Yajna - The Foundation of Vedic Culture

Jan - Feb 2003

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Gayatri and Yagna constitute the foundation of the Vedic Culture. While Gayatri imparts wisdom and pure intelligence, Yagna inspires corresponding creativity and actions. In talking of the Vedic age the images of the great rishis performing agnihotra-yagnas instantly flashes before our sight. In those days, apart from the rishis, the rich and the poor, the kings and citizens also had an equally deep faith and respect for Yagna and they used to sincerely participate in and lend wholehearted support for different kinds of Yagnas.

The rishis used to spend at least one-third of their lives in conducting Yagnas. It was a common belief and an observed fact in the Vedic Indian society that Yagna was essential for the refinement of human life from a shudra (i.e. a person living a life driven by animal instincts) to a Brahmin (i.e. a wise, knowledgeable, charitable person), and ultimately to a divine, great personality. Yagnas played an essential role in the all-round progress, prosperity and happiness in the Vedic age. This was indeed natural, as the philosophy and science of Yagna and the different modes of performing agni-yagna were discovered and developed by the rishis based on their deep understanding and in-depth research of the human psyche, the intricacies of the social fabric and the mysteries of Nature.

The brilliance and purity of agni (fire) appears to be a universal symbol for worship. The rituals of different religions affirm this fact. The first mantra of Rigaveda - the most ancient scripture of knowledge on Earth, quotes "agnimaye purohitam", signifying agni as a sacred symbol of God. This is what is referred to in different religious and spiritual scriptures as Brahmateja, Divine Flame, Sacred Glow, Divine Light, Latent Light, etc. The Vedic hymn "agne supatha raye" prays to this omnipotent, supreme power to enlighten and inspire us towards the righteous path. The same is meant in the phrase "dhiyo yonah prachodayat" of the great Gayatri Mantra.

Meaning of Yagna:
In its gross form, Yagna is a spiritual experiment of sacrificing and sublimating the havana samagri (herbal preparations) in the fire accompanied by the chanting of Vedic mantras. This is only the outer physical process or ritual of Yagna, which has scientific importance and beneficial effects. This agni-yagna when performed on a small scale is also known as havan, homam or agnihotra.

The meaning of yagna is not confined to this sacrificial ritual. It has a much wider and deeper meaning. The word yagna is derived from the Sanskrit verb yaj, which has a three-fold meaning: worship of deities (devapujana), unity (sangatikarana) and charity (dana). The philosophy of yagna teaches a way of living in the society in harmony and a lifestyle which promotes and protects higher human values in the society, which is indeed the basis of an ideal human culture.

Scientific Aspects of Yagna:

The four Vedas signify the philosophy of the eternity and complementarity of Gayatri and Yagna in the divine creations. Further, the Atharvaveda also deals with the sound therapy aspects of the mantras. They can be used for the treatment of the ailing human system at the physical, psychological and spiritual levels. The Samaveda focuses on the musical chanting patterns of the mantras and the subtle form of yagna by defining the latter as the process of mental oblation on the surface of internal emotions through the cosmic radiations of the omnipresent subtle energy of sound. The Yajurveda contains the knowledge of the principles and the methods of performing yagnas as a part of the spiritual and scientific experiments for global welfare.

The effects of yagna include treatment of various diseases and the removal of atmospheric pollution (discussed in detail in the coming issues). Another prominent effect is parjanya.

Parjanya implies sublime showers of vital energy and spiritual strength from the upper cosmic planes (higher space). As the natural fertilizers add to the fertility of soil, the unique confluence of the power of mantra, thermal force and sublimated herbal energy in yagna increases the vital energy (prana)1 in the atmosphere while purifying the air. This prana is inherent in the air. The sadhaka, having prepared himself through pranayama, is able to inhale this parjanya along with oxygen through inner determination (samkalpa). The flow of fresh air in the morning has been found to be rich in prana. The larger the scale of yajgns and the longer their duration, the greater would be these effects.

The parjanya generated by yagna augments the level of prana in the air. This effect is condensed around the yagnashala (the area where is yagna performed) but is also prevalent in the wider space and continues to expand with the flow of air with the process of yagna. If we pour some oil drops in a pot containing water, the oil separates itself from water and spreads on the surface of water. In a similar way, the energy of yagna expands all around in the open space. Its prana, its essence, its energy, is also present in the water contained in the clouds. This is showered in the form of rain and thus gets absorbed in the soil, crops and vegetation. The soil irrigated by it is found to be more fertile and the grains, fruits and vegetables grown there are tastier and have higher nutritive value. The milk of the cows which graze the grass grown on such lands is also of excellent quality. Drinking the milk and eating the fruits and vegetables energized by yagna increases our stamina, resistance against infections and diseases, and mental astuteness.

In fact the cosmic flow of prana is omnipresent in the subliminal realms of Nature. It enables all activities, movements and evolution of living beings. All creatures possess prana and therefore they are called prani. Prana is the source of our vital strength. If it were present in substantial amount in the body, an apparently lean and skinny person would be very strong and healthy (e.g. Mahatma Gandhi). Its elevated levels are expressed in mental radiance, intellectual sharpness and talents. Its reduction on the contrary would render a physically robust person weak, lethargic and dull. Reduction of this subtle energy in plants and trees would diminish the shining beauty of flowers, and nutrient quality of fruits, vegetables and grains. Decreased levels of prana in the air, despite the presence of substantial amounts of oxygen, would lessen its vitality. Even deep breathing of this otherwise fresh air would not have the desired healthy effects. People living at such places are found to lack vital strength, immunity and mental sharpness. The parjanya extracted by yagna compensates for these deficiencies.

Types of Yagnas:

A variety of yagnas are described in the scriptures. The seva yagna, meaning service to the society, is a noble example of yagna. The gyana yagna corresponds to the service of people by enlightening their lives with the glow of knowledge and education. The prana yagna implies the selfless service of saving the lives of people from sufferings and agonies and inspiring liveliness and reverence for life in them.

Modern times and ignorance towards a great tradition:

In the tides of time we lost and forgot the original purpose, relevance and importance of yagna in our life. It wont be an exaggeration to conclude that this negligence has been a major cause of our fallen and miserable state today. Nevertheless, there is a hope of reviving the yagna in its original form, as we have somehow continued the tradition of yagna as a holy custom and occasionally perform it, in some form at least, as a symbolic ritual. Although lifeless and deformed, a feeble and hazy image of this ancient tradition is still with us. All important ceremonies, including the solah samskaras (sixteen rituals that are performed at various stages of life from birth till death), are conducted with yagna. For instance, the Vedic mode of the wedding ceremony (vivaha samskara) takes place in the presence of the sacred flames of yagna. As the melting heat of the fire welds and binds two metal pieces, the pious glow and the spiritual warmth of the yagyagni (the fire of yagna) conjugate the souls of the bride and the groom through the sacred knot of marriage. The cremation rites (daha or antyeshti samskara) is also a yagna. The significance of yagna in the thread ceremony (upanayana samskara) is self-evident, as the sacred thread donned to symbolize the initiation of an enlightened life is called "yagyopavita". This thread is always worn in the auspicious presence of yagyagni.

Yagna is also performed during the programme of katha-kirtan (the recital of an allegoric story along with devotional songs), religious celebrations and the occasions of special festivals. For example, Holi, which is celebrated these days as a colour festival was originally a festival of yagna to celebrate the harvesting of ripe crop every year. A handful of fresh grains is required to be sacrificed in the "holi- yagna" as a mark of expressing gratitude to Gods grace. It also signifies the spirit of purifying the grain in yagyagni before using it in food preparations. Yagna is also performed on religious functions like Satya Narayan Katha, Bhagvat Katha, Ramayan Parayan, etc. Specific yagnas are also invariably linked with the Vedic as well as the tantrika sadhana-anusthanas.

Gayatri sadhana is regarded incomplete without yagna. The number of ahutis offered in the havans or yagnas organized to mark the end of Gayatri anushthana or mahapurascaranas should at least equal the tenth or hundredth fraction of the number of japas completed everyday in these sadhanas. Worshipping various manifestations of God is also required to be carried out with specific kinds of yagna, as described in the holy places of pilgrimage. The prominence of tirthas, the places of pilgrimage, is also associated with yagna since the Vedic Age. The places where grand yagnas were organized and conducted by the rishis became tirthas and are still revered as holy destinations of pilgrimage in India.


 What we find today in the Indian society is largely a distorted and superficial custom of yagna. The knowledge of the philosophy and science of yagna is as essential for understanding and experimenting the science of spirituality as the knowledge of elementary physics for the material sciences. We shall continue discussing its different aspects, including the scientific research on yagna in some modern labs in the future issues of this magazine.


1. For a discussion on prana, see the article "The Philosophy of Gayatri: An Introduction" in this issue.

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