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Ritual

Yajna & Puja | Chief elements of a yajna and puja | Yajna & Puja in the Mahabharata | Yajna & Puja in Maha Multipedia

Ritual, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is action that is prescribed by religious law, or any action done in accordance with social custom. In the Hindu context, and as relating to the Mahabharata, we can talk of yajna and puja as the closest synonyms.



Yajna
(from the Sanskrit, 'sacrifice', 'oblation', 'worship') is a generic term for a large complex of Vedic rituals.1 Such rituals can be performed on a collective level or an individual level. In each case the primary assumptions are the same: they are both based on the belief that all elements of the universe, human and divine, are interconnected and interdependent. This system, almost a mechanism, is maintained and manipulated by yajnas. By performing the correct sacrifice, in the correct manner, the sacrificer can alter the cosmos. For example to obtain a child, for greater prosperity, to insure good health, to amass more wealth, one could perform specific yajnas. The yajna, or sacrifice, is the conduit between the individual and the universal, and its prototypical performer, the brahmin ritualist, is therefore the mediator between the human and divine. Thus the yajna, properly performed, is more powerful than any deva (god) it is directed at, for that deva is obliged to obey the power of sacrifice. There was a time in Indian history when this was the dominant form of ritual action. From Key words in Hinduism

More than this, the sacrificial act (karman) or giving something up--is the mechanism which creates or activates the connections: if properly performed, it will automatically achieve the desired and concomitant outcomes (for the individual and for society as a whole). Sacrifice maintains the natural order. Sacrifice is thought to be reconstructive or regenerative…it is through the sacrifice that dharma is maintained. 

To try to understand the centrality of sacrifice in the Vedic imagination one can turn to the hymns in the Rig Veda, particularly those to do with creation. In the famous hymn (10.90) to the first man, Purusa, the gods create the world by dismembering a cosmic giant, the primeval male who is the victim in a Vedic sacrifice. However, he is not only a victim, but the divinity to whom the sacrifice is dedicated; the sacrifice itself creates the sacrifice. 2

When the gods spread the sacrifice with the Man as the offering, spring was the clarified butter, summer the fuel, autumn the oblation.

With the sacrifice the gods sacrificed to the sacrifice. These were the first ritual laws. These very powers reached the dome of the sky where dwell the Sadhyas, [a class of demi-gods] the ancient gods.

Beyond the primacy of the sacrifice in creation, there is even a hymn about the creation of sacrifice itself (10.130) which using the metaphor of weaving to discuss the interconnected universe that binds human and divine together with a loom (sacrifice itself).

The sacrifice  that is spread out with threads on all sides, drawn tight with a hundred and one divine acts, is woven by these fathers as they come near: 'Weave forward, weave backward,' they say as they sit by the loom that is stretched tight.

Puja (from the Sanskrit, 'worship', 'veneration', 'homage') is a generic term for any form of ritualized veneration or devotion directed towards any object worthy of such attention. more specifically it is the ritual worship of a deity in the form of an image or statue. Such venerations are a cornerstone of Hindu practice, however they range widely from the recitation of a short invocatory mantra and the waving of an incense stick, through simple offerings of flowers, sweets and water, to elaborate ritual sequences performed up to four or five times a day by professional temple priests or pujaris at a temple. And puja can also relate to ceremonial processions and religious productions. In general a puja is not performed with an precise goal in mind but out of a feeling of bhakti. At the end of a puja, the deity or guru blesses the devotee materially through food or other objects leftover such as flowers or ash. From the Dictionary of Hinduism:

Temple puja, usually performed by the pujaris, and the more elaborate domestic forms of devotion….include as key components ritual sequences, such as darshana [viewing the divine], arati [honoring the deity with light]…through the recitation of particular mantras, the sounding of bells, drums, and other instruments, a typical sequence begins with the making-present of the deity known as its awakening (avahana) and ends with the its dismissal (visarjana).

Of the two types of ritual behaviors, the puja is by far the more common in India today--something that may have to do with the success of the bhakti movement and the reform of Hinduism over the last millennia.

Chief elements of a yajna and puja

Both types of ceremonies, while differing in intend, use some common objects. Offerings of fruit, rice and grains are common to both, and certain expensive or tasty foods are more sacred that others---such as ghee, milk and sugar. 

Fire is also a key component of both rituals. The word agni ('fire') can designate fire in different manifestations, most significant being the sacrificial fire, central to Vedic yajnas. The embodiment of fire is a major Vedic god. After Indra, Agni is the most evoked deity in Rig Veda. As fire carries the oblations from the sacrificial altar upwards towards the gods he is the priest of the Gods a powerful mediator. Agni has a rich symbology in Hindu lore and can be both creative and destructive.

Flowers are commonly offered as well. Certain flowers are linked to particular deities and particular ceremonies.

Blue Waterlily or lotus| Neel Kamal | नील कमल | Nymphaea nouchali/stellata

The sacred lotus is native to a huge area from modern Vietnam to Afghanistan, being spread widely as an ornamental and food plant. In the Hindu imaginary the lotus has a special and complex place as symbol, image and ritual object. The lotus is the foremost symbol of beauty, prosperity and fertility. It can be found anywhere from Hindu creation myths to descriptions of the gods to hymns. The lotus is very frequently used as an example of divine beauty, for example Vishnu is often described as the 'Lotus-Eyed One'. Its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. The growth of its pure beauty from the mud of its origin holds a benign spiritual promise. In Hindu iconography, deities often are depicted with lotus flowers as their seats. The lotus flower is quoted extensively within Puranic and Vedic literature, for example:

"One who performs his duty without attachment, surrendering the results unto the Supreme Lord, is unaffected by sinful action, as the lotus leaf is untouched by water." Bhagavad Gita 5.10

While the white lotus is associated with Saraswati, the pink is associated with Lakshmi. Krishna's complexion is often compared to the blue lotus. The Blue Water lily is also called Krishna Kamal in Hindi. Because of the color the blue lotus is associated with both Draupadi and the Great Goddess (Durga).  

Jasmine | Yuthikā | यूथिका | Jasminum auriculatum/molle

In contrast, the jasmine does not hold such a complex place in the Hindu imaginary. However, it is a deeply popular flower with a potent and pleasing smell. Many Indian women wear garlands of Jasmine flowers in their hair. The small white star-shaped flowers are picked at night when the aroma is most intense, so that the delicate aroma will not evaporate in the sun.
 
Jasmine is indigenous to the foot hills of Himalayas and plains of Ganges. It is sacred to Vishnu and are used as votive offerings in religious ceremonies.

Yajna & Puja in the Mahabharata

In the epic Sanskrit poem, yajnas are central to the framing of the story. Not only does the frame narrative begin as holy men are sitting and chatting at a 'snake sacrifice' but the Pandava story it self is bracketed by two Vedic yajnas:

The Rajasuya (Royal consecration) is an elaborate Vedic ritual, lasting almost two years. Only a ksatriya, or man from the warrior caste, can prefer it as it is the means by which the sacrificer becomes king. The Rajasuya affirms the king's sovereignty over his realm and its inhabitants. There are many sequences in this ritual, including a dicing match. Yudhisthira performs the Rajasuya in the Sabha parvan, or Book of the Assembly, and sits down to a dice game with Shakuni. In the performance traditions sampled here there is a Kathakali play that revolves around the Rajasuya.

The Ashvamedha (Horse sacrifice) is another elaborate Vedic ritual. It can only be initiated by a strong king, its purpose being to extend and substantiate his power. First the king releases a stallion, which escorted by the king's army, is allowed to roam freely for a year across neighboring territories. Any challengers to the horse are defeated by the army. Upon the horse's return, the king undergoes a three-day consecration, at the climax of which the stallion is killed. The chief queen then stimulates copulation with the beast, following which the horse was dismembered and portions offered up to the Gods. After the war, Yudhisthira performs this yajna to atone for the war and consolidate his grandson Parikshita's empire. Arjuna travels with the stallion and meets many new kings. In the performance traditions sampled in Maha Multipedia, Yakshagana features episodes from the Ashvamedha ritual extensively. 

In more general terms, many critics argue that sacrifice and ritual are central to understanding the Mahabharata. W.J. Johnson in the Introduction to the Sauptikaparvan writes:

According to this mode of analysis, much of the epic can be understood as a symbolic reworking (in a bhakti context) of the ideology of Vedic and Brahminical sacrifice. In general terms, how does this work? First it is necessary to realize the centrality of sacrifice and its 'theology' to Vedic society. At the individual, social and cosmic levels sacrifice was perceived to be the mechanism that regulated and guaranteed the desired outcome of all significant actions (karma). Indeed dharma…was itself thought to be maintained through correct sacrifice….sacrifice serves as a key to justify the violence of war.

Johnson discusses how the Bhagavad Gita and the role of Krishna take up the metaphor of sacrifice as a way to justify the war and ultimately show that the epic' events were necessary to unburden the Earth and readdress the imbalance of dharma.
 
Yajna & Puja in Maha Multipedia

The council of Devis perform an elaborate ritual to evoke the spirit of Kali-Kala, and thus Maha Multipedia is a large, fictional yajna and puja rolled in one. It deliberately draws from both types of rituals as a way to highlight the liminal position of the Mahabharata itself (between Vedic times and the bhakti movement). Further, the narrative draws heavily on existing premodern artistic traditions, which themselves are considered acts of devotion (or pujas). Yakshagana plays are often staged in a temple courtyard, facing the chief deity. Teyyam rites are of course intensely devotional. All of these traditions feature particular opening prayers and end in a ritualized manner.

Further reading

W.J. Johnson, The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahabharata

Madeleine Biardeau, Le Mahābhārata: un récit fondateur du brahmanisme et son interprétation
                              , Le sacrifice dans l'Inde ancienne.

Alf Hiltebeitel, Ritual of Battle: Krishna in the Mahabharata

Jacques Scheuer, Siva dans le Mahabharata

William K. Mahony, An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination

Wendy Doniger (trans.), The Rig Veda