FASTING All devotees must avoid the following foods on Ekadasi : grains (wheat, rice, etc.), dahl, peas, bean type vegetables, mustard seeds, sesame seeds (except on Sat-tila Ekadasi, when sesame [tila] seeds may be offered and eaten), derivatives of these foods (wheat flour, mustard oil, soya bean oil etc.), and food items containing these products. For instance, care should be taken in using powdered spices, which, if mixed with flour, should not be used on Ekadasi. Particularly, commercially prepared powdered asafatoeda (hing) is always mixed with flour and is not to be used on Ekadasi. If even a slight piece of grain is ingested, even accidentally, the Ekadasi fast is broken. Devotees should not even think of neglecting the Ekadasi fast, unless its observance would severely strain their health. Only in rare cases, those who are physically unable to fast may take grains on Ekadasi, but then only with the explicit permission of their guru. Those who, in the course of the year, break the Ekadasi fast even once, should observe the yearly Bhima Nirjala Ekadasi (see below).
Pancaratra Pradipa states: “One who is very strictly observing Ekadasi should avoid all spices except pepper, rock salt and cumin. He should also eschew certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, cauliflower, eggplant, and leafy vegetables.” Simpler than this and even more strict is to fast completely. Srila Prabhupada usually observed the Ekadasi fast in the simplest manner prescribed in scripture, by refraining from eating grains, beans, peas and dahl. Sometimes he observed a half-day fast. Some devotees eat only fruit on Ekadasi, some take only water, and some fully fast, even from water (this latter is called nirjala vrata). Non-grain high carbohydrate foods are often prepared on Ekadasi. Sago (tapioca) is a common example. But sago is sometimes mixed with rice flour, and apparently sometimes even with crushed insects. So unless one is sure about the source, sago should be avoided. In India, preparations resembling capatis and rice are made on Ekadasi from non-grain ingredients. Srila Prabhupada was pleased if his disciples strictly observed ekadasi, but he did not emphasize it. (Tamal Krsna Goswami): I told Srila Prabhupada we were strictly observing Ekadasi, no eating or drinking. He said, “Very good.” (TKG’S Diary, page 70) Actually on the Ekadasi days we should not take any food, or even drink water. But in our society we are not doing so strictly. We say, “On Ekadsi, you don’t take food grains. Take a little fruit, milk.” Ekadasi day, there is no eating sumptuously. Simply you take a little fruit and flower. Try to avoid that also. You don’t take even water. That is really Ekadasi. But because we cannot do it in the Kali-yuga the time is different therefore we are allowed to take a little fruit and milk, which is called anukalpa.
For those who are accustomed to full fasting from a young age and have the physical strength for it, refraining from food and water on Ekadasi is an excellent practice. Not only food, but also sleep is supposed to be given up or minimized on Ekadasi. Those who are so practised may also stay awake all night on Ekadasi, chanting the glories of the Lord. Yet, due to so many discrepancies of modern life, the physical strength of the average person is much less than when this type of fasting was commonly practiced. Therefore many devotees who try to follow this vow become physically devastated. Even if they force themselves to stay awake throughout the night, they cannot properly chant because of hunger, weakness and tiredness. In such cases, is better to follow the process of devotional service according to one’s physical ability, rather than attempt something one cannot properly do. Fasting means if you don’t feel weak, then you fast–not that you imitate Raghunatha dasa Gosvami. That is not possible in the beginning. But it is possible if you practice. It is not unusual to feel a little weak when fasting, although with practice one can fast without being disturbed by weakness. However, if a devotee feels too weak to properly perform his standard services, it is better that he take a little non-grain prasada on Ekadasi and continue with his regular activities. If there is service and on my fasting, service will be stopped, then I can take. First consideration: service. Now if somebody feels weak, he can take maha-prasada, render service. ( Morning Walk Los Angeles, June 7, 1976) Full fasting on Ekadasi is good for health and good practice in restraining the senses, yet the main purpose of observing Ekadasi-vrata is to increase remembrance of Krsna.
One who thinks of food instead of Krsna gets little benefit from fasting. It is therefore better, both for health considerations and to help the mind from being diverted, to break fast with a simple rather than elaborate meal. One of the limbs of a vrata is to diminish the devotee’s propensity for enjoyment. If one thinks, “Today somehow or other I will renounce, but tomorrow I will enjoy profusely,” then the purpose of the vow will not be successful. If a devotee who is fasting sleeps more due to weakness (real or imagined), cannot rise the next morning, or makes elaborate arrangements to enjoy breaking the fast the next morning, he will derive little benefit. When Tamal Krsna Gosvami asked Srila Prabhupada if devotees could fast fully on Ekadasi, Prabhupada replied “Yes, but don’t lie down and sleep.” Artificial observance is merely a superficial austerity. Indeed, the disturbance to a devotee’s regular routine and service may even be a hindrance to his spiritual advancement. Nor should devotees do strict fasting to impress others, or think themselves superior for doing so, or put pressure on others to also do so. Full Ekadasi fasting is optional, and should not be forced onto anyone. TIMING OF THE FAST : Observance of Ekadasi vrata is calculated to begin at sunrise. The period before sunrise is considered to be part of the previous day.
So the Ekadasi vrata starts at sunrise and lasts until the next sunrise. We observe Ekadasi from sunrise to sunrise. Twelve midnight is the western astronomical calculation, but the Vedic astronomical calculation begins either from the sunrise or the moonrise. Generally it is sunrise. Our calculation is like this: when the sunrise is there, Ekadasi tithi (date) must be there. If the tithi begins a few minutes after the sunrise, then we accept that day as prior to Ekadasi. ( Letter to: Madhudvisa, 30 September, 1969 ) If one eats grains during the period from sunrise to sunrise, one breaks the vrata. He will not get the results of the fasting, and he will get impious reactions as well. In Vedic culture the day begins at sunrise no matter when the lunar tithi begins (The Vedic system differs from the Gregorian calendar in as much as the days are named are deemed to begin at sunrise, rather than midnight). Therefore, technically speaking, since ekadasi or any other day does not begin until sunrise, one could eat grains before sunrise. However, one should generally not eat in the pre-dawn hours, and especially not on ekadasi. Hence, ekadasi fasting and other observances should be followed from the time of waking up on the ekadasi vrata day. Some Vaisnavas are particular not to eat anything after sunset the night before, to make sure there is no undigested food left in the stomach on ekadasi day.
BRAKING THE FAST Ekadasi fasting ends with parana, i.e., breaking the fast the next day (Dvadasi) by taking grain prasada. Parana must be performed within a specific time, calculated separately for each Dvadasi. For the dates of Ekadasi and the times for breaking fast, one can consult the Vaisnava calendar (available from ISKCON centers). The specific calendar used by ISKCON should be used, as the prescribed dates for Ekadasi and important festivals may vary according to the system of calculation used by the panditas in each sampradaya. If devotees accidentally break the fast on Ekadasi, they should observe fasting on the following day. Hari Sauri Prabhu recalls an occasion when: The devotees inadvertently broke the Ekadasi vow because the cook accidentally put peas in the vegetable preparations. Srila Prabhupada told us we were all nonsense. He angrily rebuked us, “Now you have to fast for three days!” This shocked everyone. “Yes, that is the procedure,” he confirmed. Seeing the stunned look on our faces he relented, but said that we should observe Ekadasi for the rest of the day and then again tomorrow on Dvadasi. ( Transcendental Diary, 1.258 ) Similarly, if the morning fast to be observed on an appearance or disappearance day of an acarya or avatara is inadvertently broken, it should be followed the next day. (c.f. TD4 p.42)