you know what an avatara is? An avatara is an incarnation and means that a god adopts a human form to be born on earth. Why do gods do this? This purpose is to destroy evil on earth and establish righteousness. Vishnu is regarded as the preserver of the universe and it is therefore Vishnu’s incarnations that one encounters most often. Vishnu has already had nine such incarnations and the tenth and final incarnation is due in the future. These ten incarnations of Vishnu are as follows.
(1) Matsya avatara or fish incarnation
(2) Kurma avatara or turtle incarnation
(3) Varaha avatara or boar incarnation
(4) Narasimha avatara – an incarnation in the form of a being who
was half-man and half-lion
(5) Vamana avatara or dwarf incarnation
(10) Kalki ¾ this is the incarnation that is yet to come.
The Agni Purana now describes these ten incarnations.
Agni told Vashishtha the story of the fish incarnation.
Many years ago, the whole world was destroyed. The destruction in fact extended to all the three lokas (worlds) of bhuloka, bhuvarloka and svarloka. Bhuloka is the earth, svarloka or svarga is heaven and bhuvarloka is a region between the earth and heaven. All three worlds were flooded with water.Vaivasvata Manu was the son of the sun-god. He had spent ten thousand years in prayers and tapasya (meditation) in the hermitage vadrika. This hermitage was on the banks of the river Kritamala.
Once Manu came to the river to perform his ablutions. He immersed his hands in the water to get some water for his ablutions. When he raised them, he found that there was a small fish swimming in the water in the cup of his hands.
Manu was about to throw the fish back into the water when the fish said, “Don’t throw me back. I am scared of alligators and crocodiles and big fishes. Save me.”
Manu found an earthen pot in which he could keep the fish. But soon the fish became too big for the pot and Manu had to find a larger vessel in which the fish might be kept. But the fish became too big for this vessel as well and Manu had to transfer the fish to a lake. But the fish grew and grew and became too large for the lake. So Manu transferred the fish to the ocean. In the ocean, the fish grew until it became gigantic.
By now, Manu’s wonder knew no bounds. He said, “Who are you? You must be the Lord Vishnu, I bow down before you. Tell me, why are you tantalising me in the form of a fish?”
The fish replied, “I have come to punish the evil and protect the good. Seven days from now, the ocean will flood the entire world and all beings will be destroyed. But since you have saved me, I will save you. When the world is flooded, a boat will arrive here. Take the saptarshis (seven sages) with you and spend the terrible night that will come on that boat. Don’t forget to take the seeds of foodgrains with you. Will arrive and you will then fasten the boat to my horn with a huge snake.”
Saying this, the fish disappeared.
Everything happened as the fish had promised it would. The ocean became turbulent and Manu climbed into the boat. He tied the boat to the huge horn that the fish had. He prayed to the fish and the fish related the Matsya Purana to him. Eventually, when the water receded, the boat was anchored to the topmost peak of the Himalyas. And living beings were created once again.
A danava (demon) named Hayagriva had stolen the sacred texts of the Vedas and the knowledge of the brahman. In his form of a fish, Vishnu also killed Hayagriva and recovered the Vedas.