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Chapter 19: Rituals, Fire and Knowledge

You know when Yuri Gagarin returned from his voyage into space - he was the first man to enter outer space - the whole world joined to celebrate the event. Overnight Gagarin became world renowned; his name reached the farthest corners of the earth. Hundreds of thousands of newborn babies all over the world were named after him. It takes a lifetime to attain to the fame which this first astronaut achieved in no time, because he orbited the earth. It was a great event, an epochal event. Wherever Gagarin went, people went mad to receive him; wherever he went, millions thronged to see him. Hundreds of people lost their lives in stampedes caused by his visit. Why this madness?

The advent of the new fills man’s heart with delight and joy, and he always celebrates the occasion with great fanfare. As we celebrate the birth of a child with song, music and feasting, so we welcome everything new and rejoice over it. That is how it should be. It will be a sad day when we cease to rejoice over the new; it will mean the death of all that is meaningful and vital in our life.

I say all this to explain to you how yajna came into being and how it became so significant in our life. Yajna was our way of celebrating the discovery of fire; we danced around it with abandon and offered to it every good thing we had.

Our ancestors who initiated these sacrificial rituals did not have much to give. They had wheat and they made an offering of it to the fire. They had somras, the best wine of their times, and they offered it to the fire. They sacrificed even their best cows to greet this god who had come to transform their life so radically. And everything was so impromptu and spontaneous. It was an outpouring of a simple, innocent and unsophisticated heart-mind that our people had then. They were a rural people - cities had yet to come into being - who lacked sophistication.

By the time of Krishna and the Gita, civilization had made great strides - thanks to fire. And so fire became a household thing, the extraordinary became ordinary. Now it seemed meaningless to dance around fire and make sacrificial offerings to it. In the meantime thousands of people had opposed it. Fire was no longer taken as the greatest blessing that it was when it was first discovered. So Krishna grafted a new word onto the old stem of yajna and called it jnan-yajna or the ritual of knowledge. A new word, jnan or knowledge was added to the old word, yajna or ritual.

Vinoba Bhave is now doing the same thing, he has started a bhoodan yajna, popularly known as the Land-gift Movement. The ancient word yajna has been yoked to a socio-political concept known as bhoodan or land-gift.

The society in which Krishna was born was a highly developed and sophisticated society. Now dancing around fire looked so primitive and backward. So Krishna thought of igniting the fire of knowledge, which is the last luxury of a society that comes to the pinnacle of material prosperity. But he used an old word, because a word to be a word has to be old. Krishna said, “If we want to dance we will dance around the fire of knowledge. If we have to offer something to the sacrificial fire we will offer ourselves in place of grains and wines and cows.”

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