Let’s review the essential principles about Ekādaśī, from the Twelfth and Thirteenth Chapter of Hari Bhakti Vilāsa.
What does “Fasting” mean?
“Fasting” means not eating. At the very least, do not eat as much as you usually do. (HBV 12.6,91).
The best fast means not eating or drinking [or sleeping] at all from one sunrise till the next. Any and all ekādaśīs can and should ideally be followed in this manner. But, there are certain things one can eat or drink that do not really reduce the efficacy of the fast:
- Roots (root vegetables like Potatoes? I think so)
- Medicine / herbs (leafy vegetables like spinach? I don’t think so)
There are also situations in which one can eat other things without reducing the efficacy of the fast. This condition occurs when one receives a direct order to eat from a brahmana or guru. (HBV 12.100)
Eating anything else reduces the potency of one’s ekādaśī vow. Again, at the least one should reduce ones eating.
Full “fasting” also means fasting from sleep. (HBV 13.86, 87,171, 182, 190, 198, 219-220). While remaining awake at night, one should study Śrīmad Bhāgavatam and the Purāṇas (HBV 13.131, 530)
Who Should Do It?
Everyone – many Vrata’s are forbidden to different types of people, but Ekādaśī is open for everyone to follow, even non-vaiṣṇavas. (HBV 12.15,16, 74, 78). Furthermore, no one needs anyone’s permission to follow ekādaśī, everyone can do it freely. (HBV 12.74 commentary)
The old, young, and infirm do not have to observe it strictly. “Young” means under eight years old. “Old” means over eighty years old. (HBV 12.75) “Infirm” means diseased, or with extremely high metabolism. These people who are exempt should observe ekādaśī less strictly, by fasting until sundown. (HBV 12.93)
When to Do It?
Fast the from the 11th (ekādaśī) sunrise to the 12th (dvādaśī) sunrise, then eat. Don’t eat a feast, eat a simple, small breakfast with gravity and calm. Hari is pleased by those who take this trouble. (HBV 12.5, 13.18).
No inauspicious astrological consideration makes ekādaśī unfit (bad weekday, edge of a timespan, waning moon, etc). The only exception here is that the ekādaśī must not be even slightly mixed with the previous lunar day (10th, daśamī). The 10th must not stretch at all past the sunrise of the 11th (ekādaśī) – in fact it shouldn’t come close to sunrise at all, some say it should not even endure past midnight. When this happens, ekādaśī must be postponed till the 12th and broken on the 13th. (HBV 12.198-409)
Since its very difficult to do all these astrological calculations, one should trust the decision of the most senior and learned Vaiṣṇava in one’s sanga. (HBS 12.410-411)
What’s The Result?
Firstly, the simple result of regular fasting is that your health improves. Ekadaśī is said to be the “best medicine” (HBV 12.110) – and many statements about “removing sin” can just as accurately be translated as “removing pain and suffering from the body.”
Each ekādaśī has its own special result, but the result in general is that if you observe ekādaśī, you express affection to Hari, and this pleases him. If you don’t observe it, you show disinterest to Hari, which is not good for the soul. This will usually be expressed in śāstra with śāstra’s flair for dramatic and illustrative language such as “If you fast on Ekādaśī you go to Vaikuṇṭha. If you don’t you go to Hell.” And “If you eat food/grain on ekādaśī you ‘eat sin’ because the ‘personification of sin’ resides in food/grain on ekādaśī.” The meaning is that ekādaśī fasting is good because it increases ones devotion and dedication to Hari, which leads to liberation (mokṣa/vaikuṇṭha). Not fasting on Ekādaśī is bad because it does just the opposite, it increases ones neglect of Hari, which does nothing to stop the selfish deeds that absorb on in karmas that bring hellish suffering. (HBV 111-197)
Every ekādaśī has its own special twist, usually its own special benediction. But there are a few ekādaśī that are particularly important to observe strictly.
These ekādaśīs mark the days in the year when Hari lies down to rest (śayana), turns over in his sleep (parṣva) and wakes up (uttana). If we want to be serious about bhakti-yoga we should observe these three ekādaśī with much more strictness than usual. The best, by far, is if we can do absolute, complete fasts on these three days (“nirjāla ekādaśī” without sleeping). If we consider ourselves serious devotees, we thrill Hari by following these three ekādaśīs strictly, and severely disappoint him by not doing so. (HBV 12.101-103)
There is also an ekādaśī named “nirjāla ekādaśī” which is particularly good for absolute, complete fast. Sometimes it is called “Pāṇḍava Nirjāla Ekādaśī” because Bhīṣma highly recommended this ekādaśī to Pāṇḍava Bhīma. This ekādaśī comes in the hottest part of India’s summer (making it particularly difficult to follow without drinking). HBV 15.20-22 says that anyone who strictly fasts even from water from this sunrise to the next sunrise achieves all the results of doing absolute fasts on every ekādaśī of the year. (Which may explain the curious idea that you should follow this nirjāla fast only if you’ve “broken” another ekādaśī. To clarify, Nirjāla Ekādaśī is not for “fixing” broken ekādaśīs. It is for gaining 24 times the normal fruit of following ekādaśī).
HBV stipulates that things like bathing and acaman do not break the fast on water. HBV 15.23-25 state that the means of breaking this particular fast is also essential: one has to give charity to brahmanas early the next morning, at sunrise. The charity should be water and gold (which means money), and then one should feed the brahmanas and break the fast by eating from what remains.
If one is serious to follow this ekādaśī, he or she should consult Hari Bhakti Vilasa, Chapter Fifteen, texts 35 – 44 for exact mantras, rituals, and rules. If you are going to go through the trouble to observe this, you might as well go all the way and do it exactly right.