This article is a chapter from the book “Spiritual Import of Religious Festivals”.
Click here for another discourse on Ekadasi by Swami Sivananda.
Click here for the dates of Ekadasi.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF EKADASI
Sri Swami Krishnananda
Ekadasi is a Sanskrit word, which means ‘the eleventh’. It refers to the eleventh day of a fortnight belonging to a lunar month. There are two fortnights in a lunar month—the bright and the dark. So, Ekadasi occurs twice in a month, in the bright fortnight and the dark fortnight. The special feature of Ekadasi, as most people know it, is a fast, abstinence from diet. This is how it is usually understood. ‘We do not eat on Ekadasi’, is what people understand. In this country (India) it has become a routine to be abstemious, if not observe a complete fast on this day. The significance of this particular observance is not merely constituted of a fast, physically, though it is also an essential element; it has other deeper aspects. In fact, the fast is only a practical expression and a symbol of something else that we are expected to do, which is of special significance to our personality. Those who know astronomy as something which tells about the inter-relation of the planetary system, the stellar world, would be aware that we form a part of this planetary or solar system. By a system we mean an organism or organisation which is methodically arranged. When we know that we belong to the system of planetary motions, we understand thereby that we are an inseparable part of the system. We are not unrelated bodies on the surface of the earth, like a cart on the road which has no organic link. We belong to the solar system—a huge family of which the sun is the head and the planets are the members. The sun guides the activities of this family and we, being contents of this system, cannot be out of the influence of the sun. We are involved in the laws operating in this system. This has led to the discovery of astrology. Astronomy studies the movements of planets and stars, and astrology the effects they produce on the contents of the system. The Ekadasi observance is an astrological phenomenon and it is observed due to this relation we have with some of the planets in the system. The entire personality of ours is tremendously influenced by the movement of planets. There is no use imagining that the planets are above our heads. They are everywhere. There is a relative movement of planets among which the earth is one. The movement of one thing in relation to another is a relative movement. There is no planet which is static. Even the sun is not ultimately static. The whole solar system is moving and rushing towards some huge star, which is eighty million times larger and brighter than the sun, whose light has not yet reached us, as astronomers tell us. We have to understand that there is relative motion amongst planets and we are relatively influenced by the planets., Each planet tells upon our system and we cannot get rid of the influence of theirs as long as we are in this planet, of which we are a part. The gravitational pull of planets has an influence on us.
The sun is said to influence the centre of our personality; hence the sun is called Atmakaraka. He is the soul-influencer of the human body. In the Rig-veda, the sun is identified with the soul of the universe as well as the soul of the individual. The different limbs of our body and different parts of our system are supposed to be influenced by different planets. The sun is capable of influencing the entire being. He is, thus, the Atmakaraka. Karaka is doer, manipulator, director. If there is no sun, we know what difference it makes for us; our digestion becomes sluggish on days when there is no sun. So important is the sun.
The moon is supposed to influence the mind. The mind is also made up of material substance. The mind is not spiritual but material. How is mind matter? This can be known if we know how, in Homeopathy, the medicine is manufactured. In Allopathy, they give the crude base of a medicine, which Homeopathy calls mother tincture. In Homeopathy, one drop of mother tincture is mixed with hundred drops of rectified spirit and shaken with a tremendous force. That mixture is one potency of medicine. One drop of that is mixed in hundred drops of spirit again. It becomes 2 potency medicine. Likewise, they have larger potencies. So, you can imagine what happens to the medicine when it reaches the higher potency. There is no medicine at all. So, Homeopathy says, they give no medicine, but a vibration,—vibration of the original base-material. It is a subtle aromatic vibration, aromatic in the sense of the subtle residium of the original medicine; and what will create a circumstance in Allopathy will remove that very circumstance in Homeopathy. Nevertheless this potency is material in the sense that it is formed of matter. So is the mind. It is the subtle portion of the material substance of our food. The subtle essence of the food, not only directly taken through the mouth but through all senses, contribute to the make up of the mind or the mind-stuff. Mind is material in a subtle sense, like a mirror which is made of earth-material only, though it shines. Only the mirror is able to reflect light, and not the brick, though it is also made of the earth material. Mind is material in this sense. It is very, very subtle and is made up of everything that we take. So, matter influences matter. Planets are not spiritual bodies, and yet they influence the mind. The mind’s presiding deity is moon. Ekadasi is particularly relevant to this relation of moon and mind. You will find that, when you go deep into the study of astronomy, you have nothing in your body except some planetary influences! We are made up of planetary forces and there is nothing independent to call our own. One part belongs to one planet and another part to another planet. If each planet claims its part, you will disintegrate. The moon influences the mind in its orbital relative movement with reference to other planets and us.
How, is Ekadasi related to the movement of moon and mind? We have certain centres called Chakras in the body. The Chakras are nothing but energy-centres which whirl in some direction as water whirls in a river. Chakra is a wheel or circular motion. They move in a spiral shape. They are not physical; but psycho-physical and psychological. These Chakras are neither in the mind nor in the body; they are in the astral body. The moon’s influence physically on the body has an influence on the Chakras, which tells upon the mind ultimately. The mind moves through these Chakras. The passage of the mind is through these Chakras, up and down. When this operation takes place consciously, it is called Yoga; When done unconsciously by the mind, it is just influence. When the moon waxes or wanes, the mind is vehemently influenced. So people who are not normal in their minds become very bad on the full-moon and new-moon days. You cannot see the moon’s influence on the earth because it is solid, but it can be seen on the ocean which is liquid. The moon influences the whole earth, but its influence is visible on the large body of waters in the sea. This happens due to the twofold pressure of the relation of the earth and moon. The sun influences the moon and the moon influences the earth. When the influence occurs automatically, we are instruments in the hands of Nature. When it is done consciously, we are said to practise Yoga. We can be involuntarily dragged from place to place, or we can walk voluntarily. The difference is obvious. The moon’s movement tells upon the movement of the mind through the Chakras.
Another important aspect is the seat of the mind which is also twofold. You may be living in many houses, of which one or two are your own. Svasthana means ‘One’s own place.’ The mind has several abodes or centres of energy called Chakras, of which two are its own. The seats of the mind in this personality of ours are: 1. the subtle spot in the astral body corresponding to the centre of the two eye-brows, in waking, and 2. the heart, in the state of deep sleep. If it is in the brain, it is active and you, then, do not get sleep, because it refuses to go down. If the mind is midway between the centre of the eye-brows and the heart, it is dream state. So, there is a twofold centre of the mind,—the Ajna-Chakra, or the centre between the eye-brows, and the Anahata Chakra, or the heart. In both these centres, the mind feels at home and is at ease, because it is nearer to itself. In other centres it is extrovert. In the Ajna and the Anahata Chakras it finds itself at home. In the two fortnights, in its movement, it finds itself at the Ajna Chakra and the Anahata Chakra on the eleventh day. Since these two Chakras are its own abode, the mind is at home here, i.e., it gets concentrated and collected easily. This has been the experience given out by our ancients, and this has to be taken advantage of by Sadhakas. You are capable of concentration when the mind is naturally in its home. The mind cannot be concentrated when it is out of tune, but when it is in its location it is easy of contemplation. So, the Ekadasi day in both fortnights is the occasion when the mind finds itself in its place—in the bright fortnight in the Ajna Chakra, and in dark fortnight in the Anahata Chakra. Seekers and Yogis take advantage of these two days and try to practise deep meditation. Vaishnavas treat Ekadasi as a very holy day and also observe a fast on that day.
Fast and meditation! What connection have they? There is really no intrinsic connection between fast and meditation, but there is some advantage in keeping the body light and the stomach free from excessive metabolic function. When the stomach is given the duty of digestion, doctors will tell you, the blood circulation is accelerated towards the digestive organs, on account of which blood circulation to the head gets decreased after food is taken and so you feel sleepy and the thinking faculty practically ceases to function. Hence, there is no advantage in giving the physical system work on days you want to do Yogic practice. Thus, Ekadasi has also a spiritual significance.
The energy of the whole system gets distributed equally if a particular limb is not given any inordinate work. If any part is given heavy work, there is a dislocation of the working of the body. So, in fasting the energy is equally distributed as the digestive function is not there. But, there should be no overdoing in fast. Fast is supposed to cause buoyancy of feeling and not fatigue. So people who are sick and cannot observe a total fast take milk and fruits, etc. People who are perfectly healthy and are confident, observe a complete fast. This helps in control of mind and will.
Apart from all these, there is a necessity to give the physiological system some rest once a while. It may be over-worked due to a little over-eating or indiscrimination in diet. These irregularities unconsciously done during the fourteen days get rectified in one day. Thus the observance of Ekadasi has many advantages—physical, astral, spiritual—and because this day has connection with the relation of the mind with its abode together with the moon, you feel mysteriously helped in your meditation and contemplation,—mysteriously because you cannot know this consciously. But you can feel this for yourself by observing it. In India everything is interpreted spiritually. Every river is a deity. Every mountain is a god. Everything is holy, dedicated to the Divine. Everything is presided over by a particular god, Gramadevata, Grihadevata; etc. Everywhere is God. The idea behind all this is that we have to feel the presence of God in everything and everywhere. In space and in time, in everything, there is God. Time is God. Directions are God. Thus the very objects become embodiments of God. This is India’s religious sidelight, which is profoundly meaningful in life.