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Yajna, the Vedic sacrifice (offering)
by Octavian Sarbatoare (BA USyd)
The present paper attempts to discuss the nature and role of Vedic sacrifice in Vedic literature and the ways this topic is expressed by relevant commentators on the subject. Issues of Vedic practices will be discussed along with their purpose, in so taking into account the historical approach to sacrifice/ offering (yajna/ agnihotra/ homa/ agnihoma/ havan) and its evolution in time. The period covered is from the early era of Vedic literature known as Samhitas, until the later era dominated by the Upanishads. Issues of yajna practices in the present days will be addressed along with their relevance.

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Vedic period of Hinduism starts with the proto-historic Hinduism/ early Vedic period, (until approx. 5th c. B.C.E.) and continues into the classical period (until approx. the 5th c. C.E.) (Hinnells, 1994, pp. 194-196). 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 Atharva Veda), Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishads. The first two layers are usually referred as Karma Kanda, the section that emphasizes on action, whereas the last two layers are known as Jnana Kanda, the section that emphasizes on knowledge. The later section of 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 (yajna). Although the purpose of practicing yajna remains the same, the way of its performing evolved in time along with various layers of Hinduism. Yajna 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. Yet, in its incipient form yajna practice was in connection with the cyclical natural phenomena particularly the seasons (ritu) and the overall order of things perceived in nature. The place of human beings within the whole system of things was attentively taken into account. In this manner, from empirical observations, the concept of Cosmic Order or Divine Order (rita) developed and the practice of yajna became gradually a rite of ontological significance . Vedic culture (note 1) evolved on the basis of yajna having primarily the purpose to create harmony. This harmony refers mainly to issues of nature and the place of human beings within the environment, but also to the harmony within a human being. Deities (gods), as principles of life, natural phenomena or psycho-social tendencies in the human, were conceptually acknowledged and became instrumental to obtain the harmony the humans were looking for. The archetypal and phenomenal, thought and action were integrated into a single reality and self-aware self-determination (Frawley D., p. 40) Yet, the human-Divine link played by the role of yajna was to obtain gods' favours either in the external world or as benefits for practitioner's psyche. The overall kinds of goals were in the forms of good crop, cattle, good weather, progeny, good health, happiness of any kind, etc. Yet, besides the common goals yajna has specific characteristics pertinent to every Vedic era. Vedic scriptures point out that sacrifice was essential from the very beginning of creation. Prajapati (Lit. 'lord of creatures'), a god having a major position in the early Veda, was described as the embodiment of sacrifice. In Br.,I.2.7 (note 2) Prajapati identifying himself with the universe desires: "May this body of mine be fit for sacrifice" for the purpose of creating the world. 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 (Lit. 'Veda of praise'), the most ancient sacred book of Hinduism. As offerings were done to honour somebody, the ritual was performed depending on those goals.

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With the completion of yajna ritual by the final offering (purnahuti). As tradition stipulates. Yet. This period emphasized on knowledge as the way to obtain the same fruits that could be procured by the shrauta kind of ritual performed during the early period as above described. deva. his duties before the sacrifice itself. in so bringing the transformation of the Vedic ritual itself. Other objects were logs of wood (samidh) as fuel. They apply to the two manners of performing sacrifice. adhvaryu was the one chanting the hymns of Yajur Veda while performing adhvara. It is on the account of the transformation of the Vedic ritual that the Hindu tradition evolved to retain the concept of yajna in different forms. Thus. the power of fire sacrifice being seen as transitory. its aims extending far beyond the purpose of a household. during the Aranyaka and especially the Upanishad periods of Vedic times. udgatri and brahman (brahmin) each priest could have three helpers if necessary. The shrauta rite was particularly attentive to what were the necessary objects and how they have to be used within the sacrificial arena. Udgatri priest was the one chanting the Sama Veda hymns. its fruits were expected to materialize after a certain period of time. in so a new kind of approach to yajna taking the front stage. cereals. while brahman priest seen as the most learned was the supervisor of the entire ceremony and the one chanting the hymns of Atharva Veda. The shrauta rite was a personal affair between the sacrificer and the unseen Divine forces that could give to the sacrificer his objects of desires.e. each one having specific attributes. Particular attention was given to how the actions were to be performed or how the participants had to behave during the time of ritualistic activities. pp. the one beneficiary of the rite. The Vedic priests were all chanting priests. sacred literature of Divine revelation) rules or grihya (domestic) rite performed by a householder man in many cases assisted by his wife (patni). the list of objects being quite long. pitri. manushyayajna and bhutayajna as sacrifices to Brahman (the highest Reality). the pressing-stone of soma stalks (gravan). building all that was necessary and preparing the materials to be used like. fruits.shopping center to make your online purchases from today. the aims of fire sacrifice have to be compatible with what was in their powers.. from a rite of overt expression of much detail elaboration. During the early Vedic period there were five great kinds of sacrifices namely brahmayajna. the elaborated shrauta rite lost its dominance. The basic shrauta rite involved the participation of four Vedic priests. The internalization of fire sacrifice into the microcosmic world of the human body becomes predominant during the Classical period of Hinduism dominated by Jnana Kanda. They were known as hotri. etc. As fire sacrifice could be an offering to brahma. utensils. pitriyajna. The important development during the later periods of Veda was that devas (gods) descend in order to become homologous with the psycho-physiological . the offering spoon as sacrificial instrument/ utensil (sruca or agnihotrahavani). The very success of yajna was dependant on having the right set-up before the ceremony of chanting and offering could start. 85-86). woods and water. i. The enclosure (vedi) of the sacrificial ground was systematically arranged in an arena suitable for that specific purpose according to what the ritualistic literature recommended. He also used to kindle the fire for expected offerings. vegetables and flowers. 1993. clarified butter. Thus. The antarvedi area has to be strewed with sacred grass (kusha) on which water was sprinkled according to specific rules. The change was mainly related to the gradual internalization of the ritual. to human beings and to all living creatures respectively. adhvaryu. yajna ritual evolved. either the shrauta rite that was done by Vedic priests according to shruti (i. articles of oblation. As the scriptures suggest. (Satchidananda Murty K. the rite evolved around the human being as a central point. manushya or bhuta. the central figure of the sacrifice was seen to be the adhvaryu priest for the fact that he was the one measuring the sacrificial ground. the sacrificial vessel (camasa) holding soma and food offering. Thus. hotri was the priest chanting the hymns of Rig Veda while performing oblation into the fire. Some objects used were the woods sticks (arani or idhma) in order to help kindling the sacred fire by friction. devayajna. to ancestors. various powders. the ways of performing yajna was different according to the aim in sight by the sacrificer. Within the vedi there was an area known as antarvedi surrounding the fire-pit (kunda) in which the sacrificial fire (agni) has to burn various offerings. The fire sacrifice/ offering/ oblation (agnihoma) was patronized by the Vedic priests (ritvija) (vide intra) in charge with putting into the sacrificial fire articles consisting of nourishments (annahoma) like milk. Considering the Vedic periods of time.e. However the shrauta rite is much elaborated. the adhvaryu priest’s skills to perform correct his duties were of utmost importance for the rituals of fire sacrifice. to devas.

The Self which was seen as of nature of Hiranyagarbha (‘the golden egg’) is identified in Br. 1979. Not only Brihadaranyaka Upanishad but also other major Upanishads like Ishavasya. According to it. the new kind of sacrificer taking the role of imago mundi is no other but the spiritual aspirant himself that strives towards the knowledge (jnana) of Brahman as the highest reality. capacities and any qualitative experience it might have..1. “mind is the brahman”. 321).5). "the eye (cakshus) of the sacrificer is Aditya (‘sun’)" (Br. the four great sayings (Mahavakyas) namely: Tattvamasi.5. it is not surprising that the sexual act of intercourse itself is seen as yajna. Chandogya.1. do emphasize on the knowledge of Brahman as essential to liberation.I. and arises out of yajna and changes according to yajna. Prajnanam Brahma. the sacrifice could be performed by the sacrificer within one’s own body that has all the necessary articles/ items and functions required by yajna of the shrauta rite. This shift of centrality is essential in order to understand what happened to the concept of yajna itself. Aitareya. the entire interconnectivity of macro and micro universes as seen in the Upanishads does persistently address the issue of spiritual liberation (kaivalya) by the means of knowledge. The essence of the Upanishads are their most relevant conclusions. This allencompassing concept is seen in a broad sense as the conscious attitude of a person to offer one’s own actions to the Divine in order to sanctify the ordinary human existence. Furthermore. They summarize the whole philosophical concept. the offering of nutrients to the Divine. the above scripture goes into much detail to define the correspondence between the outer form of yajna and human physical body. the mouth is the antarvedi (the raised platform in sacrifice)” (Narayanasvami Aiyar K. Hierophany was thus internalized within the human body in the following terms: "The organ of speech (vak) (of the sacrificer) is looked upon as Agni (‘fire’)" (Br. etc. … In this (sacrifice). "the vital force (prana) (of the sacrificer) is looked upon as Vayu (‘air’)" (Br.3). Thus.(gods) descend in order to become homologous with the psycho-physiological functions of the human body.. the mind (manas) is the sky and the vital force (prana) is heaven" (Br. “the breath is the udgatri”. “the eye is the adhvaryu”.III.3 describes the correspondence of the bodily parts of a woman and the instrumentality of yajna: “Her lower part is the (sacrificial) altar. 122). the act of eating becomes yajna. Yet.1. Ayamatma Brahma (note 3).” (Radhakrishnan S. the uttering of sacred formulae. the sacrifice/ consumption of the air into the act of breathing. This fact is outlined by the concept of sacrifice known as atmarpana (‘offering to Atma’). The four Vedic priests were also internalized as Br.1.4).4) . This is how Garbha Upanishad sees the correspondence between the outer yajna and the inner yajna performed with and within the human body: “The mind and the organs of the senses become the sacrificial vessels. the gesture of praise of the Divine.III.III. This body is (created) for yajna.. the act of talking becomes japa. Not only the external world finds correspondence within the aspirant’s internal world. the action of working with the hands becomes mudra. the man is the one doing the offering in the form of sexual penetration of the woman and sperm ejaculation as a final offering (purnahuti).” (ibid.II.. the act of breathing becomes agnihotra. On these lines. but also his internal world is reflected in the external world (lokas) of magnifying proportions thus: "the organ of speech (vak) itself is the earth.17 as being in the heart. It is thus a sanctification of the .3-6 points out: “speech is the hotri”. her skin the soma-press. Thus.. its function. This is how Br. (her) hairs the (sacrificial) grass.III. Basically. p. Garbha Upanishad concludes that the importance of the sacrifice becomes paramount: “All who are living (in this world) are the sacrificers.VI. the entire literature of the Upanishads emphasizing on knowledge of reality was conducive to kaivalya as fruit of the new approach towards sacrifice. "the mind (manas) of the sacrificer is Candra (‘moon’)" (Br. Now.. p. The transition of the outer yajna towards the inner yajna is suggestively described in Garbha Upanishad one of the minor Upanishads.. The two labia of the vulva are the fire in the middle.121-122). Kena. pp. in which the central figure becomes the human being.6).1..III.4. The woman in this case is the entire vedi area in which the ritual is performed. Ahambrahmasmi.. 1997. In a total expression of the inner aspect of yajna. The conclusion is that body and mind become the repositories of qualities that are consistent with the essence of the Upanishads presented in the Mahavakyas (vide supra) towards the attainment of liberation. the body is the sacrificial place. karmendriyas (organs of action) are the sacrificial instruments. There is none living who does not perform yajna. the hairs are the kusha grass..1. Katha. the skull of the head is the fire-pit. In practical terms liberation becomes a total experience of life in which the right mental attitude and knowledge are necessary.

which is pure lucidity and spontaneity. liberation). In the last two periods of the Vedic era. This form of yajna is better known than any other forms of yajna. The four layers of Veda outline the practice of yajna rites according to the scriptural literature at that time. It is thus a sanctification of the sexual act that becomes sacred. the practice of yoga in itself. 199200) writes on the qualitative experience of life as yoga that is much consistent with the idea of imitatio dei: “The ideal of yoga. The shrauta kind of ritual was very much elaborated and relied of the Vedic priests to perform the ceremony on behalf of the sacrificer. each person could take a personal resolution (sankalpa). is to live in an ‘eternal present’. a wish sent to gods via the offerings in oblation (note 6). It becomes clear indeed that the act of union (yoga) in various forms is central to the new approach to yajna. mainly in India. On these accounts. nourished in his own history – but a witnessing consciousness. outside time.10). in the beginning of the world created human beings together with yajna and said: By yajna you shall prosper and yajna shall fulfill all your desires. the yoga practice as life transforming allows somebody to aspire to the highest state of liberation known under different names. Thus. Yet. but is now sanctified by the yoga as an act of sacrifice. Yet. III. The shrauta rite could assembly together thousands of people to attend. as above described. “By this (yajna) you nourish the gods and the gods will nourish you. and Das B.9). jivanmukta is that person who attained liberation.” (BG. the state of a jivanmukta. A systematic practical approach to yajna became yoga with its many forms and a good methodological approach towards the issue of freedom. In the well-known Bhagavad Gita work. III. having the necessary articles and tools for the priests to start the offering into the fire along with their chanting.: “The world is bound by action (karma). This approach was very much consistent with the teachings of the Upanishads. The sacrificial ground has to be set up in a proper manner. Yet. could be seen as performance of yajna. yajna is seen at the basis of the creation itself because “Brahma. In this manner the wishes of the sacrificer become fulfilled because “…the gods nourished by sacrifice shall bestow on you the enjoyments you desire” (BG. yajna has acquired a worldwide recognition as a valuable spiritual inheritance for mankind. References Besant A. The Bhagavad Gita. yet one word has become well-known that of jivanmukti. The Upanishads particularly point out that whatever manifests as Divine expression in the external world could be found in the internal world of a practitioner of yajna. nowadays.12). but still manifests in a human body. III. The Theosophical Publishing .e. Yajna in the form of yoga is popular all over the world. that is liberation in its spiritual sense. Indeed. that is a book of yoga par excellence. the emphasis from the outer mode of offering shifted towards the internalization of the ritual. the domestic rite (grihya) is widely practiced in many households following the tradition within that family. the Divine.” On these lines. Considering various forms of yajna and its development in time. the question of today’s relevance of all forms of yajna does arise (note 5). As for the importance of yajna at the level of humanity. became integrated at the level of the present religious practices in India. Various correspondences were made in order to show that the Divine powers or expressions of divinity were present as potentialities in the human being. as union (yuj) with the Divine. Yajna evolved to be less ritualistic in the form of a total mental attitude of surrender know as atmarpana. thus by nourishing one another you shall attain the Supreme goal (i. As the specialised literature stipulates. pp.entire vedi area in which the ritual is performed. the human body is not an ordinary body anymore.” (BG. In an fundamental conclusion. it is tenable to say that by the practice of yoga in many parts of the world. one reads (BG. relevant classical yoga literature presents the importance of sacrifice for the purpose of liberation. This is how Eliade (1975. a much similar approach was developed in great detail in Hinduism by the concept of tantra. Concluding this paper is to say that the sacrificial rites were performed from the dawn of Hinduism in various forms and for various purposes. Furthermore.11). all forms of yajna are still practiced. Although using a different terminology. ‘The man liberated in life’ no longer possesses a personal consciousness – that is. unless performed for sake of sacrifice (yajna)” (note 4). III. the Creator. the offering of every action to Atma. The gods and their expressions in the outer form of yajna were found to be in the human body itself. the nature and role of Vedic sacrifice in its multiple forms.

The Bhagavad Gita. The Theosophical Publishing House. Ref. J. New York. to Mahadevananda Giri. Deoghar district. Switzerland. Patanjali and Yoga. India. Schocken Books. 5. Ref. 1997 Satchidananda Murty K. for an entire panorama of the evolution of Vedic civilization and culture seen from a perspective of an Indian scholar and Brahmin that has done extensive research into the field. Suggested Further Reading Yagna. 1997 for all cited passages regarding Upanishads translations from Sanskrit to English. focusing mainly on the worship of Lord Rama and his wife Sita in the Rikhia village. Hinnells and Penguin Books Ltd. the ritual form of worship in Hinduism Mantra. Swami. 1979 Radhakrishnan S. It contains references about yajnas ceremonies of shrauta rite. Book of Rituals. Bhakti Yoga Sagar. Ref. 1997 for all cited passages. 4. ‘Brahma is consciousness’. The four great sayings (Mahavakyas) of the Upanishads: could be translated thus: ‘That you are’. Wisdom of the Ancient Seers. to Besant A. ‘I am Brahma’. D. Thirty Minor Upanishads. 1993 Notes 1. Vedic C ulture. The Principal Upanishads. 1994 Mahadevananda Giri. However links to the website can be established. Jharkhand state in India. 2. meaning and significance Hymns from the vedas Rituals and rites in Hinduism Hinduism and the importance of rituals Source: © 2002 and subsequent years Octavian Sarbatoare Email . Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha. 1975 Frawley. John R. and Das B. 6. Mantras of the Rig Veda. Akay Book C orporation. About Us Privacy Policy Contact Us Terms of use Help Us . The Bhagavad Gita.Australia. Geneva-20.Besant A. This article is copyrightprotected. Delhi.. 1997 Eliade. and Das B. M. New Delhi. ‘Brahma is that Self’. 3. to Krishnamacharya E. 1990. Swami. provided it remains unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained. The author grants the right to copy and distribute this file. to Radhakrishnan S. Sunday . Ref. 1947 Narayanasvami Aiyar K. Adyar. 1994 Hinnells. to Satyananda Saraswati. Ref. the series of six volumes published by Sivananda Math in India beginning with 1995. No part of this website can be copied or reproduced in any manner. Harper C ollins Publishers India. 1947. Your use of the website is subject to the terms of use attached hereto. Delhi. The World Teacher Trust.com. October 30. Motilal Banarsidas Publishers. A Handbook of Living Religions. University of C alcutta. New Delhi. All Rights are reserved. for a succinct yet comprehensive account of various yajnas that are still practiced in India today. 2011 ©2000-2010 Hinduwebsite. Vedic Hermeneutics.