Upavaas - The act of "nearing"


S. Ainavolu

4/5/2022 6 min read

Upavaas – The act of “nearing”


Upavaas is seen as the traditional act of fasting. Upa-vaas etymologically means “near residing” or simply staying closer. Near or closer to GOD, is the implicit expectation and meaning. On Upavaas day one disengages from routine activities, including the time-consuming act of food preparation, and spends more time on one’s Sadhana, the “pursuit”. This nearness to GOD has to have both depth and breadth of experience. Over the years, the act of Upavaas got reduced to the routine of notional fasting. The awareness around the intent is often missing, and clarity needs to be given to the NextGen.

Often we lose the spirit and only mechanics and motion remain. The “practices” often face criticism first and ridicule later as none around is in a position to explain the “Why” part of the practice. Rigidities consume the space and it will be dictated that it “has to be done in this way” as it always was done so. “Why” is the first question NextGen often asks. Over years, “What” getting practiced gets complex, and “Why”, the rationale goes missing. When generations of parents who themselves were deprived of the knowledge of their tradition, as neither they were oriented nor could spend enough time for their own “Swadhyaya” bring up the next generations, the fear of rootlessness assumes reality. Lessened sense of self-worth and aping the “happening” are bound to happen for the coming generations. The resultant shall be the felt emptiness.

Sanatana dharma tradition

Fasting has been a known part of religious practices across the world for thousands of years. In the Sanatana dharma the act of abstaining from food once a fortnight, on the day of Ekadashi (11th day of the lunar cycle), is traditionally practiced. Different reasons are attributed to why fasting only on Ekadashi and not any other day of the fortnight. The special status of the tithi of Ekadashi is one like it is close to Vishnu, the special body operating conditions during the day of Ekadashi (given the planetary combinations) is another. Ekadashi fasting can be with rigour or in diluted form. Probably the former assumed with different schools claiming to be the higher on puritan levels. Nirjala form of fasting practiced by a school of thought expects that one doesn’t even take water during the fasting day, hence the name “nir-jal”. A few additionally practice fasting on Dashami (10th) night and Dwadashi (12th) nights as well. Another demanding surprise can be when the Ekadashi tithi spreads over two days. A few consider the tithi at the time of sunrise and adhere to the schedule and others look for the “most part of the day” criterion. A select few may fast on both days. However, the old, sick, and the younger ones are generally exempt from the Ekadashi fast is accepted and practiced.

Ekadashi vrat is completed by breaking almost thirty-six-hour fast on Dwadashi (12th) day’s morning. Shri Bhagavata’s story of King Ambarisha and Durvasa rishi is well known. Amabarisha who was a devotee of Vishnu was on Ekadashi fast and visited by Rishi Durvasa who indicated that he shall come for “Paarana”, breaking of the fast on Dwadashi morning. Though Dwadashi was getting over, the Rishi doesn’t return. King took a gulp of water to fulfill the fast-breaking necessity. Durvasa becomes angry that without his company King chose to break the fast and there was a tussle between the Kruta that was created by Rushi and the Chakra of Vishnu, and the latter won is known. It is a Puranic story that gives credence to the idea that Ekadashi fasting existed for thousands of years.

During the Navratris (nine special nights coming each quarter) and other festive days like various Jayantis too, seekers follow the practice of Upavaas. Every year we have four Navratris. Sincere seekers who keep up the tradition do practice eating only a single meal a day, and at the end of the day during these Navratris. The full-day is spent in worship, Jaap, and Sadhana. There are specialized practices across regions of our country. The month of Kartika (around Deepavali) sees committed undergoing “naktam”, a special act of fasting throughout the day and eating sattvic food in the evenings, after the prayers. There are different variants of Naktam like morning fasting, evening fasting, semi-day fasting, etc. But the common idea is more time for worship and one sattvic meal a day during the entire Kartika month. It has associated reasons as well. With the onset of the winter season, the digestive act may get tardy, and living on a single meal may help better cope with the season.

Across other traditions

Upavaas equivalent exists in other cultures as well. Jews practiced it thousands of years ago. It was a religious practice that was widely practiced. Jesus is said to have fasted for a long period. It was aimed at refining and moving up. Mention of fasting entered the tenets reportedly after about two centuries after him. Lent fasting is well known when Christians fast during the March-April period. Gratitude offering, atonement, and spiritual purification are the reasons. Siddhartha Gautama fasted long. Aimed at reaching the realized level, he achieved the cherished objective. The story of Sujata offering kheer (milk pudding) to Buddha is known. Ramadan month fasting by Islam followers is widely known. Full month day long – daybreak to dusk hours fasting is strict and nothing, not even water is taken during these hours. It is also additionally aimed at saving a few resources by reducing own consumption. One has to share these saved resources with the less privileged is the expectation. In a world that is witnessing sweeping inequalities, over a thousand years ago the tradition of sharing and caring for the less privileged was introduced as a religious tenet. Inclusiveness practiced, one may say.

Jains too practice fasting for cleansing and purification purposes. Some of the advanced practitioners choose to move “on” using strict fasting during their last days. Additionally, fasting is used as a tool of atonement by many cultures. If one has done something that is not deemed fit, then one fast and compensates for it. Secondly, when one holds a deep desire for a thing or condition, fasting serves as a strong “signaling” to the universe or the divine powers. When Yagya or havan is performed by couples, “havis” is offered in the fire for onward transfer. The remaining (probably fistful) “havisyanna” is eaten by the “yajaman” couple, and it is the approved fasting for them.

Fasting as a cure

Ayurveda supports guided fasting by saying “lankhanam parama aushadam”, meaning fasting is the super remedy. Ayurveda proposes three doshas as Vaata (air), Pitta (acid), and Kapha (phlegm). Many of the pains associated with different parts of the body are due to the prakopa (aggravation) of Vaata. Restricted diet and fasting (occasional or supervised longer duration) hold key to the rejuvenation of the body and recalibration of the internal systems. One has to be careful while attempting these and be under the supervision of a capable “Vaidya”, as depriving the body of food may result in prakopa of Pitta, the acidic tendency. Ayurveda discourages all forms of over-indulgence, including over-eating. Tradition says “eka-bhuktam maha yogi”, meaning one who eats once a day is a Yogi. It also warns that “tri-bhuktam maha rogi”, meaning that with eating thrice a day one may become unwell and sick.

Applying moderation in aahara and vihara was always suggested. If one breaks, then pays through ill health and suffering, experience shown over centuries.Ayurveda warns of special periods like season transits (sandhi) as these are the times when one has to be careful in consumption. Fasting helps during the cure of both acute and chronic conditions and is well known and practiced over generations. Prakriti Vaidya method (Nature cure) too suggests light eating, drinking lots of water and occasional fasting.

Ayurveda practiced well and applied in domestic circumstances shall result in the kitchen serving as the pharmacy and the mother of the house who feeds all members becoming the doctor. Medicinal properties of common items like pepper, coriander, cumin, cloves, ginger, garlic, ghee, castor, etc. are well known to mothers who were brought up in the tradition. This knowledge which can be called “Aahara Vaidya” method has been passed on from generation to generation of mothers.

On a closing note

As a seeker’s routine, fasting existed for a long. Ideally, it is supposed to provide “Upa-Vaasa”, staying near GOD. Over the years the intent got hazy but the practice as mechanics and routine continued. Often on Upavaas day, people tend to eat more than what they otherwise would have. It is in terms of heaviness and calories. If the intent is to make the body feel light through detoxification and reducing the worldly engagements on that day (including avoiding cooking to save time), then the purpose gets defeated is the view. Phalahaar meaning fruits as a means of sustenance is practiced by some. A few consume “non-traditional” food on the day. In other words, they avoid the regular staple like wheat and rice and substitute these with others, eg. millets like Saama/Bhagar. A very few actually give rest to the system and help it rejuvenate, which also may result in lessening the grossness. These health benefits are being appreciated only now.

Upavaas physically cleanses the internal body and spiritually helps one by improving focus. In other words, it helps and prepares both the Body and Mind for the intense Sadhana to make ONENESS happen. Upavaas indeed is a holistic act aimed at wider Sustainability. It advocates lower levels of indulgence, aims at promoting balanced living, and targets the realization of ONENESS. May the seekers and practitioners realize their set vision and may the path itself quickly become their destination.