The full moon day, or Poornima, in the month of Ashadha, or Tamil Aani, is very important in the calendar of Sankaracharya Mutts like the Kanchi and Sringeri, indeed for all sanyasins and mutts. Vyasa puja and Chaturmasya vratham, both, take place on this day. Acharyas whom we consider Jagatgurus (or Gurus for the whole world) themselves perform an elaborate guru puja, also called Vyasa puja. In addition, it is an occasion when ordinary devotees can, not just witness, but actively participate, in a sublime event called chaturmasya vratham.
The words ‘Guru’ and ‘Poornima’ have a deep meaning. Poornima means the effulgent full moon and Guru means destroyer of darkness or remover of ignorance. The veda says- "Chandro manaso Jathaka", meaning Moon is mind, so the full moon signifies the wholeness and brightness. Just as the moon shines by reflecting the light of the Sun, a true devotee can dazzle by gaining it from his Guru.
Sanyasi ashram to which the Acharyas belong has its special dharma. A sanyasi – in tune with his vow of detachment - should not remain in one place for long but instead be a wandering mendicant: moving from place to place, coming into contact with his lay disciples and ministering to their spiritual needs. This may however leave him with little time to meditation and other spiritual practices and to the acquisition of his own aatmajnanam. He, therefore, stays in one place during the chaatur maasya commencing from the full moon in Aani.
This period also coincides with the rainy season. There is a reason for this. The sanyaasa aasrama is essentially one of ahimsa — causing no harm to any living being. During the rainy season, numerous insects spring to life and infest pathways. Any travel, during this period, will inevitably lead to himsa to these insects and the way to avoid it is to stay at one place.
Before taking the chaturmaasya vratham and commencing their discipline of meditation, yoga, and aatmavichaara, the sanyasins invoke the grace of Sri Veda Vyasa and other preceptors of aatma jnaana. This pooja is as important to sanyasins as Upaakarma (annual thread changing ceremony) is to those who belong to the other aasramas. The object of Upaakarma is to revitalise the Vedic mantraas, should their efficacy be impaired, through causes like faulty pronunciation.
This puja is called ‘Vyasa Puja’, for Sri Vedavyasa stands foremost in the line of these preceptors. Vyasa codified the Vedas into four divisions and integrated the messages of the Upanishads relating to Brahman, Jiva and the Universe in his great book, the Brahmasutras The unique place of Vyasa and Adisankaracharya as gurus and the two people to whom a vast amount of Vedic and Hindu literature is attributed is captured in the following verse - Badaraayana refers to Vyasa.
शङ्करं शङ्कराचार्यं केशवं बादरायणम् ।
सूत्रभाष्यकृतौ वन्दे भगवन्तौ पुन: पुन: ॥
It is not Veda Vyasa alone who is worshipped on Vyasa Pooja day. Several groups of panchakas or 5 preceptors in each group, are worshipped. These are - Krishna Panchaka (including Sri Krishna); Vyasa Panchaka (Sri Vyasa and others); Bhagavatpada Panchaka ( Sri Adisankara and others); Sanaka Panchaka; Dravida Panchaka; and Guru Panchaka, consisting of various gurus. Worship is also offered to virtually every other god and goddess. Finally, Saaligramah pooja and an omnibus worship (samashti pooja) are performed.
Vyasa puja is as elaborate a puja that takes several hours. The Sankaracharya makes a ceremonial entrance, carrying with him Saaligramahs. Each puja is a proper puja beginning with Avahanam and finishing with neivedyam and deepa aradhana.
Following the Vyasa Puja, the Acharyas take the Chaturmasya vratham, or vow. The term Chaturmasya means four months. But according to the Vedic dictum पक्षा वै मासाः one ‘paksha’ or a fortnight is taken as one month and traditionally the Vrata is observed only for two months. While making the sankalpa for chaatur maasya, the sanyasi tells the assembled devotees that the praavrt (rainy) season is on, that he sees a host of insect life (praani sankulam) everywhere, and that if it is not inconvenient for them, he proposes to observe chaaturmaasyam in that place:
Praayena pravrishi praani sankulam varma drsyate
Atastheshaam ahimsaarttham pakshaavai srutichoditaan
Stthaasyaama chathuromaasaan aitraivaasati baadhake.
The devotees, honoured by the opportunity for this kainkarya (service), in their turn, request him to remain in their midst comfortably, and assure him that they will serve him to the best of their ability:
Nivasantu sukhenaatra gamishyaamah krtaartthataam
Yathaa sakti cha susrooshaam karishyaamo vayam mudaa.
The chaaturmaasya observance is a very old practice. Ashokan edicts which are more than 2,000 years old mention them. Srimad Bhagavatam also refers to it. When Sage Narada was asked how he became a great jnani, he replied that in his boyhood a number of sanyasins observed chaaturmaasya at the place where he lived with his mother and that jnana dawned on him as a result of eating the remnants of the food partaken by those great men.
This year the Vyasa Puja and Chaturmasya vratham will take place on 15th July, 2011. Those of us who can not participate in such a puja, may we remember and pray to all our gurus.
Gurur-Brahma Gurur-Vishnu Gurur-devo Mahesvarah
Guruh-saksat Param-Brahma tasmai Sri Guruve namah
Hara hara Sankara, Jaya jaya Sankara
Hara hara Sankara, Jaya jaya Sankara