Hinduism - Rules for Fasting

Eating Food

by Jayaram V

Question: What can you eat when you are fasting? What are the rules, customs and manners associated with fasting in Hinduism?

Technically, if you are a householder, prolonged fasting is not a recommended practice because when you fast, you starve the deities in you, and they are not pleased by it. Fasting is a way of life for the ascetics, but not for the householders, who have duties to perform every day with the help of the gods in them. Jayaram V

Fasting is a very common and ancient form of austerity in Hinduism. It is usually done in Hinduism to show your sincerity and resolve or express your gratitude. The gods in your body are not pleased if you starve yourself for long. Therefore, when you fast, you have to keep your body's wellbeing in mind.

There are no fixed rules for fasting in contemporary Hinduism unless you are performing a particular Vedic sacrifice or a traditional ritual, in which case you have to follow the scriptures and the long-established traditions.

On such occasions, you will usually be guided by the priest who officiates the ceremony or your spiritual guru, who may have advised you to perform it. The fasting may be either complete or partial. For example, in some Vedic ceremonies, the worshippers are allowed to drink only milk and water.

The tradition of fasting for religious or spiritual purposes is integral to Vedic tradition. In the Vedic period, householders practiced fasting on various occasions as part of their ritual practices. However, the renunciants (sanyasis) who gave up worldly life practiced it as a way of life and as a part of their effort to give up their bodies.

Fasting in Hinduism is a declaration of faith and resolve and a way to build character, strength, and purity as part of one’s preparation for liberation. It is also helpful to restrain the mind and the senses and practice detachment, austerity, and self-control.

The Hindu Law Books, such as the Manusmriti, prescribe elaborate rules and procedures for both men and women to practice fasting on specific occasions. They also consider fasting a meritorious deed or good karma. According to Manu, women should not observe fasting when they are apart from their husbands.

Manu also declares that students who subsist on begged food earn the same merit as fasting. Fasting is also used as a punishment. If a student remains asleep after sunrise, he shall fast during the next day, muttering the Savitri chant. If a person eats food from forbidden people, he has to observe fast for three days. Manu prescribed three days of fasting for minor thefts also. These punishments suggest that fasting was used for atonement and considered a purifier and remover of sins.

Probably, the practice of fasting had its origin in the Vedic ritual of kindling the sacrificial fire for the purposes of sacrifices. We draw this inference from the fact that in Sanskrit, the same word, “upavas,” is used to denote both fasting and kindling sacrificial fire. People probably practiced fasting when they had to kindle or rekindle the domestic fires, which they kept in their homes to perform the daily sacrifices.

Fasting has also been practiced in India for centuries as a penance for the expiation of sins, dereliction of duties, crimes, etc., or to annul the mistakes made during religious observances and sacrifices. One of the penances prescribed in the scriptures is the Krikkhra penance, which has to be observed for several days or a month.

Manu explains how it shall be performed. In one type of penance, a twice-born man shall eat for the first three days only in the morning, for the next three days only in the evening, for the next three days eat only what has been given to him unasked and observe complete fasting during the last three days.

In another type of penance called Paraka Krikkhra, he has to reduce the daily food intake by one mouthful per day during the dark half of the month and increase it by a mouthful during the bright half.

It is customary for those who participate in Hindu domestic ceremonies, including marriage ceremonies and pujas on specific occasions, to abstain from eating food until the completion of such ceremonies.

In most cases, people break their fast after performing sacrifices or rituals and eating the remains of the food, called prasadam, which was offered to gods.

On the occasion of certain Hindu festivals such as Maha Shivaratri and Durga Puja, the worshippers have to observe fasting either for a day or for several days.

Those who undertake vratas or vows to worship deities in a specific traditional manner also follow a strict code of conduct with regard to their eating and other activities. On such occasions, they either observe complete fasting or avoid eating certain types of food, such as sour items, curd, etc.

In some ceremonies, only women have to fast, while no restrictions apply to their husbands. Such ceremonies are mainly meant for the protection and wellbeing of the husbands.

Some Hindus, both men and women, observe fasting on specific days in a week or month, which are considered auspicious or favorite days of certain deities.

People also observe fast to fulfill their wishes, overcome adversity, drive away evil spells, please the gods and planetary gods, or obtain their blessings.

Under normal circumstances, if you are fasting for your own good or for spiritual progress, you may set down ground rules. Generally, in Hinduism, there are three types of fasting.

1. Abstaining from eating food of all kinds, both liquid and solid foods

2. Abstaining from drinking water

3. Abstaining from sexual pleasure

All three may be practiced simultaneously, selectively, or in stages. Some people abstain from eating solid foods while fasting but consume liquid foods like fruit juice or milk. Some people abstain from eating certain foods like rice, meat, etc., but eat fruits and vegetables.

Whatever fasting you may practice, sincerity and purity of intention are important in today's world. If you want to fast selectively, you may have to consider your body's tolerance for certain types of food and, if necessary, make such decisions in consultation with your physician.

Some people fast for several days continuously on occasions like Navaratri. They do not consume anything except water. Many people fall sick at the end of such austerity and even develop digestion problems for a few days after they complete their fasting.

It is important to know what food you may eat after you complete prolonged fasting and consult your physician before making an informed decision.

Overall, fasting in moderation is good for the mind and the body. It purifies the system, besides making you feel light and energized. Medical research proves that the habit of fasting prolongs life and keeps the body in good shape. Therefore, if you fast in moderation, without starving your body for days, both the gods in your body and you will feel good about it.

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