Fasting is refraining from bodily nourishment. Fasts vary according to degree, duration, and purpose. A complete fast is one in which all food and liquids are refused. More often, fasting is refraining from food, or limiting its amount, while continuing to drink water. A kind of selective fasting, sometimes called abstinence in technical religious terminology, is abstaining from only certain types of food or drink, such as meat or alcohol. Avoiding things other than food or drink is also sometimes called fasting, as in "fasting from television," but this usage goes beyond the typical definition of fasting.
The duration of a fast may extend from a single eating event to a few days to a lifetime. Fasts may be seasonal, such as Jewish Yom Kippur, Christian Lent's 40-day fast, or Muslim Ramadan's lunar month, or fasts may be tailored to more individual needs.
Fasting is an almost universal spiritual impulse usually tied to public or private religious observances. Of the ascetic spiritual practices, fasting is the most common and universal. Religions from all over the world, including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Native American religion, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, practice fasting as an ascetic discipline of self-denial.
FASTING AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE
Most fasting worldwide has been and is practiced for spiritual reasons, but not all fasting is motivated by spiritual concerns. Dieters fast to lose weight or to purge the body of impurities. Persons go on hunger strikes to obtain political goals. Certain illnesses are associated with fasting, such as anorexia nervosa. As religious observance has declined in parts of the modern world, fasting for nonreligious goals has increased. Of course, fasts may include a combination of motives.
For Purification. Perhaps the most ancient purpose for fasting is purification through loosening the grip of physical matter on the spirit. Many religions, old and new, hold a dualistic view of reality. Spirit is good; matter is bad. Fasting within this context is a means to free the spirit from the body and the food and drink upon which it depends for nourishment.
In its most extreme form, the dualist purification motive may allow religiously sanctioned fatal fasting. In Hinduism, the rare and conditional practice of fasting to death is called Prayopavesa, salekhana is its counterpart in Jainism, and heretical Christian Albigenses of the Middle Ages practiced a life-ending fast called the endura.
The Abrahamic faiths-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-are not dualistic in nature. In these faiths, fasting is a means of being purified from evil or wrongdoing, but not by separation from the body, a part of God's good creation to be purified as well.
For Protection and Self-Control. Another ancient reason for fasting is protection from evil. Mourning and fasting are closely related in many religious traditions. The origins of this connection lie in purification that comes from fasting, protecting from the evil spirits associated with death.
This protection motif in fasting applies as well to assistance against internal destructive passions. The fourth century Christian monk John the Dwarf compared the effects of fasting upon inner passions to a king cutting off food and water to his enemies through a siege. Such internal victories increase one's power and self-control.
For Penance. The practice of self-denial as punishment is penance. Fasting is used as penance to reestablish right relationships lost through disobedience. For example, the 11th chapter of the Hindu Laws of Mandu, a text from about 500 B.C.E., names various kinds of penance, including fasting, for certain violations of law. The penance for stealing wood, clothes, or molasses is a 3-day fast.
Christianity tied punishment for wrongdoing to repentance for sin, a necessity for justification under God. Third-century Christians practiced fasting as part of public penance. Forgiveness for sins against God and humanity is offered freely through grace, but the forgiven offered restitution through penance, often expressed as fasting. Though Protestant Christianity abandoned formal penance, the connection between fasting and repentance has remained strong in most Christian traditions.
Preparation for Divine Encounter. Fasting that purifies, protects, and justifies easily comes to be understood as a practice that prepares individuals or communities for contact with the divine. Fasting to prepare for worship is an example of self-denial creating space for encounter with the divine. The Jewish faith called for fasting on the Day of Atonement. Most Christian traditions encourage fasting before taking the Eucharist. Native Americans, such as the Lakotas, employ fasting in preparation for the Vision Quest, a search for a life and purpose through contact with the divine Source. The Islam's Qur'an gives as the main reason for fasting "so that you may attain taqwa or God-consciousness."
To Know the Self. Self-denial leads to self-knowledge. Fasting brings self-discovery as it stirs the inner passions. Irritability, impatience, anger, and anxiety as well as mental clarity, calmness, and empathy often arise during fasting. The fast becomes a solvent revealing underlying emotions and motives. Mahatma Gandhi said, "What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner."
Voluntary separation from nourishment reminds those fasting of the conditional nature of their everyday existence. The spiritual counterpart of this realization is recognition of dependence upon divine resources. This goes far toward explaining the intimate connection between fasting and prayer, so central to Judaism and Christianity, as well as some other faiths. Fasting leads to experience of dependence upon the Other for the most basic of needs; prayer issues naturally from this intimate awareness of divine necessity.
To Do Justice. Voluntary fasting, which awakens one to knowledge of the self's dependence upon the Other, often leads naturally to recognizing the needs of others. This fasting-induced empathy brings an ethical dimension to fasting in world religions that emphasize justice in the divine character. Jews, Christians, and Muslims encourage their followers to allow hunger pains arising during fasting to prompt them to remember the poor whose hunger is involuntary. Preaching on fasting, Augustine of Hippo wrote, "Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want."
In Obedience and Imitation. The lives of certain exemplary figures, often called saints, reveal the benefits of fasting. Their disciples often fast in obedience to and imitation of such revered figures. Muhammad's example is codified in the dawn-to-dusk monthlong fast of Ramadan, one of the Five Pillars (or duties) of Islam. Jesus, who never commanded fasting but seemed to assume it (Matt. 6:16-18), fasted for 40 days in the desert, and the Christian church institutionalized a 40-day fast in Lent, citing his example.
As a spiritual practice, fasting is typically a means of readying the self to encounter and serve the divine. Though fasting may be motivated by desire to increase personal power and perception, most world religions shun any ascetic practice that turns in upon itself rather than reaching out toward the divine and service to others.
Finally, fasting is a spiritual practice with clear physical consequences that must be given their due. Consideration of health conditions, such as diabetes, before fasting is important. Absolute fasts from both food and water are best limited to a few days at most, and lengthy fasts should be accompanied by a physician's advice. Many resources with common sense advice about the practical aspects of fasting are available and should be referred to by those who participate in this spiritual practice.