Turning inwards to understand true sacrifice.
In Western English, the word “sacrifice” often brings to mind the idea of doing something against one’s inmost desire and even against one’s better good. As a culture, we long ago left behind the idea of sacrificing to God in order to achieve our personal or collective well-being. Sadly, “sacrifice” seems to have acquired a negative connotation in today’s society where self-aggrandizement and narcissistic pastimes are considered normal behavior. Even those who hold an ideal of service often draw back from the word “sacrifice,” because it is associated with giving up what is too dear to be given: one’s time, health, pride, wealth, ordinary pleasures. It conjures up examples of people who have given and given until they could give no more, ending up forlorn and bitter, impoverished, sick, isolated, having lost youth, health, and independence while catering to the whims and real or false needs of others.
Such “sacrifice,” willing or unwilling, is not even a caricature of the true meaning of this word as it comes to us from Sanskrit. Sacrifice is noble and uplifting, more in tune with the concept of “worship,” and leading to the well-being of those concerned. Our society is desperately in need of a culture of sacrifice in its original and divine intent, which is a fundamental social and spiritual value that crosses cultural and religious boundaries. We can look inwards to find what the Highest Sacrifice truly entails.
Sacrifice, yajna (prounced yah-gyah), has three phases that pertain to three types of beings: 1) those who are seeking satisfaction through individual existence lived in a dharmic (principled) manner, 2) those striving to realize an ideal that transcends the limits of individual existence, and 3) those who are the living-liberated, the jivanmuktas. Over this spectrum, sacrifice includes multiple ideas and shades of meaning. Merely listing them will not evoke the fullness and power of the term. Therefore, we shall attempt to reclaim the original purity and practicality of this inspiring word and ideal through a study of the Pancha Maha Yajna, the Five Great Sacrifices.
The world is bound by actions other than those performed for the sake of Yajna. Do therefore, O son of Kunti, earnestly perform action for Yajna alone, free from attachment.
— Sri Krishna
In India, the ancient practice of the Five Sacrifices was incumbent upon every householder, every day. These sacrifices are imminently practical, for through them people come to understand the benefit of service, self-dedication, cooperation and generosity. For those seeking satisfaction (the first type of person) of legitimate human desires, sacrifice enables the individual to live life according to a sense of interconnectedness with all of existence and establishes the poverty of living merely for one’s own self. For the second type of person, those intent upon realizing That which transcends empirical existence, sacrifice transforms into Karma Yoga, the path of consecrated and selfless (not desire-related) action, attenuating the sense of separation inherent in “I,” “me,” and “mine.” Through the practice of these five daily offerings the entire society was benefited; a planetary and cosmic balance was maintained; people understood and valued the relationship between themselves, celestial/natural powers, the divine teachers, the prior generation, humans, and other beings. These five sacrifices are briefly described below, along with their contemporary significance:
1. Deva Yajna — Sacrifice to the gods. The gods are the personifications of the cosmic forces, such as the sun, wind, water, fire, earth, and others. These represent the diverse powers of the one Divine Reality who remains the ultimate Recipient of all sacrifice. Sacrifices sincerely offered to the gods — traditionally a ritual offering of appreciation, gratitude, prayer, and actual objects — ensured the kind of weather that led to good harvests. Philosophically speaking, these gods are associated with the five senses of perception, the five senses of action, the vital force and mind. One’s body receives not only food for sustenance and the power of motion and perception but, quite literally, the capacity to seek happiness and get enjoyment in this world (and in the heavens) from those very powers whose Support is the Indivisible Reality. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
Cherished by Yajna/sacrifice, the Devas [gods] shall bestow on you the enjoyments you desire. A thief verily is he who enjoys what is given by them without returning them anything. The good who eat the remains of Yajna (food first offered to the gods) are freed from all sins; but the sinful ones who cook food only for themselves, verily eat sin. From food beings become; from rain is food produced; from yajna rain proceeds; yajna is born of karma. Know karma to have risen from the Veda, and the Veda from the Imperishable. The all-pervading Veda is, therefore, ever centered in Yajna. - 3:13, 15
All too often, people disregard these ideas as primitive or superstitious. Instead of extracting the principles behind this practice of sacrificing to the gods, people have carelessly tossed these observances aside and with them the sense of thankfulness, moderation, balance, interconnectedness, custodianship, and stewardship that they engender. Here, “sacrifice” has to do with giving up selfishness, greed, and attachment. Further, it means making a sincere effort to understand and experience, through philosophical inquiry and service, the unity of all life and the interdependence of its parts in the phenomenal world. Today, Deva Yajna can be practiced in many ways, from thankfulness for the food that sustains us and those that brought it to our mouths, to a ceaseless mindfulness of Divine Reality as the power underlying cognition, senses and objects.
2. Rishi Yajna — Sacrifice to the Seers/Teachers. In our present time, this sacrifice involves studying the great truths and assimilating the highest ideals of the illumined beings, the saints and sages. This aspect of sacrifice involves taking responsibility for self-culture and thereby honoring those who have realized the ultimate goal of life. It means walking in their footsteps, seeking to attain the state of peace, equanimity, compassion, and love that they attained, and teaching the next generation not only how to walk it, but that it is the foremost path to tread, illumining and harmonizing the other pursuits of this world. The significance of this sacrifice cannot be overestimated, for when Rishi Yajna is valued, the highest spiritual ideals are maintained from age to age. This is the true “hero” worship.
3. Pitri Yajna — Sacrifice to the ancestors. In the past, this ritual sacrifice was intended to bring comfort and pleasure to the departed. The principle behind it can be utilized in this day and age to recognize the noble qualities of those who have gone before us; to respect and revere the parents who have given us these bodies through which we have the opportunity to realize the Self and be free; and to help maintain a sense of continuity among the generations, all of which facilitates social harmony.
4. Nara Yajna — Sacrifice to other humans. The idea behind this sacrifice is a willingness to give others what is needed for their well-being. In this case, sacrifice means worship. God, who is present in all humans, is to be worshiped with food, knowledge, clothing, housing, kindness, and so on. It is simply a demonic act of selfishness for anyone to deny another being what he or she needs when it is in one’s power to give or facilitate in the giving. Even worse is the negativity that awaits the person who actively impedes such giving. Service of God in man, which is different from merely serving/helping others, is a sacred path to blessedness, leading to true humility, egolessness, and communion with God. Swami Vivekananda has said that service is even higher than compassion, for in service one forgets oneself in the one being served (a form of God).
5. Bhuta Yajna — Sacrifice to other creatures. The principle behind this yajna is not very different from the one above. If Nara Yajna engenders a sense of unity with other humans, Bhuta Yajna makes us one with all beings, sentient and insentient, animals as well as the plants and minerals, through acts of service and worship. God is worshiped in the plants and animals by offering water and food or nutrients, with appreciation and acknowledgment of the life and Spirit within them, their beauty, and/or unique place in the creation, by moderation of use and never exploitation. Custodianship, stewardship, and ultimately, oneness based on the universal life principle, are engendered through this sacrifice. Holy Mother’s practical teaching on this can be seen in Her statement:
Each should have his due. What men can eat should not be wasted on cattle. What cattle can eat, should not be thrown away to dogs. What cattle and dogs cannot eat, can be thrown into ponds for fish to eat. Nothing should be wasted.[Sri Sarada Devi the Holy Mother, p. 229]
Sacrifice exalts one’s earthly existence. It includes the impulse of gratitude, appreciation, service, self-culture, dedication, sense of interconnectedness, worship, and generosity (giving to all what is their due). The first category of beings, those who are seeking personal satisfaction, are gradually molded by these five sacrifices into moral and ethical persons with a sensitivity for universal reciprocity. Eventually, however, seeking satisfaction from life on earth or even in celestial realms (that are also finite and all based upon seeking pleasure and avoiding pain) becomes tiresome. One wearies of mere satisfaction and seeks fulfillment in the Eternal Verity wherein good and bad, life and death, pleasure and pain all get dissolved in the Existence, Knowledge and Bliss Absolute.
It is at this point that the above sacrifices, performed with a desire for certain results, begins to transform into true worship, and one seeks God as an end in Itself. Prior to this, one wanted wealth, family, freedom from suffering, knowledge, approval from society for being a righteous person, or one was seeking perfection in world and society. Speaking in terms of worship, Sri Krishna illumines the difference between these two approaches (with and without desire) and also explains why we must not stop with just the moral and ethical good:
Whatever form any devotee with faith wishes to worship, I make that faith of his steady. Endowed with that faith, he engages in the worship of that form, and from it he obtains his desires, which are being actually ordained by Me [the Ultimate Reality]. But the fruit that accrues to those men of small intellect is finite. The worshiper of the gods go to the gods; My devotees come to Me. — Bhagavad Gita, 7:21–23
Finished with the limited rewards that come as the fruit of sacrifice, social service, and other actions performed with desire, the second type of being engages in selfless sacrifice and service discharged in the knowledge that God alone exists before, during, and after the universe, pervading all beings like the ocean water pervades the waves. This dissolves the notions of “my time, my body, my life, my wealth” that bind one to the narrow confines of self-centered individuality. One’s entire life then becomes service of the one divine Being expressing in all beings. Thus, sacrifice culminates in the destruction of the sense of separation, between beings and between oneself and God.
The last category of beings, which include not only the “liberated in life,” but also the Incarnations of God (Avatar), manifest the ideal of sacrifice at its highest level: a ceaseless flow of universal sustenance, purification, and transformation, which is thoroughly divine and based in absolute Oneness. Such beings, freed from the notion of a separate individuality, and embodying the entire universe by virtue of their being poised in the Supreme Self, are the very principle of sacrifice. The Upanishads state: “That One, indivisible Being, the Eternal in the non-eternal, the Intelligence in the intelligent, fulfills the desires of the many….” — this is the supreme sacrifice that goes on unceasingly and naturally.
The Bengali poet Ramprasad Sen sings of the Universal Mother, “All the blood ever shed in sacrifice and conflict streams down Her brilliant black form as red flowers float on dark waters.” All the experiences, good and bad, tragic, horrifying, or sublime — all of them are borne by that One who further transmutes all negativity within Its vast being, just like the ocean takes in all the rivers of the continents and never changes. Such beings, walking the earth, assuage all sorrow, temper all limited joys, give without feeling the giving, and continuously act from the outpouring of divine beneficence that spontaneously knows what is needed and when, and responds from overflowing abundance. This, we understand to be the Highest Sacrifice.