Symbolism of Vedic Rituals or Sacrifices

Yajna - The Ritual Symbolism

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is about the symbolic significance of Yajna, the Vedic rituals and how the idea or the basic framework of the Vedic sacrifice is hidden in various aspects of creation and existence.


The idea of sacrifice is central to Hindu ritual and spiritual practices. Although Vedism began with a clear emphasis upon rituals, it gradually developed a spiritual aspect of it, as is evident from the development of the Upanishadic philosophy, which increasingly integrated the framework of the sacrifice into every aspect of Vedic beliefs and practices.

In formulating and explaining their teachings and findings about the truths of existence, the Vedic seers used the ritual model to formulate their theories. The result was an extensive growth of Vedic philosophies, with the ritual framework as the hidden model to explain the mysteries of creation. The Mimansa school went a step further and presented the Vedic sacrifice as the source of all creation, avoiding any reference to God.

In the early Vedic religion, rituals were the only means to achieve the four aims of human life. The emphasis was mainly upon the ritual knowledge as contained in the Samhitas and the Brahmanas. People performed the rituals to nourish the gods and ancestors who depended upon them for the sacrificial offerings. The Vedas suggest that although the gods stand above humans in the hierarchy of God's creation he made them to invariably depend upon humans for food and nourishment. It created balance between the two and enforced mutual dependence and cooperation.

However, with the growth of contemplative practices and asceticism, overtime the focus shifted from the outer to the inner aspects of life and from worldly life to spiritual life. While rituals continued to play an important role in the lives of householders, in the later stages of their lives they turned their attention to the internal rituals to escape from the cycle of births and deaths. They withdrew from life and practiced internal rituals of breath control, self-purification, austerities, yoga, contemplation and self-absorption to stabilize the mind in God.

Symbolism of Vedic Sacrifice

Although outwardly sacrificial rituals may look like mechanical or even superstitious acts of worship, they have hidden symbolism and represent various aspects of human life. Any action in which there is a giver, a receiver and an object of giving qualifies as a sacrifice. Sacrifice implies absence of selfishness. It is an act in which you give something out of love or devotion with or without expectations. Its religious or spiritual value greatly diminishes when you bring selfishness into it.

For example, when you help your child grow into an adult, you are engaging in an act of sacrifice. When you help someone with money, food, shelter or support, you are performing a sacrificial act. When you fight for your country, you are sacrificing your safety and security for the sake of your nation. However, what happens when you sacrifice something in the expectation of something, when you become both the offerer and the receiver or when you receive something without offering anything in return? What happens when you take credit for another’s work or try claim what does not belong to you?

 It is where the moral dimension of the sacrifice arises and the idea of karma becomes pertinent. The Vedic seers realized such a problem. Hence, they declared that all rituals which were solely performed for selfish reasons were evil and would lead to bondage and suffering, and the knowledge associated with them constituted lower knowledge or ignorance. A sacrifice is elevated as a spiritual action only when it is a true a sacrifice and performed as a service to gods or God.

In Hinduism, the idea of sacrifice is extended to include not only actions but also other related aspects. A sacrificial ritual is not a mere act of exchange or reciprocity. There are many aspects to it. It is essentially a structured process, which had been developed and perfected by Vedic people to ensure their welfare and that of the world. They built a whole culture and religion around it and made it central to their religious and spiritual practice. Some rituals are so elaborate that it takes months and years to complete them, and only the wealthiest can bear the costs.

To understand the symbolism of the Vedic sacrifice, we need to know its essential aspects. A standard Vedic ritual or sacrifice has the following main components: intention, sacrificer who is also known as the host (Yajamana), sacrificed or the offerings, the object of sacrifice which is either God or a group of gods, the altar or sacrificial pit, sacrificial fire, utensils used for the ritual, officiating priests (Brahmana), Vedic hymns, songs and prayers, the remains of the sacrifice, and gifts (dakshina) to the participants. In the following discussion we will focus upon the symbolism of Vedic sacrifices and how the ritual model was internalized and integrated into Vedic beliefs and practices and into various aspects of our very lives and personalities.

God

God has both the manifested and unmanifested aspects. The Manifested God (Saguna Brahman) arises from himself as the fruit of his own sacrifice. As the creator, preserver and destroyer he becomes the living, breathing, and burning eternal sacrifice in the sacrificial pit of his own creation. The Vedas declare that God is the sacrificer, the sacrificed and the object of sacrifice. In him innumerable sacrificial fires burn continuously, which appear to us as the sun, the moon, and all the illuminated objects in the universe. The same fires illuminate the gross worlds and burn in the subtle words as the illuminating intelligence. They burn in our eyes, ears and other senses. They are God’s domestic fires and his immense energies. Using them, he simultaneously performs innumerable sacrifices to create, uphold and destroy countless worlds and beings. The idea is well expressed in the Bhagavadgita (9.16) when Lord Krishna declares, “I am kratu (intention), I am yajna (sacrifice), I am svadha (the offering or oblation), I am medicine, I am the sacred chant (mantra), I am the sacred fuel (ajyam), I am Agni (fire), and I am the burnt offering (hutam).”

Creation

Creation is perceived in Hinduism as an act of sacrifice, in which God acts as the sacrificer and the sacrificed. The Creation Hymn suggests that in the beginning of Creation God performed a great sacrifice with the help of ancient gods, using parts of his own body to produce worlds and beings. The sacrifice, however, does not end with creation. It continues until the end of the time cycle. Since he is without a second, he has to sacrifice parts of himself to preserve the worlds and beings and ensure their order and regularity. In that sacrifice, his vigor (tapah) becomes the sacrificial fire. His intention to project the worlds and beings becomes the purpose of the sacrifice. Nature acts as the field or the sacrificial pit, in which he pours his own finite realities (tattvas) and pure consciousness (souls) as the offerings. He also presides over it as the host and the high priest. Gods become the attendant priests. The words and beings, which emerge out of it, are the fruit of that sacrifice. Upon their creation, they participate in the sacrifice as his devoted servants. Maya is the spell which he casts as the priest. It arises from the sacrifice as smoke and envelops all. Finally, as the god of Death he devours the fruit his own sacrifice as its ultimate recipient and enjoyer. Since he is without desires and performs his actions with detachment, he does not incur sin even if he enjoys the fruit of his own sacrifice.

World

You can see the model of sacrifice hidden in the framework of the world too. The world receives and gives numerous things. It binds us to the sense objects through attachments and creates opportunities for our success, happiness, peace, and liberation. The world is an ongoing sacrifice, in which the earth is the sacrificial altar. It is also host to innumerable other sacrifices, which simultaneously take place in its domain. It is ruled by Kala, the Lord of Death, who devours everything as his food. He also acts as the host and the high priest in the sacrifice of the world. Since the creation of the world, he has been engaged in a huge, animal, human, material sacrifice in which he repeatedly sacrifices all objects and life forms as the sacrificial food, after tying them to the post of births and deaths with the rope of attachments.

As the destroyer, he also devours the offerings as its ultimate recipient. Hence, the world is perceived in the scriptures as a sacrificial place in which Brahman performs sacrifices every day, with Himself acting as the upholder (yajna bhrta), the Priest, the offering and the offered. He is the source of all sacrifices (karmic actions) and sacrificial food (energy). He is also the, yajna bhokta, the ultimate recipient of all offerings and resultant consequences of our actions, unless we want to withhold them and claim ownership, in which case we accept the responsibility and suffer from their consequences.

Body

Just as the world is a sacrificial pit, the body is also a field of sacrifice, in which the Self acts as the host and the ego as the cohost. Intelligence acts as the Brahman priest. The speech and the knowledge of the Vedas represent the chants and the Samans which are sung or uttered during the sacrifice. The organs of perception and action act as the gods in heaven. The fire in the body (antaragni) becomes the sacrificial fire. The food one eats become the sacrificial food. Breath acts as the chief priest who supervises the dropping of food and water as offerings and oblations into the fire that burns in the body, especially as the digestive fire in the stomach. All the sensory pleasures which a person enjoys and experiences in the objective world become the secondary offerings. The gods in the body become the recipients of the sacrifice, while the Self is the ultimate enjoyer. The Pranagnihotra Upanishad (22) describes the human body as a temple and draws the following parallels between the various parts of the human body and a Vedic fire sacrifice (Agnihotra).

“In the bodily sacrifice, unadorned by the cord round the sacrificial post, the sacrificer is the self; (his) wife is the intellect. The great officiating priests are the Vedas. The ego is the Adhavaryu. The mind-stuff is the invoking priest. Prana is the assistant of the chief priest; Apana is the assistant of the Adhavaryu. Vyana is the first chanter. Udana is the loud Sama singer. Samana is the assistant of Hotir. The body is the altar. The nose is the interior of the altar. The crest is the wooden container. The foot is the chariot. The right hand is the ladle. The left hand is the container of the ghee. The ears are the two ghee offerings. The eyes are the two parts of the ghee. The neck is the libation. The Tanmatras are the assistant of the Brahma Priest. The great elements are the attendants. Gunas are the supplementary offerings. The tongue is the final sacrifices. Teeth and lips are the middle libation. The palate is the hymn-recitation. Memory is the Samyorvaka formula. Compassion, forbearance, non-violence are the four Ajya oblations (to Soma, etc.). Om is the sacrificial post. Desire is the cord. Mind is the chariot. Lust is the sacrificial animal. The hair is the Darbha grass. The sense organs are the sacrificial vessels. The organs of action are the oblations. Non-violence is the Ishtis. Renunciation is the sacrificial fee. The post-sacrificial bath (follows) from death. In this body are stationed all the divinities.

Birth

The idea of domestic sacrifice is present in the birth of beings, in which the male acts as the host of sacrifice, the female as the sacrificial pit, desire as the sacrificial fire, speech as the chant, the semen and the sexual pleasure as the offerings and the fetus as the fruit of the sacrifice. Gods (senses and organs) participate in it as the witnesses and recipients of the offerings, While God (Kala) acts as the ultimate recipient. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (6:5) 1 dedicates a whole chapter to the idea of the sexual act as a sacrifice and explains how a person is born through the sacrifice of sexual union in which both the husband and wife participate as the hosts of the sacrifice, with gods as the witness and the sexual pleasure arising from it as the offering to them. The child who is born from that union is the fruit of that sacrifice. The same idea is repeated in the Chandogya Upanishad (5.8.1-2) also. The birth of a being is the result of a sacrifice, and in turn it sets in motion another sacrifice, the sacrifice of life.

Rebirth or the return of the soul

There are three aspects to a sacrificial ritual, the introductory (Prastava), the middle part (Udgita) and the closing part (Pratihara). The first part consists of the departure of the soul from the body along with the breaths to the mid-region (stratosphere). The second part consists of the soul’s journey to the ancestral world, where it remains until its karma is resolved. In the third phase he returns to the earth through the falling rains to take another birth. The three parts represent the three parts of the sacrifice of rebirth and the expiation is done by him when he is born upon earth and tries to resolve the problem of karma.

In the sacrifice of rebirth the progeny of the departed soul, his spouse or his descendants act as hosts and cohosts. The Brahmanas who perform the funeral rites are the priests of the sacrifice. The Self is the Brahmana priest who remains in the background without being effected by any of the happenings. The earth is the sacrificial altar. The funeral pyre is the sacrificial fire, and later the light from the Sun and the moon. Karma, latent impressions, predominant desires and the casual body constitute the sacrificial food. The gods act as the recipients of the sacrificial offerings, as they consume the astral bodies of the souls. During their return to the earth, lightning serves as the sparks from the fire, thunder serves as the closing chant (Pratihara) and water as the oblation. Then, the father and the mother become the cohosts as the returning soul enters their bodies through food and sexual union respectively. Their actions during the pregnancy become further offerings. Birth and bondage arise from it as the fruit of the sacrifice of rebirth.

Life

We have seen that life is the result of a series of sacrifices (actions) which were performed in previous lives. Karma is their ultimate fruit, which becomes part of the offering in each subsequent birth. It becomes one of the offerings for the sacrifice of this life also. The Chandogya Upanishad declares that Purusha is the sacrifice. The first 24 years of his life is the morning offering. So Gayatri goes in the morning. The next 44 years constitute the mid-day offering. Tristubh goes with the mid-day offering, which should be made to the Rudras. The next 48 years constitute the third daily offering during which one should sing Jatati and offer prayers to the Adityas.

In the sacrifice of life, the being (Jiva) is the host of the sacrifice. In that sacrifice of life, not one but many altars are lit. Nature, his own mind and body and the whole world become the sacrificial pits. His speech becomes the Samans and chants. The gods, who exist within us and in the creation become the recipients. Life (Prana) acts as the sacrificial fire. In that fire the being pours all his desires, actions, attachments, thoughts, emotions, feeling and perceptions as the offerings. If they are offered with selfish intentions with the desire to enjoy the fruit of his actions, the being incurs sin. However, if he offers them to the gods in heaven and to the highest God in the immortal world, without any expectations or desire for the fruit, he attains liberation. According to the beliefs of Hinduism one should perform even the most mundane actions such as eating, sleeping, walking, breathing or thinking individually become acts of sacrifice and collectively sacrificial offerings. To escape from karma and rebirth, one should perform them for the sake of God as a service and an offering to him.

Death

According to the Vedas, Death is the final sacrifice (antyeshti) in the life of an individual. For the same reason, Hindus cremate the dead and offer the bodies to the god of fire (Agni). In the sacrifice of death, the son of the deceased is the host, the Brahmana who performs the funeral rite is the chief priest, the funeral pyre where he is laid is the sacrificial altar, the fire that arises from the pyre when it is lit is the sacrificial fire, and the body along with the oblations and other materials which are poured into the fire constitute the offering. The gods are the recipients of the final sacrifice. The ashes are the remains of the sacrifice, and the soul with the casual body (karma bhutam) is the fruit of the sacrifice.

In Hinduism both life and death are viewed as sacrifices only. Their ultimate fruit is liberation, which comes at the end of many lives (sacrifices) as the accumulated merit. The idea is well expressed in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which compares death to a sacrifice in the following words.

“They carry him as an offering to fire. That fire becomes his fire, the fuel his fuel, the smoke his smoke, the flame his flame, the coals his coals, and the sparks his sparks. In this fire the gods pour the person as the oblation. Out of that offering manifests a person of radiant color.”

Meditation

Meditation is a mental sacrifice, in which the idea of sacrifice is elevated to an altogether new level and reveals its true purpose. In meditation, the meditator becomes the host. The mind becomes the altar. Intelligence becomes the high priest. Breath becomes the secondary priest. Knowledge becomes Riks, Samans and Yajus. Consciousness (citta) becomes the sacrificial fire. Thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings and desires become the offerings. Virtues become the oblations. The organs of the body act as the attendants of the sacrifice. Faith becomes the sacrificial post. Habits and latent impressions serve as the remains of the sacrifice. The senses become the divinities, to whom the offerings are made. Peace and happiness arise from it as the rewards. The ultimate recipient of the sacrifice of meditation is the Witness Self. If the rewards or the results which arise from the mental sacrifice are offered to God, the person becomes free. Otherwise, he becomes bound and his mind remains distracted and disturbed.

Yoga

Yoga is but an internalized form of sacrificial ritual only, in which yogis use their minds and bodies as sacrificial altar and their possessions, knowledge and energies as the offerings. Although it may look far-fetched, the idea of Yajna permeates the whole of Yoga. Yajna (sacrifice) is the basis of Yoga (union). Just as there are numerous sacrifices depending upon which offerings are made, there are different types of yoga, depending upon which methods and approaches are used. Karma yoga is essentially an internalized sacrificial ritual in which desireless actions are offered to God in the sacrifice of life without desiring the fruit of such actions.

The Ashtanga (Classical) Yoga of Patanjali is a holistic sacrifice in which eight types of different offerings are made to the Self (Isvara), from which emerge as the rewards of sacrifice many auspicious qualities and blessings such as peace, equanimity, sameness, cessation of the modifications of the mind, freedom from afflictions, discerning intelligence, purity of the mind and body, self-transformation, the burning of latent impressions, supernatural powers and liberation (jivanmukti). In that sacrifice the yogi becomes the host, the body acts as the sacrificial altar and consciousness as the fire. We can discern the symbolism of sacrifice in other types of yoga also. For example, In Jnana Yoga knowledge becomes the offering. In Bhakti Yoga, and Buddhi Yoga, devotion and intelligence become the offerings respectively.

Liberation

Liberation is the ultimate reward of the sacrifice of life. It is the culmination of all the sacrifices, which we have discussed before. Liberation is achieved when one sacrifices the animal within oneself and purifies the mind and body. Then one has to perform the human sacrifice, sacrificing oneself in total surrender and devotion. Liberation demands unconditional sacrifice of everything and every desire. On the path of renunciation, anything that you hold back becomes an obstacle. Therefore, as a true devotee of God, one  has to perform the Sarvamedha sacrifice by giving up all possessions and worldly enjoyments, including the desire to live and act for oneself.

In the sacrifice of liberation, you have to cultivate the universal vision of Brahman as a conscious choice without any expectation. It is the life, in which you are mentally free, but at the same time extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of life since you have to set aside all your defensive mechanisms and self-preservation activities to remain wholly at the mercy of chance and elements. In that great sacrifice (maha yajna) in which everything has to be consecrated and presented to God as an offering, the Self or Brahman becomes the sacrificer, the scarified and the object of the sacrifice. It is the sacrifice which ends all other sacrifices and leads its practitioner to the gates of the highest heaven.

Thus, you can see that the idea of sacrifice is hidden in every aspect of God's creation. Life is a product of sacrifice. It is sustained by sacrifice and destroyed by sacrifice. So are the worlds, gods, and all other projections and manifestations of God. The world continues as long as the sacrifice of God continues. Even destruction or the dissolution of the world is also an act of sacrifice only. It makes us all priests in our own individual capacities and in the service of God as participants in the great sacrifice of creation. It also makes us all Brahmanas, aspects of eternal Brahman.

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