By Swami Harshananda
Ekādaśi literally means ‘the eleventh day.
For a devotee, ekādaśi and upavāsa (fasting) are synonymous. Fasting is an age old practice observed for either spiritual discipline or expiation for sins committed or for gaining self-control. When fasting reduces the sway of the flesh over the mind, it is much easier to control it and direct it towards the God, so that it can ‘live near him’. This is the literal meaning of the word ‘upavāsa’.
Ekādaśī can be observed as a spiritual discipline or as a ‘vrata’ with all the concomitant rules. It cane be observed in two manners:
- Nitya - compulsory
- Kāmya - motivated by desires
Śukla ekādaśīs are observed compulsorily. When the fast is kept on both the ekādaśīs, it is known as kāmya-vrata.
Ekādaśī is also called “Harivāsara’ and only worship of Viṣṇu has been prescribed. It is compulsory for the Vaiṣṇavas. It is compulsory for the Śaivas to keep fast on the Māsaśivarātri day. The fast of ekādaśī might have concurred from this purview.
Rules and Regulations
Whenever it is undertaken as a vrata, a devout should observe:
- Saṅkalpa - resolve
- Worship of Viṣṇu and jāgaraṇa - keeping vigil in the night.
Rules as per Purāṇas and Dharmaśāstras
The purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras prohibit the partaking of cooked food on ekādaśī days. Still there are many concessions to the general human weakness towards food.
- If one eats only once in the day, around noon, it is called ‘ekabhukta’.
- If one eats only in the night, it is ‘nakta’.
- If the food is taken once a day, only when it is got by chance, without begging for it, it is ‘ayācita.’
The last is applicable only to prāyaścittas or expiations for sins.
Śayanī & Prabodhini Ekādaśī
Aṣāḍha śukla ekādaśī is called ‘Śayanī’ ekādaśī. Kārttika śukla ekādaśi is called ‘Prabodhini’ ekādaśī. They are important as Viṣṇu is supposed to sleep on the Śayanī day and wake up on the Prabodhini day. Śayanī is also called ‘Prathamaikādaśi. A very big festival is held at Phaṇḍarāpur of Maharashtra on this day. Devotees come from different parts and assemble in thousands to do bhajans (devotional singing).
The ekādaśī of Mārgaśira-śukla-pakṣa is observed as Gītā Jayantī. On this day Śrī Kṛṣṇa taught the Bhagavadgītā to Arjuna on the battle-field of Kurukṣetra, before the Mahābhārata war. Apart from fasting and worship of the Gītācārya Kṛṣṇa, a ceremonial chanting of the text and some times it's discourses are expounded.
The Pauṣa-śukla-ekādaśī is well- known as Vaikuṇṭha-ekādaśī. On this day, thousands of people gather in Viṣṇu temples. One of the main doors called ‘Vaikuṇṭha-dvāra’ which is normally kept closed throughout the year, is kept open on this day. The devotees who pass through this door for the darśan of the Lord are believed to go to Vaikuṇṭha, the abode of Viṣṇu.
It is said that, long back, the devotee Rukmāñgada who was being forced by an ogress to break his ekādaśī fast against the norms of the vrata, was saved by Viṣṇu and taken to Vaikuṇṭha on this day. Hence it is named so. There is a very big festival on this day at the Raṅganātha temple of Śrīraṅgam in Tamil Nadu. It continues for 21 days.
- Upa means near, vāsa means living.
- Ekādaśī means eleventh day in both halves of the lunar month, śuklapakṣa and kṛṣṇapakṣa.
- Harivāsara means Hari’s or Viṣṇu’s day.
- Vaiṣṇavas are those belonging to the Viṣṇu sect.
- Māsaśivarātri days fall on caturdaśī of kṛṣṇapakṣa in every month.
- Devotees coming on this day are called Vārkarīs.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore