Vedic Sacrifices


In Indian vernaculars, especially those derived from Sanskrit, the word ‘yajña’ is commonly used to indicate any work that involves great effort and needs the active co-operation of many. It is perhaps an indication of the tremendous influence the system of Vedic sacrifices— generally called as yajñas or yāgas— has had on the Hindu society over the millennia.

Fortunately for the scholars of Indology and Vedic studies, Vedic sacrifices have not totally disappeared as yet, though they have become very rare. Even during this 20th century, as many as 70 Vedic sacrifices are known to have been performed. They include the well-known sacrifices like Agniṣṭoma, Aptoryāma, Atirātra, Cāturmāsya, Nirūḍhapaśubandha, Sautrāmaṇī and Vājapeya.

Āhitāgnis (those who have ceremonially established the Vedic fires) are to be found even today. However they seem to be slowly becoming a vanishing species.

By the time of the Ṛgvedasaṁhitā itself, considered to be the oldest among the Vedas—nay, the oldest scripture in the world—Vedic sacrificial system seems to have taken a definite and clear shape. Names of the Vedic fires like the gārhapatya, of some sacrifices like the Atirātra, of the sixteen priests needed in a Somayāga like hotṛ, neṣṭṛ and āgnīdhra, of the implements used like yūpa (sacrificial post), juhū (wooden ladle) and camasa (wooden vessel for the soma juice), as also some technical terms like āhāva (call, seeking permission, by the hotṛ priest) and avabhṛtha (concluding bath) find a place in the Ṛgvedic hymns, thereby confirming the inference drawn above.

A study of the Vedic sacrifices helps in a proper understanding of the Vedic literature as such, since the latter is closely connected with the former. In fact, the very arrangement of the mantras in the Vedic Saṁhitās to suit the sacrificial needs, supports this view. Hence such a study can be useful in fixing the chronology of the Vedic literature, the development and stratification of the different portions of that literature and the influence that literature has exerted on the varṇa-system and the caste-system.

Basic Literature

Information about the sacrifices has been spread out, all over the Vedic literature. In the Brāhmaṇas one can get more details including instructions for their performance. However, it is in the śrautasūtras and the śulbasūtras that a systematic treatment of the subject is obtained. Whereas the latter is concerned solely with the constructional and engineering aspects of a sacrifice like the measurement and formation of the vedi (altar), it is the former that is the functional manual for the priests and hence gives us the modus operandi of the various rites in detail. Therefore its help is invaluable in the study of Vedic rituals.

Of the extant works, the following may be mentioned as ancient and authoritative:

Āpastamba Śrautasūtras
Āśvalāyana Śrautasūtras
Baudhāyana Śrautasūtras
Bhāradvāja Śrautasūtras
Kātyāyana Śrautasūtras
Satyāṣāḍha Śrautasūtras

Yajña, Yāga and Hama

Derived from the verbal root ‘yaj’ (to worship, to sacrifice, to bestow) both the words yajña and yāga mean the same thing: a worship in the form of offering oblations, a sacrifice unto the gods.

It is also defined as the tyāga (giving up, offering) of a dravya (a specified material) unto a devatā (a specific deity).

Homa is the act of pouring ājya (ghee) into the duly consecrated gṛhya or domestic fire. It is a later adaptation of the original yajñas and yāgas and is more common in pūjā or the ritualistic worship of deities of the Hindu pantheon.

The general principle accepted by Hindu religious tradition is that the scriptures—the Śruti and the smṛtis—are the final authority regarding the things beyond, the ultimate values of life. According to them, yajña or the system of sacrifices was given by God himself at the beginning of creation, to human beings and the gods (like Indra, Agni, Varuṇa and so on) as a link between them, to sustain each other. The human beings were to satiate the gods through the sacrifices and the gods, in return, would bestow on the human beings rains, food and other things needed to live a prosperous life, because they controlled the various forces of nature.

When a person performs Vedic sacrifices like Jyotiṣṭoma, say, to go to heaven, the potential effect of it in a subtle form resides in his soul and will give its fruit after death. This potential imperceptible power or śakti, is called ‘apūrva’

Human beings need light and heat to sustain themselves in life. The sun (Sūrya) and the fire (Agni) are the two sources for these. The sun is not under human control, but fire is. Perhaps it was this fact that might have induced our ancient ancestors to protect and maintain the fire with respect, and even worship it. It must have been given the status of a deity as a result of the intuitive experiences of the sages.

Yajamāna or the Sacrificer

The yajamāna or the sacrificer is the chief person in a sacrifice. He is the master of the whole ceremony, meets all its expenses and claims the fruits of the same. In fact, the very etymological meaning of the word ‘yajamāna’ is ‘one who is performing the sacrifice’. The ṛtviks or the priests are there only to assist him in its performance. Though they perform all the ritualistic acts, they receive their dakṣiṇā (sacrificial fee) for their labour, thereby enabling the yajamāna to attain the fruits of the sacrifice.

It was only the gṛhastha, the married person, belonging to any of the first three varṇas, viz., the brāhmaṇa, the kṣattriya and the vaiśya, that was entitled to maintain the Vedic fires and perform the sacrificial rites. Though a person, theoretically speaking at least, could establish the Vedic fires, as soon as he was married, not many did it, since it involved not only considerable expenses* 1 but also forced them to stay put in one place. Hence, setting up the fires in early middle-age was more common even in the ancient period.

Once established, the āhitāgni had to maintain the fires (generally three or even one) throughout his life. If due to any reason they were extinguished, he had to ceremonially rekindle them. On death, his body had to be cremated with these fires along with the various wooden vessels and implements he was using, which had to be placed on his various limbs, as per the directions given in the scriptures.

In case he took sarhnyāsa (monastic life) he had to ceremonially discard the fires.

The wife of the yajamāna (called ‘patnī’) also had important roles to play in the Vedic sacrifices.

Ṛtviks or Priests

Next to the yajamāna come the rtviks or the priests who are the main stay of the sacrifices. A rtvik (= rtvij) is one who performs the sacrifices (ij) during the proper seasons (rtu). It is the yajamāna’s privilege to choose his rtviks.

A rtvik should preferably be a young man, though older persons also could be chosen. He should be well—read in the Vedas, having acquired that knowledge in the traditional way, by attending the gurukula (forest academy run by expert teachers). He should have no physical deformities and disabilities and must be from a good lineage. He must be leading a pure life as described in the smrti works.

There are four main priests, each representing one of the four Vedas: hotr(Egveda), adhvaryu (Yajurveda), udgātr (Sāmaveda) and brahmā (Atharvaveda). Each one of these has three assistants, thereby taking the total to a maximum of sixteen. They are:

hotr—maitrāvaruna, acchāvāka, grāvastut. adhvaryu—pratiprasthātā, nestā, unnetā. udgātr—prastotā, pratihartā, subrahmanya. brabmā—brāhmanāccharūsī, āgnīdhra, potā.

These three assistants are respectively called dvitīyī or ardhi, trtīyi and pādi. Their duties as well as the fees that they get are in the declining order. For instance, the dvitīyīs get half, the trtīyīs one-third and the pādis one-fourth, of the fees that is paid to the chief priests, known as ‘mahartvijas’.

The number of priests in any sacrifice varies according to its needs. It is in the Somayāgas that all the sixteen take an active part.

Classification of the Yajñas

The yajñas have been classified in various ways. ‘Sarhsthā’ is the technical term used for a group of sacrifices. The Bodhāyana Grhyasūtras ( gives a comprehensive description of the whole system of sacrifices thus:

‘Yajñas can be classified into 21 groups. They are carried out with the help of the mantras in the three Vedas—Hg, Yajur and Sāma. Domesticated animals, wild animals and the products of plants and trees are the materials used for oblation. The emoluments paid to the priests keep them alive. Yajña can also be classified as four-fold: svādhyāyayajña, japayajña, karmayajña and mānasayajña. Each succeeding yajña gives a tenfold result of the preceding one.’

The last part is very interesting and needs some clarification. Svādhyāya is study and recollection of the Vedas learnt in the gurukula. Japa is the repetition of certain Vedic hymns or mantras. Karma is the actual performance of the prescribed rites. Symbolical meditations based on the Vedic rituals constitute the last, the mānasayajña and that is considered to be the best.

The first grouping is as follows:

1. The Seven Pākayajñas

They are performed in the aupāsa— nāgni or the grhyāgni (the fire lit up and consecrated at the time of marriage), with cooked oñ‘erings such as boiled grains mixed with butter.

They comprise these seven: Huta, Prahuta, Àhuta, Sūlagava, Baliharana, Pratyavarohana and Astakāhoma.

They are rites meant for worldly gains and prosperity.

2. The Seven Haviryajñas

‘Havis’ is any oblatory material (generally uncooked) that is poured into a duly consecrated Vedic fire, such as barley, rice, milk or clarified butter.

The seven Haviryajñas are — Agnyādheya, Agnihotra, Darśapūrnamāsa, Cāturmāsya, Àgrayana, Nirūḍhapaśubandha and Sautrāmanī.

All these sacrifices are performed in the three śrautāgnis or Vedic fires viz., gārhapatya, dakṣiṇā and āhavanīya.

3. The Seven Somayāgas

They are called ‘Somayāgas’ since the juice of the soma creeper is the main ingredient of the offerings.

They are — Agniṣṭoma, Atyagnistoma, Ukthya, Sodaśī, Vājapeya, Atirātra and Aptoryāma.

There are other ways of classification too. For instance a model sacrifice, like the Darśapūrnamāsa, is called ‘prakrti’ (original). Its modifications like the kāmyestis (desire-motivated rites), are called ‘vikrti’ (modified forms). While de— scribing the vikrti—yāgas, only the changes and modifications are stated, the other details being filled up from the prakrti.

Another method of classification is as nitya, naimittika and kāmya sacrifices. The nitya type is to be performed regularly and compulsorily. For example, the Aguihotra is a nityayajña. The Ksāmavatīsti has to be performed if one’s house is destroyed by fire, for future protection. This is a naimittika yajña (nimitta = a special cause). Aindrāgnesti is an example for the kāmya type. One who is desirous of (kāmya : that which is desired) winning in a competitive venture, is advised to perform it.

A third manner of division is as aistika, pāśuka and saumika. If the havis is a material like purodāśa (rice-cake), ājya (clarified butter) or caru (porridge), then it is an aistika sacrifice. If the havis is a paśu or an animal, then the rite is pāśuka. If on the other hand, soma juice is the havis, the yajña becomes saumika.

Fire and its Production

Agni or fire is the most important part of Vedic sacrifices. As the deity supervising over the elemental fire, it is looked upon as the carrier of the offerings of oblation to the various Vedic deities like Indra. Hence the name ‘Havyavāt,’

‘one who carries the havis’. However, as the basic source of light and energy here, it is sometimes identified with Brahman, the Supreme God. The term ‘Jātavedas,’ ‘One who knows everything as soon as he is manifested’, is generally applied to it in this sense also. Consequently the production of fire and establishing it in the place duly set apart for it (the yāgaśālā, the sacrificial shed) has itself acquired the significance of a regular ritual. It is called Agnyādhāna or Agnyādheya.

A grhastha or householder belonging to any one of the first three varnas is entitled to establish the Vedic fires, even ten days after his marriage. A suitable auspicious day is to be fixed with special reference to the rtu (season) and naksatra (asterism). Amāvāsyā (new—moon day) of the month of Vaiśākha (April-May) with the Rohinī-naksatra (the fourth lunar mansion) is considered to be the best day by many authorities.

Before this date, the yajamāna and his wife are expected to purify themselves by japa (repetition of mantras), homa (special offerings into the grhya fire, also called ‘aupāsanāgni’), krcchra (certain physical austerities like fasting) and purity in ethical behaviour (like patching up with enemies, clearing the debts and so on).

Agnyādhāna is not, by itself, considered as a yajña, though it appears to be so, during its performance. To get it performed, the yajamāna should select the priests—this is called ‘rtvigvarana’—and duly honour them.

Then comes sambharana, the act of ceremonially collecting the materials needed for the rite. The most important part of this is the collecting of pieces of the aśvattha wood (ficus religiosa, the fig tree) and preparing the aranis.

After shaving, bath and the performance of some minor rites like sarvausadhahoma, the aranis are properly received by the yajamāna from the adhvaryu priest. He then produces fire by attrition—this is termed ‘agnimanthana’—and deposits it in the round pit meant for the gārhapatya fire. Embers from this fire are taken to the semicircular pit of the dakṣiṇāgni and another fire is prepared there. The third fire, the āhavanīya, is formed similarly in the square pit, taking the embers from the dakṣiṇāgni. Thus, all the three Vedic fires are now fully prepared and established.

It is the bounden duty of the yajamāna to protect these fires from being desecrated or extinguished. In case this happens, the fires have to be rekindled by the process of punarādhāna, which is very similar to the Agnyādhāna, with some minor modifications.

The yajamāna is expected to perform the Agnihotra and the Darśapūrnamāsa, which are nitya or obligatory, in these fires.

Two more fires — the sabhya and the āvasathya — are also established on special occasions as and when necessary.

Some General Rules

Every sacrifice has its own rules and regulations. However, there are quite a few rules commonly applicable to all of them. They may be summarised here.

Unless otherwise stated, the yajamāna should always squat on the ground facing north.

All the articles to be used in the sacrifice, like the kuśa grass (Foa cynosuroides), should be kept with their ends pointing towards the east.

The yajñopavīta (the sacred thread) should be worn in the upavīta (suspended over the left shoulder and below the right arm) fashion.

Unless directed otherwise, only the right limb (right hand, right finger, right leg and so on) should be used whenever the word aṅga (limb) is mentioned.

The yajamāna is the agent of action in respect of giving gifts. It is he who has to repeat the texts wherever the word ‘vācayati’ (‘makes him repeat’) is used, during the performance of the sacrifices.

All the measurements mentioned in & sacrifice have the height of the yajamāna as the basic unit. For instance, the size of the vedi (sacrificial altar) or that of the yāgaśālā (sacrificial shed) is determined by the height of the yajamāna. In the Darśapūrnamāsa sacrifice, the length of the vedi is equal to his height.

When no performer is expressly mentioned, it is the adhvaryu priest who does it. All the prāyaścitta-karmas or the expiatory rites, and the ones meant by the words ‘juhoti’ (he offers), and ‘japati’ (he mutters) refer to the brahmā priest as the agent.

Whenever only the first pāda (quarter) of a ṛk (Rgvedic mantra) is mentioned, the whole ṛk is to be recited.

An exception always gets precedence over a general rule.

Vedis and Yajñāyudhas

‘Vedi’ means an altar. ‘Yajñāyudhas’ are the various implements used in sacrifices.

The vedi is either an elevated or an excavated plot of ground strewn with the darbha grass, where sacrificial utensils and implements are placed. It is shaped within a rectangular area. The northern and the southern sides are concave.

Vedi for the Agnihotra, Darśapūrṇamāsa and Iṣṭis
Vedi for the Agnihotra, Darśapūrṇamāsa and Iṣṭis

Measurements and shape of a vedi vary according to the type of the rite to be performed, as described in the concerned texts. The height of the sacrificer is the unit used to determine the various measurements.

Associated with the vedi is cayana or agnicayana, the rite of piling the bricks for the fire-altar, in Somayāgas. The altar is built with five layers of bricks. It may have several shapes such as suparna (eagle), syena (hawk) and drona (trough). The bricks used also may be of various shapes—triangular, oblong or square.

The yajñāyudhas, instruments and implements used in Vedic sacrifices, are as many as 43. However, only a few, the major ones, more commonly needed, will be described here.

1. Agnihotrahavanī

It is a big ladle made of vikaṅkata wood (Flacourtia sapida) used for pouring the oblation of milk into the gārhapatya fire.


2. Àjyasthālī

It is a vessel of bronze used for keeping ājya or ghee.

3. Anvāhāryasthālī

It is a big metallic vessel used to cook food (enough for four persons) on the dakṣiṇāgni which is also called ‘anvāhāryapacana’. The food is distributed among the priests after (ann : after) the main sacrifice is over.

4. Araṇis

The aranis are two pieces of wood, used to produce fire by attrition. The top piece called ‘uttarārani’ shaped like a round pestle. The bottom—piece has a pit into which the top arani can loosely fit. fire is produced by the process of churning.


5. Camasa

Camasas are deep wooden bowls, square in shape and have short handles. They are used for keeping the soma juice.

6. Daśāpavitm and Dronakalaśa

The former is a small piece of cloth used as a fringed strainer, to strain the soma juice. The latter is the wooden vessel

Daśāpavitra and Droṇakalaśa
Daśāpavitra and Droṇakalaśa

into which the strained juice falls. They are used in the Somayāgas.

7. Dohana

It is the vessel used for containing the milk during milking.

8. Dṛṣad and Upala

They are the lower and the upper grinding stones used to pound the grains for preparing the purodāśa (rice cake). Dṛṣad is flat and upala is cylindrical.

Dṛṣad and Upala
Dṛṣad and Upala

9. I dāpātra and Dārupātra

The idāpātra is an oblong vessel made of aśvattha wood. It is used to keep the remuant of havis after oblation. The dārupātra is similar to it and is utilised to keep purcdāāa and caru (porridge). Some mark is made on the latter to distinguish it from the former.

10. Juhū and Upabhṛt

They are wooden spoons similar to the agnihotrahavanī, but smaller in size.

11. Kapālas

They are small square-shaped troughs made of burnt clay, used to cook the purcdāśa cakes.

12. Kṛṣnājina

It is a deer-skin. The drsad and the upala (See item 8.) are placed on it before pounding the grains.

13. Madantī

It is the vessel used to keep water and heat it for preparing the purodāśa cakes.

14. Musala

It is the pounding pestle made of khadira wood (Acacia catechu).

15. Pranītā-pranayana

It is the long rectangular wooden vessel (made of aśvattha) used by the adhvaryu priest to carry holy water.

16. Sandarñêa

It is the pair of iron tongs used for various purposes.

17. Sānnāyya-tapanī

They are two vessels of bronze used to heat the milk of morning and evening, mixed together.

18. Sphya

It is a piece of khadira wood shaped like & sword. Its uses in sacrifices are many.


19. Sruk and Sruva

They are small-size wooden spoons used for offering ājya or clarified butter.

20. Śūrpa

It is the winnowing basket, generally made of bamboo.

21. Ulūkhala

It is a wooden mortar (made of any sacrificial wood) used along with the musala (pestle) (See item 14.) for crushing the grains.

22. Yoktra

It is a straw-rope made of the muñja grass used as & belt.

23. Yūpa

It is the octogonal wooden post to which the animal to be immolated, is tied.


A Brief Account of Some Well-known Sacrifices

The number of sacrifices listed in the Vedic and allied works, as available now, is legion. An attempt is made here to give a very brief account of some of the common or more well-known ones, arranged in the English alphabetical order.

1. Agnihotra

It is an obligatory sacrifice, to be performed from the very day the Vedic fires are established. The havis can be cow’s milk or grue] or cooked rice or curds or ghee. In the absence of the yajamāna, his wife or his son or his pupil can do it on his behalf.

2. Agniṣṭoma

It is the first of the Somayāgas and is the prakrti (model) for others. It is spread over five days and needs all the sixteen priests. It is performed annually in the spring season. The climax is reached during the mādhyandina-savana (extrac— tion of the soma juice, at midday) when the sacrificial fees are also distributed.

3. Aptoryāma

It is a modification of the Agniṣṭoma and is performed to fulfil any desire. The sacrificer is expected to gift away 1000 cows or even more. A chariot is also to be given to the hotr priest.

4. Aśvamedha

Since an aśva or a horse is sacrificed, this yāga is called ‘Aśvamedha’. It is one of the most ancient sacrifices and can be performed only by very powerful kings or emperors. Though the horse is let out for roaming, for a period of one year, the actual sacrifice itself is spread over only three days. If the horse is killed or carried away by the enemies, the sacrifice becomes nullified.

5. Atirātra

This is also a Somayāga (an optional form of Jyotiṣṭoma) and is performed in one day. The Aśvins are offered purodāśa. An ewe or a ram is sacrificed unto the goddess Sarasvatī.

6. Cāturmāsya

Actually this comprises three sacrifices to be performed at four-monthly intervals. They are: Vaiāvadeva, Varuna praghāsa and Sākamedha. Sometimes one more, the Sunāsīrīya, is also added. Each of these marks the advent of a season. They are performed on the full-moon days of Phālguna or Caitra (February-March), Âsādha (July) and Kārttika or Mārgaśira (November). Purodāśa and caru are the main offerings.

7. Darśapūrnamāsa

It is an obligatory rite (of the isti type) and is a prakrti for many other sacrifices. It is begun on the first full—moon day after Agnyādhāna and may be spread over two days. All the four principal priests take part in it.

8. Nirūdhapaêubandha

An obligatory rite, to be performed once in six months or once in a year, it involves the immolation of an animal, a he-goat. Indra and Agni, Sūrya and Prajāpati are the deities to be appeased. Six priests are needed.

9. Pindapitryajña

This is a sacrifice subordinate to the Darāa. It is so called because pindas or rice-balls are offered to the pitrs or manes. The three pindas (each succeeding one being bigger than the preceding one) are offered to father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

10. Rājasūya

It is a very complicated yāga, extending over two years and comprising a number of istis and Soma sacrifices. It can be performed only by kings or emperors as it involves & very heavy fee of 2,40,000 cows to the priests! The abhisecanīya rite involving abhiseka (sprinkling of sacred water) of the royal sacrificer is considered to be its core.

11. Sattrayāga

The duration of Sattrayāga may vary from 12 days to one year or even more. There are no priests. All the participating brāhmanas become the yajamānas. Their number should be not less than 17 and not more than 24. The Yāga includes animal sacrifice. It is interesting to note that playing on a vinā (lute) with 100 strings of muñja grass is a part of this sacrifice.

12. Vājapeya

Performed by one desiring for unlimited dominion, this yāga has many special features. The number 17 is all important in this rite. For instance: 17 animals are sacrificed, 17 objects are distributed as fees, and it lasts for 17 days. A chariot race in which the yajamāna also takes part and is always helped to ‘Win’ is another interesting feature of this sacrifice.


Every nation has its own sets of beliefs. These beliefs have sustained it over the centuries. The Hindu society has believed, and still believes, that the ancient scriptures—especially the Vedas, the Upanisads, the Bhagavadgītā and the purānas—are the final authority in the religio-spiritual fields, where the mind or the intellect cannot penetrate. It is intuitive mystical experience that really counts there and these scriptures are the records of such experiences of the highly respected rsis or sages.

Since these scriptures have declared the divine origination of sacrifices it is our duty to perform them and maintain that tradition.

However, it is true that the Vedic sacrifices as such are extremely rare today. But, the spirit behind them, viz., eamest prayer and appeal to God, continues vigorously even today, in the form of temple rituals, pūjās and homas (both private and public), japa (repetition of mantras and divine names) and devotional singing. It is this spirit of yajña—worship of the Divine and making offerings to that Divine—that is sustaining us even now.

Sometimes, the cult of sacrifice has been dubbed as a cult of himsā or violence to the animals that are sacrificed. It should clearly be noted that animal sacrifice existed only in one particular group of yāgas, the Nirūḍhapaśubandha type. Since the Vedas have declared that the yajñas are for the good of all and that the animal immolated in it attains higher worlds, the believers accept it as a small sacrifice for universal good. When thousands of soldiers sacrifice their lives in wars to protect their country, when thousands are uprooted from their hearths and homes during the execution of big projects like building a dam or cohstructing new railways and roads, or when children are punished by their parents in their own interest, nobody considers it as himsā. Abandoning a person for the sake of protecting a family, a family for the sake of a village or a town, and a village or a town for the sake of the whole country has been accepted as a general principle by our society since the most ancient days. It is akin to amputating a diseased limb to protect life.

To sum up: It cannot be denied that the Vedic sacrifices exerted a great influ— ence on our ancient society—whether directly or indirectly—and their spirit viz., sacrificing the individual good for the social good, still survives in various forms even today.

Names of Some Desire-motivated Sacrifices and their Fruits

Sl. No Name of the Sacrifice Desired Fruit
1. Annakāmesti Plenty of food
2. Âyuskāmesti Long life
3. Darśapūrnamāsa Heaven
4. Jayakāmesti Victory in competitions
5. Kārīrīsti Rains
6. Ksāmavatīsti Victory in battle
7. Pāpamoksakāmesti Freedom from sins
8. Paëukāmesti Getting cows
9. Pavamānesti Cure of chronic diseases
10. Prajākāmesti Worthy sons
11. Samjñānīsti Regain friendship
12. Sarvaprsthesti Virility
13. Śatakrsnalesti Overcoming fear of death
14. Sutrāmesti Protection of one’s kingdom
15. Svargakāmesti Heaven
16. Traidhātavīyesti Fulfilment of all desires
17. Vasukāmesti Gaining wealth
18. Yavisthesti Protection against black-magic