Fasting/Upavaas in Hinduism.
Fasting is an integral part of Hinduism. Most devout Hindus fast regularly or on special festivals and occasions like Janmashtmi, Shivratri, Punams and Ekadashis to mention a few (maybe one day I will write about Ekadashi).
Fasting in sanskrit is referred to as upavaas. Upavaas consists of two words, Upa- meaning near and Vaas-meaning to stay. Upavaas thus means to stay near the Lord, attaining close proximity to the Lord.
You may wonder, what has upavaas/staying in close proximity with the Lord, got to do with fasting.
A significant part of our time and energy is spent in obtaining food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Different types of food have different impacts on one's mind and body. Some foods are known to make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on the days of fasting, one decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating. The mind, which is usually pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord.
In Hinduism, the degree and type of fast observed depends on the staunchness and physical and mental well being of the individual. Fasting in Hinduism indicates the denial of the physical needs of the body for the sake of spiritual gains. Fasting is recommended as a form of tapasya/tap, austerity. This is because fasting helps us cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be at peace. If our senses are out of control and unregulated, we won't be able to reach the mode of goodness, satvaguna which is required for a steady spiritual progress.
Fasting is not only a part of worship but a great instrument for self-discipline too. According to Hindu philosophy, food means gratification of the senses and to starve the senses is to elevate them to contemplation. Fasting trains the mind and the body to endure and toughen up against all hardships. Fasting teaches one to persevere during times of difficulties and not to give up. Luqman, the wise once said, "When the stomach is full, the intellect begins to sleep. Wisdom becomes mute and the parts of the body restrain from acts of righteousness."
When fasting is observed without a noble goal it can make one weak and irritable and create an urge to indulge later. The Bhagavad Gita urges us to eat appropriately – neither too less nor too much - yukta-aahaara, and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting. Through fasting as a form of Vairagya (detachment to physical needs),followers of Hinduism strive to develop attachment only to God and not to material things and since fasting is a self-imposed form of discipline it is generally adhered to with joy.
In accordance with the scriptures, fasting is not merely starving alone but also forsaking the food of the eleven indriyas ( the mind and the ten senses). Only then can it be considered a true fast. This means not spending the day watching TV or taking naps, and being extra vigilant about only seeing good in others and remaining positive about the upvaas one is observing.
Through fasting purely and diligently, one becomes closer to the Lord and to the Guru and attains his utmost Rajipo( happiness)
Tomorrow, 1st of March 2018, marks the end of my 33 day liquid fast, which I started on Sunday , 28th January, the day of Ekadashi. I decided to do this fast as a means to attain the rajipo of my Guru by showing my devotion, love and gratitude towards him before his arrival in Australia. I, along with many other will be breaking our fasts after enjoying the bliss of his darshan on the auspicious occasion of Holi.
I have previously done Ektana ( eating one meal a day) for the month of Shravan and the regular Ekadashi. However, this liquid fast was a different experience altogether. For this particular fast, I chose to have liquids only. However, this excludes, grains, legumes, flour and many other things. Basically it is a liquid fast but only with farari food.
I clearly remember the day before the fast was to commence, we had a friend's 25th birthday dinner and I was determined to stuff my face as I was going to be denied good food for a whole month! I even made it a point to convince everyone to go out for ice cream after the party. It would be my last salted caramel ice cream for a whole month. I was behaving like it was my last meal before death. Looking back, the whole month has gone like the speed of lightning and I am more worried about packing my suitcase to Sydney than I am about eating my first meal.
I was convinced that I would survive this with lots of yummy soups, I was wrong on this part. The first few days of fasting were a real struggle. The headaches and lightheadedness were getting to me while standing at work all day. All I could think about was all the food I was missing out on. By day five, my body was getting trained and the headaches were disappearing. However, I was so disgusted by soups, I could barely consume more than a cup a day. I had to resolve to banana smoothies and milkshakes with home made ice cream. The only soup I can still force down by throat is tomato soup. Every other soup makes me gag. I have developed such a hatred for them all. I always thought I would die without salt intake but things have definitely changed. I usually go for 3-4 days before I have some soup/salt and my intake of food/liquids has reduced. My body can survive with less food. I feel less bloated and generally nice and light in the gut. I guess it is not mandatory to demolish the whole pizza to survive!
Through this fasting journey, I have realised that the body only needs a few days to adapt to change. The mind on the other hand is a different story. I have been feeding my brain with social media/virtual food this whole month. Most of which consists of pictures of chips! chips and more chips! Temptation of the mind is real tough cookie to conquer. What kept me going was the goal in mind- the rajipo of the Guru, the spiritual growth and my best attempt at imbibing Vairagya - my weakest pillar in spiritual progress.
Measuring progress in terms of conquering the mind, remaining positive and most important of all, growing spiritually is not so easy to measure. It is different for each individual and requires some active effort in being more conscious. For myself, I can say by the second week of fasting, the eating part was second nature. The temptations were not as intense and the thought of indulging after had drastically reduced. Of course some days were worse than others. In terms of controlling the senses, I had also chosen to imbibe the quality of being less critical of others while fasting. This is the part that is more difficult than the actual not eating part. I have made progress and even though the thought may have appeared in the mind, I have learnt to be more conscious and bite my tongue. This is what I would like to further improve on after the fasting is complete. I am convinced that with the darshan and aashirwad of the Guru, I will gain the strength to do so.
Let me know in the comments section, if you ever fast and your thoughts about it.