YAJÑA "Sacrifice," or yajña, is the key word in a Vedic worldview that dominated South Asian religion for the entire first millennium b.c. Derived from yaj (to sacrifice, worship), yajña has an Avestan counterpart yasna, indicating an Indo-Iranian pre-Vedic origin. In the highly influential Purusha hymn, Rig Veda 10.90, the self-sacrificing cosmic being Purusha creates not only the world and classes of beings but also the institution of yajña and the first cosmic laws. Sacrifice for Vedic poets and ritualists became the crucial link between human and divine worlds. Karman, ritual "work" in yajña, was declared a human responsibility, and sacrifice evolved into a complex, highly sophisticated instrument by which the cosmos itself was ritually renewed.
Early in the first millennium b.c., Vedic tradition divided ritual activity into shrauta sacrifices based on shruti, the revealed Vedas, and grihya ceremonies based on smriti, or human tradition. The former apparently had priority, and Shrauta Sūtras of numerous Vedic schools systematized sacrifices already described in the Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas of the orally transmitted Vedic texts. Grihya Sūtras of the same schools provided domestic guidelines. These Sūtras listed sacrifices that could be performed on one fire in the home, some with assistance from a purohita (domestic priest), or great sacrifices requiring three fires and as many as sixteen or seventeen priests. The latter included soma sacrifices, with the agnishṭoma, an initial soma offering, as paradigm. Once a sacrificer ( yajamāna) and his wife (patnī) performed the five-day agnishṭoma (known today among Vaidika Brahmans of Andhra simply as yajña to declare its priority), the couple may then go on to further soma yajñas such as the agnicayana and vājapeya. When one of the pair dies, all of the dozen or more implements, yajñapātra or yajñāyudha (literally, "sacrificial weapons") go to the fire-god Agni in the funeral pyre.
Beginning with Brāhmaṇa texts (e.g., Shatapatha Brāhmaṇa 188.8.131.52) and continuing on to the authoritative law code of Manu (3.67–74), an important reduction of sacrifice to a manageable yet spiritually satisfying scale arrived with stipulation of five daily "great" yajñas (mahāyajña) to be made by a householder without priestly assistance. Yajñas to devas (gods), brahman (the Veda), pitris (ancestors), manushya (humans), and bhūtas (supernatural beings) could be accomplished simply by adding a stick to the ritual fire, reciting a Vedic verse, offering water, giving alms to a Brahman or beggar, scattering leftover grains for crows or ants.
In the post-Vedic era of classical Hinduism, the solemn shrauta schedule of yajña gradually gave way to devapūjā, the worship of images of deities in households, roadside shrines, and increasingly elaborate public temples with priestly staff. Aside from innumerable goddesses of rural and urban theistic Hinduism, the two principal male deities, Vishnu and Shiva, both demonstrate strong connections with yajña. Vishnu is pervader of the universe, like the sacrificial pole (yūpa), and Shiva is Sthāṇu, that same axis mundi. Both gods also have mythic links to the cult of soma, although it is only Shiva, famously excluded from Daksha's yajña, who succeeds in destroying the sacrifice.
In contemporary India, elaborate sectarian rituals, often labeled "Vedic" yajñas or yāgas to acquire prestige, have little to do with authentic Vedic ritual.
David M. Knipe
Kane, P. V. History of Dharmasāstra, vol. II, parts I–II. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1941. Detailed overview of Vedic sacrifices and their texts.
Staal, Frits. Agni. The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. 2 vols. Berkeley, Calif.: Asian Humanities, 1983. Monumental study of 1975 Agnicayana sacrifice in Kerala and its historic context; excellent plates.