Why Fast from Grain on Ekadashi?

Question:  Can you explain why we fast from grains on ekadasi? No one has ever been able to explain it to me logically. I mean, for most devotees the fact that srila prabhupada and Lord caitanya recommend it is enough for them. But that’s a faith-based reason, I’m looking for a logic-based explanation.

It does make sense to have a special day every two weeks for extra hearing and chanting, but most devotees don’t hear and chant more on ekadasi. They are just really into the whole ‘no grains’ thing.

I also know the whole “papa purusha” thing  [grains becoming “sinful” on ekadasi] but I’m suspicious about that. It may have been introduced around a campfire sometime in history. Srila prabhupada certainly doesn’t mention papa purusha in any of his books.

It seems a bit bizarre to me how much people are into it when none of them can explain it. So can you logically explain why we should fast from grains on ekadasi?

My Reply: 

Ekadasi is a fasting day. It’s not a day for “no grains,” its a day for “no eating.”

Fasting is very extreme, however, and few people can actually do it – so there is a gradient of reducing consumption – parts of which can still be considered, liberally, “fasting.” For example, you can drink water and still consider it a fast. You can also eat fruits. Like this, the spectrum gradually expands from absolute fast towards normal daily diet. The line gets drawn at the real staples of a daily meal: grains and legumes. Beyond that line it’s just too far of a stretch to call it a fast anymore.

What’s the purpose of not eating?

One thing is, its just healthy. If you have a regular schedule where you reduce your intake by “fasting” you will be much healthier.

More importantly, fasting clears your mind and gives you some mental and emotional self-discipline. Self-discipline of this sort is particularly important for meditation, so regular fasting is a very important part of yoga. It helps us develop the mental discipline to say “no” to our habitual desires and impulses, which is essential when trying to deliberately focus the mind in meditation (in the case of bhakti-yoga the meditation is upon Hari-nama, rūpa, guṇa and līlā).

PS – As for why the 11th day [ekadasi is the 11th phase of the waxing and waning moon] and not the 4th or the 9th or any other – I’m not quite sure at all. Astrologically the 11th is typically described as a day that’s not very good for doing most important things. Maybe that makes it an opportune day for fasting? Symbolically 11 is a number associated with Śiva. But there’s another point that comes out when one studies the technical details about astrology: it seems its actually the 12th that’s the really blessed day (12 being a number associated with Viṣṇu), and the 11th seems like a preparation for it.

PPS – here is an earlier blog post I made with more details substantiating the points I made here, with reference to Hari Bhakti Vilas.

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1 Comment

  1. I do have a few doubts. Firstly I don’t agree that everyone becomes more healthy by fasting. That depends on the individual physical and mental constitution of the person.

    Haribhakti Vilāsa makes provision for that – yes. Various types of people are exempt from ekādaśī vrata – including those with “unusual metabolism.”

    Generally, however, moderate fasting at regular intervals seems fantastic for human health.

    Secondly, while fasting is an important part of yoga, (and it makes total sense for yogis), most of us barely practice traditional yoga. We mostly go to work and manage to offer some of the results to Kṛṣṇa.

    Such people get good karma by following ekādaśī.

    Devotees must practice yoga-meditation – for us this primarily means nāma-japa.

    The extra effort (and expense) required in making grain-free meals that will still get one through the day with enough energy to get one’s job done, usually results in not an increase of devotion, but rather an increase in attending to bodily needs – the opposite goal of ekadasi.

    Personally, if I can’t reduce my energy output on ekādaśī I just stock up on dried fruits and nuts. It’s not terribly expensive, and there is no need to prepare any meal – just stick my hand in a bag and munch when I am starving.

    The majority of devotees I know aren’t yogis as such – they are people struggling to maintain themselves in kali yuga while cramming in some japa, deity worship, preaching and kīrtan

    The “cramming in” of japa is where they are (poor) traditional yogis. Why does it have to be “crammed in”? It is the most important part of life. Cram other things.

    yet nearly all of them have raised fasting on ekadasi to a ‘make or break’ activity when defining a devotee.

    Why should we have to defend their views? Respectfully, we accept neither their priorities nor their conclusions.

    It seems to me that ekadasi, in terms of ritualistic fasting, is less a priority than other bhakti practices, especially when we account for the modern lifestyle of the western population. I think your article on garlic wherein you discuss ‘priorities’ could be quite applicable in this regard. It is really useful fasting like an ancient sadhu when you’re mostly too busy practicing sakama karma yoga (or worse) to even chant the Hare Krishna mantra? This is something I see a whole lot of.

    Definitely ekādaśī vrata is a lower priority than japa vrata, but I see no reason that the ekādaśī vrata would be antagonistic to the japa vrata. If priorities are correct and nāma-bhajan is given highest deference, then what wouldn’t you be eager to support it with other things, like occasional mild fasting.

    Generally devotees don’t increase their bhajan on ekadasi but rather just continue with their regular activities and fast from grains.

    That’s better than doing nothing at all.

    Some even feast on ekadasi although that is obviously pretty warped.

    I agree

    The whole thing seems a bit Hindu to me and seems to be missing the whole point of Krishna consciousness. If the actual goal of ekadasi is to increase one’s devotion, then why fast which is not a primary activity of bhakti? Why not hear and chant more?

    I have no idea where you would get the idea that its a “hindu” thing, or that “hindu” things are necessarily undesirable. Hindu culture – especially the more genuine forms of it – is more amenable to Krishna consciousness than any other culture.

    I have no idea why you say that fasting does not express devotion, thereby increasing it.

    I have no idea why you say that fasting on ekādaśī is not a primary activity of bhatki. Śrī Rūpa counts the observance of holidays associated with Hari as the 9th of the 10 most fundamental items of sādhana.

    Plenty of provision has been given in Haribhakti Vilas so that no one has to be extremely unnatural or extreme in how they observe ekādaśī.

    Fasting on the appearance day of Krishna makes more sense to me – provided it doesn’t detract from your worship and bhajan – but fasting on ekadasi, to me, practically falls into the category of heart hardening austerities, because usually such fasting does not assist the person in remembering Krsna but rather creates an inconvenience in the performance of their service.

    Is it really such an extreme tapasya to eat less twice a month? I don’t get it. I am not even a very renounced or austere person at all, but I really don’t find it that inconvenient or difficult to follow a basic ekādaśī vrata almost every time.

    That said, the most supportive reason that I personally can find to fast from grains on ekadasi is simply faith based – because Prabhupada and Sri Caitanya said we should do it.

    This is not a “reason.” The word reason implies logic. It is a motivation, but not a reason.

    The simple logic is that mild, regular, ocassional fasting is very good for your mind and body – and to coordinate that with ekādaśī imbues it with a connection to hari-bhakti since ekādaśī is a day classically associated with Hari. You don’t find this a solid, simple reason?

    Therefore, if one is able, and if it doesn’t detract from their bhajan or service, then I would recommend it to others.

    I have no idea how it would detract from bhajan or “service.” That seems absurd.

    I don’t think it is a prerequisite for becoming a devotee

    Certainly, I agree. It is meant to assist the process of becoming a devotee. It is not mandatory. Śrī Rūpa says that sādhana can be “ekāṅga” or “anekāṅga” – not all the practices have to be observed. But since ekadāśī is referenced in the 10 primary foundational practices, it is a very good idea to adopt it in a level-headed, practical, simple manner.

    I don’t think Krsna is displeased if some devotees choose to follow ekadasi by increasing their hearing and chanting instead of performing bodily austerities.

    I have no idea what Krishna thinks about it, to be honest. But I think if I honestly cared what Krishna thinks, I wouldn’t try to cut corners. Why not observe ekadāśī to the extent one is able – even if it just means eating less than normal (see the Haribhakti vilas for this reccomendation) rather than redefining it as “not really a fast day.”


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