Yajna Devatas

Devata - the Luminary in a Yajna

Vedic literature is the broad foundation on which the magnificent edifice of Yajna has been raised. This mansion is for the devata of the yajna. Just as a king is a unique figure in his kingdom, the devata too is unique to every yajna. All the other constituents of a yajna, such as items of oblation, mantras, priests, etc, can have alternatives, but not the devata. There can be no worship without the object of worship, so in yajna the devata is indispensable and an understanding of its role is of paramount importance. Let us delve into the details of devatas, in particular Vedic devatas, focusing on their definition, description, classification and importance.

The concept of devata- Today, most believers would perceive God as an omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient superhuman power. Words such as 'divine', 'heavenly', 'holy' are associated with this power. The concept of 'devata' in the Vedas is slightly different. The origin of the concept dates back to a period when there were no external aids such as scientific instruments to analyze and interpret the various natural phenomena. Therefore, forms of energy responsible for the creation and sustenance of the universe and displaying 'shininess' were treated as superhuman powers. Rishis visualized them in advanced states of mind, and gave expression to their experiences in hundreds of forms. These codes are the hymns of the Rig Veda Gods & the objects of the hymns are known as 'Vedic devatas'. Vedic devatas are defined and described in the supplementary text BrihadDevata, written by Rishi Shaunaka. In another text, Nirukta, written by Yaskacharya, the etymological meanings of devatas are discussed. The BrihadaranyakaUpanishadexplains the concept of multiple devatas differently.

According to this Upanishad, the Vedas consider that behind every perceivable object in the universe, manifest or unmanifest, there is a single normal energy, known as Narayana. To begin with, there was no universe. Only Narayana existed. Then came that point in time when he felt that he was single, and desired to multiply. So he created Brahma. Brahma is also known as Prajapati, and was the first devata to be created. He in turn, created 33 more devatas, which were perceived by seer rishis in multiple forms. The rishis named their objects of vision, and so we have many devatas in the Rig Veda. The definition ofrishi and devata is provided in the following sloka: Yasyavaakyamsarishih, yaatenochyatesaadevataa.

One whose experience is recorded is a rishi and the object of his experience is devata. The object of the vision of a rishi could be both sentient and non-sentient. The Rig Veda is a collection of prayers to such devatas - objects from the sky, heaven and earth. During the yajna process, these devatas are worshipped and offered oblations. Such processes result in the fulfilment of the desires of the host and also help in sustenance of the universe.

Etymology of the term 'Devata'

In Sanskrit, the word used to denote 'god' or 'deity' is deva. Devata is also an alternate word for god. Both are derived from the root verb div - that which glows. The sun has a glowing property. Fire (Agni) blazes. Therefore, sun and fire are devatas, known as Surya devata and Agni devata respectively. In the Nirukta, Yaskacharya explains that three more meanings of the verb 'div' make an object worthy of being addressed as deva or devata:

  • The quality of being munificent in nature,

  • The quality of shininess, and

  • That it is a body from the sky (devloka).

The moon and planets do not blaze, but they shine and are from devloka. Therefore, they are termed devata. Nature is a donor of the highest rank. Therefore, all natural powers are embodied and given names such as Vayu, Indra, Rudra and are devatas.

Characteristics of Devatas

• A devata is omnipresent but invisible; it can be approached through Agni.

• If the worshipper can raise his faith and devotion to the zenith, the devata can manifest in a visible form. (Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was said to talk to the Divine Mother just as he would with anybody else.)

• A devata mercifully accepts the offerings made by a devotee and being pleased, reciprocates by fulfilling the desires of the worshipper.

• A devata clears stumbling blocks from the devotee's path and makes his life free from fear and problems.

• A devata constantly stays with the devotee in an invisible form and protects him.

• A devata is delighted by the worship and becomes angry if not worshipped.

• A devata befriends the five elements of the universe for a devotee. 

Some of these qualities are directly attributable to the personified form of the devata. It may be difficult to imagine or accept that, like mortal beings, devatas too are pleased and hence grant the desired results in reciprocation. Also, if devatas are kind-hearted and merciful, it is difficult to understand why they can become angry and inflict penalties upon the worshipper if they are not worshipped.

However, rather than ridiculing such expressions, a little faith in the wisdom of the learned ones can lead to meaningful inferences. Very often, Vedic literature has deeper meanings for words/sentences/phrases, which are overshadowed by the external meaning. One has to make an effort to remove the veil.

The idea that devatas are ever ready to shower boons is not correct. They are like a mother who is always caring and loving towards her children, but whose love sometimes takes the form of anger and even punishment. The objective is not to teach her children a lesson, but to firmly ingrain in their minds the importance of staying within limits. Thus, the ultimate objective is everlasting welfare.

Functions of Devatas

Devatas from all three lokas are embodiments. This was done possibly for an easy understanding of their characteristics and overall role with respect to phenomena in nature. They are given a name and qualities. Thus, Brahma is the creator and his main attribute is creation. Vishnu is the saviour and Mahesh the destroyer.

Agni is a devata from prithiviloka. His main function is to act as a medium of communication between the yajamana and the devata(s) in a yajna. Agni receives the items offered by the yajamana on behalf of the yajnadevata, and takes them to the devata in essence form (the items are burnt and only the essence remains, which can reach different lokas).

He also acts as a representative of the yajamana to bring the yajnadevata to the yajna venue. Indra, as a devata from antarikshaloka, is embodied as a natural power that controls clouds, rain, etc. Surya, as a devata from dyuloka, works to extract the essence from substances and to bear the essence in its rays. Also known as Aditya, he knows everything due to his reach. Nothing can remain a secret from him, but it is his function to keep such secrets.

Description of Devatas

So far we have seen the etymology, characteristics and forms of Vedic devatas. The following section describes some of these devatas. Devatas worshipped in SmartaYajna, and those referred to in the Puranas and Tantrashastra are also covered.

1. Prithivi-based devatas

Devatas with earth as the prominent element fall in this category. Among this class, Agni is the chief devata. It takes different forms such as Jatavedas, Matarishva, Vaishvanara, Dravinoda, etc. The other two groups of prithivi-based devatas are 12 apridevatas and 36 prithivisattwadevatas.

Apridevatas are related to yajna and prithivisattwadevatasinclude articles used in yajna (horse, grinding stones to crush soma, grain for rice cakes, etc.)

Agni: Agni holds a prime position in Vedic religion. Hardly any other devata has been ascribed equal importance or prominence. He also has the closest link with and relevance to an individual, family, society, nation, even the world. This importance stems from his association with all these bodies on a daily basis. At the physical level, he is 'fire', without which our daily life would come to a standstill. Even with the sheer number of rik dedicated to a devata, he ranks only next to Indra.

In a sense, Agni stands for the principle of aspiration. Aspire not, you will work not. Work not, you will also progress not. Progress not, no power will manifest in you. And without the power of the mind, you will cease to be a human being.

To aspire is one thing, and to work for it is another. In this context, one may understand the meaning of the saying "There is no fire in his stomach." Agni is equally dear to other devatas. In any yajna intended for any devata, one comes in direct contact only with Agni. It is Agni who accepts the oblations and is said to extend them to the yajnadevatas. No dravyayajna is possible without Agni, and therefore one cannot do any sadhana or worship God by excluding Agni.

Since he extends the havi to the devatas, Agni is also called havyavahana (the vehicle of havi). As he is closely associated with the human household, he is known as grihapati -griha means home, and pati means major family member). Thus, Agni is the link between man and the gods. Agni is the only devata who has come down from the heavenly abode to the mortal world, and firmly stays here. The Rig Veda praises him through various richas and suktas. The description of his birth, form, figure and functions is summarized below.

Agni is naturally born as well as artificially created. He was born of the sky, and again devatas created him (R 10.45,8,3.2,3). He is the son ofDyu, Prithivi, Vanaspati, etc. He was born of water. He takes birth from wood, the friction of stones, and so on (R 2.1.1).

In his natural form, Agni shines like the sun. Flames are his flowing hair (R 3.17.1), wood is his food (R 2.7.6). He can consume even a large forest (R 1.127.4). His luminous outer form looks like a silver robe. Agni is flamboyant, and his hair is like stormy, rain-bearing clouds and lightning. He crushes big stones using his sharp tongue and breaks even big mountains to pieces.

In his human form, Agni has a beautiful body (R 1.94.7). He can look in all directions (R 1.97.6). He has three tongues and four eyes (R 3.20.2, 1.31.13). In another description in the Rig Veda, it is said that he has four horns, three legs, two heads and seven hands (R 4.58.3). His glow is powerful and scorching. He is very well built due to constant consumption of the essence of butter (ghrita), etc. He resides in the intestines of waters. He lives in the forest. He spans all three lokas. He is present in wood. He is in the air, beneath the seas, on the earth, everywhere. In short, there is no place in the universe where he does not reside. In that sense he is omnipresent.

He is man's crusader. He is the ruler of yajna. He carriesfood to the gods, brings them to the yajna venue and is the leader of humankind. He is the god of the learned. He is very kind to human beings. He is called [atauedas or 'the one who knows everything'. Knowledge is equated with the Vedas. Therefore, it can be said that the Vedas were created from him. He is our father, mother, brother, friend and son. He is our leader and the representative of God. He rides a golden chariot with a single wheel pulled by blood-red horses. One who worships Agni and offers oblations to him acquires immense wealth in this world, lives for a hundred years and becomes immortal. Agni has two distinct roles. As ordinary fire, it is used in the kitchen and other daily chores. As sacred fire, in yajna it has the role of leading the ordinary person in performing kratvartha and accepts oblations for ancestors and yajnadevata(s).

So much for the ubiquitous description of Agni in the Vedas. The esoteric form of Agni is the unique power from which everything has taken form. Indra, Vayu, Surya, Soma, etc are just different forms of this devata. Agni also resides in living beings. A person is alive because there is fire in him, called prana. Once it leaves, the body becomes cold and decomposes. Agni is the essence of everything. Matter has its existence and individuality due to the presence of this energy. The Vedics called it pranic energy and the modern world knows it as nuclear energy. This energy is at the root of all dynamism in the universe. Agni is a unique devata and all other Vedic devatas seem to be just his various forms manifested for a specific purpose/function.

Vedic dharma prescribes that allmen worship Agni throughout their lives. The association with Agni starts even before taking birth and ends with death. The 42 samskaras done for the soul have Agni as the witness. It is Agni in whose presence a Vedic takes an oath to perform purush- arthas throughout life to the best of his capacity, neither falling short in his duties nor indulging excessively in the pursuit of artha, kama and even dharma. Finally, on departure from this world, the prana (which itself is a form of Agni) merges with the universal consciousness, and the mortal body merges with the flames of Agni. The Agni that accepts the mortal body is called kravyad, and the form that accepts the soul is Brahman. According to Vedic belief, a person comes into this world as a guest, and is sent here to undertake specific functions. Agni is their companion at every stage - from the time the soul separates from Brahman (birth) until its re-convergence. This function of Agni is very aptly embedded in the BrihadDevata (2:24).

Apridevatas: The 12 apridevatas comprise: (i) the yajna implements, (ii) instruments, and (iii) the performer of the yajna. They are to be remembered at the commencement of the yajna and also at the end. The first invocation is called prayaja, and the invocation at the conclusion of a yajna is known as anuyaja. In every shrautayajna, five oblations are offered at the beginning and five at the end. Mantras such as "0 Agni, this yajna is solely for you. The people residing in all lokas bow to thee" (R 10.51.9) are chanted while offering prayaja and anuyajaahutis. They are called apri mantras and were composed by Bhargava rishis who are members of the Bhrigu family).

Prithivisattwadevatas: Prithivisattwa means essence of the earth element, so prithivisattwadevatas are sentient beings like the horse, bull, etc and non-living objects like the river, crushing stones, grinders, etcassociated with yajna. The Rig Veda praises all such articles. The horse, bull, rivers, king, sun, wind - all exert a great influence on civil and agricultural life. In the Vedas, every karma is respected as having great value. Therefore, all those who help in furthering the cause of karmas like transportation, maintenance, agriculture, etc find praise from the grateful Vedic people.

2. Antariksha-based devatas

Antariksha is the middle layer of the universe. Devatas active in this region are called antariksha-based devatas. In the famous Gayatri mantra, this is known as bhuvahloka. In modern terminology, it is called the sky. The space occupied by the sky above the sphere of earth is filled with air, wind or Vayu. Therefore, Vayu is the prime devata of this loka. He is also equated with Indra.

For the inhabitants of earth, the main use of antariksha comes from its two constituents - wind and clouds. Air and water are the basic requirements of living beings. They come from Vayu and Megha (rain-bearing clouds). Forces such as air, rain, storms and lightning are probably praised for this reason in the Vedas. Further, these devatas work in union for their benevolent activity. Therefore, they are worshipped in pairs like Mitra + Varuna, Indra + Pusha, Agni + Pusha, Vayu + rain, etc. Oblations are also offered to such pairs of devatas in yajnas.

Vayu: Just as Agni is the prime devata of the Rig Veda, Vayu is the principal devata ofthe Yajur Veda. He is invoked by saying, "0 Vayu, here is soma that is pure and worthy of exhibition. Do drink it and listen to our invocation" (R1.2, 1). Vayu is also connected with prana. One form of prana is the vital force of living beings. The word is indicative of non-stop actions like the ticking of a clock or the beating of the heart. Since the original prana is present in antarikshaloka in a subtle form, this devata is praised as being present in the mid-region, capable of spanning all three lokas, kind-hearted, helping living beings to progress. Incidentally, the word 'vayu' is a modified form of the original word 'aayu', but since Vayu is a proper noun, this should not cause any ripples except among grammarians.

Varuna: According to the BrihadDevata, the moisture- laden air that engulfs the antariksha in the form of rain-bearing clouds is Varuna (BD 2.33). As one of the meanings of va run a' is also asura (demon), this devata was wrongly associated with asuras initially. Vritrasura, the principal enemy of Indra, is a progeny of Varuna. Varuna is described as the eldest child of Aditi, senior to Surya (Vivasvana), Indra, etc. He is respected by thedevas too.

Unlike asuras, there are no mantras in which Varuna has been criticized or looked down upon. One of the epithets of Varuna is 'Pracheta', the lawgiver, because he is said to be a strict law enforcer. Therefore, the respect that he commands contains an element of fear too. In one of the Rig mantras, it is said that Varuna, whose face looks downwards, has created Megha. The earth and sky are formed from him (R 5.85,3).

Rudra:Rudra has a roaring quality. All devatas are soft- hearted with gentle facial expressions, but not Rudra. He has a ferocious look and a frightful attitude, but this extreme exhibition of anger is only against enemies. In the invocations to him, he is appeased first, requested to calm down, praised,and then many demands made of him. The sukta devoted to Rudra, RudraSukta, has prayers to him through various descriptions and requests for benevolence. The sukta is a classic example of what should be requested of a mighty and enormous person, and for what purpose. It is a good reflection of the mindset of the Vedics.

Sometimes, before coming down in droplets, rain-bearing clouds make a great, even frightening, show of thunder and lightning. Vayu in this form is called Rudra. In theRig Veda, Rudra is requested to vent all his anger on enemies, so that it does not affect the yajamana and the priests.

Indra: Agni and Vayu were both called Indra in pre-Rig Vedic times. Indra was supposed to be the principal devata of antarikshaloka. This devata is related to water, as the principal nourisher. Ira in Sanskrit means food or water. He who pierces the storage or beholds it or bestows and donates this essence of life is called Indra. Yaskacharya has another etymology for Indra: InduIndha, IdamIdanti, thenIndra. Indra is a mighty devata. He has fought with Vritra and many other asuras. One interpretation of Indra based on intellectual analysis is that vritra represents the wicked forces, and created blockades to stop the water flowing from the Himalayas. Indra represents righteous power and the might to combat this wicked force. He fought with the demon, destroyed him and demolished the blockades. He gained control over water storage in antarikshaloka (rain- bearing clouds) and released the flow, thus channeling the (rain) water for the benefit of all.

Soma: In Vedic literature (Vedas, BrahmanaGranthas, Kalpa Sutras), the word soma is used to denote: (i) a deity (Soma devata), (ii) the vitality principle (soma tattwa), and (111) a herb (soma valli). Soma is an important devata of antarikshaloka. He has multiple characteristics. Like Indra and Varuna, he too represents valour. Together with Agni, he represents the total force. He is munificent and blesses his worshippers with intellect and wisdom. He is the most ferocious among warriors and has not known defeat in battle. He is uniquely honored with the title Rakshohan, meaning one who has slain demons for demonic attitudes. Soma is customarily addressed in rumor, with other devatas such as Indra-Sorna, Varuna-Soma, Agni-Soma, etc. He is believed to have a reddish-brown complexion.

According to the Rig Veda Samhita, Soma is at the base of all creation - organic and intellectual. It works with the principle of Agni for all creativity. It gives the quality of radiation to the sun, enhances Indra's strength so he can overpower demons like Vritra, and it was he who made the oceans bear the life- embryo thus becoming the source of the creation of life. Modern science also explains the phenomenon of the constant and never-diminishing ability of the sun to emit heat and light due to the presence of the atmosphere, which can be equated with soma. The soma principle is also associated with healing, soothing and cooling effects. Therefore, the moon (which represents these qualities) is also called Soma devata.

Soma assumed the form of a herb, soma valli, and became the physical source of vitality for Indra and other devatas. Garuda, the vehicle of Lord Vishnu, brought it to earth from dyuloka. Soma and its juice are very important items of oblation in a group of yajnas called soma yajna, The Rig Veda has devoted a full chapter (9) to describing the qualities and importance of soma. It calls soma the mind of rishis, the 'rishiness' of rishis (the quality that makes a person a rishi), Brahma among devas and the soul of yajnas.

3. Dyuloka-based devatas

Devatas who are active in dyuloka are called dyulokadevatas. There are 31 major devatas in dyuloka. Ashvinau, Usha, Vajina, Varuna, etc are some of the important ones often referred to in the yajus and mantras of Shrautayajnas.

Sun: Sun, with its various forms and figures, resides in dyuloka. Sun gives the basic energy required by the devatas of antarikshaloka to bestow all that aids the living conditions in prithiviloka. Sun is found everywhere in the Rig Veda. He is held in high reverence and praised accordingly.

Usha is described as possessing poetic qualities. Prajapati: The meaning of the word prajapati is 'master of creation'. It is said that in creating the universe, Prajapatidevata expanded himself and 33 devatas were created from him. The ShatapathaBrahmana puts this event metaphorically: "Prajapati is the father of devatas." In the Rig Veda, the same event is described as 'the sacrifice of Prajapati'. It says that Prajapati performed the first-ever yajna of the universe wherein he offered himself as the havi (oblation material). This sacrifice became an 'example' for all man-made yajnas. Due to his importance as the master of creation, he is offered havi in all man-made yajnas.

4. Vishvedeva

There is no single entity called Vishvedeva. Equivalent words such as Sarve Deva, Nana Deva, etc indicate that it refers to many devatas. During the yajna process, whenever more than one devata is present in a mantra or sukta and it is not possible to mention them separately, 'Vishvedeva' is used to jointly address all devatas. Therefore, the devata of a mantra or sukta that adores multiple devatas is said to be Vishvedeva. For example, one mantra may refer to nine devatas - Indra, Vayu, Brihaspati, Mitra, Agni, Pushan, Bhaga, Aditya and Maruta (R 1.14,3). Instead of calling out all nine names, the term Vishvedeva is chanted to address them all together. In another context, Agni, for example, is one devata, but is addressed by many names - hence it is Vishvedeva too. Sun is a single entity, but has infinite rays going in all directions - it is Vishvedeva too. In fact, theoretically, all devatas and objects in the universe are Vishvedeva.

The Yajur Veda makes mandatory the offering of havi to multiple devatas referred to as Vishvedeva. From the point of view of yajna, a question can arise - how many devatas are jointly addressed as Vishvedeva? According to Nighantu, there are 52 devatas of prithiviloka, 68 devatas of antarikshaloka and 31 devatas of dyuloka. Thus, the maximum number of devatas that can be addressed as Vishvedeva becomes 151. However, it is customary to assume there are 11 devatasin each loka, thus the number totals 33. Sometimes Prajapati is added to this list and the number becomes 34. Interestingly, although multiple devatas are invoked through chanting 'Vishvedeva', only one oblation is offered.

5. Devatas in Smartayajna

Smartayajna differs from Shrautayajna in form, style, complexity, etc. There are two main differences: (i) the rituals in smartayajna are based on details taken from Smritigranthas, and (ii) they use a single fire which is called aupasanaagni or grihyagni.

Devatas of smartayajna mostly have a human form. Their origin, form, abode, characteristics, preference for specific flowers and colours, etc are described in the Puranas. For example, Ganesha, the prime devata invoked at the beginning of any smarta ritual, is the son of Lord Shiva and Parvati. Shiva or Shankara has three eyes, a blue neck and prefers to remain in seclusion. Lord Vishnu is the most popular devata, with benevolence being his chief attribute.He has four hands holding weapons and a lotus, and prefers to stay amid his bhaktas. Almost all devatas are perceived in the form of couples like Vishnu and Lakshmi, Shiva and Parvati, Rama and Sita, etc.

6. Tantra and tantric devatas

The word tantra comes from the root word tan, meaning 'to expand' or 'spread'. Here knowledge is assumed as the object of expansion. Therefore, tantra is defined as processes that help knowledge to expand in manifold ways. A similar explanation comes from breaking the word tantra into tantra. Tan stands for tanotu - 'to stretch', and tra stands for trayate - 'to liberate' or 'take beyond'.

Human beings have four basic instincts - hunger, sleep, fear and sex. In TantraShastra they are treated as viharas, passions. It is a well-known fact that animals of the lower world live by instinct and faithfully follow the laws of Nature; they do not cross the limits. Due to superior faculties, man has a choice of staying with the passions or rising above them to expand his individual consciousness and touch super-consciousness. However, very often he chooses to indulge only in passions and emotions, and does so quite indiscriminately, causing imbalances in physique, mind and consciousness. Tantra is a spiritual practice to gain control over and regulate the passions so as to regain the lost balance. It is an accepted belief that this science has originated from Lord Shiva.

The devatas found in tantrashastra are different from the devatas described earlier. In some cases, the names are the same but the similarity ends there. The forms, features, characteristics, functions and descriptions differ widely from Vedic devatas. However, in spite of such deviation, the root of tantra lies in the Vedas.

7. Other devatas

In Smartayajnas, a few ancillary functions relating to the conduct of yajna are associated with devatas. These include protection of the yajna venue, purification of the atmosphere (physical and mental) of the yajna venue, etc.

Stambhadevatas: The yajna pavilion is raised according to the directions in the scriptures. Sixteen pillars support the roof. This number can rise to 64, depending on the type of pavilion and yajna. At each pillar, a devata is installed so as to be protected from all sides. According to SiddhantaShekar, the 16 devatas installed on the pillars are: Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra, Indra, Surya, Ganesha, Yama, Sarpa (Nag), Skanda, Prushdashva (Vayu) , Chandrama, Pracheta, AshtaVasu, Dhanada (Kubera), Brihaspati and Tvashtunandana (Vishvakarma).

Dhvajadevatas: The asuras consider any holy place without a flag as a mere winery and invade it. To keep them at bay, the place of worship must have a flag on top. According to Agni Purana, the following devatas are installed in the flag at the yajna site: Kumuda, Kumudaksha, Pundarika, Vamana, Shanku Kama Sarva N etra, Sumukha and Supratishthita.

Panchagavyadevatas: Yajnas use panchagavya, a mixture of five items (outputs of the cow), to purify the venue and the minds of participants. The five devatas are: Varuna (in gomutra), Agni (in gobar), Chandra (in milk), Vayu (in dadhi), Surya (in ghrita), Brahmadi (in kusha)and Vishnu (in water)".

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