"Hindu Dharma or Sanatan Dharma” is nothing but living a spiritual way of life. Fasting is a common practice to many faiths like Sikh, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism but fasting is an integral aspect of Hindu Dharma. Individuals observe different kinds of fasts based on age-old traditions or personal beliefs. The practice of fasting is as old as Santana Dharma, which is the world’s oldest living faith.
Fasting means a wilful detachment from eating for a particular period of time. Hindu scriptures describe the rationale and methods of fasting. Our Puranas and Holy textbooks narrate innumerable stories and their positive spiritual benefits of observing fast. But as per search science/ medical science fasting brings a whole lot of mental and physical benefits to a person.
Why do Hindus fast?
According to the scriptures, fasting helps create a blissful bonding between “individual spirit” and “The Supreme Spirit – The God”. The aim of observing fast is to purify the body and mind to acquire divine grace. For the last thousand years, most Hindus celebrate fasting.
• To develop God-awareness or become closer to God.
• To purify the mind and body.
• To celebrate rituals or religious festivals.
• To boost stamina and to nourish physical health for long life.
• To train the mind and to strengthen the body to endure and to face difficulties and not to give up.
Religious/Spiritual significance :
Fasting is an integral part of Hinduism. Hindus believe that it is difficult to pursue the path of spirituality in one's daily life as the Jivatama (individual soul) is attracted and attached to worldly desires. Therefore, a worshiper must practice or impose certain restraints on himself/herself to bring the unfocused mind under control, and fasting is one of such restrain.
• It is a spiritual act with the aim to acquire divine grace.
• It purifies the mind and prepares the body for austerities.
• Fasting is an act of sacrifice, in which a devotee sacrifices food and hunger to God as a mark of faith and devotion.
• It is a penance for Hindus, as it provides an opportunity to escape from sins.
• According to Mahabharata- The mighty warrior Bheeshma advises Yudhishthira (in section 103) .... there is no penance that is superior to abstention from food, "do thou practice this vow (of fasting) of very superior merit that is not known to all."
• Manuscripts and voluminous historical literature related to Hinduism describes fasting is a form of “Tapasya”, as it helps us to control our senses, and sense control is very essential in becoming God-conscious. If our senses are out of control than the fluctuating mind won't be able to develop sattva-guna (one-pointed focused mind), which is required for steady spiritual progress.
• According to Shrimad Bhagavatam (SB- 12:12:60), who hears this Bhagavatam on the Ekadasi or Dvadasi day is assured of long life and one who recites it with careful attention while fasting, purifies all sinful reactions.
• Citizens fasting for just one day in a month can save a country tons of food, which is helpful for the needy people to alleviate their distress.
Scientific significance :
• Ayurveda, the ancient Indian medical system explains, the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system is the main cause of developing many diseases in our body. By fasting, the digestive organs get rest and our body cleans and corrects the ongoing process on its own. A complete fast for a day is extremely good for health.
• According to medical research, intermittent fasting is good for people with type 2 diabetes as it increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin and improves the metabolic rate by absorbing an adequate amount of blood sugar.
• According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports, heart diseases are the leading cause of death around the world. Naturopathy, another oldest treatment system explains, incorporating fasting into one’s routine life is highly effective to reduce the risk of heart ailments.
• Fasting increases anti-aging processes in the body and extends longevity. Several studies have found promising results that fasting can increase levels of human growth hormone (HGH), metabolism, weight loss, and muscle strength which are vital for long life.
Fasting is extremely beneficial for cancer patients as it controls and eliminates cancer cells in the body. Fasting brings good benefits to the human body. Japanese scientist Dr. Yoshinori Oshsumi’s Nobel prize-winning work on autophagy explains- how fasting can eat damaged/dead cells and keeps the body in good condition.
Autophagy is a crucial process that requires 12 to 36 hours of complete fasting. When the body is in a fast mode, cells break down old and junky proteins and reuse them for energy. This condition allows for autophagy – healthier cells of our body eat out unnecessary or dysfunctional components in order to regenerate newer cells. This magical process helps to prevent or cure cancer, chronic disorders, and infectious diseases. The actual meaning of autophagy is “self-devouring”, because, “auto” means self and “phagy” means eat.
Types of Fasting :
Hindus all over India observes fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the lunar cycle) and during some festivals like Navaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Janmashtami, Shivratri, and Karwa Chauth.
• Some people go for intermittent fasting by skipping a meal during day or night times, as per the tradition.
• Another common kind of fasting known as phalahar which means to eat fruits during the day time (before sunset) and skipping the night meal.
• According to Vedic tradition and personal beliefs, some devotees celebrate waterless fasting for few days in a year, like “Nirjala Ekadasi” and “Maha Shivaratri” etc.
Fasting is good for the upliftment of spiritual, mental, physical, and emotional strength. Since Vedic times, Hindus are observing fast as per their faith and tradition as well as for their spiritual growth.
According to different spiritual doctrines and scientific research, fasting is not only a part of worship but also a great instrument for self-discipline and healthy life.
Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.12.23) explains - "When because of disease or old age one is unable to perform his prescribed duties for advancement in spiritual consciousness or study of the Vedas, he should practice fasting, not taking any food."
Though fasting drives many benefits to a person, prolonged fasting is not a recommended practice for the householders, who have a number of other duties to perform in their day-to-day life. So, if you want to fast, you may have to understand your body's tolerance capacity or make such decisions after consulting your physician.