I speak from experience. Many moons ago, when I was 23 and living in India, marriage was all my parents had in mind. My sisters, aunts, and sisters-in-law, as well as many of my friends, ate just one meal on Mondays and performed special rituals as a tribute to Shiva, the granter of good mates. Everyone pressured me to keep this weekly fast too, and so I finally embraced it.
Just two and a half weeks after I began the fasting regimen-and totally unexpectedly-I got engaged. My aunt had heard of a very suitable boy, and she arranged a meeting between the two families. What none of the adults knew was that he and I had already met in Hong Kong and were absolutely delighted to be matched. The relatives just stared open-mouthed as we laughed and chatted as if we were the only ones in the room! Coincidence or divine intervention? I really don't know. But decades later, I'm still happily married to the same man.
I'm convinced that there's nothing like having a mighty matchmaker on your side. Shiva found me a better mate than I could ever have found on my own. Not surprisingly, I continue to keep this Monday fast. It's a very spiritual practice that sets the tone for the rest of my week.
In Hinduism, there's a fast to honor practically every deity. In northern India, Monday is Shiva's day, while on Tuesday, the Hanuman devotees keep a fast. In the South, the Tuesday fast honors Skanda, while Thursday is the fast day for Vishnu. In the intimate rituals of vrata or fasting, devotees come close to the deity, adding their personal wishes to their prayers.
While there are many festivals in India during which women fast for the welfare of their husbands, Shiva is the god most Hindus turn to for good spouses and a harmonious family life. A very complex God, Shiva is not only temperamental and passionate but also deeply responsive to sincere devotion.
Because Hindu mythology tells us that Parvati, Shiva's consort, won him over by meditation and fasting, many married women and single girls keep his fast. Parvati, the daughter of King Parvatraja, fell in love with Shiva, an ash-smeared wandering ascetic. She could not get his attention because he was deep in meditation, and so she fasted to win him. Kama, the god of Love, intervened by shooting an arrow of flowers from his sugarcane bow at Shiva. With his concentration disturbed, Shiva opened his eyes and saw Parvati standing before him. He instantly fell in love with her.
"Shiva is not just a romantic lover, he's also a good friend and companion to Parvati," says Dr. Vasudha Narayanan, professor of religion at the University of Florida. "In fact, Shiva is said to love Parvati so much that she becomes part of his body. In many parts of South India, devotees worship Shiva as Ardhanareshvara-half Shiva, half Parvati. That's the ultimate union; they become truly one in body, and that's about as romantic as you can get!
"In his union with Parvati you see a cosmic union between the male and the female principles of the entire universe, for all of creation," Dr. Narayanan explains. "It stretches all the way from a very earthly, romantic love to a profound metaphor for the creation of the universe." The prayers associated with the fasts ask for a spiritual wedding or union with God, but when translated into the earthly realm, devotees believe that if you say the prayer you will have a happy marriage in this life.
While the Shiva fast originated in North India, many Hindu women in the West, especially within the Sindhi community, follow the practice. Radhika Kripalani, a New Yorker, has been keeping the Shiva fast since she got married and came to this country more than 30 years ago. She begins Monday morning by washing her hair, preparing a parshad or offering, bathing the Shiva icon in milk, and reciting prayers. In the evening, she breaks her fast with a simple vegetarian dinner. She believes observing this fast ensures the welfare of her husband and harmony in their married life.
Although many young single girls in the United States fast for Shiva, few want to discuss it publicly. After all, how cool is it to admit you're looking for a spouse or need help in finding one? Looking for equality in relationships, some women feel it's time that men started keeping the fast for the welfare of their wives. Although Hinduism doesn't ask males to keep the fast, a few freethinking men do join their wives in the practice.
In many Sindhi families living in the United States, the Monday Shiva fast is a tradition. For example, in one New Jersey household, fasting is a multigenerational affair. All of the women in the Mahtani family, from grandmother to mother to aunts and 15-year-old daughter Beena, participate. Perhaps the strongest testimony comes from Sherina, who married into the family.
"I was living in Spain and would visit my cousins in India and see them observing this fast," she recalls. "My grandmother was looking for a suitable boy for me, but I was very picky! Since both my brothers lived in the U.S., I kept insisting that I wanted to marry someone from America."
An aunt persuaded her to keep the Monday fast by offering a guarantee: "Fast for four Sundays and see the results!" Sherina says the outcome was "amazing-after exactly four Mondays, it worked! I was shocked!"
Within a month of starting to keep the fast, the family priest introduced her to Nari, a handsome businessman from Boston, and the two got engaged. They've been happily married for 14 years.
Does Sherina see the fast as a fail-proof way of finding a soulmate? I don't know," she says, "but it worked for me. There is some power in it."
For Sherina and other believers like her, one thing is certain: As a formula for domestic bliss, there's nothing quite like having a direct line to Shiva!