Yagna or Yajna - The Sacrificial Rituals Of Hinduism

Brahman Priest doing Yajna

by Jayaram V

Yagna or yajna is an outer form of worship in which offerings are made to different deities in a prescribed and systematic manner by qualified priests to supplicate them, so that they would assist the worshipper in achieving certain results in life.

The chanting of mantras while performing the sacrifices is expected to ensure fulfillment of specific desires, the overall welfare of an individual, a group of people or the entire society.

The simplest form of yajna is the domestic ritual performed by the householder who would offer simple oblation into the sacred fire lit in his house. A more complicated version involves setting up of three to five fires and pouring of offerings into them such as food grains, ghee or butter, and other vegetable substances by chosen and qualified priests, chanting mantras simultaneously, invoking various gods especially Agni, Indra, Varuna etc.

Some yagnas are performed on large scale for the general welfare of the entire community, to increase fertility of soil, to invite rains, to welcome peace and wealth etc. Depending upon the degree of complexity, these yagnas may last from a few hours to several days. The number of priests participating and conducting the ceremony would depend upon the nature and objective for which it is performed.

Yajna is a vedic sacrifice which has an outer aspect and an inner aspect. To the vedic priests, yajna was the means to invoke gods and seek their blessings and favors. They used to perform these yagnas for various purposes and at various times during the year, at the time of sowing, at the time of harvest, at the time of initiating some important social event or before going to wars. One very popular yajna of those days was the Asvamedha Yajna, or the Horse Sacrifice which used to be performed by powerful kings to show their Valor and the extent of their influence. This yajna is now almost extinct in practice.

The outer aspect of yajna consists of building an altar, generally with bricks, kindling fire using specific types of grass and wood and then pouring into it oblations such as ghee or clarified butter, food grains, sesame seeds, and water to the accompaniment of chanting of sacred verses from the Vedas.

< The inner or hidden aspect of Yajna is known to those who are familiar with the Vedic rituals. The yajna is the means of worshipping the highest God or ones own inner self.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna explains that every aspect that is associated with a ritual of sacrifice, the act of offering, the oblation, the sacrificer himself and the sacrificial fire as well is Brahma (4.23). In the subsequent verses He enlists the various types of sacrifices people perform with various objectives in their minds (4.25-4.30) and concludes that sacrifice in the form of knowledge is superior to sacrifice done with material things. In the ninth chapter he declares, " I am kratu (vedic ritual), I am yajna (sacrifice), svadha (offering), ausadham (medicine), mantra (chant), ajyam (ghee), agni (fire), and hutam (burnt offering).

In Chandogya Upanishad, the yagna is compared variously to the world (section 4), the god rain (section 5), the earth (section 6), man (section 7) and woman (section 8). The comparison can be summarized in the table as shown below:

Parts of YagnaWorld as YagnaRain as YagnaEarth as YagnaMan as YagnaWoman as Yagna
Fuelsunairyearspeechsex organ
Flamethe daylighteningnighttonguevulva
Coalsthe moonthunderquarterseyesfriction
Sparksstarsthunderingintermediate quartersearspleasure
The resultsomarainfoodsemenfetus

The physical or the outer aspect of the Vedic rituals was always viewed with suspicion by the followers of gnana marg. In Satapatha Brahmana we told that gods and demons tried to perform the sacrifice. The demons tried to perform it externally while the gods kindled the fire within themselves and thereby became immortal.

The Mandukya Upanishad is very clear in its attitude towards the sacrifices, " Unsteady are the boats of 18 forms of sacrifice, which are part of inferior karma. The deluded who take delight in them thinking that they would lead them to good fall again into old age and death..." Again ," These deluded men regarding sacrifices and works of merit as most important do not know any other good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds, they enter again this world or still the lower ones."

The same Upanishad also declares the knowledge of the Vedas and rituals, grammar, etc,. to be the lower (apara) knowledge, while the higher (para) knowledge is that one by which the Imperishable Brahman is realized.

Almost a similar view is echoed in the Bhagavad-Gita by Lord Krishna who cautions us against empty ritualism (11.48). The knowers of Vedas who worship God through sacrifices would ascend to heaven and return from there.(9.20&21), but they would not attain liberation.

Even today there are many educated Hindus who are not very serious about performing the yagnas. For most of them they are just a part of the tradition, whose significance either we have lost or which are no more relevant to the present day world.

The rituals generated controversy even in ancient India, resulting in the rise of many independent schools of thought around sixth century B.C., foremost among which were the school of charvakas, the samkhya school of Purusha and Prakriti, and most importantly, the religions founded by Mahavira and the Buddha. The last two were openly against the empty ritualism of the Vedic religion and the extent of materialism that had crept into it by that time.

It is a fact that the incidence of performing the yagnas and other forms of sacrifices is slowly coming down in modern Hindu Society, primarily because of the influence of western education, the complexity involved in performing them and the decreasing number of priests who are well versed in the art of performing yajna according to the Vedic injunctions.

But like many traditions in Hinduism, the tradition of yagnas still continues though with reduced vigor. Some devout Hindus still believe in their efficacy and organize them for various purposes, sometimes in public for a social cause or sometimes in private for a personal gain. Whether eventually the outer aspect of yajna would yield place to the inner aspect only time can tell.

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