Vedic Ritual and its Symbolism
by Usha Choudhuri

There are many co-ordinates to different levels of time, space and life.
The vedic
yajna is the paradigmical construct. It is the instrumentality
of relating the cosmic, the terrestrial and the individual.

The archetypal patterns of situation, thought and feeling presented in the mythical poetry of the Vedas are dramatised in the act of ritual in the Brahmanas (the Vedic ritualistic texts). Both myth and ritual are not only symbolic in nature but are also interdependent. A mythical image as well as a ritual is to be seen as part of a total pattern of meaning. Just as a myth 'is not merely a story told but a reality lived', similarly the ritual also embodies the lived human experience as it symbolises the Creative Synchronisation between organism and rhythms of its environment. In Vedic poetry, the word yajna (meaning the sacrificial ritual) has been used as a mythical symbol implying an all-pervasive and all-inclusive expanse in which all the divine forces co-exist and coordinate The Rigveda starts with a hymn to fire whose functioning is qualified by the dimensions of yajna that symbolises the whole cosmic process.

Yajna is a mythical term implying a synchronised, productive or creative activity. The law that governs the entire cosmic operation is called Rita, meaning the law of movement or creativity or the truth of Becoming with reference to the truth of Being, the central propelling force of pure consciousness. That all the Devatas (divine forces) adhering to Rita participate in the cosmic sacrifice, has been beautifully presented in the hymns of the Veda. In the Yajurveda (19.80), all the divine forces are conceived as active agents in the cosmic functioning, similar to the process of a, sacrificial rite performed by many persons. The Vedic mythology is woven around the Yajnika (ritualistic) symbol. The verse repeated in the Purusha and the Asyavamasya hymns of the Rigveda and also occuring in the other Samhitas (collection of text or verses), describes the gods extending the process of sacrifice through yajna.

Here, the activity, its means and the result have all been identified. Yajna symbolising the creative process involves three factors:

1. Regard for the divine cosmic forces
2. Coordination of all the elements and components,
3. The fusion of the individual in the collective whole.

This is the basic pattern that applies not only to the macrocosm and the microcosm but to every creative act. This archetypal concept of sacrifice is presented throughout Vedic poetry and has been replicated as enactments of Vedic ritual in the Brahmanas. The sacrifice is the 'navel of the world', says the Asyavamsya hymn. All this, whatever exists, is made to share in the sacrifice. Those who do not participate do not exist. Even a standing tree is symbolic of life and is participating in the cosmic sacrifice. This is the poetic image presented in the Rigveda (3.8 1).

In Vedic thought, myth and ritual have both been regarded as very close to each other. Both are so homologous that even the ancient Indian scholars found it difficult to discriminate between the two. Ultimately, after a long discussion, Sayanacarya, referring to Jaimini, said that both constitute the Veda. The basic principle is that the word and the act are united by the force of the mind. Speech is another form of sacrifice. All the Samihitas have ritualistic texts (Brahmanas) attached to them which texts propound again and again that the poetry of the Vedas is limitless in the scope of its meaning and the mythical figures as well as the rituals have indirect or symbolic meaning. So, whatever the form of the myth or the ritual, it has an inwardly known aspect.

In the portions known as the speculations about the meaning, the Brahmanas give exposition to the hidden meaning of Vedic myth and Vedic ritual. Both myth and ritual have underlying truths regarding the inner nature of the universe as well as human life. The various components of ritual are also supposed to have indicative associations.

Ananda K Coomarswamy opines that Vedic rituals are Mysterium and Mimus, mysteries and imitations; what anthropologists describe empirically as "sympathetic magic" is a metaphysical operation, an enchantment and a conjuration, not a religious, devotional service or "prayer". So the myth and the ritual are not to be understood only in their physical sense, as the reference of the indirect term is much wider than that of the direct term, namely, the many conceivable signs of or substitutes for the operating but unseen referent to the direct term specifies only one.

The Brahmana literature, in the process of interpreting the Vedic poetry and ritual and unfolding the archetypal symbols, presents various approaches. It must be re-asserted that it is due to the archetypal element that these could be understood at various levels. The Brahmanas give the three-fold meaning of a ritual. First is the cosmological one, the second refers to an individual's relationship with others in the family, the society or the political set-up, while the third points to the individual's physiological, psychological, intellectual and spiritual levels of existence. From the rhetorical point of view this could be termed as the symbolic action and, symbolists like Kenneth Burke (the Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action) have accepted three levels of symbolic action i.e. biological, familistic and abstract.

The broad division of the divergent meanings of the mythical symbol and the ritualistic symbol under these three categories in fact refers to the three confronting situations in which man is placed. The first situation is where man is in relation with nature, with his whole physical surroundings; he and the forces of nature, time and space. The second situation is where an individual human being stands in relation with other human beings and this could again form many patterns and situations of relationships, that is familistic, tribal, social, national or international. The third situation is when a person stands in relation to his own self, analysing himself, his own emotions, thoughts, and ultimately his real self; and is confronted with the greatest and the most crucial question, Who am I? In fact, in all the poetically created relationships, the ultimate quest is to know oneself, as pitted against or placed along with other forces, big or small.

We have already stated that the texts known as Brahmanas have demonstrated the possibility of multifold interpretations of Vedic mythical figures, and Vedic ritual along with its components. The third chapter of the Shatapatha Brahmana describes and analyses the Somayaga (the Soma-ritual) and the whole sacrifice (ritual) is viewed at various levels. In 3.5.3, it is viewed at the microcosmic level. The components of the Yajnika (ritualistic) pattern are seen as corresponding to the various organs and faculties of a human being and the coordination of mind, intellect and speech is desired for the performance of the microcosmic Somayaga. Similarly on the Cosmological level the coordination of the forces of nature is spoken of and so on. The same applies to the description of other rituals. The Ashvamedha (the horse ritual) is performed by a King whose sovereignty is established but it is also performed by a person through complete control of his mind and senses. The Aranyaka texts and the earliest Upanishads like the Brhadaranyaka and the Chandogya proceed towards the discussion on the reality of "self" through the ritualistic patterns.

Interpreting the Ashvamedha on the macrocosmic lines, the Sun is called the Ashvamedha due to its yearly circuit. At another place it is said, this alone is Ashvamedha, that is Moon. Again the King who is described as the creator of the Ashvamedha, is also identified with the Ashvamedha. Here the dawn, the sun, the wind, the fire, the year, the sky, the space, the earth, the stars, are all delineated as the different parts of the sacrificial horse that is but the symbol of the all pervasive cosmic phenomenon force or energy. Even the performer of the ritual is called Ashvamedha. A nation is Ashvamedha as it shines, when the central creative force is victorious over the forces that would hamper its progress. According to the Jaiminiya Brahmana, Ashvamedha is symbolic of valour, creativity or projection. Here all the dynamic forces become united to achieve the luminous goal.

Referring to the deeper meaning of the Oblation to Fire (Agnihotra) the Shatapatha Brahmana says, if a person performs the ritual without knowing the interior oblation to Fire, it is as if he pushes aside the brands and pours oblation in the ashes. Oblation to Fire bereft of all the externalities is explained ultimately as the offering of "truth in faith", that means faith must consistently be supported by the human quest for the central truth otherwise it tends to become blind. The tenth chapter of the Sankhayanarnyaka explains the inner oblation to Fire and says that all the Divine Forces are indeed located in man himself. Fire is located in speech, Wind in the vital breath, Sun in the eye, Moon in the mind, the Directions in the ears, Water in the semen; to them indeed everything is offered. One who knowing this, eats, drinks and offers food and drinks to others, becomes really satisfied and satisfies others. And then the microcosmic powers are linked with the macrocosmic powers: the speech with Fire, Fire with the Earth, Earth with all that existed, exists and will exist on. The Vital Energy with the wind, Wind with the mid-region and Mid-Region with all that it pervaded, pervades and will pervade. The details of the oblation to Fire with its ten aspects follow. The idea behind all this lengthy description is that the oblation to Fire is all pervasive and every element of the cosmos is participating in it and each is related with each other. The ritual of the oblation to Fire is only a replica of the oblation to Fire which is being performed constantly in the entire cosmos at various levels. Says the Kathaka Samhita (6:7) that the creation is verily the oblation to Fire. On the microcosmic level the vital energy is called the oblation to Fire.

Oblation to Fire is perceived by the Sankhayana Aranyaka as on going inside the human being. The vital air is Ahavaniya, Apana (vital air gong downwards) is Garhapatya, Vyana (the vital air circulating in the whole body) is the Anvaharyapacana, mind is the smoke, anger the flames, teeth the burning charcoals, faith the water, speech the fuel, truth the oblation and the knowing self as the blissful essence, the "Rasa"(taste or feeling?). Oblation to Fire is the first of all the rites. It is said that a person goes on performing the Oblation to Fire till he becomes incapable of doing so due to old age or is released by death. At every moment of life one has to invoke Fire, the energy principle, to live life. Fire stands for the physical energy as well as mental energy, the Will. The energy alone is manifest in the whole cosmos. The vision behind the reoccurring pattern is that 'by giving alone one is fulfilled, becomes satisfied'. A coordination or synchronisation of all the elements, energies and functions is the invariant basic vision of all the ritualistic patterns of the Veda. The symbolic significance of the objects used in a ritual has been discussed. In the Taittiriya Aranyaka, the question raised is 'how many pots accomplish a Sacrifice?' 'Thirteen should be the number', is the answer and then all the thirteen pots with their names are enumerated and their symbolic meanings with regard to human faculties also given.

There is another important Vedic ritual named Darshapurnamasa, that is performed on the full moon day of the month and the again on first day of the bright half of the month, when the moon is seen in the evening sky. These two performances together make this one ritual, and a person who performs the ritual on the full moon day must also perform the ritual when the moon is seen on the first day of bright half of the months. The ritual is linked to the monthly course of the moon and symbolises the seeric perception of the complementary dualistic situations in the whole of the cosmic functioning.

The perfect details about the performance of this ritual are presented in the Vedic texts and we come across the various interpretations of the Darshapurnamasa. In all these readings of the ritual, the basic idea of complementary dualism finds reflection. It is very interesting to go through these multifarious alternative significations of the ritual. For instance, the M Shatapatha Brahmana says:

This alone is The Full Moon. The one (Sun) who is shining on every day, that alone is perfect and the Darsha is the moon that is only seen; or the others say this moon alone is The Full Moon, because after the full moon day is named. This (the Sun) is the Darsha, that is seen always and is heating and illuminating everything.

This Earth is The Full Moon. It is full, complete and perfect and the illumined sky is Darsha that one can only see.

Or, the night alone is The Full Moon. The night is as if full, complete, all embracing and the day is the Darsha as it reveals everything. This is the macroscosmic explanation.

And then the microcosmic explanation follows with the words Athadhyatmam. The upward breathing is The Full Moon; by it a person is filled and is Darsha as if it is seen and they are the consumer of food and giver of food. And they are Darshapurnamasa. Through vital energy food is eaten and by upward breathing the food is given to the whole body. The other interpretation follows, 'Mind alone is The Full Moon, this mind as if is always full and the speech is Darsha because the speech is seen, that is, it alone gives expression to the thought.

At other places in the Vedic texts the Darshapurnamasa is explained with reference to other dualistic elements of complementary nature pertaining to scientific, social or psychological realms or spheres of life. Thus we find that the archetypal thought is at the root of the Vedic mythopoeia as well as the Vedic ritualistic paradigms.

Regarding the Animal ritual says the Aitareya Brahmana (2. 11) that the performer of the ritual is indeed the animal as through the ritual he has to kill and destroy the animal instincts residing in him and attain the personal purity and sublimation, in this way he cuts the snares.

The meaning of Yajna (Sacrifice) on the basis of its derivation from the root /Yaj with its triple meaning as if presenting a design for all creativity has been discussed before. We come across another derivation of the word from the roots Yan and Jan meaning dynamic creativity or creative dynamism. In the same text we find that Brahma is Sacrifice or Soul is Sacrifice. The Vedas are called the ritual of knowledge. Further it says that having mastered the art of singing one has known the Sacrifice. It suggests that rhythm and joy are the essence of Sacrifice. We find that the Sacrifice is symbolic of the selfless, visionary, coordinated, dynamic and creative activity which could be at any level, in any sphere or dimension. The different rituals have a great many resonances of apparent and deeper meaning of eternal value and universal applications.

In a myth or a ritual an ecstatic realm is created as in any form of creative art and all the forces are supposed to enter into that. 'O Fire, you are called upon to come to this peaceful ritual for illuminating everything. Come with the stormy forces.' (Rigveda, 1.19.1)

All the gods participate in the Sacrifice; even the bad forces are present. There are different regions, rivers, cooked oblation, man with his wife, heaven and the Earth, the manes are all located there and nothing is left. A magical circle is created. The whole social structure and the world view is present. The myth and the ritual project a value system. Says Edmund Leach, 'We engage in rituals in order to transmit a collective message to ourselves.'

Further, both myth and ritual have a tendency to become encyclopaedic. Man cannot do without the ritual and the myth is a central informing power that gives archetypical significance to the ritual. No Vedic ritual can be performed without the Mantra (Vedic verse). Aitareya Mahidasa had said in the 'the mantra' gives meaning to the ritual as it is the eye of the ritual. It is the richness of the ritual, the richness of its form and beauty that the Rig Vedic verse supports the action that is being performed.

One has to find the ultimate truth also through Sacrifice, the Truth that is the centre and source of the ritual. (Rigveda 10.181.2). The act of Sacrifice has to be understood ultimately with reference to the inner self of man, and at the final stage just as the Sacrifice of the Cosmic activity merges into the Supreme Spirit. Similarly, the microcosmic Sacrifice also merges into the individual self of man.

For further information please contact: World Affairs, D-322, Defence Colony, New Delhi 110 024, India. Telephone: +91 11 464 2969, 460 3015. Fax: +91 11 460 3015. E-mail: