Some controversy seems to have been generated regarding the recent fasts of the Gandhian leader Anna Hazare challenging the corruption in India.
Here my purpose is not to say anything about the controversy, if any. The purpose here is only to point out that many ‘modernised’ Indians do not seem to realize how ancient a part of the Indian tradition this type of fasting is.
It is still quite common in Indian families for a disgruntled member to stop eating and the whole family becomes concerned over the issues that have created such a situation and every family member rushes to assuage the hurt feelings and to examine what can be done to fulfil whatever is amiss.
“Dharnaa denaa” (to sit down with an insistence), “dharnaa de kar baiTh jaanaa” (to express an insistence and sit in one place without moving), are common phrases in Hindi and there must be similar phrases in other languages of India.
The ancient Sanskrit word in all classical texts (Ramayana, Mahabharata, Raja-tarangini, et al) is praayopaveshana, sitting down awaiting death; upa-veshana = sitting down, praaya = (praayaNa), departure, migration, that is, death.
Here we give two examples from the story of the well known avataara, Shri Rama. The first of these is from the well known Valmiki’s Ramayana (VR). The second one is from the Rama story in Yoga-vasishtha (YV) also attributed to Valmiki. The normal contents of such a practice are
(see Sanskrit commentaries on VR called Tilaka, ShiromaNi and BhooShaNa, publ. Parimal Publications, Delhi,1990, vol. II, pp.1006ff.) It is also referred to as praty-up-veshana, sitting down with a purpose.
Bharata is trying to persuade Rama to return to Ayodhya and take up the throne. As Rama cannot be persuaded (see verses 12ff. Paraphrased here):
Having been thus addressed by Rama, Bharata commanded the nearby chariot-driver (Su-mantra): Spread the (seat of ) kusha grass. I shall sit in the presence of the noble one (arya = Rama) in praty-upa-veshana. Without food, without light, like a pauper Brahmin. [commentary: the way someone lies down in front of a defaulting debtor to recover his loaned out wealth.] I will stay in the house and lie down [only on one side].
As Sumantra looked at Rama awaiting the support of that command of Bharata, Bharata spread the kusha-grass mat by himself and sat down.
Thereupon Rama trying to dissuade Bharata from such an undertaking, said: What harm have I done to protest which you sit thus to persuade me? Furthermore, such prayopaveshana is advised to the others but not to those whose heads are consecrated (with royal consecration).
Upon this, Bharata addressed the surrounding people pleading: Why don’t you all persuade Rama? Upon which they all said: We cannot do so as Rama is only following upon the father’s command.
Rama then persuades Bharata: Rise, Bharata, touch me and touch some water (by way of consecration and ending the vow). Bharata thus abandons his sitting.
The rest of the narrative may be read in the original text.
In Yoga-vasishtha first Section, Vairaagya-prakaraNa, speaks of Rama’s announcement that he would fast until he finds a way to enlightenment. This is reminiscent of Buddha’s 49 days of fasting and sitting still under the Bodhi tree.
In YV the story unfolds as Rama, not yet 16 years old, returns from a pilgrimage to holy spots and sacred rivers. Thereafter he is immensely saddened, disinterested in all things external.
In the meantime, sage Vishvamitra arrives at Dasharatha’s court asking that Rama be sent with him to protect his ashrama that is being invaded by demonic marauders. Dasharatha argues that Rams is yet young, not an expert in the arts of warfare and, instead, offers to accompany the sage himself to protect his ashrama. Vishvamitra expresses his displeasure, and Vasishtha persuades Dasharatha to obey Vishvamitra’s command.
A chain of messengers is sent to bring Rama, but in the meantime Rama comes on his own, prostrates to his father, the sages and all the venerable elders. The Father calls him over to sit in his lap and speaks to him lovingly and soothingly. Sages Vasishtha and Vishvamitra ask him the cause of his confusion. His reply begins in chapter 12 and goes on to the end of chapter 31 in 674 beautiful and forceful verses. It is an eloquent speech of deepest wisdom about the futility of worldly involvements.
In itself it constitutes supreme teaching of metaphysical truths and dispassion towards worldly involvements. After elaborating on his contemplative concerns, he requests the sages present to teach him the right way and method and emphatically sums up his determination (1.31.16-27):
There is no possibility of diminishing (this sorrow) without proper way and method (yukti), so do tell me the best and sufficient method so that practicing accordingly the sorrow no longer comes to me. Or, just tell me the method for right practice; how, wherewith, what is to be done with a high mind first, whereby the mind comes to restfulness and highest purification. Blessed one (do teach me) as you know for turning off my confusion; tell me of that by which definitely the noble ones (sādhu) indeed achieved sorrowlessness.
Or, if such a method, oh Brahman–(knower) does not exist, or one clearly exists but no one tells me, and if I do not find that unexcelled restfulness by myself, in that case I will abandon all movement, go into a state of non-ego; I will not eat, I will not drink water, I will not wear clothing, nor will I indulge in any activities like bathing, giving, eating and so forth(i). Nor do I stay in the activities whether in cordial conditions or in crisis. I (will) want absolutely nothing except to renounce my body, oh Contemplative Sage; only free of all malice, devoid of ‘Meum’ without any anxiety I (will) sit here absolutely silent as though painted in a picture. Abandoning in sequence the awareness of exhalation and inhalation I (will) abandon the calamitous inhabitation named ‘body’.
Neither am I of this (body and world) nor is anyone else mine; I extinguish myself like an oilless lamp. Abandoning all, then I abandon this cadaver.
Rama, charming and delightful like immaculate cooling moon, his mind blooming with the highest thoughts, having spoken thus, then, like a blue-throated peacock who makes his cry towards heavy clouds and then (ceases) as though wearied, fell silent.
Upon hearing Rama’s eloquent speech, all the ladies of the palace, the courtiers, sages, all sit spellbound. The celestial sages, too, have heard the adorable words. They shouted “saadhu, saadhu” (well spoken! well spoken!). They sprinkled celestial blossoms on Rama for a full 12 minutes (4th part of a muh~rta which is 48 minutes in modern parlance), forming a veritable canopy over him. They spread the word throughout the heavens about this great council and all celestial sages such as Narada, Vyasa, Pulaha and others, all gathered, descended – a whole army of them – and were duly honoured, full of poetic praises for Rama.
Then Vishvamitra said:
Rama, there is nothing that is left to be known by you.
You are yourself highest among the knowing ones.
You have come to experiential knowledge (vi-jïāna) by your own subtle intelligence.
It only needs a little refinement.
Your wisdom is like that of Shuka the son of Vyasa.
Comment: here ensues Rama’s question about Shuka and Vishvamitra narrates the wisdom dialogue of Shuka and King Janaka.
Vishvamitra continues and advises that Vasishtha the family guru carry out the teaching as his preceptor. Vasishtha says:
Venerable Sage, as you command; I shall pass on the knowledge that Brahma had conferred in the past on the Niñadha mountain and I remember it in full and unfragmented.
It is here with the 3rd chapter of Section 2 that Vasishtha’s teaching really begins. On that promise of knowledge, Rama no longer needed to undertake to fulfil his promise of a fast unto death.
This is just one story, of many, about a true adhikarin, sitting down to fast and in silence till enlightenment is reached.
(i) He is describing the daily schedule of a well brought up person in which first one cleans one body, then gives some charity, then eats.
VR Valmiki’s Ramayana