Firt published on Sulekha, April 20 2005
In everyone’s life there are times that we need some additional support, some extra spiritual energy to achieve our goals. Whether it is to get that better job, or to achieve those few extra points at the exam, or to obtain the breakthrough to success. There are always moments we need the resource of God’s grace in the day-to-day running of our lives. Many of us, of course pray and worship to invoke divine blessings. But there is in the spiritual tradition, a more active and involved way to obtain this little bit of additional spiritual energy to move ahead towards our success. This is the practice of voluntary religious observance or vow, called vrata in Sanskrit.Vratas offer various ways to relate and connect one’s self with the Divine.
When we put into practice a vow, we generate spiritual energy within ourselves, because of the application of dedication and concentration. And we also solicit the blessing of the divine energy because we show through our commitment we are worthy, and truly in need of divine support.
In the distant past there were many rishis or sages among our ancestors. From what they saw in their inner vision they composed and eventually wrote down the doctrine. This doctrine has been handed down through the generations, and it is the spiritual framework that has shaped the ancient Indian civilization. It is the energy that connects us with our past, through the present and towards the future. And it connects us with one another. Although this teaching has taken various forms throughout human history, and has seemingly been divided into various branches, it is in truth a unified whole that can function as a nearly infinite source from which humanity can draw wisdom and knowledge. This knowledge can lead us to enlightened consciousness on the one hand, and it also helps us overcome material struggles and difficulties in our daily lives on the other.
The purpose of this article is to focus on one specific aspect of this teaching that is a well established but little understood practice in the various Indian traditions, the concept of vrata; vow or voluntary spiritual observance. What it is, what its aims and purposes are, why and how it is practiced… And how it works. Through what way, through which cosmic principle, the performance of spiritual vows is effective. And to introduce several different forms of vows that one can practice for the achievement of various aims and purposes.
The Sanskrit word vrata literally means will, conduct or rule. It originates in the verb-root ‘vr’ — which has as one meaning – ‘to solicit anything, to ask or request’. In general it is used to mean a spiritual vow or practice, usually performed for the achievement of a particular goal. A vow can be defined as a sincere promise or pledge committing the individual to the performance of a specified act or to behave in a certain way. There are many types of vows.
Within the Indian traditions vows are generally undertaken with two goals in mind. On the one hand as a form of asceticism the performance of vows is part of the spiritual path that leads us to moksha or enlightenment. On the other hand the spiritual energy that is generated from the performance of a vow can be used to accomplish certain worldly or material goals. Vratas that involve abstinence of food or the application of particular diets are also used for the promotion of good health.
A vow or vrata can be taken during a religious festival, or for the duration of a pilgrimage, or for a specific timeframe. It may be undertaken to pursue some goal in life. Besides being directed towards spiritual attainment this may also include material well-being or success in business, love, or a good job. They are applied following ritually significant and meaningful patterns, depending on which deity is addressed, which goal is pursued, or on a person’s situation in life. These have been designed in ancient times by the rishis or seers among our ancestors through their vision.
When a vow is applied towards the achievement of moksha, the spiritual aim focuses on the control of the physical body as well as of the emotions and the mind. As well as to the invocation of divine grace. This leads eventually to the ultimate goal of unconditioned consciousness and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, in union with the Transcendent Divine. For this purpose vows are related to tapas, ascetic practices, and it is a major aspect of the religious practices of sadhus and sanyasis.
The worldly goals we can reach through the performance of vows are achieved by addressing certain deities and other divine powers. We may ask how and why does the performance of a vow help us to achieve such spiritual and material goals? When we abstain from something that gives us pleasure, or which we normally need for the sustenance of life, such as food, sleep, or sex, we have to commit and discipline ourselves towards that goal. We have to forfeit and give up something pleasant or comfortable in order to obtain something else we are longing for or in need of. And when we perform such penance, through the discipline and the practice, we are showing to the Divine our depth, quality, involvement, and our need. It is as it were that one has to prove oneself before the Divine Consciousness. The practice of such discipline and commitment also develops our own consciousness and our spiritual awareness.
This article concentrates on vows relating to food and eating. Fasting, abstinence of specific food items, or eating certain foods in specific patterns is one of the main approaches that leads to the attainment of punyam or spiritual merit, which is then ‘used’ to achieve the desired goal. Besides being part of the tapas of ascetics, many ordinary people also fast on specific days during the year, either by taking no food at all or by restricting their diet. To give some examples, Vaishnavas fast on the eleventh day of each half of the lunar month (ekadasi).Shaivas fast for six days in Tula Masam (October – November) from the day after the New Moon. Before and during rituals, like sacrifices, but also before or for the duration of a pilgrimage, fasting and abstinence of certain food-items is part of Hindu tradition.
Vows follow many diverse patterns, depending on which deity is beseeched for blessings, or the nature of the objective, the wish that the devotee wants to see fulfilled. It can consist of not eating, eating less, eating only certain substances, or avoiding certain substances altogether. The choice of the days on which, or the periods during which the vow is performed is regulated by the ritual calendar.
The performance of vrata has three main branches. The first one is called nitya, which means permanent or always. Persons undertaking this type of vow are usually seeking the grace and blessings of a particular divinity toward a particular wish or desire, such as a good job, success at exams or business, a good marriage, or a baby. An individual can sometimes abstain from certain foods permanently. Or fast completely during one day of the week or month.
The second form of vrata is called naimittika, which means occasioned by some particular cause. It pertains to when a person experiences remorse or feels repentance in connection with a transgression that has happened. One can practice a vow in order to be relieved from the karmic consequences of a sin. Vrata can also be practiced to seek relief from a curse.
The third type of vow is called kaamya vrata, which means a vow for what one desires. This form of vow is performed in order to achieve property, popularity, wealth and health. An example of this kind of vow is called Somavrata, which involves complete abstention of food on Mondays. Another example of this type of vow is fasting on the thirteenth day of the lunar cycle, called Pradosha vrata.
In the general practice of Hinduism, fasting and abstinence are not clearly distinguishable and are performed under the general concept of vrata. The most common form of abstinence practiced by communities as a whole is, of course, vegetarianism. The consumption of substances which entail the killing of a living animal, and this includes in principle also eggs, is considered to create de-merit, which has to be avoided by people belonging to those communities. Many others also practice vegetarianism as a spiritual practice by personal choice, either all the time, or for instance one day a week.
Certain other substances are also avoided when a person performs a vow, because they are known to stimulate the senses, and therefore are contrary to the goal of control over the body and the senses. In particular onions and garlic are avoided. This restriction is followed all the time by some groups or individuals; for others only on certain occasions, which call for a stricter diet — especially on those days that are set aside for rituals for the ancestors… such as the day of the New Moon, onions and garlic are forbidden.
The ritual calendar plays an essential role in the design of the pattern that determines the form of the vow. Three categories are especially relevant for the directions of the performance ofvrata. These are vara or the days of the week; tithi or the phases of the Moon; and nakshatraor the lunar mansions.
Thus the days of the week are ruled by the planetary deities, and are also indirectly related to the main deities of Hinduism. People may choose to fast, or abstain from certain substances like meat or fish, or also onions and garlic, on the day dedicated to the deity they are addressing with their vow.
Sunday, Ravivara, is ruled by Surya, the sun, and is dedicated to the achievement of victory, for instance in disputes and court-cases, but also for starting Vedic studies or a journey.
Monday, Somavara, is devoted to Chandra, the moon, and to Shiva. Fasting on Monday is directed to all general spiritual purposes.
Tuesday, Mangalavara, is associated with Mangala or Mars, and Kartikeya, Shiva’s son and the god of war as well as the presiding deity and ruler of the planet Mars. Fasting on Tuesday is directed toward victory, childbirth, and good health.
Wednesday, Budhavara, belongs to Budha or Mercury. It is said that fasting on this day doubles the effort. It is mostly dedicated towards education and success in business.
Thursday, Brhaspativara, is dedicated to Guru or Jupiter, ruler over education and scholarship.
Friday, Shukravara, is ruled by Shukra or Venus. Fasting on this day is dedicated to prosperity, marriage and a harmonious family life.
Saturday, Shanivara, is connected with Shanishvara or Saturn. It is considered an inauspicious day and fasting on Saturday will give one the blessings of Saturn and longevity.
Tithi or the phases of the moon, is another aspect that is important to the ritual calendar. One pattern of fasting and abstinence, which relates to the moon phases starts on new moon day, when the practitioner eats 14 handfuls of food. Then every day after that, he or she eats one handful less, until on the day of the full moon they eat nothing at all. During the waning moon they eat again one handful more each day, until the vow is completed on the next new moon day, when again 14 handfuls of food are eaten.
Generally all kinds of vows of fasting and abstinence are practiced on the occasion of the many religious festivals celebrated during the course of the year, and also on the occasion of the Hindu rites, which are related to specific stages in life, such as birth, name-giving, first eating of solid food, puberty, the beginning of Vedic studies, marriage and cremation.
On the other hand we see that certain foods are especially dedicated to certain deities. Such foods are regularly prepared at home and offered to the deity as part of certain festivals or during home worship, after which they are enjoyed by those present, and often also sent to relatives and friends. These special foods are also prepared and offered as part of the daily temple worship. After being offered to the deity they are distributed as prasada or sanctified food among the worshippers and visitors. Examples of such special food are rice prepared with black pepper and cumin fried in clarified butter or ghee, which is dedicated to Shiva; laddu or sweet balls for Krishna and Ganesha; or rice prepared with tamarind, which is specially offered to Vishnu.
A person can also make a vow in connection with a certain deity to eat only the deity’s special food for a period of time. Some examples of this kind of vrata are for instance, drinking only milk for 21 days, or eating only the leaves of the bilva and banyan trees, after dipping them in water, a vow dedicated to Shiva. A fasting vow that is dedicated to Ganesha is practiced from the day after the new moon in the month of Karthikai (October – November), through to the 6th day of the waxing moon in the month of Margazi (November – December), which means complete fasting for three weeks. Those who follow this vow are given a yellow thread bound around their wrist, a rakshabandha or protection binding; on the right wrist for men, on the left for women. On the concluding day they give a donation of money to a priest as well as food, and then eat again themselves. A vow for Devi or the goddess is for instance, complete fasting on Fridays in the month of Chitra. During the day the practitioner meditates on the Goddess. He or she concludes by offering jaggery, which is raw sugar from sugarcane. After this worship the person eats again. A vow dedicated to Vishnu is called Vaikuntha ekadasi, and involves complete fasting on the 11th day of the waxing and waning moon.
One other place where fasting and diet are given great importance within the many traditions and practices of Hinduism is in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine. According to these traditional healing methods fasting is considered one of the greatest medicines. ‘Langhana paramam ausadam’, fasting is a great medicine. Both apply fasting for the cleansing and balancing of the physical body, as well as the emotions and the mind. Here three kinds of fasting are distinguished: purification fasts to clean the system; healing fasts to overcome a specific disorder; and austerity fasts, undertaken to deny the bodily urges on the way towards liberation from the cycle of rebirths.
Diets are applied for the restoration of the balance between the three doshas or humors in the body.
The practice of vratas is not only fit for the ascetics, or for other time periods or yugas. It is just as applicable in the fast modern world as it was in the ancient time. It is useful and fitting for family people, youngsters, students and others, to discipline their emotions and nurture their life-aims, and to generate both physical and inner spiritual energy and discipline to attain their goal — making life harmonious and peaceful, and manifesting success. It is easily applicable and accessible to anyone and at almost any age, as it is not so much about not eating only, but also about what you eat and how you eat… about the consciousness of body and spirit.
© Raja Deekshitar., all rights reserved.