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Devotthan Ekadashi occurs on the eleventh day of the brightening moon in the latter half of Kartik, just two days after the Akshaya Navami. The epithet Devotthan signifies that on this day the god Vishnu is believed to wake up from sleep, the literal meaning of the word being the rising up of the god. According to the Puranas, Vishnu sleeps for four months in the year, from the eleventh of the light half of Asarh (hence popularly called the Sayana Ekadashi ) to the corresponding day of the month of Kartik, on which he wakes up from his sleep the whole period of the gods rest being called the Sayana. The first of these Ekadashis is not marked by any particular celebrations, except that in some villages the women mark their houses with lines of cow dung, and observe a partial fast, eating only fruit and sweetmeats in the evening. During the four months of the gods slumber it is considered unlucky to hold any auspicious ceremonies, such as marriage, " regeneration," tonsure, and the like. Even repairing the old thatch of the house or re-stringing the household cots or charpoys is deemed improper. These four months, it will be observed, cover the whole of the rainy season, which, in a tropical country like India, is the most unhealthy season and is popularly called the Chaumasa, the four (evil) months. By a natural association the most unhealthy season has come to be believed as the most unlucky season of the year, in which all domestic rites and duties are forbidden or at least deemed inauspicious.
Vishnu enjoys his long sleep, not in heaven his usual abode, nor on earth, the scene of his successive incarnations, but deep down in the interior of the earth, where the Nag-king Sesha rules his subterranean realm. Sesha is an enormous serpent or python having a thousand heads, representing infinity, for which reason he is also called Ananta ( the endless, which name is again, by a hypallage, transferred to Vishnu himself. This serpent-king forms both the couch and the canopy of Vishnu during his four months sleep. The Sesha Nag is also represented in Hindu cosmography as bearing or supporting the globe on his thousand heads.
Sometimes he is spoken of as the ruler of Patala, the nether world, and sometimes he is believed to have impersonated himself as Balarama, brother of Krishna. According to popular belief, all earth quakes are caused by this Snakes occasionally shaking one of his thousand heads, in the process of transferring the globe from one to another.
The belief regarding Vishnu's sleep has been expanded into a wider belief representing all the other gods as sleeping during the same interval, and waking up from sleep one after another during the whole of the bright fortnight of Kartik, one or more on each day, until on the day of Purnamashi (or full moon) all the gods are supposed to be awake again to preside over human affairs. This wider belief is no doubt the outcome of a popular gloss on the legend relating to Vishnu's sleep, and was probably set afoot by a favourite Vaishnava saying, Sarva deva maya Hari , meaning Hari or Vishnu represents in himself all the gods ; it follows therefore that when Vishnu is asleep all the other gods are plunged in slumber likewise. Whatever the origin of this belief might be, it has got such a hold of the theological mind that some Hindu almanacs contain a full list of the names of the sleeping gods, together with each one's date of awakening noted against each. But of all awakening days the only one that is honoured with some kind of solemnity is the Ekadashi. The Ekadashi, or eleventh day of a fortnight, is a day of fasting and prayer occurring twice in every month, and is regarded as a day sacred to Vishnu ; and there are in all twenty- four such fasts observed every year. So meritorious is the Ekadashi fast believed to be, that there is no difference between an Ekadashi of the bright fort night and one of the dark fortnight, both being meritorious in an equal degree. The merits ascribed to the Ekadashi fast are of the highest order ; many of them are stated in an obviously exaggerated form, but the object of the exaggeration is only to emphasize the value of the merits. For example, an Ekadashi fast is held tantamount to performing penance for 60,000 years ; it is also equivalent to making a gift of a thousand kine to Brahmans or feeding millions of starving beggars, and so on. It is also equal in efficacy to undertaking a number of holy pilgrimages, or wearing the body out by rigid austerities. It gives one eternal felicity in the highest heavens, and enables the pious soul to attain all its ends both in this life and in the next.
The above beliefs with respect to the incalculable spiritual merit arising from observance of the Ekadashi fast, are based on two legends contained in the Mahabharata. One of these relates to a sage named Bhadrashila, son of Galab Muni, who became a devout votary of Vishnu from early boyhood, and gave up the study of the Vedas and the practice of the customary religious rites in order to devote himself whole-heartedly to the worship of Hari.
From the same early age he solemnly undertook to observe the Ekadashi fast twice every month. His father once asked him why he preferred this rigorous form of devotion to the many easier ones laid down in the holy books and declared to be equally efficacious. The son replied that the merit accruing from the observance of the Ekadashi fast was literally infinite as infinite as the star-lit sky or the boundless ocean. He had the good fortune of receiving a direct revelation from God on this subject, and he had, in the same manner, been let into the secret of his former birth, an account of which he then proceeded to give to his father : "In my former life," said Bhadrashila, " I was a powerful king oft he lunar race, and bore the name of Dharmakirti. As a man I was a wicked sinner; as a king, a hated tyrant; and in both capacities I continued for many years to heap a growing load of sin upon my head. One day I went out on a hunting expedition, escorted by a regiment of soldiers. Soon I spied a lovely deer in one of the forest brakes, and I ordered my attendants to make a cordon round the animal, and never to let the game escape, on pain of death. It so happened that the deer made its escape at a point where I was myself standing on guard. I could not blame my soldiers; it was my own negligence that had allowed the beast to break loose, and in very shame I shot an arrow after the flying deer ; but to my further shame, I missed the mark, and in a moment the fleet runner had bounded away out of sight. Stung by shame, I galloped my horse and pursued the fugitive game right into the thick of the forest ; but the sly beast was nowhere in sight. In the course of my hot search, my poor steed stumbled and rolled down on the ground a lifeless carcass.
The shades of evening were closing around me and enveloping the dark forest in a darker fold ; hunger and thirst were gnawing at my bowels. Benighted, bewildered, bereft almost of sense and motion, I laid myself down at the foot of a tree, and when the night advanced, and the forest beasts began to prowl around, the powers of Nature refused to sustain my life any longer, and I expired. As soon as the breath forsook my body, I beheld two emissaries from Yama standing beside me, and shortly they bound my soul and carried it to the abodes of the dead. On seeing my spirit, Yama was very angry with his servants for taking my soul to his region, for he said that I was absolved from all sin, in that I had breathed my last in a state of fasting on an Ekadashi day, a fact of which I myself had not the faintest idea. So, instead of subjecting my soul to torture, Yama made obeisance to me, and my soul was forthwith uplifted from the nether regions to the highest heaven of Vishnu, borne all the way up in an ethereal chariot specially sent down for that purpose. And in this celestial abode I dwelt for millions of years in the uninterrupted enjoyment of felicity such as man cannot picture even in his dreams." Bhadrashila's story made such a profound impression on the mind of his father that the old man immediately became a convert to Vaishnavism, and he too undertook the Ekadashi observances as strictly and regularly as his son.
The Mahabharata supplies us also with a detailed account of the mode in which the Ekadashi fast is to be observed an account which is obviously one of the many interpolations that mar the purity of the great epic. According to this account, the man who wishes to observe this fast in the proper fashion, should first take a bath early in the morning, without the customary application of oil on the head and body. He should then proceed to worship Vishnu in the following style : Let him take his seat on a clean carpet (asana), after sanctifying it with the prescribed texts and signs. Let him next go through a series of gestures, and recite a number of holy hymns in honour of Vishnu. After this he should repeat the name of the god twelve times on his fingers, preferably 1008 times, and let him at each repetition visualize the divine image with the fullest concentration, so as distinctly to behold a picture of him " in his heart." Thereafter he should offer flowers, fruits, sweets and tulasi leaves to the image of the god, and then bow his head down to the ground and finish his devotions. The next thing is the fast, which must as far as possible consist in total abstinence from both food and drink for the whole day and night. On the following day he should repeat the early bath and the morning devotions, and then feed some Brahmans, together with his friends, relations and guests, before he breaks his own fast. The usual number of Brahmans fed on such occasions is twelve, and the breaking of a fast, called the paran, in proper form is only one degree lower in importance than the proper observance of the fast itself. And if both the fast and the breaking of it have been observed in the manner specified above, the reward is " freedom from all sorrow." This is a high reward indeed, but what makes it higher still in value is that it is both divisible and transferable at the recipient's option. The second legend in the Mahabharata illustrates this last point about the Ekadashi fast. There was once in Shantipur a learned Brahman, named Devamali, who was the owner of a large fortune which he had amassed by various lawful means, such as farming, trading and banking. But with all his power and pelf, the Brahman was an unhappy man for want of a son. The Vedas say that the man who has no son, lives his life in vain, both in this world and in the next ; and the feeling that the current of his life was about to lose itself in a sandy desert, rankled constantly in the Brahman's heart, and made him and his wife exceedingly miserable. One day, as the Brahman was sitting in a sorrowful mood, the saint Narada happened to come on a visit to him, and on being asked why he looked so melancholy, the Brahman replied that being a childless man he felt his life to be a burden. Narada advised him to hold a Yajna or sacrifice, assuring him that by this means he was sure to be blessed with offspring even yet. The Brahman accordingly held a great sacrifice, and lo ! out of the smouldering embers of the sacrificial fire arose a pair of boys, lovely as cherubs, and to all appearance of happy fortune. One of them was named Yajnamali, the child of sacrifice ; the other was named Sumali, the child of beauty. When the boys grew of age, their father Devamali settled his wealth and property on his two sons in equal shares, and renouncing the householder's life, went into a forest on the banks of the Narbada, to spend the remainder of his days in prayer and meditation ; and his faithful wife followed him to his retirement. In the woods, the recluses betook themselves to the hermitage of Jananti, a sage who was renowned for his knowledge of the scriptures, and whom they found at that moment surrounded by a circle of admiring disciples. Noticing a stranger, the sage asked him who he was and what his object was in coming there. The Brahman replied that his name was Devamali, that he was sprung from the line of Bhrigu, and that he had come to learn the practice of religious austerities with a view to obtaining salvation. Jananti made answer : " Seek refuge from thy sins, not in a forest, but in Vishnu, the lord of the universe, under whose protection all trace of sin vanishes. No earthly creature can do without his protection, since he is the fountain of life, and the quintessence of all forms of being. Repeat his name, worship his spirit, obey his commandments ; reverence him in thy heart, serve him with thy hands, name him with thy lips, and thou shalt steer safely across the troubled waves of mortality."
The Brahman was very happy to receive his spiritual guidance, and leaving the holy presence of the sage, he repaired to the banks of the Jumna, where he spent the remainder of his life in devotion to Vishnu. And when he died in the fulness of time, his faithful wife immolated herself on the same pyre with him, and both were admitted into the paradise of Vishnu. Now, of his two sons, born of the holy sacrifice, Yajnamali grew up to be a man of great righteousness and piety, spending large sums of money in private charity as well as on works of public utility. In course of time he was blessed with sons and grandsons, and lived a life of unalloyed happiness through the favour of Vishnu, in whose honour he kept the Ekadashi fast and observed various other forms and ceremonies. His brother, Sumali, on the contrary, turned out a knave and scoundrel, and falling into evil company, he squandered all his money upon unworthy objects, and ultimately became a sinful wretch of the blackest type. One day Yajnamali admonished him in the presence of the leading men of the village, exhorting him to abandon his wicked ways, but instead of feeling ashamed or repentant, Sumali was stung into a sudden wrath, and in his fit of rage he slapped his brother rudely on the face, and publicly insulted him. Thereupon the village headmen caught him, and bound him up with chains, and laid him on the ground, pinioned hand and foot, and pressed under the weight of an enormous boulder. But his brother, pitying his distress, released him from that torture, and forgave him the insult he had offered. The village community then declared him an outcaste, and turned him out of the village bounds. Shortly afterwards, Yajnamali died, and as he was being carried to heaven in an aerial car, he met a man on the way who was being ruthlessly dragged by two dark-looking hangmen. Not knowing who the wretched fellow was, he asked the conductor of the car if they knew the man, and they said it was Sumali, his own brother. Sumali's unhappy fate deeply touched his brother's heart with pity, and he generously gave away a portion of his own spiritual merit to his unfortunate brother, whom he thus released from the cruel grasp of Yama semissaries, and the two brothers then entered heaven where they dwelt in felicity for interminable ages.
These legends go to prove the sanctity of Ekadashis in general ; special Ekadashis have, over and above these general rewards, rewards of a special nature assigned to them. Such special Ekadashis are the Nirjala Ekadashi of the month of Jaishtha or June, the Vaikuntha Ekadashi of Magh, and the Devotthan Ekadashi of Kartik. Of these again the best known is the last. The first is so-called because it is customary for those who observe it not to taste even a drop of water that day. The second is called Vaikuntha Ekadashi because it assures the blessings of heaven to those who keep a fast on that day. The origin of the name Devotthan has already been explained.
Devotthan Ekadashi, popularly called Deothan or Dithwan, is now a purely rural festival, if the name festival may properly be given to ceremonies devoid of all elements of festivity or mirth. Like the Gobardhan, it has degenerated into a bucolic ceremony inaugurating the cutting of the sugarcane crop. In villages the people paint the cane-press with a kind of red paint, and light a row of lamps upon it even in the day time. The owner of the crop then worships his household gods in the middle of the field, and breaks off some stalks of sugarcane which he places across the eastern boundary of the field. He then presents five canes each to the village priest, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the washerman and the barber the five most important members of the village community ; and he also takes five canes home. There, on a wooden board or low stool, two images, one of Vishnu, and the other of Lakshmi, are drawn with ghee and cowdung. On the same board are placed a little cotton wool, some fruit and sweet ; a fire sacrifice (agiyar) is then performed, and the five canes are placed round the sacred board a few inches apart, while their bushy tops are tied together into a tangled knot. When these preparations are complete, the priest is called in, and he brings the " Saligrama." The " Saligrama " is a smooth spherical pebble, of jet black colour, of the size of an egg, which is kept in a large percentage of Brahman households as a handy emblem of Vishnu or Narayan, which can be moved about from place to place, unlike the other images or idols which cannot be removed from the shrines in which they have been installed with due ceremony. The Saligrama is worshipped by the priest with offerings of flowers, etc. ; and then the women sing songs of praise to Vishnu to wake him up from sleep and to induce him to accept their offerings. The knotted tops of the sugarcane are then broken off, and while the main stalks keep standing round the sacrificial board, their bundled-up crests are flung on the roof of the house, and there they remain at the mercy of the weather until the Holi season, when they are thrown into the bonfire and burnt. When the whole ceremony is over, the priest consults his almanac, and declares the auspicious hour for commencing reaping operations, which begin some time the same day amidst much enthusiasm, enthusiasm due not only to the prospect of a handsome return for the crop, but to the more immediate prospect of getting jugfuls of the fresh sweet juice to drink. At night it is customary in some places, such as Benares, to have temples and places of worship (Thakur-Dwaras) illuminated, much in the same style as on the Diwali night.
The Devotthan Ekadashi is generally observed as a close fast by all Hindus, and not only by Vaishnavas. Some abstain from food and drink through the whole day and night ; others observe only a partial fast, and take a light meal usually consisting of milk, sugarcane juice, and boiled shakar hand, a kind of sweet potato which the rustics call Ganji, the last two being the speciality of the day. The rules of fasting at the present day are by no means so stringent as they were in ancient times. Several severe forms of abstinence specified by Manu have become quite obsolete now, such as the fast called " Atkrichchra," which consisted in eating only a single mouthful of food every day for nine successive days, and then abstaining from all food for the next three days.
Another austere fast, called the " Chandrayana Vrata," consisted in diminishing the consumption of food every day by one mouthful for the waning half of the lunar month, beginning with fifteen morsels at the full moon, and ending with a total fast at the new moon, and then increasing it in like manner during the next fortnight. Nevertheless the custom of fasting is so prevalent in India that, as Sir Monier Williams remarks, "no Christian man be he Roman Catholic or Anglican not even the most austere stickler for the most strict observance of every appointed period of humiliation and abstinence, can for a moment hope to compete with any religious native of India Hindu or Mohamedan who may have entered on a course of fasting, abstinence, and bodily maceration."