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Sacrificial Fire
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Hindu Worship

By

Tamarapu Sampath Kumaran


Southern News Bureau 59, 1 Main Road, Besant Nagar, CHENNAI - 600090
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Sacrificial fire in Hindu Worship


The early Vedic and classical periods of Hinduism contain four layers of sacred literature, namely Samhita (consisting of Rig veda, Yajur veda, Sama veda, and Adharva veda), Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishads. The first two layers are usually referred to as Karma kanda, the section that emphasizes on action, where as the last two layers are known as Gnana kanda, the section that emphasizes on knowledge. The later section of the Veda is seen as pertinent to the Classical period of Hinduism. Yet most important of all is the fact that the above division is based mainly on the attitude towards sacrifice (yagna). Although the purpose of practicing yagna remains the same, the way of its performing evolved from time to time along with various layers of Hinduism.

Yagna in itself is to be seen as the very essence of Veda. From the early times, the ritual was understood to be the link between the human and the Divine and a vehicle towards liberation. By such a link, the human could access the Divine and fulfill the very purpose of the human existence, that being to worship the Divine as the creator of all things. Vedic culture is evolved on the basis of yagna having primarily the purpose to create harmony. This harmony refers mainly to issues of nature and the place of human beings within the environment, as well to the harmony

within the human beings. Deities, as principles of life were conceptually acknowledged and became instrumental; to obtain harmony the humans were looking for. The archetypal and phenomenal thought and actions were integrated into a single reality of self-awareness and self-determination. Yet, the human-Divine link played the role of yagna to obtain Gods favours either in the external world or as benefits for practitioners psyche, the overall kinds of goals in the form of good crop, cattle, good weather, progeny, good health, happiness of any kind etc. Besides the common goal yagna has specific characteristics pertinent to every Vedic era. Vedic scriptures point out that sacrifice was essential from the very beginning of creation. Prajapati, the creator having a major position in the Vedas was described as the embodiment of sacrifice. Gradually the early Vedic pantheon emerged as being dominated by the fourfold Godhead namely Indra, Agni, Soma and Surya. Extensive hymns were consecrated to these Gods as is written in the Rig veda. As offerings were done to honour the specific deity the ritual was also performed specifically on these goals. It is said that when Lord Brahma (the creator among the Trinity) created man, he also created Yagnam for mans livelihood and his attainment of spiritual desires. The fundamental premise of Yagnam is derived from the Vedas, According to Purusha sooktham it is the other way round Vedas originated from Yagnam. Anyhow Vedas and Yagnam are eternal truths having neither the beginning nor the end and are Apourusheyam (divine and not the creation of humans). Karma (work or action) is an integral part of living. Right and wrong Karmas can hardly be discerned by the human intellect and has to be guided by knowledge. Vedas, indeed, contain the highest form of knowledge, and as such the singular goal of Vedas is to guide man through the correct path. And yet Karma forms the essence of all the karmas prescribed in the Vedas.

The goal of all Yagnas is the prosperity of the people at large by energizing and protecting the environment. Sun is considered as the main source of energy, and fire as a representative of Suns energy. According to the ancient texts of Yagna any offer to Agni (Fire God), is actually an offer to Sun God. Such offer is either to enrich energy in the environment or to destroy the undesirable element in the environment. And thus in both ways the environment is protected. Attaching divine nature to such rituals induced people to practice them. Thus, the ancient texts proclaim that such vaidika karmas are result-oriented, and meant to lead to Sreyas (prosperity) or spiritual attainment of humanity.

Yagna is a holy sacrifice. It is a Vedic ritual. The term Yagna is derived from the root Yak means worship or sacrifice. Yagna is the means for securing the awareness of the Divine. Yagna is governed by mantras, sacrifice and divinity. Fire is also chosen as the symbol of Divinity because it is also latent in all material things. Agni, the fire God, is in charge of the southeastern portion of the universe. In the sruti-mantras it is said, Agni sarva-devatha Fire is the aggregate of all Demigods. Agni is the mouth of the Supreme personality of Godhead. It is through Agni or fire, that the Lord accepts all sacrificial oblations chanting

Swaha, naming the wife of Agni daughter of Daksha and Prasuti. Legend has it that once Swaha asked Agni to ensure their continuous association. Agni declared that henceforth, all offerings made to the Gods through fire would be made in her name, as Agni was the one who mediated between humanity and God. It is believed that it is the fire (Agni) that consumed the offerings and carried them to the divine realm.

During the early Vedic period there were five great kinds of sacrifices namely Brahma yagna, Deva Yagna, Pitru yagna, Manusha yagna and Bhuta yagna. as sacrifices to Brahman (the highest reality), Devas and to ancestors and to all living creatures. They apply to the two manners of performing sacrifice, either the shrauta rite that was done by the Vedic priests according to Shruti (i.e sacred literature of Divine revelations) rules or grihya (domestic) rite performed by a householder, in many cases assisted by his wife (patni). However the shrauta rite is much elaborated as its aim extends for beyond the purpose of a household. The basic shrauta rite involves the participation of four vied priests, each one having specific attributes. They are known as hotri, adhvaryu, uudgatri and Brahman (Brahmin). As tradition stipulates hotri is the priest chanting the hymns of Rig Veda while performing oblation into the fire, adhvaryu is the one chanting the hymns of Yujur Veda, while performing adhvara,( i.e

his dirties before the sacrifice itself) namely measuring the sacrificial ground, building all that is necessary, preparing the materials to be used, articles and utensils. He is also to kindle the fire for the expected offerings. Thus the atharvayu priests skills are of utmost importance for the rituals of fire sacrifice. . Udagiri priest is the one who chants the Sama Veda hymns, while the Brahmin priest is the one who is most learned and supervises the entire ceremony. The very success of yagna is dependent on having the right set-up before the ceremony of chanting and offering could start. As these rituals gained complexity and as the number of hymns increased, the method for choosing hymns to be used in rituals became mode codified and only certain priests could participate in the process. The general consensus in Vedic society was that the priests who sung sacrificial hymns did not create them. Rather the priests were rishis (seers) who heard the primordial sound of Sanskrit and thus were able to deliver to the public, the divinely inspired hymns they discovered.

Agnihotra is generally known as the havan or sacred fire ceremony. We invoke Agni (sacred fire), the Lord of all subjects, and the much giver of all objects. Agni is described as the witness of all deeds of the people and the destroyer of all sins. Yagnas link human beings with hidden cosmic forces called Devas. Agni is the messenger of Gods and is the link with the supreme Lord of all the worlds. The supreme is invoked by the ritual performed by means of external fire. The Lord says I am the brilliance in the fire and Yagno vai Vishno Yagna is very much Vishnu.

Agni is Vishnu. Entering all creatures, He upholds their life-breaths, according to Mahabrata. Lord Krishna declares in Bhagavat Gita I am the Kratu, I am yagna and I am offering (food) to the manes, I am herb and plants, I am also ghee, I am the fire and I the oblation. Yagna bhukte nama I take only the food of yagna. Yagna vahane nama My sacred fire is vahana (vehicle to travel). Restraining the senses and the mine, the objects of those senses and the mind should be poured as libations on the sacred fire of the soul that is within the body says Mahabharata. By pouring libation on the sacred fire sin is burnt. As I take, thus I give you my fold says the Lord supreme. Man is required to thank the Devas by offering a share of the good things of nature which he gets by the goodwill of Devas. Through this goodwill, the gift of progeny is obtained, and food and rain are restored for mans sustenance and survival in this world. Thus fire-sacrifice brings material benefits of happiness and prosperity, while wisdom-sacrifice brings liberation. The shrauta rite could assemble together thousands of people and each person could take a personal resolution sankalpa, a wish sent to Gods via the offerings inn oblation.

Several yagnas are being conducted to propitiate the blessings of the deities. To name a few Pancha sukta yagna( As the name suggests is comprised of five suktas Purusha sukta, Sri sukta, Bhu sukta, Narayana sukta and Rudra sukta), Sudarsana yagna, Chandi yagna, Sri Mahavishnu Viswasanthi yagna, Sri Yagnam, Maharudra yagna, Gayatri yagna, Nakshatra satra yagna. The uniqueness of the Nakshatra satra yagna which is strictly performed by Nitya Agnihotri, for 27 days is to invoke the divine blessings of each of the 27 Nakshatra devas for good health, prosperity and peace. During these days, Upasana and homa for each Nakshatra will be conducted to enable those born under the particular Nakshatra to participate in the worship. This is the main objective and sankalpam of the yagna. Homa, the sacrificial fire ceremony, is another important devotional practice. During the homa we offer a lot of materials into the fire. These materials are symbolic of our thoughts and emotions. Fire is used to purify certain materials. It also reduces certain things to ashes. So fire is used here as symbolic of the unlimited knowledge that destroys our evil thoughts and emotions and purifies our good tendencies. The flames always strive to rise in the upward direction; likewise, knowledge also makes the seekers mind strive to rise up to the plane of Ultimate reality and ultimately invokes the blessings of God. Homam is conducted in temples or in residences. They are Ganapathi Homam, Chandi Homam, Kubera Homam, Mruthunjaya Homam, Navagraha homam, Mahalakshmi Homam and Sudarsana Homam. Ritualism has, first of all, am important social function. Religion like language comes to us in our early years as a social product. It comes to us in the form of ritual with a meaning behind, just as language comes to us in the form of sounds with a meaning behind. Ritual is the embodiment of faith and it binds together large group of believers. We can see the proof of this every day in the large congregation of worshippers taking part in a common ritual in temples. Ritualism has a historical function as well as a social function. It binds together not only the different units of society during a generation, but also the different generations of a race. It binds the present with the past and secures a visible continuity for religion. (Compiled from several works of Vyakaranacharya Dr Kailash Chandr Dev of varanasi and Dr Naaraas Ravi Namboodri of Edapalli)