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Tuesday June 28, 2022

Ekadashi: An Intersection of the Spiritual and the Scientific

lunar cycle
Vedic tradition advocates fasting on every eleventh day of the lunar cycle.

The Jewish book of law and tradition, The Talmud, says that “We do not see things as they are; we see them as we are. We do not hear things as they are; we hear them as we are.” Every act of seeing, hearing and perceiving something is an act of seeing, hearing and perceiving not as it is but as something else. Our perspectives shape reality for us. For example, while a person with the modernist aesthetic sensibility sees order in chaos, unity in fragmentation and beauty in ugliness, a person with the post-modernist aesthetic sensibility sees in chaos nothing but chaos, in fragmentation nothing but fragmentation, in ugliness nothing but ugliness. Similarly, a person with a philosophical and mystical perspective like that of William Blake may perceive “a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” where a person with purely scientific perspectives may perceive nothing beyond a few natural phenomena. Each of them sees the same reality as something entirely different from what the other sees. Each sees it as they are. However, reality is not chimerical with deceptively multiple natures or facades. Our perspectives not only shape reality with a seemingly multifarious appearance for us they also shape our response towards it.   

Our notions of spiritual and the scientific or the sacred and the secular are certainly influenced by our perspectives. For instance, consider the case of fasting which may be defined as a partial or complete abstention either from all foods or from prohibited foods. The perspective with which one undertakes fasting turns the act of fasting either into a spiritual activity or a scientific activity.  Let us look at the traditional Indian practice of fasting twice every month, i.e., on the days of Ekadashi. While the reasons for fasting on the days of Ekadashi are outrightly spiritual and sacred from a religious perspective, they are outrightly therapeutic and recuperative from a scientific perspective.  

incense
Our notions of sacred and the secular are certainly influenced by our perspectives.

The religious perspective that renders the act of fasting on Ekadashi spiritual and sacred exercise holds that since Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Lord of the Universe, transformed himself into Ekadashi, to redeem the world, the day of Ekadashi is set aside for the worship of Lord Vishnu. The myth of Ekadashi talks about Lord Vishnu’s fight against the demon Murdanav who threatened the earth and heaven with his wayward ways. After an unsuccessful thousand-year fight against the demon, Vishnu decided to trick the demon into defeat. Feigning exhaustion, he entered a cave in the Himalayas to rest and sleep. As Murdanav followed him into the cave brandishing his sword to strike the sleeping Vishnu dead, a luminous divine woman holding a sword emerged from the sleeping Vishnu. She fought Murdanav and slew him on the eleventh day of the waxing moon. Vishnu woke up from his sleep to find the beautiful divine woman who had just slain the demon. Pleased by her glorious deed, Vishnu told her to ask for any boon from him. She requested Vishnu that since she emerged from his ekadash indriyas (eleven sense organs — namely, five sense organs, five action organs, and mind), she be known as Ekadashi and that people observe fast on the day of Ekadashi to control their ekadash indriyas and obtain spiritual strength. Withdrawal of one’s mind and senses from the material world is believed to be a prerequisite for the obtainment of spiritual strength. 

With Vishnu granting both her requests, the practice of fasting on the day of Ekadashi came to pass. Each of the twenty-four Ekadashis of the year is associated with a different incarnation of Vishnu and each has its own special religious significance.  

The religious perspective that renders the act of fasting on Ekadashi spiritual and sacred exercise holds that since Lord Vishnu, the Supreme Lord of the Universe, transformed himself into Ekadashi, to redeem the world, the day of Ekadashi is set aside for the worship of Lord Vishnu.

The worship of the Lord necessitates not only the withdrawal of one’s mind and the senses from the pleasures of the world but also the immersion of oneself in thoughts about the Lord alone. Fasting is a marker of the devotee’s turning away from the pleasures of the world towards the Lord. This act of turning away is never complete without a total surrender of the self. As a marker of the surrender of the self, the devotee offers his or her body, mind and senses to the Lord to be nourished by Him alone. Fasting on the day of Ekadashi is believed to result in happiness, prosperity, longevity, forgiveness of sins and salvation of the devotee. According to Graruda Puranam, “A man shall observe a fast on the eleventh day of the fortnight, whether light or dark, inasmuch as it tends to absolve him of all sins, precludes the chance of his ever visiting the shades of Hyades and makes him entitled to the beatitude of the region of Vishnu.” At the same time, fasting which is a turning away from the pleasures of the world can inculcate self-discipline which is a criterion for serious spiritual life. Therefore, Mahavira says, “start the practice of self-control with some penance; begin with fasting.” Hence, we can argue that from a religious perspective, fasting becomes a spiritual exercise, a category that belongs to the realm of the sacred.

full moon high tide
The ocean experiences the moon’s gravitational pull resulting in a high tide

The scientific and rational perspective that renders Ekadashi a practical and secular exercise has an entirely different take on the event. ‘Ekadashi,’ meaning, the eleventh day in Sanskrit, is the eleventh day of the lunar cycle – the eleventh day of the waxing as well as the waning moon phases. Hence, there are two Ekadashi days in each month, one occurring after the full moon day and another occurring after the new moon day. The moon revolves around the earth once every twenty-nine days, i.e., once every month. The lunar cycle begins with the new moon phase when the moon is positioned on one side of the earth, i.e., between the sun and the earth during which the moon is not visible from the earth. The new moon day (amavasya) is followed by the waxing phase, shukla pakṣa, during which the moon keeps brightening, culminating in the full moon day, (poornima). On the full moon day, the moon is on one side of the earth and the sun on the opposite side, and the moon appears as a complete sphere bright with sunlight. The full moon day is followed by the waning phase, krishna paksa, during which the moon keeps on fading, culminating in the new moon day, amavasya, when the half portion of the moon away from the face of the earth is lit and the other unlit half portion is facing the earth resulting in the non-visibility of the moon.  

As the earth keeps rotating on its axis, the ocean closer to the moon experiences the moon’s gravitational pull resulting in a high tide. At the same time, the ocean on the opposite side (the ocean far away from the moon) also experiences a partial high tide because the earth also moves partially towards the moon causing the ocean on the opposite side to bulge causing a high tide.  Both the waning phase and the waxing phase of the moon exert their gravitational pulls on the earth. Since the human body consists of about sixty percent water, the moon exerts its influence on human beings as well. 

The gravitational pull of the moon is not felt on the earth every day with the same intensity. On the eleventh day of each lunar cycle, the moon forms a trine with the earth and the sun during which the distance between the moon and sun is in the range of 120-132 degrees on Shulka Ekadashi and in a range of 300-312 degrees on Krishna Ekadashi. Therefore, the atmospheric pressure is at its lowest on the day of Ekadashi. The impact of the atmospheric pressure on the human body is also at its lowest on that day. Hence, Ekadashi is considered to be the most favourable day to observe fast and cleanse the body of all toxins. 

The scientific and rational perspective that renders Ekadashi a practical and secular exercise has an entirely different take on the event. ‘Ekadashi,’ meaning, the eleventh day in Sanskrit, is the eleventh day of the lunar cycle – the eleventh day of the waxing as well as the waning moon phases. Hence, there are two Ekadashi days in each month, one occurring after the full moon day and another occurring after the new moon day.

If important human organs such as the brain and the digestive system function as they should, the human body can protect itself to a great extent from many diseases related to indigestion. The malfunctioning of the digestive system is believed to result in various discomforts and ailments of the human person. Therefore, to ensure the proper functioning of the digestive system, the Vedic tradition advocates periodic cleansing of the system by fasting on every eleventh day of the lunar cycle. 

From the day after Ekadashi, until the fifth day after the new moon or full moon day, the moon exerts its steadily increasing gravitational pull on the earth giving rise to heightened atmospheric pressure. The heightened atmospheric pressure, in turn, exerts heightened pressure on the human body impacting body fluids and even the digestive system. Hence, fasting during these days is believed to result in much stress in the body. Therefore, those who fast on the day of Ekadashi are advised to eat as early as possible on the very next day. 

fasting on Ekadashi
Vedic tradition advocates periodic cleansing of the system by fasting on every eleventh day of the lunar cycle.

While the food in the stomach is being digested, the digestive system draws more blood towards the digestive organs to enhance the digestive process. Therefore, once the food is in the stomach, the blood circulation towards the head is decreased, and consequently, one tends to feel sleepy. Fasting on Ekadashi ensures ample blood circulation in the brain leading to the revitalization of the brain which in turn keeps the human person physically and mentally healthy.  In general, intermittent fasting accompanied by healthy diet habits is said to have many health benefits such as healthy metabolism, improved insulin responsiveness, regulated blood cholesterol, appropriate body weight, enhanced immune system, body free of inflammation, normal brain function, and better life span.  

As David Lawrence Preston says in his book, 365 Steps to Practical Spirituality, “Spirituality is highly practical. It is about finding meaning and purpose in an apparently imperfect world then using what we learn to create happy, healthy, prosperous and fulfilling lives for ourselves and others.” It is rather amazing how the ancient Vedic Indians developed the practice of fasting on the day of Ekadashi combining spiritual as well as scientific parameters for a healthy and happy life. Fasting on the day of Ekadashi is as much a scientific practice as it is a religious or spiritual practice. In other words, one might say, Ekadashi is an intersection of the spiritual and the scientific, of the sacred and the secular. The significance — spiritual or scientific — that one attributes to fasting on the day of Ekadashi depends entirely on one’s perspectives.

Images courtesy: Pxhere, Piqsels

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