In the region of western Maharashtra where I live, there is no farming work done on ekadashi, the eleventh day of the moon calender. The moon cycle is in two halves, each about 15 days, so there are two ekadashi days each month. All the farmers withdraw from the fields, allowing a regular regeneration of the organisms in the soil. This has been going on for hundreds of years.
The fishing communities which line the western coast of this region suspend their fishing activity at the onset of monsoon for two lunar months. That is a critical time for the fish to spawn and for the sea organisms to regenerate. The fishing folk return to the sea after a joyful prayer ritual on the day of Nariyal Purnima (full moon of shravan month).
About ten days before Nariyal Purnima comes Nag Panchami, the fifth day after amavasya (no-moon day). Similar to ekadashi day, this is also a day of no disturbance to the soil – no digging, tilling or even plucking of greens; it is believed that several local snake species look for a mate or lay their eggs at this time. So this too is a no-activity day for the farmers.
To stay away from daily work, to regularly abstain from some daily activity, has been a regular feature of Indian cultural practice. In today’s language, one may say it is a type of volutary lockdown. Not a forced Lockdown because of fear, but a voluntary withdrawal, a harmonious slowing down, because our worldview includes care for nature and environment.
So how is the single-day ekadashi withdrawal or the longer fishing withdrawal different from our modern weekends and our annual holidays – one may be tempted to ask. The difference is that our weekends and holidays are not a withdrawal; they provide little rest, either for us or for the rest of the nature. Hectic travel, compulsive shopping, binging on the internet and over-indulgence of our appetite – these define our holidays.
All this is at the external level, but another significant distinction between traditional practice and the modern holiday is one of withdrawal at the personal level, the activity within. Ekadashi days are observed with fasting, either complete abstinence from food (vrat) or a partial abstinence avoiding grains, lentils, certain spices, etc. (upvaas). It is a day of reflection, at times with satsang gatherings at homes or at the temple. In many places, people consume only some speicific food items (including the spices) that are grown without tilling the soil or without any significant human labour.
There are other levels of withdrawal or voluntary lockdown in the Indian calendar. There are people in communities all over India, who observe a month-long abstinence during the month of aashaad (aadi in Tamil Nadu) or during the month of Shravan or during the Adhik Maasa (an additional month occuring every three years as per the lunar calendar), considered a very auspicious month for spiritual practise. Some vow to abstain from meat and alcohol, while others vow to practise celibacy. Such withdrawal opportunities are plentiful in our society and are entwined in our cultural modes.
The main reason for staying away (apart from better physical health for self and environment) is to further the inward journey; to observe the fickleness of our mind, our daily activities, our wordly attachments and obsessions. Fasting is a means of slowing down.
At the individual level, withdrawal is a personal thing. It has to be joyful. Not everybody is on a dedicated spiritual journey, not everybody is a passionate protector of environment and forests. But at the level of family and society, if we have a vyavastha, a system which encourages withdrawal, and a wider and deeper vision of life and existence, then within that vyavastha, each of us can have the opportunity to explore a personal joyous lockdown. Are we creating such an environment for our children?
Modernity has no such vision or vyavastha. As urbanisation pulls us away from our cultural assets, do we ever wonder if in the bargain of comfort and speed, some good things are perhaps also being lost? Do we care whether we are getting trapped in a growing chaos which we call ‘normal’?
Right now, the state of the present Lockdown has been termed as ‘abnormal’. When that abnormality ends, where do we land up? Do we want to go back to the ‘chaotic normal’? Or can we examine the option of fasting to slow down? People in prison always imagine about being free; while being imprisoned in a forced Lockdown, let us expand our imagination to think about these things.
(first published as Editorial in Raibar Vol 16&17, June 2020)