Vrata implies taking vow to accomplish pre-decided mission in spite of difficulties and obstacles. Repeated action aimed at perfection is called Sadhna. Undertaking Sadhna is called Tapa. It is one of the five Niyamas of Yoga. Sadhnas prepare a person bodily and mentally to negotiate challenging situations. The gamut of Vrata, Sadhna and Niyama is regarded as an effective tool for spiritual, mental and physical development.
Fasting (Vrata) is an important practice (sadhna) for exercising control over passions. It is undertaken primarily to keep the body in fit condition and to balance out excessive intakes. Fasting controls passion, emotions and controls the senses also. It is a great penance to purify mind and heart. Fasting overhauls the respiratory, circulatory, digestive and urinary systems. It destroys all the impurities of the body and all sorts of poisons; such as uric acid deposits. In no way God is concerned to keep record of fasts undergone by an individual.
Choice of Time
Fasting may be practiced on any day according to the choice and convenience of the individual, or on the days as suggested by customs of the society. Persons can select any days and frequency to practice fasting. Instead of continuous fasting for several days, Hindu sages have suggested certain days so that fasting could be spread over the year and easily practiced by all sections of the society. The uniform days for observing fast are advantageous because person required undertaking travel can also get fasting type food at all places.
During fasting some people abstain from taking one or more items such as salt, certain specific cereals, non-vegetarian foods, and various items classified as ‘Tamsik ’ or considered undesirable. Sometimes people do not take even water, but all such restrictions are left to the choice of the individual. It is simply a sort of training in self-discipline to overcome temptations. Excessive fasting is to be avoided, as it will lead to weakness. It must be practiced gradually. Complete fasting helps to control sleep. During fasting, as for as possible, one should avoid company and be alone. When breaking a fast, a heavy meal or food that is hard to digest should be avoided. Milk or some fruit juice is more beneficial.
Over the period, interesting folk tales have also got attached with various fasts to impress the importance and keeping people occupied with some activity. Most common occasions for fasting are as under:
Sheetla Vrat: Summers are generally accompanied with fly breeding and cause epidemics like small pox. As protective measure, people in northern part of India change the food intake. On the day of Sheetla fast only pre-cooked food, combined with cool items like yogurt, butter and milk is consumed. The items are generally fried, and sweet in taste to maintain requisite nourishment to the body.
The Eclipse: Fasting is recommended during solar and lunar eclipse. Preferably, food should have been taken and digested before the beginning of the eclipse. Alternately, kitchen should be disinfected of bacterial growth occurred during the eclipse, and food should be prepared fresh for consumption afterwards. Normally people clean their houses, vessels, and take a bath before they start cooking. Sages have further advised that pregnant women should not see the Sun or the Moon during the time of the eclipse. If they do the child born may have some kind of physical defect. He may be born deaf, dumb or blind or having some awkward marks on his skin. Householders are strictly forbidden from sexual intercourse during the eclipse, for the same reason. At this time one should take great care in avoiding bleeding. Even an earthworm has a poisonous effect when it bites during an eclipse.
Satya Narayana Vrata: It is generally observed on the full moon day, or on new moon days. It is a standard practice of one fast every month. It is therefore simple in ritual and least expensive on pocket, that everyone can afford. The observance of the Satya Narayana Vrata does not cost much. Some wheat flour and sugar will make up the Prasad for general distribution, while little curd and some fruit are required to substitute as diet. Regular practice of this fast is enough to keep fit. For mental satisfaction, the ritual of narrative can be completed through self-reading or by professional priest.
Ganagaur: This fast is more popular in Rajasthan. The period of fast is in the month of March April (Chaitra). During this period, harvesting is almost over. In ancient days, young warriors would return home after campaigning period, therefore married women observed this fast for the longevity and safe return of their husbands, while the unmarried for seeking prospective husband. From the first day of Chaitra month, the fasting period extends to eighteen days, during which women take one meal only after moon rise. On the last day procession of Shiva’s spouse Gauri is taken out, since the legend goes that she had also undertaken this fast for marrying Lord Shiva.
Karva Chauth: Karva Chauth falls during October November. This is a rare practice of love and affection that Hindu wives perform not for their personal benefit, but for the welfare of their husband. They refrain from taking food and water for the entire duration of the fast, which is broken on sighting the moon. It is really a tough fast. Nowhere else in the world such a penance is undertaken.
Ekadashi: Ekadashi refers to the eleventh day of a fortnight belonging to a lunar month. It occurs twice in a month, as there are two fortnight in a lunar month—the bright and the dark. No rice should be taken on Ekadashi days. As compared to Satyanarayan Vrat, this fast offers standardized schedule to people to observe two fasts a month.
Nirjala Ekadashi: Out of several Ekadashies during the year, the one falling during the month of June (Jyeshtha) has special significance. The fast on this Ekadashi is the toughest. People do not take even a sip of water, although summer is on its peak and days are long. Higher level of determination and self-discipline are necessary to undertake this fast. People donate, hand-held fans, earthen water pots and seasonal fruit melons to passersby and organize sweetened water drinking outlets. The spirit of Hindu community in self-discipline with helping attitude is visible in the length and breadth of the country during this fast.
Navaratras: Fasting for nine days is undertaken by devotees twice a year, once as ‘Rama-Navaratri’ in the month of April-May (Chaitra) to mark the beginning of summer: and then as ‘Durga Navaratri’ in September-October (Ashawin) to mark the beginning of winter. Both the occasions are two important junctions of climatic and solar influence, and bodies and minds of people undergo considerable change on account of the changes in weather.
For health point of view, diet routines are changed for a period of nine days by observing fasts, to prepare digestive system to acclamation with the changes in weather. Devotees abstain from non-vegetarian foods, and cereals. They use other substitutes to cater for balanced dieting, experimenting varieties in food habits.
The scientific aspect of this tradition has found acceptance even in the Middle East region also. People observe fast during the entire month of Ramadan, though the sanction for the same came from their holy book Quran.
Besides the above, some individuals voluntarily abstain from only one or two items like salted food, some particular grain or non-vegetarian food, to practice self-control. In substance all fastings are optional. Significant aspect of Hindu fasts is that no animal is sacrificed for breaking the fast. If any sacrifice was to be desired, the person would be suggested to donate his own blood at nearby blood bank for common good.
Keeping Quiet is most powerful and an effective tool to practice self-control and developing confidence. It may be combined with fasting also. During Maun-Vrata, an individual has to refrain from communicating with others in any form including gestures and writing. He is expected to spend time in introspection and meditation.
The purpose of restricting communications is to gain control over reactions caused by the activities of others. This training is most beneficial to diplomats, military persons and those dealing in matters related to security. The period and frequency of this resolve depends upon the choice, capability, and the aspirations of the practitioner.
There is really no intrinsic connection between fast and meditation, but it is better to give rest to digestive system while practicing meditation. This helps to control mind and will. There is a necessity to give the physiological system some rest once a while. It may be over-worked due to a little over-eating or in-discrimination in diet. Thus the irregularities unconsciously done during the past get rectified in one day.
Chand K Sharma
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