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Gandhi observing fast of silence

The Hindu calendar is as full of fasts as festivals, with fasting being obligatory on most festivals. A fast can be total and stringent or of a limited nature. for instance a fast can prohibit the consumption of certain cereals, milk and its products, types of vegetables, particularly onion and garlic and other root vegetables and recommend  consumption of alterante edibles. Fasts can also include other prohibitions, like abstaining from drinking water,  avoiding eating consuming meat,abjuring violence, impurity, untruthfulness, sleep, gambling and sex, and observing silence.  Milder fasts allow eating of fruits and drinking water and milk. 

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The Buddha fasting before enlightenment – Gandhara sculpture

Fasts are undertaken primarily for spiritual evolution but also aim particularly to absolve one of sins committed, to overcome astrological afflictions, alleviate suffering and disease, achieve material well being, for the peace of deceased ancestors and to secure a place for oneself in divine spheres, Devloks. in the afterlife- that is, to attain the goals of Arth ( wealth and material wellbeing), Kama ( pleasure and love), Dharma ( religious and moral duties) and Moksha ( liberation and spiritual release and evolution, the ultimate aim of life). different fasts are directed at propitiating particular deities. Fasts are also undertaken during festivals

 

THE TITHI

Fasts generally fall into categories depending on the Tithis ( Lunar Days). An earlier post dwelt at length on this complex concept, which define the days of the Hindu lunar month. In a brief review let us try and grasp the import of the Tithi. The Tithi is a unique creation of the Indian mind based less on what is visible and more on calculation. India’s is perhaps the only civilization whose mentors conceived of recording the passage of time from day to day by relying on a formula of calculation rather than the visible movements of heavenly bodies. Most cultures  in antiquity conceived of days commensurate with the presence of the Sun in the sky and nights with its absence or again the visible phases of the Moon in the night sky. Not so the unique Indian sages and astrologers. For them the Tithi, the Indian equivalent of a day and a night was in fact a matter of calculating the difference in the longitudes of the Sun and the Moon. Quite an abstract way of defining the passage of days but one that would satisfy their  need for accuracy in recording the passage of time. There is a practical logic behind the exercise to define the passage of days in the month. Indian sages and astrologers saw that the Sun and the Moon would pass around the earth through 360 degrees. When the longitudes of the Sun and Moon were coterminous, it was a No-Moon and they fixed this Tithi as Amavasya ( noting that the difference in the longitudes was zero). When the longitudes of the Sun and the Moon placed them at 180 degrees apart, it was Full-Moon and they called the Tithi Purnima ( noting that the difference in longitudes was 180 degrees). They also noted that in between the two there would be 15 segments of 12 degrees on either side, each constituting a Tithi. Thus after Amavasya as the Moon’s longitude moved 12 degrees away from the Sun’s, the first Tithi  of Shukla Paksh ( ascendant phase of Moon) would commence and last till the Moon moved another 12 degrees further out. Of course meantime the Sun’s longitude would also have moved, though at a much slower pace. The second Tithi would commence when the Moon’s longitude was another 12 degrees away from where the Sun’s longitude had now moved to. Thus they devised the formula of subtracting the actual longitudinal positions of the Sun and the Moon and dividing the balance by 12 to arrive at the Tithi in either of the two phases. Furthermore, the Moon generally takes 2 hour to move a degree and it generally traverses 12 degrees in 24 hours, which is also the approximate time taken from one Sunrise to another, therefore an appropriate formula to measure the passing of days.

 

EKADASHI ( Eleventh  Tithi )

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The most popular fasts are those falling on Ekadahsis, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The legend goes that he was in a slumber in a cave after a furious battle with a demon. The demon pursued him there and sought to slay him as he slept. A glorious power in the form of a goddess then arose from the slumbering Vishnu’s being and slayed the impertinent evil force. That goddess is worshiped on Ekadashis as the benign force that removes all obstacles. The fast is undertaken to purify the mind, strengthen faith, remove obstacles. The demon represents our negativity which accost us as we ‘slumber’ unaware that we are becoming subject to temptations. Thus the Putrada Ekadashi fast helps in bringing forth male progeny, the Papkusha Ekadashi fast requires one to remain silent, cleansing the mind and washing away sins, the Kamada Ekadashi fast ends all sorrows and so on – different Ekadashis for different gains arrive once each month.

TRIYODASHI  ( Thireenth Tithi )

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The other common and recurring fasts are called Pradosh (ending afflictions), falling on Triyodashis dedicated to Lord Shiva. The fast is observed after an early morning bath with prayers to Lord Shiva and recitation of mantras and ritualistic placement of lamps in eight directions. Triyodashis falling on Saturdays are observed for the birth of a son, Mondays for relief from debt, Fridays for gaining wealth, fortune and a good spouse, Sundays for a long life. According to legend on Triyodashis the gods assemble at Mount Kailash the abode of Lord Shiva. Sarasvati the goddess of learning and fine arts plays on a Veena, Brahma the creator of the world plays on the cymbols, Vishnu the sustainer on a Mridangam and a galaxy of gods join Lord Shiva the god of gods in a dance. Theircombined blessings fall upon the fasting devotee.Those engaging in a fast, if poor are blessed with riches, if ignorant gain knowledge, if without issue with a son, wives do not get widowed, widows become spiritually enlightened and longevity is ensured.

2DHANTERAS KE MAUKA SE  BARTAN KI DOOKAN SAZIThe fast of Dhanteras (Wealth – Thirteenth) also falls on a Triodashi in the month of Kartik (October-November), waning-half, is dedicated to Yamaraj, Lord of death. On this day every Hindu housewife fervently goes shopping to bring home a metal utensil. Shopkeepers have a field day displaying pots ans pans and all manner of kithen utensils, shining bright on stands right into the streets. What is actually recommended is to bring home a silver utensil but the token purchase of a metal one is accepted. download (1)At the entrance of the home grain should be placed in a container as an offering to Lord Yama with a lamp facing south, his direction, to the recitation of Mantras. A dip in the Yamuna river is also highly recommended since Yamuna is the sister of the dark lord. The story (Katha) goes that once Yama asked his attendants what they disliked most about their job. Prompt came the protests that they felt deep remorse at snatching away souls of the young, particularly of one newly wed who had hardly a chance to taste the pleasures that mortal life had to offer. They pleaded with him to be told how such premature deaths could be averted. Lord Yama then proclaimed that those who fasted and lit a lamp in his honour on Dhanteras would not suffer such a plight. however most people just buy the utensil in the belief that this would bless them with riches but the real purport of the fast is to ensure that there are no premature deaths in the family.

CHATURTHI  (Fourth Tithi)

7175971_f496Yet another popular and recurring fast is the Chaturthi. Its lord is Ganesh, the elephant headed deity, remover of all afflictions and obstacles. according to scriptures the Chaturthi is in fact the mother of all Tithis. The Panchangs (calendar and almanac) show the precise time each month for fasting on chaturthis, depending on the rising of the Moon. women fast to ensure long life for their husbands. the principle Chaturthi falls in the month of Bhadrapad( August/September) commemorating the ‘birth’ of Ganesh. On this Chaturthi looking at the Moon is prohibited as it brings bad luck in the shape of false allegations. The legend goes that the Moon once burst out laughing on seeing the elephant headed God and had to suffer grave consequences for his misplaced merriment.

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Another important Chaturthi, popularly known as Karvachauth falls in the month of Kartik ( October/November) this is the years most important observance undertaken by wives to ensure a long life for their husbandsa and their unflagging love. They pledge fidelity and dress in their bridal finery fasting without water or food from dawn till the siting of the Moon. They look at the Moon through a grain strainer and then at their husbands transferring the Moon’s radiance to them. The fast strengthens marital bonds reminding both partners of their obligations towards one another. The fast and the rituals are observed with unwavering resolve across the land. women gather together, sing and perform rituals as they fast.

cow-and-krishnaThe Bahula Chaturthi in the month of August is devoted to revering the cow as the best-loved animal of Lord Krishna and one that gives freely of milk, like nector from the gods. On this day of fasting no milk or milk products are consumed as the cow’s milk must go to its calf alone. This fast is undertaken by both men and women for the protection and wellbeing of their progeny.

 

TRITYA  ( Third Tithi )

The Akshya Tritiya, also called Akha Teej in local parlance falls during the month of Vaishakha (April/May -spring) dedicated to the loving consort of Lord Shiva – Gauri. Akha Teej means the indestructible Teej. All sacrifices made on this day whether in charity, penance, ritual prayers and baths in the Ganges have an enduring quality in conferring results on devotees. this is a day most auspicious for marriages and mass marriages are performed to reduce costs for those of humble means.628x471

Other popular Teejs occur during the month of Shravan ( July/August – onset of Monsoons) when women swing and sing, apply Henna on their hands and visit their parents, receive gifts and pray to Lord Shiva’s consort. the Gangor festiavl is also celebrated on a Teej falling in the month of Chaitra  ( April) when again women worship Gauri the daughter of the mountains and consort of Shiva, to ensure long life for their husbands and marital bliss and progeny.

POORNIMA  ( Full-Moon – Fifteenth Tithi, ascendant phase)

Poornimas are also good for fasting as they help to make one temperate, particularly as the Moon is believed to arouse carnal passions. the most auspicious Poornima occurs in October and is called Sharad Poornima. On this day it is believed that the Moon is in its most empowered state in the year and its rays are like nectar. It is therefore ethe practice to pray to the Moon when it is  high and to leave a rice pudding in a salver throughout the night in moonlight to absorb its rays. It is then eaten the next day by the family assuring health and good fortune.

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The Poornima in the month of Phalgun is celebrated with the burning of Holika fires symbolically destroying the evil aunt who took the boy devotee Prahlad in her lap with hypocritical love in the hope that he would be destroyed but perished in the attempt on account of divine grace. the day after India rocks with the festival of Holi.

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In the month of Chaitra (April) the Poornima marks the ‘birth’ of the mythical monkey faced Lord Hanuman of the Ramayana. He is considered the epitome of faith and devotion, the one who when asked where is your Rama, tore open his chest and showed the questioner his beloved Rama there. Hanuman is one of the most popular of gods. It is said that he was blessed by Rama with perpetual spiritual presence on the mortal plane and therefore devotees feel he is more accessible to them.

In the month of Vaishaka (April/May) the Poornima marks the birth of the Buddha. The Poornima in the month of Jaisht marks the birth of the great saint Kabir and the Poornima in Kartik the birth of the Sikh Guru Nanak. In the month of Ashad the Poornima is dedicated to all sages and mentors, called Guru Purnima. On this day one is expected to respect and serve ones Gurus and conduct oneself with devotion, simplicity, cleanliness,gentility, discipline and restraint It is also an occasion to receive blessings from elders and teachers.

AMAVASYA   ( No-Moon – fifteenth tithi – descending phase )

Amavasya fasts are essentially for helping ancestors in the after life. we are not aware what trials they may be undergoing in the intermediate worlds, depending on their Karmas, before reincarnating. the descriptions in the Garud Purana are intimidating to say the least and a close approximation to Dante’s nether worlds. thus fasting and setting aside token foods and offerings go directly to them and help them through their trials. During the fortnight of the Shrads beginning in the month of Ashwin after Poornima till the following Amavasya ( September ), the focus is entirely on fasting for the release (Moksha) of the Pitr – ones forbears. Other Amavasyas falling during each month are also devoted to helping ancestors.

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The Vat-Savitri amavasya falling in the month of Jyestha has a particular and romantic significance linked to the popular myth of the extraordinary princess Savitri 9radiant with the light of the sun). Savitri fell in love with Satyavan, a prince. Unfortunately his natal chart ominously pointed to an early and premature death.The king tried to dissuade his daughter from marrying Satyavan but she remained adament. satyavan’s parents had also become dispossessed of their kingdom and sought refuge in a forest. To add to their woes they ahd also beocme blind and helpless. she joined them in their humble forest dwelling under a Banyan tree and served them with utmost devotion. One day Satyavan went out to cut wood. Knowing that his days were numbered she accompanied him. He was suddenly afflicted with pain in the head and descending the tree put his head in her lap and died. Then there appeared before Savitri the Lord Yama, god of death riding his buffalo with attendants, come to claim Satyavan’s soul. Satyavan’s soul was led away but Savitri followed the terrible lord of death unafraid. He commanded her to return but she vowed to follow her husband to the ends of time. No one had ever followed the fearsome lord and Yama was impressed with her courage and determination and granted her a boon. She asked for the restoration of the sight of her husband’s parents. Grnating it, Yama proceeded on with Satyavan’s soul in tow. But Savitri still followed. then exasperated, Yama granted her a second boon. She demended the return of their kingdom. Again this was granted. But she still purdued the terrible lord. Impressed with her perseverance he granted her one final boon provided she did not ask that he be brought back to life. Now Savitri asked that she be allowed to bear Satyavan a hundred sons. at this point Yama released the soul of Satyavan without which the boon could not be effective. Satyavan thus came alive in her lap under the Banyan tree.

On this Amavasya, married women pray for the long life of their husbands and for marital happiness. It is the custom to place two baskets under a Banyan tree, one with five types of grain and the figures of Lord Brahma and his consort the goddess Savitri and in the other images of the lovers Savitri and Satyavan. After ritual prayers to the baskets , Lord Yama and the Banyan tree, women circumambulate the Banyan chanting Mantras and listen to the legend of Savitri and Satyavan, thus ensuring marital bliss for themselves. The significance of the Banyan regarded as a divine tree, is that it is said to embody Brahma the creative force of the material world in its roots, Vishnu the sustaining force in its trunk and Shiva the annihilating force at its crown.

 

PANCHMI  (Fifth Tithi)

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Panchmis are dedicated to the divine serpents whose lord is Sheshnag, the hydra headed cosmic serpent over whose coils the great lord Vishnu reclines, perpetually meditating on sustaining creation, while the great serpent’s hood forms a crescent-shaped umbrella over his head. Sheshnag and other serpents are worshipped on this day. Serpents are drawn on either side of ones home  and legends of serpents are heard through ritual prayer. This ensures that the house shall never want in food. the most important Panchmi is Nag-Panchmi falling in the month of Shravan ( waning half0 and is celebrated throughout India with fervour and devotion.

The Panchmi falling in the month of Magh (waxing phase) however is dedicated to the goddess of learning, knowledge and fine arts. Sarasvati. It is also the harbinger of spring and is called Basant (spring) Panchmi. On this day infants are taught their first alphabets and it is auspicious to begin an academic course.

DOOJ  ( second Tithi)

Another popular fast and festival is Bhaidooj (the Dooj for brothers). In the month of Kartik the second Tithi flling in the waxing half of the month is dedicated to strenthening amity between brothers and sisters. The legend goes that on this day Yama, the lord of death ate at the house of his sister Yamuna, symbolized now as the river that flows by the national capital delhi. On this day one finds brothers hastening to their sisters’ homesto feast on a meal specially prepared by them. It is said that he who on this day is fed by his sister, the epitome of kindness, shall be blessed with wealth, honour, long life and spiritual evolution.

OTHER FASTS

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Lord Rama Credit; whoa.in

Fasts are also rigorously observed on particular festivals to commemorate the ‘birth’ of Avatars Ram and Krishna and the unmanifest Universal consciousness, Shiva on Shivratri. We have seen in the previous post that Ram’s ‘birth’ is celebrated on Ramnavmi, the Navmi (Ninth Tithi) that falls in the month of , Chaitra (waxing half) which is the first month of the Hindu New Year, after Navratra, the first nine nights. while there is no historical record of the birth of the Avatar that has captivated the imagination of the entire land, his influence is so great that every other town and village bears the imprint of his name or that of persons in the story of his life, the epic Ramayana. Millions also carry his name in some form or other. There is even a natal chart of the great Avatar which shows the Zodiac signs of his birth and even the placement of planets and Nakshatra ( asterism) in which the Moon was at the time of his birth. Whether one can deduce the historical time when the planets and Zodiac Signs were so configured, is a matter which should be an interesting subject of research. For Hindus, he is more real than any historical event. Indeed if we were successful in a fixing a historical time for his birth, it would only devalue his legendary status. It is perhaps better to leave his persona in the mists of legend and myth.

Likewise Krishna, the other great Avatar that followed him, has also a natal chart, equally precise supporting the patterns of his earthly life. the existence of these natal charts, handed down by tradition from remote antiquity is astonishing. How were precise horoscopes drawn up for legendary Avatars of whose birth no historical records exist? After all horoscopes are based on the Panchang ephemeries and the hair splitting calculations of Tithis, and coordinates of planets at any time can be said to be more significant than historical dates in the Gregorian calendar.

The fast commences on the first day of the month and concludes on the Ninth Tithi, Navmi thus called RamNavmi. It includes chanting of Mantras, reading of the Ramayana, respecting elders, speaking the truth only, showing love for members of the family, avoiding quarrels, abstaining from sex and engaging in prayer. The observance of the fast results in the fulfillment of all worthy wishes, sins are absolved, the soul briefly liberated.

The Navmi of the following month of Vaishakhi is dedicated to Rama’s wife Sita, the epitome of feminine purity, virtue and sacrifice, the archetype of Indian womenhood. Her father the great wise king Janak, failing to have an issue prayed for one. While tilling the earth in a royal ritual to appease the rain god his plough struck a golden casket embedded in the earth which upon being opened revealed a beautiful baby girl. Thus she was named Vasundhara, daughter of mother earth. The observance of the fast is believed to equal acts of charity like gifting of land to the poor. the fast helps in cleansing the vehicle of the soul.

Krishna’s ‘birth’ is celebrated on the Ashtmi (Eighth Tithi) in the waning half of the month of Bhadrapad. worshipers fast during the day and stay up till midnight, the hour of the birth of the celestial Avatar in the prison of his maternal uncle the demon king Kansa who had been told that his sister would bear his nemesis. Accordingly he confined his sister and brother-in-law in the dungeons and on every birth dashed the child to the earth with laughter – but at the birth of the ninth child,  the Avatar, the prison keepers fell asleep, the prison doors flew open and Krishna’s father carried him to safety leaving him in the foster care of friends. The event is celebrated across the land in temples and homes as JanamAshtami or Ashtmi of birth. 

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Krishna and Radha Credit: taringa.net

The following Ashtami of the waning half of the month of Bhadrapad celebrates the birth of Krishna’s beloved but unwed consort, Radha, the epitome of the female romantic. In all temples Krishna is shown with playing the flute with Radha amorously standing beside him. According to most traditions they must be worshiped together. Worshiping Krishna alone is not auspicious. There is a mystical tradition according to which fasting on her birth day and chanting her name is equal to making all the major pilgrimages and results in acquiring great knowledge and prosperity. Fasts in honour of Radha bring happiness, honour, wealth and admirable qualities in the worshipers.

The Ashtami in the waning half of the month of Ashwin provides for a fast called the Jeevatputrika and is observed for the well being and long life of progeny and grandchildren.

The unique significance of stellar events in the life of a Hindu is further highlighted by the fact that the occurrence of festivals on different Tithis have enhanced results when the Moon is in certain Nakshatras ( the 27 Asterisms conjoining with the Zodiac Signs). Thus while the festival of Ramnavmi always falls on the Ninth Tithi of the waxing half of the month of Chaitra, if at that time the Moon is in the Nakshatra Punarvasu ( viewed from earth ) then that Ramnavmi becomes specially auspicious. This is because it would replicate the stellar configuration of the ‘actual’ time of Rama’s birth.This configuration is referred to in the ancient treatise the Agastyasamhita attributed to the great sage Agastya in whose hermitage Rama spent time during his exile. The configuration shows the Moon in Punarvasu, while the Sun is in the Sign Aries and the ‘birth’ takes place with the zodiac Sign Cancer  rising above the horizon, becoming Rama’s ascendant Sign. All planets are so placed that they cast benign aspects on the ascendant Sign to herald the birth of the Almighty Spirit on the mortal plane as an Avatar. This reminds one of the Star rising over Bethlehem  portending the birth of Christ the saviour. Likewise the other Avatar Krishna’s birth Tithi becomes doubly auspicious if on that Ashtami the Moon is in the Nakshatra Rohini.

Care has to be taken not to fast or commence prayers during a festival when it falls on a ‘mixed’ Tithi i.e. the same solar day. Thus prayers and fasts may have to be postponed at the commencement of the Hindu New Year  if the First Tithi, the Pratipada, for instance, happens to be joined to the preceding Amavasya ( No-Moon) on that day, which is the commencement also of the Navratra or nine auspicious nights of empowering prayer top the goddesses. Commencement of prayers and the ritual setting up of the altar on a mixed Tithi under the mistaken impression that the this is the day, can invite grave misfortune. In the religious texts the Goddess makes clear that she does not forgive those who commence such prayers at an inauspicious time. The importance for householders to possess the Panchang calendar therefore cannot be overemphasized. It clearly gives from day-to-day the type of Tithi on that solar day of the Gregorian calendar, the precise time of beginning and completion of aq Tithi on a certain day, down to the minute, the precise time of the entry of the Moon into a certain Nakshatra and time of exit and therefore the correct time of commencement of prayers.. You simply cannot assume that the New Year celebration and prayers of Navratra will commence at past midnight or the dawning of the day. The Panchang will tell you at what moment of the night or day the New Year will commence and it remains most advisable to take a good look at the Panchang for precise timings or then consult a Pundit in advance.

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Demon Ravana in prayer for empowerment Credit: srinistuff.com

Fasts are a form of sacrifice. As one makes sacrificial offerings to ritual fires, to lord Agni ( god of fire) or other deities so too with fasts of abstention, sacrifices are offered. This act of sacrifice leads to empowerment. In Hindu myths and legends a recurring theme is that of demonic forces undertaking fasts to oblige the gods to grant them boons. when a severe penance is undertaken the spiritual forces are left with no option but to grant boons. Demons then ask for boons of invincibility and immortality and thus empowered let loose a regime of terror on the pious. Ravana the adversary of Lord Rama was one such, a great devotee of Lord Shiva who through penance and prayer acquired powers superior even to the demi-gods. Thus the belief exists that fasts will inevitably produce rewards.

The Hindu calendar we see is full of fasts and festive occasions as the Christian calendar is of saints. We cannot possibly mention them all here. The broad categories and important fasts which are universally observed and some lesser known ones of interest have however been covered in this post.

 

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