Fasting is observed by followers of all religions. But Hindu fasting is stricter than other fasting. Muslim fasting during Ramadan month is known to many. They fast between sunrise and sunset. Hindu fasting has no strict rules. But most of them starve from dawn to dusk. They don’t eat any cooked food in the morning. They have milk and fruits in the day time. Nowadays coffee and tea have replaced milk which has no religious sanction. Some people don’t take anything other than water. This is very different from Muslim and Christian fasting.
Even the Hindus who normally eat non-vegetarian dishes avoid such food during fasting days. They avoid garlic and onion as well. Though Hindus fast on different days of the week to worship different gods and goddesses, Ekadasi fasting is common for all the Hindus. Ekadasi means the 11th day. It comes twice a month: 11th day from the new moon and 11th day from the full moon. Another famous fasting is Sankata Hara Chathurthy i.e. fourth day after the full moon. Hindus fast themselves till moonrise. They eat after seeing the crescent moon. (Full Moon= Pournami; New Moon= Amavasya in Sanskrit)
Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi used fasting as a political weapon.
Shaivaite Hindus fast on Pradosham, Shivaratri and Skanda Shasti. Sri Lankan Tamils observe Skanda Shasti nearer to Deepavali. Orthodox Tamil Hindus survive with just water and milk and fruits for a week! Every Hindu festival such as Navaratri, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Kartikai Vratham, Pradosham goes with fasting.
Ayyappa devotees/Bhaktas fast for forty days during the month of Karthikai with meagre meals. Generally speaking, Hindu fasting means skipping the big meal of the day and sticking to light food during the night.
Ekadasi fasting and other fasting have got mythological stories behind them; there are many benefits when you observe fasting.
1. Skipping a meal and starving makes us think about the poor people who struggle to have one square meal a day.
2. Keeping the stomach empty once a week or once a fortnight helps us to clean the system. To nullify the acidity developed during fasting, Hindus eat certain types of spinach (greens) the next day after fasting. Agati grandiflora or Sesbania grandiflora (Agati Keerai in Tamil and Agasti in Sanskrit) is the most common greens used after fasting.
3. Religious heads like Kanchi Shankaracharya asked his disciples to donate one meal a week to the poor. During the Chinese aggression and Pakistan war, Indians skipped one meal and donated the food grains to the nation.
4. Fasting for religious reasons makes us think about God throughout the fasting period.
5. Fasting purifies the mind and body. It strengthens one’s conviction. It teaches you self control.
6. We take our food for granted. Only after fasting we realize the value of food. We show more respect for food and avoid wastage.
Strange facts about fasting
Chandrayana fasting is observed by orthodox Hindus. Those who observe this type of fasting, reduce food day by day from full moon to new moon and increase it day by day from new moon to full moon. Whatever you eat normally is the basic food from which you reduce.
Andal, the famous Tamil Vaishnavite woman saint, says in her poem Thiruppavai: “ girls avoid butter and milk; girls don’t put makeups on those days; they don’t decorate their hair with flowers and they don’t tie their hair i.e. avoid hairdo, etc. they do avoid gossips, but think only about god. In short, it is a step towards god. No Hindu eats nonvegetarian food during fasting.
Milk is used by all the saints and temples. It is not considered non-vegetarian. The vegan concept is unknown to ancient Indians. But Hindus make sure that only spare milk is used by the people after calves feeding. In western countries, they don’t do it, but kill the cows for beef.
Mahabharata has many stories that illustrate the glories of fasting. A seer by name Mudkalar used to eat only on full moon day and new moon day. His family members also followed him. A guest came to them every time they were about to break fasting. But Mudkalar never hesitated to entertain him by giving their food. When it happened for the fifth time, the guest revealed his real form and blessed them. He was God of Dharma himself. Many folk tales also explain the merits of fasting and inspire everyone. Hindu Women are keener observing fasting than men. Hindus have hundreds of types of fasting.
Famous Tamil speaker Krupananda Variar observed fasting on Shasti (the sixth day from a full moon) and Kartikai star day every month. He took either milk during the day or only one meal.
My Gujarati friends who do manual work in the building industry takes only one banana during day time on fasting days. My brother’s family members don’t eat during day time on Sankata Hara Chaturthi days. My wife fasts on Tuesdays. Hinduism is very catholic and it allows individuals to alter fasting according to their faith or rules stipulated by their Gurus. Hare Krishna Movement (ISKCON) followers observe Ekadasi fasting.
BBC reported in August 2012
“Scientists are uncovering evidence that short periods of fasting if properly controlled, could achieve a number of health benefits, as well as potentially helping the overweight. One area of current research into diet is Alternate Day fasting (ADF), involving eating what you want one day, then a very restricted diet (fewer than 600 calories) the next, and most surprisingly, it does not seem to matter that much what you eat on non-fast days. Dr. Krista Varady of the University of Illinois at Chicago carried out an eight-week trial comparing two groups of overweight patients on ADF”.