Tree of Knowledge

The Tree of Knowledge

Fasting with a happy face

Kalia, a corporate executive, says, “I fast during Navratri because of my shraddha, my devotion to the Mother Goddess. The ritual helps me centre my mind and I become peaceful. Besides feeling healthier, fasting also makes my body feel light, so much so that I feel like fasting even after the nine days are over.” During Navratri, he subsists on milk and fruit juice. Others like Vivek Agrawal, a young architect, fast on the first and last day of Navratri. However, the goal is the same. “I am unable to fast for nine days at a stretch, so I make do with just two. This is a great way to detoxify my body, and it helps my mind stay focused on the spiritual path, keeping away negative thoughts. I feel positive in my attitude and refreshed,” says Agrawal.

What has fasting got to do with prayer? In almost all traditions of the world, fasting and prayer are closely connected,” says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Take Islam for instance. Ruqaiyyah Maqsood, in her book Islam, says that one of the pillars of Islam is to fast during the ninth month of the Muslim year, Ramadan, when Allah chose to call Muhammad to be a Prophet and send down the first revelations of the Quran. Besides maintaining good health, fasting has spiritual and mental benefits too. It is an excellent discipline and training in self-control. It also generates a wonderful feeling of community as the devouts sit together and break their fast with iftaar.

An important reason to fast is that it helps develop more strength to transcend sensual and physical gratification. We tend to overindulge rather than exercise restraint and in this context, fasting is a good way of striking a balance. The Buddhist Dhammapada goes a step further to compare a craving person to a “fat domestic pig bound by the fetters of samsara.” Fasting takes us beyond the carnal level of existence to the realm of the divine within. A better articulation of this dimension of fasting can be found in the Sanskrit term for fasting, upavas – Upa meaning ‘near’ and ‘Vaas’ means ‘to dwell’. Thus, fasting means to live or remain closer to God. It is not a negative act of abstaining but a positive step of obtaining God’s love. Fasting is fuel for the soul that ignites faith and greater intimacy with God and thereby makes our lives happier and more joyful.

In Christianity, too, fasting and prayer are linked. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, it presents fasting as something that is good, profitable and beneficial, say theologians. On the day of Ash Wednesday, Christians observe the Lent. The Teutonic word Lent denotes 40 days of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in preparation for the commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Among the many Lenten practices, fasting is the most significant. Fasting has been around a long time as a spiritual discipline in almost all cultures and religions. To fast is to abstain from something that gives us pleasure and enjoyment in order that it may enhance our spiritual experience; it is not simply dieting or ‘not eating’. It is a way to spiritual fitness.

Jesus fasted for 40 days before he began his public life. Yet, he does not make it an obligatory exercise. He does not say fasting is essential but says what kind of fasting is acceptable to God. Jesus discounts all such fasts done with a concealed intention to draw attention to oneself and to seek others’ acclamation: “When you fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others as fasting”. (Matthew 6:16). The one who fasts must avoid all sense of spiritual superiority and pride. This is why Jesus insists that the one who fasts must not “appear to be fasting” and must “oil your hair and wash your face.” The Book of Acts records that believers would fast before they took important decisions (Acts 13:4; 14:23). Although fasting according to scripture is almost always about abstaining from food, the term fasting has a much wider significance. Anything’ given up temporarily in order to focus all our attention on God can be considered a fast (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). However, fasting is not intended to punish the flesh, but to redirect attention to God, say some.

Fasting is common among Jains, especially during Paryushan Parva, held in the Hindu month of Bhadrapad. It exalts self-discipline through fasting and other austerities in observance of the 10 cardinal virtues. They are forgiveness, charity, simplicity, contentment, truthfulness, self-restraint, fasting, detachment, humility and continence. Men, women and children as well as monks and nuns fast with varying degrees of strictness as penance to purify body and mind, They remind themselves of Mahavira’s emphasis on renunciation and asceticism

Fasting has a social significance. It cannot be a mere self-fulfilling spiritual activity. The Bible is emphatic that true fasting is not just to abstain from food, to bow one’s head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes – “this rather is the fast I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed, sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless” (Isaiah 58:6-7). Mahatma Gandhi used fasting as a spiritual weapon to bring about social and political transformation. In India it is women, especially rural women, who fast more than men. They seem to gain tremendous inner strength and power to overcome suffering, alleviate the pain of others and thereby become life-givers. True fasting will remind us of the bounty we enjoy on a daily basis, and sensitize us to the reality of forced hunger thousands of people on our planet go through day after day.

In nature cure, one of the very important tools for health and disease cure is fasting. Many people are learning the trick of curing their colds, headaches, nervous spells and other acute troubles by missing a few meals or taking a short fast. It is the simplest and the most efficient way of relieving the overloaded and “food-poisoned” system. You would be surprised to know how little food is actually required to keep the individual healthy.

One of the commonest complaints of the sick is that they have “lost their appetite”. In fact, the greatest blessing to them would be to lose their appetite long enough to find their hunger. Loss of appetite is an indication that the system is overcharged with toxins and nature is trying to correct this by giving a chance to the waste accumulation in the organs to escape from the system.

Fasting as a remedy is fully in harmony with the “nature-cure” philosophy of the cause of disease. If the disease is created by an abnormal accumulation of toxins in the system, it stands to reason that fasting will help in their elimination from the system. The membranous linings of the stomach and intestine which act as a “sponge” to absorb food materials are now “squeezed” to throw out the waste matter from the system. The idea prevails that during a prolonged fast one should have complete rest. This however, is a serious mistake. There is no reason why one should not take the usual amount of exercise or accomplish the accustomed daily tasks, provided these do not strain the physical and mental energy to the point of exhaustion.

Mona Mehta, from India 

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