Ancient wisdom in all fields, like panća bhūtas, was, is and will be there forever. We are unaware that most of the customs we follow are entwined inseparably with our everlasting ancient wisdom. Our ancestors saw it fit to connect every tradition and custom to religious and dharmic duties of people, so that they would benefit both physically and spiritually. One of them is the Ćaturmāsya sankalpam (चातुर्मास्य संकल्पं).
This annual ritual is observed for four months during the months of Āśāhadh-Kartik (आषाढ़–कार्तिक /ஆனி தொடங்கி புரட்டாசி முடிய). It starts with āśāhadhi/Devshayani Ēkādaśi (आषाढी/देवशयनी एकादशी) and ends with Prabodhini/Uṭhāna Ēkādaśi (प्रबोधिनी/ उत्थान एकादशी). Ćaturmāsya is considered most auspicious, as any daana, puja, japa or seva done during this period begets one multifold punya. So, in addition to religious rituals and japa-tapa, seva is of utmost importance during ćaturmāsya.
Before proceeding further, I would like mention briefly about the ajnatavasa (अज्ञातवास), which is similar in some respects. Ajnatavasa means retreating to a secluded place, where one is a stranger, to live for a stipulated period of time. This ritual gives the needed rest physically, mentally and intellectually but also requires one to be conscious spiritually.
Pandavas who possessed higher qualities like respect to elders and acharyas, adherence to truth and compassion towards all living beings were not only active during the ajnatavasa but practiced the kshatriya dharma (क्षत्रिय धर्मं) while serving King Virata of Matsya in various capacities, helping the kingdom prosper. Yudhishtra, as the advisor to the king, Bheema as a cook, Arjuna disguised as a transgender teacher of fine arts to the queen, Nakula and Sahadeva as groom of horses and a cowherd respectively, did yeoman service to the king.
When Duryodhana was unsuccessful in tracing the Pandavas with just days left for the ajnatavasa to end, Bhishma advised them to look for nearby kingdoms that had prospered in the recent past. For, he knew that the Pandavas would only bring happiness and prosperity wherever they went.
Coming to the similarity between ajnatvasa and ćaturmāsya, it is important in both cases to live incognito in a secluded place, to turn inwards and towards Paramātmā and be of service to those around, including to the dwellers of animal and insect world. It is during ćaturmāsya, that one steps back, withdraws from the world, either physically or mentally to regain one’s spiritual and divine energies.
Since ćaturmāsya falls during monsoon, there are millions of small insects and other living beings on the ground. This is the reason our rishis and munis who followed the path of ahimsa, stopped their padayatras, to prevent harm to the creatures. Before the start of ćaturmāsya, Sanyāsis and mathādiśas of all mathās from Kashmir to Kanyakumari withdrew themselves to places where there would be no disturbance or sensory distraction in the form of people and crowds. Thus they proceeded to far off hills, riverbanks and caves, where they observed fasting and silence (मौनव्रत) as they turned inwards to contemplation and dhyana. They subsisted on a sātvik diet of fruits and water, giving due rest to both the panćabhūtas in the body and panćēndriyas of the mind. One can call this internal cleansing.
Observing silence (मौनव्रतं) increases their oxygen intake for internal cleansing. Their spiritual vibration increases manifold because of living in solitude, with their mind directed towards the Supreme Consciousness, experiencing the oneness of Jīvātmā–Paramātmā. As a result, their inner radiance shines through, investing them with divinity. At the end of ćaturmāsya when they return from this isolation, people go to get their darshan and blessings.
But in present times, mathādiśas who observe ćaturmāsya go to other mathās or ashrams, where people flock to seek their blessings. The crowds of devotees and followers with their offerings, the various activities connected to the darshan, the cameras recording the events—all distract and pull them down to earth to prevent them from being one with the Paramātmā. The significance of the sacred ćaturmāsya thus get diluted. With the mundane vibrations of so many people proving to be distracting, spiritual vibration is lost.
Mahaperiyava Chandrashekharendra Saraswati of Kanchi, was among those who used to observe the ćaturmāsya sankalpam in true letter and spirit.
Our ancestors instituted the ćaturmāsya sankalpam as a means to overhaul the panća bhūtas representing the internal organs of the human body–especially of those above the age of 50. Therefore, even householders observed the ćaturmāsya sankalpam.
While sanyasis can go in search of solitude to remote places, our elders at home could not leave their large joint families and go. So, they utilized the benefits of pure vrats to the maximum extent to achieve similar results. Through their actions, they set an example to the younger generations of how to maintain good physical and mental health with a healthy dose of spirituality.
Ćaturmāsya is also the time for several big and small festivals and all of them have elaborate naivedyams, thus encouraging overeating. Vrats being the opposite, help to offset the ill-effects of overeating the rich naivedyams. The elders in the family observed their vrats with just fruits or a liquid diet, spending all their time in doing japa and devotional activities. Some also observed maun vrat, talking only when absolutely necessary. The other members, including the children respected the elders’ silence and withdrawal.
All these austerities have their benefits:
- Liquid diet cleanses the urinary tract (kidneys-bladder).
- The Digestive tract (stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas) gets the much-needed rest from the ordeal of digesting food.
- Intake of fruits when necessary helps eliminate toxic waste from the bowels.
- Juices, mostly vitamin C-enriched nimbu pani, accomplishes three jobs-quenches thirst, cleanses the blood, rejuvenates the circulatory system.
- Maun vrat increases oxygen intake, which helps to cleanse respiratory organs and freshen the brain.
It is for the reasons mentioned above that many foods are proscribed during these sacred months, which also fall during the monsoons when the digestive system is at its most sluggish.
As an effect of observing such vrats along with spiritual pursuits, the elders’ radiated goodness and energy. However, the younger generations were not allowed to fast. The reason being that they are still walking on the path of karma (कर्म मार्गं) and have to fulfil the duties of householders before going on the path of jñāna (ज्ञानमार्गं). For them, earning money, running the family, bringing up children, taking care of the elders and doing other allied duties are important. They need the physical energy to do all the work and can’t fall prey to weakness due to hunger. Therefore, the elders, in all their wisdom, told the younger generation, ‘kutti virudam kudiyai kedukkum’, which, loosely translated means that the young should not fast, lest it affects the family’s fortunes.
Today everyone observes vrats, mostly eating ‘special foods’, consuming unhealthy fried foods and munching through the day, all in the name of ‘vrat ka khana.’ Basically, they only avoid certain items of food, otherwise eating and drinking as usual. This can be counterproductive.
Our elders combined scientific and spiritual wisdom which helped them develop tremendous inner strength. It stood them and their family in good stead even during adversities and calamities. They guided the younger generation by example.
In the next part, I will speak about the parivrajakas or wanderers who observe this kind of physical and spiritual cleansing as they walk, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups, doing seva as they go.