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Importance of Yajna In Hinduism – Symbolism – Meaning – Different Types of Yajnas

Yajna in Hinduism is an ordered set of symbolic steps of self offering (atmayajna) and is of great importance. The symbolism of yajna is that it is a self-offering for self transformation. Yajna came to have a meaning that was simultaneously macrocosmic and microcosmic:  macrocosmic in that it was equated with the creation or re-creation of the universe; microcosmic in that it represented a concentrated meditative effort for the purpose of inner transformation.

Importance of Yajna In Hinduism

A sacrifice, seated on a stone at the sacrificial fire, beseeches, “Accept me, divine fire, but do not burn me.” Then the sacrifice stands up with an understanding and having been comprehended by the divine fire and sprinkles personal tokens of offerings into household fire (garhapatya) as a seed to sprout forth as a new life, as a new event of becoming. This symbolism has sustained the spirit of yajna.

Although the outward mode of sacrifice has been transformed over time into worship, the spirit of self-offering for self transformation remains as before.

Yajna is analogous to the first act of creation. As the first creator relinquishes claim to the created after creating, so in sacrifice the sacrificer relinquishes the offering. This non-possession establishes a harmonious relationship with the sacrificer’s inner reality.

The main instrument of harmony is mantra, the sacred incantation. A mantra (which is a means of meditating on a desired divine form) is therefore a prerequisite to the sacrifice in the same way that the first explosion of Pranava, the primordial sound aum, was the initiator of the act of creation. The presence of divinity ensured only by the utterance of mantras. Synchronization of mind, speech, and action that comes about in yajna, especially through the articulation of mantra, creates a complete harmony within the person making the sacrifice. Simultaneously, the universe is charge with a harmonious spirit.

Five Daily Yajnas

As per Manusmriti, there are five daily yajnas:
  1. Brahma Yajna
  2. Pitru Yajna
  3. Daiva Yajna
  4. Bhuta Yajna
  5. Manushya Yajna

Brahma Yajna is offering the highest knowledge – the knowledge of Brahman – through imparting Vedic learning.

Pitru Yagna is offering water sacrifice by a mantra to one’s forefathers.

Daiva Yajna is a libation in meditating a sacrificial fire – an offering to gods.
Bhuta Yajna is giving of food and drink to beings other than human beings – an offering to all beings.

Manushya Yajna is offering hospitality to guests.

These daily rites are continuous reminder of one’s obligations to the universe and means toward the goal of perfect harmony.

Similarly, all intellectual meditative pursuits are yajans – so are all good works, and ultimately all life is turned into a yajna.

Soma Yajna During 116 Years Life Span On Earth

Two legends from Chandogya Upanishad illustrate the spirit of yajna. Mahidasa legend equates Purusha, the person within every person, with yajna and divides human life into three stages, analogous to the three offertory pressings of the leaves of the soma plant at morning, noon and evening.

The morning pressing is identified with the first twenty four years of life: The Earth is in full splendor, and one should invoke its presiding deities (Vasus) as vital principles of life and should meditate as follows “May I never become unmindful of the spirit of Yajna, being continuously amidst the eight Vasus, identified with my own zest of life, so that I am ready for the noon pressing.” The first pressing gives a thin but overflowing sap of life.

The noon pressing is identified with the middle forty-four years of life, up to age sixty-eight; the middle region (that between heaven and earth) is in full splendor; eleven Rudras are the presiding deities. Rudras at times make people pass through great hardships, and one must meditate as follows:

“May I never be unmindful of the spirit of yajna in spite of living such a hard, strife-laden life, living as I am amidst Rudras.” The sap of soma at this pressing is thick and restrained like the middle span of life.

The evening pressing is identified with the final forty-eight-year period of life: heavens are in full splendor; the quest for summon bonum of life is at its peak, and Adityas are the presiding deities. They are twelve in number, one for each month of the year. One must meditate as follows: “May I never be unmindful of the spirit of yajna and be the receiver o allness from the Adityas.” The sap of soma becomes scantier and scantier, but more and more condensed so that life becomes a solidified crystal that can wholly take in the divine light. The legend concludes: Contemplate this legend, and one will live a full, health life of 116 years.

Yajna Is More Than Mere Rituals

The second legend takes the form of instruction given to Devakiputra Krishna by the preceptor Ghora (of the Angiras family). Again there are three steps in a sacrificial rite, each relating to a stage of life.

The first is diksha (initiation). When one feels hunger, thirst and loneliness, it is as if one is being initiated into the mysteries of life. Only then can one comprehend fully the hunger, thirst and loneliness of fellow beings.

The second step is called taking a seat near the divinity (upasada), when through effort one satiates hunger, quenches thirst and enjoys company. Only then can one satisfy other people’s hunger, thirst and loneliness.

The third yajna is articulation of an incantation praising the Shastra mantra (glory of the divinity). Then one reaps the fruit of effort and has attained contentment and peace with the entire universe. The legend adds that tapas (austerity), dana (charity), arjava (simplicity), ahimsa (non-violence) and satyavachana (truth) are the fees that must be paid in final settlement: one who treats life as a continuous sacrifice becomes endowed with these divine qualities. Then death is not an end; it is like a ceremonial bath, a renewal, a rebirth.

Atma Yajna – Self Sacrifice

Both legends illustrate the same principle: yajna is more than the rites that go into it. Yajna culminates in the distillation of all sacrifices: sacrificial bricks are laid down in a shape that reflects the whole universe; the agnicayana (heat of consciousness) flows through them. This generates a deeper quest into the nature of the self, into the self of the self, into the truth of all truths. This is atmayajna (self sacrifice).

The evolution of this idea became integrated into different systems of worship and different ways of meditation. For example, while enumerating the different manifestations of his glory, Krishna said to Arjuna, “I am japa, yajna of all yajnas.” He meant that ordinarily japa is considered to be continuous repetition of one name or formula, synchronized with the breath and the mental vibration.

Three Broad Categories of Yajna in Hinduism

Yajnas may be classified into three broad categories, and each of these is of seven types:
  1. Paka Yajna – offering cooked food
  2. Havir Yajna – Offering uncooked food (pieces of wood, clarified butter, uncooked rice, barley, sesame, and so on0
  3. Soma Yajna – offering of the sapa of soma, which in later times was replaced by the juice of other vines.

In Paka Yajna, food is first cooked at the household fire, it is then offered, either alone or with another offering.
The seven types of paka yajnas are
  1. Sthalipaka – cooked in a bronze pot
  2. Astaka – cooked on eight shards of clay
  3. Amasraddha – cooked pudding offered to the pitrus (ancestors) on the last day of the dark fortnight of every month.
  4. Ausasana homa – an offering made at daybreak
  5. Sravani – made on the last day of the bright fortnight of Sravana (July/August)
  6. Agrahayani – made at the time of new autumn crop (reaped in Agrahayana (October or November)
  7. Chaitri, made at the time of a new spring crop, reaped in Chaitra (March/April)

The seven types of Havir Yajna are
  1. Agnihoma – a daily offering of clarified butter and grains, place in the fire
  2. Darsha – made on the last day of the dark fortnight of each month (Amavasya)
  3. Paurnamasa – made on the full moon day every month. (Purnima)
  4. Agrayana – made on the first day of the new year
  5. Chaturmasya – made during the four turns of the seasons
  6. Nirudhapshubandha – offering of a representation of an animal
  7. Sautramani – an offering to Indra, made in order to be reborn in the sacrifice as sarvatanu (all body).

Seven forms of Soma Yajna are
  1. Agnistoma
  2. Atyagnistoma
  3. Ukthya
  4. Sodasin
  5. Vajapeya
  6. Atiratra
  7. Aptoryama

Soma yajna invariably involved the offering of soma juice. Pressing of the juice and its fermentation together were accompanied by the chanting of Sama, musical renderings of selected hymns. Soma symbolized the latent power of all life and its pressing symbolized an act of consummation of one’s essence into the heat of the desire seeking unity with all beings. The elaborate Soma yajnas of Rajasuya and Ashwamedha were performed to celebrate royal consecration and royal victory, respectively.

Vedic Yajna Involved Participation Of Entire Community

Over time, Soma yajna became largely symbolic. The Vedic yajna institution was a social institution – it involved the participation of the entire community –and over the course of time more personalized spiritual activities took over. Yajna institutions were merged into them. Many yajnas continued to be performed in a limited way, either as performances at special royal occasions, or as individual instructional performances by Vedic scholars.
They continue even today, though in a different form and on a different plane. As community activities they have been transformed into Samrta Yajna (remembered yajnas), seeking peace and prosperity for all. Besides instructional performances, elaborate rites (involving Vedic as well as Puranic models fused into one) are being performed for universal as well as mundane gains.

The importance of yajna lies not so much in its continuity as a defined specific set of rites as in its continuity as the drawing force in everyday life, transforming every human endeavor into divine work.

Yajna finds new manifestations in other spiritual practices, such as worship, meditation, ritual, pursuit of knowledge, devotion, incantation of a mantra or in the performance of duty.

On surface all these activities look different and sometimes even contradictory, but the underlying principle is the same; to invoke the divine, the essential truth in oneself – yajna.

Source - The Encyclopedia of Hinduism Volume XI - (IHRF) (page 570 - 572)
Hinduism and Buddhism, A.K Coomaraswamy 1943
Yajna and Eucharist – An inter-religious approach to the theology of sacrifice by Louis Malieckal 1989
Principles of Yajna-Vidhi – Introduction Ramachandra Rao and Saligrama Krishna 1991 by Kalpatharu Research Academy.