Usually, when a person becomes interested in pujas and yagyas it is because there is some difficulty in their life that needs to be softened, or a problem to be resolved, or something to be acquired. How can these ancient religious rituals help, particularly with the complexities of modern day life?
Let's start with the assumption that the universe is an orderly place. Science is based on this observation. For purposes of this discussion, let's assume that this orderliness extends to include the events of our life as well. This is the concept of karma. With that in mind, our life as we experience it today, is the cumulative result of everything we have done in the past. We own the good and we own the bad; there are no accidents. We are completely responsible for what we do.
The universe is a just place. It may be a scary thought given some of what goes on in the world, but could the universe be unfair and still be a balanced place? Does this assumption of balance reduce life to mere destiny and an endless cycle of karmic retribution? No. Vedic philosophy sees karma as a law or tool in support of the evolution of the soul in its journey from ignorance to enlightenment; from solitary individual existence to union with the divine.
The events we experience are intended to teach us something; to lead us forward on the long path to divinity and enlightenment. From a Vedic perspective "retribution" doesn't enter into the picture. The bad events that happen to us are merely to let us experience the reverse of what we have caused others to experience. Children understand this concept rather well. One child hits another, and the other hits back saying "You see how that feels!" An over simplification? Perhaps, but you get the point.
Have you ever interacted with a person who was exceptionally skilled at their craft? Perhaps it was a computer programmer, a mechanic, a carpenter, a teacher, etc. Did you ever notice how they could look at a problem or situation and just see what was wrong and what needed to be done to set things right? Ultimately it is a matter of "seeing" with the mind's eye. At a glance they "see" the reality of the situation and how to fix it.
Like that, the ancient Vedic seers (or rishi's) could "see" the nature of karma and how it affects the individual and also what could be done about it. Over time a body of techniques were developed to help an individual improve his situation in life. This is not by avoiding karma, but rather by performing specific spiritual practices so that the lessons karma deilvers could be learned more directly and easily. More on this later...
To these rishis the universe was made entirely of sound or vibration. A view that is not in conflict with how a modern scientist would see the universe from a sub-atomic level. But unlike a scientist, the rishis saw the universe as fully connected to the divine and indeed, an expression of the divine. Ignorance of this universal divinity was seen as the source of all problems. Their solution was to increase the attunement of the indiviudal to his ultimate divine status so problems will simply resolve themselves just as darkness disappears in the presence of light.
In their expanded vision of human life, the rishis saw an individual not just as flesh and bones animated by consciousness. Rather, they started with universal consciousness and explained how it becomes concentrated into a soul, and how that soul lives lifetime after lifetime; experiencing action and reaction, until it evolves to reconnect with its own divine nature.
Between the two extremes of universal source and individual manifestation, lie the divine administrators who make sure the universe runs according to plan. The Vedas, Puranas, and all the other Hindu religious works give the details of hundreds and thousands of deities and what they do. Central to the Vedic conception of life, is the inter-relatedness of deity and human. To the rishis we co-exist in a state of divine symbiosis. The gods and goddesses are there to help us; we need only ask. In that sense yagya is a uniquely powerful form of asking for divine assistance.
The rishis with their clarity of vision, saw that you could connect yourself with that level of creation, and by doing so, draw into your own life their power and blessings. These procedures utilize a combination of sanskrit mantras, various ingredients (flowers, fruit, etc), and specific actions performed at specific times and in specific ways. Generically these are called "yagyas" (alternatively spelled yajnas).
Within that broad definition there are different types; "homam" in which the offerings are made into a fire, abishekam in which the offerings are liquid and poured over the deity, and pujas in which the offerings are simply placed at the feet of the deity.
In every case, at the basis of yagyas are Sanskrit Mantras. As a language, sanskrit is unique in that the sound (nama) or name of something is intimately and precisely related to the form or reality of the object (rupa). So that (for example) when we chant the 108 names of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles, we cause our own awareness to vibrate with those qualities. In so doing we shake off some of our ignorance as we absorb some of his divinity. As our supply of "Ganesha awareness" increases, our supply of "absence of Ganesha" or problems decreases. It is like a balance of light and dark.
With this principle in mind, the rishis saw that there were ways to magnify or concentrate this effect through a balance or combination of individual efforts (mediation, japa, service, etc) with more complex procedures (yagyas) performed by expert Hindu priests.
Yagyas work by establishing a sort of contact with the deities who manage different aspects of creation, and ultimately the universal source of all creation. By adding light through this contact, we automatically remove darkness in the form of the problems we face day by day. Doing so is no simple matter; a traditional Hindu priest starts his training at 10 and is just considered minimally qualified when he completed his studies at the age of 25. Most priests come from a long family tradition where at least 1 son in each generation has been a priest. In fact, the chief priest at the Malibu temple where we conduct most of our yagya events is now the 16th generation of his family to be a priest.
Can these special rituals change our karma and therefore our future? Yes, certainly. If you agree that the purpose of a life or a sequence of lives is to lead the individual to the experience of divinity, then performance of yagyas on your behalf is like a shortcut. How often have we seen some celebrity go through years of bad behavior only to finally come to his senses. Usually such a turnaround is accompanied by exclamations of how they have adopted a new "spiritual" outlook on life. Well, perhaps it took all that turmoil for them to come to the appropriate conclusion. How often in our own lives does it take a period of truly difficult problems to drive us forward on our spiritual pursuit. It is almost as if we are presented with problem after problem in an infinite variety almost as proof that there is no solution other than an appeal to divinity.
In this way the events of our lives; the living out of our karma, drives us forward willingly, or not, on our spiritual path. The study of Hindu astrology allows one to see and predict the unfoldment of each life as a series of periods or events, step by step as each planet delivers its influence. After understanding that, it is not too much of a stretch to see this unfoldment spreading out in a very systematic manner over a series of lives in a step-by-step process.
So, think of karma as being the educator of the soul and your "destiny" in this life like a course of study laid out before you. But it is all conditional. You you control how long it will take you to learn your lessons and to progress onward. Karma is very flexible in that way. Let's say you choose (and "choose" is an important word here) to participate in yagyas; you have taken a spiritual step forward. So what purpose with problems serve if you have already taken that step forward towards spirituality?
In that sense the priests always talk about how karmas are burned up in the fires of the yagya. All the life experiences of roubles and problems are no longer needed to drive you towards spirituality. So they go away. It is generally a very noticable result of yagyas. Over time, one develops this sense of transformation and "progress".
It is difficult to explain yagyas simply so that they doesn't sound hopelessly "New Age" and full of easy-out cures and it would take the fullness of a rishi's vision to judge the total effects of yagyas But the experience of those who have participated in this group over the past 3+ years has been that the roughness of life is less, even complex problems find solutions, and a sense of "spiritual momentum" develops.
Ultimately the power of a yagya is that we evolve, on our own terms and in our own uniquely individual way, towards a deep spiritual satisfaction.
Vedic Quotations on Yagyas
The Vedas and associated literature are full of reference to the value of yagya (sacrifice) and most enthusiastically the fire rituals called "homam". Some of the most concise passages related to the power and benefits that come from yagyas are in the Bhagavad Gita. A few of them follow:
Prajapati (the creator), when he made both sacrifice and men,
said, "by this you shall multiply;
this shall be to you like a bounteous cow,
ever yielding your desires."
With sacrifice nourish the Gods; in return
they will nourish you also.
In partnership with them you will attain
the highest good.
Nourished by your sacrifice, the Gods will grant you
your hearts desires.
what a thief is he who enjoys their gifts
but gives nothing in return!
From food beings come into being, while food
is produced from rain;
rain from sacrifice comes into being
and sacrifice from works.
Know Brahman to be the origin of all action,
itself sprung from the Imperishable.
thus Brahman the all-pervading is supported
forever by sacrifice.
-Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, verses 10 -15
Desiring success, they sacrifice to the Gods
with ritual actions,
for from such actions success comes quickly
in the world of men.
Liberation achieved, attachments gone,
with a mind fixed on knowledge,
man's whole action becomes a sacrifice, his deeds
melt entirely away.
Brahman is all: the act of offering,
the offerer, and the fire!
He who concentrates on Brahman in all his actions
shall surely reach Brahman
-Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, verses 12, 23, 24
Whoever offers to me with devotion and purity of heart
a leaf, flower, fruit, or water -- that offering of love
I accept with joy
-Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 9, verse 26
Judging Yagya Results
Whenever anyone considers participating in a yagya, there is always the question "Will it work for me?" Naturally one tends to looks to others to see if it has worked for them as well. Particularly in the case of the Puja.net yagyas all participation has come about on the basis of word-of-mouth.
But the danger in looking to the results that others have experienced is that it becomes more likely that you will form expectations that may or may not be realistic. And can easily lead to disappointment...even if the yagyas are working for you.
For example, let's say I know about someone who sponsored Lakshmi yagyas so they could acquire a nice red Ferrari. And let's say that it worked...he got the Ferrari. Does that mean that I can sponsor the same yagyas and obtain the same red Ferrari?
Sadly, no. Yagyas are a very personal experience. Your experiences are exactly that...yours. And the experiences of other individuals may or may not be similar, regardless of how much you may desire them to be. It all has to do with your karmas, particularly as shown in your jyotish chart. All yagyas reduce obstacles, improve the good things in life and generally smooth our life experiences. But the specifics are very very difficult to predict.
We always point out to people that our job and our promise is that we will organize the best, most traditional yagyas possible and that they will be performed by the most highly trained priests available to us. The results, experiences, and effectiveness of the yagya is really a matter between you and a higher power.
Please enjoy the following quotations from recent participants in our yagyas.