‘Agni-Soma': the yogic model of human behavior for managing self and others
------- © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary
Simple as it sounds the conceptual model of ‘Agni-Soma' provides a very effective framework for understanding and managing human behavior. While many are aware of ‘Agni-Soma' from the Rig Vedic hymn to the ‘Agni-Soma' duo (Rg veda, 1, 93) very few people are aware of the full-fledged status that ‘Agni-Soma' as a conceptual model, seems to have been accorded in the ancient times. There is nothing more practical than a good theoretical concept. After more than a decade of multidisciplinary studies and research this author believes that the ‘Agni-Soma' model can be fleshed out from its scattered rudiments into a practical working model that can be applied across many fields, ranging from psychology to healing and spirituality to management. The author has additionally drawn from his multi-disciplinary expertise in behavioural sciences, medical sciences, management and ancient wisdom in fleshing out a full-fledged working model of ‘Agni-Soma' for application in the fields of psychology, leadership and management. However the foundations of this model are largely from the yogic/vedic systems of knowledge. F or the purposes of this article only the essentials will be covered, especially as applicable to human behavior. Refer the author's article “ Agni-Someeyam- an ancient systems view of the individual and the cosmos” for a more in-depth introduction to this concept.
“He who discovers that all this is Agni and Soma,
And does not feel overawed is truly liberated”
--- 12.277.33, Mahabharata
Agni-Someeyam: an introduction
The Vedic concept of 'Agni-Soma' forms the most basic foundation for all Vedic knowledge, be it Yoga or Ayurveda or Swara or Tantra . This is the simplest conceptual model that can be used consistently across many fields, ranging from psychology to healing and spirituality to management. Simply translated ‘ Agni ' means ‘fire' and ‘ Soma ' means ‘nectar'. While Western science has tended to reduce complex phenomena into smaller units and go cellular, the ancient Indian approach looked for fundamental systemic principles that are possibly more organizational. In the ultimate sense though Truth is One, the forces of Nature can be classified in a number of ways (two-fold, tri-fold, tetra-fold, penta-fold etc). Although there are a variety of forces in the Universe, at the most basic level two principles form the basis of everything.
1. Agni- the fiery principle represented by fire element
2. Soma - the cold principle represented by water element
At a macrocosmic or universal level Agni and Soma are seen as systemic forces or as forces of Nature ( Prakrti ). At a microcosmic or individual level, more specifically at the human behavioral level, they are seen as psychic energies or functions of consciousness. As the most fundamental inner urges or drives, they drive an individual from within and shape the individual's life. The results of these two counterbalancing inner drives have corresponding external manifestations, as concrete, tangible realities. Life is governed by the interplay of these two counterbalancing “life forces”.
Agni is individualistic while Soma is pro-social . Agni is called for when one is operating from an individualistic ‘self-preservative' perspective, while it is Soma that is appropriate from a prosocial ‘species-preservative' perspective. The forces of Agni work towards individuality, intellectual process, separation and differentiation of self, while the psychic forces of Soma drive towards togetherness, feeling process, emotional bonding and union. Life is a balance between these two opposing forces. Each of the Agni energies is generally balanced by a corresponding Soma energy. One of the most fundamental features of the human condition is the struggle that arises out of the need to strike a balance between two basic urges: the drive toward being an individual, and the drive towards being together with others in relationship. Ideally these two tendencies are to be brought into a fulfilling balance.
Agni is based on a sense of self. It is focused on defending the individual from harm and securing resources necessary for survival. Agni helps in acquiring the resources and protects the same by its territorial and defensive nature. Soma is the complementary opposite of Agni and thus based on a more inclusive sense of self that merges boundaries. Put differently Soma extends our territory by merging boundaries. Soma allows for awareness of our interconnectedness. It is concerned with the welfare and needs of others, which at a systemic level influences the individual's welfare too. Full development of Soma includes the welfare of not only the family system or the species, but of all living beings, of the larger eco-system, of the entire planet. The Vedic/Yogic perspective takes Soma to its heights in envisioning the whole universe as one divine family ( vasudaiva kutumbam ).
Summary of ‘Agni-Soma' functioning
cognition and analysis
differentiation of self
exclusive sense of self
territorial and defensive
feeling and emotion
inclusive sense of self
Agni and Soma are two complementary aspects of consciousness. Yet Soma level of consciousness is somewhat different from Agni-consciousness which is ‘awakened discerning awareness'. On the other hand Soma characterizes an awareness that is ‘diffuse, merging and holding together'. Through the emotional awareness made possible by Soma the blazing current of Agni is altered and its seemingly harsh, intolerant brilliancy is diffused and softened. The razor sharp intellectual functioning and blazing insights provided by Agni alone would render life dry and insensate if not for the cool, sensate and nectarine, functioning of Soma. Ideally the full functioning of Soma brings into awareness unconditional kindliness, openness, compassion and joyful contentment. Thus Soma is yielding, receptive and nurturing and is the complementary opposite (not competing opposite) that counterbalances Agni .
Agni denotes intellectual competence while Soma denotes emotional competence. Agni symbolises who we are while Soma denotes how we relate to others. Soma functioning is not just love and union in the sense of intimate or romantic love, but is also love of beauty, art, music, and good food. Soma functioning awakens a sensate level of functioning as emotions are linked to the input from the senses, including sensuality and pleasures experienced through the senses. Through Soma we experience desire, longing, ecstasy, rapture and sexuality. Soma is the complementary opposite of Agni as Soma cravings are a reflection of needs and wants rather than a need to cognize or analyze something (the need to cognize or analyze is an Agni-based need just like intellectual functioning). In fact, our most powerful desires drive out judgment – try reasoning with anyone in love! Yet Soma energies are not merely the opposite of Agni's. They are not antagonistic. They are polar opposites, complementary opposites that balance each other and complete an experience, in its totality. Together agni and soma denote ideal differentiated play of the self. Yoga emphasizes equilibrium, the golden mean wherein opposites are counterbalanced.
A working model of ‘Agni-Soma' for application in the fields of psychology, leadership and management
There are four levels of ‘Agni-Soma'- the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, the social and the transpersonal levels. For each of these four levels, there are corresponding levels of functioning of both Agni and Soma as each one presupposes the other (much like the Chinese yin and yang ) . Thus there are eight functions of consciousness (four levels of Agni and four levels of Soma). Apart from these eight functions, there is an additional function that bridges both Agni and Soma functions. This additional ‘ biune ' function is both Agni and Soma functioning simultaneously and is of great significance in spiritual alchemy. It is represented by mercury in yogic alchemy (siddha yoga). ‘Biune Agni-Soma' is a balance between the complementary opposites of Agni and Soma.
Thus there are nine functions of Consciousness in the ‘Agni-Soma' model.
Bi-une ‘ Agni-Soma '
It should be borne in mind that the ‘interpersonal', ‘social' and ‘transpersonal' levels of functioning too have a common ‘intrapersonal' component at their core as all interaction involves the ‘self' and thereby the ‘intrapersonal'. Experientially speaking the ‘intrapersonal' is the foundational level on which the other levels of functioning rest.
Also keep in mind that the various levels are not hierarchical. They are merely various spheres of activity that we engage with. Thus all the dimensions or spheres are important for optimal functioning of an individual. No level is superior to the other though the intrapersonal level is the most significant level since other levels of functioning are also founded on the intrapersonal.
For most practical purposes the transpersonal level of ‘Agni-Soma' is not called into play unless one is seriously dealing with transcendental issues in spiritual life. The day to day applications of the ‘Agni-Soma' model for the fields of psychology, leadership and management fall within the following seven levels only. Hence only these levels of functioning will be detailed.
Biune ‘ Agni-Soma '
‘Agni-Soma' , Personality, Self-development and Behavioral change
Historically the meaning of the term ‘personality' has shifted from external illusion to surface reality and finally to opaque or veiled inner traits. In contemporary use the term ‘personality' is used in a sense that delves beneath surface impression to turn the spotlight on the inner, less often revealed, and hidden psychological qualities of the individual. “Today, personality is seen as a complex pattern of deeply embedded psychological characteristics that are expressed automatically in almost every area of psychological functioning” (Millon, 2004, p.2).
Personality is often confused with two related terms, character and temperament, which are not differentiated in casual usage. ‘C haracter' refers to characteristics acquired during our upbringing and connotes a degree of conformity to desirable social standards. On the other hand ‘t emperament' refers to a basic biological disposition toward certain behaviors. Thus character “represents the crystallized influence of nurture, and temperament represents the physically coded influence of nature” (Millon, 2004, p.3).
Psychoanalysis and ‘Agni-Someeyam'
At the outset an important clarification is in order. There are more than a few schools of yoga and each of them differs in its approach or conceptualization of the self (or non-self as in Madhyamika Buddhism ). Some conceptualizations are even constructivist in their approach. Even those schools that propose selfhood do not deal much with the psychological self in a western sense. The self that one generally encounters in the eastern spiritual schools is the ontological self rather than the psychological self. But that does not mean that the spiritual traditions lack an appreciation of normal psychological functioning. The psychological self is not the main object of interest in the spiritual schools.
In Yoga and other related systems the psychological self is referred to as ‘ manas ', meaning ‘mind'. The practices of Yoga clearly show an appreciation of the importance of basic ego strengths and of normal psychological functioning. The ‘Agni-Someeyam' model as developed by this author deals mostly with the psychological self ( manas ), not the ontological self ( atma ) since the model has been developed largely for application in the fields of psychology, leadership and management. However the transpersonal level of the ‘Agni-Someeyam' model deals with the ontological self (atma) too.
Classical Freudian psychoanalysis is grounded on id psychology and holds that instincts and intrapsychic conflicts are the basic factors shaping personality development-both normal and abnormal. Contemporary psychoanalytic thinking tends to be based on ego psychology, which does not deny the role of intrapsychic conflicts but does emphasize the striving of the ego for mastery and competence throughout the life span. More than Freud, it is Erickson and Jung whose ideas hold more relevance for the ‘Agni-Someeyam' model.
From Erickson's psychosocial perspective at each stage of life we face the task of establishing equilibrium between ourselves and our social world. Unlike Freud's psychosexual stages, Erickson's psychosocial stages remain throughout in life. He describes development in terms of the entire life span, divided by specific crises to be resolved. According to Erickson a crisis is equivalent to a turning point in life, when we have the potential to move forward or regress. At these turning points we can either resolve our conflicts or fail to master the developmental task. To a large extent, our life is the result of the choices we make at these stages. If these crises or developmental tasks are not mastered, this failure can provide difficulty when other developmental crises are encountered.
The overall approach of ‘Agni-Soma' is somewhat closer to such a psychosocial perspective than that of classical psychoanalysis. One of the key features of the ‘Agni-Soma' model too is its emphasis on balancing individual and social worlds. In the ‘Agni-Soma' model too each level or sphere of functioning has its own developmental tasks to be mastered. A failure to do so will result in a failure of integration of the functions of that level or dimension of consciousness, which will pose problems in that area of life.
The other perspective that comes close to the overall approach of ‘Agni-Someeyam' is that of Jung's Analytical psychology . Jung, who could no longer collaborate with Freud, subsequently developed a spiritual approach that places great emphasis on being impelled to find meaning in life in contrast to being driven by the psychological and biological forces described by Freud. Jung maintains that humans are not merely shaped by past events but that they also progress beyond their past. Part of the nature of humans is to be constantly developing, growing, and moving toward a balanced and complete level of development.
For Jung, our present personality is determined both by who and what we have been and also by the person we hope to become. The process of self-actualization is oriented toward the future. His theory is based on the assumption that humans tend to move toward fulfillment or realization of all of their capabilities. We have both constructive and destructive forces within the psyche, and to become integrated, it is essential to accept the dark side of our nature too with its primitive impulses such as selfishness and greed. Acceptance of this dark side (shadow) does not imply being dominated by this dimension of our being but simply recognizing that this is a part of our nature.
The struggle between the constructive and destructive forces within the psyche is symbolized in sacred myth as the conflict between the gods and demons. Yoga affirms that the goal is to let the spiritual nature prevail, maintaining that each soul is potentially divine and that the goal is to manifest it. However this alone is not the only goal of human life as affirmed by the Vedic/Yogic schools, as there are other legitimate goals such as pursuing prosperity (artha), and fulfilling other desire (kama) too, though the ultimate goal is spiritual fulfillment.
Yoga as an ongoing process of attaining equilibrium
If there is one key word that summarizes the process of Samkhya-Yoga in general, more specifically ‘ Agni-Someeyam' , it would be ‘samatwam' or “equilibrium” (‘ samatwam yoga uchyate') . Samatwam is ‘equanimity' or a stable balanced position between opposites or extremes. Thus the goal is the ‘golden mean' between opposites or extremes. In life one is faced with the task of establishing or attaining equilibrium between the forces of Agni and Soma.
The ancient Samkhyan strikes a modern note while postulating that all evolution starts from the disturbance of an original state of equilibrium ( saamyaavastha ), wherein all gunas are balanced. As per ‘Samkhya-Yoga' even nature is forever in the process of attaining equilibrium between various forces. Man being part of Nature, he too is part of this play of opposites, of attaining or maintaining equilibrium between various forces, some competing and some complementary. Thus one is faced with the task of attaining equilibrium between the individual self and the social self, individual consciousness and cosmic consciousness, intellect and feeling, harsh discipline and total lack of discipline, overindulgence and total abstinence, and so on.
The various levels of Agni and Soma functioning are never static in life. Life is a continuous process of balancing these complementary processes. At all levels the gradual refinement of various levels of corresponding agni-soma functions is an ongoing process throughout life. Generally speaking optimally we complete one basic cycle by the time we reach adulthood and form our own family. For some people this happens earlier than others. We recycle through the associated developmental tasks throughout life unraveling more subtle levels of functioning with each cycle or revisiting tasks of the relevant level that we had not integrated properly in an earlier cycle.
Parents usually cycle in parallel with children (by virtue of interrelated lives). For instance if one has not learnt to handle boundary issues properly while growing up in one's own family of origin, invariably he/she will face boundaries issues again when his/her own children start growing up. As stated earlier at all levels the gradual refinement of various levels of corresponding agni-soma functions is an ongoing process throughout life, whether one is a child or an adult, whether one is in love or at work, whether one is into the mundane or into the spiritual. As long as one is alive the counterbalancing forces of ‘Agni-Soma' are ever at play.
Key developmental tasks for various levels of ‘Agni-Soma' functioning
Each level of functioning can be associated with a key developmental task as outlined below. Generally the corresponding developmental tasks of agni and soma for each level counterbalance each other as one would anticipate.
Personality types and Behavioural styles in Yoga and Ayurveda
The Yoga perspective on personality is somewhat similar to Jung's perspective in that both consider that part of the nature of humans is to be constantly developing, growing, and moving toward a balanced and complete level of development. Hence our present personality is determined both by who and what we have been and also by the person we hope to become. In other words humans are not merely shaped by past events but that they also progress beyond their past. So where does ‘personality type' fit in ‘Agni-Someeyam' ?
Though the ‘agni-soma' model can lend itself to a typological approach, strictly speaking, Yoga does not lay emphasis on personality typing. Yoga is more process oriented than trait or type oriented. Yet it is possible to identify some systems of personality or behavioural typing within the Vedic/Yogic framework. There are various methods that classify people based on threefold, fivefold, sevenfold and nine fold approaches. Most famous among these is the threefold typology. There are at least two methods of a threefold classification of temperaments. One is the Samkhya-Yoga classification based on the trigunas , while the other is the Ayurvedic classification based on the tridoshas .
The Ayurvedic concept of the three doshas is an alternative theory that had gained precedence in later times. In the ‘Tridosha' model a third force called ‘Vayu' (wind) is also taken into account apart from Agni and Soma , thus leading to three forces. As one would anticipate these three systemic forces have their individual equivalents within the mind-body too: the three humours- Vata, Pitta and Kapha . Here too health is a state of equilibrium between the three humours. Ill-health is the result of disequilibrium. However the main difference between the ‘tridosha' and the ‘agni-someeyam' schools of medicine is that the ‘agni-someeyam' school of thought maintains that there are only two main counterbalancing forces- agni and soma . Vayu is merely treated as a yogavahi or aggravating force, not a causal force.
Another noteworthy point is the meaning of the term ‘dosha' . ‘ Dosha ' literally means, ‘that which darkens or spoils'. The tridoshas are also the causative factors for illness or abnormality as much as they are representative of healthy states too. The three humors ( tridoshas ) which are in balance in a healthy individual become causative forces in the disease process when the balance is disturbed. Similarly the functioning of ‘Agni' and ‘Soma' too has two sides to it. Optimally Agni and Soma are counterbalanced. This leads to healthy or optimal behavior. When the balance of Agni-Soma is lost at a particular level, the imbalance could result in problems in one's cognitive-emotional behavioural style. But in the first place how does one come to have a characteristic cognitive-emotional behavioural style? How are these behavioural styles related to personality?
The various levels of ‘ Agni-Soma' functioning as ‘fixations' resulting in personality types or behavioural styles
Personality types or rather behavioural styles can be regarded as ‘fixations' upon one of the seven or nine levels of ‘ Agni-Soma' functioning. The ‘fixations', are a result of a ‘self-image' around which the psychological personality develops. The ‘self-image' in turn is based on certain predominant schemas which introduce a systematic bias into information processing. T he ‘self-image' gets more fixated by identifying more with a particular way of functioning which then becomes a behavioural pattern.
Generally speaking while we complete one basic cycle by the time we reach adulthood, most of us get fixated at one level more than the other levels. It is also possible that we could be fixated at more than one level, with varying degrees of fixation at each level. Getting fixated at one of these levels of functioning means getting fixated emotionally (soma), cognitively (agni) and behaviourally (‘agni-soma'), since emotion, cognition and behavior go hand in hand. So the consequent behaviour is repeated habitually. Over a period of time this results in a pattern of deeply embedded psychological characteristics that are expressed automatically in almost every area of functioning. The particular pattern can be regarded as a personality type if one wishes to approach it that way. From a typological point of view, there are two general types- Agni and Soma . Then there are the seven or nine specific subtypes if one wishes to use them as types or subtypes.
While there may be nothing wrong in having a particular level of functioning as a behavioural style or type as long as it is well integrated, the problem quite often is that people generally get stuck with the un-integrated aspects of the type or behavioural style that their consciousness is fixated upon under the influence of the predominant schemas. Quite often it is possible to easily identify the un-integrated level of functioning since the behavioural pattern itself is self-evident to some extent. The lesser obvious pattern however, is that if one is developmentally stuck with a particular level of agni functioning, the corresponding level of soma functioning also gets stuck to a considerable extent, and vice versa. Thus the dominant aspect of ‘ agni-soma' for that level is more obvious while the other is less obvious. It takes more insight to bring the lesser obvious side of the agni-soma level at which one is stuck. It is also possible to share the weaknesses of the other levels of functioning within the general type. Thus un-integrated intrapersonal agni and un-integrated interpersonal agni will both share some similarities though careful exploration will reveal the exact level of agni where the problem is.
The various levels of ‘Agni-Soma' functioning as groups of competencies or skills that can be mastered with practice
While admitting that the ‘agni-soma' model can lend itself to a typological approach, sufficient emphasis has to be laid that yoga is more process oriented than trait or type oriented. Except for psychologically or emotionally disordered people, for the vast majority it is useful to approach the seven levels as competencies or skills that one needs to develop for a more fulfilling life. One of the awareness building exercises can include inventories of the seven areas of competencies that can be useful in assessing oneself (this author has developed two versions of ‘ agni-soma' inventories, one for leadership and management purposes and another for general use).
One thing that was originally common to all the four great systems ( Samkhya-Yoga, Jaina and Buddhist ) is that they were uncompromisingly pragmatic and that there was a heavy (if not absolute) reliance on human effort ( purushardha ). Most schools of yoga (especially Vedantic, Buddhist and Patanjali yoga) favour the view that individuals can change over a period of time. The basic premise of some schools of yoga especially advaitic/vedantic, is that ignorance or attributional bias is the source of most problems. Change in one's predominant schema, or removal of the corresponding klesa ( attributional affliction ) , can result in behavioral change, though this is not easy.
Insight, awareness, repeated efforts and continuous practice ( abhyasa ) can achieve the desired behavioural change. After repeated efforts the desired behavioural change comes effortlessly. Yet to reach such a state of effortless awareness requires lot of practice. Abhyasa is the continuous practice of coaching the self towards the desired goal, whether spiritual or mundane. While acknowledging certain practical limitations imposed by nature, genetics etc the ‘ Agni-Soma ' model of behavioural change, as developed by this author, maintains that change is possible to a reasonable extent. Beyond a certain level behavioural change is still possible though it requires committed efforts and in-depth work on the predominant schemas.
In conclusion a few observations can be made. Although Yoga shares parts of Jungian and Psychosocial approaches too in its overall view, at a process level the change strategies of Yoga (and to some extent the techniques too) overlap so much with Cognitive Behaviour therapy that if Yoga had to align itself with only one major contemporary school of individual psychotherapy, it would be cognitive-behaviour therapy. Apart from these schools of thought, specifically the ‘Agni-Soma' concept itself shares common ground with Bowen Family Systems Theory too in its initial conceptualization of life as a balance between the counterbalancing forces of intellect and emotion. Please refer the article “Emotions and Anxiety, Family Systems and Brain functioning: A natural systems theory of human behavior” by this author for more on Bowen theory. The various levels of ‘Agni-Soma' functioning and the techniques used for behavioural change within the framework of ‘ Agni-Soma' model have been elaborated in other articles by the same author.