Aspects of Vedic Ritual or Sacrifice

Yajna, a Vedic sacrifice

by Jayaram V

A ritual is something that you do in a particular order according to a pattern, convention or established procedure. A sacrifice is an act of giving with or without an intention or expectation. The idea of sacrifice is inherent to most religions, but in Hinduism it has a special significance. Yajna or Sacrificial ritual (or ritual sacrifice) is the oldest continuing practice of Hinduism and constitutes the core of its ritual and spiritual dimensions. Its essential purpose is to make a devotional offering as a sacred duty and an obligation towards God and his creation.

The history of ritual sacrifices in Hinduism dates back to the Vedic period when the so called Vedic people or Indo Aryans started a Civilization on the banks of the River Saraswathi thousands of years ago. The Vedas are essentially books of revelations which deal with the ritual and spiritual aspects of sacrifices and obligatory duties, collectively known as Dharma. Since the knowledge of the ritual sacrifices comes to us directly from God through Brahma, the Dharma associated with them is also considered eternal. Hence, Hinduism is also known as the eternal religion and goes by the name the eternal Dharma (Sanatana Dharma).

The purpose of ritual sacrifice

Vedic sacrifices are performed for various purposes. Their highest purpose is to establish communion with the gods in heaven and seek their help in ensuring the order and regularity, peace and happiness upon earth. The most common purpose is to please them and obtain their help to fulfill one’s desires and achieve the four aims of human life namely to perform obligatory duties (dharma), to earn wealth (artha), to enjoy sexual pleasure for the sake of progeny (kama) and attain liberation (moksha).

Vedic sacrifices are not mere supplications to achieve personal or worldly ends. There is also a service aspect to them, which makes them part of an obligatory, mutual covenant with gods. The gods are made with such power that they may move the earth and heaven and grant boons. They can cause or prevent rains, floods, earthquakes and other natural calamities or heal sickness and injury. However, unfortunately they cannot make their own food or live by themselves. They invariably need humans for food and nourishment. Hence, it makes them the ideal partners of gods with a mutually beneficial relationship.

However, as part of the Dharma, the scriptures exhort humans not to look to gods as mere givers of rewarding gifts or the means to their selfish ends. The purpose of the sacrifice is to cultivate discipline and elevate the mind to the heavens to follow the example of God himself in upholding the eternal Dharma. As the Apastamba Sutras declare, the essential purpose of the yajna is not merely to exchange gifts. It is a sacred duty, which rests upon the authority of the texts. Its highest purpose is to attain liberation. The gifts are less important.

Aspects of the Vedic sacrifice

Vedic people practiced different types of sacrifices, some as part of their domestic services and some in the general interests of the people or a kingdom. More complex Vedic rituals such as the Vajapeya and Asvamedha were performed in stages and had many layers. Most of them are no more practiced. In its simplest form, each standard Vedic ritual or sacrifice has the following components: intention, sacrificer, sacrificed, object of sacrifice, altar or the sacrificial pit, sacrificial fire, utensils used for the ritual, officiating priests (Brahmana), hymns, songs and prayers, the remains of the sacrifice, and gifts (dakshina). In the following discussion, we examine in some detail each of the components or aspects of the Vedic rituals or sacrifices.

Intention

Every Vedic sacrifice has a purpose, which is either expressed or implied. One of the commonest purpose is to overcome some problem or fulfill a desire by seeking the help of gods in return for the offerings made and the devotion expressed. Because Vedic sacrifices were initially performed with desires, they collectively represented karmakanda or the body of desire-ridden actions, which produced either positive or negative karma, depending upon which type of sacrifices were performed and with what intent.

The sacrificer

Each sacrifice has a host of the sacrifice (yajaman), who bears the expenses for the sacrifice and for whom the sacrifice is performed. As the sacrificer or the source of the sacrifice he steps into the shoes of God and acts as his true representative upon earth in upholding Dharma. He may be a householder, a king, a wealthy person, or a person of repute in society. In Vedic tradition, certain people are excluded from acting as hosts such as women in general, students and unmarried men, widows, outcasts, renunciants, people who do not belong to Hinduism and those who are mentally unsteady. The host of the sacrifice may perform the sacrifice on his own, acting as the priest or with the help of one or more priests, according to the situation and the complexity of the ritual. In some instances, the host may not be a person, but a group or an institution, in which case the sacrifice will be hosted by a person chosen by the group or the organization.

The sacrificed

The various materials poured or thrown into the sacrifice constitute the offering or the sacrificed material. Various types liquids and solids are used in Vedic sacrifices as offerings such as food grains, pulses, cooked food, oil, clarified butter, nuts, fruit, water, curd, milk, leaves of certain trees, Soma juice, honey, plants and animals, gold and silver, aromatic substances, specific types of wood, cow dung, and so on. The offerings are either poured or dropped into the fire or given to the priests to the accompaniment of mantras, hymnal songs and prayers from the Vedas. The offerings may also vary from deity to deity according to their likes and dislikes and known temperament.

The object of the sacrifice

The recipients of the offerings or the divinities to whom the offerings are made constitute the object of the sacrifice. In a standard Vedic sacrifice, the primary recipient of all the sacrificial offerings is Agni, the fire god, who is represented by the sacrificial fire. The ultimate recipient of them is Brahman, the Supreme Being, himself. Agni receives the offerings on behalf of all the gods and distributes them to the gods in heaven according to their due share. The gods who are most frequently invoked in the Vedas are Indra, Agni, Vayu, Soma, Varuna, Mitra, Aditya, Aditi, Prajapati, Pasupati, Pusan, Usha, Saraswathi, Brihaspati, Asvins, Visvadevas, Maruts, Rudras, Atharvan and Yama. In modern times, people also make offerings to Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti.

The sacrificial pit

The sacrifice is performed, using a sacrificial altar or pit, which is built specially for the purpose. In recent times, they are also performed using brass or steel utensils or clay pots, but in ancient times the sacrificial altar (homa kunda or yajna kunda) was the standard. Vedic householders used the altars which they kept in their houses to keep the domestic fires to perform simple forms of sacrifices such as the domestic sacrifices or full moon and the half-moon sacrifices. However, complex sacrifices required the assistance of qualified priests to build altars in different sizes and shapes according to strict geometric patterns. They followed strict rules to sanctify the place and lay the bricks according to the mystic formulae that were specified in the scriptures. In some cases, the construction of the altars took several weeks or months, as they had to be built in stages according to the season and the time of the year and had to be consecrated with ritual chants and prayers at the right time before they were fit for the rituals.

The sacrificial fire

The sacrifice is performed by ritually kindling the sacrificial fire in the sacrificial pit in the altar. In the past, the ritual fire for the sacrifice was taken from a domestic fire which was kept in the house of the host. Where domestic fire was unusable or unavailable, it was established afresh, using friction or borrowing it from the house of a reputed person. Although fire is a purifier and a divinity, it is still necessary to use only consecrated fire for the sacrifice, which has to be blemishless and pure as the fire in the Sun. Since Agni has numerous pure and impure forms and serves different purposes in our lives, care has to be taken to ensure that only sanctified, ritual fire (yagagni) is used in the sacrifice.

Utensils

Depending upon the nature of sacrifice, different types of objects and utensils are used to conduct the sacrifice. Important utensils which are used in the Vedic sacrifices included spoons and ladles of different sizes which are to be made of specific wood. Other utensils include wooden, metal or clay cups of different sizes and shapes, Soma presses for extracting Soma Juice, wooden posts to tie the animal victims, knives or swords for animal sacrifices, axes for cutting sacrificial wood, darbha grass to sprinkle water or prepare beds to place certain sanctified objects, different types of leaves to place food or offerings, consecrated water from a well, river or a sacred water body, cloth for cleaning and so on. Due to the changing nature of the Vedic sacrifices, some of these items are no more used.

Officiating priests

Simple domestic sacrifices are performed by householders and family members in the presence of friends and family. However, many Vedic sacrifices invariably require the assistance of one or more trained and qualified priests to conduct them. In Vedic times, different classes of priests who specialized in specific aspects of the sacrifice participated them to ensure their success. Each sacrifice had a chief priest, who was assisted by different classes of associate priests. Some of them took care of the duty of building the altar. Some determined the auspicious occasions to perform the various stages of the sacrifice and supervise the arrangements. Some specialized in uttering or singing the mantras and Samans, while some took care of the post ritual operations. A priest, known as the Brahman priest, supervised the sacrifice as the silent witness by remaining in the background and performed expiation ceremonies in the end to take care of any mistakes and lapses that might have happened during the sacrifice.

Ritual songs and prayers

If sacrifices are central to Vedism, hymns from the Vedas are central to a Vedic sacrifice. Traditionally, only Vedic hymns are used in the performance of Vedic sacrifices. They begin with them and end with them. The most common hymns which are used in the sacrifice are the Riks, Samans and Yajus from the Rigveda, the Samaveda and the Yajurveda respectively. Each sacrifice has a beginning, a middle, and an end part during which the priests sing introductory Samans (Prastava), uplifting Samans (Udgita) and closing Samans (Pratihara) to express their devotion to gods and invite them to accept the offerings. In the end, the chief priest or the Brahman priest also performs an expiatory ceremony chanting mantras to rectify any errors that might have happened during the sacrifice.

Remains of the sacrifice

At the end of the sacrifice, it is customary for the priests and the host of the sacrifice to partake the remains of the sacrifice, which is usually the food served to the gods. In the Soma sacrifice, it is either the Soma juice or the Sura (which was given to the kings rather than Soma). In animal sacrifices, it is the animal food which was shared by the host of the sacrifice, the priests and the invited guests. During the Vedic period, only men of higher castes, especially the Brahmanas, had a right to share the remains of the sacrifice. Other castes were not even allowed to witness them. In complex rituals, different types of sacrificial food were served to the participants according to their role, status and importance. Women who were desirous of offspring were allowed to partake certain types of sacrificial food according to the type of progeny they desired. Young students under the oath of celibacy were not allowed to eat sacrificial food.

Gifts (dakshina)

Exchange of gifts is an important component of the Vedic sacrifice. In Vedic times kings and wealthy people conferred lavish gifts upon the priests in return for their services and rewarded them with hundreds of cows, land grants, servants and so on. The practice of rewarding the priests still continues, although not on the same scale. The gifts that were used in the sacrifices fall into four categories. They are, the gifts offered to gods, the gifts given to the priests, the blessings conferred upon the worshippers by the priests and finally, the gifts received from the gods in return for the services rendered to them. Although in practice the exchange of gifts is the primary purpose of the sacrifice, the scriptures caution the people not to place too much emphasis upon gift giving or receiving as desire-ridden actions lead to karma and bondage. Vedic people performed sacrifices for peace, happiness, wealth, rains, good harvest, healing and protection. They also used them to cast spells, destroy enemies, cure possessions, prevent calamities, attract the opposite sex, clear karmic debt, express devotion, obtain children, cleanse sins, ward off evil and so on.

Conclusion

It is important to remember that in the Vedic period the sacrifices were used both for positive and negative purposes. Certain sacrifices were meant to cast spells and destroy enemies and lovers, while some were used to heal and restore health or obtain riches, peace, name and fame. At the core of the sacrifice was the desire, which produced karma. Although the Vedas proclaim that selfish actions constitute evil, the element of selfishness could not be ruled out from the sacrifices. Therefore, in the Upanishads we can see a gradual shift from ritualism to spiritualism and the idea of selfless duty as the basis for liberation, peace and happiness.

Share This


Suggestions for Further Reading