All kinds of vows of fasting and asceticism are practiced on the occasion of diverse religious festivals celebrated during the course of the year. These vows can be performed on the occasion of the Hindu rites, which are related to specific stages in life; such as birth, name-giving, first eating of solid food, puberty, the beginning of Vedic studies, marriage, and cremation. Among these, vratas are incredibly a striking part of the Hindu religion. Even today, millions of Hindus abide by the rituals and implement all kinds of vratas.
In Hinduism, the term vrata has been widely known since the early Vedic Period. In the Rgveda, one of the oldest classical texts in Hinduism, the word vrata occurs just over two hundred times alone or in combination with other words (Kane 5). This implies that the term itself, effectively, is at least three thousand years old. Furthermore, the word vrata is also referred to in other respected groups of texts such as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Upanisads and Sutras (Pearson 44). The term vrata has been mentioned in various literatures for several centuries until today, however, many still do not understand the true implication of vrata; even scholars today often debate on the authentic meanings of this word.
Vrata is viewed uniquely by the distinct castes and regions in the diverse parts of India. Pearson explains that “…the concept of vrata in the Rgveda is closely connected with the larger metaphysical concept of the cosmic order, righteousness in the Hindu tradition, and with the governed and governing activity of the gods” (Pearson 45). Vratas throughout the Hindu tradition is contemplated as part of dharma (righteousness) for each individual, placing each of the gods to their highest level. Moreover, Pearson defines vrata as a rite that is performed on a regular basis to achieve particular objectives, following respective rules that have been transmitted from one generation to the next (Pearson 45). Vratas have been an important feature of Hindu religious life for a long while; however, the beliefs and practicing of vratas is often associated generally more often with Hindu women. In Sanskrit, more universally, vrata denotes a “religious vow”. Vrata signifies a set of rules and discipline stemming from the verbal root ‘vrn’ which literally means ‘to choose’. These vows are said to be imperative ritualistic obligations serving on the sacrificer for several reasons.
Many may wonder the purpose of performing vratas. The rationales behind and the kinds of vratas vary depending on the precise caste system or region in India to which one belongs to. Pearson in her study, “Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind,” states: “Some Vratas seem to be related to individual status and primary roles—so that one god’s Vrata may be quite different from another’s, or the Vrata of a male cowherd different from that of a female teacher.” For instance, Navarata (nine nights) vratas may be common in North India, while Nagpancami vratas may be common in South India [Navaratri literally means ‘nine nights’, this vrata is observed in most parts of India from the first till the ninth day of Ashvin (Brown 230). It commemorates the victory of Durga over a demon. It is also known as Rama Navami, it is popular in northern India. Nagpancami is an old festival common in South India celebrated for the purpose of appeasing snakes (Pearson 291)]. Nevertheless, some vratas do have common purposes. In general, vratas found throughout India are optional ritual observances. Placing the respective deity to its supreme degree, vratas would commonly involve certain rituals such as fasting (upavasas), worship (puja), the recital of narratives (kathas), and the giving of gifts such as money, food items and clothing to specified recipients (Pearson 229).
In Northern India, vratas are closely associated to bhakti devotional rituals and comprise a crucial element of many devotional practices (Wadley 147). Wadley further explains that most vratas are also performed to gain moksa (liberation from the cycle of life and death), to recuperate life, to alleviate past karmas, and above all, most prominently and commonly to please the different gods and goddesses (Wadley 148). It is believed by many individuals in India that vratas aim for the improvement of life which may alter destiny, or help maintain rta (the cosmic order). This betterment, nevertheless, requires the abolition of previous sins that have led to current difficulties. Moreover, through observing vratas, one could also expect to gain bhukti (objects of enjoyment), mukti (liberation from life and birth), and the destruction of sins (Mishra 61). The basic aim of a vrata, more often than not, is to influence some deity to come to one’s support as one traverses the ocean of existence (Wadley 149). One’s faith and devotion signals to the deity the sincerity allied with the vrata. It is then commonly assumed by these loving devotees that the respective deity will reward their faith and service with some kind of boon (reward).
Vratas are also undertaken to venerate the birth of a deity; for example, Janmastami (the birth of Lord Krsna), which is held yearly. Furthermore, vratas may also be performed on a certain day of the week for the deity associated with that day which may serve a specific purpose. In India some of the most common such vratas include: Monday Vratas sacred to Lord Siva and Friday’s Santosi Ma Vrata conducted for making wishes come true (Brown 252). In Hinduism, the days of the week are ruled by the planetary deities and are also indirectly related to the main deities of Hinduism (Walters 47). Fellow devotees may choose to fast, or also abstain from certain substances like fish, meat, or even onion and garlic on the day dedicated to the deity they are addressing with their vow. For example, Somavara (Monday) is dedicated to Candra (the moon) and to Lord Siva. Fasting on Monday is directed to all general spiritual purposes. On this day, when one performs vrata, the Somavara Vrata Katha is also heard or narrated. As part of the ritual, milk and honey may be poured to the linga (embodiment of Siva). Also meat, onion, and garlic are avoided for consumption on this day (Subramuniyaswami 111).
The rituals and traditions of devotion diverge from vrata to vrata, but most commonly, rites also differ based on the respective deity. For instance, Swarna-Gauri-Vrata is dedicated to Ma Gauri, another name for Parvati Devi. Similarly, the Vara Siddhi Vinayak Vrata is for Lord Ganesha and the Satya NarayanaVrata is for the appraisement of Lord Vishnu. Like these, there are numerous vratas exceptionally frequent throughout India.
For Hindus, particularly women, performing vratas is quite essential. From an early age, Hindu girls learn about the procedures, principles, and meanings of Vratas through observation of elder, experienced female relatives and gradual participation in the rites. They are taught that it is their duty and special ability as women to promote auspiciousness and well-being in the family (Kalakdina 22). The performance of vratas is an important part of this process because it involves bringing together special time, place and items considered favorable for keeping an environment charged with auspiciousness (Pearson 1993:233).
Although women are the predominant ones to perform vratas, male participation should not be underestimated. Hindus believe that anyone who has faith in a vrata and wishes to perform it as per the rules can keep the vrata. During the Vedic period, sacrifices were strictly restricted to men of the three upper castes, known as the dvijas (twice born) (Timothy, 570). As the generations passed by, the doors of the vratas were thrown open to one and all, thus bringing this aspect of ritualistic Hinduism to the lower castes and women (Timothy 571). Amazingly, women have become the leading ones performing these vratas today.
As mentioned earlier, the rituals of each vrata differ depending on the occasion. It is highly believed that these vratas do work; within the limit of their powers, deities are able to reward their devotees. Each vrata serves its own ideal purpose. Some vratas are performed to gain eternal happiness while others promise sons, good health, wealth or even the well being of a specific loved one (Robinson 182). For example, Karva Chautha is a significant vrata kept by many North Indian women to ensure the well being, prosperity, and longevity of their husbands. Karva Chautha provides the opportunity for all married women to get close to their in-laws. Possessing tremendous social and cultural importance, this festival is celebrated by keeping a fast, applying henna, and exchanging gifts. This vrata is categorized as a nirjala vrata, which literally means “without water.” During the day, customarily, women from the family gather to carry out a special puja (worship) and an elderly woman, usually the mother-in-law, narrates the legend of Karva Chautha (vrata katha) .Women break their fast only after sighting the moon in the evening and after offerings of water are made to it. They then drink water, indicating the end of the Vrata (Sharma and Young 22).
Distinct rituals like pujas and kathas are exceptionally essential constituents of these extraordinary vratas. Wadley explains “Khatas [i.e. kathas] are manuals detailing ritual rules and associated myths” (Wadley 1983:150). Some very popular vrata kathas are the Satyanarayan Katha, which contains the rituals of the monthly vrata and myths of the Lord Satyanarayan. Similarly, the Sukravar Vrata Katha contains the rules and katha for the performance of a vrata in honor of the goddess Santosi Ma, the Contented Mother (Narayan 17). Unlike most vrata kathas, the Santosi Ma vrata katha is only read by the worshippers themselves; priests are not involved in the worship of Santosi Ma. Vrata kathas like the Satyanarayan Vrata Katha, on the other hand, can be read by Brahmin priests or the worshippers themselves (Narayan 17). Principally, vratas tend to be incomplete without kathas and pujas.
While performing vratas, one must abide by several rules. However, as generations have passed, these rules have loosened considerably and thus embraced larger segments of contemporary society. Some rules, nevertheless, need to be adhered particularly carefully in order to protect the holiness of the ritual system itself. Primarily and most perceptibly, during the period of the observance of a vrata, one should keep clean and pure, observe celibacy, speak the truth, practice forbearance, avoid non-vegetarian food, and scrupulously perform all the rituals connected with the vrata (Subramuniyaswami 156). A vrata should never be left unfinished, nor should a new one be started before completing the old one. Fortunately enough, it is believed that if one is sick or too old, a close relative may perform the vrata on the other’s behalf. Finally, vratas are typically done at specific auspicious timings, places, and in modes laid out by astrological findings (Subramuniyaswami 156).
As the generations have passed there has been a significant decrease in the amount of Hindus that perform this auspicious ritual, nevertheless, the value of vratas has tremendously increased over the past years. As mentioned earlier, to women in particular, performing vratas has become a vital part of life. Vratas have become a daily routine and highly essential ritualistic observance for many Hindus throughout the world. Though in the past vratas were quite essential and many Hindus abided by it each day, many Hindus, with the guidance of elders, continue performing vratas even today.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Brown, Mackenzie C. The Song of the Goddess. Albany: State University of New York
Gopalan, Gopalan V. “Vrat: Ceremonial Vows of Women in Gujrat, India.” Asian
Folklore Studies 37 no 1. 1978. Terre Haute: Indiana State University.
Kalakdina, Margaret (1975) “The Upbringing of a Girl.” In Indian Women: Report on
the Status of Women in India, ed. Devaki Jain. New Delhi: Ministry of Information
Kane, P.V. (1974) History of Dharmasastr. 5 vols. 2nd ed. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriendtal
Leslie, Julia I. (1989) The Perfect Wife. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Lubin, Timothy “Vrata Devine and Human in the early Veda.” Journal of the American
Oriental Society 121 no 4. 2001. Washington: Lee University.
Narayan, Kirin Mondays on the Dark Night of the Moon. US: Oxford University Press
Pearson, Anne “Aspects of Hindu Women’s Vrat Tradition as Constitutive for an Eco-
Spirituality.” Journal of Dharma. 18. (1993): 228-236
Pearson, Anne (1996) Because it gives me peace of mind: ritual fasts in the religious lives
of hindu women. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Robinson, Sandra P. “Hindu paradigms of women: images and values.” Women, religion
and social change 1985: 181-215. Albany, NY: State University of New York Pr.
Rodrigues, Hillary (1999) “Because it gives me peace of mind: ritual fasts in the
Religious lives of hindu women.” Review in Studies in Religion/Sciences religieuses
28 no 2. 240-241
Sharma A., and Young Katherine K (eds.) (2003) Her Voice Her Faith: Women Speak on
World Religion. Colorado: Westview Press.
Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya Living with Siva: Hinduism’s Contemporary
Culture. India, USA: Himalayan Academy.
Wadley, Susan S. “Vrats: Transformers of Destiny.” Karma, an Anthropological Inquiry.
Berkeley, Calif. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983. 147-162.
Walters, Donald J. The Hindu Way of Awakening: Its Revelation Its Symbols. USA:
Crystal Clanty Publishers.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Karva Chautha Vrata
Vara Siddhi Vinayak Vrata
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by Anju Punjabi (April 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.