Vratas and Utsavas
By Swami Harshananda
Vratas and utsavas literally means ‘religious vows and celebrations’.
Definition of Vratas
The word ‘vrata’ is one of the most widely used words in the religious and ritualistic literature. It is derived from the verbal root vrñ which means ‘to choose’. It indicates a set of rules and discipline with which one voluntarily binds oneself over a particular period of time during which period he undertakes the performance of certain rituals in order to propitiate the deity and secure from it what he wants. However, this whole process should be undertaken with a sañkalpa or religious resolve on a fixed auspicious day and time as per the dictates of the religious almanacs.
Definition of Utsava
The term ‘utsava’ is often used with the word ‘vrata’ and sometimes as its equivalent also. It literally means ‘to cause to go upward’. But in usage it means a joyous festive occasion which naturally buoys up the spirits of the participants. If vrata, being of the nature of tapas or austerity, tends to restrain the spirits, utsava liberates it and brightens it, the two being complementary. Hence, invariably almost every vrata is followed by an utsava thus offsetting its rigors and bringing joy and happiness in its train. An overwhelming majority of the festivals are not only vratas but also utsavas, since the latter follow the former without exception.
Classification of Vratas
Organ Based Allocation
A classification of these vratas may now be construed as follows. It is based on the traditional literature like the purāṇas and allied works.
- If in a vrata the stress is on physical austerity like fasting, it is a ‘kāyika-vrata,’ a vrata pertaining to the body.
- If the stress is on speaking the truth and reciting the scriptures, both being a function of the organ of speech, it is called ‘vācika-vrata’ or vrata pertaining to speech.
- If there is emphasis on controlling the mind by controlling the passions and prejudices that arise in it, it is a ‘mānasa-vrata’ or vrata pertaining to the mind.
However, it should be noted that all these three disciplines are almost always present in every vrata.
Time based Classification
The second classification is based on time. It can be delineated as follows:
- A vrata to be performed just for a dina or day is called as a ‘dinavrata’.
- Vrata lasting for a vāra or a pakṣa is a ‘vāravrata’ or ‘paksavrata’.
- Vrata which needs to be undertaken on a particular tithi or when a particular nakṣatra is on the ascendant, is respectively called a ‘tithivrata’ or ‘nakṣatravrata’. Most of the vratas now in vogue are based on the tithis of the lunar calendar.
Deity based Classification
The third classification is according to the deity worshiped; for instance, Svarṇa-gaurīvrata or Varasiddhivināyakavrata or Satya- nārāyaṇavrata is dedicated respectively to the deities Gaurī, Gaṇapati and Satya-nārāyaṇa.
Person based Classification
Eligibility of Devotee to Perform Vrata
Eligibility of the person who can perform vrata is anyone who has faith in it and wishes to perform it as per the rules, even if he is a mleccha. The Vedic sacrifices were strictly restricted to the men of the three upper castes called dvijas. Vratas were opened to all thus bringing ritualistic religion to especially the lower castes and women, who had been denied that privilege for centuries.
Historically speaking, this might have been a master-stroke devised by the liberal-minded religious leaders of the religious society to prevent the exodus of their flock to the Jain and the Buddhist folds which were singularly free from the labyrinth of rituals and offered a simple religion of ethical conduct.
Rules Pertaining to Vratas
Though the rules concerning the vratas had been very much liberalized to embrace as a large segment of the society as possible, there had to be some rules guiding the whole process in order to protect and preserve the sanctity of the ritual system itself. An overview of the decree managed during the period of vratas and observances are as follows:
- Once a vrata is undertaken, it should never be left unfinished nor a new one started before completing it.
- One should never start the observance while in aśauca.
- Persons too old or too sick, can get the vrata performed for them by the close relatives if they are willing.
- Women are advised to take the permission of their father or husband or son.
- Once the decision is taken to perform a vrata, the actual commencement should be made only as per the auspicious time, place and mode laid down by the books.
- Generally, the performance of almost all the vratas starts in the early morning.
- The votary has to get up in the brāhma- muhurta have his ablutions and bath, complete the usual daily rituals like the sandhyā and worship of the family deity, and then start the vrata with the saṅkalpa.
- The saṅkalpa or religious resolve is the most essential and even compulsory part of the vrata, otherwise the whole rite gets nullified.
- Though the mantras for sañkalpa vary from vrata to vrata, the general context and pattern are almost identical.
- The performer has to mention his name, the year, month, day and date, the purpose of the vrata, the deity he is propitiating and also the special discipline (if any) he will follow. This is done ceremonially with a little water taken in the palm of the hand.
- During the period of the observance of a vrata one should observe the following rules and conduct:
- Keep one’s person clean and pure
- Observe celibacy
- Speak the truth
- Practice forbearance
- Avoid non-vegetarian foods
- Scrupulously perform all the rituals connected with it
List of Vratas and Utsavas
The total number of vratas and utsavas listed by the largest of the published works, Caturvarga-cintāmani of Hemādri, comes to about 700. However, most of these are less known individual vratas. The following is a list of the more important utsavas or festivals normally observed all over the country by the votaries:
- Cāndramāna Yugādi
- Vratas means ‘religious vows’.
- Pakṣa means week or fortnight.
- Tithi is a day according to the lunar calendar.
- Nakṣatra means asterism.
- Deity is an aspect of God.
- Kṣattriyas means warrior-class.
- Mleccha means an alien.
- Aśauca means ceremonial impurity brought about by birth or death in one’s family.
- It is almost an hour before sunrise.
- It is the worship of God as the immanent power in the sun.
- He lived in 13th century.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore