Yajna - Vedic Sacrifices in Hinduism

Yajna - Vedic Sacrifice

by Octavian Sarbatoare

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 (yajna/ agnihotra/ homa/ agnihoma/ havan) and its evolution in time. The period covered is from the earlier era of Vedic literature, known as Samhitas period until the later era dominated by the Upanishads.

Issues of yajna practices in the present days will be addressed along with their relevance.

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.

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 the human body itself. Deities (gods) as principles of life, natural phenomena or psycho-social tendencies in the human were conceptually created and became instrumental to obtain the harmony looked for by the human. 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 in the internal (psychological) world of practitioners. The goals were to obtain benefits in the forms of good crop, cattle, good weather, progeny, good health, happiness of any kind, etc. Yet, besides the common goals during the entire Vedic period, yajna had 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 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.

During the early Vedic period there were five great kinds of sacrifices namely brahmayajna, devayajna, pitriyajna, manushyayajna and bhutayajna as sacrifices to Brahman (the highest Reality), to devas, to ancestors, to human beings and to all living creatures respectively. (Satchidananda Murty K., 1993, pp. 85-86). They apply to the two manners of performing sacrifice, either the shrauta rite that was done by Vedic priests according to shruti (i.e. sacred literature of Divine revelation) rules or grihya (domestic) rite performed by a householder man in many cases assisted by his wife (patni). However the shrauta rite is much elaborated, its aims extending far beyond the purpose of a household.

The shrauta rite was particularly attentive to what were the necessary objects and how they have to be used within the sacrificial arena. 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. 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. Some objects used were the woods sticks (arani or idhma) in order to help kindling the sacred fire by friction. Other objects were logs of wood (samidh) as fuel, the offering spoon as sacrificial instrument/ utensil (sruca or agnihotrahavani), the pressing-stone of soma stalks (gravan), the sacrificial vessel (camasa) holding soma and food offering, the list of objects being quite long. 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 antarvedi area has to be strewed with sacred grass (kusha) on which water was sprinkled according to specific rules. The 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, clarified butter, cereals, fruits, various powders, vegetables and flowers, etc.

The basic shrauta rite involved the participation of four Vedic priests, each one having specific attributes. They were known as hotri, adhvaryu, udgatri and brahman (brahmin) each priest could have three helpers if necessary. The Vedic priests were all chanting priests. As tradition stipulates, hotri was the priest chanting the hymns of Rig Veda while performing oblation into the fire, adhvaryu was the one chanting the hymns of Yajur Veda while performing adhvara, i.e. his duties before the sacrifice itself. Udgatri priest was the one chanting the Sama Veda hymns, while brahman priest seen as the most learned was the supervisor of the entire ceremony and the one chanting the hymns of Atharva Veda. Yet, 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, building all that was necessary and preparing the materials to be used like, articles of oblation, utensils, woods and water. He also used to kindle the fire for expected offerings. Thus, the adhvaryu priest’s skills to perform correct his duties were of utmost importance for the sacrifice. The very success of yajna was dependant on having the right set-up before the ceremony of chanting and offering could start.

As the scriptures suggest, the ways of performing yajna was different according to the aim in sight by the sacrificer, the one beneficiary of the rite. As sacrifice could be an offering to brahma, deva, pitri, manushya or bhuta, the aims of the sacrifice itself has to be compatible with what was in their power. 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. With the completion of yajna ritual, its fruits were expected to materialize after a certain period of time, the power of the sacrifice being seen as transitory. Considering the Vedic periods of time, yajna ritual evolved, in so bringing the transformation of the Vedic ritual itself.

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. The change was mainly related to the gradual internalization of the ritual. Thus, from a rite of overt expression of much detail elaboration, the rite evolved around the human being as a central point. The internalization of the sacrifice into the microcosmic world of the human body becomes predominant during the Classical period of Hinduism dominated by Jnana Kanda. 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. Thus, during the Aranyaka and especially the Upanishad periods of Vedic times, the elaborated shrauta rite lost its dominance, in so a new kind of approach to yajna taking the front stage.

The important development during the later periods of Veda was that devas (gods) descend in order to become homologous with the psycho-physiological functions of the human body. 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.,III.1.3), "the eye (cakshus) of the sacrificer is Aditya (‘sun’)" (Br.,III.1.4) , "the vital force (prana) (of the sacrificer) is looked upon as Vayu (‘air’)" (B4.,III.1.5), "the mind (manas) of the sacrificer is Candra (‘moon’)" (Br.,III.1.6). The Self which was seen as of nature of Hiranyagarbha (‘the golden egg’) is identified in Br.,II.1.17 as being in the heart. The four Vedic priests were also internalized as Br.,III.1.3-6 points out: “speech is the hotri”, “the eye is the adhvaryu”, “the breath is the udgatri”, “mind is the brahman”. Now, 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. Not only the external world finds correspondence within the aspirant’s internal world, 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, the mind (manas) is the sky and the vital force (prana) is heaven" (Br.,I.5.4). Yet, 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.

Basically, the entire literature of the Upanishads emphasizing on knowledge of reality was conducive to kaivalya as fruit of the new approach towards sacrifice. The essence of the Upanishads are their most relevant conclusions, the four great sayings (Mahavakyas) namely: Tattvamasi, Ahambrahmasmi, Prajnanam Bramna, Ayamatma Brahma (note 3). They summarize the whole philosophical concept, in which the central figure becomes the human being. This shift of centrality is essential in order to understand what happened to the concept of yajna itself. Not only Brihadaranyaka Upanishad but also other major Upanishads like Ishavasya, Chandogya, Katha, Kena, Aitareya, do emphasize on the knowledge of Brahman as essential to liberation. The transition of the outer yajna towards the inner yajna is suggestively described in Garbha Upanishad one of the minor Upanishads. According to it, 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 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; karmendriyas (organs of action) are the sacrificial instruments. … In this (sacrifice), the body is the sacrificial place, the skull of the head is the fire-pit, the hairs are the kusha grass; the mouth is the antarvedi (the raised platform in sacrifice)” (Narayanasvami Aiyar K. 1979, pp.121-122). Furthermore, the above scripture goes into much detail to define the correspondence between the outer form of yajna and human physical body, its function, capacities and any qualitative experience it might have. In a total expression of the inner aspect of yajna, Garbha Upanishad concludes that the importance of the sacrifice becomes paramount: “All who are living (in this world) are the sacrificers. There is none living who does not perform yajna. This body is (created) for yajna, and arises out of yajna and changes according to yajna.” (ibid., p. 122). 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.

In practical terms liberation becomes a total experience of life in which the right mental attitude and knowledge are necessary. This fact is outlined by the concept of sacrifice known as atmarpana (‘offering to Atma’). This all-encompassing 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. On these lines, the action of working with the hands becomes mudra, the gesture of praise of the Divine; the act of talking becomes japa, the uttering of sacred formulae; the act of eating becomes yajna, the offering of nutrients to the Divine; the act of breathing becomes agnihotra, the sacrifice/ consumption of the air into the act of breathing, etc.

Thus, it is not surprising that the sexual act of intercourse itself is seen as yajna. This is how Br.,VI.4.3 describes the correspondence of the bodily parts of a woman and the instrumentality of yajna: “Her lower part is the (sacrificial) altar, (her) hairs the (sacrificial) grass, her skin the soma-press. The two labia of the vulva are the fire in the middle.” (Radhakrishnan S., 1997, p. 321). Although using a different terminology a much similar approach was developed in great detail in Hinduism by the concept of tantra. It becomes clear indeed that the act of union (yoga) in various forms is central to the new approach to yajna. On these accounts the practice of yoga in itself, as union with the Divine, could be seen as performing yajna.

As the specialised literature stipulates, the yoga practice as life transforming allows somebody to aspire to the highest state of liberation known under different names, yet one word has become well-known that of jivanmukti. Thus, jivanmukta is that person who attained liberation but still manifests in a human body. Yet, the human body is not an ordinary body anymore, but is now sanctified by the yoga as an act of sacrifice. This is how Eliade (1975, pp. 199-200) writes on the qualitative experience of life as yoga that is much consistent with the idea of imitatio dei: “The ideal of yoga, the state of a jivanmukta, is to live in an ‘eternal present’, outside time. ‘The man liberated in life’ no longer possesses a personal consciousness – that is, nourished in his own history – but a witnessing consciousness, which is pure lucidity and spontaneity.”

On these lines, relevant classical yoga literature presents the importance of sacrifice for the purpose of liberation. In the well-known Bhagavad Gita work, that is a book of yoga par excellence, one reads (BG, III.9).: “The world is bound by action (karma), unless performed for sake of sacrifice (yajna)” (note 4). Furthermore, “By this (yajna) you nourish the gods and the gods will nourish you; thus by nourishing one another you shall attain the Supreme goal (i.e. liberation).” (BG, III.11). 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, III.12). In an fundamental conclusion, yajna is seen at the basis of the creation itself because “Brahma, the Creator, 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.” (BG, III.10).

Considering various forms of yajna and its development in time, as above described, the question of today’s relevance of all forms of yajna does arise (note 5). Indeed, nowadays, mainly in India, all forms of yajna are still practiced. The shrauta rite could assembly together thousands of people to attend, each person could take a personal resolution (sankalpa), a wish sent to gods via the offerings in oblation (note 6). Yet, the domestic rite (grihya) is widely practiced in many households following the tradition within that family. Yajna in the form of yoga is popular all over the world.

Concluding this paper is to say that the sacrificial rites were performed from the dawn of Hinduism in various forms and for various purposes. The four layers of Veda outline the practice of yajna rites according to the scriptural literature at that time. The shrauta kind of ritual was very much elaborated and relied of the Vedic priests to perform the ceremony on behalf of the sacrificer. The sacrificial ground has to be set up in a proper manner, having the necessary articles and tools for the priests to start the offering into the fire along with their chanting.

In the last two periods of the Vedic era, the emphasis from the outer mode of offering shifted towards the internalization of the ritual. The gods and their expressions in the outer form of yajna were found to be in the human body itself. 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. Various correspondences were made in order to show that the Divine powers or expressions of divinity were present as potentialities in the human being. This approach was very much consistent with the teachings of the Upanishads.

Yajna evolved to be less ritualistic by a total mental attitude of surrender know as atmarpana, the offering of every action to Atma, the Divine. A systematic practical approach to yajna became yoga with its many forms and a good methodological approach towards the issue of freedom, the liberation in a spiritual sense. This form of yajna is better known than any other forms of yajna. I will conclude that the nature and role of Vedic sacrifice in its multiple forms, became integrated at the level of the present religious practices in India. It is tenable to say that by the practice of yoga in many parts of the world, yajna has acquired a worldwide recognition as a valuable spiritual inheritance for mankind.

Suggestions for Further Reading



Besant A. and Das B. The Bhagavad Gita, The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1997

Eliade, M. Patanjali and Yoga, Schocken Books, New York, 1975

Frawley, D. Wisdom of the Ancient Seers, Mantras of the Rig Veda, Motilal Banarsidas Publishers, Delhi, 1994

Hinnells, J. A Handbook of Living Religions, John R. Hinnells and Penguin Books Ltd, 1994

Mahadevananda Giri, Swami. Vedic Culture, University of Calcutta, 1947 Narayanasvami Aiyar K. Thirty Minor Upanishads, Akay Book Corporation, Delhi, India, 1979

Radhakrishnan S. The Principal Upanishads, Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi, 1997

Satchidananda Murty K. Vedic Hermeneutics, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha, New Delhi, 1993


1. Ref. to Mahadevananda Giri, 1947, 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.

2. Ref. to Radhakrishnan S., 1997 for all cited passages regarding Upanishads translations from Sanskrit to English.

3. The four great sayings (Mahavakyas) of the Upanishads: could be translated thus: ‘That you are’, ‘I am Brahma’, ‘Brahma is consciousness’, ‘Brahma is that Self’.

4. Ref. to Besant A. and Das B. The Bhagavad Gita, 1997 for all cited passages.

5. Ref. to Krishnamacharya E. Book of Rituals, The World Teacher Trust, Geneva-20, Switzerland, 1990, for a succinct yet comprehensive account of various yajnas that are still practiced in India today.

6. Ref. to Satyananda Saraswati, Swami, Bhakti Yoga Sagar, the series of six volumes published by Sivananda Math in India beginning with 1995. It contains references about yajnas ceremonies of shrauta rite, focusing mainly on the worship of Lord Rama and his wife Sita in the Rikhia village, Deoghar district, Jharkhand state in India.

List of abbreviations

BG Bhagavad Gita
Br. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Source: © 2002 and subsequent years Octavian Sarbatoare.


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