Religious fasting in Hinduism has been a part of life for Hindu devouts. Fasting is a discipline that is followed in almost all the religions in the world. It is a process in which people do not eat anything for a period of 12 hours, 24 hours or even more such as when Muslim devouts fast during Ramadan for a whole month. They follow quite strict rules of fasting in Ramadan. Like Islam and other religions of the world, fasting is a very important aspect in Hinduism too. Hindus observe a fast once, twice or more, every week in the name of the deities they follow. All for the spiritual benefits of fasting but there are more aspects of the religious fasting and its importance in Hinduism lies not only for this life but for the next life too!
Upavasa or Vrata- the Fasting in Hinduism
Upavasa (उपवास)- which means fasting in Sanskrit is made up of two terms- ‘Upa’ (उप) means ‘near’ and ‘vasa’ (वास) means ‘to stay’. Together they mean ‘staying near God’ while observing fast. The science of fasting has been dealt with in the Vedas (वेद) and Shastras (शास्त्र). According to these ancient Hindu scriptures, fasting is a method of purification that helps man in his mundane as well as spiritual life.
Fasting is also called called ‘Vrata’ (व्रत). Vrata is a broader term than Upavas. Vrata stands for a religious practice that is undertaken to carry out certain obligations for achieving divine blessings. It may include Upavasa or fasting along with other physical obligations like not sleeping or not speaking for a certain period of time, or taking baths at particular holy river on earmarked auspicious days and so on.
Bhagwad Gita on Fasting
Lord Krishna, in Bhagwad Gita, tells Arjuna,
नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नतः।
न चातिस्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन।।
“O Arjuna, Yoga (the unity of individual consciousness with the ultimate consciousness) never occurs for those who eat too much or too little and also for those who sleep too much or too little.”
This ‘Shloka’ (श्लोक) or hymn of Bhagvad Gita underlines the importance of eating and sleeping but it also tells that when done in excess, the person is never united with the Supreme consciousness. Therefore, one should neither eat excessively nor stay hungry by eating far lesser than needed. This is perhaps why fasting in Hinduism doesn’t expect the devotees to go without food for days at a stretch. Most of the fasting rituals in Hinduism expect one to eat simple food only once in a day. In fact, sometimes the devotees are required to eat two meals, once they could have only fruits and for the other meal, they can have ‘Anna’ (अन्न) or grains along with lentils, vegetables and milk or other dairy products like curd. That is neither too much of food nor too little. These foods are also light and are easier to digest. This way, the person doesn’t starve to a limit that he could only focus on food. And at the same time, he is fed to a level that he can focus on his connection with his deity.
By way of fasting in Hinduism, the demands of the body are minimized and one can thus easily engage in the service of God.
Fasting in Hinduism – a means to unlock divine consciousness
When one removes his focus from such mundane needs as food and drinks, his mind becomes more receptive. It is believed by almost all the spiritual leaders of all times that what we think, we become. When fasting by observing Hindu rituals, a devotee focuses on the deity for whom he is fasting. All the Hindu Gods and Goddesses have innumerable positive aspects and when the devout concentrates on these positives, the same qualities are ultimately evoked in him. It is also believed in Hinduism that deities are not separate beings; they are within our dormant minds, waiting to be awakened. When after forgetting everything, a person thinks only about her deity, she is trying to imbibe the positive qualities in herself to be used later in her consciousness.
When the mind is given rest from thinking about food and the thoughts are channelized towards God, it is an attempt to make one’s mind light, agile and pure. It is an attempt to invoke the divine consciousness in oneself!
Fasting in Hinduism – a way to gain control over senses
Fasting in Hinduism is also meant to gain control over one’s senses and desires in order to attain spiritual consciousness. Food is one of the ways to satisfy one’s senses. By not having food for prescribed time, a person tries to control his senses. Fasting, when done in this way, helps in strengthening one’s mind and makes it more capable of focusing on what’s desirable.
Fasting for Prayashchitta- a form of penance for wrongdoing
Prayashchitta (प्रायश्चित्) or penance is one of the major aspects of Hinduism. Penance in Hindu philosophy is derived from the law of karma (कर्म) that give rise to Punya ( पुण्य – good or meritorious deeds) and Paapa (पाप – evil or wrongdoing). The entire philosophy of reincarnation is an elaborate form of penance. The wrong doings of this life has to be paid for in the life after death. However, the wrong doing of this life can be mitigated through prayashchitta so that they are not carried forward in the next life. Fasting in Hinduism is one of the many ways to do prayashchitta. This can be a complete fasting or abstaining from certain foods.
It is believed that if one undergoes sufferings, his sins would lessen. It is something like punishing yourself by abstaining from food. So, if you punish yourself on your own, God will not punish you. To be away from ‘taapa’ (ताप – wrath), one must perform ‘tapa’ (तप – austerity). It can be understood as this- instead of getting punishments from the Almighty, punish yourself by the way of fasting. In this way, your sins get reduced and you would have better times in your next life.
Fasting in Hinduism, thus, holds great significance. Not only in terms of establishing control over one’s senses and thus over own life, but also in terms of seeking union with the Supreme divinity, the Supreme consciousness. Fasting in Hinduism is also one of the many forms of ‘Tapa’ (तप) and has been thus taken as a means of Moksha (मोक्ष) or salvation!