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THE SPIRITUALITY OF FASTING

Bharatvarsha is famed for its rishis and mystics, who are equally famed for fasting as a form of sadhana. In the ancient past, some lived only on air, water and mantra japa for life. Today, many live only on one meal a day, while others live only on fruit. A grand old Ayurvedic physician and expert on darshan chikitsa – facial diagnosis – claimed that many mystics in the Himalayas lived for up to 300 years, eating only one meal of cooked barley (jav) and amla. Ancient Ayurvedic texts such as the Charak Samhita (Sutrasthan 22/34–35) and Ashtanghrudaya (Sutrasthan 14/16–17) cite various fasting methods to treat diseases.

FASTING IN THE ANCIENT WORLD

Fasting prevailed in ancient cultures and lands such as Egypt, Assyria, Scythia, Greece, Babylon, Persia, Nineveh, Palestine, Rome, China, among the Druids, Celts, Scandinavians, Indians of North America, and Aztecs and Incas of South America. Moses fasted for 120 days on Mount Sinai. Jesus fasted for 40 days. The Bible also cites fasting by the apostles. Muslims observe the month-long fast of Ramazan (Ramadan). In Jainism, fasting is an important form of sadhana.

FASTING IN HINDUISM

Hindus fast during religious observances, as well as for penance – prayashchitta. Important tithis of fasting include ekadashi, purnima, the anniversaries of avatars and deities, such as Maha Shivaratri, Ramnavmi, Swaminarayan Jayanti, Krishna Janmashtami, Sharad Purnima, Guru Purnima and others. During the holy for months of Chaturmas period, many fast during the month of Shravan. The type of fasts observed include ektana (one cooked meal daily), dharna-parna (food one day, fast next day), and several forms of chandrayan – based on the waxing and waning of the moon. The sages of yore advocated fasting during these four monsoon months for health reasons as well, since cloudy skies, humidity and water-logged countrysides dampened the digestive fire. Additionally, plants and vegetables are often rendered inedible due to infestation by insects. The initial surface water run-off would sweep pollutants into rivers and water bodies. Hence, it was prudent to avoid drinking such water until healthy water arrived later, to prevent waterborne diseases. Not surprisingly, the highest number of festivals which are celebrated by fasting occur during Chaturmas.
Hindus observe such vrats-upvases as a form of self-denial to accrue punya, by pleasing one’s ishtadeva. The time saved from cooking and eating is spent in bhakti such as singing bhajans, mantra japa, deva darshan and so forth. Fasting induces clarity of mind which aids mantra chanting, katha and smruti (recalling Bhagwan’s divine lila). Most importantly, fasting purifies the indriyas and antahkaran, which in turn strengthen the atma. Aspirants overcome dehabhav – body-consciousness – and develop control over the mind and the ten indriyas. The key indriya to be controlled, which affects other indriyas, is rasna – the sense of taste (Shikshapatri 189). In the Vachanamrut, Bhagwan Swaminarayan cites such control over the indriyas and mind in observing ekadashi (Gadhada II 8). He further says that the shastras consider this as the true ekadashi (Padma Puran, Uttarkand 38).

FASTING IN THE SWAMINARAYAN SAMPRADAYA

A few examples of fasting in the Swaminarayan Sampradaya are worth citing. At the age of eleven, Nilkanth Varni renounced Ayodhya for his Kalyan Yatra through Bharat. He reached Badrinath during Diwali (7 November 1792). The pujari offered him Annakut prasad. Nilkanth Varni then visited Mansarovar and returned to Badrinath on Akha Trij (13 May 1793), when the pujari offered him some food. Nilkanth Varni remarked, “This is my first morsel of food after you had offered me the Annakut prasad.” Hence, he had fasted for six months during this period. Even today, there is no human habitation in this region during winter, nor does any edible vegetation grow in the rocky, barren landscape.
The second remarkable fasting episode is of his second successor, Bhagatji Maharaj. With Aksharbrahman Gunatitanand Swami’s agna, he fasted for two days and then took only one meal on the third day for 3.5 years! That amounted to one meal every 72 hours. This vrat is now known as the ‘Bhagatji Vrat’.
Yogiji Maharaj, the fourth successor, used to fast about 8 to 10 times a month. During the late 50s and 60s, he routinely prescribed nirjala upvas to youths to develop them spiritually. Among them was Vinubhai (now, Param Pujya Mahant Swami Maharaj), to whom he often advocated two consecutive nirjala fasts. Once, in 1956, he even directed him to fast for five consecutive days!
BAPS sadhus usually observe, on average, five to seven fasts a month. Many devotees, young and old, observe nirjala ekadashi. During Shravan, devotees observe one of the following vrats: ektana, dharna-parna or chandrayan. Many also observe dharna-parna for months or even years as a vow until a shikharbaddha mandir is built in their city or region. This was the case for the mandir in Robbinsville.

PRAYASHCHITTA

Prayashchitta or atonement is an important spiritual discipline which lessens the burden of vasana resulting from any lapses in the observance of vows. It lightens the heart of the sincere aspirant. To subjugate lust, especially during one’s youth, Shriji Maharaj advocates dharna-parna and the various forms of chandrayan in the Satsangijivanam as prayashchitta. He once prescribed a month-long chandrayan to Premanand Swami for having halted momentarily in an alley in Surat to listen to a female singing in a nearby house.
Another vital discipline is ahimsa, especially by speech and action. For lapses in this vow, Shriji Maharaj advocated prayashchitta depending on the severity of the karmas as follows:
  1. Killing an insect, bug, etc. – one mala.
  2. Killing a mouse, rat, etc. – one upvas.
  3. Harsh speech, anger, mimicry, foul words – one upvas
  4. Injuring someone resulting in a swelling or laceration – four consecutive upvases.
  5. Breaking someone’s limb – parak vrat – a fast of 12 days (no food or water).
Such fasts of prayashchitta reflect Bhagwan Swaminarayan’s insistence on observing ahimsa in speech and physical karmas and the depth of discipline he expected from followers.
While scientists continue to eagerly pursue the secrets of health and longevity through fasting, an enigma remains: what should one do with the resulting health and longevity? Many millennia ago, the sages of Sanatan Dharma had already realized the answer: shariramãdyam khalu dharma sãdhanam – to observe dharma to attain Paramatma. Aware of man’s innate psyche, that he would not readily shun culinary pleasures, they interweaved religious practices such as fasting in festivals, vrats and bhakti rituals at regular intervals throughout the year. Thus, people happily observe fasts as part of the festival celebratons. This serves two purposes – helps to control one’s gluttony, which benefits one’s physical health, and simultaneously divert the indriyas, mind and antahkaran towards the bhakti of Paramatma. Such bhakti sadhana would hasten one’s spiritual progress towards moksha. Without dharma and bhakti, one would be entrenched deeper in the quicksands of samsara. Though the wise rishis remain happy with the scientists’ health phrases cited earlier, they are compelled to add two words: eat less, live healthily – for moksha.

BREAKING A FAST (PARNA)

During the fast, the digestive agni is dampened. It needs to be rekindled gradually. Consuming heavy foods and fluids is dangerous. These may cause indigestion, cramping, sour belching, acidity, vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation. Hence, experts advise great caution when breaking a fast.

SUGGESTED METHOD

  1. Take a glassful of lukewarm water (200 ml), add half a lemon, a pinch of rock salt (sindhav), roasted cumin powder or a few drops of fresh ginger juice. Sip a mouthful. Swish it inside the mouth 8 to 10 times. Then swallow gradually. In this manner, drink a whole glassful. If need to drink more, then have another half a glassful.
  2. Then, either take a walk or do some house chores. About an hour later repeat the above to drink about 1 to 2 glassfuls more.
  3. One hour later, have a light meal of just mungdal khichdi. Mung is lighter to digest than tuwer dal.
  4. If one wishes to sweeten the juice, use an artificial sweetener of stevia. Avoid sugar, honey, jaggery, fresh or packaged fruit juices. All sugars contain varying proportions of fructose and glucose. Excess fructose in the body is converted into fat and uric acid. Due to the way that fructose is metabolized, eating foods that contain it leaves one still feeling hungry, which can lead to overeating. This ruins all the benefits of fasting. Moreover, a fast also produces uric acid in the body, which needs to be excreted. Hence, the above method of drinking several glasses of lemon water is ideal.
  5. Those who do dharna-parna for a month or longer should be extremely cautious in taking sugars, dairy products and flour products during the period of the vrat since these may lead to hyperuricaemia (and gout) which creates a host of problems. Hence, fasting only on juices, as many do during Shravan or even Chaturmas, is inadvisable.“Our studies raise serious concerns for the common practice among adolescents and young adults, to drink soft drinks as a means to quench thirst following an episode of dehydration.” 
  6. Avoid yogurt for parna. Being vishtambhi and abhishyandi, it is constipative and heavy to digest. Ideally, on the day of parna, it is more desirable to flush wastes and dried stools from the gut rather than curtail stool motion.
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