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In Hinduism, yajña (Sanskrit: यज्ञ; IAST: yajña) ("sacrifice") is the ritual act of offering labour or materials. In more formal ceremonies, it is a practice from historical Vedic religion where specific offerings are made, accompanied by the chanting of Vedic mantras. Agni Yajna is the ritual offering of ghee, grain and havana sámagri ("herbal preparations") into a sacred fire.
The meaning of the word yajna is derived from the Sanskrit verb yaj, which has a threefold meaning of worship of deities (devapujana), unity (sangatikarana) and charity (dána). An essential element is the ritual fire – the divine Agni – into which oblations are poured, as everything that is offered into the fire is believed to reach the deity or deities.
The Sanskrit word is related to the Avestan term yasna of Zoroastrianism. Unlike the Vedic yajna, the Yasna is the name of a specific religious service, not a class of rituals, and they have "to do with water rather than fire".
Temple rites in modern-day Hinduism are a combination of both Vedic and agamic rituals. The ritualistic portion of the Hindu scriptures is called karmakanda. Parts of Vedas which describe or discuss the yajñas fall into this portion.
Vedic (Shrauta) yajnas are typically performed by four priests of the Vedic priesthood: the hotar, the adhvaryu, the udgatar and the brahman. Rituals associated with each of the priests are detailed in dialogue between Aśvala and Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. The functions associated with the priests are:
- The hotar recites invocations and litanies drawn from the Rigveda. The verses recited by the hotar are of three kinds – introductory verses, verses pertaining to yajna and eulogistic verses. The hotar is also supposed to contemplate on and identify with the deity of speech, Agni.
- The adhvaryu is the priest's assistant and is in charge of the physical details of the ritual like measuring the ground, building the altar etc. mentioned in the Yajurveda. The adhvaryu offers three kinds of oblations, those that blaze up, those that make great noise and those that sink. The adhvaryu is supposed to contemplate on and identify with the deity of the eye - Sun or Surya.
- The udgatar is the chanter of hymns set to melodies(sāman) drawn from the Samaveda. The udgatar, like the hotar, chants the introductory, yajna and eulogistic verses. These three types of hymns are identified with the three kinds of vital breath Prana, Apana and Vyana in the body and the udgatar himself contemplates on the vital breath.
- The brahman is the superintendent of the entire performance, and is responsible for correcting mistakes by means of supplementary verses invoking the visvedevas ('viśvedevāḥ, literally "all the devas). In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the pantheon of viśvedevas are held to be a creation of an infinite mind assuming infinite forms. Therefore, the only god that protects the yajña and with which the brahman has to identify himself with is the deity of the mind, Chandra, who is identified with Soma, the god of the sacred beverage of the same name.
There is usually one, or occasionally three, fires lit in the center of the offering ground. Oblations are offered into the fire. Among the ingredients offered as oblations in the yajna are large quantities of ghee, milk, grains, cakes and soma. The duration of a yajna depends on its type, some last only a few minutes whereas, others can take hours, days or even years. Some yajnas are performed privately, while others include a large number of people in the audience.
Post-Vedic yajnas, where milk products, fruits, flowers, cloth and money are offered, are called homa or havanam. A typical Hindu marriage involves a yajna, where Agni is taken to be the witness of the marriage.
The right to perform a yajña or homa is received by an initiation ceremony known as yajnopavita. In this ceremony, a "sacred cord" is vested to the initiate, symbolizing this right.
Four hundred yajnas are described in the Vedas, of which 21 are deemed compulsory. These compulsory Yajnas are also called nityakarmas. The rest of the yajnas are optional and are performed for kamyakarma (particular wishes and benefits). The Aupasana Yajna, though not a part of these 21, is still compulsory .
Out of the 21 nityakarmas, only the Agnihotra and the Aupasana are to be performed twice daily, at dawn and at dusk. The remaining Yajnas are performed over the course of the year. The more complicated the yajna, the less frequently it is performed. The most complex ones need to be performed only once in a lifetime. The first seven yajnas are called pākayajnas or cooked sacrifices. The next seven are called haviryajnas or oblations(burnt offerings) related yajnas and the remaining seven are called somayajnas. Some of the yajnas performed during a person's lifetime are:
- The Pakayajnas — They are the aṣtaka, sthālipāka, parvana, srāvaṇi, āgrahayani, caitri and āsvīyuji. These yajnas involve consecrating cooked items.
- Soma Yajnas — Agnistoma, atyagnistoma, uktya, shodasi, vājapeya, atirātra and aptoryama are the Soma Yajnas. These involve the extraction, utility and consumption of Soma (an extract of a particular chosen tree) is called Soma Yajña.
- Havir Yajnas — They are the agniyādhāna, agni hotra, Darśa-Pūrṇamāsa, āgrayana, cāturmāsya, niruudha paśu bandha, sautrāmaṇi. These involve offering havis or oblations.
- The five panca mahā Yajñās, which are mentioned below.
- Vedavratas, which are four in number and are done during Vedic education.
- The remaining sixteen Yajnas, which are one-time samskāras or "rituals with mantras", are done at different stages in life. They are garbhādhānā, pumsavana, sīmanta, jātakarma, nāmakaraṇa, annaprāśana, chudākarma/caula, niskramana, karnavedha, vidyaarambha, upanayana, keshanta, snātaka and vivāha, nisheka, antyeshti. These are specified by the gṛhya sūtrās. Some gṛhya sūtrās like Vaikhanasa prescribe 2 more samskaras, the Vishnu bali and the Pravasagamana/Pindavardhana.
The Aupasana Agni, lit at the time of the Yajna conducted at the grooms wedding, is divided into two in a ritual called Agnyadhana. One part is called the Grhyagni and the other the Srautagni. These two fires have to be preserved throughout an individual's life. The son's fire is lit from the father's fire at the time of his wedding.
The Grhyagni or Aupasanagni is used in the Paka (cooking) Yajnas. Many such rituals are described in the Grihasutras, like the Ekagni Kanda of the Apastambha Sutra. Normally these fires are located in the centre or north of the hall which accommodates them. The fire altars or the Yajna Kunda may be circular or square.
The rituals pertaining to the three Śrautagnis are described in the Śrauta Sutras. Their performers are called Śrautins. Fourteen of the 21 compulsory yajnas are performed in the Śrautagnis. They are called Garhapatya, Ahavaniya and Dakshinagni and collectively called the tretagni. The Garhapatya is circular in shape and is situated in the west of the offering ground. Fire is taken from the Garhapatya and kindled in the remaining two fires. The Dakshinagni is semi-circular, situated in the south and used for certain rituals, mainly for offerings to the forefathers. The Ahavaniya is square, situated in the east, and is used as the main offering fire of most Srauta rituals. The last three haviryajnas and all the seven somayajnas are performed in a specially built yajnashala.
At the time of the individuals demise, cremation is done with one of the fires preserved during a person's lifetime. The fires associated with deceased individuals are extinguished.
Duties and responsibilities of the Hindu life has been classified into five great Yajnas or the Pancha Mahayajnas (Taittiriya Shakha 2.10 of the Krishna Yajurveda). It is imperative on the part of every householder to perform the following five yajnas:
- Brahmayajna — study of scriptures, learning and self-development; and teaching others. This is the most important yajna.
- Devayajna — Meditation during sandhyavandanam, praying and worship of the devas by pouring oblations into the sacred fire. Also done during the twilight prayers (sandhya), aupasana, and agnihotra yajnas.
- Pitriyajna — offering tarpana libations in respect and gratitude to ancestors or pitrs.
- Manushyayajna — Caring for, looking after and feeding fellow humans.
- Bhutayajna — Caring for nature and all life. Cows, ants and birds are commonly fed.
Some of the famous nonobligatory Yajnas are:
- Agnistoma — This is a form of Soma yajna has been continued by the Nambudiri Brahmins in Kerala but has become extinct in other parts of India.
- Jyotistoma — This yajna is meant for the elevation of the yajamana or the host to heaven i.e. the lokas or world of the gods. This Yajna is also called agnistome Yajna.
- Pitrloka yajna — This yajna is for obtaining the world of the ancestors and Yama.
- Panchagni yajna — This yajna is addressed in the Chandogya Upanishad. It enables one to achieve Brahmaloka.
Several vows such as Candrayana are taken by the yajnik for acquiring merit or puṇya. These often involve fasting or conducting life according to certain rigid disciplines. For example, a yajnik does not shave for four months during year, usually during the period of Chaturmas. During this period, a yajnik is also prohibited from eating certain kinds of food items, from eating more than once a day and from leaving home.
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