This month’s piece will explore the importance of fasting in both traditions and its correlation to spiritual progress. Part 1 explores Fasting in Islam, Part 2 discusses Fasting in Hinduism.
Part 1: Fasting in Islam
Fasting is Mine and it I who give reward for it. A man gives up his sexual passion, his food and his drink for my sake. Fasting is like a shield, and he who fasts has two joys: a joy when he breaks his fast and a joy when he meets his Lord. The change in the breath of the mouth of him who fasts is better in Allah’s estimation than the smell of musk.
– Hadith Qudsi
For Muslims, fasting is not simply an exercise in bodily cleansing or asceticism. The focus cannot be on the individual’s physical body and health alone. Since Islam is centered on the principle of Tawhid, or Spiritual Unity, the body must of course be taken into account, and yet to focus on it alone is to obscure the profound depth of spiritual meanings within the fast. Unlike a materialistically centered fast, the ultimate goal for a Muslim is to use the experience, not only to benefit oneself, but also to cultivate compassion and love on a global scale.
The Arabic term for fasting, Sawm, is one of the five pillars of the faith, meaning that it is one of the practices that unites Muslims regardless of ideological and geographical differences. The term literally means “to abstain”, what on the most basic level means obtaining from sunrise to sunset from food, drink and sex. From there, one also should control anger and stop all backbiting, lying, cheating, stealing, jealousy, greed and other negative qualities. As one refines their fast, eventually the ego is subsumed and the mind finds tranquility in a state of Taqwa, or God-Consciousness.
Fasting is ordained for healthy individuals old enough and mentally sound enough to practice safely. It is done in the month of Ramadan, when the first verses of the Qur’an descended to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through the Angel Gabriel. It is also practiced before Ramadan in the months of Rajab and Shaban, the month of Shawwal following Ramadan, the Day of Arafat, Ashura, in the middle of the lunar month and each Monday and Thursday. To avoid extreme asceticism, it is not permitted to fast every day of the year. The Prophet (pbuh) said, “There is no reward for fasting for the one who perpetually fasts.”
I pass the night with my Lord: He giveth me food and drink. Hunger is God’s food whereby He revives the bodies of the siddiqs, in hunger God’s food reaches [them].
– The Prophet (pbuh)
To fast truly is to experience nourishment of the spirit, transcending the momentary pains of the body. Since the body exists in time, being born, deteriorating and dying, to live for bodily pleasure alone cannot truly satisfy. The Prophet (pbuh) suggests that intimacy with God provides a type of food that paradoxically feeds one who obtains from external food and drink. Fasting only makes sense from a spiritual perspective since growing the spirit is the goal, even as the body might suffer.
Fasting leads to non-existence, for, after all, all joys are there.
God is with those who patiently persevere [2:249].
– Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi
With patience and perseverance, the initial annoyance, pain and discomfort of fast gives way to a profound inner peace. This tranquility of heart is found only after self-centeredness diminishes. When the endless desires and worldly preoccupations are gone, God is most manifest. The human becomes transparent and the light of God is able to shine through.
The real fast is the blossoming of the inner heart.
– Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
To reiterate, the end goal of fasting for a Muslim must not be simply going hungry or playing up one’s piety for others. Like other religious communities, Muslims fast in community, not for their own reasons, spiritual or otherwise, but for the healing of the world. Since God made us from a single soul, our spiritual path must also be pursued with that singularity in mind. The heart of the world is in the heart of the human, and the heart of the human is in the heart of the world. We fast so that both hearts can be purified and transformed.
Part 2: Fasting in Hinduism
controlling the mind with determination, giving up the objects of sense gratification…who eats little and controls the body and the tongue…such a person is certainly elevated to the position of Self-realization.
– Bhagavad Gita 18:52-54
One draws the energy from the vital plane instead of depending upon physical substance.
– Sri Aurobindo, answering a disciple’s question “How is it possible to have such energy without food?”
Before going into the Hindu perspective on fasting here are two things one should keep in mind:
- Avoid overeating after a fast: After breaking a fast not only are large food portions an unhealthy shock to the digestive tract, gorging makes one forget about empathizing with the poor. The less fortunate don’t have the luxury of going to a buffet after being hungry all day. In addition, one of the objectives of fasting is to control sense gratification. Overindulgence on food defeats this goal. Instead, try to avoid feasts or buffets and instead opt for a light or regular-sized meal instead.
- Avoid fasting for ego: One shouldn’t brag or feel proud about fasting. If a person can fast with ease they should keep it to themselves. Remember – the goal is to serve a higher purpose not impress others.
In Hinduism, fasting is encouraged and prescribed as a means of worship. Sanskrit words for fasting include upavasa (moving up/near God) and vrat (self discipline or vow). Since the body and mind are constantly seeking stimulation fasting gives the senses a break and a chance for the soul to reconnect with the Creator. Disciplining the physical senses leads to spiritual advancement. Practicing the spiritual path on a bloated stomach or with constant attention to food can be a hindrance to progress. On the other hand, fasting done correctly and regularly removes mental, physical, and spiritual impurities.
Hindus are encouraged to fast habitually by picking one day of the week and abstaining on that day throughout the year. Other sects pick 2-3 days out of a month based on the lunar calendar and perform upavasa then. Most people fast on major holidays and festivals.
A general vrat in Hinduism lasts 24 hours, usually from sunrise to sunrise. There are a few holidays that are shorter (sunrise to sunset), and there are some that are much longer. For instance Navratri, which starts 8 October this year, is a festival that lasts for nine days. More dedicated devotees may carry out a 30 day fast for certain auspicious months. Of course, the most ardent, disciplined, and highly advanced seekers have trained themselves to go without food or water for much, much longer periods. Some are so blissful from God-consciousness that they have to be reminded to eat.
In the dharmic traditions there are various degrees to fasting. A practitioner is advised to perform based on what they’re able to handle. Some eat only fruits, nuts, and dairy. Others eat only one meal a day. The more experienced abstain from food and water. Regardless of which method a person chooses, what counts is the sincerity in the devotion and the effort to bring the senses under control.