“For the devotees there is no need for performance of prescribed sacrifices because the very life of the devotee is a symbol of sacrifice.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.16.20 Purport)
In whatever system of spirituality you follow, there is some sort of prescribed sacrifice. Perhaps you have to attend a religious gathering once a week, abstain from specific behavior prior to the covenant of marriage, or hold some type of ritual on a regular basis. These are all done for purification purposes, which raises an interesting issue relating to the rest of the time spent on earth. There are accumulated negative reactions resulting from all types of behavior, so many that those behaviors which wash away the negative reactions get specially marked. They are known as sacrifices because of the stark difference in reaction. In one particular discipline, however, all work is a sacrifice, thus eliminating the need for the performance of the prescribed sacrifices.
What is the point to the rituals? Why should I have to sit in front of a fire and chant strange sounds? Why should I have to sit in a church and listen to someone go on and on? Why do I need to face a certain direction and pray a specific number of times each day? The aim of all these rituals and regulations is to change consciousness. The human being has the ability to shape its behavior, which in turn influences the mind. If you see something horrible and are negatively affected, the easiest way to fix the problem is to change what you see going forward.
As an example, if you watch television news quite frequently and are exposed to information about murders, rapes, robberies, and lying politicians, how will that not negatively affect your outlook on life? That negativity will then seep into your behavior, causing you to share an unpleasant demeanor with others. A way to solve this problem, of course, is to find specific positive activities throughout the day, i.e. counteract the effect of the negative with the positive.
The prescribed sacrifices can be thought of in this light. The pursuit for material perfection causes the accrual of so many sins, something which can go unnoticed. Lying is part of the business world, a way to gain a competitive advantage. Some lies are bigger than others, but at the end of the day you have to compete with your fellow man in the modern day industrial economy. Though lying comes with the territory of business, it goes against the general principles of piety, and because of this there are negative consequences that result. If you lie to someone else, you will have the same thing done to you in the future.
This only scratches the surface, as infidelity in relationships, excessive cheating in gambling and sports, killing innocent lives to satisfy the taste buds, and inebriation to cheat the senses result in so many other negative consequences. To counteract their cumulative effect, the shastras, or religious scriptures, recommend sacrifices, which also help to provide insulation from future negative reactions. You can take a specific medicine to avoid feeling discomfort prior to eating something that will likely bring you pain. In a similar manner, you can follow prescribed regulations to help pave the way towards future prosperity.
But the underlying aim is to change consciousness, to shift your thoughts towards purity. He who is full of knowledge, bliss and eternality will spread some of His qualities with His adherents. To become an adherent to such a personality is a difficult thing, as the glue that holds the fragile material existence together is the desire to become the wisest, strongest, wealthiest, most famous, most beautiful and most renounced. You will see people trying to excel in every one of these areas, but none of them can become perfect. Only Bhagavan possesses these opulences in full and at the same time. He never exhausts of these attributes either, so His position as the Supreme Personality of Godhead never changes.
If He already holds this title, what is the point in competing with Him or trying to imitate Him? Instead, service to Him will prove to be beneficial in all circumstances. The purpose of sitting in front of a fire sacrifice is to change consciousness to the point that you’ll eventually realize Bhagavan’s position and take up service to Him. The process occurs gradually, even progressing through many successive lifetimes. Perhaps while you’re observing a specific ceremony you’ll remember that higher powers, and not man alone, are responsible for the results of action. Then perhaps you’ll get more curious about who those higher powers are and from where they get their strength. With a mind more clearly focused on spiritual matters, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding sin and following the righteous path, which leads to the highest knowledge.
Those on the summit of spiritual practice take up direct service to Bhagavan, which is the more applicable name for the entity most of the world refers to as God. Since that service is so sublime, the requirement for prescribed sacrifices is eliminated. And why shouldn’t it be? The very life of a devotee is a sacrifice. Their only desire is to serve Bhagavan, to make Him happy. Though the Lord is complete in Himself, He still derives extra pleasure from the company of people who love Him. This shouldn’t be a foreign concept, as we too enjoy the company of people who have our interests at heart and who love us unconditionally. You ever wonder how you can love your parents so much, despite the fact that you may be closer with some of your friends? The good parents will love you no matter what, and that kind of love cannot be found anywhere else.
There are many examples, both past and present, to show why devotees don’t need to adhere to prescribed sacrifices. From the past, there was Prahlada Maharaja, who as a five-year old boy surrendered completely to Vishnu, which is another name for Bhagavan. Prahlada was too young to hold formal observances on his own, but while in the womb he heard about the glories of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, and its nine primary implementations [hearing, chanting, remembering, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering prayers, carrying out the orders of the Lord, becoming friends with Him, surrendering everything to Him]. Among these, hearing and chanting are foremost, as they are the easiest to adopt and the most effective in terms of altering consciousness.
Prahlada worshiped Vishnu by chanting and remembering, and in his spare time he would also preach to his young classmates about the meaning of life and how one should focus only on Vishnu-worship and let the rest of the pieces fall into place. Strange it was for this information to be coming from a young child who also was the son of a very powerful king. If anything, Prahlada should have been focused on the keys to administrative success, such as how to use different methods to win over an enemy.
But Prahlada had no concern for this; he only wanted to worship Vishnu. And based on what would happen later, we see that his worship was all that he needed. The holy name is what Prahlada held on to, chanting it as his only prescribed regulation, though there was no formal time allotted for it, nor was there a specific personal benefit the boy was seeking. Instead, just the pleasure of Vishnu, in signaling to Him awareness of His glorious attributes and depending exclusively on Him for protection, is what Prahlada sought through chanting. That dedication saved him from the many attacks of his father, who as an atheist didn’t want the boy to live any longer. The father couldn’t stand the devotion in his son, but Vishnu saved the boy during each attack, showing that specific sacrifice wasn’t required for a surrendered soul like Prahlada.
In more recent times, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada showed how a life can be sacrificed for the Supreme Lord. At an old age, Shrila Prabhupada left the comfortable and auspicious surroundings of Vrindavana for the fast-paced city-life of New York. His mission was to spread the glories of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, to all of the world, as was desired by his spiritual master and Lord Chaitanya previous to him.
As an ideal sannyasi, Shrila Prabhupada sacrificed body, mind and speech for Bhagavan. Hence there was no need for specific sacrifices to be adhered to, though the swami regularly chanted the maha-mantra and set an ideal example for his disciples to follow. His road to success was by no means easy, but the dedication to bhakti and the order of his spiritual master ensured that his life was both sinless and fruitful in terms of the purification of consciousness. That radiant devotional attitude spread to so many across the world, and it lives on to this day through his recorded lectures and published works.
No one sacrifices more than the surrendered soul, who lives like a sannyasi irrespective of their specific outward dress. The true renunciate finds whatever way they can to think of the Supreme Lord and spread His glories to others, either through specific preaching or setting an ideal example of behavior for others to follow. In this way the devotee is the symbol of sacrifice, and their presence provides the light of escape from the dark tunnel of nescience.
Around a raging fire chanting words you sit,
Or to a house of worship regularly you visit.
These procedures and others scriptures recommend,
So that to state of purity consciousness to send.
But for devotee in mechanical processes no need to indulge,
Through pure devotion, Supreme Master wisdom to divulge.
In physical stature, Prahlada to his father like a thimble,
Yet was unbreakable, of sacrifice he was a symbol.
Prabhupada also, to Krishna and guru his life did devote,
His message to drowning soul a life-rescuing boat.
Rituals okay, but why not worship Krishna direct?
In this way with all your time consciousness perfect.