The Meaning of Yajña

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Introduction and Overview

In all Vedic texts the term yajña is used, translated as a “sacrifice”. The performance of yajña is the means by which one advances spiritually. For most people, yajña is seen as a fire lit in a pot into which food grains are offered with a mantra. While this is by no means an aberration, it is not the only sense in which the term yajña is used. For example, the Bhagavad-Gita (BG) describes how the processes of Aśtanga-Yoga and Jnana-Yoga are also yajña. Then we have terms such as Sankīrtana-yajña which seem to have nothing in common with a fire sacrifice, Aśtanga-Yoga, or Jnana-Yoga. In what way are all these practices connected? What is the meaning of yajña that unifies these diverse practices into a single holistic understanding of yajña?

Three Components of Yajña

The Rig-Veda describes three components of a yajña—a “fire” or Agni into which the offering is made, a “food” or Soma which is offered, and a “process” or Vāyu for pouring the Soma into the Agni. In order to understand the meaning of yajña, we have to discern the meanings of these components, and their mutual relationship, which is easily achieved by comparing the vāyu-agni-soma to the three different kinds of offerings we can make which are represented by sat-chit-ananda, or our opportunities, meaning, and happiness.

Pleasure is dear to everyone, so in one prominent scenario, the Soma or the offering is ananda or pleasure; it is because we offer our pleasure that the yajña is translated as a “sacrifice” because giving up pleasure is indeed a sacrifice. But if we are sacrificing pleasure, then what are we sacrificing it for? The Agni—into which the Soma is offered—can be the chit which represents meaning. The significance of the term yajña in this case is that we are sacrificing our pleasure for meaning. For example, if you endure pain to defend a country (and that country stands for a higher principle) then you are offering your happiness for a higher principle and that offering constitutes a yajña. Naturally, however, a country’s defense is not the only place you can offer your happiness, because there many other possible avenues. Some of these avenues are better than others, and the selection of the avenue for which happiness should be sacrificed represents sat or Vāyu.

Now, it is quite possible that instead of sacrificing happiness for meaning, you could have sacrificed meaning for happiness. For example, when it is time to defend your country, you could decide to stay at home thinking about how you might enjoy the rest of your life better by avoiding a battle. In such cases, you have prioritized pleasure over meaning, and “sacrificed” a higher purpose for personal happiness. Now, the soma is the meaning, the agni is your pleasure, and the act of staying home to avoid the battleground is vāyu. 

Various Kinds of Yajña

The meaning of “sacrifice” is that you cannot get everything, and so you have to choose. When you make a choice, you prioritize some things and sacrifice others. We can call this prioritization “choice”, and there are many ways in which we can perform these sacrifices.

However, all these sacrifices are not yajña. In a very generic sense, the act of prioritizing involves sacrificing something else, but to constitute yajña one must make sure that we are sacrificing a lower principle for a higher principle. For instance, sometimes, your duty may demand that you sacrifice your meaning and happiness for the meaning and happiness of others. In this case, the duty is the agni and your meaning and happiness are the soma. The process by which this sacrifice is made is the vayu. Similarly, you could also sacrifice one kind of meaning to obtain another kind of meaning, or one kind of pleasure to get another kind of pleasure. All of us make different choices or priority calls, and hence we are always sacrificing something or other. As long as the agni is the higher principle, and soma is the lower principle, the process can be termed yajña. By this yajña we can uplift our lives, perform our duties, and get the benefits of austerity.

Depending on the different methods of sacrifice, there are different kinds of yajña, produced from various kinds of prioritization.

  • BG 4.25: Some yogis perfectly worship the demigods by offering different sacrifices to them, and some of them offer sacrifices in the fire of the Supreme Brahman.
  • BG 4.26: Some of them sacrifice the hearing process and the senses in the fire of the controlled mind, and others sacrifice the objects of the senses, such as sound, in the fire of sacrifice.
  • BG 4.27: Those who are interested in self-realization, in terms of mind and sense control, offer the functions of all the senses, as well as the vital force [breath], as oblations into the fire of the controlled mind.
  • BG 4.28: There are others who, enlightened by sacrificing their material possessions in severe austerities, take strict vows and practice the yoga of eightfold mysticism, and others study the Vedas for the advancement of transcendental knowledge.
  • BG 4.29: And there are even others who are inclined to the process of breath restraint to remain in trance, and they practice stopping the movement of the outgoing breath into the incoming, and incoming breath into the outgoing, and thus at last remain in trance, stopping all breathing. Some of them, curtailing the eating process, offer the outgoing breath into itself, as a sacrifice.

Lord Kṛṣṇa describes in the Bhagavad-Gita how different people create various kinds of yajña when they sacrifice one thing for another. Note some interesting alternatives such as “sacrificing the hearing process in the fire of the controlled mind”. This is very difficult to understand unless we realize the meanings of “offering” and “fire”. The “fire” represents what you have prioritized, and the “offering” is what you have deprioritized. Therefore, if you want to attain a controlled mind, you have to stop listening to the cacophony of the world, although this cacophony can be very pleasurable.

Thus, there is a yajña which involves stopping hearing in order to attain a silenced mind. In this process, the mind becomes the fire (i.e. the Agni), and the sense of hearing becomes the offering (i.e. the Soma). Similarly, there is a yajña in which one hears everything and becomes fully alert about their surroundings, thus raising their consciousness. In this process, the sense of hearing becomes the fire (i.e. the Agni) and all the sounds around them become the offering (i.e. the Soma) in the fire.

In many Eastern religions, such as Zen Buddhism, there is a simultaneous emphasis on silencing the mind and yet perceiving everything. Those practicing martial arts, for example, practice this contradictory form of meditation, which Lord Kṛṣṇa alludes to in BG 4.26. It is amazing how we can advance our consciousness both by perceiving everything, and by stopping all perceptions!

We are all familiar with the adage: “What are you prepared to give up to get the life you want?” The description of yajña elevates this idea to a natural principle in which one thing is sacrificed for another, and by making better choices about what we sacrifice and what we aspire for, we can perfect our lives. In other words, the perfection of yajña is understanding the hierarchy of meanings, pleasures, and opportunities by which one can sacrifice something (which is lower) for something else (which is higher). Everyone may be involved in some sacrifice, but everyone’s sacrifice is not perfect and hence cannot be called yajña. Therefore, yajña means perfection of sacrifices.

Descriptions of Material Yajña

In the material world, meanings are regarded as generally higher than the quest for mundane sensual pleasure. Therefore, meaning or chit is generally considered the fire, and it constitutes the upward rising flow of energy called pingalā. Similarly, pleasure or ananda is generally considered the offering, and it constitutes the downward falling flow of energy called idā. Thus, in the material world, one generic description of yajña means sacrificing pleasure for meaning. Yajña can also mean the sacrifice of a lower meaning for a higher meaning, or the sacrifice of a lower pleasure for a higher pleasure. All references to “higher” and “lower” are based on a hierarchy.

The Vedic marriage is an example of the concept of yajña. When a man represents the upward flowing pingalā, and a woman represents the downward flowing idā, then the woman becomes an “offering” to a man, and a father who performs this offering is said to have performed a great yajña—the kanyā-dāna yajña—or the “sacrifice” of a girl. Most people today may find this idea reprehensible because it conjures up images of women being “sacrificed” at the altar of marriage. These imaginary notions are far from truth. The basic idea is that as long as a woman is unmarried, the male in her life is her father. When she gets married, the male in her life would be her husband. The father who gives away the bride in marriage thus makes a sacrifice by parting away with this daughter. If we treat the marriage as a yajña or sacrifice, then the husband is the Agni and the wife is the Soma. The choice of the appropriate husband for the girl made by the father constitutes the Vāyu in the offering. In other words, the girl’s hand is given to a boy who is most appropriate for the girl—chosen by the father.

Similarly, the guru is the higher meaning in the material world, while the disciple is the lower meaning. The disciple is expected to sacrifice their meanings for those of the guru, which means that the disciple accepts the guru’s goals as their goals. Similarly, the disciple sacrifices their happiness for the fulfillment of these goals. In that process the guru becomes the Agni and the disciple becomes the Soma. The process of spiritual initiation is one in which a disciple commits to deprioritize his or her happiness and meaning relative to the guru’s which means that the disciple takes a vow to prioritize the guru’s desires over one’s own desires. Breaking that vow—i.e. taking back a commitment—is tantamount to lying. However, if this commitment is always upheld, then the promise is itself the highest yajña.

Descriptions of Spiritual Yajña

The situation in the spiritual world, however, is quite different, even though there is yajña there too.

The difference is simply that pleasure is higher than meanings. Furthermore, the preference for the type of pleasure shifts—the mental or intellectual pleasures (which are “higher” pleasures) are rejected in favor of the sensual pleasures (which are “lower” pleasures). Therefore, the Agni in the spiritual world becomes a lower pleasure, whereas Soma becomes a higher pleasure or any meaning.

The principle of Agni and Soma doesn’t disappear. It only changes form such that Soma in the material world is pleasure and Agni is meaning, while Soma in spiritual world is meaning and Agni is pleasure. Both worlds have yajña although they are quite different.

Comparison of Material and Spiritual Yajña

A contentious issue often arises in performing these trade-offs. For example, should the commander of an army give up his life in order to save the life of a foot solider, and jeopardize the effectiveness of the entire army? Or, should a father with many children sacrifice his life to save one child, and thereby leave all children to fend for themselves? Clearly, if the army commander saves himself and sacrifices the foot soldier, one could interpret this action as prioritizing one’s pleasure over someone’s pleasure. We could also interpret it as a sacrifice of greater meaning for a smaller pleasure. This complicates the decision process because of the myriad interpretations one could offer for the same kind of act. What is then the right kind of decision that can be considered morally correct—or in other words right?

Soma →

Higher Meaning Lower Meaning Higher Pleasure Lower Pleasure

Agni ↓

Higher Meaning

Material Material Material
Lower Meaning Spiritual Material


Higher Pleasure Spiritual Spiritual


Lower Pleasure Spiritual Spiritual Spiritual

The table above summarizes the decision matrix. An example of “higher meaning” is the concepts in the mind, while an example of “lower meaning” is the concepts of senses, sensations, and sense objects. Similarly, “higher pleasure” means the pleasure of the subtle senses, while the “lower pleasure” means the pleasure of the gross senses. This table has some peculiar characteristics. For example, in the spiritual realm, Higher Pleasure becomes Soma for the Agni of Lower Pleasure. Similarly, Higher Meanings become the Soma for the Agni of Lower Meanings. This means that the senses are given more importance over the mind. The pleasure of mental and intellectual pursuits is thus rejected over sensual pleasure. This is the basis of the claim that bhakti should be free of jnana or knowledge.

Note, however, that this claim can only be made in the context of the spiritual yajña and not the material yajña. Many people misinterpret this as the rejection of knowledge in bhakti even in the material world—effectively converting bhakti into a sentimental or fanatic process. This is wrong because in the material world one must sacrifice ordinary pleasures for the pursuit of knowledge. Only when this knowledge has been perfected to include the understanding of God, can the mundane processes of knowledge acquisition can be sacrificed.

The material and the spiritual yajña are opposite in their choices. The mind and intellect are preferred from the material standpoint, but the senses are preferred from the spiritual standpoint. Of course, from the standpoint of precedence, the mind is still prior to the senses. However, in the spiritual realm, the soul’s choices prioritize sensations over ideas, ideas over judgments, and judgments over morals; in other words, all morality can be suspended if there is a gross sensual pleasure to be obtained in relation to God. This is completely counterintuitive and is the main reason why bhakti is often criticized as being meant for the “less intelligent” because in the ultimate analysis, it indeed deprioritizes the mind and intellect over sensual pleasure (although only in the spiritual world). This is also a reason why some people (called sahajiya) prematurely prioritize sensual pleasure over knowledge in the material yajña itself.

There are many misconceptions about bhakti ranging from sahajiya who become sentimentalists, to the fanatics who accept everything on “faith” without an understanding of the deeper principles, to those who take such fanatics and sentimentalists to be the cardinal representatives of the bhakti tradition and reject the entire process to be unintelligent and faith-based. All religions who have a personal God, and who espouse devotion and faith suffer from the same problem due to which religion has earned a bad name today as the “opiate of the masses”. The problem originates in a misunderstanding of bhakti in the material world versus its nature in the spiritual world.

There are indeed two mutually opposite kinds of bhakti in the material and the spiritual worlds. The process of bhakti in the material world is called vaidi-bhakti in which knowledge is emphasized over pleasure, and abstract is preferred over detailed. The process of bhakti in the spiritual world is called ragānugā-bhakti which is when knowledge is forgotten and sensual stimulation is considered the highest form of yajña. When the vaidi-bhakti and ragānugā-bhakti are confused, then people start believing that because one has to ultimately give up jnana or knowledge in ragānugā-bhakti, there is no point in acquiring this knowledge in the first place. And thus the notion of a fanatic, sentimentalist, and ignorant devotee of God is born—which is the dominant category of religious people everywhere.

Yajña is Dharma or Prescribed Duty

The term dharma has two aspects in Vedic philosophy—descriptive and prescriptive. By descriptive I mean statements of facts; for example the dharma of fire is to be hot, and the dharma of winter is to be cold. By prescriptive I mean statements about expectations; for example, the dharma of a police officer is to catch the culprit, and the dharma of a citizen is to obey the country’s laws. We don’t expect the descriptive dharma to be violated, but the prescriptive dharma can be violated with consequences, such as the creation of good or bad karma.

Yajña constitutes the prescriptive dharma or the expected behaviors. If we don’t obey these prescriptive principles, the actions constitute the violation of dharma which in turn invites karma. As discussed in an earlier article, karma is produced when one exceeds or falls short of expectations; depending on whether rights or duties have been exceeded or left unfulfilled, new karma would be produced. But if the dharma or expectations are fulfilled exactly—neither exceeding nor falling short—then no karma would be created.

Yajña and prescriptive dharma are therefore identical. Since the expectations are defined relative to situations, the yajña is not same for all times, places, or roles. The expectations change with each situation, and we have to know the expectation for that time, place, and role, to perform yajña. Accordingly, there can be many religions, which constitute the time, place, and role-specific dharma. There can also be religions independent of some time, place, role constraints such that they can be applied to all places at a given time, or to all times at a given place, or to all times and places for a given type of role, etc. And there is an absolute religion—which applies to every time, place, and role.

A religion or dharma means “expectations” or duties prescribed according one’s role and situation in relation to others in society. In a semantic description, the best expectation is to move toward the center of the semantic space. One who knows the center, and sees the current location, can guide people toward the center. The path that connects any location to the center is the dharma for that location. It is therefore incorrect to assume that all dharma are universal, just as it is incorrect to suppose that all dharma is contextual.

Vedic texts describe many kinds of dharma. The universal principle or dharma for the material world is preferring meaning over pleasure. However, there are also time-specific dharma for each age—i.e. Satya-yuga, Dvāpara-yuga, Tretā-yuga and Kali-yuga. Similarly, there can be place specific dharma for each age, and role-specific dharma. However, dharma is objective rather than subjective.

Aspects of Dharma and Yajña

In a yajña, the fire is lighted in a square area, with four sides of that area occupied by four ritvik or priests—hotā, udgāta, adhvaryu, and brahmā. Each priest recites one of the four Vedas: the hotā chants the Rig-Veda mantra, the adhvaryu follows the procedures of the Yajur-Veda, the udgāta sings hymns from the Sāma-Veda, while the brahmā oversees the yajña, following the Atharva-Veda.

The Agni or fire—which represents the higher purpose—therefore has four “sides” or aspects. When the Agni represents meanings, these four sides are called Vasudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha and they represent mahattattva, ego, intellect, and the mind, respectively. I have discussed previously how our meaning cognition has four aspects—concepts, judgments, intentions, and morals. The mind represents all the meanings, the intellect represents the the judgments of truth and falsity, the ego represents the goal or purpose for which truth is being used, and the mahattattva represents the moral value fulfilled by the accomplishment of the goal. Similarly, there are four aspects of pleasure, which appear as happiness in the mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva. Accordingly, there are also duties to be performed by the mind, intellect, ego, and mahattattva, which means that they should employed or used correctly.

Within these four sides, the Agni is lighted and the Soma is offered using Vāyu. Vedic texts describe a further five-fold division within the Agni, Soma, and Vāyu which is shown in the below table.

Vāyu Agni Soma
Prāna Pāchaka Bōdhaka
Udāna Alochaka Kledaka
Samāna Ranjaka Śhleshka
Vyāna Sādhaka Tārpaka
Apāna Bhrājaka Avalambhaka

Yajña means finding the best use of our life and time and executing that mission. The best use is not to be decided whimsically and it is not merely our choice. There is indeed a best use for life, although we are free not to follow it. When we follow the best use, we gradually become free from karma because we follow dharma. When we don’t follow dharma we gradually become entangled in karma.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "The Meaning of Yajña," in Shabda Journal, May 16, 2017,