(Edit: This year Vaikuntha Ekadasi falls on January 6th, 2020)
I start my blog on the auspicious day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi. This article first appeared in esamskriti.com in 2004 and subsequently in “The Speaking Tree” section of Times of India.
Ekadasi means ‘the eleventh’ in Sanskrit and refers to the eleventh day of a fortnight belonging to a lunar month. Vaikuntha Ekadasi falls in the moon’s waxing phase (Shukla Paksha) in the month of Dhanurmasa or Margazhi (December-January). Hence, the Dhanurmasa Sukla Paksha Ekadasi is called Vaikunta Ekadasi and is synonymous with fasting and abstinence.
However, this austerity is associated with much deeper aspects. This is explained in the Padma Puranam (the second amongst the eighteen Puranas), which tells us about the beginnings of Ekadasi with this legend. It was during the golden period of Satya Yuga or the Krita Yuga, an asura called Muran harassed both devas and mortals. Unable to bear his tyranny, the devas sought refuge in Lord Shiva. Shiva, in turn, pleaded helplessness and directed them to approach Lord Vishnu. Vishnu acceded to the request of the devas and went out to battle with Muran. What ensued was a long battle that lasted one thousand celestial years. There came a time that the Lord wanted to rest for a while and entered a beautiful cave called Himavati in Badarikashrama and slipped into yoga nidra. Muran wanted to seize this opportunity to attack the Lord while he was sleeping. However, Shakti – Vishnu’s female energy – emerged out of his body and assumed the form of a beautiful damsel who fought Muran and vanquished him. When Vishnu awoke he was very pleased and named this maiden as Ekadasi and granted her a boon. The maiden said, “O Lord, if You are pleased with me and wish to give me a boon, then give me the power to deliver people from the greatest sins if they fast on this day”. Vishnu granted her the boon and declared that people worshipping her would reach Vaikuntha. Thus, it is said, was born the first Ekadasi, which was a Dhanurmasa Shukla Paksha Ekadasi. Sages and devout people have been since, observing the Ekadasi vrata regularly. Here, the demon Muran represents the tamasic and rajasic qualities in us. The import of the Ekadasi Vrata is that one can conquer rajasic and tamasic (the basal qualities) tendencies in us through fasting. This helps us reach our ultimate destination, Vaikuntha, which is the place or stage of no ‘kuntitha’ or dullness, stupidity and misery.
It is also said that on this day the ksheerasagara manthana (churning of the ocean) took place and the nectar of immortality (amritha) was distributed to the gods. This divine event is interpreted in the following manner. The ocean of milk is the human heart filled with sattvic tendencies (kindness, purity and goodness). However, in all of us there exist both types of inclinations, good (devas) and bad (asuras). Only Sadhana
or spiritual practice creates the churning process that will throw out the poison in us. Only then can we procure the sweet nectar that will liberate us from the unending cycle of birth and death. Shaivaites call this day as Nanjunda Ekadasi, as it was on this day Shiva consumed nanju, the poison that emanated from the churning of the ocean.
For the Vaishnava community, it is a very holy day and should be ideally spent in fasting, prayer and meditation. Devotees look upon this austerity as a means to succeed in their spiritual endeavours. To them, it is an activity which will increase their sankalpa (that which is beneficial to them), so as to avoid activities which are not beneficial to them (vikalpa). Such austerities make a student of spirituality enthusiastic, positive, serene and determined. Austerity is indeed one of the four legs supporting religion, the other three being purity, mercy and truthfulness.
In his Gitopadesam to Arjuna, Sri Krishna describes the threefold path of austerity and says “deva –dvija-guru-praajna-pujanam-shauchanam-arvajanam-brahmacharyam-ahimsaa-cha-shariram-tapuchyate”, which means one must worship the Supreme Lord, the Brahmans, the spiritual master, and elders like the father and mother. Cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy and nonviolence are also austerities of the body (Bhagvada Geeta 17.14). Truthful speech, which is not offensive to others and the regular recitation of scriptures, is austerity of speech (17.15). Serenity of thought, compassion, gravity, self-control, purity of purpose, are all austerity of the mind (17.16). This threefold path of austerity, practised by men whose aim is not to benefit materially but to please the Supreme, leads to a nature of goodness. Sri Krishna finally says that penances and austerities which are performed foolishly, by means of obstinate self-torture, or by destroying or injuring others, are the approach of the ignorant.
It is also recommended that one must not perform austerities beyond his capabilities, lest the austerities become mechanical or offensive.
The Padma Purana says: “ekadasi vrata samam vrata nasti jagattraye
anicchaya’pi yat krtva gatir evam vidha’vayoh
ekadasi vratam ye tu bhakti bhavena kurvate
na jane kim bhavet tesam vasudeva anukampaya” ,
which translates as:
In the three worlds, there is no kind of fasting which is even comparable to the Ekadasi fast. Even if one performs this fast without a proper attitude, he achieves the Supreme Abode. If one fasts on Ekadasi day, with full devotion, what happens to him by the mercy of the Supreme Lord, I cannot say (the merit he achieves cannot be described).
While Vaikunta Ekadasi is observed in all Vaishnava temples, the day is very special at the Sri Ranganatha temple at Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. On this auspicious day, Lord Ranganatha in all His glory and resplendence enters the Parama Padha Vaasal (the gateway to salvation) at the sacred precincts of the temple at Srirangam and showers His blessings and grace on mankind.
Credits: Carving in stone of Lord Vishnu with his divine vehicle Garuda is by the noted master sculptor, Padma Shree Sudarshan Sahoo.