Fasting: Scriptural Foundations
Every major religion encourages fasting. The Torah, Gospels and Qur’an, directly or indirectly, prescribe fasting as a required religious practice. Hindu scriptures exhort adherents to ascetic exercises that include extreme fasting. Buddhism recommends fasting as a spiritual exercise to develop discipline, restraint and self-control.
Fasting in Jewish Scripture
Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is probably the most revered day of the Jewish calendar. Even Jews who do not normally observe other religious practices will fast and attend the synagogue on Yom Kippur.
Eating and drinking are prohibited for a 25-hour period that begins before sunset of the evening before the day of Yom Kippur, and continues until after nightfall of the holy day.
In commanding the fast, the Torah does not specifically use the Hebrew root word for fasting, ẓwm. It uses the Hebrew word anah, meaning “to afflict or deny oneself.”
In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls, and you shall not do any work … For on that day he shall provide atonement for you to cleanse you from all your sins before the L-RD. [Leviticus 16:29-30].
The L-RD said to Moses, “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves, and present a food offering to the L-RD . . . This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. [Leviticus 23:26-32 (NIV)].
Fasting in Christian Scripture
A direct command to fast is not found in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the words of Jesus clearly assume that his followers were to fast. John Wesley made the point that to instruct someone on how and when to do something is equivalent to a command.
He [Jesus] does not . . .expressly enjoin either fasting, giving of alms, or prayer; but his directions how to fast, to give alms, and to pray, are of the same force with such injunctions. For the commanding us to do anything thus, is an unquestionable command to do that thing . . . Consequently, the saying, “Give alms, pray, fast” in such a manner, is a clear command to perform all those duties . . . [John Wesley, Sermon 27, Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount].
Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast. [Matthew 9:15 (NIV) ].
. . . when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. [Matthew 6:16-18 (NIV)].
But an evil spirit of this kind is only driven out by prayer and fasting. [Matthew 17:21].
Fasting in Hindu Scripture
The Sanskrit word tapas has a root meaning “heat, penance, pain, suffering, mortification, etc.” Tapas often describes ascetic practices that include fasting.
The actual Sanskrit word for fasting, upavāsa, literally means sitting near or close to God. This represents a purified and elevated condition which allows connection with the Divine.
Hindu scripture exhort adherents to burn away their desires, engage in purifying sacrifices, and destroy their appetites. Fasting practices, at times, may reach extreme levels of asceticism.
There is no Sastra [Scripture] superior to the Veda. There is no person more worthy of reverence than the mother. There is no acquisition superior to that of Righteousness, and no penance superior to fast. [Mahabharata, Book 13, Section, XVI].
The man who teaches another the merit of fasts has never to suffer any kind of misery. The ordinances about fasts, in their due order, O son of Kunti, have flowed from the great Rishi Angiras. The man who daily reads these ordinances or hears them read, becomes freed from sins of every kind. Not only is such a person freed from every calamity, but his mind becomes incapable of being touched by any kind of fault. Such a person succeeds in understanding the sounds of all creatures other than human, and acquiring eternal fame, become foremost of his species. [Mahabharata, Book 13, Section CVI].
Through the purifying burning fire of tapas [exercises of discipline] all the sense organs of the body are perfected (kayendriya-siddhir) by the destruction (ksayat) of all impurities (asuddhi). [Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, II 43].
52-60. That man can conquer death who can remain for one week living on milk only and who performs during that time hundreds, and hundreds of Homas and repeats the Gâyatrî, controlling his speech. If anybody can fast three nights and control his speech and repeat Gâyatrî he gets himself freed from the hands of Death; or totally immersed in water if he repeats Gâyatrî, he will be saved from the impending danger of death. [The Devi Bhagavatam: The Eleventh Book: Chapter 24].
And they that have fasted for a month, proceed on cars drawn by swans. And they who have fasted for six nights, proceed on cars drawn by peacocks. And, O son of Pandu, he that fasteth three nights upon only one meal without a second during this period goeth into a region free from disease and anxiety. And water hath this excellent property that it produceth happiness in the region of Yama. [Mahabharata, Book 3, Secton CLXLIX].
Fasting in Buddhist Scripture
The Buddha taught the “middle way.” Regarding food, this means a path between extreme abstinence and depraved gluttony.
Unlike the ascetic mortification of Hinduism, the Buddhist fast is best described as restrained eating. In the three major Buddhist traditions, Vajrayana, Theravada and Mahayana, fasting is not required.
Nevertheless, based on their canon, spiritual authorities and individual practitioners have developed specific rules and customs that regulate eating and the practice of fasting. The objective is to develop discipline and self-control with moderation.
He who lives looking for pleasures only, his senses uncontrolled, immoderate in his food, idle, and weak, Mara (the Tempter) will certainly overthrow him, as the wind throws down a weak tree. He who lives without looking for pleasures, his senses well controlled, moderate in his food, faithful and strong, him Mara will certainly not overthrow, any more than the wind throws down a strong mountain. [Dhammapada V. 7-8].
Men who have no riches, who live on recognised food, who have perceived void and unconditioned freedom, their path is difficult to understand, like that of birds in the air. He whose appetites are stilled, who is not absorbed in enjoyment, who has perceived void and unconditioned freedom, his path is difficult to understand, like that of birds in the air. [Dhammapada 7:92].
There is no satisfying lusts, even by a shower of gold pieces; he who knows that lusts have a short taste and cause pain, he is wise; even in the [supernal] pleasures [of the devas], he finds no satisfaction; the disciple who is fully awakened delights only in the destruction of all desires [The Dhammapada, Chapter 14:186].
Fasting in Muslim Scripture
The Qur’an commands Muslims to fast, and asserts that fasting is a universal principle of worship. The fast is strict but makes allowances for special circumstances. Its purpose is to focus attention on the sacred (taqwa) while remaining fully engaged in daily secular activities.
O YOU who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of God. [Quran 2:183].
(Fasting) for a fixed number of days; but if any of you is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed number (Should be made up) from days later. For those who can do it (With hardship), is a ransom, the feeding of one that is indigent. But he that w ill give more, of his own free will,- it is better for him. And it is better for you that ye fast, if ye only knew. [Quran 2:184].
It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false. Hence, whoever of you lives to see this month shall fast throughout it; but he that is ill, or on a journey, [shall fast instead for the same] number of other days. God wills that you shall have ease, and does not will you to suffer hardship; but [He desires] that you complete the number [of days required], and that you extol God for His having guided you aright, and that you render your thanks [unto Him]. [Quran 2:185].