FASTING

Amongst all the rituals I have practiced, my longest association as a practitioner and an observer has been with fasting! For as long as I can remember my mother fasted on Friday; ‘Santoshi Ma vrat’. This weekly ritual continues; because of her health and growing years, she has given herself some latitude. Presently, she does not eat anything sour; tomatoes, lime and the like are banned on Fridays, and she has her dinner before sunset. Luckily, for devout Hindus, dieting is a piece of cake.  We have a God assigned for every single day of the week and to appease them we fast on their day. Call it hilarious or illogical or just the whim of a staunch devout (an impressionable child who believed in the power of prayer);  I started fasting when I barely 16years old. Since I did not have a specific favourite God, I fasted on Saturday (the day I am born). This day is said to be ruled by Saturn. So, to appease the devil Himself to keep me out of harm’s way; I opted for this day. I very judiciously continued this ritual till I got married. Apart for the fervent hope that I was guarded from the evil influences of Saturn, fasting helped me stay slim. I was diligent, judicious and had absolute faith in what I was doing. Every Saturday, I woke up earlier than usual, went to the temple to offer my prayers before beginning my day. When in college hostel, my friends very concernedly had something nice and warm waiting for me when it was time to break my fast. Call it fate or that my years of fasting had rendered Saturn effectively powerless; I entered a family where food plays the most pivotal role. Thus, ceased my days of fasting.

Many years later, my colleagues were fasting for ‘Karwa chauth‘; and my reconnect happened. On an impulse, even I fasted that karwa chauth. This is a fast women keep for the longevity of their spouse. I was transported to my childhood days; my mother fasting, sitting in front of our temple singing bhajans, cooking prasad and humming a bhajan to herself, she used to be smiling and engrossed. Despite the empty stomach and extra work her countenance glowed; devoid of stress and zero sign of weakness. She read the ‘katha’, explained the significance to us; she had knowledge of the why of every small ritual. It was a very learning experience for us; and I probably wanted to relive all that, after so many years. But, throughout the day our discussion revolved around how hungry we were, what gift we would receive from our spouse, would our spouse return home early from work, was the spouse also keeping a fast for his wife, whether the moon would rise early (to be able to offer prayers and break the fast) or it would be a long arduous wait. So many discussions, yet none revealed the reason why this fast was so important. It threw no light on the essence nor the significance of this fast. It was about new clothes, jewellery, mehendi, the torture of fasting… To make it even more hilariously meaningless, my dear husband (totally distraught that I had kept a fast for his long life!) bought me a beautiful gold necklace set but could not make it home till past midnight! So, I ‘broke the fast’ sans ‘pati-dev’, happily ate dinner with the kids and was fast asleep by the time he could get away from work. Such was my reunion with fasting.

The next day, my guilt ridden better half made many snide jokes about this ritual, saying it was a big sham, fasting itself is a big sham, as per him. Even though he sounded disrespectful and was very rudely questioning the veracity of a very sacred ritual; his statements were undeniably true. He was voicing what I had experienced yesterday. Where was the faith; the simple honesty with which we practiced such rituals?  None of us seem to dwell on the reason anymore. We superficially follow ‘old traditions’ and grumble about the inconvenience such rituals cause to our daily life.

This lack of knowledge has made a mockery of these rituals. We keep fasts today for krawa chauth, vat savitri, bhai dooj, chhatt… but we all look drained and weary; our heart is not in it. The glow and radiance my mother had on her face; I have not seen it in a long time. Thus, began my journey of trying to figure out the true reason for fasting; the etymology of fasting; if I can call it that.

Fasting is the willing abstinence or reduction from food, food and drink too (absolute abstinence) for a period of time. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism or Hinduism, every religion has one common denominator for advocating fasting. Fasting is a way of purifying oneself. Abstinence from food, drink and physical proximity is a way cleansing the body, mind and soul.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity says, ‘The purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but according to sacred tradition to guard against gluttony and impure thoughts, deeds and words. Fasting must always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving. To engage in fasting without them is considered useless or even spiritually harmful. To repent for one’s sins and to reach out in love to others is part and parcel of true fasting’.

Islam believes, ‘By fasting, whether during Ramadan or other times, a Muslim draws closer to God by abandoning bodily pleasures, such as food and drink. This makes the sincerity of their faith and their devotion to God (Arabic: Allah) all the more evident.

Jainism states that, Self-starvation by fasting is supposed to help shed karma. Santhara (Self- starvation leading to death), the individual gets ample time to reflect on his or her life. The goal of Santhara is to purify the body and, with this, the individual strives to abandon desire.

Buddhism advocates the Middle Path, asking the followers to avoid extremes of indulgence and self- mortification too.

Sikhism is the rare path which does not promote fasting. ’Human mind requires the wisdom, which can be achieved by contemplating on words and evaluating it, torturing body is of no use’.  If you keep fast, then do it in a way so that you adopt compassion, wellbeing and ask for the good will of everyone: ‘Let your mind be content, and be kind to all beings. In this way, your fast will be successful. (Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Ang 905; 299)

One religion realized how farcical this sacred ritual would become and decided to stay away from it altogether. We stopped contemplating long ago; torturing our body without understanding the wisdom; fasting has become a mere charade.

Sources: wikipedia