Fasting is a voluntary way of practicing controlled intake of food and drinks. People usually observe a fast for medical or religious reasons. Medically speaking, fasting is a state of metabolism achieved after digestion of food or eating no food for at least 10-12 hours.
Followers of Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, and Jainism observe several fasts through the year to commemorate certain traditions or worship a particular deity. In the olden days, fasting was one of the ways to maintain healthy digestion.
People may observe strict fasting during which they abstain completely from all food and even water. Some types of fasting permit the consumption of certain food and drinks at a particular time of the day only. The kind of abstinence depends entirely on the purpose of fasting. Let’s start with the importance of fasting.
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Importance Of Fasting In Hindu Culture
Hinduism has the most significant number of followers in the Indian subcontinent. The religion stands on a foundation of rich culture, of which fasting is an integral part. The Hindu calendar has several days in each month, on which people observe strict fasts. Read a detailed description of these facts below.
Sankashti Chaturthi is the fourth day of every lunar month when people fast to seek the blessings of Lord Ganesha (The Hindu Elephant God). Lord Ganesha is said to bless people who follow Sankashti Chaturthi fast by removing dangers and dangerous obstacles from their life. If Sankashti Chaturthi happens to fall on a Tuesday, it is known as Angarki Chaturthi, which has great religious importance. The word Angarak means burning coal, which has a distinct red color resembling planet Mars. Mangal is the Sanskrit word for planet Mars, in whose honor Tuesday is named Mangalvar. Many people observe a fast every Tuesday to appease the superpowers of planet Mars.
Angarak was also the name of a revered sage who was the son that Mother Earth bore for sage Bharadwaj. Sage Angarak wished for his name to be associated with Lord Ganesha. Lord Ganesha was pleased with the devotion of sage Angarak and declared that He would fulfill all the wishes of the one who observes a fast and prays to him on the day of Angarika Chaturthi.
Hindu culture attaches the importance of each day of the week to a specific deity. Some people observe a fast on Monday to seek the blessings of Lord Shiva. Hindus consider the lunar month of Shravan in the Hindu calendar to be auspicious. Starting from the first Monday of Shravan, many people observe a strict fast for 16 consecutive Mondays. A businessman once prayed to Lord Shiva night and day with complete dedication to bless him with a child. A healthy boy was born with the blessings of Lord Shiva, but with one condition, that the child would not live beyond twelve years of age. As the boy approached his twelfth birthday, his uncle organized a Pooja (a religious activity to pray to Lord Almighty). Even as the boy breathed his last, the Pooja continued. Seeing the religious dedication of the family, Lord Shiva reincarnated the boy and blessed him with a long life. Since then, people have been observing Monday fasts for longevity and fruitful life. Unmarried girls follow a fast to get a suitable life partner; married women observe a fast for the long life of their husbands; men may follow it for gaining wealth and happiness.
Guruwar is the Sanskrit word for Thursday, and people regard it as the day of planet Jupiter. Astrologists believe that the gravitational force and other powers of planet Jupiter affect one’s domestic life. Fasting on Thursdays is a way to seek financial strength and good health. Anyone who can appease the deity of lord Jupiter also seeks blessings of Lord Shiva. Fasting on Thursdays helps those who are facing challenges or difficulties in their married life.
Mahashivratri (Grand Night Of Lord Shiva) is a significant festival celebrated in India and by Indians staying in other countries. Several legends describe the importance of Mahashivratri. One legend claims Mahashivratri is when Lord Shiva performed his legendary Tandav Nritya (Dance of creation and destruction). Another story narrates that the night when Lord Shiva wedded Goddess Parvati marks the occasion of Mahashivratri.
Shiva devotees observe a fast for the entire day of Mahashivratri. Late in the evening, people visit a Shiva temple and offer their prayers before breaking the fast. Several Shiva temples all over India organize Jagran (an event when people stay up all night praying, chanting, or performing other religious activities). Devotees make offerings of milk, flowers, rice, coconut, incense sticks, leaves of the Indian Bael tree (wood apple) to the idol of Lord Shiva. Many people observe a fast throughout the day of Mahashivratri and break the fast after offering their prayers to Lord Shiva. Some people continue the fast through the night as well, eating only the day after.
Fasting For A Long Life
It is customary in almost all Indian communities for married women to observe a fast for the long life of their husbands. Sometimes unmarried women observe a fast too, to be blessed with a caring and loving husband. People have earmarked different days of the year to keep these fasts, depending on the traditions and culture of the geographical region and community that they belong. Find below the details of some of these critical days.
Teej marks the third day after the new moon during every month of the Lunar calendar. The festival of Teej signifies the arrival of monsoon and the bounty of lush green pastures, an abundance of crops, songs of birds and insects that it brings along. Kajari Teej and Hartalika Teej are the two types of Teej festivals when married women fast for their husbands’ wellbeing and long lives. On the day of Teej, women observe a strict fast and spend time in prayers or Pooja (a religious activity to pray to Lord Almighty). They dress up in bright-colored clothes in the evening, preferably in red or green, and even adorn themselves with attractive gold jewelry and accessories. Women often decorate their palms with beautiful designs drawn using a paste of Henna leaves. After spending the evening at home or in a temple, praying to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, the women may break their fast. Goddess Parvati observed a strict fast to please Lord Shiva and convince him to marry her. Married women follow the same tradition as a mark of respect for the bond of love and marriage between Shiva and Parvati.
Vat Purnima falls on the full moon day in the lunar month of Jyestha of the Hindu calendar. According to a legend, princess Savitri was married to prince Satyavan, the son of an exiled king. Savitri discovered that Satyavan was cursed to die within a year from the present day. Three days before his imminent death, Savitri followed a strict fast and kept watch over Satyavan. Despite her best efforts, Satyavan breathed his last by laying his head in Savitri’s lap. Undeterred, Savitri placed the body of Satyavan under a banyan tree and watched as Lord Yamaraj (the Indian God of Death) took Satyavan’s soul with him. She followed Lord Yamaraj and showered him with praises and impressed him. Lord Yamaraj granted her any boon except to demand her husband’s life back. Savitri cleverly asked for a boon to be blessed with children, making Lord Yamaraj release her husband’s soul. Impressed with her wit and behavior, Lord Yamaraj freed Satyavan and blessed them with a long life.
To mark their respect for the brave act of princess Savitri and to pray for their own husband’s long life, women observe a strict fast on the day of Vat Purnima. Women worship the Vat Vriksha (banyan tree) and tie a sacred thread around it while walking seven times around the tree. The number seven indicates being able to spend all seven human births with the same husband. The banyan tree is significant because Savitri placed the body of Satyavan under a banyan tree.
Karwa (small earthen pot) Chauth (fourth) is another fast for the long life of one’s husband that women staying in the Northern regions of India observed. The festival falls on the fourth day after the full moon, during the Kartik month of the Hindu lunar calendar.
The northwestern province of India has seen unrest due to proximity to the international borders of several countries. When men of the region would go fighting, their wives fasted and prayed for their safe return. This theory is closely related to the origin of Karwa Chauth. In the olden days, women did not enjoy the freedom and active social life they do now. The fast was a way to meet other women from the neighborhood under the pretext of praying, fasting, and worshiping God together. Karwa Chauth was a great way to develop everlasting friendships and a sister-like bond between women.
On the day of Karwa Chauth, women observe a strict fast without consuming any food. In the evening, they dress up in vibrant colors and attractive jewelry to perform religious rituals. Women often visit temples to seek blessings for themselves and their families. It is customary for women to look at the moon through a sieve and then look at their husbands through the same sieve. Husbands usually feed their wives the first bite of food to help the women break their fast.
The Indian festival of Dussehra is preceded by Navratri (nine nights). Many people observe a strict fast during these nine days as well. Another important fasting period is during Chaturmas (four months), which typically coincides with the monsoon. While there is no strict fasting during the Chaturmas, many people abstain from consuming meat, alcohol, and even onions and garlic for religious purposes.
The rules and traditions behind every fast are different, but the type of food people consume is more or less the same. People usually eat fruits, preparations of sabudana (prepared from the pith of sago palm tree), little millet and groundnuts, and vegetables like potatoes and sweet potatoes when they observe a fast. Many people consume only pink salt and avoid common salt on their fasting days. Some people may abstain from eating anything throughout the day of fasting. Some may even choose to follow a nirjala vrat, meaning they cannot even drink water as long as they observe a fast.
Indians are firm believers that God always blesses those who follow a path of living that is righteous and has pure intent. Hence, even while fasting, people do not keep any selfish goals in mind but continue observing their fast with complete devotion to the Almighty.
Religious Fasts Among Muslims
The Muslim community is known for its dedication to observing religious fasts to appeal to Allah (the Muslim deity). An essential fast in Islam is Roza or Ruzeh, known in the Persian language, and Sawn or Siyam is known in Arabic. It falls in the holy month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month according to the Islamic calendar.
The principles of Islam are based on five crucial pillars, of which fasting is the fourth pillar. A strict fast including complete abstinence from food and water begins from the first day of Ramadan. One must fast from fajr (dawn) to Maghrib (dusk) every day before Ramzan Eid, one of the most important Muslim festivals. Devout Muslims also respond to Adhan (call of prayer) five times a day during their fasting period.
Every day during Ramadan, people wake up early, perform Namaz (prayers offered to Allah) and partake in a meal before the crack of dawn (Sehri or Suhoor). This is their first meal of the day, the later one being Iftar. Iftar is the last meal of the day during Ramadan for Muslims. People eat the meal after the evening Namaz that usually happens as the Sunsets. A typical Sehri or Iftar meal consists of fruit, dates, bread, soup, tea or coffee, rice, or vermicelli porridge, among other delicacies. People make it a point to eat their Ramadan meals together with the entire family.
Ramadan is not only about abstinence from food and drinks but otherworldly temptations as well. Muslims observe complete abstinence from sexual relations, using unpleasant language, partaking in alcohol and tobacco, among other things. Menstruating women, pregnant ladies, lactating mothers, older people who are not keeping good health, and patients recovering from debilitating disorders are exempt from observing Roza. However, people are expected to compensate for not following Roza by donating food, clothes, or other items of necessity to the less fortunate. The same rule applies to those who end up breaking their fast unintentionally by eating food or even having sexual intercourse during the month of Ramadan. Roza is not a mandatory fast, and one may not follow it if they do not wish to; however, most Muslims follow it diligently. The more devout Muslims spend most of the Ramadan days praying to Allah or reading verses from the Quran (the holy book on Islam).
Fasting Practises Among Jain Sects
Members of the Jain community are ardent worshippers of Lord Mahavir. Jainism is one of the religions that promote the observance of some of the strictest fasting measures.
One of the most important festivals during which Jains fast is Paryushan, which falls in August or September according to the Gregorian calendar. Many Jains observe a strict fast lasting anywhere between one day to as many as thirty days. Per Jain customs, people sustain only on boiled water throughout the fast. Some Jains have one solid meal during the day, but they must eat before sunset.
Jains stick to consuming fruit and drinking water during certain fasts or eating only one meal per day. Some religious fasts permit the consumption of food prepared from whole grains and cereals as well. Sour and spicy food, processed food, onions, garlic, dairy are typically restricted during many fasts. There are specific facts that compel people to give up only on their favorite food item for a decided period.
In Jainism, fasting is not only about giving up on food and water, but it is a way of spiritual purification as well. Fasting is also seen as a way of developing a sense of self-control. During many fasts, people even abstain from wearing flashy accessories, ornaments, perfume, and make-up and resort to living a simpler lifestyle. Jains regard fasting to be a way to progress towards their spiritual goals.
Scientific Approach Towards Fasting
The ancient concept of fasting has inspired several modern-day trends of weight loss dieting. People practice abstinence from consuming food and water for a decided number of hours during the day. Some diet trends discourage consuming certain classes of foods that provide a rich amount of carbohydrates or fats.
A popular and effective diet trend that has helped many people is the 16/8 intermittent fasting. People avoid eating or drinking anything for 16 hours and adjust their meal timings in the remaining 8 hours. There are several such diet trends, and most of them have scientific and medical backing.
Here are some of the medically proven advantages of dieting, other than weight loss.
- Maintaining Blood Sugar Levels: Restricting your food consumption leads to temporary cutting off of carbohydrate supply to the body tissues. Blood sugar reserves present in the body tissues are then utilized as the primary source of energy. Intermittent fasting helps to keep blood sugar from spiking too much and falling below normal levels as well. It also increases the capacity of insulin to respond to drastic changes in blood sugar levels.
- Maintaining Levels of Cholesterol: Certain types of diet trends encourage cutting down the intake of fats completely. Fat reserves are then used for the daily energy requirement of the person. This prevents excess accumulation of fat deposits and also controls blood levels of cholesterol and lipids.
- Reduced Inflammation: Chronically inflamed tissues do not function well and may hamper a person’s health. Scientific studies have established that intermittent fasting helps reduce inflammation. This may be attributed to the role of fasting in controlling blood sugar. Elevated sugar levels promote tissue inflammation, and therefore people with diabetes are more prone to developing inflammatory disorders. Fasting helps to prevent inflammation by reducing blood sugar levels.
- Healthy Gut: Not only our mind and body, but our internal organs need to rest too. The digestive system is constantly at work secreting enzymes, absorbing nutrients, and transporting them to other body tissues. For the gut to function well, it needs to reboot now and then. What better way to do this than fasting for a specific period? Total abstinence from food and drinks will allow the intestines and other organs of the digestive system to re-energize and function with renewed vigor.
- Increased Longevity: The term increased longevity does not imply immortality but an addition of a few years and a superior quality to your life. Due to its restrictive action on the levels of lipids and ‘bad’ cholesterol, fasting is beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart. Reduced inflammation is another positive effect of intermittent fasting that has cardioprotective action. Reduced inflammation also contributes to the anti-oxidative properties that fasting displays. When tissue cells do not undergo rapid oxidation, they tend to survive healthily for a longer duration. All these factors enhance the lifespan and also provide a better quality of life for people.
Fasting is as relevant today as it was in ancient times. The Importance of fasting and type of fasting are all that have changed over the years.
Why Did Yogis Practise Fasting?
A Yogi is essentially a person who is utterly devoted to the practice of Yoga and meditation. In the ancient era, Yogis possessed excellent knowledge about spirituality, philosophy, and the greater meaning of life. The life of a Yogi is very different from that of other people. Their actions help in mental detoxification and physical rejuvenation. Their ultimate aim is to train the mind and body to detach from the immortal soul, which progresses on a path of spiritual elevation.
To achieve this goal, Yogis usually adhere to a strict diet plan. They avoid consuming meat, alcohol, onions, garlic, and other foods which are part of the Tamasik diet. Such foods are known to incite negativity, violence, and anger, which Yogis should not possess. Yogis usually consume simple food comprising whole grains, plant-based ingredients, milk, fruit, and vegetables. A plant-based diet gives them the strength they need to perform the physically demanding Yoga postures. The diet also keeps their mind relaxed, and positivity and spiritual thoughts come to them quickly.
Yogis often fast for long hours to practice meditation or other spiritual activities. Fasting is a way for them to develop self-control which is an essential quality for a Yogi. Yogis are firm believers that we have the power to heal ourselves. They consider fasting as a way to allow the digestive system to detox and rejuvenate. Overeating or even constant eating might hamper the Yoga practice sessions for those keen on following a Yogic lifestyle. Therefore, fasting is a common practice among Yogis.
The means and ultimate end goal of fasting have changed rapidly over the years, but not their effects. When done in a controlled manner, fasting exhibits several positive effects on one’s mental, physical, and spiritual health. Be advised that fasting is advisable within certain limits, or a person may end up with digestive and nutritional disorders. Talk to an expert nutritionist or a doctor before you begin fasting.