The Vedic yoga and the Vedic dharma revolves around the concept of sacrifice, Yagna. In the Vedic vision the process of creation and the process of evolution of Man and the World are driven by the power of sacrifice.
Key Perspectives: great cosmic rite; sacrifice of involution; sacrifice of evolution; fulfillment through self-giving; inner sacrifice of Vedic Yoga.
The Great Cosmic Rite
The Vedic sages conceived the entire universe as a result of sacrifice performed by the gods; the order of the universe is supposed to be maintained by sacrifices. For the Vedic mystics the whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary; it is the outer symbol of an inner interchange between the gods and men, man giving what he has, the gods giving in return, the horses of power, asva, the herds of the light, go, the heroes of might, vira, winning for him victory in his battle with the host of darkness, dasyus. But for the layman this became the ritualistic religion of outer sacrifice. For the Vedic Rishis and the initiates the outer ritual is only a symbol of the inner sacrifice of the human being to the gods who are outwardly symbolized as forces of Nature and inwardly as subjective powers of consciousness.
Thus, mutual sacrifice of men and gods culminating in the ascent of the human consciousness towards the consciousness of the gods and the descent and formation of the gods in human nature is the essence of the Vedic Yoga.
The Sacrifice of Involution
What is the spiritual intuition behind this concept of sacrifice? It is the intuition into the mystery of the original creative act by which the supreme Reality becomes causal, subtle and the gross universe; gods, earth and heaven, life and matter, the sun, the moon and the stars, animals and men. It is the process by which the indivisible Unity of the Spirit becomes and involves itself in its exact opposite, that is, the infinite fragmentation of Matter. It is this process of cosmic sacrifice which is described in the beautiful symbolic imagery of Purusha Sukta of the Vedas. (Rig Veda X.90.1-10).
But why is it called sacrifice? In every stage of this involutionary descent there is a gradual loss of the consciousness of Unity in the outer form of the Diversity, through a process of voluntary self-limitation of the spirit. In the last stage of the descent, when it becomes Matter, the loss becomes almost total. But this loss of consciousness of Unity happens only to the outer form and not to the deeper essence of the Spirit. At this deeper level the unity of the Being, Purusha, is secretly present in every level or stage of descent – in the casual state of the world as prajna, in the subtle as hiranyagarbha, and in the gross as virat-upholding and guiding the whole process. This is the sacrifice of involution by which the universe comes into being.
Sacrifice of Evolution
But creation is not merely a process of involution. There is also the evolution, the work of Agni, an upward striving will or aspiration or a nisus implanted in every animate and inanimate being. In the Vedic symbolism Agni represents this evolutionary force and will in man and in the universe. The Vedic sages conveyed this truth through a subtle and striking distinction made between Agni and other gods; while other gods wake up with the Dawn, Agni is the ever-wakeful god who burns even during the Night. It means that, while the other gods work only during periods of inner illumination, Agni’s evolutionary work goes on even during periods of darkness and obscurity, acting behind the veil.
What is the process or method of this evolutionary sacrifice? Not only is the process of creation a sacrifice, but also the process of evolution. The sacrifice of creative involution proceeds by a gradual loss and veiling of the consciousness of Unity in the individual forms of creation through the limiting mechanism of ego. The sacrifice of evolution proceeds by a gradual rediscovery of the conscious Unity of the Spirit through the denial of ego and consequent increase or expansion of consciousness; it culminates in total recovery of the conscious Oneness of the Spirit in each individual form of creation. In the more figurative language of the ancients, the evolutionary process is the reconstruction of the body of God dismembered and fragmented in the diversity of the cosmos during the process of creation or involution. The Purusha Sukta hymn of the Rig Veda describes this process of dismemberment of the body of God as follows:
“When did they split up the Purusha? into how many parts? where is his face, what happened to his two arms? where are his two feet? Where are his thighs?”
This Vedic concept of sacrifice can be better understood when it is viewed in the light of a somewhat similar imagery of the Egyptian mythology. According to this Egyptian legend, Osiris the Sun-god was treacherously slain by his wicked brother Set and his body cut into pieces. Then his wife Isis, who is also his sister, goes in search of the pieces, puts them together and miraculously restores his body to life. The symbolism behind the story is striking and unmistakable.
Thus the essential nature of the evolutionary sacrifice is the denial of ego through an act of self-giving to the egoless and universal divine Whole and its powers, the gods. It is a movement towards the recovery of conscious unity and a return towards our spiritual source and the self of our being in which we are one with the All. For in a cosmic system governed by the laws of unity and interdependence, the only right path towards evolutionary progress is through mutual self-giving or sacrifice. When this law and process of sacrifice becomes fully conscious in the individual and is done with a full understanding of the meaning, significance, process and aim of the great law which governs the world, then it becomes Yoga. As Sri Aurobindo explains the psychological significance of the Vedic sacrifice:
“The Vedic sacrifice is, psychologically, a symbol of cosmic and individual activity becoming self-conscious, enlightened and aware of its goal. The whole process of the universe is in its very nature a sacrifice, voluntary or involuntary. Self-fulfillment by self-immolation, to grow by giving is the universal law. That, which refuses to give itself, is still the food of cosmic powers. ‘The eater eating is eaten’ is the formula, pregnant and terrible in which the Upanishad sums up this aspect of the universe and in another passage men are described as the cattle of the gods. It is only when the law is recognized and voluntarily accepted that this kingdom of death can be over passed and by the works of sacrifice Immortality made possible and attained. All the powers and potentialities of the human life are offered up, in the symbol of a sacrifice, to the divine Life in the cosmos.”
Fulfillment through Self-giving
When we examine the spiritual history of the world this act or movement of sacrifice took two distinct paths with very different spiritual results. First is the path of absolute renunciation by which the “lower” life of the body, life and mind is totally rejected and condemned in an exclusive pursuit of the “higher” life of the spirit. The other path is the path of self-giving and surrender in which the life of body, vital and mind is not denied or rejected but offered as a sacrifice to the divine powers of the Spirit. The result of the path of renunciation is a gradual shrinking and ultimate denial of the activities of the mind, life and body for the sake of an exclusive individual salvation in the pure Spirit. The result of the path of self-giving and surrender is a gradual and integral expansion, fulfillment, perfection and participation of the powers of the mind, life and soul, in the divine life and nature of the Spirit. The path of sacrifice followed by the Vedic sages belonged to the second category.
The path pursued by Vedic seers was not a path of renunciation of life but a path of self-giving and surrender. None of the activities, powers and enjoyments of the body, life and mind are rejected in an ascetic spirit but all are offered to the gods so that they are illumined, purified and transformed and made into a fit vehicle and chariot of the gods.
The Inner Sacrifice of Vedic Yoga
The Vedic ritual of sacrifice is an expressive symbol of the inner psychological process of the Vedic Yoga. It signifies the lighting of the inner fire of aspiration, Agni, in the altar of the heart and pouring into it as oblation all the activities of our body, life and mind. It is said in the Vedas that Agni receives all the offerings of man to the gods, rises to heaven with them and brings down the gods and their bounties to man. It means that it is the inner psychic fire of spiritual aspiration, with all the inner and outer activities thrown into it as oblation, rises inward and upwards to the land of the gods and calls them down with all their light and force into the consciousness of man.
This is the inner significance and process of the Vedic sacrifice, Yajna. What are the fruits and results of Vedic sacrifice? Light in the mind, Energy in the vitality and Joy in emotions and sensations are the three bounties for which the Vedic sages prayed and received from the gods. These are the fruits of the Vedic Yajna which the Vedic sages consistently hymned in the symbolic figure of the Cow, the Horse and the Wine. Go, Ashwa and Soma. In the symbolism of the Vedic mystics go and ashwa, cow and horse represent the two aspects of the divine consciousness: light and energy or knowledge and force. And Soma is the mystic wine which flows into the spiritually prepared, illumined and purified human vessel from the supreme Delight inherent in the one eternal Existence, Ekam Tat Sat.