Om Namo Narayanaya!
(Prostrations to Sriman Narayana!)
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya!
(Prostrations to Bhagavan Vasudevaya!)
From Vishnu Sahasranama
(The great hymn on Vishnu sung by Bheeshma near the end of the Mahabharata):
Kimekam Daivatham Loke, Kim Vapyegam Parayanam,
Sthuvantha Kam Kamarchanda Prapnyur Manava Shubham,
Ko Dharma Sarva Dharmanam Paramo Matha
Kim Japan Muchyathe Jandu Janma Samsara Bhandanat.
Jagat Prabhum Devadevam Anantham Purushottamam,
Stuvan Nama Sahasrena, Purusha Sathathothida,
Tameva Charchayan Nityam, Bhaktya Purushamavyayam,
Dhyayan Sthuvan Namasyanch Yajamanasthameva Cha,
Anadi Nidhanam Vishnum Sarva Loka Maheswaram
Lokadyaksham Stuvannityam Sarva Dukkhago Bhaved,
Brahmanyam Sarva Dharmagnam Lokanam Keerthi Vardhanam,
Lokanatham Mahadbhootham Sarva Bhootha Bhavodbhavam
Aeshame Sarva Dharmanam Dharmadhika Tamo Matha,
Yad Bhaktyo Pundarikaksham Stuvyr-archanayr-nara Sada,
Paramam Yo Mahatteja, Paramam Yo Mahattapa
Paramam Yo Mahad Brahma Paramam Ya Parayanam
Pavithranam Pavithram Yo Mangalanam Cha Mangalam,
Dhaivatham Devathanam Cha Bhootanam Yo Vya Pitha
Yatha Sarvani Bhoothani Bhavandyathi Yugagame
Yasmincha Pralayam Yanthi Punareve Yuga Kshaye
Tasya Loka Pradhanasya Jagannatathasya Bhoopathe
Vishno Nama Sahasram Me Srunu Papa Bhayapaham.
In this wide world, O Grandfather, Which is that one Lord, who is the only Shelter?
Who is He whom sentient beings worship and pray to and thereby attain liberation?
Who is He who should be worshipped with love?
Which Dharma is so great that there is none greater?
And what is to be chanted to become free from the cruel bondages of life?
That one with endless devotion,
Who chants the thousand names
Of He who is the Lord of the Universe,
Of He who is the God of all Gods,
Of He who is limitless,
Will become free,
From these cruel bondages of life.
He who also worships and prays to,
Daily without break,
That Purusha who does not change,
That Vishnu who does not end or begin,
That God who is the Lord of all worlds,
And Him, who presides over the universe,
Would escape, without fail,
All the miseries in this life.
Chanting the praises,
Worshipping and singing,
With great devotion,
Of the lotus-eyed One,
Who is partial to the Vedas,
Who is the only One who knows the Dharma,
Who increases the fame
Of those who live in this world,
Who is the Master of the Universe,
Who is the Truth among all sentient beings,
And who decides the life of all living,
That is the Dharma that is great.
That which is the greatest light,
That which is the greatest penance,
That which is the greatest Brahman,
Is the greatest shelter that I know.
Please hear from me,
The thousand holy names,
Which wash away all sins,
Of Him who is the purest of the Pure!
Of That which is the holiest of the holy!
Of Him who is God among Gods!
Of That Father who lives without death,
Among all that live in this world,
Of Him whom all the souls
Were born of at the start of the world,
Of Him in whom all that lives
Will dissolve at the end of the world,
And of that Lord of all this world,
Who bears the burden of this world.
I would teach you without fail,Those auspicious names
Which convey His great qualities,
And which the sages sing,
So that all beings of this world
Become happy and great.
A famous shloka proclaims:
Na Gaayathrya Para Manthra
Na Maathu Para Dhaivatham
Na Kaasya Paramam Theertham
Na Ekadasya Samam Vratham
(There is no mantra superior to the Gayatri; there is no deva or devi superior to one’s mother; there is no sanctifying place of pilgrimage holier than Kashi; and there is no vrata (resolve to undertake a particular spiritual practice) more sacred than Ekadasi.)
1. The Origin of Ekadasi: Ekadasi Devi
According to one account of Ekadasi’s origin, a demon named Mura was harassing Bhagavan Vishnu, who ran away to a cave called Simhavati situated in the Himalayan Badri. Before retiring for the night, Bhagavan Vishnu requested his Yoga Maya (His female potency who possesses the power to delude) to guard the entrance to His cave. Yoga Maya created Ekadasi Devi, who killed Mura when he once again tried to attack Bhagavan Vishnu. Bhagavan Vishnu was very pleased with Ekadasi Devi when He awoke the next morning, and He granted her the power to destroy the sins of all those who honor her on Ekadasi (the eleventh day after the full moon and the new moon).
2. Brahma and the Demon
A famous Puranic story recounts that a drop of sweat had fallen down from Brahma’s head, and that the drop of sweat then assumed the form of a demon and cried out to Brahma, “O Brahma! Give me an abode where I may dwell.”
Brahma answered, “O demon! Go and dwell in the rice particles eaten by men on Ekadasi day and become worms in their stomachs.” This is why the consumption of rice is prohibited on Ekadasi.
3. The Story of King Ambarisha
King Ambarisha was a great devotee of Vishnu. He obtained His grace by observing the Ekadasi vrata for one year. Once, when the king was about to break his fast, Rishi Durvasa appeared as an athiti (an uninvited guest who is considered an auspicious visitor). King Ambarisha requested that Rishi Durvasa dine with him. The rishi agreed and went to bathe in the river before eating. King Ambarisha waited for a long time, but Rishi Durvasa did not return. The day was nearing its close and if the king did not eat before the day ended, his vrata would not bear fruit. At the same time, however, if he did eat, he would be dishonoring the rishi. The king reflected on the matter and decided that the matter could be reconciled by drinking a little water so that on the one hand, he would break the fast, while, on the other hand, he would not be eating before his honored guest had dined.
Rishi Durvasa returned, and because he was such a great yogi, he realized at once what the king had done. The rishi was furious and tore a piece of hair from his tuft, commanding it to kill the king. King Ambarisha was fearless and did not budge. Bhagavan Vishnu immediately discharged His Sudarshana chakra (discus), which protected the king and began to pursue Rishi Durvasa. The rishi tried to run away from the Sudarshana chakra, but it kept following him and was intent on his destruction.
The rishi went to Brahma and Shiva for help, but they were unable to deliver him from the Sudarshana chakra. Rishi Durvasa then went to Sri Hari for deliverance. Sri Hari told Rishi Durvasa that He is under the power of His devotees, that His heart belongs to his devotees, and that the rishi should therefore go to King Ambarisha and ask for his pardon. Rishi Durvasa did so, and King Ambarisha promptly prayed that the Sudarshana chakra desist from destroying Rishi Durvasa. The prayer took immediate effect, and thus the rishi was saved and thereafter deeply grateful to King Ambarisha.
This story shows us that the true devotee is always protected and guarded by Sri Hari, and that such a devotee will never come to ruin. It also teaches us that when a vrata is undertaken with sincerity, it will always bear fruit, even in the face of unfavorable circumstances or obstacles.
4. The Ekadasi Vrata
The inner meaning of the Ekadasi vrata is to “feel a profound mystical experience in which the soul feels the nearness of [Iswara] by various ritual acts.”
The celebration of Ekadasi varies according to sampradaya (tradition) and parampara (lineage). For example, while some sampradayas like the Madhva sampradaya recommend all-night vigils for all Ekadasi nights, other sampradayas like the Ramanuja sampradaya enjoin such a vigil only for Vaikuntha Ekadasi. Variations in practices are common and natural between various paramparas and sampradayas; one should follow the dictates of one’s own sampradaya with faith—different practices are appropriate for different sampradayas according to their founder, their traditions, and their central texts. The practices described here may be relevant to some sampradayas but not to others—the descriptions are meant to be illustrative and not prescriptive. One should always consult with one’s guru and/or the authorities of one’s sampradaya before commencing any sustained spiritual practice.
Traditionally, the Ekadasi vrata begins with the sankalpa (resolve to undertake the Ekadasi vrata) on the Dasami (tenth) day, fasting on the Ekadasi (eleventh) day, and breaking the fast on the Dwaadasi (twelfth) day. Because it spans a three-day period, it is also known as Dinathraya (three-day vrata). The vrata consists of abstaining from the evening meals on the Dasami and Dwaadasi days and of abstaining from all meals on the Ekadasi day and staying awake through the Ekadasi night, passing the time in kirtana, meditation, and devotional reflection upon Sri Hari.
Because Ekadasi is also known as Haridina, “it is a day to be dedicated entirely for worshipping [Hari], meditating upon Him, listening to His glory and studying the scriptures. In short, anything we do on this day should please the Lord.” The vrata is more than fasting: it is saameepya vaasa (dwelling close to Iswara) through various spiritual and devotional practices.
Below are some mantras specific to Ekadasi (compiled from Sri Madhwacharya Seva Sangha, “Ekkadasi (Vichaara & Aachaara),” dated October 1, 1997, available at http://www.angelfire.com/ca/Madhwa/ekaadasi.html.):
DASAMI SANKALPA: Dashamee Divase Parapte Vrathastoham Janaaradan / Thridinam Devadevesha Nirvigham Kuru Keshava! (Brahmavaivartha Purana) (Janaardana! Today being Dasami, I am ready for the three-day vow. O Lord! Deva Deva! Keshava! See that no obstacles come in the way of my vow!)
EKADASI SANKALPA: Ekaadashyam Niraharaha Sthithvahani Parehyaham / Bhookshyaami Pundareeksha Saranam Me Bhavaachyutha! (Brihannaaradeeya Purana) (After fasting on Ekadasi, I will eat on Dwadasi. Please be my refuge, O Achyuta!)
DWAADASI SANKALPA: Ajnaana Thimiraandhasya Vratenaanena Keshava / Praseeda Sumukho Natha Jnaanadristi Prado Bhava! (Brihannaradeeya Purana) (O Lord! Keshava! I am blinded by the darkness of ignorance. By my undertaking this fast on Ekadasi, may it please You to bless me with the light of knowledge.)
Ekaadasyupavaasena Dwaadashee Paarnenacha / Yadaarjitham Mayaa Punyam Thena Preenathu Kshavah! (Brahmavaivartha Purana) (May Lord Keshava be pleased with the merit that accrued to me by fasting on Ekadasi and breaking the fast on Dwaadasi.)
5. The Significance of Ekadasi
The importance of Ekadasi has been extolled in many Hindu scriptures:
- In the Padma Purana, Bhagavan Vishnu says, “The Ekadasi day is very dear to Me. In all circumstances, eating normal food on Ekadasi is forbidden for all human beings.”
- The Agni Purana states, “Ekadasi day is very dear to the Supreme Lord, Sri Hari; that is why eating food on this day is forbidden for all human beings, in order to receive the Lord’s blessings.”
- The Brihannaradeeya Purana states, “It does not matter what category of special birth one has, either born as a Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, Shudra, Mleccha or Yavana, male or female, everyone must perform the Ekadasi fast.”
- The Skanda Purana states, “Whether one is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Skanda, Ganesha, Durga or Surya, everyone must fast on the Ekadasi day.”
- The Padma Purana proclaims that even the celestial beings (the devas) do not eat food on Ekadasi day. This is why if the shraddha day of one’s parents falls on Ekadasi, the ceremony is to be postponed until the next day.
- Vasishta Muni explains in the Narada Purana the result of observing Ekadasi: “If Ekadasi is observed correctly while worshipping the Supreme Lord, Sri Hari, the acquired sins of the follower’s previous life get destroyed.”
- The Skanda Purana further proclaims the glory of the Ekadasi vrata: “If one puts the merits obtained from performing the Ekadasi vrata on one side of a scale, and the merits obtained from performing other vratas on the other side, the merit obtained from performing the Ekadasi fast will definitely be heavier.”
Observing the Ekadasi vrata is beneficial for one’s physical health. It is necessary to rest the digestive system every so often as it may be over-worked due to over-eating or an indiscriminate diet. Fasting cleanses and renews the respiratory, circulatory, digestive and urinary systems. It destroys all of the impurities of the body and eliminates uric acid deposits. Complete fasting also helps to regulate sleep.
Observing the Ekadasi vrata also enhances one’s ability to undertake yoga and meditation. When food is ingested, blood circulation is diverted towards the digestive organs, depriving blood circulation to the head. This results in sleepiness and foggy thinking. Thus, on days meant for spiritual practice, it is better to eat very little or nothing at all to enable greater blood circulation to the brain. Fasting controls passion and the baser emotions, thereby purifying the mind and the heart. It also controls the tongue, which is the root source of most forms of papa (spiritual demerit). Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh writes, “Just as impure gold is rendered pure by melting it in the crucible again and again, so also this impure mind is rendered purer by repeated fasting.”
The observance of the Ekadasi vrata also has astrological significance. We are influenced, to varying degrees according to the strength of our willpower and self-control, by the movement of the planets. The moon is the deity that presides over the mind. Specifically, the moon affects the movement of consciousness through the various Chakras (energy-centers in our astral body), impacting our mental state, especially at the time of the full moon and new moon. On the two Ekadasi days in a month, the movement of consciousness through the Chakras brings the mind to rest at the Ajna-Chakra (the center between the eyebrows) on one Ekadasi of the month and at the Anahata-Chakra (the heart) on the other. Swami Krishnananda explains,
“Since these two Chakras are [the mind’s] own abode, the mind is at home here, i.e., it gets concentrated and collected easily. This has been the experience given by our ancients, and this has to be taken advantage of by Sadhakas [spiritual aspirants]. 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 practice deep meditation.”
Further, because the moon is not in its full glory during Ekadasi and because the moon deity is closely related to food, food consumed on Ekadasi days remain undigested.
Most of all, the Ekadasi vrata is of great spiritual significance. According to the renowned Swami Sivananda, “In this Kali Yuga, even if just one Ekadashi is observed with dispassion, faith and devotion, and if the mind is wholly fixed on Hari, one is freed from the rounds of birth and death. There is no doubt about this. The scriptures give us their assurance on this point…If one observes the Ekadashi fast regularly, Lord Hari is propitiated. All sins are destroyed. The mind is purified. Devotion gradually develops. Love for God becomes intense.”
Ekadasi is also central to the sustenance of Dharma. A text from the Sri Madhwacharya Seva Sangha explains,
“The Vedic religion presupposes that Dharma is maintained by the observance of truth, prayer and ritual. If religion is compared to the human body, its ritualism would be the legs and its philosophy the head. It means no religion can stand without ritualism. Since moral and spiritual discipline have a special place in the Vedic religion, rituals like Vrathas form an integral part of it. Some Vaishnava Vrathas are obligatory and some others are optional…The observer has the satisfaction that he has done something scared which is different form the secular. This psychological function of ritualism provides an outlet for religious emotion.”
The real significance of Ekadasi, however, depends upon the attitude of the individual. The results attained from the observance of Ekadasi are in direct proportion to the individual’s sincerity of intent, earnestness, and depth of devotion. Further, the form of the fruit obtained is also dependent on the individual’s inclinations. If the observer wishes to obtain physical benefits, he or she will be so blessed. If the observer wishes to become a master yogi through the observance of the Ekadasi vrata, it will be so. If the observer wishes to attain punya (spiritual merit), punya will be showered upon him. If the observer wishes for moksha, the observance of Ekadasi will lead him further on the path towards moksha. And, if the observer wishes to please Sri Hari, he will attain Sri Hari’s grace and favor, and through that grace, Sri Hari Himself will bless the devotee with the most appropriate and auspicious of fruits as the Lord always knows and provides what is best for us when we surrender to His grace: Sri Krishna proclaims in the Bhagavad Gita, verse 9.22, “For those men who worship Me alone, thinking of no other, for those ever-united, I secure what is not already possessed and preserve what they already possess.”
III. Significance of Vaikuntha Ekadasi
As described above, Ekadasi, the eleventh day after the full moon and the new moon, is sacred for all Sanatana Dharmis (Hindus). In particular, Vaikuntha Ekadasi is to be observed by all Hindus. According to our shastras, the observance of Shukla Paksha Ekadasi (the eleventh day after the new moon) is prescribed for grihastas (householders), while Ekadasi in both Shukla and Krishna pakshas (i.e., in both fortnights of the month) are to be observed by vanaprasthis (those in the third ashrama (stage) of life who have retired from household duties), sannyasis (those in the fourth ashrama of life who are formal renunciates), and widows. However, the most important observance for all classes of people is the Vaikuntha Ekadasi, which falls in the Shukla Paksha of the auspicious month of Margasheersha, (c.f. Bhagavad Gita, verse 10.35: masanam marga-sirso ‘ham (Among the months, I am Margasheersha)). Thus, Vaikuntha Ekadasi is to be observed by all.
The history of Vaikuntha Ekadasi and the various traditions and auspicious occurrences associated with it illustrate why Vaikuntha Ekadasi is the most sacred of all Ekadasis.
1. Origin of Vaikuntha Ekadasi
The Sri Pancharatra Agama provides one account of the origin of Vaikuntha Ekadasi. During the Pralayam (Great Deluge), Sriman Narayana created Brahma and commanded him to act as the Creator. Brahma eventually forgot his true nature and became afflicted with ahamkara (the illusion of the body-mind complex as the self who is the agent of action). Due to Brahma’s deluded thinking, two asuras (demons), named Lokan and Kantakan, sprang from his ears (which are the site of ego).
Lokan and Kantakan were about to kill Brahma for daring to think he was equal to Sriman Narayana when Brahma prayed to Sriman Narayana for help, and the ever-compassionate Sriman Narayana smiled upon His devotee and delivered him from the asuras. Sriman Narayana also granted a boon to Lokan and Kantakan to reward their devotion to Him. They begged Him to allow them to fight Him for a month and thus attain His holy feet. Sriman Narayana consented and at the end of the month-long battle, He slew them and, by His grace, transformed them into His eternal servitors and attendants (Nitya suris with sankha (conch) and chakra (discus)), who became permanent residents of Vaikuntha.
Upon entering Vaikuntha, Lokan and Kantakan addressed Sriman Narayana: “O Narayana! You let us into Vaikuntha by opening the northern gates of Your divine abode on this Dhanu Maasa Shukla Paksha Ekadasi day. We beg You to grant us another boon, which will make it possible for all people to remember us and this day as Vaikuntha Ekadasi. Please grant us this boon, which will make it possible for ALL human beings, who enter the northern gates at any of Your consecrated temples on earth on this day to reach Vaikuntha when their physical body perishes. After reaching Your kingdom of Vaikuntha, they should also be blessed with Nitya Seva Kaimkaryam (rendering eternal service at Iswara’s feet) like us and all other Nitya Suris (immortal devotees and attendees of Bhagavan Vishnu eternally resident in Vaikuntha).” Sriman Narayana granted that boon, too, and from that day onward, the Vaikuntha Ekadasi Utsavam was established, and the entrance of devotees through the northern gate of His temples on Vaikuntha Ekadasi bestows on them entrance to Vaikuntha at the end of their earthly life. There is a mystical significance as to why it is the northern gates that are to be opened on Vaikuntha Ekadasi: the northern direction is known as uttara marga and is particularly auspicious, reflecting the spiritual evolution of man.
2. Churning of the Milky Ocean
According to the Padma Purana, Rishi Durvasa once obtained a sacred garland from a woman, who had received the garland as a gift from Mahalakshmi, the Devi of wealth and auspiciousness, in recognition of her divine musical abilities. Rishi Durvasa presented this garland to Indra, one of the devas (class of celestial beings). Displaying his customary arrogance, Indra tossed the garland onto the head of his elephant, who carelessly crushed the garland beneath his feet. Enraged by this sacrilege, Rishi Durvasa cursed Indra, and Mahalakshmi left Indra loka (the realm of Indra) and disappeared beneath the Ksheera Samudra (Milky Ocean). Further, because of Rishi Durvasa’s curse, all the devas and devis were bereft of their former might and glory.
A repentant Indra, accompanied by the devas and devis, approached Bhagavan Vishnu for help. Bhagavan Vishnu advised the devas to start churning the Milky Ocean on Vaikuntha Ekadasi with the help of the danavas (a class of beings akin to demons). The devas agreed and began the churning of the Milky Ocean as instructed, using the Mahameru (a sacred mountain) as the churning rod and Vasuki (the Naga (Serpent) king) as the rope. Bhagavan Vishnu Himself took the form of a tortoise in His Kurma Avatara (incarnation) and plunged to the bottom of the deep ocean to keep the Mahameru balanced on his back.
As the Milky Ocean was churned, the first to appear was the Kalakuta Visha, which was a poison so terrible that only Shiva could swallow it without perishing. Shiva heroically swallowed the visha and kept it in his throat; the poison was so fierce that it turned Shiva’s throat blue and He was thereafter known as Neelakantha.
The churning of the Milky Ocean continued, and many auspicious items appeared, such as the Panchajanya (Sri Maha Vishnu’s sacred conch), the Kalpavriksha (wish-fulfilling tree), the Kamadhenu (the wish-fulfilling cow), and Airavata (the special four-tusked white elephant who became Indra’s vahana (mount)). These were apportioned among the various devas.
The devas fasted and remained sleepless all day and all night. On the morning of the next day (dwaadasi or the twelfth day of the moon), Mahalakshmi Herself appeared before the devas and blessed them. She appeared in an effulgent golden hue (Hiranya Varanam Harinim Suvarna Rajathasrajam) and radiated the glory of a cool moon (Chandram Prabhasam Yasasa Jvalanthim). She rose before Bhagavan Vishnu like a lightning bolt out of the sky and enlivened all the directions with Her glory (Ranjayanthi Disa Kanthya Vidhyuth Soudhamini Yatha). From this instance of the devas fasting all day on Vaikuntha Ekadasi and remaining awake all of the following night, awaiting the appearance of Mahalakshmi, was born the tradition of observing Ekadasi by fasting all day and remaining sleepless through the night to obtain divine grace in the morning of the dwaadasi day.
There is a deeper meaning to this story. During the churning of the Milky Ocean, the devas and asuras warred over possession of the amrita (nectar) that had appeared. Bhagavan Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini Avatara (the enchantress) to seduce the asuras away from the amrita so that the amrita could be distributed among the devas.
Amrita represents truth, and it was this satyam (eternal truth) that Bhagavan Vishnu protected and bestowed upon the devas on Vaikuntha Ekadasi. Thus, Vaikuntha Ekadasi actually represents the revelation of truth by Bhagavan Vishnu. Sai Baba says, “So, if anyone is treading along the path of falsehood, unreality, untruth, illusion or delusion, God “distributes” [on the day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi] the path of reality, the path of light, the path of knowledge, the path of wisdom. In other words … Asatoma Sat Gamaya; Tamasoma Jyotir Gamaya; Mruthyorma Amritam Gamaya (Lead us from untruth to Truth; Lead us from darkness to Light; Lead us from death to Immortality).”
3. Bhagavad Gita
Vaikuntha Ekadasi is also particularly sacred, because it was the day on which the holy dialogue between Sri Krishna and Arjuna, immortalized in the Bhagavad Gita, took place. Therefore, Vaikuntha Ekadasi is also celebrated as Gita Jayanti. The inner essence of Vaikuntha Ekadasi is the revelation of the principles articulated in the Bhagavad Gita, which are themselves the essence of the Vedas. Because most people cannot digest the philosophical doctrines of the Vedas, they can attain the same reward by observing the external rites of Vaikuntha Ekadasi.
Bhagavan Vishnu commemorates the Gita Upadesa that He had bestowed upon Arjuna by assuming the role of a mumukshu (seeker of moksha) on Vaikuntha Ekadasi. This is reflected in the traditional practice of the northern gates of the temples of Vishnu being opened on this day so that Bhagavan Vishnu can lead all of his devotees (mumukshus) through the gates, symbolizing the path we will all one day take from earth to Vaikuntha (or other abode of one’s ishta devata (the particular manifestation of Iswara one personally worships)).
4. Sacred Month of Margasheersha
Vaikuntha Ekadasi is also especially sacred because it occurs in the month of Margasheersha, which is considered to be the most auspicious of all months. Sri Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita, verse 10.35: “masanam marga-sirso ‘ham” (Among the months, I am Maargasheersha – December-January). This month is especially conducive to spiritual practice and worship. Both Shaiva (relating to Shiva) and Vaishnava (relating to Vishnu) temples throughout Tamil Nadu hold many festivals during this month.
During this period, all over South India and particularly in Tamildesa (Tamil Nadu), young maidens worship Andal (the consort and bride of Sri Ranganatha) in hopes of attaining a worthy husband and a happy marriage. The Tiruppaavai, composed by Andal in the 8th century A.D., is sung in many Vaishnava temples at this time. This collection of devotional hymns describes the love and longing for Sri Krishna experienced by Andal and the gopis—the vratas undertaken to please Him; waking up early in the morning to gather the gopis together to visit the home of Nanda (the foster father of Sri Krishna) in order to awake Sri Krishna; and the bliss of uniting with Him. The Tiruppaavai is broadcast from Srirangam throughout this month while the city prepares itself for Vaikuntha Ekadasi.
IV. Vaikuntha Ekadasi Utsavam (Festival) at Srirangam
Vaikuntha Ekadasi is particularly relevant to the Sri Ranganatha devasthanam (temple) at Srirangam. Let us learn about this devasthanam, one of the holiest dhamas (religious sites) in all of Hinduism.
1. Srirangam Devasthanam
To reward the penance of Brahma, Bhagavan Vishnu emerged from the Milky Ocean as Sri Rangantha reclining in a Ranga Vimanam (celestial chariot). Brahma presented Sri Ranganatha in the Ranga Vimanam to Ikshawaku, the ruler of Ayodhya. Ikshawaku’s descendant, Sri Rama, presented Sri Ranganatha and the chariot to Vibhishana, who was then visiting Ayodhya. Vibhishana was the king of Lanka and a great devotee of Rama who had abandoned his own brother, Ravana, in favor of Rama, Ravana’s enemy.
Vibhishana carried Sri Ranganatha to Lanka on the condition that he was never to place Him on the ground. For, were Sri Ranganatha to be set on the ground at any place for even one moment, He would never move from that place thereafter. Vibhishana reached the banks of the Cauvery and looked for someone to take care of Sri Ranganatha while he performed his puja. As it was fated that Sri Ranganatha was to be installed at that very site, Ganesha decided to help things along by taking the form of a boy and offering to help Vibhishana. While Vibhishana was performing his puja, Ganesha placed the Ranga Vimanam on the ground and ran away. When Vibhishana rose from his puja to find the Ranga Vimanam immovable, he was anguished at the thought of having to leave behind his beloved Sri Ranganatha.
In his limitless compassion, Sri Ranganatha appeared before Vibhishana and promised him that He would always face the South when reclining on his Adhishesha so as to bless Vibhishana and Lanka forever. We see here the civilizational and spiritual unity that bound the greater Indian subcontinent together even in those days—the Ranga Vimanam was a gift from Rama, a king in Uttara Bharat (North India), to Vibhishana, the king of Lanka, that was subsequently installed in Dakshina Bharat (South India) with Ranganatha’s promise that He would forever keep within his protective gaze the kingdom of Lanka.
The Sri Ranganatha devasthanam at Srirangam is one of the eight swayam vyakta kshetras (abodes where Iswara revealed Himself without any human involvement) and one of the 108 Divya Deshas (sites sanctified by Bhagavan Vishnu) that line the way from Badrinath in North India to Kanyakumari in South India.
Srirangam was also the center of Vaishnavism at its heights between the 7th and 13th centuries A.D. This is where Andal sang the Tiruppaavai and became the eternal bride of Sri Ranganatha by climbing the serpent bed upon which He lay and merging into Him. This was also the center of Ramunjacharya’s activities; Ramanujacharya (founder of the Visisht Advaita Sampradaya – one of the 3 major Hindu sampradayas extant today) established the code of worship and administration followed today at the devasthanam. The Sri Ranganatha devasthanam is known as Bhooloka Vaikuntham (the earthly Vaikuntha), and so it is only natural that Vaikuntha Ekadasi is celebrated here with great pomp and devotion in an utsavam (festival) in which millions participate.
2. The Story of Nammalvar
Nammalvar (also spelled as Nammazhwar) was one of the twelve Alvars (also spelled as Azhwars), including the female saint Andal, who were the foremost Vaishnava saints in Tamil Nadu between the seventh and tenth centuries A.D. Nammalvar is an especially auspicious name: Alvar refers to one of rare spiritual attainment, and Namma means “our.” Therefore, Nammalvar literally means “the saint belonging to all of us.” This is a particularly appropriate name for Nammalvar, because Bhagavan Vishnu anointed him as the guru for all people, by attaining whom one may directly attain Bhagavan Vishnu.
Nammalvar was born in a state of Samadhi. From birth itself, he did not cry, move, or open his eyes or mouth. He did not breathe, drink milk, or physically move, but all the same, he grew like other healthy babies. His worried parents lay him in an emerald cradle under a tamarind tree next to a temple for Sri Adinatha once a day every day. One day, as his parents dozed off, the little boy Nammalvar crawled out of the cradle and towards the bottom of the nearby tamarind tree. He sat down cross-legged, closed his eyes, and sat in that state of unmoving meditation for sixteen years. Nammalvar did not utter a single word in all this time.
Then one day, a saint from North India named Madhurakavi who was staying at Ayodhya at that time, suddenly saw a very bright star in the southern direction. He was unaccountably attracted to that particular star and began moving towards it, journeying to the southern part of India, guided solely by the light of that single star until he finally found the star emanating from Nammalvar’s tejas (radiance arising from spiritual attainment).
Madhurakavi wanted to test Nammalvar’s attainment. He threw a small stone into a nearby pond, prompting Nammalvar to open his eyes. Madhurakavi asked, “If the small is born in a dead body, what will it eat and where will it stay?” Nammalvar, who had never until then spoken, immediately responded, “That it will eat and there it will stay!”
Madhurakavi was so moved by this profound answer that he begged to be taken as Nammalvar’s disciple. Nammalvar consented and commanded him to record the pasurams (hymns) that Nammalvar spontaneously began singing. Nammalvar composed many of the hymns that comprise the Divya Prabandham, which is the corpus of the devotional hymns of the Alvars.
At the age of thirty-five, Nammalvar could no longer bear the pangs of separation from Sriman Narayana, and Sriman Narayana was also anxious to be reunited with his beloved devotee. Nammalvar then merged into Sriman Narayana and attained Vaikuntha before Madurakavi’s eyes.
Simultaneously, Madhurakavi was blessed with a golden vigraha of Nammalvar (pictured on the left) (once the divine energy manifests in a murti (deity), the murti becomes living and is thereafter known as a vigraha) that he immediately installed in front of the tamarind tree. In later times, this vigraha was brought to Srirangam where it remains today.
People on earth were so distraught at Nammalvar’s sudden departure that they cried for him to be brought back temporarily from Vaikuntha to earth. The ever compassionate Sriman Narayana consented and sent Nammalvar back to earth. It is said that when Nammalvar returned to earth, he came through the northern gates of the Sri Ranganatha devasthanam at Srirangam. That is part of the reason why the opening of the northern gates is such an auspicious and holy occasion at Sri Ranganatha devasthanam on Vaikuntha Ekadasi.
3. Vaikuntha Ekadasi at Srirangam Today
The Vaikuntha Ekadasi utsavam at Srirangam is celebrated over a 21-day period. At the end of the first ten days, Sri Ranganatha appears in the Mohini Avatara (referring to Bhagavan Vishnu taking the form of Mohini, the enchantress, to seduce the asuras who were taking away by force the amrita (the nectar of immortality) that appeared during the churning of the Milky Ocean). On the day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi, Sri Ranganatha is garbed in Ratna Kavacha (diamond / adamant armor) and carried to the thousand-pillared hall from the sanctum sanctorum through the northern gate known as the “Gate of Vaikuntha.” This gate remains closed throughout the year and is only opened on the occasion of Vaikuntha Ekadasi.
Thousands of pilgrims keep an all-night vigil in the temple precincts, waiting to follow Sri Ranganatha through the gate in the morning and thus attain His favor. It is said that Sri Ranganatha bestows all worldly happiness as well as liberation hereafter to all devotees who gather at Srirangam at this auspicious time.
At the time of Nammalvar Moksham (nine days after Vaikuntha Ekadasi), the vigraha of Nammalvar (pictured on the left) is gently placed in prostrating form at the feet of Sri Ranganatha. Tulasi leaves are showered upon Nammalvar until he is completely covered by and immersed in the leaves. The showering of Tulasi leaves denotes Sri Ranganatha granting Nammalvar sayujya moksha (the highest form of moksha wherein the individual jiva merges into Iswara). Sri Ranganatha then presents Nammalvar with garlands and kasturi (musk), honoring his beloved mumukshu who has now become a resident of His realm. Nammalvar is then returned to his honored place.
V. How to Celebrate Vaikuntha Ekadasi
As described above, the Ekadasi vrata generally consists of fasting. The fast is to be broken on Dwaadasi. The appropriate time for breaking the fast is given in the panchangam and may vary from location to location. As an example, for New York, NY, USA, the appropriate time of breaking the fast on the Dwaadasi following Vaikuntha Ekadasi in 2006 is between 7:20 and 10:26 in the morning. To find the appropriate time for breaking the fast on this Dwaadasi as well as on other Dwaadasis in your particular location, please consult http://www.iskcongbc.org/vcal/.
The appropriate method of fasting varies from individual to individual, depending on an individual’s circumstances, adhikara (competence), physical abilities, and sampradaya. The highest form of fasting on Ekadasi is nirjala, which means not a single morsel of food or drop of water is taken throughout the fasting period. Other common forms of fasting on Ekadasi are either to partake of only fruits and milk or to avoid all grains.
When breaking the fast, if one has been observing nirjala Ekadasi, he or she should break the fast with fruit juice or milk rather than food. Other observers of Ekadasi should break the fast with grains.
It is also tradition to maintain an all-night vigil on Vaikuntha Ekadasi night. Such a vigil may be maintained by participating in kirtana, spending the night at the temple (for temples that observe this custom), reading the scriptures, etc.
3. Visiting a Temple
Many Hindu temples will have special celebrations to commemorate Vaikuntha Ekadasi. It is advisable to visit one’s favorite temple on this day as the atmosphere will be specially charged, and the positive vibrations from the throng of devotees will permeate the devotee and the devotee’s home environment upon returning from the temple. Also, the festive celebration of Vaikuntha Ekadasi, which usually includes recitation of the Bhagavad Gita, making the procession through the northern gates of the temple, narrating the story of Sri Ranganatha’s appearance from the Milky Ocean and His voyage to Srirangam, are most enjoyable and promote a bhava (devotional attitude) that brings about peace, harmony, and contentment for the individual and also for the entire family.
4. Celebrating at Home
Vaikuntha Ekadasi can be observed at home in several ways. One way is to welcome Bhagavan Vishnu and Mahalakshmi into one’s home by cleaning the house, lighting a diya (oil or ghee (clarified butter) lamp), burning incense, and doing a small puja. Puja can be done by offering to one’s ishta devata avahanam (invitation to come and reside in the proffered asanam (seat) for the duration of the puja), asanam (honored seat), water to wash feet and hands, a bath, tilakam (vermillion for Devi, bhasma for Shiva, or sandalwood for Vishnu), fresh clothes, ornaments, the light of the diya, gandha (incense smoke), naivedyam (offering of cooked food), madhuparkam (sweetened drink), drinking water, flowers, and pradakhina (a form of prostration that consists of circumambulating the deity). For detailed instructions on how to conduct puja, please consult http://www.hindubooks.org/puja/.
Other auspicious activities are reciting or reading the Tiruppavai of Andal (please see http://www.ramanuja.org/sv/alvars/andal/tiruppavai.html for the text in Tamil, a Roman transliteration and English translation, and audio rendition) or the Vishnu Sahasranama (please see http://www.stephen-knapp.com/sri_vishnu_sahasranam_translations.html). The Bhagavad Gita, in particular, should be read, recited, and studied on this day as Vaikuntha Ekadasi is also celebrated, according to certain traditions, as Gita Jayanti (please see http://www.gitasupersite.iitk.ac.in/ for a variety of translations, commentaries, and audio renditions of the Bhagavad Gita).
Those who are fasting should refrain from excessive physical activity. Instead, time should be spent reading about and reflecting upon the stories of the Alavars and our other acharyas, especially Ramanujacharya, Andal, and Nammalvar. Reading of the Puranas and other accounts describing the glories of the various forms of Iswara, particularly the Srimad Bhagavatam and the Brahmavaivarta Purana, is also recommended.
In short, whatever activities take one closer to an attitude of devotion and spiritual reflection are considered auspicious and appropriate activities for the celebration of Vaikuntha Ekadasi.
 “Vaikuntha Ekadasi,” Part II, dated January 4th 2004. Available at http://www.saiwisdom.com/sunday/English/2004/04.01.04(E)central.html.
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