A FRIEND OF MINE in the British Air Force writes, "I've heard that on Ekadasi one should not eat, drink, or sleep at night. One should also not look at or speak to nondevotees on this day. I find all this impossible to follow in my circumstances. What is Ekadasi for anyway, and how do devotees normally observe it?"
I reply: "I like to think of Ekadasi as a special opportunity to increase my efforts to be Krsna conscious, rather than a list of don'ts." The don'ts may be present, but they are subservient to the do's: do remember Lord Krsna; do chant His names; do relish the chance to spend a long, uninterrupted period to hear and chant about Krsna; do take advantage of the opportunity to make some substantial spiritual progress.
Srila Prabhupada never told us we couldn't look at or speak to nondevotees on Ekadasi, nor that we had to observe a total fast or go without sleep. He simply asked us to use this day to increase our remembrance of Krsna. And he gave us only one restriction: On Ekadasi, don't eat beans or grains.
I've heard that Sanatana Gosvami commented that all the many rules and regulations he compiled in his book Hari-bhakti-vilasa are simply meant to help people remember Krsna at every step of their lives.
Narada Muni also states:
aradhito yadi haris tapasa tatah kim
naradhito yadi haris tapasa tatah kim
"If Krsna is worshiped, what is the use of extraneous austerity? And if Krsna is not worshiped, what is the use of austerity?" The idea expressed here is that devotional service to Krsna includes austerity as a natural course.
For instance, if on Ekadasi I'm trying to chant and hear about Krsna more than usual, I'll naturally want to sleep and eat less. And when I begin to feel spiritually surcharged by my chanting and reading, I'll feel less sleepy and hungry than I normally might.
Krsna consciousness is intended not to burden us but rather to take away our burden. In Vedic literature there are many, many detailed instructions for all kinds of personal, social, and cultural affairs Srila Prabhupada once said, "If I told you them all you would faint." but their purpose is to help and not hinder us in becoming Krsna conscious in our practical day-to-day life. A person who follows Ekadasi should find himself becoming light and free, not heavy with worry.
Srila Prabhupada explained that Ekadasi means "the eleventh" and it refers to the eleventh day of both the waxing and the waning moon. So Ekadasi falls twice a month. Just as certain places have a special atmosphere conducive for our purification and spiritual advancement, so do certain phases of time. The Ekadasi day is spiritually surcharged with devotional energy.
There are many side benefits from observing Ekadasi, such as good health (regular fasting allows our digestive organs to rest) and economy (if everyone followed Ekadasi, imagine how much food would be saved). But by far the main purpose of following Ekadasi is to help us awaken our love for Krsna.
Prabhupada taught that following Ekadasi means minimizing the demands of the body and maximizing our service to Krsna. On Ekadasi we should eat more simply and try to put into practice the maxim "Eat to live, not live to eat."
Srila Prabhupada advised that on Ekadasi we increase our chanting of the holy names Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. To a disciple who asked, "Should we chant twenty-five rounds on Ekadasi?" Srila Prabhupada replied, "Why only twenty-five rounds? You should chant as many as possible."
Lord Caitanya asked His mother (and, through her, His other followers) to fast from grains on Ekadasi. Apart from taking more energy to digest, on Ekadasi grains are said to be affected by universal sinful reactions. Ekadasi is an extremely auspicious day, but anyone who eats grains is unconsciously implicated in those reactions.
Sometimes a person may forget that a day is Ekadasi and only remember after he has already eaten some grain. If this happens to you, best to refrain at once from eating any more grains. Then observe your Ekadasi fast the next day.
Once a year in the early summer there is a special Ekadasi known as the Pandava-nirjala Ekadasi or Bhima Ekadasi. Back in the days of the Mahabharata, five thousand years ago, Arjuna's elder brother Bhima had great difficulty fasting. (In those days everyone would fast completely from all food and water.) So he was given permission by the sage Vyasadeva to observe the full Ekadasi fast only once a year. In the Krsna consciousness movement many devotees are accustomed to following this Bhima Ekadasi, refraining from all food and water, to compensate for any discrepancies in their observance of the previous twenty-three Ekadasi days.
Some devotees choose to fast from food, water, and sleep as a regular austerity. They stay up all night, usually with some friends (it's hard to do this alone), and chant, sing, and read together. If you ever decide to do this, or to fast even from water (nirjala), there's a very healthful method of breaking your fast. Drink a glass or so of water with lemon juice, some black pepper, and a pinch of salt. Then before you eat anything, let a couple of hours go by.
Everyone has a different constitution, and for some people fasting even from water can be too much of a strain on health. Srila Prabhupada once told a disciple that in order of importance first comes health, then oursadhana (spiritual practices), and then our service to help give Krsna consciousness to others. This is not to imply that health is more important than chanting Hare Krsna! The idea is that without some form of good health it's difficult to do anything. In fact, Prabhupada instructed that if by fasting on Ekadasi a devotee feels too weak to do his devotional service, it's better for him to eat. He himself used to like to eat banana chips, amongst other things, as his "Ekadasi food." In our ISKCON temples the cooks sometimes prepare a feast on Ekadasis, using such ingredients as potato and buckwheat to make preparations that resemble their grain-based counterparts.
Whatever way you decide to observe Ekadasi, it's best to mentally prepare yourself the day before by planning what you intend to do. Try to make it a day in which you break your regular pattern of life and increase your spiritually oriented activities. Ekadasi is also a good time to reflect on your spiritual progress in general. Good luck!
Rohininandana Dasa lives in southern England with his wife and their three children. Write to him in care of BTG.