Fasting and Religions
Fasting has a long tradition in many cultures and religions. But did you know that fasting is actually older than mankind itself? Since the beginning of their existence, animals had to temporarily abstain from food. This can be for a few hours, over days, or even up to a whole winter. Animals, like humans, were and are dependent on food. If the food supply is short or non-existent, for example over the winter months, they simply have to fast. A similar situation presented itself to the first humans. If there was nothing to collect or the hunt was not successful, people were forced to take breaks in their food intake.
Legend has it, that the first primitive peoples as well as first advanced civilizations, such as the Greeks or Egyptians, already consciously practiced the abstinence of certain foods. With the aim to sharpen the senses and improve their health.
Theologian Niklaus Brantschen is worth mentioning here: "Us clergymen can let ourselves be inspired by medicine how to fast in a healthy way - and the doctors can learn from us that fasting also has a spiritual and socio-political dimension, and how these dimensions can be developed and lived in modern times".
Fasting does not only stand for foregoing your food. Meditation, prayers, strong will, helping others: All this can be an important element of the fasting dynamic.
Fasting has been an integral part in many religions. People fasted to repent or to be closer to their God. In some cultures and religions, fasting was considered virtuous. It was supposed to free people from compulsion.
Which religions still practice fasting today, and where are the differences?
Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Copts, Bahai, Orthodox – you may be unfamiliar with some of these religious groups. They all have one thing in common: Fasting.
Over 4000 years ago, Hindus, for example, renounced food on certain days of the year. 2,500 years ago, Buddha was in favour of neither hunger nor gluttony, and recommended to fast one day a month, as well as no food after noon as a daily rule. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is initially mentioned in the first part of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah. It is considered the origin of fasting and probably goes back to the year 539 BC.
In the 2nd century A.D., many Christians fasted for 2 days at Easter to prepare themselves for the coming feast. It is common knowledge that Muslims fast during Ramadan. Ramadan has its origin in the year 624, one year after Mohammed emigrated to Medina and joined the Ashura festival of the Jews, living there with his followers. The Jews celebrated the Ashura feast on the Day of Atonement, and fasted here from sunset to sunset of the next day.
These are only glimpses into the fasting traditions of some religions. However, it drives the point home that fasting has a long tradition in many religions.
Fasting in Buddhism and Hinduism
There are no fixed rules of fasting in either Hinduism or Buddhism. Abstinence and reduced food intake is a preparation for meditation, because less food intake can pave the way to inner peace and enlightenment when meditating. Among other things, it is about overcoming causes of suffering, such as for example egoism. In general, Buddha taught the path of the healthy middle - neither gluttony nor complete renunciation of food unites his teachings. Buddhist monks and nuns therefore fast in their own way: As of twelve o'clock at noon, there is no more food - a traditional form of intermittent fasting.
In Buddhism, their highest holiday is a fasting day, the so-called Vesakh festival. It is an addition to their monthly fasting days and celebrated on the first day of full moon in May or June. Buddhists all over the world celebrate the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha. Many people fast to Vesakh and dress completely in white. Sex, alcohol and meat are taboo on this day.
Hindus also fast, but not at fixed times. Similar to Buddhism, it is about going beyond earthly matters, like pain and suffering, but also to regain enlightenment. For Mahatma Gandhi, however, fasting was a means of non-violent political protest, in the form of a hunger strike.
Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent for Christians. Until Easter they renounce for 40 days in order to get closer to God and to find peace in themselves. This tradition goes back to a biblical story in which Jesus retreats into the desert for 40 days and fasts. However, Wednesday and Friday also have a fasting tradition in Christianity. Wednesdays were fasting because Judas betrayed Jesus on a Wednesday. Fridays remind us of the crucifixion of Jesus. But this tradition was largely lost. Habitually though, many Christians still abstain from meat on Fridays, in memory of Jesus Christ.
The Advent season was also marked by fasting. It served as a preparation for Christmas but plays a rather subordinate role these days.
The 40 days leading up to Easter, however, is experiencing a new upswing. Many believing Christians, but also non-practising Christians, use this time to free themselves from vices. This includes, among other things, to forego meat, cigarettes, sweets or alcohol. Fasting also stands for a more conscious live.
The most important fasting day of the Jews is Yom Kippur - the day of reconciliation. On this day, Jews all over the world "never fast for more than 25 hours in a row". On Yom Kippur, no eating, drinking, smoking or sex. In addition, no washing nor work - the body is washed of all sins by the atonement on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is therefore not "just" about renunciation, but above all about making amends for injustice and coming to terms with yourself, your fellow human beings and God.
One of 5 further fasting days is Tisha B’Av. Next to Yom Kippur, it is the most important fasting day in the Jewish calendar. On this day, Jews forego food and water in memory of significant events in Jewish history.
For Muslims, fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam and therefor a divine command. The date of Ramadan changes annually as it is based on the Islamic lunar year, with Ramadan taking place in the 9th month of it. During summer it can be particularly challenging for those who live in very hot regions. Making sacrifices is a vital part of Ramadan, and is associated with repentance. The soul is cleansed and the relationship with God strengthened. Pregnant women, sick people and children are excluded from fasting in Islam. For those who are not should to fast, however, it is important to help the poor by for example giving alms.
During Ramadan, Muslims do not eat, drink or smoke. It lasts for 30 days, between sunrise and sunset. The breaking of the fast in the evening takes place in larger groups. It strengthens communities and brings Muslims together in their everyday lives. Hospitality and alms for the poor are particularly important during Ramadan.
Fasting - for the sake of your health
Fasting has many forms and traditions. When it comes to health, fasting is THE keyword. The first fasting clinics with therapeutic fasting programs were established during the 1920s. 100 years onwards, fasting is more relevant than ever before.
With regard to health - and ignoring any religious or spiritual aspects - therapeutic fasting is about cleansing the body through food deprivation. The pioneer on this subject was the German medical doctor Otto Buchinger. Under his supervision, he allowed patients to fast for up to three weeks with only 250 calories worth of food per day, in form of fruit and vegetable juices.
Fasting happens in the body. This physical process and our ability to fast has secured our species to this day. Fasting was imposed on people: They were forced into hunger and want in times of war, bad crops, natural disasters and epidemics.
In the natural world, fasting takes place during the winter months. Equally, the animal kingdom shows all forms of astonishing fasting processes: Sleep during hibernation, migratory birds cover considerable distances without eating, penguins fast up to 6 months per year at temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees - in order to lay eggs and go into moult during this time. To name but a few remarkable examples.
Voluntary fasting, in comparison to inflicted hunger periods, brings physical and psychological changes and the opportunity to turn inwards. For this reason, periods of fasting were ritualized by almost all regions to deepen prayer and define liturgical periods during the year.
The Renaissance of Medical Fasting
In the US, it was medical doctors like Henri Tanner who made headlines in New York with a 442 day fasting program. In his opinion sick people with feverish infections should not be overfed: The digestive processes would deprive the healing process of too much "vital energy".
Dr. Dewey He rejected the conventional medicine of his time and focused on the therapeutic effects of fasting, leading numerous fasting programs between 1878 and 1905. His influence on his colleagues in France and Switzerland, however, was just as great as that in the US. Herbert Shelton, not a doctor himself, was a member of a reform movement called "Natural Hygiene". This was further developed into the widely known and successful concept of "Fit for Life".
Alliance of science and religion
The origins of fasting go back thousands of years and were subject to strict rules at the time. With modern medical knowledge and the gradual relaxation of religious doctrines, fasting today successfully combines free spirit and strong will power. True to Niklaus Brant's "Fasting is dead, long live fasting."
People remember their roots, and increasingly practise mindfulness and voluntarily sacrifice for certain period of time. An important and rewarding step towards a healthier and more mindful world.