‘O ye who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may become righteous.’ 
Fasting has existed in some form in many world religions. The Review of Religions is pleased to publish a series of interviews about fasting with authentic voices from different faiths. Beliefs expressed in these articles are those of the individuals interviewed, to whom we are extremely grateful for sharing their very valuable insights.
Malvika Acharya is a British Hindu, born in London and brought up mainly in Lancashire. She has been teaching for over 20 years in a range of schools and colleges. Her specialism is Dharmic Faith, but she also has a passion for all things related to religious education and philosophy.
Can you provide an overview of the Hindu faith?
The Hindu Dharma is a complex and diverse faith. It encompasses a wide range of practices, cultural lifestyles and beliefs. Essentially, it is a pluralistic faith tradition, that has often been misunderstood and misrepresented to be a polytheistic tradition. The home country of the Hindu tradition is that of India, and it is partly due to India’s rich geography that we are presented with this diverse range of religious and cultural traditions. Whilst there are many Hindu festivals and traditions of worship that are universal across the country, for example, the celebration of Diwali, there are some practices that are limited to Northern or Southern India, such as the tradition of fasting and the celebration of certain festivals.
We can initially see this difference in the exterior style of Mandirs (temples). The central architectural features are universal and are based within the traditions of Ayurveda (ancient Indian ‘Science of Life’). Those who travel to the North of India, will be faced with an amazing array of tower like structures, known as sikharas, hewn from marble or golden stone, which may be simple or intricately carved. In the South, these structures are referred to as vimanas and will be covered in a multitude of colourful carvings of a range of dazzling images.
Does fasting take place in your faith tradition, and does it have a specific name?
Fasting, known as Vrata, takes many forms due to the complex diversity of the Hindu Dharma. Vrata is a Sanskrit word that means ‘vow, resolve, devotion’.
When did the observance of fasting originate in your faith?
The underlying principle behind fasting is to be found in Ayurveda. This ancient Indian medical system sees the basic cause of many diseases as the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system. Regular cleansing of toxic materials keeps one healthy. By fasting, the digestive organs get rest and all body mechanisms are cleansed and corrected. A complete fast is good for heath, and the occasional intake of warm lemon juice during the period of fasting prevents flatulence.
Are there any rules for fasting in your faith?
Fasting is a very integral part of the Hindu religion. Individuals observe different kinds of fasts based on personal beliefs and local customs. Some examples are listed below:
- Some Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Ekadasi (11th lunar day of the month) or Purnima (full moon day).
- Certain days of the week are also set aside for fasting depending on personal belief and favourite deity. For example, Monday in honour of Lord Shiva, Tuesday for Lord Hanuman, Wednesday for Lord Krishna, Thursday for Lord Vishnu and Friday for the Mother Goddess, Saturday for Lord Shani and Sunday for Lord Surya. On these days, observants will only eat one simple meal, at the end of the fast. Many observants may restrict themselves from eating certain items on these days, for example eggs/ onion/ garlic.
- Thursday fasting is very common among the Hindus of northern India.
- Fasting during religious festivals is also very common. Common examples are Maha Shivaratri or the nine days of Navratri (which occurs twice a year in the months of April and October/November during Vijayadashami just before Diwali, as per the Hindu calendar). Karwa Chauth is a form of fasting unique to the northern part of India where married women undertake a fast for the well-being, prosperity, and longevity of their husbands. The fast is broken after the wife views the moon.
Methods of fasting also vary widely and cover a broad spectrum. If followed strictly, the person fasting does not partake any food or water from the previous day’s sunset until 48 minutes after the following day’s sunrise. Fasting can also mean limiting oneself to one meal during the day and/or abstaining from eating certain food types and/or eating only certain food types. In any case, even if the fasting Hindu is non-vegetarian, he/she is not supposed to eat or even touch any animal products (i.e. meat, eggs) on a day of fasting.
Fasting is a matter of personal faith and there is no rule forcing adherents to fast. There are exemptions from fasting, for example, those who are affected by certain medical conditions, for example, diabetes, cancer, those who are of younger or older age and also those who are pregnant.
Why do you fast?
I only fast during Karwa Chauth – for the longevity of my husband. This is for two reasons. Firstly, I have diabetes, and secondly, I don’t believe that you need to fast to prove your faith to a Divine being. Personally, I feel that your actions over time should be taken into account.
Karwa Chauth is mostly celebrated in Northern India, and the fast cannot be broken until the moon has been sighted and the traditional puja (worship) offerings made.
One of the key reasons for this celebration is linked to the custom of arranged marriage. Traditionally, newlywed brides left their parental home to reside with her husband and in-laws. A couple of days before this day of fasting, these brides would travel back to their parental homes to spend the times with their parents and pray for their husbands to be blessed.
A few days before Karwa Chauth, married women would buy new Karwas (spherical clay pots) — 7-9″ in diameter and 2–3 litres capacity — and paint them on the outside with beautiful designs. Inside, they would put bangles and ribbons, home-made candy and sweets, make-up items, and small clothes. The women would then visit each other on the day of Karwa Chauth and exchange these Karwas.
On the day of fasting, many women may go to their local Mandir or they may take part in the following activities at home:
Women dress in their fine clothing, jewellery and henna. This may be their wedding dress or other brightly coloured clothing such red, gold or orange as bright colours are auspicious. The fasters sit in a circle with their puja thalis. Depending on region and community, a version of the story of Karwa Chauth is narrated, with regular pauses. The storyteller is usually an older woman. Karwa Chauth puja song is sung collectively, the singers perform the feris (passing their thalis around in the circle).
A customary story that is shared is the tale of Veervati. A beautiful queen called Veervati was the only sister of seven loving brothers. She spent her first Karwa Chauth as a married woman at her parents’ house. She began a strict fast after sunrise, but by evening, was desperately waiting for the moonrise as she suffered severe thirst and hunger. Her seven brothers couldn’t bear to see their sister in such distress and created a mirror in a pipal tree that made it look as though the moon had risen. The sister mistook it for the moon and broke her fast. The moment she took the first morsel of food, she sneezed. In her second morsel she found hair. After the third she learned the news of her husband, the king, was dead. Heartbroken, she wept through the night until her shakti compelled a Goddess to appear and ask why she was crying. When the queen explained her distress, the Goddess revealed how she had been tricked by her brothers and instructed her to repeat the Karwa Chauth fast with complete devotion. When Veervati repeated the fast, Yama was forced to restore her husband to life.
Thereafter, the fasters offer baayna (a melange of freshly cooked goodies) to the deities and then hand over to their mother-in-law or sister-in-law.
The fera ceremony concluded, the women await the rising of the moon. Once the moon is visible, depending on the region and community, it is customary for a fasting woman to view the moon. Water is offered (arka) to the moon (Chandra, the lunar deity) to secure its blessings. In some regions, the woman says a brief prayer asking for her husband’s life. It is believed that at this stage, spiritually strengthened by her fast, the woman can successfully confront and defeat death (personified by Yama). The husband then takes the water from the thali and offers it to his wife; taking her first sip of water during the day, the fast is now broken and the woman can have a complete meal.
When do you fast?
Once a year usually October/November – the Hindu calendar is based on lunar phases and so the festivals change dates each year.
What are the benefits and challenges of fasting?
The benefits of fasting are self-control, and it helps you to understand the hardships that others may face the majority of the time. Additionally it allows you to concentrate your mind. The challenges are that it can impact blood sugar levels, and so I have to rest at various intervals.
Is there any other information about fasting that you feel is important to mention?
It is important to remember that the Hindu tradition is very diverse and that adherents will have a range of ways of observing the fast, and a variety of days that they may or may not fast on.
- The Holy Qur’an 2:184