The concept of fasting in religion has existed for centuries. Prophets and sages of the past have used this discipline to enhance their spirituality and to commune with the Almighty. Today, the practice of fasting can be found in all major religions of the world and forms an integral part of religious worship.
As millions of Muslims prepare for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, The Review of Religions will explore the tradition of fasting found in some of the major religions of the world.
Fasting in Islam
Ramadan is one of the most important months in the life of a Muslim. It falls in the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and it commences on the sighting of the new moon and continues until the sighting of the new moon for the following month.
Muslims not only abstain from food and drink from dusk until dawn, but focus especially on their worship through extra prayers and supplication.
In Islam, the practice of fasting is not only a physical exercise but a spiritual one; the ultimate aim of which is the attainment of God’s pleasure through regulation of one’s life in accordance with His ordinances. If a Muslim merely observes the outward requirements of the fast, they will simply succeed in making themselves hungry and thirsty and nothing more. Explaining the true essence of fasting in Islam, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah and Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, states:
Fasting is not merely staying hungry and thirsty; rather its reality and its impact can only be gained through experience. It is human nature that the less one eats, the more one’s spirit is purified and thus his capacity for [spiritual] visions increases. The will of God is to decrease one kind of sustenance and to increase the other. A person who is fasting should always be mindful that he is not just required to stay hungry. On the contrary, he should remain engaged in the remembrance of God so that he can cut asunder the ties of worldly desires and amusements and is wholly devoted to God. Hence, the significance of fasting is this alone that man gives up one kind of sustenance which only nourishes the body and attains the other kind of sustenance which is a source of comfort and gratification for the soul.1
1. Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, Malfuzat Vol. 5, (Rabwah: Nazarat Isha’at Rabwah Pakistan), 102.
Fasting in Hinduism
As one of the older religious traditions, fasting forms an integral part of the Hindu faith. However, fasting in Hinduism, known as Upavasa, can take many forms; in this way, Hinduism is exible about the parameters of fasting. Some people may choose to fast up to twenty-four hours,while others may choose to fast for shorter periods of time. In addition to flexibility in the time period for fasting, the stringency of the fast is also flexible: some abstain entirely from all food and drink, while others only abstain from certain foods or choose to eat less than they normally would.1
As part of Vedic teaching, fasting should not only relate to abstention from food and drink; rather, the fast should be for purification and self-control. Further- more, according to Hindu beliefs, fasting is also taken up as a sign of gratitude to please di erent deities. For example: some Hindus will fast on Monday to please Lord Shiva and on Saturday to please Lord Hanuman.
Similarly, Hindus fast on several religious festivals, such as on the post-monsoon autumn festival of Navratri, in which Hindus celebrate by fasting in different ways according to local tradition. Another important fasting ritual is known as Karva Chauth, in which married women will fast at sunrise for the health and longevity of their husbands. Traditionally, the fast will last until the sighting of the moon through a sieve or a cloth, after which water is offered to the moon to attain its blessings. The husband then gives water to the wife for her to break the fast.
1. W. J. Johnson, Oxford Dictionary of Hinduism (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009), 335.
Fasting in Judaism
The practise of fasting is an important teaching of the Jewish faith and is deeply rooted in the Biblical tradition. According to the Old Testament, Mosesas fasted twice in his life for a duration of forty days and forty nights.1 Fasting is observed as a penance for one’s sins, establishing communion with God and for seeking His mercy. However, in Judaism, one does not just fast for one’s own benefit but also to instil compassion and sympathy for those around them as it states in the Old Testament:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”2
In Judaism, fasting is observed voluntarily in addition to communal fasts, which are obligatory and observed by all Jews. The most significant fast in the Jewish calendar is known as Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and is considered as one of the most holy and sacred days of the Jewish calendar. It is observed on the 10th day of the lunar month of Tishri with its origins in Leviticus 23:26-28:
“And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God.”3
The purpose of Yom Kippur is to seek forgiveness from sins, to cleanse the soul and to achieve a reconciliation with God. Yom Kippur is preceded by a ten-day period which is devoted to self-analysis and reflection of one’s deeds in the previous year and starts from Rosh Hashanah (New Year’s Day) on the first day of Tishri. Yom Kippur is a 25-hour fast and begins with a fast from the sunset of the 9th of Tishri and ends after sunset on the day of Yom Kippur and the sound of the Shofar (Ram’s horn) marks the end of the holy day. Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath and therefore not only do Jews abstain from food and drink but also from all manner of work and devote this period solely for repentance and spiritual elevation.
1. The Bible, Deuteronomy 9:9-18. 2. The Bible, Isaiah 58:6-8. 3. The Bible, Leviticus 23:26-28.
Fasting in Buddhism
Buddhism originated in southeast Asia around 2500 years ago and is considered one of the major religions of the world. Buddhists strive to attain the stage of Nirvana (the ultimate state of enlightenment) by following the example and practices of Buddhaas. During his own quest for enlightenment, Buddhaas realised that spiritual enhancement did not require the practice of extreme asceticism and thus pursued the ‘Middle Way’ – moderation. Moderation is a central tenet of the Buddhist faith and therefore fasting is not prescribed as a religious obligation for everyone; however, fasting is practised voluntarily in a variety of ways among the different Buddhist traditions.
According to the Mahayana tradition, fasting is practiced in order to purify oneself from negative karma. Moreover, it helps to seek detachment from worldly desires and develop true compassion for people experiencing hunger and sicknesses of the body.
In addition, some Buddhists will avoid meat for certain periods, once or twice a month or even more often. The purpose of this form of fasting is to instil the spirit of simplicity in one’s diet and avoid over-indulging in order to satisfy the body’s desires. Some Buddhists eat only before noon on certain days of the month as it is said that Buddhaas ate one meal a day, before noon.
Some Buddhist monks, however, will practise more disciplined forms of fasting, eating only once in the afternoon, in order to help them focus and concentrate in their meditation. Indeed, some of them may also undergo a standard period of fasting that can last up to eighteen days, with only small amounts of water allowed, for the purpose of meditation.1
1. Heng Sure, Rev. “A Buddhist Perspective on Fasting.” Urban Dharma- Buddhism in America. Web. 03 July 2014, http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma9/fasting.html.
Fasting in Christianity
References to fasting can be found throughout the Bible. Biblical prophets such as Mosesas, Elijahas and Jesusas have all adopted this discipline. In the New Testament there are several references to fasting. For example, in Matthew 6:16-18, Jesusas states: “When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
A major Christian fasting period consists of the forty days of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and before Easter Sunday. It is observed to commemorate the forty days Jesusas spent in the wilderness as mentioned in Matthew: “ Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”1 While this custom is practiced differently across various Christian denominations, during Lent, many sects strive to abstain from both food and luxuries, and instead focus on prayer and almsgiving.
A similar practice is observed by some denominations before the Christmas period known as the “Nativity Fast”. is is a period of fasting to prepare for the celebration of Christmas, which they believe to be the period in which Jesusas was born. In addition to abstaining from food and drink, they also increase time spent in devotion and in acts of charity.
1. The Bible, Matthew 4:1-2