Recently, I was reading some of the hymns of Mandala I of the Rig Veda, and the two words that kept arising in the hymns, which are absolute masterpieces in poetry, were ‘libation‘ and ‘sacrifice‘. Ved Vyasa, the Rishi (sage) who is credited with codifying the Vedas and writing a major section of them down, was said to have been born in the Treta Yuga and lived up to the beginning of the Kali Yuga. For those who are not familiar with the idea of Yugas, Yuga in the Vedic tradition is an epoch or era within a four-age cycle. A complete Yuga starts with the Satya Yuga, via Treta Yuga and Dvapara Yuga into a Kali Yuga. The Satya Yuga is supposed to be the golden age, and as the epochs go by, the world degrades spiritually till it reaches what we are in currently: the Kali Yuga, the age of darkness.
The reason for mentioning the fact that Ved Vyasa was born in the second of these epochs, is to highlight that the idea of sacrifice was not something that was practised since the very beginning. Even though you may or may not agree with the idea of Yugas and its associated theology, what I will describe in this article using simple, succinct points, will go on to show why the Yajnas (a particular sacrificial rite done in front of a sacred fire) and other forms of sacrifices were added to the tradition which symbolises and safeguards certain core ideas.
The universe is, more or less, known to have begun with a bang. A Big Bang. A point in space burst forth into a multitude of forms, much like a seed that germinates and eventually becomes a grown plant or tree. In that infinitesimal point, there was a certain potential – the potential for the creation of the cosmos. Physics is still dealing with what happened in the first few moments thereafter, and Nobel Laureate Prof. Steven Weinberg gives an interesting take on this in his book ‘The First Three Minutes‘. However, the movement away from the point of unity to one of diversity in forms and entities is apparent.
I will not go so far as to claim that everything that burst forth was one field, either as the unified field of Physics that is still the elusive Holy Grail for the community of physicists or as the unified field of consciousness that Vedic tradition describes, simply because I do not want to exclude any section of my readership here. Not to forget, recent statements by certain self-proclaimed god-men are beyond ridiculous (such as that no man has yet stepped on the moon) and I do realise the sense of suspicion and ridicule that moving from the side of consciousness or religion/spirituality has associated with it. All I will say is that there was a certain ‘sacrifice of unity‘.
The definition of ‘sacrifice’ is ‘something that is given up or lost‘. There can be no debate about the loss of the aforementioned unity. The fact that we all came from that singularity, that point of unity, highlights a certain underlying oneness among all the forms and entities that burst forth. Just like the various sections of a tree that have different biological composition, activities and properties, they still are connected in a certain intrinsic way, the ‘tree of the cosmos’ kept on branching out and yet had an underlying unity. It is the realisation of this unity, albeit at an associated spiritual level that the Vedic tradition espouses. The realisation of Brahman, the eternal, attributeless supreme ‘being’ and the dissolution of the self.
Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the ultimate reality in the universe, and is derived from a root term bṛh– “to swell, expand, grow, enlarge”. If one looks closely at the points till now, you would realise that the super-set of all things and forms would be outside the constructs associated with these things. It would be outside the constraints of space and time and all physical properties. Outside the bounds of physicality, so to say. And this is why Brahman is said to be beyond the reaches of empiricism but within the grasp of the practice of self-realisation since we are constituents of the larger whole.
An important point to note here is that we cannot know the entirety of this reality if we were to look at it in a purely physical or intellectual way, because, say, we were a leaf in the ‘tree of the cosmos’ and we ended up thinking that the entire tree is like us then that would be somewhat ridiculous. Thus, much like the blind men touching the various parts of the elephant and believing the elephant to be such in its entirety, an exercise of this nature is futile. Instead, we need to realise the innate unity by looking deep inside us to see how the innate relation to the seed or unity in the tree is built into the leaf too. This is only possible upon deep self-reflection and introspection and is simply not possible to be seen, heard, touched, felt or even described.
They say, in the Dharmic tradition, that each Yuga has a progressive stage of degradation associated with it. The symbol of a bull is used, and while the bull is said to be standing on all four legs in the Satya Yuga, it is said to be standing only on one leg by the time we get to the Kali Yuga! Where on the one hand, people only needed to meditate to realise this inherent unity in the cosmos, by the time we came to subsequent epochs, this was increasingly less possible with each passing epoch. In this light, the creation of rituals and representation of forms of Brahman in various gods in the pantheon of the Vedic tradition is understandable. The particular rituals that are related to Yajnas and sacrifices are also understandable in this light.
Our lives are transient if one were to look at the bigger scheme of things. If one were to take the most widely accepted age of the universe today: 13.799 ± 0.021 billion years, then our lives (average of 65 years) are but about 0.00000047% of that. Our lives and its associated assortments and things are as temporary as things can be. Significant symbols of this transience are the wealth, social constructs and various elements of our lives. We have them today and may very well not have them soon, given major personal or civilisational upheavals.
In the Vedic tradition, by sacrificing a token amount of these, what we are doing at the end of the day is basically ‘ridding’ ourselves of this physicality at a metaphorical level, and in the process also realising our ‘true selves’, which are beyond these transient symbols. It is a moment of unity. A moment of God-consciousness, as the Vedic traditions would put it. When one realises this simple but potent import of this act, it takes a whole new dimension. This symbolism is also seen in western traditions, be it the (almost-to-be) sacrifice of Abraham’s son or Jesus sacrificing himself for the sake of humanity. These are all moments that illustrate the manner in which God or the unity in the universe (for my atheistic friends) was sacrificed for us all to emerge from it.
Another place where you would see this is in most major epics, where exiles hold major importance. Be it the Mahabharata or Ramayana or Odyssey or Aeneid or the Epic of Gilgamesh; exiles play a major role. Exiles are associated with a complete loss of most, if not all, worldly things. This is to ‘purify’ the protagonists and make them more aligned to the oneness in all of creation and thereby to God or the unity in the cosmos.
Even as we understand the import and the significance of the Yajna and other forms of sacrifice, the former becomes more important than the act itself. In the basic idea of these rituals, we have an understanding that is as relevant as it has been in the times of yore: that of simplicity in existence and the principle of charity. Excesses and indulgences to the extent were it becomes almost obscene is what we see in our world in many places. This is what makes us more distant from the understanding of the oneness in the cosmos and our true selves. It makes us more entrapped in Maya or the illusory nature of the physical world.
Though one need not go down the line of abject austerity, being charitable is something that naturally comes out of the understanding of the unity in the cosmos. If we refuse to identify with our ego and start looking at everything around us as extensions of ourselves, we will develop certain compassion, a certain sense of concern for everything beyond us, irrespective of form or creed or religion or gender or race or class or any other physical aspects. I am not saying that one must give away everything in charity, for that would be an excess too. It is all about balance. One must balance one’s genuine needs and tempered desires with a sense of charity. That is what I get from this session of reflection and meditation on the import and significance of the idea of a sacrifice.