Hinduism - Rules for Fasting
Question: What can you eat when you are fasting? What are the rules, customs and manners associated with fasting in Hinduism?
Technically, if you are a householder, prolonged fasting is not a recommended practice because when you fast, you starve the deities in you, and they are not pleased by it. Fasting is a way of life for the ascetics, but not for the householders, who have duties to perform every day with the help of the gods in them. Jayaram V
Fasting is a very common and ancient form of austerity in Hinduism. It is usually done in Hinduism, either to show your sincerity and resolve or to express your gratitude. The gods in your body are not pleased if you starve yourself for long. Therefore, when you fast, you have to keep your body's wellbeing in mind.
There are no fixed rules for fasting in contemporary Hinduism unless you are performing a particular Vedic sacrifice or a traditional ritual, in which case you have to follow the scriptures and the long established traditions.
On such occasions, you will be usually guided by the priest who officiates the ceremony or your spiritual guru who may have advised you to perform it. The fasting may be either complete or partial. For example, in some Vedic ceremonies the worshippers are allowed to drink only milk and water.
The tradition of fasting for religious or spiritual purposes is integral to Vedic tradition. In the Vedic period, householders practiced fasting on various occasions as part of their ritual practices. However, the renunciants (sanyasis) who gave up worldly life practiced it as a way of life and as a part of their effort to give up their bodies.
Fasting in Hinduism is a declaration of faith and resolve and way to build character, strength and purity as part of one’s preparation for liberation. It is also helpful to restrain the mind and the senses and practice detachment, austerity and self-control.
The Hindu Law Books such as the Manusmriti prescribe for both men and women elaborate rules and procedures to practice fasting on specific occasions. They also consider fasting a meritorious deed or good karma. According to Manu, women should not observe fasting when they were apart from their husbands.
Manu also declares that students who subsist on begged food earn the same merit fasting. Fasting is also used as a punishment. If a student remains asleep after the sunrise, he shall fast during the next day muttering the Savitri chant. If a person eats food from forbidden people he has to observe fast for three days. He prescribed three days fasting for minor thefts also. These punishments suggest that fasting was considered a purifier and remover of sins.
Probably, the practice of fasting had its origin in the Vedic ritual of kindling the sacrificial fire for the purposes of sacrifices. We draw this inference from the fact that in Sanskrit, the same word “upavas” is used to denote both fasting and kindling sacrificial fire. Probably, people practiced fasting when they had to kindle or rekindle the domestic fires which they kept in their homes to perform the daily sacrifices.
Fasting has also been practiced in India for centuries as a penance for the expiation of sins, dereliction of duties, crimes, etc., or to annul the mistakes made during religious observances and sacrifices. One of the penances prescribed in the scriptures is the Krikkhra penance which has to be observed for several days or a for month.
Manu explains how it shall be performed. In one type of penance, a twice-born man shall eat for the first three days only in the morning, for the next three days only in the evening, for the next three days eat only what has been given to him unasked and observe complete fasting during the last three days.
In another type of penance called Paraka Krikkhra, he has to reduce the daily intake of food by one mouthful per day during the dark half of the month and increase it by a mouthful during the bright half
It is customary for those who participate in Hindu domestic ceremonies, including marriage ceremonies and pujas on specific occasions, to abstain from eating food until the completion of such ceremonies.
In most cases, people break their fast after performing sacrifices or rituals and eating the remains of the food, called prasadam, which was offered to gods.
On the occasion of certain Hindu festivals such as Maha Shivaratri and Durga Puja the worshippers to observe fasting either for a day or for a number of days.
Those who undertake vratas or vows to worship deities in a specific traditional manner also follow a strict code of conduct with regard to their eating and other activities. On such occasions, they either observe complete fasting or avoid eating certain types of food such as sour items, curd, etc.
In some ceremonies, only women have to fast while no restrictions apply to their husbands. Such ceremonies are mainly meant for the protection and wellbeing of the husbands.
Some Hindus, both men and women, observe fasting on specific days in a week or month, which are considered auspicious or favorite days of certain deities.
People also observe fast to fulfill their wishes, overcome adversity, drive away evil spells, please the gods and planetary gods or obtain their blessings.
Under normal circumstances, if you are fasting for your own good or spiritual progress, you may set down ground rules. Generally, in Hinduism there are three types of fasting.
1. Abstaining from eating food of all kinds, both liquid and solid foods
2. Abstaining from drinking water
3. Abstaining from sexual pleasure
All the three may be practiced simultaneously or selectively or in stages. Some people abstain from eating solid foods while they fast but consume liquid foods such as fruit juice. Some people abstain from eating certain foods like rice, meat, etc. but eat fruits and vegetables.
Whatever fasting you may practice, in today's world sincerity and purity of intention are important. If you want to fast selectively, you may have to consider your body's tolerance for certain types of food, and if necessary make such decisions in consultation with your physician.
Some people fast for several days continuously on occasions like Navarathri. They do not consume anything except water. Many people fall sick at the end of such austerity and even develop digestion problems for a few days after they complete their fasting.
It is important what food you eat after you complete prolonged fasting and consult your physician before making such attempt.
Overall, fasting in moderation is good for the mind and the body. It purifies the system, besides making you feel light and good. Medical research proves that the habit of fasting prolongs life and keep the body in good shape. Therefore, if you fast in moderation, without starving your body for days, both the gods in your body and you will feel good about it.
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Introduction to Hinduism
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The Chandogya Upanishad