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Why Fast?

All About Fasting

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Sabudana vada - Ideal food during Navaratri fast
originally posted to Flickr as Sabudana Wada/Nick Gray/Wikimedia Commons

Fasting in Hinduism indicates the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. According to the scriptures, fasting helps create an attunement with the Absolute by establishing a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul. This is thought to be imperative for the well being of a human being as it nourishes both his/her physical and spiritual demands.

Hindus believe it is not easy to unceasingly pursue the path of spirituality in one's daily life. We are harangued by a lot of considerations, and worldly indulgences do not allow us to concentrate on spiritual attainment. Therefore a worshipper must strive to impose restrains on himself/herself to get his mind focused. And one form of restraint is fasting.

Self-Discipline

However, fasting is not only a part of worship, but a great instrument for self-discipline too. It is a training of the mind and the body to endure and harden up against all hardships, to persevere under difficulties and not give up. According to Hindu philosophy, food means gratification of the senses and to starve the senses is to elevate them to contemplation. Luqman, the wise once said, "When the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep. Wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness."

Different Kinds of Fasting

  • Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight).
  • Certain days of the week is also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one's favorite god and goddess. On Saturday, people fast to appease the god of that day, Shani or Saturn. Some fast on Tuesdays the auspicious day for Hanuman, the monkey God. On Fridays devotees of the goddess Santoshi Mata abstain from taking anything citric.
  • Fasting at festivals is common. Hindus all over India observe fast on festivals like Navaratri, Shivratri and Karwa Chauth. Navaratri is a festival when people fast for nine days. Hindus in West Bengal fast on Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival of Durga Puja.
  • Fasting can also mean abstaining from taking certain things, either for religious reason or for the sake of good health. For instance, some people refrain from taking salt on particular days. It is common knowledge that excess salt and sodium causes hypertention or elevation of blood pressure.
  • Another common kind of fast is to forego taking cereals when only fruits are eaten. Such a diet is known as phalahar.

Ayurvedic Viewpoint

The underlying principle behind fasting is to be found in Ayurveda. This ancient Indian medical system sees the basic cause of many diseases as the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system. Regular cleansing of toxic materials keeps one healthy. By fasting, the digestive organs get rest and all body mechanisms are cleansed and corrected. A complete fast is good for heath, and the occasional intake of warm lemon juice during the period of fasting prevents the flatulence.

Since the human body, as explained by Ayurveda, is composed of 80% liquid and 20% solid, like the earth, the gravitational force of the moon affects the fluid contents of the body. It causes emotional imbalances in the body, making some people tense, irritable and violent. Fasting acts as antidote, for it lowers the acid content in the body which helps people to retain their sanity.

A Non-Violent Protest

From a matter of dietary control, fasting has come to be a handy tool of societal control. It is a non-violent form of protest. A hunger strike can draw attention to a grievance and can bring about an emendation or redress. It is interesting to note that it was Mahatma Gandhi who used fasting to capture people's attention. There is an anecdote to this: Once the workers at the textile mills in Ahmedbad were protesting their low wages. Gandhi told them to go on strike. After two weeks when the workers took to violence, Gandhi himself decided to go on fast till the matter was resolved.

Fellow-Feeling

Finally, the pangs of hunger that one experiences during fasting make one think and extend one's sympathy towards the destitute who often go without food. In this context fasting functions as a societal gain wherein people share with each other a fellow feeling. Fasting provides an opportunity for the privileged to give food-grains to the less privileged and alleviate their distress, at least for the moment.
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