Hindu Fasts: Introduction

Brennand in his Hindu Astronomy says that “the early religion indeed of the Hindus like other religions had as we know a close intimacy with time and seasons”. Some of the popular and general Hindu Holidays, and the fasts related to them, seem to have been based on changes of the season and other on natural phenomena. Ganesh and Gauri for instance represent the end and resurrection of the season so do Vatsavitri, Diwali, and Holi. VasantPanchami marks the phenomenon of the rising Sun driving or dispersing fog Mahasivaratri marks the night on which the Mrig constellation or the Orion is seen in its best aspect.

Somavati represents the absence of Soma (the moon) on a Monday. Navannapurnima implies as its name shows the day on which the first meal of the new corn is to be tasted. These are possibly the most ancient ceremonials and signify the reverence felt at the change of the season by our ancient ancestors. The worship of the symbols of creative power represented by Shiva and Parvati are more modern as my comments on the Mahashivaratri shows that Shiva, Parvati, Nandi the Bull of Shiva, the Lion of Parvati and even Ganesh of the Shaivite group are taken from the signs of the Zodiac.

The other set the holidays, and the related fasts, are mythological and historical. These are birth-days of different heroes or gods such as Rama-Navami, Janamashatmi, and the Jayantis or birthdays of Hanuman, Parshurama, Narasimha, etc. The original shastras (the Vedas) suggest only a few ceremonials, the puranas add a large number and the traditions supply the largest group. It is the second class of ceremonial fasting which this book focuses upon.

The ceremonial aspects related to the puranas are probably the least understood by the common men and women as these are mostly surrounded in allegory and symbolic language, as we read in Brennand’s Hindu Astronomy, “The knowledge acquired by the Hindu astronomers was guarded with greatest care as sacred and was supposed to be so secret that it was not even known to the Gods. It was not communicated to the common people and being regarded as a revelation, to inspire Saints, was only to be divulged to disciples similarly inspired. They were to be communicated only as myths and allegories with hidden meanings.”

“The astronomical mythology of the Hindus, grotesque and barbarous as some of their stories may appear, had within it much that was valuable in point of instruction”.

Some of these folklore stories will show that they are intended for recording discoveries in astronomical and other natural phenomena. When writing was not known or when it was not communicated to the masses, stories were used instead. The folklore of Kokilavrat, Kapila-Shasti, and the tortoise incarnation are examples. The shapes given to the constellations mentioned in them, served as hieroglyphics to fix them into the memory. They have served to transmit from generation of the seasons. In this connection Lord Arundell of Wardour records in his book called “Tradition principally with reference to the Mythology and the law of Nations”, that “what strikes one most forcibly in contemplating these ages, is the contrast between their intellectual knowledge and their mechanical and material contrivances for its application, when paper, parchment, or even the smoothed hides, as adapted for the purposes of writing, were unknown.”

“This establishes the retentive strength of their memory, and their intellectual familiarity with great truths.” According to the Chinese accounts, the works of Confucius were proscribed, after his death, by the Emperor Chi-Hoangri, and all the copies were recovered from the dictation of an old man who had retained them in memory,” (like the Vedas). In the article in the Cornhilt Magazine, November 1871, containing a valuable collection of South Indian folk songs, it is said at that “they are handed down from generation to generation entirely vive-voce, and form the minstrels have passed into public use.” So are these folklore stories and songs about Hindu Holidays and ceremonials. In many instances they historical facts intermixed with supernatural fiction. They, moreover, record the manners, customs, and beliefs of the time. Compared with similar stories of the different provinces they yield interesting material for the comparison of manners and customs of different societies at different stages of their existence. Brennand again adds:- “With the Hindus this study becomes a duty, in as much as the celestial bodies were viewed as Gods, and the worship of them was enjoined by the Vedas.”

The originators knew the causes of many of the
phenomena, as Brennand has recorded that “there is no doubt that the cause of the eclipses, notwithstanding the superstition of the people generally, was well understood by the Hindu astronomers and that even in the Paganism and mythology of the Hindus, there is substratum of worth so far as they are connected with their system of astronomy” (p. 320). But he says that to extend further investigation on the subject, many Hindu writings and symbols exist which if translated or interpreted would throw greater light upon the evolution of myths. It was the diligent use which the Hindu astronomers made of astronomy, that gave them their superiority over all other nations’

Benefits of Fasting

Nowadays, many educated people do not observe fasting. This is due to the impact of the dark, vicious, materialistic forces. When the intellect develops a little, people begin to enter into arguments and unnecessary discussions. Intellect is a hindrance on the spiritual path. They who have not developed the heart but who have developed their intellect begin to doubt and question at every step. They are led astray. They want a “why” and a “how” for everything. They want “scientific” explanations for all phenomena.

God is beyond proofs and presumptions. One has to approach religion and the scriptures with great faith, reverence and purity of heart. Then only are the secrets of religion revealed unto him like the apple in the palm of one’s hand. Does anybody ask his mother to prove who his father is?

Fasting controls passion. It checks the emotions. It controls the senses also. It is a great penance. It purifies the mind and the heart. It destroys a multitude of sins. Pasting controls the tongue in particular which is the deadliest enemy of man. Fasting overhauls the respiratory, circulatory, digestive and urinary systems. It destroys all the impurities of the body and all sorts of poisons. It eliminates uric acid deposits. Just as impure gold is rendered pure by melting it in the crucible again and again, so also this impure mind is rendered purer by repeated fasting.

Young and robust Brahmacharis (celibates) should observe fasting whenever passion troubles them. Only then will they have very good meditation, as the mind will be rendered calm. The chief object of fasting is to render the system calm so that one is able to practice meditation rigorously during that period.

Withdraw the senses and fix the mind on God. Pray to God to guide you and to throw a flood of light on your spiritual path. Say with feeling: C’O God, guide me! Protect me, protect me! I am Thine, I am Thine! Forsake me not!” You will be blessed with purity, light and strength. Follow this Sadhana on the days that you fast.

Fasting is one of the ten canons of Yoga. However, avoid excessive fasting. It will produce weakness. Use your common sense. If you cannot fast for the full twenty-four hours, at least fast for 10-12 hours and then take some milk and fruit. Gradually increase your fast to 15 hours and then up to 24 hours. Fasting makes a man strong, both spiritually and mentally.

In his code, the Manu Smriti, the great Hindu lawgiver, Manu, prescribes fasting for the removal of the five capital sins. Diseases that are pronounced incurable by doctors are cured by fasting. Occasionally, a complete fast is greatly desirable for all to keep up good health, to give adequate rest to the internal organs and maintain celibacy. All diseases have their origin in overeating and verily fasting is the only method to cure this.

Complete fasting helps to control sleep. Taking recourse to tea to control sleep is not desirable. You will not gain any spiritual strength if you depend on an external agent. During fasting avoid all company. Live alone. Utilise your time in Sadhana. When breaking a fast do not take a heavy meal or a heavy food that is hard to digest. Milk or some fruit juice is beneficial.

Moderation in eating and withdrawal of the senses in Yogic meditation are the obverse and the reverse of the same coin. Moderation consists in taking a little food or water just to keep the body in good working order.

In the Bhagavad-Gita you will find: “Verily, Yoga is not for him who eats too much, nor who abstains to excess, nor who sleeps too much, nor to the excessively wakeful”.

The Yogi withdraws his senses from the particular sense objects. The senses are made to turn into or get involved into the mind. When one is fully established in these two practices, supreme control of the senses is achieved.

Vrata in the early literature: Rgveda to Dharmasutras

Like many other important Sanskrit words, “vrata” appears in the earliest and most revered group of texts of classical Hinduism, the Vedas. In the Rgveda, the oldest of the Vedas, vrata occurs just over 200 times alone or in combination with other words and it continues to turn up with some regularity in the later vedic Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanishads and Sutras. However, while the word vrata occurs often enough in this literature, its meaning is far from clear. Indeed, there has been some lively controversy among scholars about the etymology (and hence early meanings) of this term. The controversy has centered on the problem of which root vrata is derived from. P. V. Kane, following the lead of the St. Petersburg Dictionary, preferred the root vr- “to choose, select” as the best derivation for vrata, and in fact this derivation is approved very early in the classical Hindu tradition as it is given by the influential lexicographer Yaska in his Nirukta (c. 6th to 5th century B.C.E.). It is the one that will probably remain the most widely accepted.

In general, one can say that the concept of vrata in the Rgveda is closely connected with the larger metaphysical concept of the cosmic order (rta), with dkarma (perhaps the key concept in the Hindu tradition, but whose full ramifications have yet to emerge in the Rgveda), and with the governed and governing activity of the gods. In many contexts the word has the sense of “immutably fixed ordinances” that keep the universe in order (keep or support the rta) and to which all beings are subject. In one passage,
RV 9.112. I, it is stated that the various vocation in which men engage are their various vratas.

This section presents to the reader the translation; of the original Sanskrit texts from the puranas (especially the Agni Purana and the Garuda Purana) in a simple manner so as to make the understanding easier and therefore the performance of these, and other religion: ceremonials, intuitive rather then a mere formality These rare texts are being presented in this format in the English language perhaps for the first time for the joy they bring to the body and the spiritual reverence they bring to the soul. These are selected for the sole purpose of helping the members of rise above the mundane materialistic nature to the all-encompassing and ever-blissful state of the divine.

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