Beliefs Associated With Vedic Rituals

Yajna - The Ritual Symbolism

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is about important beliefs associated with the Vedic rituals (yajnas) and why they were so important to the Vedic people and their way of life.

Vedic religion or Vedism has aspects which put it in a category of its own among the most ancient religious traditions of the world. Ancient people believed in the magical abilities of rituals, and many cultures used fire to worship their gods. However, in Vedism rituals grew in complexity and became the central theme of the tradition. It is difficult to imagine Vedic culture without its ritual component.

Vedic people built their whole lives around rituals as they provided them with meaning and purpose and suggested to them the ideal way to live and serve God. They offered them hope against calamities and fate and helped them navigate through the difficulties of life. The ritual altar which they built in their homes for domestic sacrifices was like today’s cellphones or radio, which helped them communicate with gods whenever needed to feel assured.

Although many ancient rituals are no more practiced, the idea of ritual is still central to Hinduism and many of its beliefs. For Hindu householders of all backgrounds, the ritual worship of gods in heaven is still important. In its long history Vedism has undergone numerous changes. So did its ritual dimension. However, the spirit of ritual worship and the object and purpose of it survived. On the negative side it also led to several superstitious practices, as people did not clearly understand their hidden purpose or spiritual value. Rituals have a social and cultural appeal, which keep them in focus even today.

Vedic people believed that rituals were the best means to communicate with gods and exchange gifts or benefit from each other’s strengths. That belief is still intact. Although the present methods of ritually worshipping gods at homes and in temples are different from Vedic rituals, their basic framework is still the same. Both contain many common elements such as inviting gods to the earth, uttering prayers, making offerings, and celebrating the occasion with sharing and enjoying. They are also used for the same purpose, which is to establish communion with gods and please them for personal favors or to help others.

Vedic rituals define and characterize Vedism and to some extent Hinduism. People still practice them because they believe in them. The following are few important beliefs which are associated with Vedic sacrifices (Yajna).

1. Ritual as a source of magic and spells

By magic we mean the supernatural ability to interfere with the natural order of things. It is making things happen or stopping things from happening with inexplicable power, which defies logic and reason. Vedic people believed that gods had such power with which they could alter the natural order of things or circumvent the natural laws. Therefore, they made ritual offerings to them seeking their intervention to control natural events, change their destinies or fulfill their desires.

They believed that through rituals they could accomplish many things or improve their lives. By pleasing gods through rituals they believed that they could use their power to make rains falls, prevent natural calamities, attract the opposite sex, kill enemies and rivals, cure diseases, mesmerize snakes and wild animals, produce male children, ward off evil, read other people’s minds, foretell future, communicate with gods, exorcise ghosts, enter another person’s body, resurrect the dead or help their ancestors. If they had any problem, which they could not resolve by ordinary means, they prayed to them and made ritual offerings. The Atharvaveda contains many charms and magical spells to overpower others, cure diseases, influence the opposite sex, or gain some benefit or advantage.

In the Vedic hymns you find two approaches to use the magical or supernatural powers of gods. One is to pray to them and seek their help to achieve the desired result. The other is to use the power of ritual itself to accomplish the same, under the belief that if you perform the ritual correctly, things will manifest on their own since the power of the ritual is superior to even that of gods. The Purva Mimansa school supports the latter approach. It dispenses with the need for God and solely relies upon rituals to achieve human aims, holding the ritual as the source of all creation and fulfillment. However, it is doubtful whether the school ever gained prominence and whether the priests of the Vedic period ever considered themselves magicians or summoned any supernatural powers because of their ritual knowledge of the knowledge of the Vedas with no regard for the gods.

2. Ritual as the means to remove sins and resolve karma

The ritual as the means to overcome sin is one of the important themes of the Vedas. They recognize sin (papam) as a consequence of evil actions (aparadha). Sin is also considered an impurity (dosha), a stain (kalmasha), an impure act (patakam) and a poison (visham), which may lead to suffering or even death (mrityu dosham). According to the Vedas, sin may arise due to a curse, a previous immoral action, a spell cast by another person, the influence of the gunas, displeasure of gods, breaching the eternal laws of God (adharma), negligence of duty (apramatta), mistakes in rituals, eating unclean food, not taking a proper bath, the death of a family member, associating with unclean people, initiating actions during inauspicious times, visiting unclean places, the influence of demonic beings, and so on. They suggest that any actions which interfere with the order and regularity of the world or which breach the word of God results in sin. It was from such ideas that the concept of karma developed as the cumulative result of all the good and evil actions of a person in his or her lifetime.

How did Vedic people address the problem of sin? They used different approaches to resolve it. They performed rituals and tried to appease the gods who they thought were unhappy with their actions or their negligent attitude. Expiatory rituals, fasting, recitation of scriptures, uttering of specific mantras and prayers such as Gayatri, confessing to the person who was wronged (varuna praghasa), seeking the forgiveness of gods and elders, bathing rituals, burning of impure materials and ritual substances, visiting a sacred place or taking dip in a sacred river, using ritual protection, charity, seeking the blessings of a reputed priest or a spiritual master, these were some of the methods they relied upon to cleanse their sins and find relief.

The scriptures also identify several objects as purifiers such as ritual objects, ritually purified and consecrated food and water, certain charms and amulets, water from a sacred well or river, the blessings of a guru and so on. Fire is also considered a purifier in the Vedas. Hence, anything which is touched by fire or burnt by it is considered pure. It was customary to throw all impure objects into fire, including the body of a deceased person. Austerities and penances were considered purifiers because they generated heat (tapah) in the body and cleansed it. It was why in the Ramayana Sita had to walk through the fire to prove her innocence and get rid of the impurity that crept into her due to her stay amidst the demons.

In expiatory rituals, Varuna was frequently invoked as he was believed to be the enforcer of the laws and remover of sin. Varuna was indeed the prototype of the latter day lords of the universe such as Shiva or Vishnu. People also invoked Rudra, as he was believed to be a healer and remover of the poisons of life. In the later Vedic thought such ideas led to the development of devotional theism and the belief that God had the power to neutralize all sins and grant liberation to his devotees.

In the Upanishads, the seers suggest different approaches to resolve sin. The early Upanishads you will find accounts of how the various organs in the body were unable to resist evil temptations in a conflict between gods and demons, while breath remained impervious. Therefore, they recognize breath as the lord of the body and great purifier. They also recognize desire and attachment as the root cause of evil and therefore suggest various practices to wash away sins such as renunciation, detachment, desireless actions, or performing rituals (karma yoga) without any desire for their fruit. In some early texts such as the Svetasvatara, Maitri and Isa Upanishads you will find the idea that one could seek the grace of God through devotion to get rid of past karma.

3. Ritual as an act of charity and service

If nonviolence is the highest virtue in the spiritual life of a person, charity is the highest virtue in the life of a householder. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (5.2.1) suggests how once Brahma gave three advices to gods, humans and demons respectively by uttering the word, “da." He instructed gods to exercise restraint (damyata) and the demons to show kindness (daya). When it came to humans, he asked them to practice charity (dana). He chose the three words, knowing the predominant weakness of each of them.

By nature, humans are greedy and selfish. They like to amass and accumulate things but show great reluctance to give them without expectations. They would not indulge in actions unless there is something in it for them. Hence, Brahma gave them the right advice. He asked them to practice the virtue of giving. The Vedas recognize the chief weakness of humans. Hence, they integrated charity and service in every aspect of the Vedic religion. Vedic rituals exemplify the idealism of charity and the virtue of giving and sharing. They encourage people to perform sacrifices as a way of life and help others, promising rich rewards in return for any act of kindness which they may show. They also enforce the ideal by making charity and service obligatory for the householders as part of their Dharma.

The essential purpose of a sacrificial ritual is to facilitate giving. Every day, humans are expected to perform five daily sacrifices and offer food to gods, animals, ancestors, godmen and human beings. The Taittiriya Upanishad declares that a householder should not refuse lodging or hospitality to anyone. One should gather plenty of food, so that food can be readily made available. If food is readily given, food readily comes to the giver.

Serving food to gods, the guests and visitors is an inseparable aspect of Vedic sacrifice. The celebration is incomplete without it. Food is served to the gods during the sacrifice, while the host and the priests remain on fast until it is completed. In the end food was served to all. While the sacrificial food is limited to a few, no such restrictions are applied to the food which is prepared for distribution.

Such practices, which accompanied the rituals, are meant to enforce the virtue of charity among people for the order and regularity of the world. Serving food during sacrificial ceremonies is obligatory for humans because from the perspective of the Vedas all food is produced from the sacrifices with the help of gods. They facilitate rains and the fertility of soil in return for the offerings they receive, which ensures the abundance of crops and the wealth of cattle. Hence, humans have an obligation to return the favor by helping others with food and keeping the divinities in them pleased and contended.

The logic is simple. If you allow a person to starve or remain hungry in front of your eyes, you are also letting the gods who live in him starve and suffer. You cannot afford to do it, because gods may become displeased with your selfishness or callousness. Therefore, serving food to others is a form of sacrifice only and an obligatory duty.

The Vedas declare food as an aspect of Brahma (annam brahma) and offerings of food as the highest virtue. Therefore, an offering of food is virtually an offering of a portion Brahman to a Brahman. You can take for neither the food nor the giving. In the ritual of offering, it is God who is playing all the roles and keep all aspects of him in balance.

In ancient times, and even now, it was customary for wandering ascetics (sramanas), renunciants (sanyasis) and students of the Vedas to live on alms. They had to take an oath not to cook food and rely upon the goodness of others for their survival. It was obligatory for the householders to help them. Apart from them, they were also supposed to honor any seer, saintly person or a guest who visited their houses, treating them like gods in human form.

4. Ritual as an obligatory duty

In the Taittiriya Upanishad, the teacher warns his students, “Do not neglect your duties to gods and ancestors…Whatever actions are free from egoism (anvadi), etc., should be performed.” The same teacher says that if there is any doubt without regard to any duty, one should follow the example of the most excellent Brahmanas who are skillful in their discernment and judgment.

From the perspective of the Vedas, the Vedic rituals are not invented by humans. They are part of an eternal knowledge which has come to the humans from Brahma through listening. Hence, human beings have to strictly follow the ideal as part of their essential Dharma. They cannot ignore their daily duties, or the duties they have towards gods and other beings. As the loyal devotees of God, they have to perform them strictly according to the established tradition of maintaining the order and regularity of the world.

One cannot be insincere or frivolous in performing sacrifices, as was done by Vajasravas, the father of Naciketa in the Katha Upanishad. He insincerely donated old and dying cows to meet the requirements of the sacrifice. The act of giving should be sincere and without desires, egoism or vanity. The same idea was further refined in the later Upanishads, from which emerged the essential doctrine of Karma Yoga. As the Bhagavadgita declares, people should engage in sacrificial actions without selfishness. They should claim neither ownership nor doership, and must have right resolve and faith (shraddah) in performing sacrificial actions.

Hence, ritual idealism, which is amply reflected in the Bhagavadgita, suggests that the rewards of the sacrifice must return to God, who is its source and who is the sacrificer as well as the sacrificed. Those who perform their duties with desires and expectations do not attain liberation but go to the world of ancestors, from where they return to the earth to continue their bondage and mortal existence in another form in the next life. The Isa Upanishad argues why the rituals belong to God and why no one should claim the ownership of them but continue to engage in them as part of their obligatory duties. It is because all this is inhabited by God. He is the true owner of the universe and the source of every action. Nothing is created by your or owned by you. Hence, human beings should wish to live upon earth, performing their actions with the spirit of renunciation. They should acquire the knowledge of the Self, so that they can perform their duties and sacrifices with right attitude. It is the all-round knowledge of the Self and the sacrifices, which will save human beings from a certain downfall into the darkest hells.

5. Ritual as the means to overcome suffering

Another important theme which permeates the Vedic ritualism is the idea that the sacrifices are the best means to overcome human suffering. Suffering arises due to the presence of sin or impurities in people, in their homes, the objects they use or in their fate. Suffering may also arise due to the progression of time as the world becomes increasingly chaotic or due to excessive presence of evil in the world. According to the Vedas, sin may arise from one’s own actions, the actions of others (such as rivals, enemies, friends, family, the rulers and even strangers), and the actions of gods or God himself. The Vedas address the problem of suffering arising from the three causes and suggest both ritual and spiritual solutions to address them.

The prevailing belief which is validated by the Vedas is that the transgression of God’s eternal laws or negligence of duties towards others primarily results in human suffering and they can be resolved by ritual means. Any action, which disrupts the order and regularity of the world (ritam) is a potential cause for suffering. People create suffering for themselves and others when they engage in falsehood (anrtam), evil actions, selfishness, deception, immoral sexual conduct, insincerity, pride (atisayam), anger, envy, cruelty, negligence (asraddhah), etc. Such actions lead to the wrath of gods, since they are the enforcers of God’s eternal laws (Dharma) upon earth. They in turn subject such evil people to suffering to teach them a lesson. The same beliefs guided the Vedic people. The fear of gods acted as a great deterrent which made the live disciplined lives and adhere to the essential practice of Dharma.

Vedic people looked to the sacrifices as a solution to every problem. Whether it was to neutralize a bad omen or cure a severe illness, they relied upon them. In the early stages of the development of Vedic religion, people primarily depended upon rituals to resolve their suffering, acknowledging their sin as the sole cause of their suffering and using the rituals to resolve it. However, in the later stages with the development of the Upanishadic thought, they used both ritual to spiritual solutions to resolve their suffering. When they believed that their suffering was caused by the displeasure of gods, they tried to appease them through ritual offerings. When they perceived that it was due to the actions of their enemies or rivals, they suggested the use of charms and spells to weaken their resolve or destroy them. When they felt that it was due to the actions of their ancestors or unhappiness, they performed exculpatory rituals to keep them in good spirit and avoid their displeasure.

With regard to the suffering which arose from their own actions, faults or negligence (adhyatmika), they relied upon prayers and expiatory rituals. The Vedas prescribe several expiatory methods to overcome suffering or rectify past transgressions. Sometimes, mere utterance of a mantra or a prayer for a certain number of repetitions is considered a sufficient measure to remedy a situation. Vedic people used such methods to purify their sins or protect themselves from the wrath of gods or evil powers. Confession as an act of expiation was not a universal practice in Vedic times, but in certain domestic sacrifices women were required to confess before Varuna whether they had engaged in any sexual relationships with secret lovers or outside their marriage.

6. Ritual as the means of exchanging gifts

Gift giving was an important aspect of Vedic social and religious life. People exchanged gifts to express their love, strengthen the bonds of their relationships or fulfill their obligation to kings, teachers, men in power and position and gods. Just as they paid respects to their superiors upon earth, they offered gifts to please the lords of the heaven who were still more powerful. Apart from making offerings to gods, the host of the sacrifice richly reward the attending priests, scholars and visiting dignitaries according to their position in society. The cost of some sacrifices was so high that only the wealthiest or the kings could perform them. Cows, gold and silver coins, land grants, women, servants, constituted the gifts when they hosted the sacrifices.

The idea which guided their actions was that nothing should be received without giving something in return. The same was true with regard to knowledge also. It was customary for students to reward their teachers with gifts (dakshina). Since the Vedas were God’s gift to humans, people returned the favor by making offerings to gods in return for the knowledge which they used to communicate with them.

The Chandogya Upanishad contains an interesting story about Janasruti, a pious king who wanted to know the knowledge of the Self from Raikva, who was a cart puller by profession but a seer by knowledge. Janasruti approached him with six hundred cows, a gold necklace and a chariot and requested him to teach him about Brahman. Raivka turned him away, saying that he did not want to teach an undeserving person. Undeterred, Janusruti went again, this time with a thousand cows, a necklace, a chariot and his daughter as a gift. Raikva was impressed by the girl’s beauty and agreed to teach him. We hear a similar story in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in which King Janaka reward Yajnavalkya with a large herd of cows for the knowledge he taught.

Vedic spirituality incorporates the idea of gifts. Men of spirituality performed penances and severe austerities in return for boons from gods. While pious men sought powers for the welfare of others or to ensure the order and regularity of the worlds, the demons practiced the same methods to acquire them and use them to oppress people or even challenge gods. The ethical principle of giving appropriate gifts to others according to their merit is well represented in the stories of demons who habitually obtain gifts and put them to misuse. Not all gifts produced pleasure or happiness. Some gifts are painful and need to be endured as a service to God. The idea is well represented in the story of the churning of the oceans, when Shiva had to accept the gift of poison from the gods to save the world from destruction.

Vedic people offered gifts of love, attention, respect, obedience and food to gods either to please them and seek their help or to keep them from harming. They offered gifts to Maruts, Rudras and Vasus to please them and keep them from harming them. They did the same in case of Rudra, whom they feared as the god of death and destruction. Since Varuna was the enforcer of law, they prayed to him with gifts to forgive them for their sins. They made offerings to Pusan for a good harvest. They sought the help of Indra with rich gifts for victory in wars. To Aditi and her sons, they offered gifts to obtain their blessings and support in their actions. Gods such as Indra, Soma, Mitra and Vayu were offered the gift of Soma juice to keep them in good spirits.

Gifts were also used as the means to attract the attention of gods and keep them in good spirits and to seek blessings from the priests, whose benediction was considered auspicious and beneficial to the host and his family. The giving of gifts enhanced the status of the host in society, and his name and fame as a person of virtue and an upholder of Dharma. On the negative side, overemphasis upon rituals led to abuse, pomp and vanity. Rituals lost their purity and sanctity when people merely practiced them to satisfy an obligation or keep people happy.

The Bhagavadgita (16.15) speaks of the evils of indulging in sacrificial actions, out of pride or vanity. The Katha Upanishad declares, “Joyless are the world to which he goes who gives worthless gifts in charity.”

However, the Vedas do not suggest that only rich people can perform rituals or only expensive gifts matter. In giving gifts, intention and sincerity are more important than the mere formality of gifting. The gods are already opulent. They do not require expensive gifts from humans for their survival. They are satisfied with the offerings of food since it is vital to their nourishment. The Upanishads recognize the evils of materialism and caution people against worldly pleasures.

The Katha Upanishad clearly emphasizes the importance of renunciation of worldly things to acquire the knowledge of liberation. Thus, as far as the divinities were concerned, the value of gifts did not matter. It was the Brahmanas, who looked for expensive gifts and rich grants, since they depended upon it for their wellbeing. The practice seems to have deteriorated in the later Vedic period and exposed the evils of empty ritualism and the obsession of the priests for expensive gifts.

7. Ritual as a way to peace and happiness

Vedic people did not practice sacrifices for negative reasons only to overcome suffering or remove sins. They did it for positive purposes also, seeking peace and happiness here and hereafter. They saw in the rituals an opportunity to elevate their souls and establish peace and happiness. The rituals were essentially supplications for a good life. Through them, worshippers sought to fulfill their desires and experience fulfillment. They prayed for fame, name, increased lifespan, the wealth of cattle, rich harvest, flowing rivers, green pastures, freedom from sickness and diseases, progeny who would enhance their family name and carry forward the lineage, appreciation for their conduct, and so on.

The Vedas contain peace mantras to establish peace within one self, peace in the world and peace in the heaven. When a person is in harmony with the eternal laws of God, he experienced happiness. The best way to abide by the eternal laws of God was by practicing daily rituals and observe all ceremonial obligations so that one could please gods in heaven, the departed ones in the ancestral world and the relations upon earth.

However, the Vedas also suggest that rituals are temporary measures only to deal with the problems of life. The gods are moody and may change their attitude towards any worshipper anytime and for any reason. Once cannot therefore secure through them permanent happiness or lasting solutions to the problem of sin and suffering. It could be achieved only by spiritual means, by pursuing the knowledge of Brahman through self-purification, austerities, renunciation and detachment. The Mundaka Upanishad declares the rituals as inferior in the following words, “Unsteady boats and perishable are these eighteen types of people who participate in sacrifices (yajna), which are declared inferior. The deluded ones who rejoice in them thinking that they lead to good consequences repeatedly return to the world mortality.”

8. Rituals as an opportunity to celebrate life

The rituals provided the Vedic people with a festive opportunity to celebrity life. They helped them to socialize with other members of the community and strengthen their bonds with friends and close relations. They provided a convenient means for people to assemble in private or public and celebrate life in allegiance to gods. When kings performed sacrifices, they invited a number of people, organized cultural events, debates and discussions on religious and spiritual matters, sports, chariot races, and other forms of entertainment. On the night before the rituals, the host and his wife either spent in the company of each other or listened to music or spiritual discourses.

Even simple domestic rituals gave them an opportunity to strengthen family ties and work in unison. Sons who became Snatakas (apprentices) accompanied their fathers to assist them in the rituals. Once in a year, householders performed a domestic sacrifice and invited important members of the community to offer them food and show them their respect and reverence. There were some rituals which had to be performed in open, in groves or in open fields as per tradition and required the participation of an entire community or all relations. When kings and wealthy merchants performed sacrifices, people, especially the Brahmanas, travelled from faraway places to attend them in the hope of pleasing the kings and receiving good rewards from them.

Apart from the domestic and seasonal rituals, Vedic people also practiced several sacrificial ceremonies or Samskaras to mark important occasions in their lives such as conception, pregnancy, birth, initiation into Vedic studies, marriage, and so on. They created opportunities for people to celebrate the occasion, strengthen their filial bonds and bring color and zest into their lives. They also helped people lead divine centered lives and strengthen their faith and commitment to gods. Most of the ceremonies are still practiced in Hinduism in the presence of friends and family, with a lot of festivity and rejoicing.

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