Profound Meaning of Fasting: Spiritual and Religious Perspectives
Fasting or Spiritual Fasting or Religious Fasting, a practice woven into the fabric of numerous cultures and religions worldwide, isn’t merely a physical act of self-denial. Instead, it’s an intensely spiritual endeavor, encapsulating the profound meaning of Fasting and insights. Unveiling the layers of this age-old ritual can illuminate the path to self-discovery and spiritual enlightenment. Unraveling the Deeper Essence of Fasting: Spiritual and Religious Perspectives
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The Journey Towards Understanding the Profound Meaning of Fasting
Within the rich tapestry of ancient Indian scriptures penned by Sage Ved Vyasa, there exists an enlightening story involving Lord Krishna, Rukmini, and Sage Durvasa. The tale, deeply layered with wisdom and spiritual insights, unfolds on the serene banks of the Yamuna River.
As Lord Krishna and Rukmini were basking in tranquillity, they were informed of Sage Durvasa’s presence nearby. Immediately, Lord Krishna instructed Rukmini to prepare a meal. This initiation of service led Rukmini on a profound journey of realization, where she discovered the true meaning of fasting beyond physical abstinence.
Unraveling the Essence of Spiritual Fasting
Caught in a sudden flood in the Yamuna, Rukmini had no means to deliver the prepared food to Sage Durvasa. Upon Lord Krishna’s advice, Rukmini sought assistance from the river herself. He instructed her to appeal to Yamuna by invoking the name of the “eternal celibate,” referring to himself. Rukmini, having seen Krishna’s myriad relationships, found the title amusing, but followed his instruction. To her surprise, the river provided her a safe passage.
Upon returning, Rukmini once again faced the flooded river. This time, Sage Durvasa, notorious for his quick temper, asked Rukmini to invoke the “eternal faster,” referring to himself. Despite knowing Durvasa’s indulgence in the meal she prepared, Rukmini faithfully followed his words. Again, the river receded, allowing her safe passage.
This tale, brimming with metaphoric wisdom, paves the path to the meaning of fasting in spiritual contexts. It illuminates the concept of fasting beyond the mere absence of food, leading us to a deeper, spiritual interpretation. The essence of fasting lies in one’s journey towards achieving divine union with the Supreme Being.
Varaha Upanishad succinctly encapsulates this sentiment:
“उप समीपे यो वासो जीवात्मपरमात्मयोः ।
उपवासः स विज्ञेयो न तु कायस्य शोषणम् ॥
– वराह उपनिषद्”
Interpreted as, “Fasting is to sit close to one’s individual soul and the Supreme Soul, rather than starving the body or causing it distress.”
Fasting is thus a spiritual quest, a conscious effort to harmonize one’s soul with the universal consciousness or the Supreme Being. It echoes the wisdom echoed in scriptures: “as above, so below.”
As Adi Shankaracharya astutely observed, “Brahman is the truth, the world is illusion, the soul is none other than Brahman” (श्लोकार्धेन प्रवाक्ष्यामि यदुफ्तम ग्रन्थकोटिभिः ।
ब्रह्म सत्यं जगनिमथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः ॥ – आदि शंकराचार्यजी). Hence, mindfulness and meditation are the true essences of fasting.
The term “upavas,” used in many Indian languages for fasting, combines “up,” meaning “above” or “higher,” and “vas,” meaning “to dwell.” Fasting thus implies “dwelling above” or transcending the mundane, aspiring towards the infinite within oneself.
This quest is not about deprivation but about keeping the body energetic through sattvic (pure) food, thus fostering a peaceful mind. While dietary restrictions are part of the fasting process, the focus remains on turning inward, maintaining mindfulness, and staying in a meditative state.
Lastly, fasting also entails ‘dwelling’ with those who guide us towards knowledge, our mentors or gurus, suggesting that seeking knowledge can be a form of fasting too.
Remember, when you embark on a fast, the emphasis shouldn’t be on what you refrain from consuming, but on whom you spend your time with, the state of your mind, and the journey of the soul. Fasting is not merely a ritual; it’s a journey of self-discovery and union with the divine.
Religious Fasting: A Global Perspective
In understanding the Meaning of Fasting, it’s critical to approach it from both spiritual and religious perspectives.
Spiritual Fasting is an essential tool in many religious and spiritual traditions around the world. It’s a practice not of deprivation but of dedication, of not just self-denial but of self-realization. It is about reaching a state of mindfulness where you are fully present, free from distractions, and able to connect with your higher self.
In Buddhism, for example, fasting is considered a way to cleanse the body and mind. It is thought to rid the body of toxins and negative thoughts, leading to clearer thinking, heightened consciousness, and improved spiritual health.
The Meaning of Fasting in Christianity is also noteworthy. During Lent, a 40-day period leading up to Easter, many Christians fast or give up certain foods or pleasures. This is seen as a form of penance, reminding them of the sacrifices made by Jesus Christ. But the purpose is not just to remember the past. Fasting is also about the present and the future – about becoming more aware of one’s blessings and developing a greater sense of empathy for those in need.
Religious Fasting in Islam, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan, also carries profound significance. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, refraining from eating, drinking, and other physical needs. It’s a time of purification, of spiritual growth, and a renewed focus on devotion to Allah. It’s an opportunity to cultivate patience, humility, and a spirit of gratitude.
Hinduism, too, has a deep understanding of the Meaning of Fasting. Hindus fast on various occasions, either to honor specific deities or as a form of penance. Fasting in Hinduism is not merely about abstaining from food but engaging in spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, and chanting.
Fasting, therefore, in its profoundest sense, is not just a physical act. It’s a deeply spiritual practice, a way of aligning our body, mind, and soul. It helps us transcend our physical needs and desires, to connect with a higher power, and gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and our place in the world.
In all these diverse forms of Religious Fasting, the common thread is the desire for spiritual growth, self-discipline, and a closer connection with the Divine. And these principles are not limited to religious contexts. Whether one is religious or not, the discipline, mindfulness, and self-reflection that come with fasting can be deeply transformative, helping us lead richer, more mindful, and more compassionate lives.
When we explore the Meaning of Fasting, we realize that it is not about depriving ourselves, but about enriching ourselves, not about losing but about gaining – gaining wisdom, gaining perspective, and gaining a closer connection with our spiritual selves. In that sense, fasting is a journey, a journey from the outer world of distraction and desire to the inner world of peace and realization. It is a journey we are all invited to embark on, a journey towards our highest and truest selves.
Let’s remember the profound significance and the deep spiritual dimensions of fasting, as we navigate our paths towards spiritual growth and self-realization.
As a beautiful verse I once encountered beautifully puts it:
“परमात्मा शब्द नही जो तुम्हें किताब में मिलेगा,
परमात्मा मूर्ति नही जो तुम्हें मंदिर में मिलेगी ,
परमात्मा इन्सान नही जो तुम्हें समाज में मिलेंगे ,
परमात्मा तुम स्वयं हो, वो तुम्हें अपने भीतर ही मिलेगा ।”
“God, not a word found in books,
Nor a deity discovered in temple nooks,
Not a human being found in society’s fold,
God , it is yourself, within you, behold.”
There are many instances and stories about fasting in Hindu scriptures. One such story is the tale of King Harishchandra from the Mahabharata.
Cultural Insights into the Meaning of Fasting
King Harishchandra was known for his unwavering adherence to truth and righteousness. His commitment to these values was tested by the sage Vishwamitra, who subjected him to severe trials. Harishchandra, along with his wife and son, was eventually forced to leave his kingdom and live in poverty.
Despite these hardships, Harishchandra continued to uphold his principles. During these difficult times, the king and his family undertook strict fasting and prayed to the Gods, hoping for their situation to improve. Fasting was seen as a means of purifying their minds, reinforcing their resolve, and manifesting their devotion to the Gods.
Impressed by his steadfastness and integrity, the Gods ultimately restored Harishchandra’s status and returned his kingdom. The story of King Harishchandra is often cited as an illustration of the power and significance of fasting in Hinduism.
In a broader sense, fasting is considered in Hinduism as a method of controlling the senses and mind and aiding in the attainment of spiritual insight. Different types of fasts are observed depending on the deity being worshipped, the devotee’s personal spiritual goals, and the specific traditions followed.
For instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna the correct and incorrect ways of fasting. He emphasizes that fasting should not be undertaken for showing off one’s piety or inflicting self-harm, but rather for the attainment of spiritual clarity and self-discipline.
In this context, the Meaning of Fasting in Hinduism is as a tool for spiritual upliftment, self-restraint, and a path towards understanding the divine.
May peace be with you. Shubham Bhavatu.