From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

Yajña is the central concept of Śrauta -- the tradition that follows from the Śruti (Veda).

There are many concepts that are based on and evolved from the concept of yajña. The word yajña comes from the root-"yaj" which means to worship. Yajña is a broad concept which is hard to translate into English. The closest single English word for yajña is sacrifice. There are multiple synonyms of the word yajña that convey different aspects of this broad concept. For instance it is also called “karma”, meaning action or the act of sacrifice/offering/worshiping. In the general sense it can be understood as any action done with the sense of sacrifice, like praying, remembering, meditating. In the specific sense it is the act of offering oblations to propitiate a Devata.

The word karma is also used in different contexts. Yajña is karma in the general sense. In the more specific sense, karma is the component rite of a yajña. In the most general sense, karma refers to any action. The path of karma/yajña is called Karma yoga or Karma mārga.

The Theory of Yajña/Karma Mārga

Karma mārga is based on the concept of Dharma. The result of an action performed is determined by the Dharmic or adharmic nature of the action. Dharma determines the fruit of karma and karma determines the course of experience of beings. Karma Mīmāmsa the base text for Karma Mīmāmsa, opens up by saying "athāto dharma jijñāsa", to expound the nature of Dharma. The text clearly states that karma and its results are based on Dharma - "Dharma mātre tu karmasyād nivṛtteḥ prayājavat" [1]. In karma mārga, mukti is possible through karma nivṛtti, through the performance of righteous karma.

The object of central importance in karma mārga is karma or action. Worship or sacrifice too, assumes importance in the path of karma, primarily as the “act of worshiping or sacrifice” (karma), rather than the “state of worshiping” (which is the object in upāsana mārga). In contrast to the yoga/upāsana mārga where the worshiper and the process of worship dissolve in the object of worship (Īśvara), in Karma the act of worship assumes importance.

Being action-centric does not make yajña any more outward or superficial compared to Upāsana mārga. For instance, Baudhayana's "nā rudro rudram arcayet" [2] (one who is not Rudra cannot worship Rudra - meaning one becomes or unites with Rudra in order to worship Him, by invoking Him) is interpreted differently in Karma and Upāsana mārgas. Upāsana, the state of union of the seeker and Rudra is primary, while the act of worship is secondary. In karma, the union is taken to be implicit, and the act of Rudra worshiping Himself becomes primary.

In the grand scheme, everything involved – the one who is performing sacrifice, the rites, the material involved, the offerings, the one who receives the offerings, are each a part of the act of sacrifice. Even sacrifice becomes part of a grander sacrifice (the universe itself is a grand sacrifice, involving many rites like creation). The Puruṣa sūkta of Rig Veda for example, explains this grand sacrifice. Sacrifice itself is the purpose in yajña, and there is no greater purpose. Everything else – desires, transcending desires, liberation -- are only by-products.

In Karma Yoga sacrifice assumes primary importance and Īśvara assumes secondary importance. The affirmation of Īśvara in the path of Karma is not unanimous. Īśvara and Nirīśvara [3]approaches are held by Gīta and Karma Mīmāmsa respectively. In Nirīśvara approach Karma phala or the result of sacrifice follows the rules of Dharma. In Īśvara Vāda, Īśvara receives the offerings of a sacrifice, presides over the sacrifice and gives the Karma phala.

Pravṛtti and Nivṛtti

There are two directions of movement or phases in life, pravṛtti and nivṛtti. Pravṛtti is accumulating and indulging. Nivṛtti is clearing debts and transcending. In pravṛtti, yajña brings material possessions, righteousness and heavenly bliss. This helps man fulfill his aspirations as well as contribute to social living. Man gradually grows beyond desires and becomes more impersonal. This is how he enters the nivṛtti phase. During nivṛtti, yajña is done without any desire, merely as a duty. This helps in clearing past karma, but this greatly helps the well-being of surroundings (loka kalyāṇa). This is the way the realized soul performs yajña. This is the niṣkāma karma explained in the Karma Yoga of Bhagavad Gīta. In nivṛtti, yajña brings eternal bliss. Brahmandavalli of the Taittirīya Upanishad expounds the gradation of happiness experienced by men, manes, Devatas, lord of Devatas, teacher of the Devatas, creator of Devatas and the creator of the universe in the ascending order, increasing hundred fold for each level[4]. At each level, the bliss is equated to that of a veda-wise person (Śrotriya) who overcame his desire (kāma hatasya). In pravṛtti one experiences the bliss of Devatas. In nivṛtti one grows beyond desires and experiences the bliss of Brahman. In nivṛtti, yajña brings liberation.

If this is seen in parallel to the ashrama dharma, brahmacarya and grhastha ashramas involve pravṛtti. In brahmacarya, one increases his debts through his dependence, for sustenance as well as learning. In grhastha ashrama he attempts to repay these by offering the same back to the society, but increases his sources of attachment in that attempt. Through fulfillment of responsibilities and desires, one enters nivṛtti. Vānaprastha is the phase of containment, where rites are performed without any personal material desire. However some of the rites like pitru yajña are still performed. Sanyāsa is the phase of complete renunciation. It is not mandatory for a Sanyāsi to perform any yajña/karma, for he can renounce karma itself.

Constituents of Yajña

The primary constituents of a Yajña are the inspiration or urge of the doer (bhāvana), learning (svādhyāya), rites involved (karma), offerings (tyāga), devata and the results (phala).


There are two types of rites in a sacrifice, principal (artha karma) and subsidiary (guṇa karma). Guṇa karmas are the constituent accessory rites associated with a principal rite.

In artha karma, the rite is primary and material is subsidiary to the rite. Material is treated as accessory. In guṇa karma, material is primary and rite secondary to it.

Artha Karma

Artha karmas are three types.

  • Nitya karma, done regularly. Example of nitya karma is Agni hotra (the homa done thrice a day).
  • Naimittika karma, done occasionally. These are rites involving specific occasions. Those like pitru tarpana are naimittika rites. Nitya and naimittika rites are mandatory. There are specific Vedic injunctions that make the rites mandatory[5].
  • Kāmya karma, done optionally. Optional rites are performed when a specific purpose is intended to be served through a sacrifice. The sacrifices like soma yāga and vājapeya are examples of optional rites. These are in turn three types based on the results they give. The rites that give results in the present life are called aihika. The ones whose results are enjoyed after the present life (such as heaven, prosperity in the next life or breaking the cycle of life itself) are called āmuṣmika. The rites that give both kinds of results are called aihika-āmuṣmika.

Guṇa Karma

Guṇa karmas, which are subsidiary and form components of artha karmas, are intended for purification (samskāra). They are four types:

  • utpatti (origination – for instance creating fire for the sacrifice)
  • āpti (obtaining/attaining – for instance learning required to perform the rite)
  • vikṛti (modification – for instance husking or cooking rice for sacrifice)
  • samskṛti (consecration/purification – for instance purifying the material by sprinkling water and/or through mantra).

Subsidiary rites are in general meant for purification. This is again of two types, disposal (pratipatti) and purification.

Prāyaścitta or expiation rites are also part of the subsidiary rites/guṇa karmas.


Bhāvana is the urge, inspiration to perform yajña. This is caused by the desire for its result. Thus from the perspective of yajña, desire is seen as an inspiration to performing karma. Need and desire are the two inspirations for beings to perform karma that run the activity of phenomenal world.

Bhāvana has three aspects:

  • what is desired
  • what is the means
  • what is the method.

From the injunctions of Śruti, these are learned. For instance, from injunctions such as “one who desires cattle should perform Citra[6].

In pravṛtti mārga, one performs karma with a desired result. Following the injunctions of the scriptures and being righteous, one can fulfill these. However in the advanced stages in karma mārga, sacrifice alone remains the purpose. All that is desired is also desired for the sake of performing sacrifice, making yajña the ultimate purpose. The Camaka of Sri Rudram[7] starts with praying for a variety of material gains, fulfillment of desires, grace of devatas, asking for devatas themselves, the various ingredients involved in sacrifice, the different rites of a sacrifice, and then towards conclusion, makes all these along with the life, mind, speech, soul and the whole sacrifice, a part of the sacrifice itself. This explains how desire is positively treated, and then sublimated in karma mārga.


Svadhyaya means learning one’s Veda (the branch of Veda one is ordained to pursue) along with the Vedangas. It is through learning that one gains the knowledge of the rites he should perform as his duty, the rites he can perform for various other desired purposes, how to perform those, and what his conduct should be to gain the desired results (these could be material or heavenly or liberation).

Svadhyaya is the primary duty during brahmacarya, and forms the basis for performing all the rites of subsequent ashramas.


Tyāga is associated with offering. There are three kinds of offerings:

Of these, the word yāga refers to principal rite and the other two are associated with subsidiary rites.

Dāna is transferring one’s right over what is given, to the one who is taking. This does not involve any expectation of result (though it has an invisible result, and it ensues only when the result is not desired for).

Homa is offering of havis in Agni. This involves tyāga of what is being offered, with the mention “na mama”, meaning what is being offered is no more mine, it belongs to the Devata (or the pitri as the case may be) to whom the offering is being made[8]. There is no expectation of result in the homa itself, but its result will become part of the result of the entire sacrifice.

Homa is central to any agni karya or sacrifice performed in Agni. It has become almost synonymous to the word yajña itself. However it should be understood that homa is a component of yajña. In some kinds of yajña which do not involve Agni karya, oblations are offered as dana instead of homa.


Devata is a constituent of sacrifice as well as its result. Devatas consume the havis offered in a sacrifice and give the result of sacrifice performed. As a result of sacrifice, along with the desired result, the grace of devata remains. When sacrifice is performed without desiring a result, devata’s grace remains the result of sacrifice. Devata is mantra-baddha, meaning He is bound to give the result of a sacrifice/mantra when invoked[9]. Thus the result of any form of worship is bound to come.

Havis offered in a sacrifice is the food for Devatas. Devatas grow on havis and bring the well-being of men (through rains and so on). Thus Devatas grow on man’s offerings and man’s elevation is brought by the Devatas. Thus through mutual nourishment, men and Devatas bring about the well being of all.

This is explained in the Karma Yoga of Bhagavad Gīta:

देवान्भावयतानेन ते देवा भावयन्तु वः ।
परस्परं भावयन्तः श्रेयः परमवाप्स्यथ ॥३- ११॥
devān bhāvayatānena
te devā bhāvayantu vaḥ
parasparam bhāvayantaḥ[10]
sreyah param avapsyatha[11]
All life is said to be a yajña. Every action, when made as an offering to the Īśvara, is a yajña. Worshipping, eating food, fighting war, creating wealth, contributing to human knowledge, running family, each of these is a yajña. Doing these as offerings to derive something greater, makes these actions yajñas. When these actions are not done for material gain but with a selfless motive, that is the highest form of yajña. Sacrifice brings transcendence. Transcendence through sacrifice is the meaning of life in the Vedic religion.


Agni[12] is called Deva Mukha[13] and is the central deity for yajña. Oblations (havis) are offered in the fire and Agni is said to carry those to the Devatas.

Offering and the carrier of offerings are inseparable and the former is stated to be the consort of the latter (Agni). There are two contexts of offering, the para (pertaining to Devatas) and apara (pertaining to Pitris). The presiding deities of these two kinds of offerings are Svāha and Swatha respectively. These are the two consorts of Agni. The offerings to Devatas and Pitris are made through these two.


The result of a sacrifice ensues from the results of each of the subsidiary rites, combined with the result of the main rite.

Each rite creates a unique result, in terms of visible or invisible effect. This is called apurva[14]. The total of unique results of all the rites of a sacrifice cause the grand unique final result of the sacrifice, called Mahāpurva.

Different schools hold different opinions on the results of nitya karmas. According to Prabhākara School it is said that there is no additional benefit or fruit of performing nitya karmas but there is a loss of merit or righteousness in not performing those. According to Kumārila Bhaṭṭa, there will be an additional merit even in the performance of nitya karmas. In case of kāmya rites, since they are optional, there is only an additional result in performing those.

There are two kinds of results of a sacrifice – visible (pratyakṣa) and invisible (ālaukika). Pratyakṣa is the visible gain that results from performing the sacrifice, material or otherwise. Alaukika result can be like begetting heaven in pravṛtti and mukti in nivṛtti (through karma nivṛtti).


Literally prayoga means performance. It is the performance of sacrifice, the application of text to perform yajña. The injunctions to perform the sacrifice or vidhi are found in Brahmana portion of Veda. Kalpa Sūtrās explain the prayoga part further.

There are different stages in performing a sacrifice. It begins with cleaning the place and building the altar. Then the dravya is acquired. Then the priest is invited to officiate. Following that the altar is decorated and Agni invoked. Then the purification of each of the dravya is done. Then the homas (in the fire) and danas (alms etc) are done. The sacrifice concludes with cleaning up the place and taking the fruit of sacrifice.

Yajña Dravya and Homas

Agni karya forms the core of a sacrifice. It includes purification rites and the homas. The ingredients used in a yajña are called dravya. There are six ingradients involved in performing an Agni Karya. [15] They are:

  • Sruk and Sruva (ladles used for making offering in fire)
  • Idhma (wooden pieces/sticks used as fuel in the sacrifice – also called samidhas)
  • Pātras (bowls)

There are three kinds of pātras used:

  • the prokṣiṇi (used for purification)
  • ājya (to hold the clarified butter)
  • pūrṇa pātra (literally “complete”, the one used for completion of the rite)

Based on the dravya used and rites performed, there are two major classes of prayoga – Catuṣpātra (using four ingredients) and Ṣaṭpātra (using six ingredients). Ṣaṭpātra involves the usage all the six dravyas mentioned above. Catuṣpātra does not involve idhma and pūrṇa pātra. However, the regular rite that a brahmacari performs, does not mandatorily involve any pātra (though usage is not prohibited). Most of the prayogas nitya or otherwise, involve Ṣaṭpātra prayoga.

Some of the sacrifices are referred to variously as involving more than six primary ingredients. For instance marriage ritual in Āpastamba sāmpradāya is called dasa pātra (involving 10 ingredients). Major yāgas like Vajapeya use many more. However all of them come under Ṣaṭpātra only and the additional dravya is classified as one of the six - idhma or ajya for instance.

In general, Catuṣpātra is sufficient for the regular homas to prajāpati, Indra Agni etc. In order to propitiate a specific deity, one has to perform Ṣaṭpātra. This involves additional dravya and homas. Dravya depends on the nature of rite. It could be rice, corn, specific samidhas, blades of grass, milk, curd etc. Fifty eight homas (to Prajāpati, Dikpālakas and Grahas Lokapālakas etc) inclusive of Cakṣur-homas (literally the homas of eyes - two homas with clarified butter poured in the fire circularly, as if they are the eyes of Agni) and done in the beginning of the sacrifice. Then oblations to the main deity of the sacrifice are offered. Jayādi homas (additional homas to propitiate various Devatas representative of faculties of consciousness, prāyaścitta homas etc) follow that, and it is concluded with Pūrṇāhuti (literally the “completion” oblation or the conclusive one).

These homas also include the prāyaścitta rites (expiation rites), as applicable. However prāyaścitta rites are common to Catuṣpātra and Ṣaṭpātra.

Participants of a Yāga

The primary participant of a sacrifice is the one who performs it – the owner or the yajamāni. A dvija performs regular rites himself. However any major yāga requires the yajamāni to be accompanied by his consort, she should offer the fire (Āpastamba Sūtras). In case of a kāmya prayoga, a ṛtvija (priest) is involved.

In major yāgas, there are at least four rtviks involved. [16] They are hota, adhvaryu, brahma and udgāta. Hota should be learned in Rig Veda, and chants the Ṛks. Ādhvaryu is the one who performs the sacrifice (makes the yajamāni do it with instructions). He should be learned in Yajurveda. Udgāta sings the Sāma Veda. Brahma supervises the sacrifice.

Yāga Sāla

The regular rites are conducted in a designated place in the house. Major yāgas are performed in premises meant for them, called yāga śālās.

Yāga sāla follows a specific architecture/layout. It has four entrances, representing the four Vedas. The four entrances have four gates, decorated with the leaves of four kinds of trees, or rather named after the four trees. They are Nyagrodha, Aswattha, Audumbara and Plaksha. In the four directions altars are built in shapes specified against those positions (they could be circular, square or following any other geometry according to the Śrauta Śūtras). The eight Dikpālakas preside over the eight (four directions and four corners) positions of the yāga sāla. Homas are performed in those designated places to the corresponding devatas, according to the rites of the respective Vedas.

There are positions designated for the yajamāni, each of the ṛtvijas, dravya and the audience. Besides there is a bali sthana, where the bali (sacrificial offering) is made.

Classification of Agni


There are three types of Agni, grouped as "tretāgni"s[17].

  • Gārhapatya (literally belonging to the gṛha pati or the owner of the house)
  • Dakṣiṇa
  • Āhavanīyā

Gārhapatya is the origin of the other two, and all the three are worshiped regularly. Besides, Aupāsana[18] is performed by gṛhasthas.

Agnis are also classified into two types:

  • Viharaṇīyā (those that can be moved)
  • Upastheya (those that are fixed/deposited at a place).

Each of these two have eight sub-categories and are positioned in different places in the premises where sacrifice is performed.

The Viharaṇīyā Agnis are:

  1. Vibhūrasi Pravāhā, positioned near the Āgnīdhra’s (one of the ṛutviks) place
  2. Vahnirasi Havyavāhana, positioned near the Hota’s abode
  3. Śvātrosi Praceta, at the place of Maitra Varuṇa (the place where these Devatas are invoked)
  4. Tuthosi Viswaveda, invoked at the place of the ṛutvik designated as Brāhmaṇāccha
  5. Uśi Gasi Kavi, positioned near ṛutvik designed Potru
  6. Anghāri rasi jambhārī, near the ṛutvik designated Neṣṭṛu
  7. Avasyurasi Duvasvān, near the ṛutvik called Acchāvāk
  8. Śundhyūrasi Mārjālīya, near the ṛutvik called Mārjāla (the one who does mārjana or purification and consecration)

The Upastheyas are:

  1. Samrādasi Kṛuśānū, positioned at the secondary altar in the north. This is the Āhavanīyā Agni.
  2. Pariṣadyosi Pavamāna, positioned at Dhruva sthali
  3. Pratakvāsi nabhasvān, positioned at the Cātvāla sthāna
  4. Asamṛṣtosi Havyasūda, positioned at śamitra (the place of paśu)
  5. Ṛtadhāmāsi Suvarjyoti, positioned at Audumbara (the ṛtvija who chants the Sāma Veda).
  6. Brahmajyotirasi suvardhāma, positioned with the Brahma (chief ṛutvik) of the sacrifice
  7. Ajosyekapāt, positioned at the sukhaśāla. This is the Gārhapatya.
  8. Ahirasi budhniya, positioned with the Yajamāni.

Types of Yajna

Yajñas can be classified in different ways. One of them is periodicity. Apart from the Panca Maha Yajñas, Aupāsana and Agnihotra are performed every day. Any other yajña is occasional – performed fortnightly, monthly, yearly or even once in a life time. Agnihotra is the homa done thrice a day. Darśa and Pūrṇamasa are done on new moon and full moon days. Parvani sraddha is done once a month. Most of the other Yajñas can be done once a year or even in a lifetime.

Another classification is the scale of the rite. The ones like Agnihotra are done in the house while the sacrifices like soma yāga or vājapeya need to be undertaken at a much bigger scale involving priests. The rites undertaken at a household level are called gṛhya rites. The ones performed at a collective level are called śrauta rites[19].


Samskāra is a rite that involves mantra. There are forty samskāras or rites performed in one’s lifetime:

  • Seven are paka Yajñas (aṣtaka, sthālipāka, parvana, srāvaṇi, āgrahayani, caitri and āsvīyuji). They involve consecrating cooked items.
  • Seven are Soma Yajñas (agnistoma, atyagnistoma, uktya, shodasi, vājapeya, atirātra and aptoryama). The yāgā that involves the extraction, utility and consumption of Soma (in the general sense nectar, but extract of a particular tree specifically) is called a Soma Yajña. Others are usually referred to as haviryañnas.
  • Seven are Havir Yajñas (agniyādhāna, agni hotra, Darśa-Pūrṇamāsa, āgrayana, cāturmāsya, niruudha paśu bandha, sautrāmaṇi). They involve offering havis.
  • Five are the panca mahā Yajñās.
  • Four are Vedavratas, which are done during Vedic education.
  • Remaining ten are one-time samskāras that are done at different stages in life. They are garbhādhānā, pumsavana, sīmanta, jātakarma, nāmakaraṇa, annaprāśana, caula, upanayana, snātaka and vivāha. These are specified by the gṛhya sūtrās.

The Concepts Involved

Anna (Food)

Anna or food is the basis of life. Life is sustained by the consumption of life, and this is the inherent principle of nature. And sustenance of life is the highest principle. At the same time, consumption of life defeats the same principle (for other creatures). Harming any living being is against that principle. Thus there arises the need for reconciliation between the principle of consumption and the principle of sustenance. This is explained by the concept of sacrifice.

Body is called anna-maya kosha or the sheath of food. It is the upādhi, the basis for every rite, through performance of which the purpose of life is fulfilled. The rite undertaken for sustaining the upādhi, namely consumption, is one of the most sacred and important ones. However, this means that only the consumption done with the sense of sacrifice, or with the sense of sustaining the upādhi, is considered sacred. Superfluous consumption of life, is against the principle of sustenance.

Most of the offerings in a Sacrifice are edible offerings. Havis offered in a sacrifice is the food for Devatas. In turn, they bring prosperity to man. Offering and consuming are the two sides of a sacrifice. However, each participant offers as well as consumes.

Thus while explaining violence/consumption to be inherent in nature, it is sought to be minimized by the same principle that makes it inevitable.

When eating is performed as a rite, there are two aspects in food - consecration and consumption. Consumption of life involves consuming the karma samskāra of the creature being consumed. Therefore the food is first consecrated, offered to Īśvara who is the ultimate absolver of every samskāra. Anna is called sāda. With consecration, the food becomes prasāda, a remain/fruit of sacrificial offering. In fact consumption is also done with the sense that Īśvara the essence of each being is consuming the food in the form of the oneself.

The Smritis give guidelines for the preparation consecration and consumption of food, along with what kind of food is to be taken. This depends on many factors. Some of them are

  • Varṇa of the person - practicing brahmins should be vegetarians in general and consuming specific vegetables in particular. However this has exceptions.
  • The kind of Dīkṣa undertaken - one should be particular about diet during specific Dīkṣās like Manḍala Dīkṣa or Cāturmāsya.
  • The Devata being worshiped - each Devata is propitiated with a specific kind of food, cooked with specific ingredients to the like of the Devata. The same is consecrated and consumed.

Bali (Sacrifice)

Bali or sacrifice is the most controversial topic in yajña, because of its implications. Broadly, there are two ways to look at it: the literal sacrifice and symbolic sacrifice. Literal sacrifice involves sacrificing an animal. In symbolic sacrifice, a piṣṭa paśu is offered. This could be kūṣmānda (ash gourd) or any other consumable. Yajñas mostly involve symbolic sacrifice (piṣṭa paśu) and seldom involve a literal sacrifice.

Bali in a sacrifice is part of the optional rites, one of the offerings involved in kāmya rites. The Bali sthana of the yāga śala is designated for this, where there is a Yupa (pillar) positioned.

Vedic injunctions regarding sacrifices, such as “saptadasa prājāpatyān paśūn ālabhet” [20] are explicit in their message. However, such injunctions are interpreted in different ways. One of them is the symbolic interpretation of “paśu” as the one that is bound by pāśa (binding), and making sacrifice symbolic. The other is the literal interpretation, where a symbolic bali (piṣṭa paśu) is offered.

The history of yajña shows that Yajñas rarely involved animal sacrifices and that they were always a matter of inconvenience to the Vedic seers. There is a story in the Purāṇa [21]that tells how animal sacrifice is made redundant in yajñas. The ṛṣis had an argument with the Devatas that they would offer only symbolic sacrifice and not animals. The Devatas did not like it. Ṛṣis mandated that animals will not be offered in yajña, and king Vasu conducted a sacrifice by inviting the ṛṣis as ṛtviks for the sacrifice, in which he made only symbolic sacrifices, and mandated that Devatas should not make it obligatory for yajñas to involve animal sacrifices. Appreciative of this, the ṛṣis mandated that in every sacrifice the havis after pūrṇāhuti should go to Vasu. To this day major sacrifices involve havis to Vasu starting with the mantra “Vasordhāra juhoti”.

The fact that Vasordhāra is performed, makes it clear that the sacrifice is not intended to be literal, from the ṛṣis’s perspective. Seers like Sankara have taken the path of advocating symbolic bali in temples and interpreting ritual itself in a symbolic way in case of personal worship.


The samhita portion of the Veda contains the mantras used for yajña. The Brahmana portion of the Veda deals with Karma kānda. Specifically, out of the four Vedas, Yajurveda is the primary Veda concerned with yajña. It is called Yajurveda because it is composed of Yajus or the mantras used for yajña.

Kalpa Sūtrās deal with the rules, regulations and austerities of yajña, the geometry of altars, and the rites to be undertaken at each stage of life.

Pūrva Mīmāmsa deals extensively with the philosophy of yajña, how to understand the mantra and brahmana portions, and their application in sacrifice. This is also called Karma Mīmāmsa. The text expounding Karma Mīmāmsa is Jaimini's Mīmāmsa Sūtras. This is divided into 12 chapters, called lakṣaṇās. It is primarily an inquiry into the Brahmana portion of the Veda and deals with various sacrifices, their purposes and methods. The authentic commentary on Pūrva Mīmāmsa is Śābara Bhāshya. In turn, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa's Tantra Vārtika is a commentary of Śābara Bhāṣya.

Jaimini also wrote a four-chapter supplement to Mīmāmsa, called Sankarsha Kānda. It is also called Madhyama Mīmāmsa, Madhyama Kānda, Devata Kānda and Upāsana Kānda. It deals with the purpose of mantras, the nature and essence of devatas, and the purpose of worshiping devatas.

Yajña in the four Ashramas

In all the four ashramas, nitya and naimittika rites should be performed. However the prescribed rites are different in each ashrama.

In brahmacarya, the principal rite to be performed is svadhyaya - Vedic learning. This is apart from other rites like daily oblations to Agni and service of Guru.

In grhastha ashrama, one should perform the panca maha yajñas (or nitya karma astaka as the school may be). Along with these, his family and social responsibility as the smriti prescribes, form part of his main rites in grhastha ashrama.

In vānaprastha, many of the rites of grhastha ashrama become optional and even unnecessary. Nitya and naimittika karmas should be performed. Raising children as an injunction is no longer relevant here. However pitru tarpana is still done during vānaprastha. Teaching should be done.

In sanyāsa, there is no compulsion on karma, though minimal nitya karma is performed. A sanyāsi also undertakes naimittika rites such as Caturmasya (four-month austerity undertaken in a year). Even teaching is optional for him.

Yajña in the Daily life of Gṛhastha: The Panca Maha Yajñas

A Gṛhastha is supposed to do five yajñas every day. These are called panca maha yajñas. These are offerings to Devatas, Ṛṣis, Pitris (departed fathers), creatures and men. They are called deva yajña, ṛishi yajña, pitṛ yajña, bhūta yajña and manuṣya yajña respectively[22].

Man has four debts, to Devatas, pitris, ṛishis and fellow-men. These are called deva ṛna, ṛṣi ṛna, pitṛ ṛna and manuṣya ṛna. By doing the above yajñas, man repays those debts and fulfills his purposes in life.

By praying to Devatas and offering oblations to them, and through sacrifices one clears his debts to Devatas. This is called deva yajña.

By gaining Vedic knowledge, by teaching, sharing and passing it on to subsequent generations one clears his debts towards the seers. This is called ṛṣi yajña.

By offering oblations to pitris, and by continuing the race by begetting progeny, raising them properly, by getting good name for the lineage, one clears his debts towards the pitris. This is called pitṛ yajña.

By showing compassion towards fellow men, by treating the guests well, by helping those in need, by excusing those by which one has been wronged, by doing actions that are beneficial to men, one clears his debts towards his fellow men. This is called manuṣya yajña.

Bhūta yajña is showing compassion towards living beings in general. This includes abstaining from inflicting violence and killing, living as a part of nature without harming it.

Extension of the concept of Yajña

Yajnic life is an ancient school, and over time, it became impractical to lead such life because of the rigorous discipline it requires. There are still people who perform regular sacrifice. But the concept of yajña has been extended in different ways, without losing its spirit.


The widest application has been the karma concept in life. Many of the ideals seen today in learned men, such as being righteous, maintaining a moral code, doing actions without being particular about results, not harming anyone unnecessarily, being content and not greedy, fulfilling desires in a righteous way, keeping righteousness above desires, and doing every action as a sacrifice, follow directly from yajnic principles. Leading a life with these ideals is treated as equal to living a yaajnic life, and causing liberation through karma nivṛtti. The karma yoga that many of the men live (though they are not into the path of worship) is a reflection of the yajnic ideal in their lives.

The yajnic ideal thus has wide impact, and positively influences a moral social order. Smārta which developed after Śrauta, has also based its ideal on the same ideal of dharma.

Symbolic Yajña

The other extension of the concept of yajña is found in its yogic interpretation, as being performed in the subtle body. Śrī Sūkta of Rig Veda khila portion is used in sacrifices and also in Sri Vidya. Saubhagya Lakshmi Upanishad explains the yogic import of Śrī Sūkta. Yāga becomes antaryāga (the inner sacrifice) – performing homa in the svādhiṣṭhāna agni.

In Mantra Vidyas mantra sadhana is likened to yajña. In fact this is supported explicitly by smriti, for instance Manusmriti says that a dvija becomes dvija by mantra japa alone, even if he cannot perform the panca maha yajñas. Smārta, the religion of smritis, follows the Smārta Sūtras (Dharma Sūtras and Gṛhya Sūtras), part Vedanga Kalpa. Smārta and Śrauta are so closely associated that they are usually referred to as the combination Smārta-Śrauta. Smārta prescribes japa, homa, tarpana and sandhyavandana as part of nitya karma, the eight daily rituals to be performed. These are from Brahmana as well as Aranyaka portion. For instance the Sandhya Vandana prakarana itself is found in Taittirīya Aranyaka (Maha Narayana Upanishad). Dharma Sūtrās add one more category to the three classical kinds of karma (nitya, naimittika and kāmya) – the prāyaścitta or expiation rites.

Thus in the general sense mantra japa, kundalini yoga etc are sacrifices, but the sacrificial approach to the same aim differs from the yogic approach. For instance, mantra japa itself is the sacrifice to be done, and devata is a result of the sacrifice. In yogic terms this is described differently: mantra is the means to achieving yoga with the devata.

Temple, the institution that made religion reachable to common man, is a replica of yajña śāla (the place where yajña is conducted) – in its major components as well as concept. The rites of a temple as prescribed by Āgamās are four-fold, (nitya, naimittika, kāmya and prāyaścitta) the same as that in Śrauta/Smārta.

Jnāna and Karma Approaches

Jnāna Mārga is expounded in Vedānta and thus, Vedānta treats yajña/karma to be a means of purification, a preparation for acquiring jnāna. Beyond that, in jnāna mārga, spiritual knowledge is the means of liberation, and not worship. The different categories of yajña, such as vedic ritual, the subtle body yogas such as mantra yoga and kundalini yoga are acknowledged in jnāna mārga as means to attain the necessary state for pursuing the path of knowledge.

This is in contrast with all the karmic and yogic paths, where performing each of those rites at their highest level is the means for liberation. For instance, in karma yoga, karma nivṛtti begets liberation. In mantra yoga realizing para vak is the final realization. In laya yoga dissolving the individual consciousness in the cosmic consciousness is liberation. In kundalini yoga the gross and the subtle unite with the causal being through the movement of kundalini[23]. All these involve different upādhis of the subtle body – mind, prāna and nādis.

Detachment and consecration, the two approaches of jnāna and karma respectively, reflect in the rituals prescribed in these paths. For instance, while anger is sought to be overcome in the former[24], it is praised as a divine inspiration in the latter[25].

Jnāna mārga involves nididhyasana, which is the intellectual’s approach – the path of discrimination. Through contemplation (on the import of mahavakyas) one learns to discriminate between ātma and non-ātma (ātma-anātma vivecana). And realizing one’s identity as ātma, as different from anātma, is liberation – because ātma is always liberated. Jīva is bound because he does not identify himself as ātma but identifies himself with various upādhis. Jnāna mārga is about discriminating these upādhis from self.

Adi Sankara reconciles karma with jnāna approach by categorizing karma as the preparatory stage for acquiring jnāna. In jnāna mārga, liberation is possible only through jnāna. In fact the self is always liberated, and the state of liberation for a being is the knowledge of difference between self and non-self (ātma-anātma vivecana). Karma purifies and prepares the being for the state of knowledge/discrimination.

As the means to acquire the necessary purity and wisdom for pursuing this path, jnāna mārga acknowledges the performance of nitya karma. Beyond that, worship or ritual has no greater importance in jnāna mārga. Thus most of the yajnic procedures are redundant from the viewpoint of jnāna mārga.

However this only differentiates between the Karma and Jnāna approaches, and does not necessarily make one of them superior. Vedantic approach is prescribed for a person who is technically out of the social fold, whose righteousness does not depend much on fulfillment of responsibilities. Fulfilling one’s responsibilities is the primary criterion for detachment, and without that one is not deemed fit for the path of knowledge. In the path of karma, such fulfillment with dissociation brings about the necessary change for salvation.

Notes & References

  1. Pūrva Mīmāmsa Sūtrās 2.1.9
  2. Mahanyasa
  3. Nirīśvara Vāda is one that does not affirm Īśvara or the supreme existential principle. However, this does not amount to negation of Devatas or Ātma. Thus it is both Āstika (acknowledging the Śabda Pramāṇa) as well as theistic.
  4. Brahmandavalli of the Taittirīya Upanishad (chapter 8)
  5. Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa
  6. Taittirīya Samhita
  7. Kṛṣṇa Yajurveda 4.7
  8. Agni carries these offerings to the Devatas
  9. Please refer the article on Mantra Marga for more details on this
  10. Here the meaning of the word “bhāvana” follows its technical definition according to Karma mārga: the objective urge, inspiration or desire
  11. Bhagavad Gīta 3.11
  12. Agni is the God of Fire
  13. Deva Mukha literally meaning face of the Devatas
  14. Apurva literally means “never before” because it did not exist before the rite was done, and came into existence as a consequence of the rite
  15. Āpastamba Dharma Sūtrās chapter 1.1 and 1.2 are dedicated to the injunctions for Ṣaṭpātra procedure, as part of which the dravya is also enumerated.
  16. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Ch 3
  17. The different classes of Agni worshiped are enumerated in Śrauta Śūtras - Āpastamba Śrauta Śūtras for instance. Chapter 51 of Matsya Purāṇa, and Brahmānda Purāṇa also explain the different Agnis, including the Viharaṇīyās and Upastheyās.
  18. literally the one meant for “upāsana”
  19. Note that śrauta is a general term and does not necessarily classify a rite.
  20. Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa
  21. Reference required for this
  22. Āpastamba Dharma Sūtras 1.13
  23. See article on Yoga Sastra for more details
  24. manyuh-akārṣī namo namah – Sandhya Vandana, Aranyaka portion of Krishna Yajurveda
  25. Manyu sūkta, Rig Veda