Vedic Yajna and its Philosophy

Swami Brahmavadini Saraswati (Bhubaneshwar, Orissa)

Each philosophy or religion has certain practices that form the essence of that philosophy. Yajna, literally meaning ‘to offer’, forms the backbone of the vedic school of philosophy. Traditionally, a ritualistic fire ceremony in which various herbs, clarified butter (ghee), specific wood, etc. are offered to the fire with predetermined mantras (charged with vibrations) chanted by predetermined people (priests, host, etc.) with a resolve or sankalpa, a yajna has far-reaching effects that encompass physical, psychological, social, spiritual and ecological spheres, causing purification at all these levels.

According to many vedic scholars, yajna is one of the greatest activities that can be performed. In this context, it acquires a meaning more profound than that which is understood in a narrow ritualistic sense. In fact, yajna is the source or origin of the Vedas itself. The four Vedas, Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, along with the Upanishads are the embodiment of the concept of yajna. A fundamental question in these ancient scriptures is implicitly raised as to what is the unifying factor of the entire cosmos. Indeed, yajna is the abiding principle that sustains the entire creation, the unifying power that links the creature with the creator, the microcosm with the macrocosm.

In vedic literature, the concept of yajna has been fully expounded. It affirms the following principles. The phenomenal world along with the heavenly bodies is the physical manifestation of yajna. A well-organized state reflecting harmony and order is the image of yajna. Yajna symbolizes the purpose of human life which is giving, benevolent actions and service to fellow beings.

Principal elements of yajna

Although a yajna has many implications, it broadly includes three significant elements: worshipping the gods as an act of gratitude, realizing a close proximity with the divine or supernatural beings and, embracing daan or giving as a way of life.

An act of gratitude: We owe nature, our environment, the pancha bhootas (five elements) and the gods for our existence and sustenance in the form of the food that we eat, the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. In return for these blessings, people in ancient times performed yajna as an act of worship with offerings, reverence and gratitude.

In the vedic age, several gods were invoked as the many forms of the one paramatman. They included Agni (the fire god), Indra (the rain god), Vayu (the wind god) and Varuna (the water god), to name a few. Solar energy fused with thought power was the force that transferred the worship to the gods through ether.

An act of connection: As finite beings, we cannot have direct access to the infinite on account of our many limitations. It is only through subtle means that we can relate with the divine. Yajna was truly a miraculous discovery with its various ways and means to reach out to the higher realms of consciousness. It was for this reason that the ancient rishis included yajna as an integral part of their daily activities.

An act of giving: Yajna reflects giving as a way of life. The notion of giving in a yajna pertains to the desire and ability to offer both material and spiritual benefits to fellow beings. In this context, offering food to the hungry is yajna. Inspiring others to follow the path of purity and righteousness is yajna, and so on.

Fulfilment of desires

The Indian ritualistic tradition advocates the application of the science of yajna to serve several purposes, the predominant objective being the fulfilment of specific desires. For instance, Indra, the god of nourishment is invoked in order to gain power, wealth and prosperity. Prajapati is propitiated to beget worthy offspring. The Sun god replenishes cosmic energy. Goddess Aditi brings delicious food and heavenly bliss. Mother Earth is propitiated to provide nourishment to all living beings. Shankara confers knowledge and Sati grants conjugal bliss, and so on. However, it is when a yajna is performed, not to serve individual need or desire, but for the greater good that it becomes a true vehicle of divinity.

Yajna in classical literature

Yajna and its implications have been dealt with in great detail in various Indian scriptures. Among these are the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Ramayana, Srimad Bhagavatam and other Mahapuranas.

The Vedas, comprising Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, maintain yajna to be the ultimate spiritual act. The Yajur Veda (3:63) describes yajna as the greatest benefactor of the human race, bestowing life, wealth, food, energy, prosperity and happiness. In yajna lies the secret of achieving excellence in life, it says.

The various Upanishads which constitute an integral part of Vedanta deal with the significance of yajna in various contexts. In the Kathopanishad (chapter 1) there is a conversation between the protagonist, Nachiketa, and Yama, the god of death. The fundamental question raised by Nachiketa is: “How can man conquer death and attain bliss?” Yama proceeds to reveal the secret of the science of the fire ritual or yajna that enables an aspirant to experience heavenly bliss and attain the highest goal in life. After explaining the methodology of yajna, Yama enumerates the positive results acquired through it. He says that a devotee can establish a link with the Vedas through yajna alone. The Vedas symbolize the unending flow of knowledge, and by performing yajnas the aspirant becomes the manifestation of absolute knowledge. So, symbolically, yajna represents this unending creative flow. The aspirant can accomplish miracles, just as Sage Vishwamitra created a parallel world for his beloved disciple, King Trishanku.

In the Bhagavad Gita, yajna is related to the law of cause and effect. Sustenance of life depends on ample production of food crops and fruits, and this is possible only when there is abundant rainfall. (Even today people attribute scanty rainfall to inauspicious deeds committed by humankind.) Hence, yajna is accepted as a way of life in that it is performed as an act of gratitude for the blessings received, and the performers of yajna offer part of their earnings as havi to the gods. Krishna tells Arjuna that the results of yajna are equivalent to nectar, which when drunk by yogis elevates them to a state of perennial bliss. It is said that all actions, excluding yajna, are the cause of bondage and it is only through performance of yajna that one attains liberation from the bondage of karma (3:9). Yajna is also related to the act of creation by Brahma (3:10). The whole cosmos is created out of agni tattwa (the fire element), which is the greatest scientific application of yajna, establishing the fact that fire or light is the quintessence of creation.

The epic Mahabharata is replete with examples testifying that yajna was an indispensable activity for kings and emperors. In the Shanti Parva, there are numerous stories of ashvamedha yajna being performed by virtuous kings and emperors. Dushyanta, son of Bharata, completed 100 ashvamedha yajnas, Bhagiratha performed several more, and King Dilip completed 1000 such rituals of fire. King Yudhishthira too conducted an ashvamedha yajna.

In ancient India, yajna was accepted as a part of everyday life. No householder took food without appeasing Agni or other gods. It was only fitting then that the various Puranas and other spiritual literature extolled the glory of yajna. In the popular epic Ramayana as well as the Ramacharitamanas, King Dasharatha is depicted performing a putreshti yajna on the advice of his family preceptor, Sage Vashishtha, and council of ministers to beget progeny. As a result, he was blessed with four sons, the eldest being Rama.

In the Ramayana, demons are also convinced of the power of yajnic practices. The demon king Ravana was a great scholar who accumulated power, wealth and prosperity through his expertise in the art of yajnas. The demons, aware of the powerful effects of yajna, were always engaged in spoiling the yajnic rituals of the rishis. Meghanada, son of Ravana, would have remained invincible had not Hanuman spoiled his tantric yajna. After destroying Ravana and returning to Ayodhya, Rama performed rajasooya yajna.

The eighteen Mahapuranas, through the narration of simple stories, inspired the common people to perform yajnas. In the Koorma Purana, the demon king Bali is seen worshipping Lord Vishnu through yajna. In the Narada Purana, there is a description of the ashvamedha yajna performed by King Bahu where Indra was propitiated and in return bestowed power and prosperity on the king. In the Bhavishya Purana, Rishi Chyavana appeased the Ashvini Kumaras.

The Srimad Bhagavatam says that yajna caused the entire creation to come into being. There are also several stories of yajnas being performed. King Ambrisha performed many ashvamedha yajnas and acquired the beauty and splendour of the gods until the only desire he was left with was to acquire heavenly bliss. However, in the final stage Ambrisha became absolutely desireless. This confirms that yajna ultimately brings about inner purification.

Kinds of yajna

Yajna can be broadly classified as vedic or tantric, depending on the rituals employed. A yajna can be performed with a specific desire in mind (sakama yajna), or without any desire, for the benefit of humanity in general (nishkama yajna). According to vedic scholars, the main kinds of yajnas are: paka yajna, havi yajna, (pancha) maha yajna, ati yajna and shiro yajna. Each yajna offers a way to purify the senses, mind, mental archetypes, tattwas (elements), gunas or the entire ecological system.

Paka yajna (in which food is offered as oblationary material) was considered a daily ritual for householders. In havi yajna, oblation material consists of stuff other than food.

The pancha maha yajnas include Brahma yajna, deva yajna, pitri yajna, manushya yajna and bhoota yajna. In Brahma yajna the body, wealth, mind and emotions are surrendered to the creator; in deva yajna offerings are made to various deities like Indra, Varuna, Shiva, Devi, etc.; in pitri yajna obeisance is paid to forefathers and superiors; in manushya (or nri) yajna the essence is service to humanity (represented by service to guests); and bhoota yajna is appeasing lower species.

Rajasooya, ashvamedha and vajapeya yajnas constitute ati yajna. Such yajnas were performed on a large scale by kings and involve immense manpower and resources. Shiro yajna is also referred to as dharma yaga.

There were other yajnas such as Vishvadeva yajna in which the entire cosmos (vishva) is considered the divine manifestation and is worshipped as such. Purushamedha yajna was performed as self-sacrifice, gomedha yajna was performed for the welfare of cattle, and sarvamedha yajna involved sacrificing the interests of a smaller community for a broader and nobler cause.

Rajasooya yajna: In ancient India, the ruler was invested with supreme administrative powers and was accepted by his subjects due to the strong moral and spiritual values that he professed. Rajasooya yajna was an integral part of the political and administrative system, as it was the deciding factor as to who was qualified to govern a state. It was performed at different stages of rule, such as in times of peace or whenever the need to evaluate administrative abilities by the people at large was felt. During the yajna, the state policies and activities of royal officers were evaluated, complaints attended to and measures to rectify past errors decided upon. Rajasooya yajnas provided a platform for a close interaction between the ruler and the ruled.

Vajapeya yajna: This yajna was performed with the specific objective of maintaining harmony within the state. It was essentially an assemblage of learned scholars, enlightened sages and spiritual mendicants from different parts of the land. There was an exchange of views on various issues of contemporary lifestyle, leading to formulation of policies as well as the means to implement them.

Vishwajeet yajna: This yajna was performed with the objective of unifying the entire human race into one single world community. The most significant and unique message conveyed by this yajna is that love, not war, is instrumental in achieving such a unity.

Ashvamedha yajna: Only an undisputed sovereign was qualified to conduct an ashvamedha yajna. It required a time span of two years. Before the yajna, the royal horse, signifying the power and sovereignty of the king, was sent to different kingdoms. Those who accepted the sovereignty allowed the horse to pass through. If the horse was captured, it was seen as a challenge for the king to prove his skills. If the horse came back unopposed, it was a clear sign of the sovereignty of the monarch. This enabled him to establish his empire on a firm basis.

Ecological significance of yajna

Ecology relates to the interrelationship between living organisms and their environment. Our survival and well-being depend on sound ecological relationships, or a balance between matter and spirit. If matter is polluted, it adversely affects nature or spirit. Maintaining harmony between the two is therefore indispensable. It is this principle that led the ancient rishis to study the scientific aspects of yajna.

The entire process of a yajna, consisting of mantra chanting, lighting the sacrificial fire and offering havi to the gods in the form of ghee, vanaspati (materials from plants and trees) and other objects, purifies the environment significantly. In fact, yajnas have been successfully performed even in modern times to induce rainfall, to check the spread of epidemics, and so on.

Yajna is verily a process of give and take. Offerings are made to gods and they bestow blessings in turn. This is how the cosmic balance and order is maintained. Underlying all of this is the unity between all forms of creation and their essential relationship with the One or supreme soul, realized through the process of yajna. This relationship between the parts and the whole is interpreted as a spiritual relationship, best described by the Upanishads as:

Poornat poornamudachyate

From full, the full is taken, the full has come.

It is through the realization and application of this principle in yajna, through a scientific method, that its benefits are reaped. There is rainfall, the air is free from pollution, nature is replete with resources to provide nourishment to all forms of life, and human beings experience peace, prosperity and plenty.