Memory of that Vaikunta Ekadasi night is still vivid in my mind. It was about 45 years ago. I was part of a throng of literally thousands of men waiting inside the Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India. I was not hungry even though I had not eaten anything for dinner. I had undertaken the ritual fast for that special night vigil. The overhead tube lights cast their surreal blue/white light. It was standing room only crowd. There was constant jostling of elbows all around. I looked around and saw expectation and devotion – and lots of perspiration – writ on peoples’ faces. I was drenched as well and was wondering what was in store, when “the door” would open and how it would all end. We were all waiting for “the door” to open. I was told that would happen during the Brahma Muhurtam in the early morning hours of the next day. Some said 3 AM, some others said 4 AM and some others said 5 AM. All spoke with a certain authoritative confidence even though no one really knew.
The opening of “the door” was an important happening that we all eagerly waiter for. When “the door” opened, entry through it would take me to Vaikuntam. Vaikuntam is the place where there is no misery or sadness. Vaikuntam is the place of ultimate peace.
Suddenly there was a shout that “the door” had opened. The crowd jolted and surged ahead. I was pushed, shoved and pulled in multiple directions, all at once. I started gasping for air and literally lost my physical balance. As a general rule, I like people and their company . But not that many of them all together. Not all at once in that cramped space. Definitely not in the cusp of a stampede. I went through the open door as a drop in the depth of the sea of people. I landed in a land – still full of misery and sadness. I was not in Vaikuntam. I wondered what I did wrong.
Vaikunta Ekadasi is an important and popular religious festival that has its origin in the southern parts of India. The festival has been in vogue for more than two thousand years at least. The Vaishnavites, devotees of the all pervasiveness aspect of God, celebrate this with fervor and enthusiasm all around the world. But the celebrations at the Srirangam temple of Sri Ranganathaswamy is the one that has set the example for this festival. And rightly so. The infectious joy and happiness, comraderie and the enduring devotion born of the strength of tradition – all enliven the atmosphere at Srirangam in a way that one must see in person to understand. Streets around the temple turn into sea of people. The festival not only rejuvenates hope and joy, but sprinkles a taste of sacredness and purity itself on everyone – from the rickshaw wallah to the erudite and the scholarly, from the beggar on the street to the wealthy arriving in expensive cars. It is an amazing experience to see the throng of humanity sans all man-made differences. Everyone clings to the love of divinity at this time and is joyous. A feeling of doing a worthwhile thing, the right thing, is in the air.
Enactment of a beautiful play takes place during this festival at Srirangam. The play involves how the soul bound in the body (jeevatma) merges with the divine (paramatma). It is a powerful depiction of how our consciouness expands – from the limitations of desire-bound selfishness to the limitless arena of selflessness. The deities in the temple enact the play. The devotees relish it and the experience stays with them for a life-time.
The festival has a great spiritual lesson for my daily life. Each day gifts me about 90 most powerful minutes that facilitate me to touch the seat of Love in me. Our elders call this the brahma muhurtam. This is the 90 minutes period before sun rise. I spend it in sleeping and waste it away. My mind is most receptive to divinity during this time. One year of my life is a day and night for the devas. The devas are nothing but the benign and beneficial effulgences in me that promote sacrifice, selflessness and guide me on the divine path.The time period between mid-December to mid-January, called the dhanur or maargazhi maasam, is the brahma muhurtam period for the devas. Vaikunta Ekadasi festival occurs during this time. The festival is celebrated in the eleventh phase during the waxing period of the moon in December/January.
Ekadasi means eleven. Eleven signifies the eleven tools with which I bind myself to the world and to my selfishness. These are my five senses of perception (jnanendriyas) [eye,ear,nose,tongue and skin], five senses of action (karmandriyas) [hands, legs, speech,procrearing and excreting organs] and my mind. My perceiving senses perceive the world. My mind wants to acquire for myself what I perceive. My acting senses act to acquire them. I get bound in this vicious cycle of selfishness and self aggrandizement.
The Vaikunta ekadasi festival points to the route to free myself from this cycle. It says use the eleven tools, ekadasi, to reach vaikuntam, the place of bliss. It says get up and spend some time with divinity during brahma muhurtam every day. This will help my senses to perceive and act in divine Love. As I mature in this practice, I realize that the divine world really has no doors because divinity is prema eva, Love only (Taitreeya Upanishad Brahmananda valli). And Love has no doors. The moment I open the door of my mind to this Love, I land in vaikuntam.
The ritualistic fasting followed on this day is not confined to the food taken in through the mouth only. It includes the intakes of all the five senses of perception. The sanskrit word that signifies this discipline is upavasam or “seated in Love”. Controlling my senses, I keep my mind in the company of Bhagavan and do upavasam. This is the fasting the ritual calls for.
The play enacted by the deities at the Srirangam temple on this holy day has so much significance! If I understand and practice this well, then every moment in my life is a vaikunta ekadasi festival.
More than 5200 years ago, an exemplary royal sage called Bhishma lived in the northern part of India. He practiced the principle of vainkunta ekadasi throughout his life. He had become so skilled at it that he perceived Love, acted Love and thought Love only. With his mind suffused in Love and describing his divine experiences, he extolled It. His worship has given us the storas we call as Siva sahasranamam and Vishnu sahasranamam today. This incident happened during the dhanur/maargazhi masam period, during the devas’ brahma muhurtam. After singing these stotras, Bhishma merged in the Love he was and attained vaikuntam.
Vaikunta Ekadasi falls on December 21 this year. It is celebrated in vaishnavite temples in India and around the world.
Happy vaikunta ekadasi ! May you attain the peace and bliss of vaikuntam !