Sacred Living: Yoga as Yajna
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
One of Yoga’s most frequently misunderstood aspects nowadays has to do with its profound spiritual foundation. In the west, we often mistake Yoga for a workout. We’ve written about this a few times already, so we won't spend too much time on it in this entry. But let’s agree that, when one dares to read some of this philosophy’s main scriptures (the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, or the Saundarya Lahari, to name just a few), Yoga reveals itself as much more than an-easy-to-practice routine. It stands as a comprehensive worldview, a philosophy, a body of profound depth and reach that is as rich, complex, and detailed as any other current there's ever been. And if there is one running tenet in any of the scriptures and texts conforming the heart of modern-day Yoga, it’s that life ––or ‘Nature’–– is ‘Sacred’; so sacred, in fact, that it only follows that our job in any one lifetime is to realize the sacred nature of all existence and live our life in constant recognition and consecration of this simple, yet incredible piece of truth.
The issue here lies with the type of attitudes and behaviors we have learnt to exhibit towards life and ‘Nature.’ Because most of us have taken life for granted, and have learnt to ignore it and abuse it pretty much on demand. We regularly disrespect the basic principles meant to support conscious, sacred living, and we don't always do so blatantly, but rather by forgetting to remember how easily everything we take for granted will come to pass... We forget to remember that, as with any other valuable relationship in life, our relationship to the sacred must be reciprocal: there must be at least as much giving as there is receiving, for with the gift of life also come certain duties and responsibilities.
Realizing that life is certainly a unique and amazing type of gift ––one we maybe never asked for and yet received–– is also the work of Yoga. Learning to live in awe of this truth and move both awareness and body in sync with it is all that Yoga is really about. For this type of realization can make all the difference to how we go about living our days and influence the types of exchanges and experiences we decide to invest our attention in on the regular. We yogis thus often say that 'everything is Sri' ––as in everything is Sacred.
Unsurprisingly, Vedanta has a term for this: the Sanskrit word ‘Yajna,’ a synonym for ‘divinity’ that in truth means ‘to sacrifice, to worship, a consecration or offering.’ The concept of Yajna derives from Vedic teachings and is still a part of many modern-day Hindu rituals, often part of offerings and worshipping centred around fire. In a way, the practice of Yajna pretty much summarizes the realization that all existence is magical, sacred, unique arguing that, precisely because of this, all our attention should be put on learning to appreciate the sacred around and within us to avoid wrong action, undue emotion, and the passing of false judgement. In other words, our life should be all about honoring the sacred and the basis of our life should be one of offering, giving, serving, and helping, instead of just taking, demanding, expecting, and receiving. This, of course, requires a paradigmatic shift for most of us, one we are perhaps not fully ready for; and this is exactly where Yoga comes in handy.
From a philosophical standpoint, Yoga is the ultimate performance of Yajna: the ultimate offering of both our minds and hearts to the sacred presence (the sacred fire or Agni) within and around us. Yoga is, therefore, a consecration of the sacred within and around us, and this is also the reason why a great deal of attention is often placed on emphasising the role of meditation as part of it. Because meditation is also an offering of sorts: the offering of our entire undivided attention, our whole being, to that presence that transcends any temporary (if often permanent) absorption into the world of the material.
Meditation is then a type of offering, a giving or generous relinquishing of the need for control over to something we can’t touch, know, or describe but that we can somehow feel. Something we can’t fully comprehend or capture with either logical images or even words, but that we feel is real-er, larger, fuller, and more presence-full than the normal experience we have of everyday ‘us.’ And what is really the meaning of ‘sacred’ if not that?
According to Vedanta and Yoga, then, both meditation and a life of conscious, careful attention to 'the sacred' inside and outside of us will bring forward greater clarity and spontaneity ––what yogis call Viveka Shakti (or Viveka Khyatir). It is by living in continuous realization of the sacred nature of all ‘Nature’ that we can manage to live in a constant and uninterrupted stream of clear seeing, the type of clarity able to rescue us from our most unconscious habits and transcend the crippled idea of the world, life, and ‘Nature’ we have inherited from too many centuries of false judgement (prajnaparadha) and false attachment (Maya). When we are attentive, conscious, and mindful of the sacred in our lives, the sacred becomes the very fabric of our life.
There are, however, many ways in which Yoga and Vedanta instruct us to commune with the sacred. Some of these are more ritualistic and involve the performance of external ‘ceremonies’ and rituals ––the practice of asana, for example, would fall somewhere here, as would things like fire pujas and so on. Others are more personal and internal ––the practice of mantra japa being perhaps a good example of this side. Regardless of where our personal preference falls, or of whether we opt for external or internal appreciations of the sacred nature of all existence, the main thing to remember is to honor the idea of the sacred that seems more second-nature to us. By this we mean that we must engage with the very notion of ‘the Sacred’ at a personal level and outline its main characteristics for us.
For example, is our idea of the sacred abstract or is it personified? Is it all-inclusive or does it have certain qualities and not others? Is it something spiritual, natural, cosmic, religious, material? What words, flavours, hues, or melodies would encompass a sense of the sacred for us? These are important questions to ponder when it comes to assessing the nature of the sacred for us. The idea is to internalize this concept as much as possible so as to embody whatever the result. We must not just understand the idea of the sacred logically with our heads, but rather, learn to feel it even before thoughts come to the forefront and thus become one with it.
Only when we can feel the presence of the sacred as much around us as within us can we act in sync with it; can we truly honor it. This is the heart of the notion of Yajna and, per extension, of anyone's real commitment and engagement with Yoga not just as a practice, but rather as a philosophy and a way of doing life.