The practice of fasting is a major part of Hinduism and can range from light restriction to extreme abstention. The choice of days and the method of fasting are not imposed but depend on the community, the family or the individual.
As in many religions, fasting is also practised in Hinduism. In the Hindu religion, fasting is not an obligation, but a moral and spiritual act where the aim is to purify the body and mind and acquire divine grace. There are different forms of fasting which are more or less strict, more or less difficult to follow and which vary depending on personal, family and community beliefs.
In some cases, fasting involves abstaining from one meal in the day. However, fasting does not necessarily mean the body has to go without or suffer. Sometimes, it is sufficient to eliminate certain types of food and replace them by others, without restricting the quantity. Meat eaters, for example, may settle for a strictly vegetarian dish. Vegetarians, often eliminate rice, wheat, barley and lentils and replace them with potatoes. It is even possible to snack on sweets throughout the day. What is more, these restrictions can also be a way of varying the daily diet and trying new food. A day of fasting can even be a promise of treats. Modaks for example, sweet dumplings made from coconut and covered with rice flour, are prepared for certain days of fasting which involve worshipping the god Ganesh.
Fasting periods in Hinduism
Hinduism is marked by several periods of fasting. The most commonly-observed fast, Ekadashi, is respected approximately twice a month, on the eleventh day of each ascending and descending moon. The celebration at the beginning of the year, in honour of Shiva, is another important occasion. During the months of July and August, many Hindus adopt a vegetarian diet and fast on Mondays and Saturdays until the evening. Many Hindu women fast on Mondays in order to have a good husband.
Gandhi and fasting
Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), more commonly known as Mahatma (‘great soul’ in Sanskrit), played a key role in India’s attainment of independence while systematically using the principles of non-violence and civil disobedience. He was a fervent supporter of fasting by religious conviction and as a way of freeing oneself of the constraints of the body. However, he also used fasting as a means of exerting political pressure. He engaged in several hunger strikes to protest against the violence committed notably between Hindus, or between Hindus and Muslims.
Ramadan is not just about depriving oneself of food, it is also a matter of taste. During Ramadan, the day is devoted to asceticism, strictly forbidding eating, drinking and addictive or pleasurable pursuits. Night, however, is a time of conviviality and sharing with family and friends, where careful attention is paid to the purity of the food served in iftar and suhur, the two night-time meals.
Some love it while others loathe it. Historically, people have thought of meat as something special. Although for some it represents power and pleasure, for others it conjures up violence, suffering, environmental impact and even a health risk.
For a long time, Lent was a particularly strict period of the year, involving sexual abstinence, renunciation of meat and sometimes also of eggs and dairy products. It was a time for prayer and repentance. The practice of Lent is less significant today, but the idea of fasting has remained, both for religious reasons and from a secular perspective.