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Yajna Hindu religious rite during which Vedic mantras seeking divine blessings are recited and burnt offerings thrown into the sacred fire. Through yajna the devotees ask for different boons: wealth and prosperity, destruction of enemies, victory in war, cure in sickness, and paradise. Yajna developed in Vedic times and gradually became firmly established in society. During this period yajna was the main religious rite, which is why a major Vedic literary tradition, called Brahmin literature, emerged around it. During yajna fire is essential. It is called the mouth of the gods and through fire, it is believed, all burnt offerings reach the gods. In other words, if an offering meant for a god is thrown into the fire while someone is reciting Vedic hymns, the fire will ensure that the particular god will receive the offering.

In Vedic yajna three types of fire were needed: domestic fire, ahbaniya (invokable) fire and daksinagni fire. After erecting the yajna hall, the three fires were installed on its three sides. On the west was placed the domestic fire, on the east the ahbaniya fire, and on the south the daksinagni. The domestic fire represented the family and was kept alive throughout the ceremony. The ahbaniya fire was for the gods and daksinagni was for one's ancestors.

Four family priests were needed for the yajna: hota, adhvaryu, udgata and brahma. The hota used to recite hymns from Rg Veda to invoke the yajna god, the adhvaryu used to perform rites relating to the burnt offering, the udgata used to sing hymns from Sama Veda, and brahma used to oversee the work of the three priests and advise them. Each one of these priests could have three assistant priests. Thus a total of 16 priests were employed. In some yajnas, all the 16 priests were needed.

There were five types of yajnas in Vedic times: hom, isti, pashu, soma and satrayaga. There were also special yajnas for securing kingdoms or overlordships such as rajasuya, vajapeya, ashvamedha and naramedha. Rajasuya and asvamedha yajnas were known even during the days of the ramayana and the mahabharata. Offerings included milk, milk products, and dishes made from pounded grain. In the pasu yajnas, goats, cows, buffaloes and horses were sacrificed. In naramedha yajna, human beings were generally not killed. Though during the yajna a man would be tied up, he would be set free after the rites were over. The priests who performed the yajna were given gold, cows, clothes or horses.

Vedic yajnas have now declined in importance. Their place has been taken over by jvanayajva, japayajva and namayajva, although on some special occasions like marriages and deaths, Vedic yajnas are still performed, albeit much less elaborately than in the past. [Paresh Chandra Mandal]