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A Dictionary of Hinduism

W. J. Johnson

yajña (‘ sacrifice’, ‘ oblation’, ‘ worship’) 

1 Any offering or oblation made to a deity.

2 The generic term for the complex of Vedic rituals, including the śrauta rites, the domestic rites (gṛhya-yajñas), and various collapsed, internalized, or condensed forms, such as the ‘great sacrifices’ (mahā-yajñas). The assumptions which underlie the performance of Vedic yajña are manifested in the Brāhmaṇas (c.1000 to 500 bce), the prose explanations appended to the four Saṃhitās. This ‘theology’ has its basis in the belief that all elements of the universe, human and divine, are interconnected and interdependent. For this reason, everything that happens in the sacrifice is analogous to both individual and cosmic processes; moreover, the sacrifice is the connecting link or conduit between the individual and the universal, and its prototypical performer, the brahmin śrauta ritualist, is therefore the mediator between the human and the divine. More than this, the sacrificial act (karma)—giving something up (nominally to a deity)—is the mechanism which creates or activates the connections: if correctly performed, it will automatically achieve the desired and concomitant outcomes. The latter are expressed on two levels: for the individual yajamāna (‘patron of the sacrifice’), the yajña brings good things both here (cattle, sons, a long life) and after death (a place in a permanent loka or svarga, i.e. immortality); for society (and the world) as a whole, sacrifice maintains the natural order. Moreover, sacrifice is thought to be reconstructive or regenerative of the individual as well as the universal. On the model of the Vedic Puruṣasūkta's cosmic man (puruṣa), the yajamāna, through his substitutes—the offerings he provides—gives himself up as the material of the sacrifice (something that happens in earnest in the fires of his funerary cremation). Sacrifice is therefore thought to be necessary at both the human and cosmic levels: through its perpetual action, both the individual and the world (in the puruṣa, one and the same entity) are constantly recreated and maintained; without its regulative and integrating action everything would fall back into chaos, bringing dire consequences for individuals, society, and the universe as a whole. In other words, it is through the sacrifice that dharma is realized and maintained. At the centre of this process are the brahmins, the ‘gods on earth’: only they have access to the Veda and so to proper knowledge of the sacrifice, its techniques and inner meaning. Ultimately, only they can maintain human welfare and cosmic order; the gods are merely part of the mechanism. See also Mīmāṃsā. For details of ritual procedures, see gṛhya-yajña(s); śrauta; and entries for individual sacrifices.

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