At the risk of offending the devout and the orthodox, one will attempt some sort of description of the Hindu ritualistic practices that go by the name of Homa and Yagna. Both appear to be some kind of sacrificial ritual and both these rituals require the use of an altar and a fire that is required to stay ablaze for the duration of these rituals. These practices can be called rituals since they appear to follow a set of procedures and methods. More importantly, they appear to have a purpose or design.
The most common purpose for which Homas and Yagnas are organized is to bring about the fulfillment of some desire or wish. These desires or wishes could be individual or collective or both. We may denote the wishes and desires of a person and his/her immediate family as individual, and that of an extended family, group,village, community or society as collective.
The method of bringing about the fulfillment of these wishes or desires or in some cases even fantasies is to appease or propitiate supernatural, divine or godly beings who are supposedly in control of granting such wishes and desires. The wishes and desires for which these rituals of divine appeasement are done are usually:
- Desire for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family
- Desire for progeny
- Desire for wealth and prosperity
- Desire and wishes for birth and longevity of a new-born
- Desire and wishes for blessings in a marriage
- Need to ward off ‘evil’ influences on oneself and one’s family
- Bringing forth of rain in agrarian societies
- Prevention of flood, earthquakes and other natural calamities
The first 5 in the list above may be considered as reasonable wishes and desires, while the last 3 may arguably be termed as extravagant wishes, bordering almost on fantasy or delusion.
But the Hindu rituals of Homas and Yagnas are designed and held in the supreme confidence that both desires as well as fantasies and delusions are equally capable of fulfillment.
Only the procedure of divine appeasement needs to be properly in place, which of course the Vedas and their related religious texts have all figured out for us. The solution, or trick, if it may be so called, lies in appeasing the right god or supernatural being with the incantations or hymns appropriate for that being.
While the wishes and desires that need to be fulfilled are ours, the esoteric and confidential appeals to be made to divinity for that end needs the services of specialists called priests. Priests are that privileged portion of humanity who are qualified and sanctioned by religion to convey our wishes to the appropriate class of divinity and negotiate the granting of favors for us from the world beyond us. The priests have been trusted to match our desires with the correct appeal to the relevant supernatural provider of our wishes.
The elements of Homas and Yagnas that supposedly build the vital cosmic connection between our earthly world of desires and the magical wish-fulfilling world of divine beings are:
- The sacrificial altar or havan as it is called in Sanskrit, of the size, weight, dimension and direction appropriate for the sacrifice. The priests are assumed to be surely well-versed in the architectural knowledge of the altar.
- The sacrificial fire or agni as it is called in Sanskrit of the size, flame,intensity and with the fuel appropriate for the sacrifice. Here again the priests apparently score very highly in their knowledge of this unique sacrificial furnace technology.
- Items to be thrown into or rather sacrificed to the holy fire. Only those items which are approved by the priests can be offered to the sacrificial fire. After all, the sacrificial offerings are supposed to reach the divine beings and are among the proverbial pound of flesh for them to grant us the favors we plead of them. Apparently the divine beings seem to have appetite for things like clarified butter (ghee), uncooked rice, sandalwood powder, vermilion powder, dried grass, flower petals and twigs, apart from the sweet tooth for Indian milk pudding and dry sweets, a weakness that they, strangely enough, seem to share with their inferior human brethren. Once more we are in humble and grateful acknowledgment of the priests for their extensive research into Vedic and dharmic texts and their amazing skills in understanding the divine messages written between the lines of Vedic and Puranic babel, and to come up with a menu list that most pleases the divine palate.
- Hymns and incantations to please and humor the divine entities. If the bribes of sacrificial offerings do not melt the hearts and minds of our supernatural masters already wilting under the steady and raging flame of the holy fire, they have to be numbed by the triple whammy of vedic hymns and prayers that are termed as mantras. Divine beings probably cannot resist the lure of flattery just like us, it just needs to be delivered in a language that only they and the priests understand. The vedic language of sanskrit serves this purpose excellently. When the literal meaning of a hymn seems unflattering, symbolic interpretation comes to the rescue and as usual the right and license of interpretation rests with the priestly class and their now emerging spiritual contenders.
- Religious and vedically certified priests who are absolutely essential for the conduct of this special dialogue with the creatures of the supernatural realm. All priests practicing their skill and art in temples are presumed to be ‘Vedically’ certified. As mentioned before, the priests play a very important part in matching the wishes of the beneficiary to the correct wish-fulfilling deity. They help in preventing cross-connections between the wishful prayers and their divine recipients. Of course it is a sacrilege to ask what 3G, 4G or 5G air-wave spectrum is accessed by these priests for the safe conveyance of esoteric messages to divinity. For instance there could be unpleasant consequences if a prayer for progeny is directed at the rain-god Indra or the wind-god Vaayu. An incensed Indra or Vaayu may pour cold rain-water on or blow away the chances of having progeny. Now how do these priests know what god to propitiate for the beneficiary? Obviously they must have delved deep into the divine hierarchy of the Vedic gods and figured out all the various wish-fulfillment roles of the myriad deities of the Vedas and Puranas and the complex rules and regulations of the divine appeasement game. As is common in religious ritualism, proofs are neither asked for nor given.
- Last but not least, the procedure of conducting the Homa or Yagna, or vidhi as it is termed in Sanskrit. There are many rules to be observed in this elaborate procedure.
- The day of the month or year when these rituals are to be performed. For that is when stars, planets and heavenly bodies are in a mood of obliging alignment with their astrological ‘houses’. It is very crucial that Jupiter, or Shukra, is in the eight house and Saturn, or Shani, is moving into the 5th house for a play-date with Rahu and Ketu.
- Hour of the day when a ritual can be conducted. Obviously it cannot be done at night. For our divine benefactors cannot, in the darkness of night, see what we are up to. And they also don’t seem to approve of artificial lighting.
- The posture that the beneficiaries should have while they are seated or standing. Of course sleeping is not allowed during the Homa or Yagna, however soporific the hymns of the ritual maybe.
- The duration of the sitting, standing and circumlocutory postures.
- How many times should one bow before the idol of the deity and the sacrificial altar.
- How many times should one touch the feet of the of deity’s idol, the priest or anybody else that the priest wants you to.
- What hymn to be repeated and when to keep silent during the recitation of the hymn.
- How many times should the nose, ear and the head be touched during the ritual.
- How many head-bows to make during this period.
- How many twirls are to be made and how many merry-go-rounds to be made of the idol and the sacrificial altar.
- How many flower petals are to be offered to the idol and how many drops of water should be sprinkled on the sacrificial altar.
- How many yogic and breathing postures that can’t be done in a life-time need to be gone through during that hour or two of ritual insanity.
All the above quantitative and qualitative rules and more are virtually the science and fine art of the wish-fulfillment voodoo that goes by the name of Homa and Yagna. In a sense Yagna is a larger and more idiosyncratic version of the Homa, where larger groups and communities periodically re-live their religious and spiritual delusions.
Wishful thinking is perhaps one of most ancient and common among human weaknesses. Religion fuels and fans the fire of wishful thinking that pre-exists in the human mind, and gives it a platform and procedure in the form of ritual.
All that is needed is to set up a box for a bonfire, light it, throw a few things into it and chant a series of abracadabras. Lo and behold we have a grand ritual that becomes the engine of human delusion and wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Ranganath R. writes about subjects concerning religion and culture on his blog, “Critical sagacity“.