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Vedic Rites and Sacrifices

Vedic Rites and Sacrifices

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Samarpan/Vedas-IV: 1/ 10
Ramakrishna Mission Vivekananda University
PO Belur Math, Dist Howrah, West Bengal
Faculty of Indian Cultural and Spritual Heritage with Value Education
Topic : The Vedas: Part IVCourse: Essentials of Indian Spiritual HeritagePart-I: Saints and SagesLecture-7 : 7 March 2008
Instructor : Swami Samarpanananda
Vedic Rites and Sacrifices
In a broad sense, every religious act by an individual, or a group of devoted people is asacrifice (
 yajna
). By its very nature, every act of a person is mundane, and at times tends towards profane. But when that very act is performed with a religious outlook, it becomes a
 yajna
. Even thesimple act of breathing by a devout can be transformed into a sacrifice (
Gita
, IV.29) when performed with due reverence and understanding. Thus
 yajna
(sacrifice) is the consecration of themundane to the divine. It is the transformation of the profane into the sacred; is the bridge betweenthe material and the spiritual; and is the instrument to convert the belittled to the exalted.For any act to become ennobling, it has to be treated as a
 yajna
by the performer. That iswhy even the act of creation by Purusha was perceived as a
 yajna
 by the Vedic sages, and wasdescribed so. But, it was impossible for a common man to treat every act of his as a yajna, whichmeant that a way had to be found for his upward journey towards spirituality. It is then that thesages came up with the solution of 
 yajna
for all. Soon the sages had framed methods by which thelife of an individual and the society could be regulated by sacrificial acts. In birth, death, marriage,acquisition, renunciation, sorrow, joy, victory, loss -- for everything there was now a
 yajna
.Slowly these
 yajnas
diversified into sacraments (
 samskaras
), and sacrifices (offerings andoblations). The sacraments for the individual's private life (like marriage, sacred thread ceremony,funeral rites etc.) grew up to forty in number, but was later brought down to eighteen, then tosixteen in the Smriti period, and finally to ten in the Tantra system. The present day Hindus more or less follow these ten
 samskaras
. Strictly speaking, these
 samskaras
are not
 yajna,
and hence will bediscussed in the Smriti section.The
 yajna
which were not sacramental (i.e. not a
 samskara
) were characterised by offeringof oblations to various deities and personalities. The oblations (
havis
) meant for gods were pouredas
ahuti
into fire, known as
homa
, whereas the offerings made to the ancestors and the demigods(Nirriti and the Rakshasas) were known as
bali
and were placed on the strewn grass, or put in water.These practises continue even today. It is believed that in the early days, even the offerings to godswere not made in the fire, but were placed on the ground, or strewn grass, but later on nearly all theofferings were made into fire (
 Agni
got a severe stomach problem due to this, as narrated in
 Mahabharata
).Here we discuss only the fire sacrifices addressed to the gods.The Vedic yajna are prayer to the divine in anticipation of something in which the offering(including the sacrificial goat) effects the communication between the mundane and the sacred; andthe priest acts both as the agent of the sacrificer and the mouthpiece of the gods.These fire sacrifices had: a) one single fire used in domestic rites, or b) three fires for  bigger sacrifices. In case of the three fires, the most important fire used to be the
G
ā
rhapatya
(of themaster of the house), which descended from the domestic hearth of the sacrificer, and was kept perpetually burning. All oblations were cooked in this fire. To its east used to be
 Ā 
h
ā
vaniya
fire, inwhich offerings were made. To the south of the
G
ā
rhapatya,
the
dakshina agni
used to be set, inwhich the fire used to be brought at the end of a sacrifice.The Vedic rites can be classified into two groups:
Grihya
(domestic) and
Shrauta
(public),
 
Samarpan/Vedas-IV: 2/ 10which were characterised respectively by the absence and the presence of priests.
Grihya
sacrificesincluded the individual
 samskaras
(purificatory sacraments), a daily sacrifice called
mahayajna
(great sacrifice), and seven
 p
ā
kajanya
(cooked sacrifices).The
Shrauta
sacrifices consisted of 
haviryajna
, and
Somayajna.
The
haviryajna
were performed with grains, ghee, milk etc., whereas the
Somayajna
were performed with soma juice.These sacrifices were again categorised as
nitya
(daily),
naimittika
(occasional),
ā
mya
(with aspecific desire), and
 pr 
ā
 yaschitta
(penance).Some of the the famous Vedic rites are:1.
 
 Agnihotra
: This was the twice daily pouring (at sunrise and sunset) of oblation (mostly milk)in the sacrificial fire by the family. The ritual was performed by a priest for his own or the benefit of a sponsor (yajam
ā
na). This sacrifice was considered purificatory in nature, and isstill practised by many.2.
 
 Darshapaurnamasa
: This was performed on the new moon and the full moon days.3.
 
 Agr 
ā
 yana:
This involved offering of newly produced grains in different seasons.4.
 
Ch
ā
turm
ā
 sya:
These were the four monthly rites which used to be started in the beginning of any of the three seasons: spring, rainy, or the autumn.5.
 
 Agnishtoma:
It was performed annually in the spring season in the praise of Agni.6.
 
 pravargya:
It was an oblation offered to Ashvins of goat's and cow's milk heated in a vessel.7.
 
ā
 japeya:
This was done to celebrate a great victory by the king. It lasted from 17 days to ayear.8.
 
 R
ā
 jasuya:
It was the consecration of a famous king in which great expenses were made. Inthe
 Mahabharata
 period Yuddhisthira performed this yajna.9.
 
 Aswamedha:
This was a complex sacrifice marked to prove the sovereignty of a king. After the sacrifice, the king was known as Chakravarty. Raja Ramachandra had performed thisyajna.10.
 
Sarvamedha:
It was a ten day sacrifice, in which a person sacrificed everything he had. Itwas performed for the sake of gaining and winning every kind of food, and attainingsupremacy.
Prayer 
Along with the growth and consolidation of the
 yajnas
, prayer to the divine also grew inimportance. In the Vedas prayers are linked with the sacrifices in the form of a formula (
 yajus
), pronounced in a low voice. There were also declamations of verses, called
 shastras
, in which 'Aum'was inserted at regular interval.References are also made in the Vedas to an 'internal' mental sacrifice which can be used incases of urgency. The part played by thought, side by side with word and action is emphasisedmany times in various hymns. Later on this concept was taken up by various religious systems as
manas
ā
- v
ā
c
ā
- karman
ā
 ,
and a devotee was advised to offer all his acts of thinking, speaking, anddoing to the Lord.Although prayer played an integral role in any sacrifice, with time it grew independent of the
 yajna.
The independence and the autonomy of prayer ensured its own dynamics, and soon it became powerful enough to overthrow the role of sacrifices in a spiritual life altogether. When thescholars try to present Upanisahdic thoughts as a revolt of the
 Kshatriyas
against the Brahmins,they overlook the fact that the Upanishads are the natural outcome of the power of prayer to theSelf. Any open religious system is sure to reach to the state where prayer becomes the essential partof its outlook. Prayers are a kind of paradigm shift in spirituality -- a fact that was recognised and practised by the Vedic sages more than five thousand years ago.
 
Samarpan/Vedas-IV: 3/ 10
Sections of the VedasBr 
ā
hmanas
The discussion till now has been on the Samhit
ā
portion of the Vedas. As mentionedearlier, the Vedas have three more sections: Br 
ā
hmana,
Ā
raNyaka, and Upanishads. Of these, theUpanishads continue to influence the lives and philosophy of the Hindus, but the other two reacheda dead end long ago, after giving birth to more specialised branches of religion connected with theissues discussed in them.Br 
ā
hmana means the collections of utterances and discussions of the priests upon thescience of 
 yajna
. The earlier commentators have defined Br 
ā
hmanas as 'texts which expound theVedic mantras and Yajnas', and also as 'texts which are characterised by statements of eulogy,censure, exposition and (ritual) application (of mantras).'The
Samhit 
ā
 
contain the mantras that are required in various sacrifices, but themethodology and the science of the rituals and sacrifices required a separate kind of work. With thegrowth of Samhit
ā
literature
 ,
the corresponding science of performing the yajna also increased in bulk. With time, these were collected in a special class of literature which was known as
 Br 
ā
hmana
.The formulas and rules for conducting extremely complex rituals are explained to the minutestdetail in these works, and, every ritual is performed for a specific purpose for which a specificeffect/benefit is described.Thus, for each
Samhit 
ā
, there were a number of 
 Br 
ā
hmana
, which are treated as the Vedaitself. Unlike the
Samhit 
ā
 ,
the
 Br 
ā
hmana
are exclusive prose works, although some are accented.In addition to these, the Br 
ā
hmanas also contain myths, legends, and narratives to explainor rationalise the then religious practices. The later philosophical speculations concerning the Self were also a part of the Br 
ā
hmana, but later on broke free to become a separate section.Thus, the whole content of the Br 
ā
hmana literature can be classified under three sections:1.
 
vidhi
, which are the practical sacrificial directions2.
 
arthav
ā
da
, (eulogy) which are the explanations of meanings and purpose of the sacrifices3.
 
upanishads
, the later philosophical developments which focus on "I am That."The staunch traditionalists, however, accept only
vidhi
and
arthavada
as the Vedas.As in the case of Samhit
ā
, a major portion of the Br 
ā
hmana literature has been lost, but what hasreached our hands, forms an extensive literature.The Br 
ā
hmana are indispensable if one wants to understand the later religious and philosophicalliterature of Hinduism. These works are also important to understand the history, science, andgrowth of priesthood and sacrifices. Most of the beliefs practised in modern Hinduism has beenadapted from these works.
The Famous Br 
ā
hmanas
Rgveda1.
 
Aitareya Br 
ā
hmana: It deals with Soma sacrifices, Agnihotra, and Rajasuya yajna.2.
 
Kausîtaki/S
ā
nkh
ā
yana Br 
ā
hmana: It deals with Soma sacrifices and the food sacrifices.Samaveda3.
 
T
ā
ndya Maha Br 
ā
hmana/ Panchavimsa: It contains some very old legends and the details of a sacrificial ceremony (Vr 
ā
tyastomas) by which Vr 
ā
tyas (total outcastes) were received inthe Brahiminical fold.4.
 
Sadvimsa Br 
ā
hmana: It deals with miracles and omens

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