यज् ‘Yaja’ means to offer, and it refers to the Vedic ritual which includes chanting of Mantras in a specific manner by experts, with oblations of ‘ghee’ and other sacred herbs into the holy fire. ‘Yajna’ also means sacrifice and it is a part of the ‘Karmakanda’ portion of the Vedas. It is believed that a person conducting a yajna attains liberation or moksha. ‘Yajna’ symbolizes the purpose of human life which is giving- that is giving benevolent actions and service to fellow beings.
Apart from these formal yajnas, Hindu scriptures lay down five important duties which are labeled as Pancha Mahayajnas to be followed by every householder. What are these five great sacrifices? Let us see them in detail.
The five great sacrifices
These five sacrifices should be done by every householder in his/her own home and these come under nithyakarma or everyday duties. These are
1. Deva Yajna
2. Rishi Yajna
3. Pitru Yajna
4. Athithi Yajna
5. Bhuta Yajna
We owe a lot to Nature, our ancestors, other beings on this earth for a great deal of many things ever since we are born on this earth. During the course of our daily life, we unwittingly and unknowingly commit many sins. Visualize this situation; as soon as you step into your kitchen, you sight a cockroach. Now you are filled with a dharmic dilemma if you are one given to righteous living. Should you kill it because it is a pest or should you view it as a jivi with an atma? As a householder you have to carry out many acts not exactly to your liking. Similarly while we are walking, many organisms and insects come under our feet. So also when going about our daily chores. These come under Pancha Soona meaning five different kinds of sin. They occur when one goes about the following chores
(1) Kandani - Pounding (2) Peshani - Grinding, (3) Udakumbhi - Washing pots, (4) Marjani - Sweeping and Cleaning and (5) Chulli - Lighting hearths
Householders, therefore, are advised to conduct the pancha mahayajnas as a means of atonement for the sins- prayaschitta. In a larger perspective, it actually means achieving total empathy with all other beings in the universe and becoming a part of cosmic consciousness.
Construction of a shrine exclusively for god is a must in every home. A small portion of one’s home, however small or large should be kept aside for placing images of gods and lighting a lamp every day both in the morning and evening. A few minutes of silent contemplation at the shrine thinking of god and praying for His grace to go through each day of one’s life is absolutely essential. Also, we must never forget to thank Him for His many blessings which we receive each passing day. This is deva yajna, the first of the five great yajnas.
Rishi Yajna/ Brahma Yajna
Sages and seers have passed on their wisdom through the Scriptures they have written. By reading a portion of these each day, we become transformed as we imbibe the good thoughts and advice dispensed therein. The Atharva Veda affirms “Do not be led by others, awaken your own mind, amass your own experience and decide for yourself your own path”. Swadhyaya or reading has always been held in high esteem in Hinduism and the fact that we have not one but many Scriptures both primary and secondary attests the importance given to books and reading in the religion. The holy books have always provided succor to the lonely and have been a guide to the seeker. That’s why saints and philosophers have written countless commentaries, bhashyas and works to inspire and propel those seeking realization. Seers who have received transcendental thoughts in their metaphysical state have recorded them for posterity. Shrutis are direct messages heard by the seers while Smritis are a compendium of whatever was heard and recollected. Vedas, Upanishads and the countless other texts guide man on his onward journey as he goes about fulfilling his goals of dharma, artha, kama and moksha.
Upanishads verily mean sitting by the side of the guru and learning profound truths. What happens when one does not find such a guru? Despair not, say our scriptures. The body of work that is present before us verily serves as the acharya or guru. Svaadhyaya or self-study is almost a niyama or a discipline in Hinduism. The Taittiriya Upanishad states
सत्यंवद । धर्मंचर । स्वाध्यायान्माप्रमदः ।
Speak the truth follow the dharma, from Svadhyaya never cease.
— Taittiriya Upanishad, 1.11.1-2
Learning and contemplating whatever is read is an important step towards understanding complex truths. Further, the Upanishad exhorts us to first study, understand the truths, contemplate and then teach others
ṛtaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
satyaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
tapaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
damaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
śamaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
agnayaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
agnihotraṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
atithayaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
mānuṣaṃ ca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
prajā ca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
prajanaśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
prajātiśca svādhyāyapravacane ca ।
satyamiti satyavacā rāthītaraḥ ।
tapa iti taponityaḥ pauruśiṣṭiḥ ।
svādhyāyapravacane eveti nāko maudgalyaḥ ।
taddhi tapastaddhi tapaḥ ॥ 1॥ iti navamo'nuvākaḥ
Scriptures inspire us to reflect the meaning of the truths that are contained therein. The noble truths enshrined in the Scriptures goad man to a life of reflective thinking and assimilation of ideas. Scriptures themselves become the guru as they are capable of bringing about a gradual transformation. Brahma Yagna or Veda Yajna or Rishi Yajna helps us to pay homage to the great masters and the books that have enriched our lives by opening our eyes to knowledge removing the veil of ignorance.
Matru devo Bhava, Pitru devo Bhava, Acharya devo bhava. Taking care of parents in their old age, gratitude to all that they have done and behaving in a manner that does not cause any hurt to them- this is the real meaning of pitru yajna. What is the point of offering oblation to the manes or ancestors after they have left this world? So the first step in Pitru yajna is to make one’s own parents happy with one’s behavior. The story of Pundalika helps us realize that even the lord appreciates the gesture of a devotee who was busy serving his parents and hence had asked the lord to wait a while till his routine was completed.
After their departure from this world, the children have to enshrine the parents in their memory and then perform acts of charity and sacrifice. Conducting annual ceremony ensures that the ancestors are propitiated. All these help in honoring their memory in gratitude.
Athithi devo bhava- Our Scriptures exhort us to look at the guest, expected or unexpected, as a representative of god and feed him/ her to heart’s content. In the ancient days, sanyasins, tapasvins and yogis would often travel from place to place and come for alms at the house of the householder. The famous story from the life of Adi Sankara is worth recalling in this context. One day when Sankara was a young boy, as was his usual habit, he went begging for alms. He went to the house of a poor Brahmin lady. The lady was unhappy as she had nothing to offer to the Brahmin boy. She went inside and searched and finally found one gooseberry (amla) and requested him to accept it as bhiksha, asking him for forgiveness as she had nothing more to offer him. Moved by her plight, Sankara burst forth into a song of 21 verses in praise of Goddess Lakshmi asking her to grant riches to the poor woman. The Goddess was so pleased that she is said to have showered gooseberries of pure gold. This song became famous as the Kanakadhara Stotra.
In today’s context where finding and feeding athithis may be rare, householders can donate food to the homeless and unfortunate that can be found in all places thus fulfilling this important yajna. Anna danam is akin to prana danam for food is verily life. Hence donating food is the best option.
Compassion to fellow creatures is the underlying principle behind this yajna. It is our foremost duty to take care of animals and all other creatures in this universe. In the olden days, making rangoli patterns in front of the house was done with rice flour. This would attract ants who would feed on them. Crows were served a fistful of cooked rice each morning. Cows would be fed with grass and water. But in the modern age, these practices are slowly being forgotten especially in cities and urban centres. The save the sparrow campaign, calling for creating birdbaths, keeping bowls of water in summer for birds, feeding a hungry dog are all being promoted on the social media and these are examples of bhuta yajna. Children have to be taught that it is our duty to include animals and birds in our scheme of things and be raised with empathy for these creatures. Worshipping other life forms or manifestations of nature means not going against them or exploiting them in any way. Whatever we get is due to the munificence of nature and God and we should be in constant reminder of this truth and grateful for this benevolence. The smooth movement of society depending upon the mutual understanding, respect for each other and contribution to society is in reality, eternal ‘bhuta yajna’.
The practice of pancha mahayajnas is an appropriate means to be thankful towards all other life forces. These ensure our physical, spiritual as well as mental health.
na tyajyam karyam eva tat
yajno danam tapas caiva
Bhagavad gita chapter 18, verse 5
Acts of sacrifice, charity and penance are not to be given up but should be performed. Indeed, sacrifice, charity and penance purify even the great souls.