Once Bhīmasena, the younger brother of Mahārāja Yudhiṣṭhira, asked the great sage Śrīla Vyāsadeva, the grandfather of the Pāṇḍavas, if it is possible to return to the spiritual world without having observed all the rules and regulations of the Ekādaśī fasts.
Bhīmasena said, “O greatly intelligent and learned grandfather, my brother Yudhiṣṭhira, my dear mother Kuntī, and my beloved wife Draupadī, as well as Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva, fast completely on each Ekādaśī and strictly follow all the rules, guidelines and regulative injunctions of that sacred day. Being very religious, they always tell me that I should also fast on that day too. But, O grandfather, I tell them that I cannot live without eating, because unbearable to me. I can give widely in charity and worship Śrī Keśava properly, but I cannot be asked to fast on Ekādaśī. Please tell me how I can obtain the same merits result without fasting.”
Hearing these words, Śrīla Vyāsadeva replied, “If you want to go to the heavenly planets and avoid the hellish planets, you should indeed observe a fast on both the light and dark Ekādaśīs.”
Bhīma replied, “O great intelligent grandfather, please listen to my plea. O greatest of munis, since I cannot live if I eat only once in a day, how can I possibly live if I fast completely? Within my stomach burns a special fire named vṛka, the fire of digestion.
Only when I eat to my full satisfaction does the fire in my stomach become satisfied. O great sage, I might possibly be able to fast only once, so I beg that you tell me of an Ekādaśī that is worthy of my fasting and that includes all other Ekādaśīs. I shall faithfully observe that fast and hopefully still become eligible for liberation.”
Śrīla Vyāsadeva replied, O king, you have heard from me about the various kinds of occupational duties, such as elaborate Vedic ceremonies and pujas. In the Kali-yuga, however, no one will be able to observe all these occupational and functional duties properly. I shall therefore tell you how, at practically no expense, one can endure some small austerity and achieve the greatest benefit and resultant happiness. The essence of what is written in the Vedic literatures known as the Purāṇas is that one should not eat on either the dark or light fortnight Ekādaśīs. One who fasts on Ekādaśīs saved from going to the hellish planets.”
Hearing Śrīla Vyāsadeva’s words, Bhīmasena, the strongest of all warriors, became frightened and began to shake like a leaf on a banyan tree in a strong wind. The frightened Bhīmasena then said, “O grandfather, what should I do? I am completely unable and ill equipped to fast twice in a month throughout the year! Please tell me of the one fasting day that will bestow the greatest benefit upon me!”
Vyāsadeva replied, “Without drinking even water, you should fast on the Ekādaśī that occurs during the light fortnight of the month of Jyeṣṭha (May-June) when the sun travels in the sign of Gemini and Taurus, According to learned personalities, on this day one may bathe and perform ācamana for purification. But while performing ācamana one may drink only that amount of water equal to a drop of gold, or that amount it takes to immerse a single mustard seed. Only this amount of water should be placed in the right palm for sipping, which one should form to resemble a cow’s ear. If one drinks more water than this, he might as well have drunk wine.
“One must certainly not eat anything, for if he does so he breaks his fast. This rigid fast is in effect from sunrise on the Ekādaśī day to sunrise on the Dvādaśī day. If a person endeavours to observe this great fast very strictly, he easily achieves the result of observing all twenty-four other Ekādaśī fasts throughout the entire year.
“On Dvādaśī the devotee should bathe early in the morning. Then, according to the prescribed rules, guidelines and regulative injunctions, and of course depending on his ability, he should give some gold and water to worthy brāhmaṇas. Finally, he should cheerfully honour prasādam with a brāhmaṇa.
“O Bhīmasena, one who can fast on this special Ekādaśī in this manner reaps the benefit of having fasted on every Ekādaśī during the year. There is no doubt of this, nor should there be. O Bhima, now hear the specific merit one gets by fasting on this Ekādaśī. The Supreme Lord Keśava, who holds a conch, discus, club and lotus, personally told me, `Everyone should take shelter of Me and follow My instructions.’ Then He told me that one who fasts on this Ekādaśī, without taking even drinking water or eating, becomes free of all sinful reactions, and that one who observes the difficult nirjala fast on Jyeṣṭha-śukla Ekādaśī truly reaps the benefit of all other Ekādaśī fasts.
“O Bhīmasena, in the Kali-yuga, the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, when all the principles of the Vedas will have been destroyed or greatly minimised, and when there will be no proper charity or observance of the ancient Vedik principles and ceremonies, how will there be any means of purifying the self? But there is the opportunity to fast on Ekādaśī and become free of all one’s past sins.
“O son of Vāyu, what more can I say to you? You should not eat during the Ekādaśīs that occur during the dark and light fortnights, and you should even give up drinking water on the particularly auspicious Ekādaśī day of Jyeṣṭha-śukla Ekādaśī. O Vṛkodara, whoever fasts on this Ekādaśī receives the merits of bathing in all the places of pilgrimage, giving all kinds of charities to worthy persons, and fasting on all the dark and light Ekādaśīs throughout the year, in one go. Of this there is no doubt. O tiger among men, whoever fasts on this Ekādaśī truly becomes a great person and achieves all manner of opulence and wealth, grains, strength, and health. And at the fearful moment of death, the terrible Yamadūtas, whose complexions are yellow and black and who brandish huge maces and twirl mystic pāśa ropes in the air for binding their victims, will refuse to approach him. Rather, such a faithful soul will at once be taken to the supreme abode of Lord Viṣṇu by the Viṣṇu-dūtas, whose transcendentally beautiful forms are clothed in gorgeous yellowish garments and who each hold a disk, club, conch and lotus in their four hands, resembling Lord Viṣṇu. It is to gain all these benefits that one should certainly fast on this very auspicious and important Ekādaśī, even from water.”
When the other Pāṇḍavas heard about the benefits to be gained by following Jyeṣṭha-śukla Ekādaśī, they resolved to observe it exactly as their grandfather Śrīla Vyāsadeva had explained it to their brother, Bhīmasena. All the Pāṇḍavas observed it by refraining from eating or drinking anything, and thus this day is also known as Pāṇḍava Nirjalā Dvādaśī.
Śrīla Vyāsadeva continued, O Bhīmasena, therefore you should observe this important fast to remove all your past sinful reactions. You should pray to the Supreme Personality of God, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa in this way making your sankalpa declaration, `O Lord of all the demigods, O Supreme Personality of God, today I shall observe Ekādaśī without taking any water. O unlimited Ananta, I shall break fast on the next day, Dvādaśī.’ Thereafter, to remove all his sins, the devotee should honour this Ekādaśī fast with full faith in the Lord and with full control over his senses. Whether his sins are equal in volume to Mount Sumeru or to Mandarācala Hill, if he or she observes this Ekādaśī, the sins that have been accumulated all become nullified and are burned to ashes. Such is the great power of this Ekādaśī.
“O best of human beings, although a person should also give water and cows in charity during this Ekādaśī, if for some reason or other he cannot, then he should give a qualified brāhmaṇa some cloth or a pot filled with water. Indeed, the merit achieved by giving water alone equals that gained by giving gold ten million times a day.
“O Bhīma, Lord Śrī Kṛṣṇa has said that whoever observes this Ekādaśī should take a Holy bath, give charity to a worthy person, chant the Lord’s Holy names on a japa-māla, and perform some kind of recommended sacrifice, for by doing these things on this day one receives imperishable benefits. There is no need to perform any other kind of religious duty. Observance of this Ekādaśī fast alone promotes one to the supreme abode of Śrī Viṣṇu. O best of the Kurus, if one donates gold, cloth, or anything else on this day, the merit one obtains is imperishable.
“Remember, whosoever eats any grains on Ekādaśī becomes contaminated by sin and verily eats only sin. In effect, he has already become a dog-eater, and after death he suffers a hellish existence. But he who observes this sacred Jyeṣṭha-śukla Ekādaśī and gives something in charity certainly achieves liberation from the cycle of repeated birth and death and attains to the supreme abode. Observing this Ekādaśī, which is merged with Dvādaśī, frees one from the horrible sin of killing a brāhmaṇa, drinking liquor and wine, becoming envious of one’s spiritual master and ignoring his instructions, and continually telling lies.
“Furthermore, O best of beings, any man or woman who observes this fast properly and worships the Supreme Lord Jalaśāyī (He who sleeps on the water), and who on the next day satisfies a qualified brāhmaṇa with nice sweets and a donation of cows and money – such a person certainly pleases the Supreme Lord Vāsudeva, so much so that one hundred previous generations in his family undoubtedly go to the Supreme Lord’s abode, even though they may have been very sinful, of bad character, and guilty of suicide, etc. Indeed, one who observes this amazing Ekādaśī rides on a glorious celestial airplane (vimāna) to the Lord’s abode.
“One who on this day gives a brāhmaṇa a waterpot, an umbrella, or shoes surely goes to the heavenly planets. Indeed, he who simply hears these glories also attains to the transcendental abode of the Supreme Lord, Śrī Viṣṇu. Whoever performs the śrāddha ceremony to the forefathers on the dark-moon day called amāvasyā, particularly if it occurs at the time of a solar eclipse undoubtedly achieves great merit. But this same merit is achieved by him who simply hears this sacred narration – so powerful and so dear to the Lord is this Ekādaśī.
“One should clean his teeth properly and, without eating or drinking, observe this Ekādaśī to please the Supreme Lord, Keśava. On the day after Ekādaśī one should worship the Supreme Personality of God in His form as Trivikrama by offering Him water, flowers, incense, and a brightly burning lamp. Then the devotee should pray from the heart, `O God of gods, O deliverer of everyone, O Hṛṣīkeśa, master of the senses, kindly bestow upon me the gift of liberation, though I can offer you nothing greater than this humble pot filled with water.’ Then the devotee should donate the waterpot to a brāhmaṇa.
“O Bhīmasena, after this Ekādaśī fast and donating the recommended items according to his ability, the devotee should feed brāhmaṇas and thereafter honour prasādam silently.”
Śrīla Vyāsadeva concluded, “I strongly urge you to fast on this auspicious, purifying, sin-devouring Dvādaśī in just the way I have outlined. Thus you will be completely freed of all sins and reach the supreme abode.”
[Ekadasi, The Day of Lord Hari, by Sri Krsna Balaram Swamiji, KBS0121]