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Fasting across faiths and a means to master the self

by Navni Chawla
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Fasting across faith
Diverse faith traditions mandated fasting to grow closer to God and exercise mastery of spirit over the mind and senses.

Not just health benefits. The purpose of fasting is to gain control over the mind and bodily senses. It makes you firm in your resolve, strengthening the power of will and action. No wonder it is almost made mandatory in diverse faith traditions down the ages.  

Fasting as a religious practice

Fasting holds a profound place in various religious traditions, serving as a spiritual practice that goes beyond physical abstinence.

Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for the entire month of Ramadan and devote themselves to prayer, reflection, and acts of charity. Fasting during Ramadan (it falls on March 10 this time) is meant to inculcate self-discipline, empathy for the less fortunate, and a closer connection to God through ardent devotion.

For Christians, Lent fasting symbolizes sacrifice, repentance, and preparation for the celebration of Easter, mirroring Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, fasting rules allow Catholics to eat only one full meal and two smaller meals which when combined would not equal a single normal meal. Additionally, they may not eat meat on these two days or any Friday during Lent. The Lent dates this time have been February 14 to March 28.

In Judaism, the fasting of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement,  symbolizes repentance and spiritual cleansing. This holiday entails a 25-hour fast and a special religious service. It falls in the month of September or October as per the Gregorian calendar. It marks the culmination of the 10 Days of Awe, a period of introspection and repentance that follows Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

In Hinduism, fasting during festivals like Navaratri exemplifies devotion and purification. Ekadashi on every 11th day of the lunar fortnight emphasizes fasting, prayer, and spiritual activities. My grandmother, Mrs Prem Prakash, 64, tells me, “I keep the Ekadashi fast because it helps me purify my thoughts, actions, and inner self. Receiving Lord Vishnu’s blessings is a delightful bonus.”

Karwa Chauth is another annual Hindu fasting ritual observed by married women. That day, which usually falls in October, they abstain from food and water from sunrise to moonrise, praying for the well-being and longevity of their husbands.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that fasting could awaken the moral conscience of society. On the eve of India’s independence in 1947, he was fasting in Bengal to put a stop to Hindu-Muslim violence — and succeeded.

Mind over matter

To gain the maximum all-round benefit from fasting, it is best done on a less busy day, a Sunday maybe, allowing you to collect your thoughts. Mindful fasting can grant mental clarity, and strengthen intent and action in addition to a deeper connection with the body’s innate resilience.

Ayurvedic doctor Ashutosh Guleri, who runs Kayakalp nature cure center in  Himachal Pradesh, India, says, “Fasting can enhance our mental and psychic abilities. While fasting, I recommend meditation, or reading something useful, or one can simply practice solitude and watch over one’s thoughts. Mindful is being soulful.”

He says that Upavasa, the term used in scriptures, has a wider and higher meaning. “Upavasa means to sit near – to sit near good habits. It aims at gradually quitting old habits detrimental to physical or mental health, and inculcating new healthy habits.”

Taken broadly, satsang — spending quality time with saintly people or studying edifying literature – is also a form of Upavasa.  

Fasting can elevate consciousness by fostering self-discipline, purification, and a deeper connection with the divine through heightened awareness and introspection.

“A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind, and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi’s experiments with fasting

Mahatma Gandhi transformed fasting into a powerful way to lead social change and moral awakening.

He viewed fasting not only as a means of physical purification but also as a powerful tool for social and political change. He practiced fasting as a form of nonviolent resistance, known as ‘satyagraha’, to protest injustice and promote peace. Gandhi believed that fasting could awaken the moral conscience of both individuals and society.

Gandhi’s use of fasting as a tool in aid of India’s struggle for independence is well-known. He undertook fasts short and long to protest British policies and racial discrimination.

By fasting, Gandhi aimed to inspire a subtle revolution, urging people to resist oppressive laws peacefully. His commitment to fasting for a just cause became a symbol of the transformative power of nonviolence, leaving a legacy in the history of civil disobedience. For India, he is the Father of the Nation.

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