By Isha Srivastva
For millenniums, the ritual of sacrifice or yajna has been considered to be a foundational religious activity of Hinduism. For the Vedic Aryans, Yajna was the paramount activity through which the universe remained in order. These rituals were necessary to attain the 'three worlds'- the world we live in (cosmic world), the intermediate world and heaven.
Sacrifice as Spiritual Obedience
The idea of sacrifice, is to show our allegiance to a universal power, and learning to rely on its provisions over the material comforts that we have made for ourselves. Different people part with various possessions that they would otherwise be frugal with; it can be a piece of clothing, food, a resource or sometimes, even earthly relationships. pursue the knowledge of ones true self and achieve liberation from the bondage of worldly commitments (Sansaar) and Karma.
A Leaf out of history
Community sacrifices and offerings are performed today to attain the liberation of the soul, or moksha. Keeping the multitude of Hindu Gods aside, beyond numbers and gender, a true Hindu will believe in the One reality and One consciousness of God.
Historically, Vedic sacrifice has delineated itself in the Rig Veda (the knowledge of the verses) which explains a highly structured and proper way of performing rituals. Actions accompanied by chanting, carry a cosmic power which brings balance and prosperity in the natural order of the world.
Laurie L Patton, in her book Bringing the Gods to Mind writes, "Without the sacrifice, the sun would not rise in the morning, nor would the cattle grow and multiply, nor would the crops flourish throughout the year. The possibility for long and healthy life for humans, and the worship of the fathers after death, or the ancestors, would not be present."
Ashvamedhayajna was one such Vedic ritual for instance, prescribed in the Yajur Veda (knowledge of the ritual directions) which translates to 'horse sacrifice'. It was regarded to be the highest form of animal sacrifice, with the horse being an ultimate symbol of martial power and one of the most important military resource.
The ritual was performed by emperors or sages who had achieved unparalleled success, to glorify the state of one-ness with Brahman. The Upanishads have likened the human senses to horses that must be controlled lest they shall become wild. Ashvamedha has also been interpreted as an offering of the seven chakras to God, and remaining in God consciousness.
From its pious tributes and ritualistic practises to acting as a symbol of reprehensible social practise, sometimes religion gets robbed of its true identity.
Our religious books spell out that compared to the greatness derived from self knowledge and one-ness with God, the virtues earned by going on pilgrimage sites, or performing a hundred yagnas, are minuscule. Yudhishthira too, had performed Ashvamedha, but while narrating the incident to Yudhisthira'great-granadson, the sage Vaishampayana told him that he should not think too highly of sacrifice, and follow contentment, self restraint, abstain from injuring all creatures.
Rituals are imbued with values and spiritual principles, but when a person gets entangled in rituals, they run the risk of losing the value itself. Yagnas, pilgrimages and offerings hold no merit if we do not imbue our quotidian actions with divine purpose, acts of charity, kindness, and love. We cannot cleanse ourselves with Havans, we have to cleanse ourselves to what Sikhs call the Panj Vikar (Five sins); Kaam (lust), krodh (rage), lobh (greed), moh (attachment) and hankaar (ego).
Most of us have read the story of Sudama (or Kuchela) who offered nothing but rice flakes to his old friend, Lord Krishna. In return, the God showered him with riches and luxury. The story taught an important lesson; nothing greater than self sacrifice and pure Bhakti, can be offered to God.