Fasting for Peace and Spirituality

Ravi P Bhatia PhD,  Professor (Rtd) Delhi University

Ravi P Bhatia, PhD

Dr Ravi P Bhatia is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, an educationist and peace researcher. Retired professor, Delhi University.

Why do people fast? People fast for religious reasons — to attain spiritual strength and peace or to cleanse their bodies. They also fast as a means of protest against injustice or wrong policies of the government in many parts of the world and in India.

Fasting is common among many religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Jainism etc. Christians generally fast on the occasion of Lent and the Holy Week. Most Hindus generally fast on Janamashtmi – the day when Lord Krishna was born. Some fast during the festival ofNavratras, a festival welcoming the arrival of Goddess Durga. Many others fast for one day in a week as a ritual on religious grounds. Of course there are many poor people in India and in some poor countries that do not get food and have to go hungry over a period of time. But this is not fasting.

Gandhi used to fast both for gaining spirituality and for political reasons to stop acts of injustice or violence. It is believed that Gandhi was inspired by his mother Putlibai who was a devout lady and would fast regularly for gaining peace and spiritual strength.

In the north eastern state of Manipur in India an activist Irom Sharmila had been (technically) fasting for almost 16 years to put pressure on the Indian government to remove an Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from her State. How could she survive her long ordeal? She was force fed a nutritious diet through  her   nose.

Recently in August 2016, Sharmila decided to call off her long fast and to adopt a direct political means to fight for the cause of her State.

Apart from political action, many activists used to fast for abolition of the Apartheid system and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa. In this regard, one may mention the name of Antonio C S Rosa (editor of TMS) himself, who in 1986 fasted for a month at the University of Hawaii, drinking only water during that period. He has also publicly fasted against nuclear weapons, when living in the USA.

As mentioned above, Gandhi fasted on several occasions both for political reasons and for gaining spiritual strength. Perhaps the first occasion that he went on a fast for political reasons was in 1918 in support of the striking mill workers in Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat. After India was bifurcated and a new nation of Pakistan was born in August 1947, there was a terrible period of Hindu-Muslim rioting and killings apart from migration of millions of people from one part of the country to another. He fasted for an end to communal violence and to restore peace. On a personal note my own family migrated from Lahore (that went to Pakistan) to Moga and Ferozepur (that remained with India) and faced serious trauma and a state of uncertainty before settling down.

Gandhi’s last fast was in January 1948 just a few days before he was assassinated, to restore Hindu-Muslim unity and communal peace. He also fasted for bringing about equality between the so called upper and lower castes of India. The lower caste peoples who were known as  untouchables but are now called Dalits suffered unspeakable injustice, exploitation and humiliation as brought out by the great Indian leader   Dr. B. R Ambedkar. Gandhi fasted for justice and equality for these deprived people whom he addressed as Harijans (children of God).

Why do some people, especially religious people fast – not eat for some period of time?  In Islam people fast during the month of Ramadan or Roza which falls before Eid (Eid al-Fitr). Here the month is a lunar month which is about 28 or 29 days long and varies from calendar year to year. The faithful fast — or not eat or drink anything during the daytime. They eat and drink water before the sun rises and only after the sun sets in a function that is called iftar. Since the month of fasting varies from year to year sometimes it falls during the summer months when one feels acutely thirsty but cannot drink even a spoonful of water. All adult Muslims are required to fast during this month – the only exceptions being people who are travelling or ill or women who are pregnant or breast feeding.

It is believed that Muslims fast to commemorate the revelation of Quran to Prophet Mohammad. During this period one should recite the Quran faithfully, help and be sympathetic to the poor and deprived people. One should also not commit any sin or crime during this period. After the month of Ramadan is over Muslims celebrate their fasting month by joyfully celebrating the festival of Eid al-Fitr.

As indicated earlier, many Jain faithful fast regularly. They also do not eat after the sun sets. There is also a ritual known as sallekhna where some people stop eating or drinking. They do so because they feel that they have lived enough and do not want to prolong their lives indefinitely. They also feel that this practice reduces the feeling of himsa (violence). One important Indian political leaderVinoba Bhave after a long and fruitful political life where he selflessly tried to help the poor peasants, decided to follow this practice. Some people have termed the practice of sallekhna as suicide which is legally not permitted in India. The matter went to the court and it was decided that this practice had a religious and spiritual basis and could not be termed as suicide.

Fasting as a political instrument or as a religious belief has been going on for centuries in the world. We must understand and sympathize with it and occasionally adopt it to cleanse our bodies.

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