8. Niyama - Sacred Vows | Vrata

Summary of the Eighth Observance

Embrace religious vows, rules and observances and never waver in fulfilling them.  
Honour vows as spiritual contracts with your soul, your community, with God, Gods and guru.  
Take vows to harness the instinctive nature.  
Fast periodically. Pilgrimage yearly.  
Uphold your vows strictly, be they chastity, marriage, monasticism, non-addiction, tithing, loyalty to a lineage, vegetarianism or non-smoking.

The Eighth Observance

Sacred Vows

Vrata / व्रत

Vrata, taking sacred vows, is the eighth niyama and something every Hindu must do at one time or another during his lifetime.

The Brahmacharya vrata is the first, pledging to maintain virginity until marriage.
The Vivāhaḥ vrata, marriage vows, would generally be the next.

Taking a vow is a sacred trust between yourself, your outer self, your inner self, your loved ones and closest friends:

Even though they may not know of the vow you may have taken, it would be difficult to look them straight in the eye if you yourself know you have let yourself down.

A vow is a sacred trust between you and your guardian devas, the devas that surround the temple you most frequent and the Mahādevas, who live within the Third World—which you live in, too, in your deep, innermost mind, in the radiant, self-luminous body of your soul.

Many people make little promises and break them. This is not a vrata, a sacred trust.

A vrata is a sacred trust with God, Devas and guru made at a most auspicious time in one’s life:

Vrata is a binding force, binding the external mind to the soul and the soul to the Divine, though vrata is sometimes defined generally as following religious virtues or observances, following the principles of the Vedas, of the Hindu Dharma.

There are vratas of many kinds, on many different levels, from the simple promise we make to ourself and our religious community and guru to perform the basic spiritual obligations, to the most specific religious vows.

Vratas give the strength to withstand the temptations of the instinctive forces that naturally come up as one goes on through life—not to suppress them but to re-channel them into a lifestyle fully in accord with the yamas and niyamas.

The yamas should be at least two-thirds perfected and the niyamas two-thirds in effect before vratas are taken:

We must remember that the yamas are restraints, ten clues as to what forces to restrain and how to restrain them. Some people are better than others at accomplishing this, depending on their prārabdha karmas, but the effort in trying is the important thing.

The practices, niyamas, on the other hand, are progressive, according to the perfection of the restraints:

Commitment to the first yama, non-injury, ahiṁsā, for example, makes the first niyama, remorse, or Hrī, a possibility in one’s life.

And satya, truthfulness, brings santosha—contentment, joy and serenity in life.

The first five practices, Niyamas, are tools to keep working with yourself, to keep trying within the five major areas they outline.

If one wants to progress further, he does not have to take on a guru — to study scriptures or develop a spiritual will or intellect — that would come naturally, or to take simple vratas, to chant Aum as japa and to perform certain sādhanas and penance:

These are all available.

But a Guru naturally comes into one’s life when the last five yamas—

steadfastness, compassion, honesty, a moderate appetite, and purity—

give rise to the last five niyamas—

Siddhāṅta śravaṇa (choice of lineage), mati (cognition and developing a spiritual will with the guru’s guidance), vrata (sacred vows before a guru), japa (recitation after initiation from guru) and tapas (austerities performed under the careful guidance of a guru).

We can see that the last five practices are taken on two levels: guru involvement, and community and personal involvement.

Types of Vows

Many people get together with modern-day gurus and want to rush ahead, and with feigned humility seek to “get on with it” and “be their own person,” but feel they need an initiation to do so.

The gurus and swamis from India following a traditional path put initiation before them:

Most gurus and swamis are dumbfounded by the devotion they see in these souls, perhaps not realizing they are stimulated by drugs and the desire to get something without earning it.

The gurus presume they are already performing the yamas and niyamas and have dropped out of some higher inner world into Earth bodies.

So, the initiations are given and vows are taken, but then when the reaction to the action comes within the mind of the devotee,

and the swāmī begins to teach on a different level to this chosen group, because after initiation a new form of teaching and dissemination of inner knowledge occurs,

and since it was only the initiation that was sought for (and he or she does not believe in God and the Devas and is not even part of the Hindu religion),

once the devotee feels the pressure of responsibility, he or she responds by leaving, and even defaming the guru.

Many people think that initiation is like a graduation, the end of study. This is not true. Initiation is the beginning of study, the beginning of sādhana, the beginning of learning.

Therefore, think well before you become initiated, because your loyalty is expected, and you are expected to adhere to the teachings of the sampradāya, of the lineage, into which you are initiated.

This does not mean you can’t attend temples or other religious activities of other sampradāyas occasionally, such as festivals, or listen to music or chants of other traditions occasionally,

but this should be minimized so that your focus and concentration is upon what you were initiated into, because you are expected to advance on the path of that particular lineage.

There are certain simple vows in Hinduism which are easy to take and often are taken, such as:

“If I’m successful in this business dealing, I will give twenty percent of the profits to my temple.” or, “If my spouse comes back to me, I shall always obey the Strī dharma principles (or puruṣa dharma), be dedicated and devoted always.”

“If my dear mother, who is so devoted to my children, lives through her cancer operation (and Lord Gaṇeśa, the doctors have said the chances are not good), you will see me at the temple every Friday without fail. This is my vrata, Lord Gaṇeśa, and I say no more.”

We take vows to change our ways, vows to meditate daily, vows to desist from lying, vows to not eat meat, vows to remain celibate, vows to obey the guru and his tradition, vows to follow these yamas and niyamas.

Perhaps the most obvious and important vow, which can be taken most readily and renewed once a year on a day which you consider your most sacred day— such as Śivarātri, Gaṇeśa Chaturthī, Skanda ṣaṣṭhi or Dīpāvalī— is the yama and niyama vrata:

These twenty restraints and practices are easy to memorize. Commit them to memory.

The vrata should go like this:

“O Lord Gaṇeśa, open the portals of my wisdom that I might take this vrata with open heart and clear mind.

O Lord Murugan, give me the will, fortitude and renewed strength every step of the way to fulfil the vrata that I am taking.

O lord Śiva, forgive me if I fail, for these twenty restraints and practices are truly beyond my ability to perfectly uphold:

So, this first year, Lord Śiva, I vow to fulfil these lofty ideals, to the best of my ability, at least fifty percent. I know I am weak. You know I am weak. I know you will make me strong. I know that you are drawing me ever patiently toward your holy feet.

But, Lord Śiva, next year I will faithfully renew this vrata, this sacred vow, to these rules, these observances.

And if I have succeeded in fulfilling my meagre fifty percent according to my conscience, that shall increase my dedication and devotion to you, Lord Śiva, and I shall determine to fulfil the yamas and niyamas in my life and soul seventy-five percent or more.”

Success and Failure

Many people feel that when they don’t fulfil their vrata they have failed:

One practical example to the contrary is Mahatma Gandhi, who took a vow to be celibate but broke it many times, yet continued the effort and ultimately conquered his instinctive nature.

In taking a vrata, at the moment it is heard by priests, elders and all community members, when one hears oneself taking it, and all three worlds rejoice, a balanced scale has been created:

Success is on one side, failure on the other. One or the other will win out. This is where the unreserved worship of Lord Murugan will help overbalance the scale on the success side.

But if the scale teeters and wavers, the blessings and knowledge of the elders of the community should be sought: the mothers and fathers, the old aunties and uncles, the priests, the pandits and sages, the Ṛishis and gurus. This and this alone will steady the balance.

But if actual failure occurs, lord Gaṇeśa Himself will catch the fall in His four arms and trunk:

He will hold the devotee from going into the abyss of remorse of the darkness of the lower worlds. He will speak softly into the right ear and encourage that the vrata be immediately renewed, lest time elapse and the asura of depression take over mind, body and emotion.

Yes, the only failure is that experienced by the one who quits, gives up, turns his back on the path and walks the other way, into the realms of darkness, beyond even the reach of the Devas:

As Tiruvalluvar said, it is better to strive to fulfil great aspirations, even if you fail, than to achieve minor goals in life. Yes, this is very true.

On the everyday level there are vratas or contracts made with people of the outside world whom you don’t even know:

Buy a piece of property, and once you sign the contract you are bound to fulfil it.

But a religious vrata is a contract between yourself, the religious community, the devas and the Gods and your guru, if you have one, all of whom know that human failure is a part of life;

but striving is the fulfilment of life, and practice is the strengthening effect that the exercise of the human and spiritual will have over the baser elements.

Vows before the community, such as those of marriage and celibacy and other vows where community support is needed are very important.

Other, more personal vows are taken before the community, a temple priest, pandit, elder, swāmī, guru, or satguru if help is needed to strengthen the individual’s ability to fulfil them.

For a certain type of person, a vow before Lord Gaṇeśa, Lord Murugan, Lord Śiva or all three is enough for him to gain strength and fulfil it.

A vow is never only to oneself. This is important to remember. A vow is always to God, Devas and guru, community and respected elders.

One cannot make one’s vow privately, to one’s own individual āṇava, external personal ego, thinking that no one is listening:

This would be more of a promise to oneself, like a New Year’s resolution, a change in attitude based on a new belief, all of which has nothing to do with the yamas and niyamas or religion.

In speaking about the yama and niyama vrata, there is no difference in how the family person upholds it and the celibate monastic upholds it:

The families are in their home, the monks are in their maṭha, monastery.

In regards to the vrata of sexual purity, for example, the family man vows to be faithful to his wife and to treat all other women as either a mother or sister and to have no sexual thoughts, feelings or fantasies toward them.

Sādhakas, yogis and swamis vow to look at all women as their mothers or sisters, and God Śiva and their guru as their mother and father. There is no difference.