• 20 Jul, 2024

Life as a Yajna or Sacrifice

Life as a Yajna or Sacrifice

A description of 'yajna' or sacrifice, one of the most significant aspects of Sanatan dharma.

In the middle of the fourth chapter of the Gita, certain instructions are given on the performance of different kinds of sacrifice, known as yajnas. The word ' yajna ' is a very significant one throughout the Bhagavadgita, perhaps through most of the scriptures in India, indicating that the principle of life consists of sacrifice of some sort or the other. The philosophy of India may, in a way, be summed up by the word  'yajna'   – sacrifice. Every moment of our life is a sacrifice that we perform in the direction of a higher fulfillment, and a sacrifice is therefore a gain and not a loss. In ordinary language we praise a person who has performed a sacrifice, thinking that sacrifice involves a sharing of one's joy with others, in a sense a sort of loss which one has voluntarily incurred for the welfare of other people. "Oh, what a sacrifice he has done," thus we ejaculate. This is our point of view – whenever we give something, we feel we lose something. Sacrifice, no doubt, means giving something, but it does not mean losing something. In giving, we do not lose. Give and it shall be given back a hundredfold. It is difficult to understand the meaning of sacrifice, and a knowledge of it is absolutely necessary to understand the teachings of the Bhagavadgita. The whole of karma yoga, or any yoga for the matter of that, is centred around this principle governing all life and existence – the principle of  yajna, sacrifice. 

In the fourth chapter, indications are given of the possibility of performing different kinds of sacrifice. A purely philosophical and spiritual touch is given to this description of the different forms of sacrifice here, because the Bhagavadgita is pre-eminently a spiritual gospel, a gospel of all life, and thus very comprehensive in its treatment of the basic values of life.  Dravyayajna, yogoyajna, tapoyajna jnanayajna are some of the terms used in this connection. Without going into the verbal or linguistic meaning of these terms, and without confusing you too much with the academic interpretations of these enunciations of the forms of sacrifice, I can clinch the whole matter by bringing you back to the process of cosmology, evolution – a thing we can never afford to forget throughout our studies because the story of creation or the procession of the cosmological event also suggests acutely the position we occupy in this world, our status in this universe, without which we can do nothing correctly, nor can we know anything properly. Yajna   – sacrifice – whatever the form it may take, is a summoning of the higher power into one's own self, and a consequent surrender of the lower self for the higher dimension of one's own being, known as the superior Self. 

It is also not easy to understand what this higher Self means; nor can we know what the lower self is. Though we may repeat these words again and again, and to some extent know their literal meanings, their practical suggestiveness is hard for the mind to grasp. The higher Self is not a spatially located, ascending series, but a more intensely inclusive and pervasive nature of our own self – something like the superiority of the waking consciousness over the dream consciousness. The waking mind is not kept over the dreaming mind, as one thing is kept over another thing. The superiority, the transcendence of one thing over the other, or one thing being higher than the other, should not and does not suggest a spatial distance, but a logical superiority which is to be distinguished from spatial transcendence as someone sitting over another person's head. The cosmological scheme, to which we have made reference earlier, enlightens us into the fact that we as individuals or human beings are basically inseparable from the whole of creation, the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether; the five tanmatras: sabda, sparsa, rupa, rasa, gandha ; and the whole of space-time itself. We are not outside this large complex of the expanse of the universe. Though this may be the fact, this also seems to be the conclusion that we are driven to by a study of the cosmological process. 

We, in our daily life, seem to be totally ignoring this fact; and by a complete violation of this principle, asserting our individuality, seem to be totally disconnected from everything else as if we have nothing to do with anybody else. We have various types of selfishness – attachment to one's own body is the grossest form of it, and it has subtler forms of egoism, such as psychological self-assertiveness. Attachment to anything that is connected to one's self also comes under the purview and the gamut of selfishness. Anything that would not accept the basic organic relations of one's self with what is external to one's self, should be considered as a form of selfishness, whatever be the height it has reached; it may be a national egoism or even an international one, but it is nothing short of it. One cannot easily escape this predicament because of the perception of the world by the senses. The yajnas or the sacrifices mentioned here in the Bhagavadgita in the fourth chapter are, to some extent, gradational attempts on the part of the seeker to overcome selfishness and increase their dimension of one's self by attuning one's self to the larger Self, which is nothing but the establishment of an en rapport with a wider area of our relationship than the one to which we are limited at the present moment, due to our sensory outlook. Physically, psychologically, and even intellectually, we are somehow connected to other people and even the five elements, the  tanmatras, the ahamkara, the mahat and the other things we have mentioned in the Samkhya cosmological scheme. So sacrifice, yajna, should therefore mean an inward transmutation of our consciousness in its apprehension of relationship with these layers or levels of cosmological descent and ascent; and there are, perhaps, as many types of sacrifice as we would recognise layers in the cosmological scheme. If we say there are infinite series, there can be infinite types of sacrifice. It depends upon our understanding of what the universe is and how the creation process has taken place. 

Again, I wish to bring to your memories our earlier studies concerning the structure of our personality and its connection with the outer world – namely, that internal to the body we have other types of apparatus like the sense organs, the pranas, the mind and the intellect, which have a tendency to affirm the physical individuality of the person, and affirm also all the attachments and aversions consequent upon this affirmation in respect of the outer world of persons and things. So, one kind of yajna or sacrifice would imply self-control, a restraining of the movement of the senses of the mind and the intellect, because an unrestrained set of senses, uncontrolled mind, and unsubdued intellect would mean a personality that is engulfed in a desire for spatial contact with persons and things outside, while really, persons and things are not outside. The reason for self-control arises because of the fact that the usual perceptions of the senses are erroneous perceptions, because the senses have no other work to do than to din into our minds the externality of the world, the outsideness of things, and the isolation of our self from other people. There is a continuous brainwashing process going on in our relationship to the senses; and we have no other relationship in the world, unfortunately. We are totally sense-ridden, and the world that we live in is a sense world. Our thinking process and our intellection also is conditioned by the knowledge provided to us by means of sense perception. There is a total misfortune descended upon us, as it were, considering the state of affairs in which we are now – socially, physically and psychologically. Socially we are in a misfortune because of a wrong understanding of our connection with other people, and psychologically so, because of our dependence, inwardly also, upon what we know by means of the senses, which is erroneous. So, self-control, which includes sense-control, is also mind-control, intellect-control, reason-control – the total control of one's own self. The control of one's self is the essence of yoga. Here a word of explanation may be necessary as to what is meant by control of one's self. What do we do with ourselves when we try to restrain ourselves? For that we may need to know what we are. 

This again brings us to the point of the cosmological scheme. We can know, to some extent, what we are, by placing ourselves in the cosmological scheme, and we do not require instruction of any kind in this context, because the moment we know how we have come, we can also know where we are sitting. Our duties become explicit and perspicacious the moment we know our condition and the atmosphere in which we are living. The control of one's self – sense-restraint, self-control – is the restraint of consciousness, finally; it has little to do with our physical limbs. It is not tightening the legs, plugging the ears or closing the eyes physically speaking, because our joys and sorrows are the outcomes of a movement of a consciousness in a particular way. Thoughts are joys and sorrows; so joys and sorrows are nothing but thought processes, which is another way of saying the whirling of consciousness in a particular manner. Our individualised consciousness, for the purpose of easy understanding – we may identify it with our mind in a more generalised sense – this individualised consciousness is the principle of the affirmation of individuality. The ego, the intellect, the reason, and what we think we are at the present moment – all these are inseparable from this type of activity of consciousness. Thus, self-control would mean a bringing back of the surging individual consciousness in the direction of external things, and enabling it to settle in its own self. This is the whole yoga of Patanjali, for instance, which summarises in two sutras – yogaś citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ and tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānam (Y.S. 1.2-3 ) : "The restraint of the mind is yoga, and then there is establishment of self in its own self." Here is the whole of yoga in two sentences. 

Now, the establishment of consciousness in its own self is simultaneous with and inseparable from the restraint of consciousness from its movement in the direction of objects; and vice-versa – the restraint of consciousness in its movement in this form would be a movement in the other direction, for establishment in its own self. Every perception involves a degree of loss of self-consciousness. Whether we love a thing or hate a thing, we have lost ourselves in that measure and to that degree. An amount of ourselves, a quantum of our personality, moves out of itself towards that which we like or hate, and to that extent, we are weakened. One who loves or hates is a weak person, because of the fact that some part of one's self is borne in the direction of that which is liked or hated. So to strengthen one's mind for the purpose of higher concentration, to free one's self from this weakness that has arisen on account of love and hatred, one has to bring the mind or consciousness back from that centre, which is the source of its like or dislike, and then there is a rejuvenation of ourselves. We feel an inner strength arising from a source unknown, due to the mere fact of our coming back to our own selves. Mostly, we are not in our own selves – we are other than what we are. This being other than what we are is the malady of life – we are always conscious of somebody else. There is no other work for us except to be aware that others  are   and to deal with others – with other people and other things. This so-called 'otherness' harasses us so much that we seem to be living in a world of destruction, death –  mrityuloka as it is called – and nothing can be worse than this condition of ours. To be brooding over what is not there, and to be totally oblivious of what is there, seems to be the great business of this world. That things are not totally outside us is obliterated from our consciousness by the vehemence of this surge of ourselves in the direction of things. Yajna or sacrifice as yoga or self-control implies therefore an inner training, a sort of educational activity going on inside, enlightenment as it is, by which we become filled with strength with our inward bond with things – not as the senses tell us, but as things really stand. 

The world of sense-perception is conditioned by space-time and the various categories of the psychological process; while the thing, the person, the being, the substance as it is in itself, is behind this curtain of space-time. Our real being also is behind this curtain of the psycho-physical individuality. Thus we are living in a phenomenal world, both subjectively and objectively. The thing-in-itself, as they say, the substance as such, eludes the grasp of this phenomenal process – thus no man can see God, and the intellect of man is not fit enough to contact reality. Unless we develop a mechanism within our own selves to go deeper into this large area of phenomenality – subjectively as well as objectively – the plumbing into one's own self is also the plumbing through space and time. Modern science says the inward, subjective, subatomic philosophy of quantum theory is identical with the spatio-temporal theory of relativity – Tat tvam asi : That is this and this is That. The inward depth is also the outward plumbing of the abyss of space and time. The deeper we go inwardly, simultaneously there is a going deep into the outer cosmos – and vice-versa, the plumbing into the cosmos objectively would also imply a going deep into one's own self. Knowledge of the self is the knowledge of the universe, and the knowledge of the universe is the knowledge of the self. Atman is Brahman. 

This is a profound philosophy that is hidden behind the performance of sacrifice, self-control, the practice of yoga, the control of senses, the restraint of the mind and the stabilising of the intellect and the reason. We have to perform a double process – sometimes mentioned in the Bhagavadgita and also in Patanjali – of vairagya and abhyasa, a dual action of withdrawal and union. The performance of this dual function may be said to be a simultaneous action taking place, as recovering from illness is also the regaining of health and the going away of night is the coming in of day. There is no temporal successiveness in these processes; they happen to be a simultaneous occurrence. Thus, the vairagya that we speak of in yoga, the dissociation of consciousness from erroneous thinking and contact, is simultaneously a concentration of consciousness on that which lies above itself – the lower self concentrates itself on the higher. 

Now I am coming to that point as to what the lower self is and what the higher Self is. The lower self is that state of consciousness which is conditioned by the urge in the direction of objects. The higher Self is that which is the condition of freedom, attained by even a single step taken by this involved consciousness in the direction of disentanglement with objects. Thus every ascent is a regaining of one's Self, and an asset on the side of strengthening of one's personality.  Vairagya and abhyasa mean detachment and communion. Here, many people may get misguided due to the difficulty in understanding the true meaning of these terms, vairagya and abhyasa – renunciation, abrogation, detachment or non-attachment, going together with concentration, meditation, etc. We have to correctly understand what detachment means in order to know what communion is; and the whole of yoga is this much. If we commit an initial error, then we would be piling error over error in our subsequent actions or performances. Thus, we have to be vigilant at the very beginning. 

Detachment is a success that we achieve in freeing our consciousness from involvement in any kind of objectivity – whether it is the form of intense liking or intense dislike, or finally even in the complacency that things really are outside. The initial step or stage in self-control would require us to free ourselves from emotional involvements, either in the form of intense like or intense dislike. But even if we are emotionally free and there is no great passion for things either positively or negatively, we may yet be unfit for the higher requirements in yoga. A mere good man need not necessarily be a fit person for yoga, because while goodness is a great thing indeed, a highly valued thing, it is itself not sufficient because yoga is super-ethical – it goes beyond the morality of mankind. It is not merely goodness, charitableness and a humanitarian feeling, though all these things are wonderful in themselves. So, when there is a freedom achieved to some extent from emotional involvements in the form of love and hatred, we might have attained a great thing indeed – it is a very important success – but yoga is something deeper and more difficult to grasp because, as we make a distinction between abnormal psychology and general psychology or rather, the psychoanalytical process and the study of ordinary psychological functions, we may have to make a distinction between two types of involvement of the mind in objectivity – the one emotional and the other perceptional. 

Emotional involvements are studied in psychoanalysis, sometimes known as 'abnormal psychology'. By a deep understanding of our own self, we may be a healthy person psychically, and psychoanalytically we are perfectly hale and robust. But from the point of view of yoga, we may still be an abnormal person – because abnormality does not necessarily mean being a psychoanalytic patient. There can be a 'metaphysical error' as philosophers would put it, apart from a mere social, political or emotional mistake that we commit. Here it is that yoga goes beyond mere human ways of thinking, much less social and political ways. It is a cosmic way of envisaging everything, which will inject a sort of shock into us. We may begin to shudder even to think of the possibility of there being such a way of encounter with things, and this is the reason why sometimes we feel tremor in the body when we go deep into meditation – a shock which the pranas receive by the impact of the mind upon them, due to the intensity of our concentration on a supernormal level, which goes beyond ordinary human thinking. 

So even if we are emotionally free and a good individual indeed, well adored and respected in humanity, we may not be prepared for yoga; because yoga is a preparation to embrace a reality, which is not necessarily a human world. This is also touched upon, pithily, in some of the aphorisms of Patanjali, which is not my subject at present – I am concerned with the Bhagavadgita. So, coming to the point of yajna, sacrifice, self-control, we seem to conclude that every sacrifice which is true to its spirit involves a metaphysical injection that we give to the psychological process of the mind, a spiritual adventure more than any other kind of human activity or a religious routine. We ascend into a supernormal degree of comprehension in our adventure of vairagya and abhyasa   – withdrawal and union. From what do we withdraw ourselves, and with what do we commune ourselves? The withdrawal, as I mentioned, is not from the substance of the persons and things or the five elements, but from the way, the manner in which they are perceived by the senses, the mind and the intellect. Our opinion about things is what is important, rather than the things themselves. Our understanding is what is our concern, and not what we are understanding – the thing as such. The world, physically speaking, is not so much our concern in yoga as the way in which we are understanding it, and the manner in which we react to it. 

Thus the process of vairagya, or detachment, is more a psychological activity rather than a physical performance. It is something that is happening inside the mind. So we can detach ourselves from things even in the midst of things. Even in the thick of the bustle of people and the noises of the world, we can be detached, because the bustle and the haste, the movement and the noise are not the things that trouble us; the trouble arises from our reaction to them. The world is what it was, and perhaps it will be what it was – nobody can change it, and perhaps there is no need to change it, but there is a necessity to change our understanding of it. It is possible to be free from concern with the external events in the world by a modification or an amendment of our outlook or perspective in life, even in the midst of thick activity. Here is the principle of  karma yoga coming again: in the midst of intense activity one can be in a state of deep communion with the Ultimate Reality because of the fact that the mind is in the state of vairagya – completely withdrawn from erroneous associations with the events taking place with persons, with things, with activities. On the other hand, one may be at the top of Mount Everest, yet one may be involved in the world process. The thick of the jungle is not necessarily a safe place for the practice of yoga, because the absence of the presence of things, though it is an important thing indeed, is secondary considering our attitude toward them. A deeply involved person may be involved even in the thickest forest – and an inwardly detached person may be detached even in the thick street of a large city. If we are honestly intent upon achieving true success in what is called 'yoga', we should not merely pat ourselves on the back and imagine that we are in a state of yoga or religious activity merely because it appears to be so, and people also say so. People may say anything – the saying of the people is no matter with us; it is another thing altogether that worries us and perhaps is our concern. 

So, the yoga, the sacrifice – which is control of the senses, restraint of the mind, and the stabilising of the reasoning process, which is the  yajna, the various types of yajna mentioned in the fourth chapter: prana, manas, indriya etc. mentioned there – all these suggest a single action on the part of our consciousness, namely an awakening into a higher Self. We may wonder why we should go on using the word 'Self' again and again, as if there is nothing else and no other word will connote what is our intention. The word 'Self' is a very important thing, because it suggests the true nature of things. We are not likely to understand the meaning of it because we are accustomed to identify self with our personality: 'yourself', ' myself', 'himself', 'herself', 'itself'. These grammatical words that we use suggest a wrong meaning of the term 'Self'. Self does not mean a person or a thing, though it is associated with a description of persons and things, yourself and others. The word 'Self' actually means the non-objective status occupied by everything in the world. Here is a sentence on which we have to bestow deep thought. A non-objective status which everyone enjoys and everything enjoys   – this is called the Self. The Self is that which cannot be externalised, cannot be objectified, cannot become other than what it is; it cannot know itself as an 'other'. It is not an 'other' – it is just what it is. The real 'you' or the 'I' is what we call the 'Self'. This 'I' cannot become a 'you', a 'he', 'she', 'it' – it is just what it is. Inasmuch as this is the condition of everyone and everything, in a way we may say the whole universe is just the Self. The whole universe is a Self, only to be understood in its proper significance. If the whole universe is a Self and it cannot be objectified, because a Self is a non-objectified status, it would mean the universe is an intense self-consciousness; actually, what you call God is nothing but this. It is a highly enhanced condition of universal self-consciousness. This Self, which is principally and primarily a universal being, gets conditioned, by degrees, into lower forms of experience, until it descends into our personality-consciousness of the so-called physical 'I', the physical 'you', the physical 'it'. Thus it is self-control – I am coming to the point again – self-control means the restraining of the lower experience of the self by uniting it with the higher experience of its own Self. It is not a communion with somebody else. You are communing with your own self only in a larger, pervasive form than the condition in which you are at present. Your connectedness with things ascends in a series of larger pervasiveness until it reaches the apex of this pervasiveness in God-consciousness or Universal-realisation. 

So, self-control begins with a little action of restraining the senses, and then becomes wider and wider, by degrees. These are the samapattis or samadhis mentioned in the sutras of Patanjali. These are the seven stages of knowledge. These are the communes attained with the levels of being, the realms of consciousness, the planes, etc. – these are the forms of Self. Gradually we get united with them until we become wider and wider, deeper and deeper, heavier and heavier, more and more comprises us, and nearer and nearer to our own self than we are now. Now we are far away from us. What a pity, we are far from our own selves. In the sense we are not this self we are thinking ourselves to be, as conditioned by this body; there is a larger kingdom in which we are residing, even now, from which we are apparently exiled into this grossness of the prison-house of this body consciousness. These are the fundamentals, and this is the background of all forms of self-control, which is the final meaning of any form of sacrifice –  yajna. 


[ With deep gratitude to Swamiji   ] 

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Swami Krishnananda

A writer on philosophy, metaphysics, yoga, meditation, psychology and sociology, and a direct disciple of His Holiness Swami Sivananda of the Divine Life Society, Swamiji has inspired many devotees and seekers through his talks and writings.

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