Why do We Fast?

Why do we fast?

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.

I cannot claim completely but to a considerable extent it is believed in India that it is a woman’s duty to bring good luck and blessing to her family by following religious duties and the concomitant practices such as fasting. Although fasting is considered a voluntary act of faith, women who do not willingly observe it are not seen in a good light in Indian society. They are considered to be lacking dedication for the family’s well being.

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.

It is true that fasting is invariably understood to be associated with religion and is viewed as a religious act and more often a religious duty. Fasting is prescribed in many religions, with more or less the same motives and goals. However, I realized over time that the reasons ascribed for fasting in different religions is insightful as well as cogent. But most often the motives are misunderstood and people fast with a very different notion in mind.

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.

My concern is not to elucidate on which different religions prescribe fasting and which do not. My concern is with the understanding and goals people have in mind while they fast. Because I believe our understanding about a particular ritual greatly influences the way we follow or practise it.

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 is a great way to inculcate self-discipline, to test our sincerity and resolve. When we practise fasting, not to receive God’s blessings, but as a tool of self-discipline, it builds our character and determination. I believe it is a great way to rejuvenate mind, soul and body. It also has many health benefits in order to detoxify our bodies. Our lifestyles and our eating habits attract many ailments. Fasting occasionally is a good way to soothe our body and maintain a balance.

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.

Fasting is very popular among Indians. But my concern has always been about the intention behind it. The religion-based fallacies are enough to dampen the whole exercise and its benefits in building a sound and balanced character.

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?

Credits

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Why do we fast? Why do we fast? Patryk Kopaczynski CC BY-SA 4.0