Vows or vratas are a central feature of Hinduism and JAINISM. They are undertaken for myriad reasons, but always with the desire of pleasing the divinity. Vows are often taken to do a par-ticular thing in exchange for help from God. For instance, a mother might promise to donate a sum of money to a certain divinity’s temple, if her gravely ill child should recover. A person might carry out a vow to shave his or her head and make a PILGRIMAGE to a god’s temple in exchange for success on exams or to get a male child.
   In times past very severe vows were some-times taken. People were known to starve themselves to death in exchange for a divinity’s promise to remove a curse on their family; oth-ers vowed that if a son were born they would offer him up to a renunciatory order upon his coming of age. Indian mythology records innu-merable severe vows. Ravana the demon king, for instance, took a vow to stand on one toe for 10,000 years in order to win overlordship of the universe.
   Most vows in modern times involve fast-ing, celibacy, pilgrimage, study of sacred books, feeding of BRAHMINS or mendicants, or limited vows of abstention. Vratas can be classified in different ways. One classification divides them into those that are bodily, those that pertain to speech, and those that pertain to the mind. Another type of classification is related to dura-tion and timing of the vow, whether for a day, several years, until the fortnight is over, or until a certain star appears. A third classification is according to the divinity for whom the vow is performed. Last are vows that are specific to certain CASTES or communities.
   To be valid, vows must almost always begin in a condition of ceremonial purity. Most vows begin early in the morning. Festivals, in general, often entail vows taken by various family mem-bers; typically they involve fasting, but they may also involve celibacy, service to the divinity, and pilgrimage.
   There is a long list of special days appropriate to specific vows, usually entailing particular obli-gations of worship and observances. A devotee might vow to worship the Sun and fast on the day of Acalasaptami; to worship LAKSHMI at the base of a tree during Navaratri; to abstain from plowing on AMBUVACHI; to abstain from fish on Bakapan-caka; or to bathe three times and make special offerings to the ancestors on Bhismapanchaka. Certain days of the month are auspicious for par-ticular vows. The 11th of the month is observed as a fast day by many Hindus. The Caturvargacin-tamani of Hemadri (c. 13th century) lists nearly 700 such vows.
   Further reading: Sudhir Ranjan Das, A Study of Vrata-Rites. Foreword by Nirmal Kumar Bose (Calcutta: S. C. Kar, 1953); Swami Harshananda, Hindu Festivals and Holy Days (Bangalore: Ramakrishna Math, 1994); Anne Mackenzie Pearson, Because It Gives Me Peace: Ritual Fasts in the Religious Lives of Hindu Women (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996).

Encyclopedia of Hinduism. . 2007.

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