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Fasting: Common beliefs among different faiths

Fasting Buddha

Fasting Buddha - Photo by PHGCOM via Wikipedia

Copyright © Rupa Abdi, Ph.D, 2012.
All rights reserved.

There’s a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the sound box
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and the belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, write secrets with the reed pen…….

— Rumi¹

Fasting has been in practice for a long time in the religious and spiritual history of mankind. It finds mention in the Mahabharat, the Upanishads, the Old and New Testament, the Bible and the Quran and various other sacred texts. Among the Hindus fasting takes on many variations from complete abstinence from food and water to selective eating or partaking of just one meal a day. The objectives too are many and varied. Various fasts are observed the year round to appease various deities, some married women fast for the well being and prosperity of their husbands, while the unmarried fast to gain a worthy husband. At another level fasts are undertaken for the purification of body and control of the ego (mann) and desires (vaasanaa). This is a preparatory phase for contemplation and meditation. Among the yogis, fasting along with other austerities is observed to attain various siddhis (supernormal powers). In the Bhagavad Geeta, Krishna tells Arjun:

Whoso shall offer Me in faith and love
A leaf, a flower, a fruit, water poured forth,
That offering I accept, lovingly made
With pious will. Whate’er thou doest, Prince!
Eating or sacrificing, giving gifts,
Praying or fasting, let it all be done
For Me, as Mine. So shalt thou free thyself
From Karmabandh, the chain which holdeth men
To good and evil issue, so shalt come
Safe unto Me-when thou art quit of flesh-
By faith and abdication joined to Me!

Many Buddhists eat just one meal a day in accordance with the account given in the Mahayana Sutras, which mentions that Buddha ate just one meal a day, before noon. Buddha had realized that desire had its root in the mind and could be transformed in the mind. Fasting could help in subduing the body’s coarse desires and converting them to wisdom. Fasting is regularly practiced among the Buddhists to aid meditation and healing. In Uttarpurna, on of the religious texts of the Jains, it is mentioned with reference to Lord Mahavir:

After fasting for two and a half days, taking not even water, engaged in deep meditation, he (the Venerable One) reached the highest jnana (knowledge) and darsana (intuition), called kevala, which is infinite, supreme, unobstructed, unimpeded, complete and full.

Among the Jains, fasting is usually observed during Puryushana, which is the period when the Jain Sadhus take a temporary break from their wanderings. This period falls during the monsoon months. Fasting for the Jains is an opportunity to follow complete non-violence and to meditate and pray.

For the Jews the major fasting days fall on the Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av. According to the well known Rabbi Zvi Ish-Shalom:

‘In the Book of Vayikrah (Leviticus 16), the Torah says with regard to Yom Kippur: shabbat shabbaton hi lachem v’initem et nafshoteichem – “a shabbat shabbaton shall be for you, and you shall afflict yourselves”.   And so on Yom Kippur we attempt to activate – to draw out of ourselves in some way – that deathless state of being, that awareness of our eternality, that angelic dimension that is typically asleep within us.  We do this by fasting, praying, meditating and studying.  We do this not in a spirit of sadness or mourning, but in a spirit of celebration and in a celebration of spirit; with the joy that accompanies the realization of our soul’s innate and direct connection with the Divine.’

It is noteworthy that among the Jews and the Shia Muslims, fasting is also a form of collective mourning for a past tragedy. For the Jews it is the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem and the assassination of Gedaliah Ben Achikam, the Governor of Israel during the days of Nebuchadnetzar King of Babylonia. For the Shia Muslims it is the martyrdom of Imam Hussain at Karbala, which falls on 10th of Mohorrum (Ashuraa). Moses is believed to have fasted for forty days and nights while he was on Mt. Sinai communing with God.

In Christianity, fasting metaphorically means refraining from satisfying hunger, thirst and other lustful desires. Fasting is believed to be a kind of self purgatory to drive away all the demons (negativities) from your body and soul. Certain Christian groups, such as the Anglicans observe a forty day partial fast in memory of Christ who fasted for 40 days in the wilderness before facing Satan (temptation).The Bible says:

But as for me, when they were sick, my clothing was sackcloth; I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer kept returning to my bosom. (Psalm 35:13)

It further says:

And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  “But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face  so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.  (Matthew 6:16-18)

Prophet Mohammad is believed to have said something similar with regard to fasting:

Every good deed is rewarded from ten to seven hundred times over, but God says fasting is the exception; it is for Me, and My servant forgoes his eating and drinking for my sake, so I Myself will reward My servant for it.

Among the Muslims, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam – mandatory for all adult and healthy Muslims.

The Quran says:

O ye who believe fasting is prescribed for you…so that you will (learn how to attain) piety.

Ramadan is the (month) in which Quran was sent down, as a guide to mankind, and a clear guidance and judgment (so that mankind will distinguish right from wrong). Whoever among you witnesses the month of Ramadan should fast through it… (2:183)

In the month of Ramadan, forgetting their differences, Muslims all over the world, whether Shia or Sunni, Barelvi or Deobandi, Ishana’ashari or Agha Khani all observe this season of fasting and praying – together as one brotherhood.

Among the mystical dimensions of all major religions such as Advaita, Sufism, Cabbala, and Gnosticism, solitude along with fasting, not just of the body but of thought and speech are observed before and during prolonged phases of meditation to make one receptive to the higher Truths.

It is apparent that most religions share similar beliefs with regard to fasting. It is rather unfortunate that instead of cherishing the similarities among various faiths we continue to focus on the differences.

¹ Translated by Coleman Barks and John Moyne.

Disclaimer: This is not a medical nor legal document. Those considering fasting are advised to consult a licensed health professional.

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