A little over two years ago, Japanese cell biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize for Medicine for his pioneering research on a process called Autophagy. Autophagy is derived from Greek and it literally means self-eating. He found that at times of starvation, cells began to “eat” themselves and in effect, break down their own protein and other components ostensibly to recycle themselves to provide energy when energy is depleted due to non availability of food. In addition to short term energy supply during fasting, the process is also thought to get rid of damaged cell structures, Autophagy thus provides a source of intracellular building blocks and substrates that may generate energy to enable continuous cell survival ( as defined by news-medical.net). The process thus deals with two types of problems – (a) external - caused by deprivation of nutrients and (b) internal – caused by accumulation of damaged cell material.
Needless to say, Dr Ohsumi’s findings have generated a lot of excitement not only in the medical fraternity but also amongst the brigade which is ready to jump on any bandwagon backed by new findings in the medical world that promise long term health benefits. Nutritionists and scientists have reacted with advice to exercise caution but are almost unanimous in the opinion that controlled autophagy could lead to improved health, keep away several diseases and even reverse the ageing process.
It has also emerged that the process works best with intermittent fasting which follows a regular pattern. Some even go to the extent of advocating a 16-hour fasting period every day. Others advocate alternate days of fasting while some others recommend fasting once a week.
While discussions hot up in the modern medical world, our ancestors from the Vedic age seem to have known all about it and even worked out the best process for autophagy, followed by detoxification.
For long, Ekadasi (the eleventh day of the lunar cycle, both for the waxing and waning moon) has been observed as a day of fasting. This enforces, yet again, the fact that ancient Hindu civilisation was led by seers who possessed profound knowledge about the sciences. The wise men of those days seem to have arrived at the conclusion that fasting twice a month followed by detoxification was the ideal panacea for the human body.
The day of fasting was followed by Dwadasi (the twelfth day of the lunar cycle). It was advised to break the fast gently. In order to level out stomach acid and for detox purposes, lemon water or dry mango powder was used to avoid the use of tamarind. Plantain and yam were forbidden as were a host of other foods.
The most significant part of the diet on Dwadasi day – and here I speak of South India – was a special leaf called Agathi Keerai. The name Agathi means “internal” in Tamil and thus, was believed to be the one substance to be taken for all internal ailments and cleansing. Agathi Keerai, known as Hummingbird Leaf in English, is a super detoxifying agent. It is highly alkaline and ideal for neutralizing all the toxic acid build up. It is also known to prevent ulcers and is rich in Vitamin A, Calcium and Iron.. Our ancestors also seem to have been wise to the fact that despite being an excellent detoxifying food, agathi keerai was potent if taken in excess and thus, it was forbidden to consume it on any other day except on Dwadasi.
That brings us to the question of religious significance of Ekadasi. There are two theories on this. I will start with the first one which will appeal to the more devout.
It is said in the Padma Purana, where Mahaguru Vyasa explains to Rishi Jaimini how the Lord Himself created Papa Purusha (the embodiment of all evil) in order to punish the evil beings with the help of Kala or Yamaraj. Later, taking pity on their suffering, He manifested from His own form as Ekadasi, the female deity of the eleventh day of of he moon. Ekadasi began to liberate the sins of beings by being the personification of fasting and guiding them away from eating and other worldly desires, on towards Moksha. Later when Papa Purusha, who was also the creation of the Lord, pleaded for mercy, the Lord advised him to take shelter in the form of foodstuff and grains as Ekadasi will never find him there. Those who are serious about liberation or Moksha will therefore stay away from these where Papa Purusha or the embodiment of sins resides in the presence of Ekadasi.
For the less devout or less spiritually inclined, there is a different theory. One needs to understand the social structure of that age in order to understand this. Then society was divided into four varnas according to the responsibilities entrusted with the members of each Varna - Brahmanas (scholars, teachers and priests), Kshatriyas (rulers, warriors and administrators), Vaishyas (agriculturists and merchants) and Shudras (labourers and service providers) – All four peacefully co-existed and performed equally vital functions to keep public order. They were like four cogs of a wheel that rolls on smoothly. Contrary to popular belief, there was no hierarchy or gradation and the Brahmanas were accorded respect for their knowledge and scholarship.
As was the norm in those days, the Brahmanas were looked up to by the others for guidance on almost everything in life. It was easy for the wise men to associate a religious significance to their guidelines for a better life which served two purposes – (a) it was easier to explain without going into the technicalities and (b) it ensured wide adherence in an age where having faith and being religious were prevalent traits.
Thus Ekadasi was dedicated to Lord Vishnu and beliefs came into existence that those kept the fast were rid of evils and were on the road to greater happiness and peace. In order to keep the mind from wavering, it was stipulated that the day be spent in chanting prayers to the Lord, thinking pious thoughts
While the origins of the fasting on Ekadasi can be attributed to divinity or the wisdom of men, what is irrefutable is the fact that more and more of our ancient Hindu practices, long debunked as blind faith, are being backed by emerging new discoveries. Look at it this way, before the Wright Brothers came on the scene, the Pushpaka Vimana of Ramayana might have been ridiculed as an absurd idea by generations. The aeroplane did not prove that Ravana was in possession of the Vimana, but it did prove that if not the machine itself, the vision existed – a vision that a man made contraption could carry passengers and fly like a bird.
And that notion existed in the minds of our ancestors at an age when the rest of the world’s inhabitants were walking naked on all fours, eating raw meat and taking shelter in caves.
P.S. The word Ekadasi sounds sufficiently Japanese (if uttered in the right accent) and may be copyrighted by Dr Ohsumi in the near future. Perhaps that is when a number of my fellow Indians will really know about Ekadasi.
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