What is Yagna?
A yagna is a sacrifice, an offering, an oblation. It’s most known form is an offering into the fire but it can take other forms as well. The offerings, known as samagri, are varied and include rice, grains, milk, ghee, fruits and other foods. Non-food items can be offered also depending on the yagna. The offerings are given as nourishment to the devas, the Vedic gods, who have various cosmic functions in the universe.
Agni, the deity of fire and the messenger of the devas, has a principal role in the yagna. Being embodied in the fire, Agni is vital for taking the prayer to the heavens which are the abode of the devas. The yagna takes a very specific form, with the fire or ‘kund’ set up in line with detailed instructions. Offerings are made in a designated order, and with Sanskrit mantras chanted at the same time. The yagna can only be conducted by Brahmins, suitably qualified members of the priestly class with others being allowed to intermittently join in the offering.
What is the purpose of Yagna?
The undertaking of yagna is dharma, or duty, which is righteous living in accordance with the cosmic law. There are 21 nityakarmas, or obligatory yagnas, two of which are to be performed daily. The remainder are performed at various times of the year. Another 400 or so kamyakarmas, or optional yagnas, are described in the Vedas and can be conducted to receive specific blessings. For example, should someone have trouble conceiving a child or if someone faces financial difficulty, one can perform a yagna to the appropriate deity to overcome the karmic obstacle.
By performing the prescribed yagna one nourishes the devas and receives nourishment in return. The yagna is a harmonious action in keeping with the cosmic order. By doing the nityakarma yagnas one behaves according to dharma and purifies oneself by aligning one’s consciousness to sattva. By doing kamyakarma yagnas one can utilise the law of karma to overcome karmic blockages in this life or bring about the desired result. With the performance of sacrifice according to dharma one is rewarded with blessings from the devas. Sattvic actions bring about sattvic results in this life and the next.
The yagna is described in the Vedas. These are the ancient texts of Hinduism believed to be eternal Sruti (literally ‘that which is heard’) and revealed to the ancient seers, known as Rishis, in the depths of ecstatic meditation. The Vedas can be split into two broad sections: the karma kanda and the jnyana kanda. The karma kanda describes, among other things, the devas, their functions and offers hymns in praise of them. It also prescribes strict and detailed rules around sacrifice to the devas as a way of honouring them and receiving their blessings.
Isn’t the Yagna just Superstition?
It is easy to dismiss the yagna but its underlying truth can be understood by looking at the other major section of the Vedas, the jnyana kanda. This describes profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality. This section includes the Upanishads which describe Brahman, the one ultimate reality – God – who is the spiritual support of all material existence, which is known as Prakriti. The jnyana kanda also describes the Atma or spiritual soul of living beings and its relationship to Brahman.
In Hindu cosmology God, the Karana Karanam, or eternal, infinite ‘Cause of Causes’ manifests the material universe out of Himself as ‘leela’ or playful creative expression. It is by the will of God that Prakriti evolves out of Him and devolves back into Him in a beginning-less and endless cycle.
The Three Gunas
Prakriti, the material universe, at the most fundamental level comprises three gunas or modes. The gunas are sattva (wisdom, purity, harmony) rajas (desire, action, movement) and tamas (ignorance, darkness, inertia). The varying mixture of these three principles is responsible for the infinite variety of nature. Eternal souls, which are a spark of infinite God, are entangled with Prakriti and come under the sway of the gunas.
Prakriti is ever-changing and evolves by cosmic law, principally the law of cause and effect. This is evident in the physical laws of the universe. This law manifests for conscious beings as the moral law of karma. This is the actions one undertakes determine life circumstances in this life and in lives yet to come as the soul transmigrates from one body to another in the cycle of reincarnation.
There are three planes of existence in the material universe: the heavenly realms of the devas, the earthly realms and the hellish realms. The heavenly realms are predominantly of sattva guna, the earthly of rajas and the hellish of tamas. The embodied soul can, by performing sattvic acts in keeping with dharma, ascend to heavenly realms, enjoying the merit achieved and then returning eventually to the earthly realms. Alternatively, the embodied soul can behave against dharma in the mode of tamas and descend to hellish realms, paying their cosmic debt before returning to earth.
How to perform Yagna?
The soul of every being is affected by previous karma in the current life. Previous deeds impact one’s current life situation. Due to karma, the soul transmigrates from body to body in the cycle of samsara – death and rebirth. The yagna can be used to alter the karmic results being felt in this life and to be experienced in the next. The hope for many is that by doing good karma such as yagna, one can attain heaven in the next life.
A whole branch of Hindu philosophy, known as Mimamsa, has developed around using the prescriptions of the karma kanda to achieve benefits in this life and heaven in the next. But this philosophy discounts the jnyana kanda. This describes the one God that upholds the whole universe and the possibility of moksha, liberation from death and rebirth by achieving blissful communion with Him in the purely transcendental realm.
Sri Krishna, the avatar of God, mocks Mimamsa philosophy in the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between Him and His devotee Arjuna. He states:
“Those with limited understanding, get attracted to the flowery words of the Vedas, which advocate ostentatious rituals for elevation to the celestial abodes, and presume no higher principle is described in them. They glorify only those portions of the Vedas that please their senses, and perform pompous ritualistic ceremonies for attaining high birth, opulence, sensual enjoyment, and elevation to the heavenly planets.” (Bhagavad Gita Ch2 v42-43)
Sri Krishna describes to Arjuna a higher aim, the ultimate aim of all beings; to achieve liberation from birth and death. To realize one’s own spiritual nature and attaining eternal communion with Him. This transcendent state is the highest and the end of all suffering, which is rooted in separation from the Lord. Sri Krishna explains that the path to moksha is called yoga.
The Path of Bhakti Yoga and Yagna
The highest form of this yoga is bhakti, pure love and devotion to God.
Within bhakti yoga, all actions become dedicated to God as an act of loving service, as an act of pure sacrifice made for His sake. This opens the floodgates of grace from the Lord to his genuine devotee, granting the devotee liberation. For the devotee, actions, such as the prescribed duty to perform yagna, or even non-obligatory yagnas, are no longer motivated by the desire for a beneficial result. This loosens the bonds of karma because it is the desire for a specific result that creates karma, not the action itself. This mode of desire-less action is known as karma yoga.
Krishna states that the people who do the yagna for results will get the result they desire. But it is He, as the support of all, who ultimately grants the beneficial result through the devas. All offerings are truly made to Him alone. The karma yogi still undertakes prescribed yagnas, venerating the devas to benefit mankind generally and to continue to set a good example to lesser men, who otherwise might stray from the path of dharma and bring inauspicious karmic results to themselves. But he does it with the intention that the Supreme Lord is the ultimate enjoyer of the yagna and that is the only purpose for which it is being done. The karma yogi, therefore, breaks free of the bonds of karma and infuses all actions, including the yagna, with bhakti.
For those people not seeking to attain the Lord Himself, the yagna sacrifice is a mercy that allows them to gain karmic merit in this life and the next. For the true seeker of God, the yagna is a true sacrifice in which something is offered for its own sake out of pure love. Indeed, for the bhakta, all actions become a true yagna, with every act a sacrifice being done to please and serve the Lord.