By Kumkum Bhatia
“Fasting will bring spiritual rebirth to those of you who cleanse and purify your bodies. The light of the world will illuminate within you when you fast and purify yourself.” –Mahatma Gandhi
Fasting is the joyous abstinence or reduced intake of certain foods and liquids for a fixed length of time. The usual urge of hunger is forgotten in invoking a feeling of closeness to the Lord. It has been prescribed, in nearly all religions, as a means for physical and mental purification.
Staunch Christian Catholics follow a partial 40-day Lenten fast; Muslims observe a whole month of strict fasting during Ramazan and Buddhists usually fast on full moon days. In Indonesia, the Javanese Kris (ceremonial dagger) maker fasts, prays and meditates for several days to obtain divine blessings before commencing the process of kris-making in order to infuse the dagger with spiritual powers.
In Hinduism fasting once a week is very common: young unmarried girls choose Mondays to get a good husband; Tuesdays are reserved for Sri Hanuman and Thursdays are devoted to the Guru. Fasting is extremely popular on festivals such as Shivratri, Janamashtmi, and Navaratri. In the north, Karva Chauth is an important fast which a married woman keeps for the welfare and long-life of her husband. Also popular are fasts on Ekadasi and full moon days.
Fasting not feasting
One of the reasons for fasting is to impose a certain amount of self-discipline on one’s body and mind. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace. It gives rest to the digestive tract and helps the body to get rid of toxins, thereby cleansing the system. Moreover, fasting aids in healing the body and reverses the aging process. Unfortunately, when fasts allow certain foods, we tend to eat more rather than less. For example, if potatoes are permitted, ten different preparations are laid out! On the other hand, fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind the fast. The Bhagavad Geeta advises us:
Verily, Yoga is not possible for him who eats too much, nor for him who does not eat at all, nor for him who sleeps too much, nor for him who is (always) awake, O Arjuna (VI/16)
The key is moderation. On a broader level, fasting includes restraint and discipline of all the sense organs. Thus, one should regulate what one sees, hears, etc. Sometimes we spend the whole fasting day watching movies or serials on TV–to keep busy and avoid thinking of food!
Means to an end
Fasting is a means to an end. It is called Upavaasa in Sanskrit. Upa means “near” + vaasa means “to stay”. Upavaasa, therefore, means staying near (the Lord). A lot of time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Hence, both are conserved by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that the mind becomes alert, pure, entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Thus, fasting is a way of loosening one’s dependence on the enchanting world of food. It is a step to attach ourselves to the Higher; to enable the mind to slip easily into meditation and realize one’s own divinity.