Chapter 16: Yajna – Quintessence of the Culture of India
(Dipavali message given on the 25th of October, 1973.)
Yajnarthat-karmano-nyatra lokoyam karmabandhanah;
tadartham karma kaunteya muktasangah samachara.
“The world is bound by actions other than those performed for the sake of sacrifice; do thou, therefore, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), perform action for that sake (for sacrifice alone), free from attachment.” (Gita III-9)
When we are born into a particular setup of circumstances which we call a family, all the conditioning factors of the family are also born together with us. The tradition of the family grows when we grow. The pattern of our character and conduct is entirely determined by the ideological background that is at the very basis of the structure of that particular family. We are born not merely in a family but also in wider circumstances called the community, nation, world, universe, etc., to all which we owe obligations. Our obligation to a condition into which we are born is sacrifice or yajna, and that is what Bhagavan Sri Krishna speaks of in the above verse.
When we are born, we are born with certain obligations. What are these obligations? They are the allegiance that we perforce owe to those factors that are responsible for our birth and maintenance. That is the sacrifice which we are called upon to do. In the Vedas, which are antecedent even to the Mahabharata and the Bhagavadgita, we are given the first primeval concept of sacrifice. Supreme sacrifice is extolled in the Veda, according to which the Absolute itself is the first performer of the yajna, and not a pandit. The Absolute did the first yajna and then the others followed. They are only imitating what the Absolute did, originally.
What was the sacrifice that the Absolute did and who was the performer of that sacrifice? Where was the vedi or the yajna-kunda for that sacrifice, and what was the material that was offered in that sacrifice? Yajnena yajnamayajanta devah, says the Purusha-Sukta. Yajna was the sacrifice, yajna was offered in yajna by yajna for the sake of yajna. Sacrifice was offered in the sacrifice, through the sacrifice, for the sake of sacrifice. What do we understand from this? We understand nothing except a jumble of words. Similar to this enigmatic statement of the Veda, we have another statement in the Bhagavadgita also: Brahmarpanam brahmahavir-brahmagnou brahmana hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyam brahmakarma samadhina. Brahman is offering Brahman through Brahman for the sake of Brahman. What does it mean? It seems as confusing as that Vedic mantra. But let us remember that this is what 'sacrifice' precisely means. It is a universal involvement of factors wherein and whereby we become the property of the whole creation. Can we imagine this situation where we become the property of everyone in the world? Anyone can demand anything from us, and we must give it! We have an obligation to everything in this world. That obligation is the sacrifice that we are called upon to do. That is the yajna. Our obligation is not merely to our parents, brothers and sisters, not merely to the government of our country that protects us, not merely to the planet earth on which we live, not merely to the solar system which gives us light, heat and energy. Oh God! We have got larger demands upon us and if we can think for a moment about the obligations that we really owe to this wonderful creation of God, we will not be able to breathe for a moment! Because we are not able to fulfil all these obligations in a short span of life, we are reborn. Otherwise we need not be reborn. If we have fulfilled or discharged all our duties in this very life itself, why should we take a next birth? But, life is short, and also we have not got the least concept of what obligations we bear or owe to the universe outside. Even when we are ninety years old, this knowledge will not come to us. So, naturally we die with ignorance. And because of this ignorance we are not able to discharge our duties properly. Because of the non-discharge of our duties and obligations properly, we are hurled into transmigration. And so long as we do not understand the meaning of the sacrifice that we are expected to perform and fulfil the obligations that we owe to the conditions of our existence, we cannot avoid undergoing this process of births and deaths.
What are the conditions of our existence? Parents are a conditioning factor. They have given birth to us; they feed us, take care of us and educate us. Society is another conditioning factor. We know how much we owe to society. Though it may not be visible outwardly, invisibly society protects us, takes care of us and helps us in many ways. The nation and the international system help us. The stellar systems also help us. In short, the whole cosmos helps us. Therefore, we owe a universal obligation to all things in the universe. When we go for a walk in the jungle, sometimes a part of our cloth gets caught in a thorny bush and when we try to remove the thorn and move forward, we will find that another thorn is pricking us from behind. When we try to remove that, it pricks here again, so that we find ourselves unable to get out of it. When we are freed from one side, we are caught from another side. Similarly, when we discharge one obligation, we will find that another obligation has not been discharged. We cannot have an integral vision of things. We are partial, short-sighted people. We have a very narrow vision of things, and it is this narrow vision that is responsible for our birth and death.
This mysterious law, the law of yajna, operates in the world. Yajno vai Vishnuh: Supreme Narayana Himself is called yajna. The term 'yajna' signifies the whole of the culture of Bharatavarsha. If we want one word which can give us the quintessence of the whole of the culture of India, 'yajna' is that word. How meaningful it is, we can imagine. Every cultural pattern and every presupposition of human existence is contained in this pregnant term 'yajna', which means the universal sacrifice that the soul performs. The performer of the sacrifice is the soul. It is not an acharya or a pandit.
In the Anugita of the Mahabharata, which is a sequel to the Bhagavadgita, this yajna is described in a very beautiful form. It states what yajna actually is. This yajna is going on daily in this body and it is going on everywhere in the world, outside and inside. It is sacrifice into the fire of the knowledge of the Absolute of all those factors which tend to tether the soul to the bodily tabernacle. This is called jnana yajna, which means the offering of knowledge into the fire of Knowledge. Which knowledge is offered into which knowledge? The knowledge of our individual existence in all its aspects is offered in the knowledge of the Supreme Being. The concept of this mysterious dharma before us cannot be contained in our minds. Our heads will burst if we start thinking deeply about these implications of our life.
Knowledge is too vast. Our life is not long enough to have all the knowledge necessary. The ancient masters, the Seers saw with their premonition, intuition or foresight that people cannot contain the Vedic knowledge in their heads. Ananta vai vedah: Vedas are endless or infinite, which means to say, knowledge has no limit. People in this Kali Yuga, especially, are so feeble physically, morally and intellectually that this truth has to be instilled into their minds through some other manner. This is why Vyasa wrote the great epic Mahabharata. He found out that the Vedas are of no use to poor human beings in this Kali Yuga. Whatever the Vedas say would not enter our heads, because they contain impersonal scientific knowledge. How many of us are scientific? We are all ignorant, rustic villagers in our way of thinking. Crude thinking is our habit. Subtle, universal, scientific thinking as is contained in the Vedas is far from us.
When I say the Vedas are scientific, I am not making a joke. Masters like Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, who founded the Arya Samaj; Sayana, the great commentator of the Vedas; Aurobindo, of our own times; the Puri Sankaracharya; the late Bharati Krishna Tirtha—they all have struggled to point out that every science is contained in the Vedas. Even subjects such as aeronautics, shipbuilding, mathematics of the highest type in differential calculus, infinite calculus—everything is in the Vedas. Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha has written a book called Vedic Mathematics, and it has been published by the Benares Hindu University. The Veda Samhitas contain the highest reaches of mathematics. Many think that the Vedas are only some foolish chants of the cowherds of Punjab, as British historians tell us. The Aryans were regarded as cowherds grazing their cows in Punjab and blabbering something and that became the Vedas. This is the British interpretation of our culture, which has gone into our heads! The Vedas are not any kind of blabbering. They are intuitional revelations of ecstatic souls who had the vision of the Absolute. And, therefore, this vision-integral contains every type of knowledge—physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, Ayurveda, military science and what not. How can we contain all these things? We, therefore, bid good-bye to Vedas. So the master Vyasa, Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, wrote the Mahabharata and the Puranas to explain these very impersonal scientific truths of the Vedas in personal epic style.
In villages, some ladies have a peculiar habit. Suppose a lady wants a sari. She cannot tell her husband directly, “I want a sari.” So, she will say, “The neighbour's wife has purchased a new sari today. It is very good, very nice. I saw it myself.” Her husband understands her intentions. He will say, “Why do you describe all these things? All right, I will purchase one for you.” And the poor man purchases a sari. The epics and Puranas follow a similar indirect way of instructing the truths. But the Vedas directly tell the truth, openly: “You must do this; it is like this.” This is scientific. Science always plainly tells the truth as it is, without any camouflage. The epics and the Puranas do not say directly that you must be a good man. They say, “Yudhishthira was a good man. His virtue was so immense. He shared everything that he had. His conduct was so adventurous that as a result he got so many things.” One who hears this feels, “Oh, I see. Then I must also do like that.” These texts are called Suhrit-Samhitas, while the Vedas are known as Prabhu-Samhitas. The latter command, like a master. Science always commands on principles. The Puranas and epics give stories, ancient history and make us think scientifically in an indirect manner, as though with a sugar-coated pill. That is why it is said: Bharatam panchamo vedah. While the Vedas are supposed to be four, the Mahabharata is the fifth Veda. It is as important as the Vedas. Sometimes they say it is even more important than the Vedas.
Whatever it is, when knowledge gets adulterated through intense sensory activity, weakness of will and lack of moral force, the understanding of dharma also falls. So we must have a whip to goad us to the path of dharma, spirituality and God-consciousness. The tradition of India, Bharatavarsha, is full of such goading whips. While the Vedas, the Puranas and the epics may be said to be direct teachers in an institution or an academy, the culture of India has also instituted many occasions for bringing home to our minds the facts of our eternal glory and our duties to God, the world and mankind. We owe three kinds of duties, which are mentioned in the eighteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita: Yajno danam tapas-chaiva pavanani manishinam. They are yajna, dana and tapas. Yajna itself contains in its meaning all possible knowledge and the mandate on ethics. Still we are told yajna, dana and tapas constitute the highest necessity of religion. While tapas is the duty that we owe to our own selves, dana is that which we owe to others, and yajna is that we owe to God. Tapas is austerity. We must be austere. We must live a very restrained life. Dana is charitable feeling, charitable nature and charitable act in respect of others, while yajna is the self-dedication we make of our own self, wholly and totally, to the Supreme Being.
We have various occasions throughout the year to remind us of the threefold duty. They are called vratas, some of which are annual, some monthly, and some daily. The Dipavali Vrata is observed every year on the fourteenth day (Chaturdasi) of the dark fortnight in the month of Kartika (October-November). People take a holy oil bath, put on new clothes, and eat delicious dishes. Crackers are burst, and lines of light are lit everywhere. There is an atmosphere of gaiety and sanctity. Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped and Divine grace is invoked. Though there are many stories associated with this celebration of Dipavali, the prominent one is the killing of the demon Narakasura by Lord Sri Krishna while returning to Dwaraka from Indraloka, from where he brought the Parijata plant to fulfil the wishes of Satyabhama, his consort.
The Dipavali festival is regarded as an occasion particularly associated with an ancient event of Sri Krishna overcoming the demoniacal force known as Narakasura, as recorded in the epics and Puranas. After the great victory over Narakasura in a battle, which appears to have lasted for long, long days, Sri Krishna, with his consort Satyabhama, returned to his abode in Dwaraka. The residents of Dwaraka were very anxious about the delay caused of Sri Krishna's returning, and it is said that they were worshipping Bhagavati Lakshmi for the prosperity and welfare of everyone and the quick returning of Bhagavan Sri Krishna and Satyabhama. And, after Sri Krishna returned, the story goes that he took a bath after applying oil over his body to cleanse himself subsequent to the very hectic work he had to do in the war that ensued earlier. This oil-bath connected with Sri Krishna's ritual is also one of the reasons for people necessarily remembering to take an oil-bath on the day known as Naraka Chaturdasi, prior to the Amavasya, when Lakshmi Puja is conducted. Everyone in India remembers to take an oil-bath on Naraka Chaturdasi in memory of, in honour of, Bhagavan Sri Krishna's doing that after the demise of Narakasura. Having taken the bath, they all joined together in great delight in the grand worship of Maha-Lakshmi for general prosperity of everyone in Dwaraka. This is the traditional background, as is told to us, of the rites and the worships connected with Naraka Chaturdasi and Dipavali Amavasya.
There is a third aspect of it which is called Bali Padya, the day following Amavasya. It does not look that the Bali Padya festival is directly connected with Lakshmi Puja or Naraka Chaturdasi. But it has another background altogether, namely, the blessing Narayana, in His incarnation as Vamana, bestowed upon the demon-king Bali Chakravarti, whom He subdued when He took a Cosmic Form in the yajnasala of Bali, the details of which we can read in the Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana.
Bali Chakravarti was himself a great devotee, an ideal king and ruler, and having submitted himself to being thrown into the nether regions by the pressure of the foot of Narayana in the Cosmic Form, it appears he begged of Him to have some occasion to come up to the surface of the earth and then be recognised as a devotee of Bhagavan Narayana Himself. This recognition, this hallowed memory of Bali Chakravarti, is celebrated on the first day of the bright fortnight following the Amavasya. Bali Puja and Bali Padya are two of the terms used to designate this occasion, the day following Amavasya.
So, the sum and substance of the message connected with Dipavali is that it is a three-day festival beginning with Naraka Chaturdasi, a day prior to Amavasya; then the main Lakshmi worship day, which is Amavasya itself; and the third day which is Bali Padya, connected with the honour bestowed upon Bali Chakravarti as a devotee of Bhagavan Narayana. It is also an occasion for spiritual exhilaration, a lighting-up of all darkness, socially as well as personally, outwardly and inwardly, for the purpose of allowing an entry of the Supreme Light of God into the hearts of all people.
Dipavali means the line of lights. 'Dipa' is light, and 'avali' means line. So, Dipavali, or the festival of the line of lights, is the celebration of the rise of Knowledge. It is also the celebration of the victory of the sattvic or divine elements in us over the rajasic and tamasic, or baser elements, which are the real Asuras, the Rakshasas— Narakasura and others. The whole world is within us. The whole cosmos can be found in a microscopic form in our own body. Rama-Ravana-Yuddha and Tarakasura-Vadha, and all such epic wars—everything is going on inside us. This Dipavali is thus also a psychological context, wherein we contemplate in our own selves the holy occasion of self-mastery, self-subjugation and self-abnegation, leading to the rise of all spiritual virtues which are regarded as lustre or radiance emanating from Self-Knowledge. Bhagavati Mahalakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity, does not merely mean the Goddess of wealth in a material sense. Lakshmi does not mean only gold and silver. Lakshmi means prosperity in general, positive growth in the right direction, a rise into the higher stages of evolution. This is the advent of Lakshmi. Progress and prosperity are Lakshmi. In the Vishnu Purana we are told if Narayana is like the sun, Lakshmi is like the radiance of the sun. They are inseparable. Wherever Narayana is, there is Lakshmi. Wherever is divinity, there is prosperity. So on this day of Dipavali we worship the Supreme God who is the source of all conceivable virtues, goodness and prosperity, which is symbolised in illumination—lighting and worship in the form of arati—and gay, joyous attitude and feeling in every respect. So, in short, this is a day of rejoicing at the victory of sattva over the lower gunas, the victory of God Himself over the binding fetters of the soul.