“If the devotee offers something to the Lord, it acts for his own interest because whatever a devotee offers the Lord comes back in a quantity a million times greater than what was offered. One does not become a loser by giving to the Lord, but he becomes a gainer by millions of times.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 26)
Even those who are engaged in karmic activity, material life, have the ability to take small steps towards transcendental realization. Service to God isn’t reserved exclusively for those in the renounced order of life. Rather, the Vedas recommend gradual progression through the four ashramas (brahmacharya, grihastha, vanaprastha, sannyasa). One should abide by the prescribed duties of their particular order, performing them with detachment, all the while fostering a love for Krishna by performing devotional service. For those in the grihastha ashrama, householder life, one of the best ways to rapidly cultivate spiritual knowledge is to perform sacrifices in the home.
A householder is a family man. His or her duty is to engage in fruitive activity in order that they may support their family members. Karma means fruitive activity, or those actions taken with the desire of receiving fruits. These fruits can take many forms, but for the householder, they generally take the form of artha, or economic development. People spend up to forty hours per week at work so that they can provide food, shelter, and clothing for themselves and their family members. The Vedas don’t shun this lifestyle by any means. This stage of life is known as the grihastha ashrama, meaning it is still intended to be a spiritual institution. An ashrama is usually associated with a religious school or a place where spirituality is discussed and practiced. This means that married people have prescribed duties relating to religion as well. Service to Lord Krishna, or God, is the primary duty of people in any ashrama, but the actual type of service varies based on one’s understanding. The primary requirement for a householder is that they must perform yajna, or sacrifice. To sacrifice something means to voluntarily give up something or perform an activity for the benefit of something or someone else. In the case of yajna, the sacrifice is done for Lord Vishnu, who is Lord Krishna’s primary expansion.
“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.9)
For the householder, the items to be sacrificed are the fruits of their labor. This usually means money and food. God is the original proprietor of everything. We may cultivate a field, plant seeds, and tend to the resulting crops, but it is still God who deserves the credit for supplying us food. Plants are also considered life, and the source of life is God. For this reason, any food that we receive is actually a benediction from God. Keeping this in mind, the Vedas recommend that we offer nice food to Lord Krishna as a sacrifice. We offer food to the Lord as a way of giving thanks and also purifying ourselves. Food offered to Krishna’s deity in a sacrifice then becomes prasadam, meaning the Lord’s mercy.
“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.13)
This prasadam is unlike ordinary food, for it is karma free. If we cook food for our own sense gratification, then it is has karma associated with it, good or bad. The same goes for food prepared by others, especially non-devotees. Prasadam is completely spiritual since Lord Krishna has given His glance over it. One who eats prasadam immediately becomes connected with God, which is the ultimate objective in life. Prasadam also illustrates another larger point. Sacrifice means to voluntarily give up something. By giving something up, we become separated from that object, but in the case of prasadam, the opposite is true. We take ordinary food in the mode of goodness (fruits, flowers, grains, milk, water) and offer it to the Lord as a sacrifice. Krishna is so nice that He eats the food, but still leaves all of it for us. The food comes back to us in an augmented form. In mathematics, one minus one equals zero. This is an absolute law, but in the spiritual world, one minus one can equal two or greater. Prasadam is proof of this. We give up ordinary food in sacrifice, and God returns us something of even greater value. Therefore sacrificing for Lord Vishnu means we are gaining, not losing.
This fact was on full display many thousands of years ago in Maharaja Janaka’s kingdom of Mithila. A famous and pious king, Janaka one day was ploughing a field with the intention of performing a grand sacrifice. During previous ages, all governments were ruled by kshatriya kings. Along with the four ashramas of life, the Vedas also prescribe four societal divisions known as varnas (brahmana, kshatriya, vaishya, shudra). The kshatriyas are the warriors and they are responsible for providing protection to the rest of society. Since government exists primarily to provide protection, kshatriyas are the ideal candidates to administer government. Janaka was also a householder, thus the dharmas relating to both his varna and ashrama required him to perform sacrifices. A pious king would also regularly perform sacrifices to propitiate the demigods and the brahmanas of his kingdom.
While ploughing the field, Janaka found a little baby girl coming out of the earth. Holding her in his arms, an immediate bond was formed. Janaka took the girl in as his daughter and named her Sita since she was born of the earth. Janaka and his wife raised Sita to be the perfect woman and devotee. What they didn’t know was that Sita Devi was an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, the eternal consort of Lord Narayana, or Vishnu. She appeared on earth to aid Lord Rama, an incarnation of God, in His pastimes. When Sita reached an age appropriate for marriage, Janaka decided to hold a grand sacrifice where kings from around the world would come. Janaka had been given the illustrious bow belonging to Lord Shiva on a previous occasion. He decided that Sita would marry whichever king could lift this extremely heavy bow.
“Seeing that greatest of bows, which had the weight of a mountain, the kings offered their respects to it but then left on account of being unable to lift it. After a long time, this Rama, the highly effulgent descendant of the Raghu dynasty having truth for his prowess, arrived along with His younger brother Lakshmana and the sage Vishvamitra to see the sacrifice. (Sita Devi speaking to Anasuya, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, 118.43-44)
In the Vedic tradition, every important event occurs as part of a sacrifice, which usually has a fire associated with it. A marriage is performed in the presence of a fire sacrifice, with the actual ceremony taking many hours, sometimes even days. Sita Devi’s svayamvara, or self-choice ceremony, was no different in this respect. Many kings came to try to lift the bow, but also many others came simply to witness the sacrifice. During this time, Lord Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana were roaming the forest with the venerable sage Vishvamitra. Janaka, being ever pious, welcomed Vishvamitra with open arms. This is the proper etiquette for any householder. It is considered a great boon for a person to have a brahmana visit their home. Vishvamitra then introduced Rama and Lakshmana to Janaka which led to Rama attempting to lift the bow. Being God Himself, Rama lifted, strung, and broke the bow all in one fell swoop. Thus destiny was fulfilled with the union of Sita and Rama.
By holding the self-choice ceremony, Janaka appeared to be engaging in a material activity. In actuality, he was performing his duties as a father and a king with detachment. Since he didn’t know who Sita’s birth parents were, Janaka actually didn’t want to marry Sita off to anyone. Due to her spotless character, he didn’t think anyone was worthy of her hand in marriage. Nevertheless, as a great king, he knew that he would receive ridicule for not marrying off his daughter. Thus he decided on the bow lifting sacrifice as a compromise, for he didn’t think anyone would be able to lift it. By properly executing his duties as a king, father, and householder, Janaka was rewarded by receiving God as a son-in-law.
This proves without a doubt that sacrifices performed for Lord Vishnu only benefit us in the end. It should also be noted exactly how Rama was brought to the kingdom. Janaka met Rama and subsequently gained Him as a son-in-law only through the help of Vishvamitra, a great sage and devotee of God. The spiritual master, or pure devotee of Krishna, is the via-medium to God. As Krishna’s authorized representative, the devotee blesses those who are worthy of receiving God’s mercy. It took two great devotees, Sita Devi and Vishvamitra Muni, to bring Lord Rama to Janaka’s family.
Now King Janaka was a great transcendentalist and devotee himself. According to the scriptures, there are twelve great authorities on devotional service to Vishnu, and Janaka is one of them. Nevertheless, the king was a strict believer in the power of sacrifice. For people living in this age, it’s not possible to perform all the great yajnas of the past. For this reason, God has recommended only one sacrifice for this age: sankirtana-yajna. Sankirtana is the congregational chanting of the holy names of God. Any person, of any age, in any stage of life, can simply chant “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” and make spiritual progress.
Those in the grihastha ashrama should regularly perform sankirtana-yajna with their family, inviting friends, neighbors, and relatives to join them. If possible, they should also invite sadhus, or great devotees of Lord Krishna, to their homes as often as possible. Saintly people visiting the home means that Lord Krishna will come as well. If the Lord feels welcome in a home, He will stay there forever.