Fasting – Its Meaning, Its Purpose
Today, fasting has become a great trend across the world. In any bookstore you will find volumes of literature extolling one fast or another. There are juice fasts, water fasts, fruit fasts, etc. Fasting is frequently heralded as the “miracle weight loss” for those who have tried all else without success.
Connection with the Divine
However, while fasting is certainly of great health benefit, to define it merely as a type of “diet” is to undermine one of the oldest and most sacred spiritual practices. Fasting has been used for millennia by the rishis, saints and sages in order to purify their bodies, minds and souls and to bring every cell of their bodies into connection with the divine.
A True Fast
A true fast, undertaken with understanding and discipline has the power to cure most ailments of the body, mind and spirit. For the body, a fast restores all systems of the body – the nervous, circulatory, digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems are all regenerated. The toxins and impurities in our blood and tissues are eliminated and our system becomes rejuvenated. It is a rare man who dies from under-eating; however, the majority of all today’s terminal illnesses are rooted in over-consumption.
A fast also is one of the best ways of controlling our mind and senses. Fasts have been used for millennia to subdue passion, anger and lust. They allow us to withdraw our senses from the outside world and become refocused on our own divine nature and our connection to God. Additionally, during this period of sadhana, of austerity, of restraint one realizes that one is truly the master of one’s body, not vice versa.
Unfortunately today, even the Indian community seems to have forgotten much of the purpose of a fast. Today, you will see people with plates overflowing with puris and pakoras who say they are fasting. There are phalharI chapatis, saboodana kichari and so many other hearty foods that we barely even notice it is a fast. I have heard that there is even a recipe for phalharI pizza dough!
On the one hand, it is wonderful to see such a proliferation of the idea of phalhar, and I am glad to see that observing weekly fasts, or fasts on Ekadashi are rituals which have not been lost as we enter the 21st century.
However, it is crucial to pause and reflect on what we are calling a “fast,” for, although the idea of fast is still upheld with great fervor, its true meaning and purpose is quickly being obscured by the latest phalhar recipes.
In Sanskrit, the word for fast is Upvas. This literally means, “sitting near to…” Sitting near to whom? Near to God.
Fasting is a time in which our bodies are light, a time in which our vital energy is not being dissipated through the process of consumption and digestion, a time in which we are free from the heaviness and lethargy resulting from overindulgence.
However, a fast is not meant to be merely a refrain from eating. It is not as simple as just reducing one’s caloric intake or avoiding certain foods. Upvas is not a time in which only our stomach is free from excessive external stimulation. It is not a time of mere restraint of the tongue. Rather, it should be a time in which all of our organs are restrained. It should be a time in which all of our organs are purified, a time in which every sense is turned toward the divine.
Our tongues should refrain from both indulgence in food and drink, as well as from indulgence in speech. A fast should also be a time of silence, for we lose much of our vital energy in speech, and through speech our focus becomes diverted outward.
A Fast For the Senses
We tend to think that we only “eat” through our mouths, that our meals are the only “food” our bodies get. However, what we hear, what we see, what we touch – all these things are taken into our bodies as food. Just as pure, wholesome food brings us health of the body, so do pure, wholesome sights, sounds and other stimuli bring us health of the mind, heart and soul. Therefore, when we undertake a fast, we must be equally as aware of purifying the food that we take in through our eyes, ears and hands as we are of the food that we take in through our mouths.
Our ears should refrain from hearing anything other than chanting of the Lord’s name or the quiet of our own thoughts. During a fast we should not listen to rock music, watch TV, or be part of idle gossip. So frequently we see Indians at temple who have spent the whole day “fasting” and then they come to temple and huddle together for three hours gossiping and chatting. Their bodies may be hungry, but their soul has not fasted.
Additionally, that which we see – frequently without even noticing it – penetrates our minds and hearts and changes our perspective. The simple sight of a woman’s bare leg may arouse lust in an otherwise simple and pious man; the sight of blood might cause nausea and panic in one who is usually calm; the sight of a enemy might immediately evoke animosity in one who is usually peaceful and loving.
When we fast we must limit all stimuli which we perceive. That is why we should “sit near to God.” Sit at the temple – either the temple in your home or in the actual mandir. Or, if you prefer, be with nature. But, make sure that the sights and the sounds which you “imbibe” during your fast are pure, pious, loving and filled with divinity.
During a fast we should also try to quiet our mind as much as possible. So much of our energy is drained each day in our ceaseless, incessant thought process. And where do most of our thoughts lead? Either nowhere or to our own frustration. Rarely do we actually solve anything or find peace through our own pondering. Usually it leads only to more confusion and more questions. Therefore, as we give our bodies a rest from digesting food in our stomachs, as we give our ears a rest from digesting impure thoughts, and as we give our eyes a rest from digesting over-stimulating or sensual sights, let us also give our minds a rest from having to digest our thousands upon thousands of thoughts each day.
Many people fast on a particular day of the week. You will notice, for example, on Monday that many people will say “this is my fast.”
The days of the Indian week are in honor of a particular deity or aspect of the divine. Monday, Somvar, is the day dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tuesday, Mangalvar, is the day dedicated to Hanumanji. Thursday, Guruwar, is the day dedicated to the Guru. It is said that on these particular days, that aspect of the divine is in the nearest reach of the devotee. So, for example, devotees of Lord Shiva will observe a fast on Mondays in order to offer their respects to the Lord and to seek his blessings. Seekers who are strongly devoted to their Guru will observe fast on Thursdays, in order to feel “one” with the Guru and to remember him throughout the course of the day.
However, all too frequently, we tend to see that these fasts have become merely ritual; the spiritual aspect has been lost in many cases. People observe fast because they’ve done it for years, or because their parents did it, or because they were instructed to do so. It is a rare devotee who truly remembers, throughout the course of the day, that aspect of the divine for whom they are fasting. Again, we see plates of puris, pakoras and ladoos, and days spent just like any other day.
This is not the point of the Indian tradition. Indian culture and Hindu tradition are meant to bring us into close contact with the divine. They are meant to open up the infinite, glorious channel between us and God. These rituals were given to help us step out of the mundane world and re-realize our divine connection. If we fill our stomachs with pakoras and ladoos and fried potatoes, are we really very likely to remember God?
The point of the fast is to be light so we can sit comfortably in meditation. The point is to have our energy turned away from food, away from the mundane world and to the divine. The point of being a little hungry is that it reminds us of why we are fasting.
I heard a beautiful story of a great saint who could cure lepers of their oozing wounds. One day a very sick man came to the saint and she carefully lay her hands over his gaping wounds, as they each instantaneously healed beneath the touch of her divine hands. However, when she sent him away, she had left one wound un-treated. Her devotees questioned her, asking why – since she clearly had the ability to cure all the wounds – why would she leave one bleeding? Her answer was beautifully apt. She said, “because it is that one bleeding wound which will keep him calling out to God.”
Our lives are extremely busy and filled with so many small errands, appointments and pleasures that we rarely find the time to remember God. I always say that we tell our loved ones, “Oh, I miss you, I miss you” if they are gone for only a few days. But, do we ever find ourselves, with tears streaming down our faces because we are missing God? Those who do are very rare and very divine. Typically, we tend to remember God when there is adversity. Our child is in the ICU after a car accident and all of a sudden we are chanting mantras. They find a lump in our wife’s breast, and we start going religiously to the temple. We are hoping for a promotion at work and so we perform yagna. This is human nature.
So, when our rishis and saints urged people to fast, part of the reason is to remember God. As we are hungry, we remember “Oh, yes, today I am fasting.” And then we remember why. Then we remember God. Even if we can not take the day off work to sit in puja or meditation, the constant feeling of hunger in our bodies will still keep us connected to the reason for the fast, and thereby we will be reminded of God throughout the day.
Of course, the ideal is to remember God all the time. The ideal is that He should be ever with us, ever such an integral part of our minute to minute, moment to moment existence that we never feel separate. But, this is rare for people, especially for those who are living in the West (or in Westernized India) and who are constantly inundated with tasks and jobs and with propaganda telling them that they must buy more, own more and obtain more in order to be happy. Amidst all this, many, understandably, find it difficult to keep God in the center of their lives. That is the beauty of the fast – even unconsciously, you are reminded every moment that “today is a special day. Today I am fasting for Hanumanji [or for Lord Shiva, or for your Guru.]”
If we satiate our hunger with platefuls of phalhar, then in many ways we have defeated the purpose.
Twice a month we observe Ekadashi. The 11th day of each lunar cycle is observed as a special Ekadashi fast. While there are many Ekadashis during the course of the year, each with a slightly different significance, the one most crucial dietary rule during Ekadashi is not to take any rice.
However, Ekadashi is of an importance far greater than simply the restraint from rice and grains. It symbolizes the control of the mind.
Our Upanishads say that to control the mind is the greatest task and the greatest accomplishment. It says that when the mind is under control, all else – the senses, the body – will follow. “The body is the chariot, the senses are the horses pulling the chariot, and the mind is the driver with the reigns in his hands.” So, if the driver is calm, pious and peaceful, he will drive the horses and thereby the chariot toward peace, love and God. But, if the driver is tempestuous and intractable, then the horses jump and buck wildly, leading the chariot to thrash here and there, eventually collapsing upon itself.
Our scriptures say we have 10 sense organs, and the mind is the 11th. Ekadashi stands for the 11th, and since the moon is the karaka (symbol) of the mind, the 11th day of the lunar cycle becomes especially conducive to practices which teach us control of the mind.
Ekadashi is, therefore, a fast for the control of the mind. It is said that if a seeker observes even one Ekadashi with true commitment, faith and devotion and if the seeker keeps his mind entirely focused on God during the course of the Ekadashi, that this seeker will be free from all karmic cycles of birth and death.
So, let us all vow to observe fasts – what exactly you eat or don’t eat is not as important as the spirit in which the fast is done. There are people who can comfortably go the entire day with no food or even water. There are others who must take fruits and milk. There are others for whom a glass of juice is sufficient. The little details are not so important (unless you are performing a very specific fast for a very specific occasion or ritual). What is important is that the day of the fast is a day for you to be with God. Be light. Be restrained. Be disciplined. Be focused.
A fast is:
- About God
- A time of reflection
- For peace of body, mind and spirit
- A day of discipline
- To purify you
A fast is not:
- About food
- A time of hunger
- For pakoras and puris
- A diet
- To frustrate you