Essential Guide to Fasting For Hindus

Fasting

by Jayaram V

Summary: The essay is about guidelines or observances for Fasting for devout Hindus for physical, mental and spiritual health


In the past, fasting had always been a religious and spiritual practice. In today’s world, it has acquired secular connotations in the name of dieting and weight loss.

Recent studies indicate the beneficent effects of fasting. Fasting can be used both as a preventive method and a curative or healing process to correct the imbalances in the mind and body.

Fasting markedly improves health, reduces cholesterol, removes the toxins, reduces stress upon the digestive system and other organs in the body, improves blood circulation and the functioning of the heart and brain.

Besides, fasting has many advantages. It is easier to practice, costs nothing, requires no prior preparation except a simple resolve and some self-motivation, and can be practiced anywhere and at any time.

Nutritionists and healthcare professionals find fasting is effective to control calorie consumption and stay fit. Fasting has proved to improve mental health by making people feel good about themselves with increased self-esteem, self-confidence, will power and discipline.

However, in certain cases fasting may have an adverse impact on health. Prolonged fasting can certainly impair the functioning of the digestive system even in case of healthy people. Fasting may also be unsuitable for certain conditions such as diabetes where patients are required to replenish their bodies with glucose to avoid low sugar levels. Similarly, expert guidance for fasting may be required by those who suffer from chronic stress, digestive disorders, and special conditions which require medical attention.

Fasting in Hinduism

In Hinduism, fasting (upavas) has a great significance in both ritual and spiritual practices. Upavasam (fasting) is an essential part of Upasana (worship).  In the past, it was used as an austerity to practice self-control and produce bodily heat (tapah) which was believed to be effective in self-purification and sublimation of sexual energy (retas) into physical luminosity (varchas), spiritual vigor (tejas) and mental brilliance (medhas).

Students of the Vedas practiced fasting as part of their learning and self-discipline.

Householders practiced it to declare their faith and devotion to gods and renunciants used it to gain mastery over their minds and bodies.

Widows practiced it to avoid a repetition of their misfortune in future births.

Unmarried maidens practiced it to obtain virtuous husbands.

Married women practiced it to obtain children, protect their families or safeguard their marriage.

Fasting is still an integral part of Hindu spiritual practices. It is used by spiritual people to cleanse their minds and bodies and remove grossness from them.

Symbolically, fasting is an act of sacrifice, in which one sacrifices food and hunger to God as a mark of devotion and surrender.

Since it is a sacrificial offering and an act of self-denial, it is good karma. Further, since it leads to self-purification, it is also an austerity. Besides inculcating discipline and devotion, it lightens the body and prepares it for the hardships of spiritual life.

With regular fasting, one gains control over one’s mind and body.

With a stable mind thus gained, arises the power of concentration, which makes the mind more receptive to spiritual knowledge and the body more conducive to spiritual practice.

Those who practise fasting find it easier to control their desires and practice detachment. With increased confidence and lightness in the mind, which arises from regular fasting, one gains dexterity in the practice of yoga and meditation

With the suppleness of the body which arises from fasting and moderate eating, certain types of difficult yogic postures become easier.

Criteria for Fasting

In Hinduism, fasting has been traditionally associated with religious practice. Hence, religious fasting is regulated by a few established criteria such as purpose, time, place, deity and purity. They are interconnected. The five aspects should be kept in mind by Hindus while observing religious fasting.

1. Purpose

Hindus practice fasting for various purposes. It may be done to achieve material or spiritual rewards, to please a deity, to fulfill a desire, to overcome an adversity, to cultivate virtue, to earn merit (punya), to help ancestors, to appease wrathful gods, to seek forgiveness, to punish oneself for sinful conduct, or to perform an expiation for past sins.

It may be done as a religious or spiritual practice in itself or as a part of a ritual worship or sacrificial ceremony. Fasting on certain dates or at certain time is considered more beneficial. Fasting may be done on own accord or as part of social obligation in association with others. In Hinduism, fasting is also prescribed as a punishment. According to karma yoga, fasting done without expectations and desire for its fruit, and as offering to God is the best.

2. Time

Fasting may be done at anytime with or without reason. However, most religious fasts require adherence to particular timelines which may coincide with specific dates or weeks or seasons according to Hindu calendar. They may be associated with important celestial events or the deities for whom the fasting is intended.

Certain Hindu festivals also require people to observe fasting as part of their ritual or devotional worship. Fasting is also recommended on certain inauspicious occasions such as solar or lunar eclipse or when impure periods (dhosha kalam) intervene. Observance of certain sacrificial ceremonies and sacraments also require the participating couples to observe fasting for the whole duration or for a specific time.

3. Place

Fasting is usually practiced at home. However, on certain occasions one may visit a temple, a river, a tree or a sacred place to observe or complete the fasting. People may also observe fasting when they go on a pilgrimage and abstain from food, until they visit the deity and receive an offering of food from the temple after the worship. In the past devotees used to stay in groves or in open fields during fasting as part of their religious observance and spent the time listening to devotional music or religious discourses. This tradition may still be in vogue in certain parts of India.

4. Deity

In Hinduism, religious fasting is usually done to please a deity to obtain rewards or fulfill one’s desires. Therefore, in most cases fasting is observed according to the specific demands and requirements of the deity. Even the date and time have to be chosen accordingly since the deities may have specific days in a month, season, year or week which have particular significance to them.

For example, Fridays are auspicious for most goddesses, Mondays for Shiva, Thursdays for Vishnu, Tuesdays for Hanuman and Saturdays for Lord Venkateshwara and Shani. Fasting on Shivarathri is considered auspicious. During the Durga Festival​, devotees also do fasting for nine consecutive days. Deities may also have specific demands to be met during fasting. For example, complete fasting is not required in the worship of some deities, but abstinence from certain foods such as salt, onion, garlic or tamarind is insisted upon, apart from abstinence from sexual intercourse and impure actions.

5. Purity and conduct

In Hinduism, fasting is subject to several rules and observances (yamas and niyamas) to ensure virtuous conduct. Since it is a religious observance as well as a yoga practice, cleanliness and purity are considered essential to its practice.

Purity is the foundation of fasting. It should be both physical and mental, and begin with the purity of intention. The standard rule is that people should not engage in religious fasting unless they wholeheartedly want to do it. Many people do it out of fear or to comply with the expectations of their family members. The intention should be sattvic, rather than rajasic or tamasic. In the former, fasting is done as a sacrifice, while in the other two it is done with a selfish or ulterior motive.

Ideally, fasting is a sacrifice as well as an opportunity for self-transformation. Hence, it should be done with right attitude, just as one performs a sacrificial ritual or domestic worship. The decision to fast must come from within. It must be practiced with great sincerity, out of love and devotion rather than selfish desires. If it is done for the sake of others, it is even better.

Further, it is much better if it is not done as part of a bargain with God in return for a favor, boon or divine reward. Religious fasting should be an austere effort to cleanse the mind and body and cultivate purity. Let it be genuine, wholehearted, sincere, free from expectations, nonviolent, sattvic, kind, gentle, peaceful, and for the wellbeing of the loved ones.

Fasting in most cases requires physical cleanliness (suchi). Before beginning the fast, a clean bath may be necessary, unless it is not part of the requirement for a deity. Some types of fasting require multiple baths during the day, and some no bath at all until the fasting is complete.

Also, for certain types of fasting, there will be restrictions on what clothing should be worn, what to eat or drink. They should be diligently followed to comply with the requirements.

Moderation in the practice of austerities is also an important virtue. The same is expected during fasting also. Extreme fasting is a sign of the predominance of tamas. It will not help those who engage in it, since it strengthens the ego and creates feelings of pride and vanity.

Fasting must be practiced according to a person’s age, health, tolerance, and the prevailing rules. The body is a house of gods. The deities who live in it depend upon the body for nourishment. They should not be excessively starved to the point they become dissatisfied.

One should also keep the mind positive and free from negative and depressing thoughts, and remain contended with whatever result that may follow. Fasting is a good karma. Yet, it may not be effective to overcome hurdles caused by previous karmas.

The practice of virtue is an essential part of fasting. At the time of fasting, devotees are urged to keep their minds free from negative and evil thoughts. Those who fast should focus their minds upon the deity to whom they offer the worship. For the duration of the fasting, they should not entertain evil thoughts, the thought of harming or hurting anyone, nor should they give into passion and negative emotions such as anger and pride.

Fasting is an opportunity to deal with the pain of hunger and physical suffering caused by it, and practice virtues such as tolerance, equanimity, patience and self-restraint.

People can use the occasion to keep their minds tranquil, and in the higher state of yoga. With right speech, right thoughts, right intentions and right actions, without letting negative thought swaying their minds, they can engage their minds and bodies in the austerity of fasting, harmonious thoughts and pleasant feelings. Some people prefer to practice silence while fasting, which has its own benefits.

Genuine fasting should be complete in all respects. It should not be confined to abstaining from food only, but may be extended to other pleasures and sense objects as well. Hence, withdrawal of the mind and senses into oneself and keeping the mind engaged in the contemplation of the Self or God during fasting is highly recommended.

One should also abstain from destructive habits such as smoking, drinking or gambling and avoid the company of irreligious and evil people.

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