I can’t really re-commend a book that I’ve never commended in the first place, but here is some expansive, effusive commendation for my current reading, along with some long blocks of quotation that will allow you all to share in the fun.
I’d like to thank Professor William Mahony for writing the book The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination, which confirms and clarifies my vague intuitions about Vedic religion, offering clear explanations in a handy, really interesting book. It’s such a great read that I’m tempted to just type up the entire text and gradually post it as the next year’s worth of entries in this blog.
There’s a view of Vedic ritual that I sometimes encounter, especially in university-published academic books, and it goes something like this:
“The Vedic rites were strict, formal, hierarchical, and sterile, presided over by a priestly caste who benefited immensely from this ritual practice. Orthopraxy and correctness were stressed above all. These rituals were nothing like Hinduism as practiced today. Indeed, modern reverence for the Vedas is a traditional respect paid to an archaic spiritual tradition, but their concepts and practices are now largely irrelevant. Most people do not know Vedic hymn or ritual, nor do they need such knowledge.” It’s not written quite so flagrantly, but a slight underlying tone of scorn certainly implies something along the lines of, “these complicated ceremonies were so tedious and impractical that it’s little wonder they died out, especially as it was possible to perform them without any spiritual feeling at all. Now we shall contrast this with modern Hindu devotion, which is of course superior since it constitutes an actual personal religion.”
This is a common thread in Western and Eastern sources alike, and I can understand the temptation to dismiss older texts that now seem unapproachable, esoteric, and irrelevant. But I support modern undertakings of yajña, as well as the more intimate daily observance of agnihotra, based on both research and personal experience of same. And I’m delighted whenever I find an author who treats Vedic ritual as a source of interest and wonder.
So here are a few excerpts from this lovely volume. It’s getting late, but I hope to write more on sacrifice – from my brain instead of Mahony’s – soon.
On continuity within the Vedic/Hindu tradition:
“The Vedic practice of the personal sacrifice to the gods (devayajña) consists of offering food or “at least a small stick” to a fire while chanting the names of the gods or of one god in particular. Some texts influenced by Vedic thought use the word homa almost synonymously with devayajña, for in the performance of a homa one offers clarified butter to a fire while chanting the divine names. The gods and goddesses so honored are the same as those praised in the large public yajñas…
The Vedic practice of devayajña stands as a precedent of sorts for the later Hindu practice of pūjā, in which an individual worshiper honors an iconic or aniconic image of a deity…by placing in front of it flower petals, fruit, seeds, clarified butter, and other symbols of vitality and life.”
On loka, as sacred state and space:
“The word loka originally referred to an open place (as in a deep jungle) in which one could see the light of day, and thus to a secure and expansive space. It is not difficult to see how this sense of the word could lead to the idea of a place or state of being in which one emerged from the existential darkness into light or from the uncertain world of human existence to the divine world of the gods…
To reside in a loka was therefore not only to live in a place of safety but also to live where one could see things the way they truly are. In other words, to establish a loka was to form a systematic and meaningful “world” in which one’s actions make sense in the larger universe; it is to locate oneself in a cosmos, to find a locus of being within the chaos of existence. This establishment of a meaningful world resulted from the poet’s ability to see the divine and the priest’s ability to give dramatic form to that vision…
Furthermore, priests who dramatically enacted the dismembering and re-membering of the cosmic body thereby participated in the cosmogonic ordering of the universe itself…
From the Vedic perspective, sacrifice constructed, supported, and in a sense created a vital world.”
On yajña, as enactment of cosmic order:
“Vedic ritual thus allowed its performers to align themselves with the structures and powers of the sacred universe itself. Such an alignment allowed the ritual to be an efficacious expression of cosmogonic power. The primordial agonistic act of creation to which the earlier Vedic songs gave verbal image was filled with uncertainty and danger, for darkness could conquer light just as light could dispel darkness; the demons of the darkness were just as powerful as the bright deities. But, just as through their imagination Vedic visionaries were able to see through the confusion and understand the riddle of the cosmos, so too Vedic priests in their enactment of the ritual participated in the ordering and structuring of the universe as a whole. The ritual was a microcosmic version of the macrocosm.
Accordingly, from the Vedic point of view, not only was knowledge of the correct performance of the ritual equivalent to knowledge of the structure and workings of the universe itself, but because of the structural connection that linked microcosm and macrocosm, actions performed in the ritual affected the movements of the universe as a whole…
From this perspective, the ritual no longer merely presented a dramatic image of cosmic order; it created that order itself. The ritual had the power to form functional reality out of mere existence.”
On ātma-yajña and sacred purpose:
“Vedic teachers taught that the individual person’s own inner being was the true sacrificial arena; it was in the inward soul residing deep within the human heart where one searched for the knowledge of the brahman that linked the divine and human worlds. A life infused with the discipline necessary to such an inward search is known as brahmacārya (literally, “moving in the brahman” or “abiding in the truth”)….
The Vedic tradition thus came to maintain the idea that the whole of one’s physical, mental, and spiritual life is to be understood as sacrifice. One’s very being is to be regarded as a sacred offering to the gods.”
Writing and researching scholarly topics can be deeply draining work; after this herculaean task, it’s rare that a scholar will have sufficient energy remaining to compose his work with a poet’s delicacy and artistry of expression. It’s a still-rarer treat to read such writing on the too-often-stilted subject of yajña. Its noblest ideal, of life as offering, is not one to be expressed in sere, sapless, stilted words!
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