The French word for fasting, jeûne, comes from the Latin verb jejunare, meaning abstinence, not eating as an act of penitence. In the figurative sense, fasting means depriving oneself of all enjoyment. In its commonly understood meaning, fasting is used in the sense of deliberately not eating, depriving oneself of food. Over the course of history, many populations have practised fasting for therapeutic and spiritual reasons, for example the people of Ancient China and Siberia, the Amerindians, the Polynesians and the Celts. In Ancient Greece, fasting was meant to prepare athletes’ bodies for physical training ahead of the Olympic Games. It was also a means of developing intelligence and perspicacity; Pythagoras, for instance, fasted for 40 days before his exams at the famous Alexandria School. Pythagoras noticed such an increase in lucidity and physical strength that he later prescribed fasting to his pupils.
A few centuries later, the major religions also imposed annual fasts, such as Lent for Catholics and Ramadan for Muslims, during which the faithful deprived themselves of certain kinds of food. However, over the centuries, these fasts lost their value and evolved into Catholics abstaining from eating meat on Fridays and a prohibition on eating during the daytime for Muslims. Beyond religious fasting, the ‘spring fast’ has prevailed among certain populations in the world, such as among the Hunzas in the upper valleys of the Himalayas in North India. This period of fasting is a way for them to prepare for a new phase of existence.
Taken to the extreme, some people even claim to practise a form of long-term fasting known as inedia. In the Middle Ages, inedia was valued by the Church as a spiritual performance and a criterion for canonisation. Some sadhus in India and Tibetan Buddhists are still thought to practise inedia. Others, such as breatharians, inspired by the New Age movement, assert that they are able to live on air and sunlight alone. However, this movement is contested by anti-cult organisations around the world, which deem it a danger to health that can even prove fatal, having caused the death of a number of people around the world.
As well as these health and spiritual aspects, fasting may be a form of aggression. In ancient Japan, fasting against an enemy was a way of tarnishing their honour. Fasting can also be used to hold someone to ransom. In India, a creditor could fast in front of their debtor until their debt was honoured. Fasting may also be a way of applying moral pressure on an authority for a specific cause. Gandhi is a 20th-century example. He went on hunger strike 17 times to fight against the racial and political discrimination inflicted on the Indians by the English. Fasting may also be a way of showing solidarity and compassion towards a population in distress, for example a nation affected by a natural disaster such as an earthquake or tsunami.