“No country upon earth rejoices in a longer list of holidays [utsavs] and seasons of rejoicing, qualified by fasts [upvas, vrats], vigils [jagran] and seasons of mortification than India.”
- Sir M. Monier Williams
Boden Professor of Sanskrit, Oxford
The above observation was later corroborated by the Anthropological Survey of India. Between 1959 and 1961, it cited 50 regional festivals and about 300 festivals in 290 districts in 19 Indian states. In this article, we discuss the festivals occurring during Chaturmas – the four sacred months of the monsoon in India.
Firstly, it must be clarified that these festivals are of a religious nature with their origin in the shastras, rather than seasonal festivals celebrated with feasting and gaiety.
Origin & Observances
The four sacred months of Chaturmas are Ashadh, Shravan, Bhadarvo (Bhadrapad) and Aso (Ashwin). Chaturmas begins on Ashadh sud Ekadashi, also known as Dev Podhi Ekadashi, when Bhagwan Vishnu descends into the Kshirsagar – the ocean of milk – to guard King Bali’s kingdom for four months. This stemmed from King Bali’s immense sacrifice by offering to Bhagwan three strides of land, which included himself. Chaturmas ends on Kartik sud 11 – Dev Prabodhini Ekadashi, when Bhagwan Vishnu awakens, rather returns to Vaikunth from Bali’s kingdom. During Chaturmas the shastras prescribe extra bhakti along with vrats to please Bhagwan. Bhagwan Swaminarayan also advocates this in the Shikshapatri (76, 77, 78)
Vishesh niyamo dhãryashchãturmãsyai-khilairapi;
Ekasmin shrãvane masi sa tvashaktãi- stu mãnavãihi.
My devotees shall observe additional bhakti rituals during Chaturmas, such as reading and listening to katha, singing bhajans, performing mantra japa, chanting stotras, doing pradakshinas, dandvat pranams, etc.
Aware of man’s inherent instinct of gluttony rather than self-denial, sages of the bhakti shastras recommended fasting as a form of sadhana to strengthen the mind and atma by controlling rasna – the sense of taste. The weather during Chaturmas proved conducive for this. Specifically, the damp and humid air and the polluted run-off water into rivers and lakes induced water pollution and insect infestation of vegetation. The heat during the final month of Jeth in the summer and the dampness during the monsoon aggravated all three humours of the body, namely, vata, pitta and kapha (Charak Samhita, Sutrasthan 6/33). This would induce illness and mass disease. Hence, the shastras advocated vrats. The Bhavishyottara Puran states that curbing the senses during Chaturmas leads to Bhagwan’s proximity and moksha. And the most important utsavs during Chaturmas are celebrated by fasting and bhakti. Bhakti diverts the indriyas from worldly pursuits towards the Divine. Forms of bhakti rituals which encourage the mumukshu to introspect on his spiritual progress towards moksha are katha and dhyan.
The most important utsavs during Chaturmas are Guru Purnima, Hindola (Jhulan Yatra), Raksha Bandhan, Krishna Janmashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Jal-Jhilani Ekadashi, Dashera, Sharad Purnima, Diwali Parva – which includes Dhan Teras, Kali Chaudash, Diwali, Nutan Varsh and Annakut – and Dev Prabodhini Ekadashi.