Article: Varṣītap

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.

Ṛṣabha’s fast of 13 and a half months

Prince Śreyāṃsa of Hastināpura offers sugar-cane juice to Ṛṣabha, the first Jina. He has fasted for over a year because no one knows how to give alms. Ṛṣabha's story is told with hundreds of models at the Digambara temple in Ajmer, Rajasthan.

Ṛṣabha is offered sugar-cane juice
Image by Vaibhavsoni1 © CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

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.

Ritual of the 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.

Jains believe that this fast is a powerful way of reducing one’s karma. Performed by both men and women, the Varṣītap is one of the most difficult fasts.

Throughout Varṣītap the faster drinks only boiled water and does numerous extra austerities associated with the fast.

Full fast days and partial fast days

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.

Completing the fast

At the end of his fast a man is fed sugar-cane juice. Many lay people fast during festivals. Believed to help destroy karmas bound to the soul, fasting is also a way of gaining merit – puṇya. The ending of a fast is usually a time of celebration.

Completing a fast
Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

The day of the fast-breaking is called Akṣaya Tṛtīyā, or 'Immortal Third'.

Those who perform the Varṣītap break their fast on Vaiśākh bright 3rd with sugar-cane juice in remembrance of the story of Sreyaṇ’s feeding of the first Jina.

The fasters often go to a temple associated with Ṛṣabhanatha or Lord Ṛṣabha for their morning worship on the day of their fast-breaking. Some Jains will break this fast in Hastinapur, at the same location as Ṛṣabha. Although Ṛṣabha broke his fast at Hastinapur, many Jains completing Varṣītap try to end it at Mount Śatruñjaya as the most important temple dedicated to Ādināth or Ṛṣabha for contemporary Jains.

After completing the fast-breaking, fasters are usually processed in a parade, publicly celebrated and given substantial gifts. Images of those who complete the Varṣītap are often published in the newspapers as well.

Images

  • Ṛṣabha is offered sugar-cane juice Prince Śreyāṃsa of Hastināpura offers sugar-cane juice to Ṛṣabhanātha or Lord Ṛṣabha, the first Jina. As a wandering monk, Ṛṣabha fasts for over a year because no one knows how to give alms but Śreyāṃsa remembers from his past lives. This event is commemorated in the Akṣaya-tṛtīyā festival. Covered in gold leaf, these 19th-century wooden figures depict a crucial scene in the story of the first Jina, which is presented in hundreds of three-dimensional models at the Digambara temple at Ajmer in Rajasthan.. Image by Vaibhavsoni1 © CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)
  • Completing a fast At the end of his fast a man is fed sugar-cane juice. Many lay people fast during festivals. Believed to help destroy karmas bound to the soul, fasting is also a way of gaining merit – puṇya. Feeding someone who is completing a fast is also a way of getting merit. The ending of a fast is usually a time of celebration.. Image by Chandu Shah © Chandu Shah

Further Reading

Absent Lord: Ascetics and Kings in a Jain Ritual Culture
Lawrence A. Babb
Comparative Studies in Religion & Society series; volume 8
University of California Press; Berkeley, California, USA; 1996

Full details

Jains in the World: Religious Values and Ideology in India
John E. Cort
Oxford University Press USA; New York, USA; 2001

Full details

Riches and Renunciation: Religion, Economy and Society among the Jains
James Laidlaw
Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology series
Oxford University Press; Oxford, UK; 1995

Full details

Glossary

Ascetic

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.

Dāna

Giving, specifically alms-giving to mendicants.

Fast

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:

  • help destroy karmas that bind to the soul
  • gain merit – puṇya.

Jina

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.

Pūjā

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:

  • external or material – dravya-pūjā – involving offerings of food, drink and precious substances
  • internal or mental – bhava-pūjā – including singing hymns of praise, reciting mantras and meditating.

Renunciation

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.

Ṛṣabha

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.

Tapas

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.

Temple

A building reserved for public worship or prayer, usually dedicated to one religion and run by members of that religion's clergy.

Vrata

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:

  • aṇu-vratas – 'Five Lesser Vows'
  • guṇa-vratas – three supplementary vows
  • śikṣā-vratas – four vows of spiritual discipline

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. 

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