What's a Yajna?

Sannyasi Muktananda, Australia

Upon first impressions a yajna is just a fire ceremony with offerings cast into the flames. But there is much more to this ancient, global ritual, in fact it is a symbol of creation itself. The true meaning, value and spirit of yajna is the unity of God and humanity. The word yajna translates into English as sacrifice, self-denial for the welfare of another, or others. It is this attitude of denying one's self, of offering up, which strengthens love and releases creativity.

Way back in the smoky mists of time, the people of the land revered Surya, the sun, and Agni, the fire. Both these together give heat and light during the day and night and sustain life. Surya gave light and warmth and was the source of life and sustenance. At night the people depended on Agni for heat and light. So a link was established and Surya and Agni were conceived as different aspects of the one supreme deity who provides life for all of creation. The wisest of the people were aware of the cycles of nature. They saw the actions of Surya, turning the waters to vapour and drawing these vapours up into the sky to form clouds. And in completion of this cycle, they saw the waters return to them in the form of rain, nurturing the earth, the people and the vegetation.

Now these wise people also noticed the actions of Agni. The fire burned and the smoke went up into the sky and the burnt materials left only ashes. They also saw that water heated over the fire was reduced to vapour which also travelled skyward. And so it was that the wisest of the people “put two and two together” and realized that material offerings could be made to the deities through fire, through Agni, and Agni would carry the messages of the people to Surya and other deities in the sky. The people of the land had plenty of milk and milk products, so these were used as offerings. Ghee in particular was offered, as it burnt completely, leaving no remnants. Agni loves ghee; he flares up joyfully upon receiving it!

And so we have the beginnings of the yajna. As time went by and the potentials were revealed, yajna became a regular ritual of the people. As it spread across the land the concept of yajna grew into many different forms with mantras being included to invoke different deities. It is said that the first yajna was that of the Supreme Being sacrificing Himself to create the universe, all its beings and the means of nurturing this creation. This is the original spirit of self-sacrifice and service, the heart of all creative forces.

Moving forward several thousand years to December 1999 at Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Rikhia, the current home of our beloved Paramahamsa Satyananda, where he presented us with nine consecutive mornings of yajna. The purpose? According to the invitation: “simply for the purpose of inviting the divine benevolent forces to this vicinity, so that they may crystallize here and shower their blessings on one and all who are present at Sita and Rama's wedding.” During the program, Sri Swamiji told us the yajnas were “to create auspiciousness, so that we become nice, not for us to feel nice, but to become nice.”

The invitation to Rikhia this year said: “The underlying factor common to all yajnas is that through this ritual the invisible forces (devatas), which are interspersed in the atmosphere, consolidate and collect in the area where it is conducted. It is for this reason that a yajna is considered a very powerful and potent means for positively influencing the atmosphere which surrounds us. Yajnas are known to ward off malefic events. A yajna is an esoteric act and thus penetrates deep into the area of mysticism. There is always an element of mystery in them. This is because the effects of a yajna are felt not just on the physical, mental, psychic or spirituals levels but on the supramental levels as well.”

Performing the yajnas were six sannyasinis from Sri Lalita Mahila Samajam in Southern India. Women only can perform these tantric yajnas and these yoginis are adepts in yajna and mantra pronunciation. The yoginis are also from the Saraswati tradition, following the tantric path instead of the yogic path. In fact, their grandfather guru is also Swami Sivananda, so they are our sisters. Instead of geru and shaven heads, they wear bright orange blouses, long skirts and their hair coiled into a knot on top of their heads called a juda or jata.

Prior to the arrival of all the guests, a purification ritual was performed by the yoginis to ward off negative energy. As part of this ritual, white drawings were made on the yajna platform (yajna vedi) and the edge of the fire pit (kunda), and at ground level on each corner was placed a lemon half with the cut side painted red (with kum kum). Each day there was a different yajna with a framed photo of the deity of the day on the altar. The altar was adorned with coconuts, fruit, rice, jyotis, pieces of flattened rice and different flowers daily, for example, marigolds, hibiscus and lotus. The yajna fire was brought to life with a piece of camphor, ignited and placed on a cowpat. The scent of incense permeated the air daily.

Swami Satyananda and Swami Niranjanananda both took part in the commencement of each yajna. Mantras were chanted and they were honoured and garlanded. Sri Swamiji would then honour the yoginis and place rice on their heads. Pooja would be performed at the altar and then the yoginis would get down to some serious chanting for two to three hours while casting offerings (samagri) into the fire. Each day there were different guests sitting on the yajna vedi and they too participated at a certain point, making an offering to the flames. These guests were also honoured and garlanded towards the end of the yajna.

The nine yajnas unfolded day by day commencing with Ganapati yajna, followed by Navagraha, Saraswati, Sudarshan, Maha Vishnu/Lakshmi, Gita, Rudra/Durga, Saundarya Lahari and culminating in the Maha Lalita yajna.

There was a variety of samagri consigned to the fire; ghee, honey, boiled rice (shuddha annam), flattened rice (white pongal), turmeric (haldi) sticks, cloth and cowpats, as well as peepal, bael and tulsi leaves and, of course, flowers. Water from seven seas and rivers was offered. There was also a variety of wood and sticks offered – mango, batt, peepal, banyan and gular.

Mixed grain was an extra offering in the Saraswati yajna. Cedar and banyan wood were offered during the Sudarshan yajna along with five types of grain and one hundred and eight types of ayurvedic medicine in leaf bowls. Two cows were honoured prior to the commencement of the Maha Vishnu/Lakshmi yajna. Whilst the yoginis chanted, the cows were anointed with kum kum and haldi and were fed fruit by Swami Niranjanananda and two yoginis. During the Gita yajna, a mirror was held up to reflect the flames and smoke. Lots of red, white and yellow roses were used during the Rudra/Durga yajna and lots of lotuses and huge dahlias for the Maha Lalita yajna on the last day. A picture of the Sri Yantra was on the altar for both these yajnas and there were periods of silent mantra chanting with only the Svaha spoken aloud when the offering was made.

A sword in its scabbard was a ritual tool for the Maha Lalita yajna. At a certain point this sword was given to Swami Niranjan who took it to Paramahamsaji for his blessing. He carried it back to the yajna vedi with the sword unsheathed, and used it to ceremoniously cut up a watermelon. One of the yoginis had painted a design in red kum kum on the vedi beside the kunda. The cut pieces of watermelon were rubbed into this painting. Then Swamiji placed a piece of watermelon at ground level on each corner or the yajna vedi, on the steps and at the back of the altar. There was considerably more smoke created for the final yajna, the Maha Lalita.

The yoginis used a series of beautiful and graceful hand mudras (gestures) at different stages of each yajna. At a certain point during each ceremony, Swami Niranjan would pour ghee into the flames from a carved wooden spoon. After the main body of each yajna had been performed, there would be further chanting whilst a yogini offered flowers to the deity, building a beautiful flower arrangement in the process. Each flower was held to the heart before placement on the altar. Swami Niranjan also offered flowers in this manner.

Each day a jyoti was lit from the flame on the altar and this was passed around the yoginis and then the guests to 'touch' the smoke and bring it to their faces in blessing. Finally there would be an arati, with a yogini ringing a bell for some time, making offerings of flowers, ghee and fire. Upon completion of each yajna, the crowd would do a traditional clockwise walk around the yajna vedi whilst the yoginis paid their respects to Paramahamsaji. Throughout the yajnas, the yoginis were led by their guru, Swami Sri Vidyamba Saraswati. She was the steady driving force keeping them all on track with the flow of the rituals and the infinite variety of mantras chanted. Their respect for her was very evident.

So that's what happened for the eyes to see. But what does it all mean? Maybe the Indian guests understood. But it's a mystery for this simple Australian with very little knowledge of tantric culture and yajna. No doubt each and every item offered had specific symbolic meaning, as did the beautiful hand mudras, the ritual tools like the mirror and the sword, the drawings on the yajna vedi and the use of lemon halves and watermelon.

From a personal point of view I felt the chanting was very intense, as if it was seeping into every molecule of my body. I found myself chanting along even though I did not know the mantras. From time to time a breeze would drop down from the sky, waft around the yajna for a while, inspecting the proceedings, and then it would pick up some smoke and ash and disappear skywards again. I felt grateful to be present, even as a naive participant. And maybe that was a good thing, keeping the intellect out of this ancient ritual that unites God with humanity.

As far as I can see, all of life is yajna. There must be death first, a sacrifice before there can be life. The death of the seed before there is the plant, the death of the plant before we have food to eat. All creation's beings perform yajna: the sun, moon and stars; the animals, fish, insects and birds; the trees, grasses and flowers; all are in a continual process of service and sacrifice. Even our own bodies are performing yajna. We make our offerings to the fire pit in our bellies; these offerings are then transformed into the nutrients that fuel the organs, enabling them to serve the body so that it may carry on with the activities of life and honour the soul within. So life is a process of yajna – service and sacrifice, to achieve the ultimate yoga – union with the Supreme Consciousness.

Paramahamsaji continues to show us the way. He invites us to participate in the yajna rituals that have a positive effect on every level of our being. He invites us to sacrifice a little of our wealth by giving to his neighbours in the spirit of service. And he makes it quite clear that the only way to achieve our spiritual goal in this age is through seva yoga, helping our needy neighbours wherever they may be. He has said: “Freedom is infinite for those who walk in the light of this yoga, who take up the path of giving and sharing, who devote their time and their money for the upliftment of others. This is my path, and this is the yoga that I wish to propagate in the coming century for the benefit of mankind and higher attainment.”

Namo Narayana.