The Significance of Sacrifice

Samudragupta's coin of the horse sacrifice rit...
Samudragupta's coin of the horse sacrifice ritual (Ashvamedha) via Wikipedia

By: Jared B. Hobbs

In the Vedic culture, ritual sacrifice, or yajna, was a central feature of many facets of society. As the Aryans abandoned nomadicism for an agrarian lifestyle, the rituals were no longer an entirely mobile event. Increased food production led to an increased population with specialized occupations. These changes induced a transformation in the ritual sacrifice contributing to its expanding complexity. This sophistication inferred a central importance and power to the ritual. It held a grand purpose and meaning, involving the Vedic people, deities, literature, and recitation of the literature.

The meaning and purpose of the ritual sacrifice are intertwined. For the individual, the sacrifice was an attempt to gain entry into the heaven realms after death. Socially, it gave purpose to people of different castes, allowing them to perform their karma (ritual action) and fulfill their dharma (duty in alignment with the many-tiered order of reality). On a more encompassing scale, the performance of the yajna supported the maintenance of Rta, or the cosmic order.

The sacrificer, or yajamana, worships on his own behalf. He is usually a householder, whose purpose it is to live an actively engaged life within the worldly affairs which helps uphold the social order. He hires the Brahmin priests to perform the ritual. They ensure a precise performance, and the yajamana pays his daksina, wages or priestly gift, which secures the benefits of the sacrifice as his own. The householder reaps his spiritual benefits, the Brahmins get paid, and both perform their karmic and dharmic responsibilities.

The recitation of the Vedic literature by the Brahmins is an important part of the ritual sacrifice and was considered very powerful. It reified the reality of the gods and the Veda, which was memorized and reproduced orally before the composition of the Rig Veda. Sanskrit was supposedly designed with each syllable reproducing a significant vibration, thus the precision of the recitation was considered of utmost importance. The performance of the mantras was not only considered to solidify the reality of the gods and their virtues, but the speech itself is what escalated them to the status they enjoy now. Words and syllables are symbols, pointers to a transcendental or abstract reality. This quality was anthropomorphized in the goddess Vac, possibly for an increased ease of understanding and manipulation.

For these reasons the Brahmins were considered to have a crucial role in Rta. As the keepers of the oral tradition they actually had access to the secrets of reality. The recitation of the literature ensured the maintenance of the universe for the benefit of the social and cosmic good.

Cosmically, the ritual emulates creation, reiterating the prime events that birthed existence, the universe, ritual itself, all of the beings within the universe, and their social orders. The sacrifice was consumed as sustenance by the gods, and the mantras were of such power that the gods could not reject them. These conditions ensured the continual workings of Rta and the virtuous qualities the gods embodied.

The creation stories feature many intricate speculations on the cosmic meaning of the ritual. In all, creation is considered a ritual. For instance, a primeval being named Purusha was sacrificed (Rig Veda 10.90) in a Vedic ritual, and his many body parts became portions of the cosmos or social structure. To perform a ritual action is to carry out karma, which contains a power linked to the very first ritual action. As in other creation stories of the Rig Veda, this has a self-referencing power. An example of this can be found in the Rig Veda 10.121, where an unknown god is a golden embryo that hatches and brings forth the universe. He is the golden egg, is born from the golden egg, and himself lays the golden egg. These paradoxes point to a transcendental event in which karma is an important aspect. This is how the Vedic sacrifice upholds Rta.

The literature plays a large role in the sacrifice, being what guides the ritual, what is spoken during it, and what gives it its power. The Vedas can be found in four distinct sections, each of which has a specific purpose in the ritual and is handled by a separate Brahmin. A Brahmin known as the Hotar will recite passages from the Rig Veda, which contain the base versions of the creation stories, hymns of praise for the gods, and ritual recitations. The Udgatar sings from the Sama Veda, a book of songs based on the Rig Veda, but with instructions on proper pronunciation. The Adhvaryu speaks mantras from the Yajur Veda, containing liturgies for the ritual. The Atharva Veda holds hymns for individual health and prosperity for the daily life of the householder and may not be represented in a ritual demanding Brahmins. A specific Brahmin known as the Brahman scrutinizes the ritual to catch mistakes made so that they may be arduously corrected.

The intricacy involving the meaning and purpose of the people, deities, ritual, and literature are inextricably interwoven. The people of every caste serve as needed members and perform necessary actions on behalf of the proper operation of the social and cosmic orders. The gods accept the sacrifice of the ritual, performed according to the Vedic literature. The many elements surrounding the sacrifice each possess their own significance, contributing to the all-encompassing importance of the Vedic ritual.

About The Author

For more information on Hindu topics such as vedic society, please visit Jared B. Hobbs at his blog Meditations for all topics spiritual, psychological, philosophical, and more!
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