Throughout time, fire has been venerated as a symbol of spirit. The first sloka in the Rig Veda is to Agni, to fire:
Agni mide purohitam yajnasya devam ritvijam; hotaram ratna dhatamam
"I offer my humble prayer to Agni, who is the Absolute Divine, the awakener of the inner energy and the giver of prosperity."
In the ancient vedic scriptures, Agni is the messenger between the people and God. Agni is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning and of the flame that humanity lights for purposes of worship. As the divine personification of the fire of sacrifice, Agni is the mouth of the gods, the carrier of the oblation and the messenger between the human and the divine. Sacred fire acts as a link between man's consciousness and the cosmic consciousness. Sacred fire has the ability to convert the material offerings into psychic components, as offerings to the deities presiding over the yajnas.
Yajnas are sacred rituals to invoke and propitiate various deities (energies) using fire as a revered medium for the attainment of various boons and general well-being. The sun (Surya) was the great luminary in the sky who gave light and warmth to the world and was the source of life on earth and its sustenance (Pushan). So people began to offer prayers to Surya in the morning and evening. At night they had to depend on fire (Agni) for heat and light. Gradually the link between Surya, the friend of all beings in the sky, and Agni, who lives among men on earth was established, conceived as different aspects of the one supreme self-luminous deity who also resides in all beings as the warmth of life and assimilates all food offerings poured into the jatharagni (fire in the stomach), which digests all food.
It was observed that the sun drew up the waters with its heat and the vapours rose to the sky to form clouds, returning as rain, and the earth produced vegetation - a circulation between the sky and the earth. It was also observed that when fire burned, the smoke rose to the sky, leaving only ashes, and water heated in vessels also rose to the sky as vapour. So the idea arose that material offerings to the deities in the sky could be made through fire. Fire also had its devata in Agni, and all these devatas were interconnected. If offerings are made to Agni, he would carry it to Surya and other deities in the sky.
With the performance of yajna changes are induced in the atmosphere, which evoke effects in the whole biosphere. Yajnas have been performed from ancient times to purify the natural environment and to secure timely rains so that the crops may be good and there may be prosperity, general well-being and happiness all around.
The Vedas are the original source of information about yajna. Vedic worship of fire is extremely detailed and complicated with many layers of symbol and meaning. Through rituals of purification, consecration and invocation, the entire yajnashala becomes the symbolic representation of the universe, with even the pillars worshipped as the energy that supports the universe. The demons, the negative aspects, also have a place in the divine creation, so they too are worshipped and offered food to their liking.
In these sacred rituals Agni, as fire, is created in the kunda, the sacrificial fireplace, and various deities (energies) are invoked through chanting mantras from the Vedas and performing various hand gestures called mudras and nyasa. These actions have a subtle effect on the energy vibration, both internally and externally, enhancing the effect of the mantras. Mudras are performed at various stages, at the time of invocation and with specific offerings. There are different mudras relevant to each deity. The word mudra has several meanings: seal, imprint, mystery, code and gesture. The term nyasa is derived from the root nyas, which means 'to place'. It refers to the placing of the fingers and palm of the hand on various parts of the body while chanting certain mantras. The purpose is to prepare the physical body for the reception, or awakening, of the divine presence of the deity.
The beginning of the ceremony is an invocation of surrender and light is offered to the divine. The lamp is waved in a series of Om patterns, balancing all aspects of nature and symbolizing the knowledge of God. A bell is rung, representing the inner sound, and the water offered represents the divine nectar of immortality. The sounding of the conch is Om, the primordial sound. Agni is invoked with the lighting of the physical fire. The wood (samidha or samit) is fed to the fire, representing qualities that are not necessary or appropriate. The fire is nourished by the ghee, which symbolizes mental clarity, abundance and spiritual wealth. The herbs offered represent the bliss released in all actions. The fire is made conscious with mantra and the offerings are made to the ishta devata in the fire. Each of the mantras chanted is a name of God. The different aspects of God are called upon with reverence and offerings are made. Those attending a yajna will receive most benefit by keeping a silent, prayerful and respectful attitude, observing each thought, each picture, each emotion that comes to mind and offering that into the fire.
The act of offering is called ahuti or oblation. With each offering 'Swaha' (I offer) is said. Swaha is also the name of the wife of Agni. To honour his wife is to honour him in the highest way. All ritual offerings into the sacred fire are offered with this mantra; sva means 'oneself' and ha means 'to offer'. The implication is the offering of oneself for the sake of others; the oblations are meant as substitutes for oneself. One is reborn through the act of sacrifice, the old being is burnt up and a new, divine being emerges, consecrated to altruism. Thus yajna is truly a transforming rite of passage ritual.
The worship of fire purifies the fire element in the body and also purifies the consciousness by amplifying the mantras. Our many senses and their objects are collectively offered in the fires of self-control (tapas, austerity) and purification. The senses are offered in the yoga of self-control, the higher meaning of yajna. The fire of yajna purifies negativity; thus ego, jealously, hatred, vices, ignorance, superstition and other ignoble aspects of the self are offered.
With the closing of the yajna, thanks are given for all of the many things that were sacrificed in order to make the sankalpa of the ritual. Mantras are chanted to ask forgiveness for any errors made. All are given blessings for their part in this most ancient ritual of worshipping the divine. At the end of the ceremony the light is presented to all and may be taken to fill the heart and mind. This is followed by silent prayer to guru and mother earth and the arati is joyfully sung to the lord of the universe.
There are many aspects to a yajna fire ritual. For example, the timing is important astrologically and the geometry is very important and exact. There are hundreds of little details in the preparations, the offerings, the decorations, and the performance, as well as the proper clean-up and handling of everything involved, including the ashes. As one surrenders to the beauty and holiness of yajna, the 'ancientness' and all-pervading quality of the element of fire becomes deeply moving.
The initial sacrifice was that of the divine being sacrificing himself to become the universe. The ancient vedic hymn Purusha Sukta tells of the transformation of the eternal, infinite being into the finite cognizable material world, initiating the eternal cycle of creation. So the spirit of sacrifice came to be recognized as the source of creation, the heart of all creative forces.
This yajna was called sarvahut, the offering of all. The Purusha was the object of worship. Brahma, the creative aspect of the Purusha, performed it. The priests were the devas, the Purusha's senses. Brahma was the beast of the sacrifice. The altar was all of nature. The fire was the Purusha's heart. The Purusha himself was sacrificed to bring forth all of creation. This is a message of love, that the Purusha would consume himself in the fire of sacrifice, to create all the worlds. From his mind emerged the moon, the sun from his eyes, Indra and Agni from his mouth, and the cosmic breath, Vayu emerged from his breath (prana). Atmosphere emerged from his navel, the sphere of light (divyaloka) from his head, the earth from his feet, the directions from his ears. The devas created all the spheres (lokas) from his cosmic body. Thus the gods worshipped the god of gods through sacrifice. The original sacrifice, the original yajna, became the law of life.
The world is God's offering to all beings; it is his self-sacrifice to us. Therefore, our duty is to reciprocate by offering sacrifice to him in thanksgiving. The essential dynamic of the universe is that of a perpetual ritual of sacrifice. Every living entity is compelled to devour other forms of life in order to survive. The devoured is the sacrificial victim and the devourer is the sacrificer. This transformation of life into life is the very nature of existence. 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. All existence can be reduced to a dichotomy of two factors; food (annam) and the eater (annada). Every being is the eater of another and in turn becomes the food for some other being. This symbiotic relationship is particularly apparent in the fire, which grows immediately when fed with fuel and dies as soon as the fuel is consumed. All aspects of combustion or digestion are subtle forms of fire (vaishvanara agni). We make our offerings to the fire-pit in our bellies; these offerings are 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.
Various symbols and actions are used to redirect our senses and heighten our sattwic emotions. The fire represents God or truth. The sacrificial food, the samagri (mixture of seeds, plants, resins, grains, etc.) is offered into the fire. The mixture represents our worldly samskaras such as attachment, greed, violence, etc. that bind us to our lower nature and trap us in egocentric thoughts and desires. We offer the seeds of all future actions into this fire of self-knowledge to be completely consumed. Symbolically we are offering our very lives into the fire of purification and sacrifice. While a specific number of people will actually offer the samagri, each of us can participate equally in the ritual by the degree of our sankalpa, awareness and surrender.
The offerings are substances that sustain life and always the best quality available is offered. Many of the items are natural antiseptics and aromatics. As they burn, the subsequent vapours pervade the atmosphere, destroying pollutants and purifying the environment for many kilometres around. The vibrations of the mantras enhance the beneficial effect of these vapours. This ritual not only benefits the external environment, the participants of yajna also benefit as purification takes place in each individual's internal environment as the vapours and mantras permeate the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual entity.
The outer form of any ritual has an inner corresponding ritual. In yajna, Agni is the divine spark within the human being, the spirit or soul. The ghee or the clarified butter that is offered to Agni is symbolic of the mind. The annam, the sacrificial food, symbolizes the physical body which is the transformed state of annam. Once the divine spark of Agni is invoked, the latent energies or divine powers hidden within man awake to share the fruits of the sacrifice and assist the individual's purification, transformation and spiritual awakening.
Yajnas link us with the devatas, the hidden cosmic forces. According to the Rig Vedic mystics, a human being performs an action only through assistance from the devas. The contribution of the human to each action is minimal. The great vedic rishis obtained inspiration from superior planes and their main contribution is in transcribing the revealed verses in appropriate metres or rhythms. Yajna is not a mere rule or ritual, it is any activity that recognizes the collaboration between the deva and the human. A rishi is conscious of the divine's hand in the performance of all activities and conscious of the role of the deva, especially of Agni, so that they request him to perform the yajna on their behalf.
The deities are not only forces of nature, but also forces or energies that exist in the physical body and help the individual's spiritual development. Through yajna we contact the deities within. We prepare for this worship by bathing and wearing clean clothes. The mantras induce waves of energy in the subtle body that purify the subtle elements of the body, mind and environment, there by awakening the latent divine energies. With the help of sounds, forms, rhythms, gestures, flowers, light, incense and offerings, the mind is carried away from its material preoccupations toward a world of divine beauty.
Every rite has four main priests: hotri, adhvaryu, udgatri and brahman. The hotri chants the hymns of the Rig Veda, calling the devas to come and participate. The adhvaryu chants the hymns of the Yajur Veda, laying down the various steps of performance. The udgatri chants the Sama Veda hymns in the appropriate metres at specific times. The brahman is the supervisor of the ceremony and chants the hymns of the Atharva Veda. The adhvaryu priest is the one who measures the sacrificial ground; builds all that is necessary; prepares the materials and kindles the fire. The success of the yajna is dependent on having the right set-up before the chanting and offering begins.
It is said that there are 1008 different yajnas with many kinds of offerings. Dravya yajna relates to the offering of physical, material objects. Tapo yajna is the offering of psychological processes. And yoga itself is turned into sacrifice. The principle of yoga is to sublimate the lower activities to the higher aims. The Bhagavad Gita points out that sacrifice of knowledge is the highest offering. One does not rest in knowledge; one offers the knowledge to the source of knowledge, which is why Lord Krishna says: "All action culminates in the highest knowledge." The idea is to convert every output of the energy of life on every level, physical, vital, mental and spiritual, into offerings to the divine. So one who performs yajna with awareness undergoes a process of purification.
Yajnas which are offered by those who expect no reward and believe firmly that it is their duty to offer the sacrifice are considered sattwic. Those offered in expectation of reward or for the sake of ego are classed as rajasic. Those in which food is not distributed, mantras are not properly chanted, gifts are not given and which lack faith are tamasic. According to the Bhagavad Gita the word yajna is not confined to the lighting of the sacrificial fire and making offerings of samagri. Many other forms of yajna are mentioned in the Gita:
Some yogis, who are devoted to karma yoga, offer their actions to the gods; while others, who are devoted to jnana yoga, and who have realized the Self, offer the Self in the fire of Brahman, just as one offers samagri to the sacred fire. (4:25)
Some again offer their ears and other sense organs into the fire of restraint, thus bringing their senses under control; others offer sound and other objects of perception into the fires of the senses. (4:26)
Others offer the functions of the senses and those of the breath (vital energy) in the fire of the yoga of self-restraint kindled by knowledge. (4:27)
Some offer their wealth for the welfare of the needy; some offer their austerities as sacrifice; some practise the eight limbs of raja yoga and offer this yoga (equanimity) as sacrifice; while others observe austere vows and offer study of the scriptures and knowledge as sacrifice. Thus sacrificial duties take many forms. (4:28)
The spirit of yajna is love, sacrifice and service. Yajna is a gift from the creator and a way to honour the creator. It is a symbol of life and all the processes of life. It is a symbol of creation and a method to honour creation. It is the esoteric science of life. The true meaning, value and spirit of yajna is the unity of God and humanity. This is what our life is all about - unity with the divine.