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Beliefs and practices
In the context of Hinduism and Hindu mythology, the term vrata denotes a religious practice to carry out certain obligations with a view to achieve divine blessing for fulfillment of one or more than one desire. Etymologically, vrata, a Sanskrit word (and also used in several Indo-European languages), means to vow or to promise.
In Jainism, the vratas (elements of self control) form the core of the practical Jainism. The Jain monks follow the five Mahavratas (great vratas), while the laity follow the five Anuvratas (minuscule vratas). In addition, there are several common fasts which are also termed vratas.
A vrata may consist of one or more of several actions. Such actions may include complete or partial fasting on certain specific days; a pilgrimage (thirtha) to a particular place or more than one place; a visit and darshan and puja at a particular temple or more than one temple; recitation of mantras and prayers; performing puja and havans.
According to Hindu scriptures, vrata assists the person doing the vrata to achieve and fulfill his desires as performing vratas are supposed to bring the divine grace and blessing. Sometimes, close relatives or family purohits may be entrusted with the obligation of performing the vrata on behalf of another person. The object of performing vrata is as varied as the human desire, and may include gaining back lost health and wealth, begetting offspring, divine help and assistance during difficult period in one’s life. In Ancient India, vrata played a significant role in the life of individuals, and it continues to be practiced in modern times as well by a number of Hindus.
The Sanskrit word ‘vrata’ denotes ‘religious vow’. It is one of the most widely used words in the Hindu religious and ritualistic literature. Derived from the verbal root ‘vrn’ (‘to choose’), it signifies a set of rules and discipline. Hence ‘Vrata’ means performance of any ritual voluntarily over a particular period of time. The purpose is to propitiate a deity and secure from it what the vrati, the performer wants. This whole process, however, should be undertaken with a sankalpa or religious resolve, on an auspicious day and time fixed as per the dictates of the Hindu religious almanacs called panjika.
Vrata in the Puranas
The puranas denote various types of vratas.
- ‘kayika-vrata’. It is a vrata pertaining to the body. The stress is on physical austerity like fasting, remaining sleepless, taking baths and such other restraining activity in connection with one’s body.
- ‘vachika-vrata’ or vrata pertaining to speech. Here much importance is given to speaking the truth and reciting the scriptures, both being a function of the organ of speech.
- ‘manasa-vrata’ or vrata pertaining to the mind. The emphasis here is on controlling the mind, by controlling the passions and prejudices that arise in it.
- Payovrata - is the vrata or penance observed by Goddess Aditi to propitiate Lord Vishnu. This vrata is discussed in detail in the Bhagavata Purana. 
None of these disciplines are exclusive; they may be present in every vrata, in any combination.
Time based vrata
There are vratas again based on time. A vrata to be performed just for a dina or day is a ‘dina-vrata’. One lasting for a vaara or a paksha (week or fortnight) is a ‘vaara-vrata’ or a ‘paksha-vrata’ as the case may be. One to be undertaken on a particular tithi (a day according to the lunar calendar) or when a particular nakshatra (asterism) is on the ascendant, is respectively called a ‘tithi-vrata’ or ‘nakshatra-vrata’. Most of the vratas now in vogue are based on the tithis of the lunar calendar.
Based on deity
Another classification is according to the deity (an aspect of God) worshipped; for instance, Swarna-gauri-vrata is dedicated to Gauri, another name of Parvati Devi. Likewise Vara-siddhi-vinayaka-vrata is for propitiation of Lord Ganesha or Satya-narayana-vrata to Vishnu known as Satyanarayana.
The 10th Canto, 22nd Chapter of Bhagavata Purana, mentions young marriageable daughters (gopis) of the cowherd men of Gokula, worshiping Goddess Katyayani and taking a vrata or vow, during the entire month of Margashirsha, the first month of the winter season, to get Lord Krishna as their husband .
Impact on society
Who are the persons eligible to perform a vrata? Anyone who has faith in it and wishes to perform it as per the rules, even if the person be a mleccha (alien)! During the Vedic period sacrifices were strictly restricted to the men of the three upper castes called dvijas meaning twice-born. The doors of the vratas were thrown open to one and all during bhakti movement, thus bringing ritualistic Hinduism to especially the lower castes and women. They had been denied that privilege for centuries. Historically speaking, this might have been a master-stroke devised by the liberal-minded religious leaders of the Hindu society to prevent the exodus of their flock to the Jaina and Buddhist folds, which were singularly free from the labyrinth of rituals and offered a simple religion of ethical conduct for the common public.
Rules of vratas
Though the rules concerning the vratas had been very much liberalized to embrace as large a segment of the society as possible, there had to be some rules guiding the whole process in order to protect and preserve the sanctity of the ritual system itself. These may be summarized as follows:
- During the period of the observance of a vrata, one should keep one’s person clean and pure, observe celibacy, speak the truth, practise forbearance, avoid non-vegetarian foods and scrupulously perform all the rituals connected with it.
- Once a vrata is undertaken, it should never be left unfinished nor a new one started before completing it. But, one should never start the observance while in ashaucha ceremonial impurity brought about by birth or death in one’s family.
- Persons too old or too sick can get the vrata performed for them by the close relatives if they are willing.
- Once the decision is taken to perform a vrata, the actual commencement should be made only as per the auspicious time, place and mode laid down by the books.