Contributed by M. Whitney Kelting
Meaning ‘year-long fast’ in Sanskrit, Varṣītap is modelled on the fast of the first Jina, Ṛṣhabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Instead of doing a 13-month total fast, which would be impossible, the fasters adopt a pattern of alternating days of total fasting with days of partial fasting. They always begin on Fāgan dark 8th and end on Vaiśākh bright 3rd, 13 and a half months later.
Varṣītap is one of the most demanding fasts for Jains. Devotees believe it is especially effective at reducing the karma in one’s soul. Though fasting is often thought of as an especially female expression of religious devotion, both men and women undertake the varṣītap fast.
The story behind the varṣītap is that of the first feeding of Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha after his renunciation. He renounced on Fāgan dark 8th and took a vow of silence. Ṛṣabha decided not to accept any food offered to him unless it was suitable food offered in the right way. He was the first Jina of this era and this, together with his vow of silence, meant that no one knew the proper way to give alms to a Jain monk.
For 13 and a half months Ṛṣabha wandered without being offered suitable alms. Then he met Prince Śreyāṅs in the city of Hastinapur. The prince recalled from an earlier lifetime the proper way to feed a Jain mendicant. Śreyāṅs offered Ṛṣabha some sugar-cane juice and finally the first Jain monk was able to break his fast.
Varṣītap means ‘year-long fast’ and imitates the long fast of the first Jina, Ṛṣabhanatha or Lord Ṛṣabha. Just as Ṛṣabha did, Jains undertaking this fast always begin on Fāgan dark 8th and end on Vaiśākh bright 3rd. The breaking of the fast is also modelled on his example. Throughout the 13 and a half months of Varṣītap, fasters alternate days of complete fasting with days of partial fasting.
Throughout Varṣītap the faster drinks only boiled water and does numerous extra austerities associated with the fast.
For the period of Varṣītap, every other day the faster completes a full fast, fasting partially on the day in between. The days of full fast are called tivihār upvās. On these days the fasters take only water. On the days of partial fasts, the fasters may have one or two meals instead of three. A partial-fast day with one meal is called ekāsana while a day that allows two meals is known as beāsana.
Jains generally associate the eighth and 14th day of each fortnight with fasting. On these days the people who are performing the Varṣītap also carry out a total fast, taking only boiled water.
Someone who withdraws from ordinary life to meditate and practise physical hardships in order to advance spiritually. Jain ascetics or mendicants beg for food from devout lay followers and wander the land.
Also used as an adjective to describe the practice of rigorous, even extreme, physical hardships in the belief that it leads to a higher spiritual condition.
Giving, specifically alms-giving to mendicants.
Giving up or limiting food or specified foods for a period of time, usually as part of a religious practice. Fasting is a key part of Jainism, chiefly because it is believed to:
A 'victor' in Sanskrit, a Jina is an enlightened human being who has triumphed over karma and teaches the way to achieve liberation. A synonym for Tīrthaṃkara, which means 'ford-maker' or one who has founded a community after reaching omniscience through asceticism. The most famous 24 – Ṛṣabha to Mahāvīra – were born in the Bharata-kṣetra of the middle world, but more are found in other continents. There have been Jinas in the past and there will be some in the future.
Sanskrit for 'worship' or 'homage'. All Jains perform rites of honour to the 24 Jinas. Rites of worship take place daily, with more elaborate ceremonies performed on holy days. Mendicant and lay Jains perform different rituals. Some sects worship images – mūrti-pūjaka – and others do not, and different sects have various practices. Focused on images or not, worship can be:
Giving up something. A lay person who becomes an ascetic renounces the life of a householder within society, instead choosing the physical hardships of being a monk or nun. The formal renunciation ceremony in Jainism is dīkṣā.
First Jina of the present age. His symbolic colour is gold and his emblem the ox or bull. There is little historical evidence of his existence. Jains believe that he established many social institutions, such as marriage and the caste system, and introduce crafts and agriculture to the people.
Austerity or asceticism in general. A tapas is an act of austerity or self-discipline that produces bodily heat – tapas – that burns up karma. Austerities may be internal – mental – or external – physical. Both lay and mendicant Jains practise austerities. Fasting is the most common external austerity for lay people these days.
A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.
Vows are extremely important in Jain religious life. Mendicants take the compulsory Five Great Vows – mahā-vratas – as part of their initiation – dīkṣā.
Lay people can choose to take 12 vows, which are divided into:
All of these vows are lifelong and cannot be taken back. The sallekhana-vrata is a supplementary vow to fast to death, open to both ascetics and householders.