The practice of fasting has entered popular culture in recent years as a way to shed extra pounds. Featured in the bestselling book “The Fast Diet”, he advocates eating normally on certain days of the week while drastically reducing calories on the remaining days.
Fasting has been shown to improve metabolism, prevent or slow disease, and possibly increase lifespan.
But the practice is far from new. All over the world, the pious have been fasting for millennia. As a religious scholar, I maintain that there is much to be learned from religious fasting, an embodied practice, which means that it connects body and soul.
Fasting in Islam and Jainism
Fasting is intrinsic to the two traditions I study – Islam and Jainism. Jainism is an ancient religion of India which espouses, among other things, non-violence, non-possession and pluralism.
In Islam, fasting is one of the five pillars that make up the main beliefs and actions of a practicing Muslim. As part of this practice, Muslims refrain from food, water, tobacco, sex, and all sensory pleasures from dawn to dusk during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is a divine command in the Koran and illustrated in the life of the Prophet Muhammad.
Basically, fasting is about gaining human pride in order to connect with God. Indeed, the term Islam itself means submission to God in Arabic. Muslims believe that fasting develops submission to God, empathy with the poor and repentance, and provides time for spiritual introspection. According to the 12th century theologian al-Ghazali, fasting can enable the believer to better perceive the ultimate reality of God because it involves all five senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.
The Jain tradition offers a different perspective on fasting than that of Islam. Fasting comes under tapas or asceticism, which also varies according to the degree between laity and monastics.
Jain fasting involves avoiding food completely or eating only a partial meal, eliminating scarce or expensive foods, and avoiding sexual temptations. The Feast of Paryushan, observed annually between August and September, is when Jains connect together on the fundamentals of the faith through fasting and study.
For eight to ten days, Jains focus on the values of forgiveness, humility, righteousness, truth, contentment, restraint, penance, renunciation, non-attachment, and celibacy. Fasting is also possible throughout the year by individuals, but this celebration is the common adoption of fasting across sects.
Religious fasting is meant to shock the body from its routines. The individual physically enters sacred time. According to the Romanian historian of 20th century religion Mircea Eliade, sacred time is outside ordinary time and fasting is one way of entering it. During this time, normal activities are disrupted, so that an individual’s thoughts become more in tune with metaphysics. Physical needs and desires give way to spiritual reflection and contemplation of the world to come.
In most religions, fasting is associated with an introspection of one’s life – the past, present and future. This reflection can make one more aware of one’s own actions internally and externally, of the impact on oneself and on society.
Traditionally, fasting has been combined with prayer and meditation to further develop these goals. The annual fasting cycles in most religious traditions are also believed to be cumulative over a lifetime; the hope is that every year his character becomes a little better and wiser than the year before.
This refinement of an individual’s character over the course of a lifetime is most easily visualized through Chinese religious traditions, which include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The spiritual benefits of fasting are said to accumulate over time, leading to a type of wisdom Confucians call ren, loosely translating as humanity, humanity, kindness, benevolence, or love.
Taoism also adds another dimension to the understanding of fasting in Jain and Islamic traditions through the idea of “heart-mind fasting”.
This means that it is not only the body that undergoes detoxification, but it also detoxifies the soul as people learn to control their five senses while fasting.
As religions show, fasting is more than the negation of the body. Physical deprivation of food – to a healthy extent – can allow the mind to enter new states of consciousness and understanding. By recognizing this, secular fasters, I support, can tap into his joy, discover new ways of being and maintain this physical discipline throughout their lives as their religious brethren have done for millennia.
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