‘Vrata’: A Hindu priest’s lesson on dedication to goals amidst Stanford’s cacophony of opportunity

Nov. 6, 2022, 9:41 p.m.

There’s a word in Sanskrit vrata — that means a vow, a devotion to a goal, a resolve to fulfill a purpose. As most Hindu students at Stanford would know, vrata is an important part of the Hindu festival Karwa Chauth, which took place earlier this quarter, on Oct. 12 — and in my conversations with friends surrounding vrata this past week, I was reminded of my previous encounter with this word over summer break, when I was home in India. 

The first sentence of this article offers the official definition of the word vrata. Except — most modern Indian families don’t use the word to mean exactly that. We have co-opted Vrata to refer to the practice of fasting for religious purposes. Therefore, I’d grown up hearing the word vrata in my home and my school, and I never felt any particular attachment to it, because I don’t fast. That was until this past summer break, when I discovered its true meaning. 

On the last Sunday of my visit to India, a priest visited our house. Our family invited him to conduct a Hindu religious ritual — a havan — to bless our home. As part of the ritual proceedings, he shared words of wisdom. He was a religious intellectual and had spent many years studying at a Hindu ashram, so he had a fair bit of knowledge to impart. My grasp of Sanskrit and “pure” Hindi is poor enough that I phased in and out of his talk, understanding only parts of it by piecing together whatever linguistic knowledge I retained. But one word certainly rang a bell, unearthing a million memories — vrata

“You must all know this word, vrata,” he explained. “But do you know its true Sanskrit definition?” Images of my mother observing fast on Karwa Chauth flashed in my head as I heard his words. Of course I knew that word! Finally something I can relate to in this havan, I thought. 

But the next thing he said blew me away. 

Vrata is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘vow.’ Though modern Hindi speakers use it to refer to their religious fasting, its official definition is much more expansive. To undertake a vrata of any kind — a vow to study, a vow to fast till dusk, a vow to practice your art every day — will bring you closer to God, because in the process of achieving that vrata you will undoubtedly come across many obstacles and failures. Staying resilient is important in the face of these misfortunes, because God wants you to fulfill your vrata.”

 A vrata is a promise made both to God and to oneself. This new definition was so spectacularly nuanced that I was momentarily blown away by it — as if I’d seen a childhood friend for the first time in adulthood, and instantly noticed a beautiful maturity that made me fall in love. 

What is my vrata in this world? I found myself wondering, suddenly eager to attach myself to this practice, to see where this transformed old friend fit into my life today.

And then I realized — without knowing it, I’d absorbed the values of vrata from my family, by observing them throughout my childhood. I don’t fast, so I don’t keep vrata in the most obvious sense of the word, but throughout my life, implicitly, my family has passed down the values of tenacity, self-discipline and self-sacrifice that are so intimately linked with the practice of vrata

As my mother sacrificed her meals for divine fulfillment, I learnt to sacrifice my free time in the name of chasing my dream. As she practiced the art of saying no to the most lavish meals, I learnt to live an ascetic life centered around a highly regimented work schedule. Every time she got hungry, she learnt to ignore her hunger and persevere in her vrata. Every time I got tired, I learnt to ignore my tiredness and persevere in my vrata. Perfecting my craft as a writer and engineer became the holiest fulfillment I could dream of. 

So that’s my vrata. And we all have so many other vratas throughout our lives: learning how to bike, or drive, or even staying faithful in a marriage. To fulfill any vrata, sacrifices inevitably have to be made — whether big or small. But as long as we know that the sacrifices are necessary in order to fulfill a vrata, we can make those sacrifices with pride, knowing it is just another step in the journey of divine fulfillment of our goals. 

Following a vrata promotes the principles of a goal-driven life — choosing an ethical life in contrast to an aesthetic one, if you will. In this era of “having it all,” it is especially important to realize that achieving any difficult task requires sacrifices to be made – a fact that I consciously hammer into myself so that I don’t forget it, because forgetting is so easy. And sacrifice is so hard

Especially in Stanford’s you-can-have-it-all culture, there is great value in picking a vrata, and sticking to it. It feels humbling, I think, to work towards a greater goal by sacrificing peripheral things. And it can be grounding to realize that loyalty to a personal vrata is more meaningful than trying to achieve multiple goals that may not even be that important to you. 

And this kind of tunnel vision isn’t easy when you’re at a place like Stanford, where there seems to be an infinite number of opportunities to dip your toes into. (“Should I stick to my major classes or try to explore different fields?” “Should I get more involved in the clubs I’m already a part of, or try to join new ones?”) But, as the old saying goes, there’s nothing worth getting in this life that you can get easily.

So I find joy in the fulfillment of the tasks that bring me one step closer to achieving my vrata. I block out all the noise. 

I congratulate myself on the smaller wins, like an A on an essay or helping a close friend debug their code. I huddle with my friends poring over the CS 106B PSET, coding through the night, our study sessions getting delightfully derailed by clever quips and playlist shares. I appreciate all the brutal feedback that my writer friends give me on my essays, because it expands my conception of “good” writing every time. I am grateful for it all. And if I ever feel stuck, I know now that I can remind myself of my vrata to stay inspired. 

So now the question is: What’s your vrata? And how many sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve it? 

Diya Sabharwal is an undergraduate studying Computer Science with minors in Feminist Studies and Creative Writing.

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