Ekadasi: The Appearance and Purpose of This Special Day
(This article was written in 1956 by Sri Navinacandra Cakravarti, a disciple of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura. There are many stories of Ekadasi in the Puranas, but most explain the material benefits and blessings one gets from observing Ekadasi. This article, based on the conversation between Srila Vyasadeva and Jaimini Rishi, gives the real spiritual reason for following the vow of Ekadasi as emphasized by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu in Sri Caitanya-caritamrita and later by Srila Prabhupada.)
Many devotees are very inquisitive about the appearance of Sri Ekadasi and about her special characteristics. Therefore I am presenting this description from the 14th chapter of the Padma Purana, from the section entitled “Kriya-sagara-sara”.
Once the great sage Jaimini Rishi said to his spiritual master, “O Gurudeva! Previously, by your mercy, you described to me the history of the Ganga River, the benefits of worshiping Vishnu, the giving of grains in charity, the giving of water in charity, and the magnanimity of drinking water that has been used to wash the feet of the brahmanas. O best of sages, Sri Gurudeva, now, with great enthusiasm, I desire to hear of the benefits of fasting on Ekadasi and of the appearance of Ekadasi.”
“O Gurudeva! When did Ekadasi take birth and from whom did she appear? What are the rules of fasting on the day of Ekadasi? Please describe the benefits of following this vow and when it should be followed. Who is the utmost worshipable presiding deity of Sri Ekadasi? What are the faults in not observing Ekadasi properly? Please bestow your mercy upon me and tell about these subjects, as you are the only personality able to do so.”
Srila Vyasadeva, upon hearing this inquiry from Jaimini Rishi, became situated in transcendental bliss. “O brahmana sage Jaimini! The results of following Ekadasi can be perfectly described by the Supreme Lord, Narayana, because Sri Narayana is the only personality capable of describing them in full. But I will give a very brief description in answer to your question.”
“At the beginning of the material creation, the Supreme Lord created the moving and non-moving living entities within this world made of five gross material elements. Simultaneously, for the purpose of punishing the evil human beings, He created a personality whose form was the embodiment of the worst kinds of sin (Papa-purusha). The different limbs of this personality were constructed of various sinful activities. His head was made of the sin of murdering a brahmana, his two eyes were the form of drinking intoxicants, his mouth was made from the sin of stealing gold, his ears were the form of the sin of having illicit connection with the spiritual master’s wife, his nose was of the sin of killing one’s wife, his arms the form of the sin of killing a cow, his neck was made of the sin of stealing accumulated wealth, his chest of the sin of abortion, his lower chest of the sin of having sex with another’s wife, his stomach of the sin of killings one’s relatives, his navel of the sin of killing those who are dependent on him, his waist of the sin of egotistical self-appraisal, his thighs of the sin of offending the guru, his genitals of the sin of selling one’s daughter, his buttocks of the sin of telling confidential matters, his feet of the sin of killing one’s father, and his hair was the form of all sorts of less severe sinful activities. In this way, a horrible personality embodying all sinful activities and vices was created. His bodily color is black, and his eyes are yellow. He inflicts extreme misery upon sinful persons.
“The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Vishnu, upon seeing this personality of sin began to think to Himself as follows: ‘I am the creator of the miseries and happiness for the living entities. I am their master because I have created this personality of sin, who gives distress to all dishonest, deceitful and sinful persons. Now I must create someone who will control this personality’. At this time Sri Bhagavan created the personality of Yamaraja and the different hellish planetary systems. Those living entities who are very sinful will be sent after death to Yamaraja, who will in turn, according to their sins, send them to an appropritate hellish region to suffer.
“After these adjustments had been made, the Supreme Lord, who is the giver of distress and happiness to the living entities, went to the house of Yamaraja, with the help of Garuda, the king of birds. When Yamaraja saw that Lord Vishnu had arrived, he immediately washed His feet and made an offering unto Him. He then had Him sit upon a golden throne. The Supreme Lord Vishnu became seated upon the throne, whereupon He heard very loud crying sounds from the southern direction. He became surprised by this and inquired of Yamaraja, ‘From where is this loud crying coming?’
“Yamaraja in reply said, ‘O Deva! The different living entities of the earthly planetary systems have fallen to the hellish regions. They are suffering extremely for their misdeeds. The horrible crying is because of suffering from the inflictions of their past bad actions.’
“After hearing this the Supreme Lord Vishnu went to the hellish region to the south. When the inhabitants saw who had come they began to cry even louder. The heart of the Supreme Lord Vishnu became filled with compassion. Lord Vishnu thought to Himself, ‘I have created all this progeny, and it is because of Me that they are suffering.’”
Vyasadeva continued: “O Jaimini, just listen to what the Supreme Lord did next. After the merciful Supreme Lord thought over what He had previously considered, He suddenly manifested from His own form the deity of the lunar day Ekadasi. Afterward, the different sinful living entities began to follow the vow of Ekadasi and were then elevated quickly to the abode of Vaikuntha. O my child Jaimini, therefore the lunar day of Ekadasi is the selfsame form of the Supreme Lord, Vishnu, and the Supersoul within the heart of the living entities. Sri Ekadasi is the utmost pious activity and is situated as the head among all vows.
“Following the ascension of Sri Ekadasi, that personality who is the form of sinful activity gradually saw the influence that she, Ekadasi, had. Thus, he approached Lord Vishnu with doubts in his heart and began offering many prayers, whereupon Lord Vishnu became very pleased and said, ‘I have become very pleased by your nice offerings. What boon is it that you want?’
“The Papa-purusha replied, “I am Your created progeny, and it is through me that you wanted distress given to the living entities who are very sinful. But now, by the influence of Sri Ekadasi, I have become all but destroyed. O Prabhu! After I die all of Your parts and parcels who have accepted material bodies will become liberated and return to the abode of Vaikuntha (the spiritual domain). If this liberation of all living entities takes place, then who will carry on Your activities? There will be no one to enact the pastimes in the earthly planetary systems! O Keshava! If you want these eternal pastimes to carry on, then You please save me from the fear of Ekadasi. No type of pious activity can bind me. But Ekadasi only, being Your own manifested form, can impede me. Out of fear of Sri Ekadasi I have fled and taken shelter of men; animals; insects; hills; trees; moving and non-moving living entities; rivers; oceans; forests; heavenly, earthly and hellish planetary systems; demigods; and the Gandharvas. I cannot find a place where I can be free from the fear of Sri Ekadasi. O my Master! I am a product of Your creation, so therefore very mercifully direct me to a place where I can reside fearlessly.’”
Vyasadeva then said to Jaimini, “After saying this, the embodiment of all sinful activities (Papa-purusha) fell down at the feet of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who is the destroyer of all miseries and began to cry.
“After this, Lord Vishnu, observing the condition of the Papa-purusha, with laughter began to speak thus: ‘O Papa-purusha, rise up! Don’t lament any longer. Just listen, and I’ll tell you where you can stay on the lunar day of Ekadasi. On the date of Sri Ekadasi, which is the benefactor of the three planetary systems, you can take shelter of foodstuffs in the form of grains. There is no reason to worry about this any more, because My form as Sri Ekadasi will no longer impede you.’ After giving direction to the Papa-purusha, the Supreme Lord Vishnu disappeared and the Papa-purusha returned to the performance of his own activities.
“Therefore, those persons who are serious about the ultimate benefit of the soul will never eat grains on Ekadasi. According to the instructions of Lord Vishnu, every kind of sinful activity that can be found in the material world takes its residence in this place of (grains) foodstuff. Whoever follows Ekadasi is freed from all sins and never enters into the hellish regions. If one doesn’t follow Ekadasi because of illusion, he is still considered the utmost sinner. For every mouthful of grain that is eaten by a resident of the earthly region (on Ekadasi), one receives the effect of killing millions of brahmanas. It is definitely necessary that one give up eating grains on Ekadasi. I very strongly say again and again, ‘On Ekadasi, do not eat grains, do not eat grains, do not eat grains!’ Whether one be a kshatriya, vaishya, shudra, or of any family, he should follow the lunar day of Ekadasi. From this the perfection of varna and ashrama will be attained. Especially since if one (even) by trickery follows Ekadasi, all his sins become destroyed and he very easily attains the supreme goal, the abode of Vaikuntha.”
From the above article and story we can understand that Ekadasi is a form of Lord Vishnu, and by observing the Ekadasi vow, it not only decreases the amount of sin (bad karma) we imbibe, but it also eats up sinful reactions to help pave our way back to the abode of Lord Vishnu, Vaikuntha. This is also why Ekadasi is called “The mother of devotion”. It helps remove the obstacles on our path of devotional service to the Lord.
Ekadasi generally falls on the 11th day after the new moon, and the 11th day after the full moon. Eka means one and dasi is the feminine form of dasa, which means ten. Together it means eleven. Only occasionally may it fall on a different day. So it is on these days that devotees and devout Hindus will follow the vow of Ekadasi and not eat any beans or grains, or products with such substances in them. Thus, the diet is expected to be simple and plain as part of the mood of renunciation, and preferably only once in the day if possible. Other recommendations include that the food should be made of vegetables, fruit, water, milk products, nuts, sugar, and roots that are grown underground (except beet roots). Restrictions include spinach, eggplant, asafetida, and sea salt, but rock salt is alright.
Since there are 12 months in a year, with two Ekadasis in each month, there are 24 Ekadasis in each year. Each Ekadasi has a name, that are Utpanna, Mokshada, Saphala, Putrada, Shat-tila, Jaya, Vijaya, Amalaki, Papamocani, Kamada, Varuthini, Mohini, Apara, Nirjala, Yogini, Padma (Devashayani), Kamika, Putrada, Aja, Parivartini, Indira, Papankusha, Rama, and Haribodhini (Devotthani). Occasionally there are two extra Ekadasis that happen in a lunar leap year, which are Padmini and Parama.
Each Ekadasi day has particular benefits and blessings that one can attain by the performance of specific activities done on that day. By engaging in the extra study to learn what these are, one can derive even more benefit from each particular Ekadasi. Books devoted to Ekadasi are available that contain such information, so we will not include it here. However, reading the glories of each Ekadasi day, along with all the names of these days, will also achieve a similar goal of observing the Ekadasi vow. This also means that we are encouraged to increase our spiritual activities that day, which are centered around the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. Charity, especially to advanced devotees and preachers of the dharma, or directly engaging in activities of Krishna consciousness, Deity worship, chanting the purusha-sukta hymns, or other spiritual activities on Ekadasi are also highly recommended and brings great spiritual benefits to the performer.
It is said that even if one mistakenly misses the observance of an Ekadasi, he or she may make up for it by observing it the very next day on Dvadasi, and then break one’s fast from grain on the next day, Trayodasi. One may also observe the special fast on Nirjala Ekadasi. This is also called Bhima Ekadasi. This is because the Pandava brother known as Bhima was so strong and had such a voracious appetite that he could not observe Ekadasis twice a month. He could not fast because he was too hungry. So Lord Krishna told him to merely observe one Ekadasi a year, which is the Nirjala Ekadasi. Nir jala means no water. So he had to observe at least one Ekadasi a year, and on that day he had to abstain from not only beans and grains, but from all foods, even water. So devotees who miss an Ekadasi day often observe a complete fast from all food and liquids on the Nirjala Ekadasi, which is usually sometime in June, and thus make up for whatever was missed. However, this is a very potent Ekadasi, so a complete fast on this day gives one who observes this many pious credits.
Sometimes there is a day called Mahadvadasi. This is when Ekadasi is astronomically combined with Dvadasi, or the twelfth day of the full moon or new moon lunar cycle. This is called a pure Ekadasi and the observance is often started the evening before Mahadvadasi and through the next day with the basic Ekadasi fast.
Breaking the Ekadasi fast on the next day with some foodstuffs made from grains is usually done two-and-a-half hours or shortly thereafter from the time of the sunrise.
In the Caitanya-caritamrita (Adi-lila, 15-9-10), Sri Caitanya begs his mother to follow Ekadasi, as was expected of all His followers. And in the purport to this verse Srila Prabhupada explains that even though devotees eat food cooked for and offered to Lord Vishnu, prasada, which is spiritually potent and free from all karma, even on Ekadasi a devotee does not eat even maha-prasada that has grains in it, even though it can be saved for the next day.
In this way, by the observance of the special Ekadasi day and its special fast, a person can accelerate their spiritual growth and awareness, and free themselves from negative karma that will only further bind them to the continuous rounds of birth and death.
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