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An abridged version of this paper was published on indica.in
In Indian folk traditions, rituals are not just a medium for communication with the sacred; they are powerful life-transforming instruments too. Vratas are one such ritual. The term vrata here means a religious observance, a sacred undertaking regarding restriction on behaviour or food. In practice and principle, vratas belong in the outermost layer of folk religion that developed along with the orthodox sacrificial and ascetic practices. Since the transmission of these folk practices and associated narratives has been largely oral, they have received scant attention from scholars. Their mention in Purānic, Vedic and Tāntric literature points to their diffusion and subsequent acceptance into the contemporary practice of Hinduism.
The Ahoī Āthe vrata is one such ritual which is performed by women of Uttar Pradesh and parts of Madhya Pradesh to ensure the safety and well being of children. This paper discusses the transactional nature of the vrata, its efficacy as an embodied ritual and the agency of women who achieve one-ness with the divine through the medium of darśana within the framework of the vrata. An attempt has also been made to understand the role of reference frame composed of a women-only space in the vrata framework which contributes to its ritual efficacy.
Keywords: ritual, vrata, kathā, performance, narrative.
The principles and practice of vrata are ancient—a form of folk religion that developed along with the sacrificial and ascetic practices outlined in Sanskrit texts. When it involves mortifications of the body, a vrata is called tapas or penance. Controlling the organs of sense is called niyama (control). Since the transmission of these practices and associated narratives has been largely oral, they have received scant attention from scholars. The reference to vrata narratives and the associated ritual in the later Puranic literature indicates their diffusion and subsequent acceptance into the contemporary practice of Hinduism.
With the passage of time, two factors contributed to the popularity of the practice of vrata- kathās-easy availability of the vrata kathā pamphlets and their simple language (with a smattering of easily understandable Sanskrit words) which eliminated the need for an agent to mediate the exchange between women and the deity. The vrata-s gradually became a popular practice and their demonstrated efficacy necessitated some standardization as well as legitimizing of the practice through priestly intervention.
In this study conducted at Kaṡīpur, where this idea of writing about Ahoi Mata Vrata kathā germinated, is a small town which used to be a part of the state of Uttar Pradesh but is now a town in Udham Singh Nagar District of Uttarakhand. It has a population of two lakhs. The town is dotted with numerous picturesque ponds and temples. The kathā set up studied here belongs to the Chaturvedi clan who live at Kashipur. The Chaturvedis of Kashipur are Gauda Brāhmins who observe all rituals with great sincerity and attention to detail. There are ten families of Chaturvedis living in Kashipur.who are related to each other. The vrata discussed here is performed by each family at their own home along with all the children within their own joint/extended family.
[caption id="attachment_1787" align="alignright" width="687"] Ahoi Mata-Traditional Drawing( source credit in picture)[/caption]
The term vrata first appears in Hindu texts in the Ṛgveda Saṃhitā where it seems to have a numerous meanings. Kane(1994a: 23) observes that the other Vedic Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and early Upaniṣads present vrata primarily as either restrictions or enjoinments of food and behaviour. By the time of the Brāhmanas, the ̣ term is also used to refer secondarily to a proper pattern of conduct that a person should undertake in a particular situation (e.g. a king ought not to sit down before his enemy does) or as a term equivalent to upavāsa, a term that refers both to passing the night near a sacrificial fire and the practice of fasting, with which vratas are in later contexts strongly aligned (Kane 1994a: 25–6). Timothy Lubin, on the other hand opines that the Ṛgveda envisions the vrata not principally as a ‘command’ of any kind but rather as ‘a regular course of ritual observance corresponding to the particular character of the deity to whom the rites pertain’ ( 2001: 566).
Vrata (व्रत) refers to the “four vows of a Brahmacārin”, which is mentioned as one of the fire-rituals related to the kuṇḍa (“fire-pit”), according to the various Āgamas and related literature. Vrata is mentioned in the Vīra-āgama (chapter 41) and the Makuṭa-āgama (chapter 6).
The Gṛhyasūtras and Dharmasūtras, refer to vrata-s primarily as ritual observances that contribute to the moral formation of an individual and entail strict rules for conduct and diet. These observances prescribed in these texts are primarily propitiatory and expiatory penance(शुद्धि) rites prescribed in general for both men and women during each of the āsramas and not meant for devotional or votive(व्रतानुसारेण समर्पितः) actions. One may thus conclude, that while Vedic and early Hindu texts that concern themselves with dharma, ‘we are still somewhat far from the later standard denotation of vrata as a voluntary vow made to a deity to observe a fast or other ascetic regimen in favour of a worldly reward’(Davis 2018).
In the Mahābhārata, the usage of the term vrata appears to denote not only restraint in diet or behaviour, but it also prescribed patterns of secular conduct(Kane 1994a: 27). Yudhiṣthira’s ̣ reference to his ‘vow’ not to refuse dice play when challenged to it, is also considered a vrata.
 sūtra texts that address domestic or gṛhya rituals
 There are four extant Dharmasūtras dating from approximately (700 bce–100 bce): the Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana and Vāsiṣtha Dharmasūtras. The sūtra texts describe duties as well as social, civil, and religious or dharma responsibilities incumbent upon all individuals in the later Vedic period and beyond.
Read Ritual Efficacy and Narrative in Vrat Katha Traditions: Part 2 here.