It wouldn’t be wrong if I said that India is a land of “fasting”. Indians very often fast as a religious duty. Most religions I have come across in India place much emphasis on fasting for various reasons. And over time I have become aware of the fact that all religious traditions prescribe fasting. However, the way it is observed might vary in different religious traditions.
Fasting is the willing abstinence from all or some food, drinks or both, for a certain period of time. My interest in the practice of fasting grew from the flawed understanding about fasting which is pervasive amongst most Indian people. Fallacious arguments were always provided when I questioned the reasons for fasting which is a very common practice amongst Indians. Such explanations distorted my understanding, which led me to reject the whole idea of fasting.
When I was growing up, I saw my mother fasting very often. It was not just her but almost all women around me fasted on particular days of the week, during religious festivals and religious ceremonies. Thus, the first perception that developed in my mind regarding fasting was that it’s a way to please God and avert bad luck. And that it is the prerogative of women because, at certain times and on certain occassions, fasting is only observed by women for the well being and longevity of their husband and children.
However, as I grew up, I realized fasting is not what I thought it was. It is not about pleasing God and it needs not be a religious duty. Moreover, it is not a female prerogative or a measure of a woman’s dedication to her family. On the contrary, such a belief system can be viewed as an imposition on women in India. And this imposition has been very craftily justified to look like a prerogative.
In Hinduism, fasting indicates the denial of physical needs of the body for spiritual gains. According to Hindu religious scriptures, it leads to a harmonious relationship between body and soul. Usually ascetics practice fasting as a way of life and becomes a part of their effort to overcome bodily needs and transcend physical needs to attend to spiritual needs. However, many Hindu religious texts have also prescribed fasting as a form of penance for expiation of sins committed. I believe the later understanding prevailed over the reasoning of the Hindu people rather than considering it as a way to live a spiritually balanced and healthy life.
And this is the reason that common people in India fast only during religious ceremonies, festivals or on days which they consider auspicious, so as to attract good luck, blessings and expiate their sins.
Similarly fasting is very common in Jainism as well. Jains also fast at special periods of the year or during festivals. In Jainism fasting is observed as a penance and its adherents believe that fasting helps them to remain in touch with Mahavira’s teachings. The emphasis is on renunciation and asceticism.
In Islam, fasting is prescribed so that people can learn taqwa or self-restraint. Muslims fast for a fixed number of days in the entire month of Ramadan, i.e the ninth month of the Islamic year. In Buddhism fasting is also a known tradition. Many Buddhist monks and nuns do not eat each day after the midday meal.
Fasting might be a declaration of faith and resolve and prescribed by religious priests to attract God’s blessings or for atonement of sins. But it does not only have to be the concern of the religious. In fact, one need not view fasting as a religious ritual or a penance.
Fasting has long been used as a political tool. One of the best examples I can think of is Mahatma Gandhi. It was not just a political tool for him but was a way to build character, and strengthen one’s determination to fight injustice in a non-violent way.
With whatever motive it is observed, fasting will, without a doubt, produce positive results. But I believe the means are no less important. Wouldn’t it be better if fasting became a means to become a better person with strong character and resolve rather than making fasting a means to attract God’s blessings or to expiate sins?
|Why do we fast?||Patryk Kopaczynski||CC BY-SA 4.0|