Food (in Sanskrit, anna) plays a very important role in the social and ritual life of the Hindus. Its importance is illustrated in a regular greeting at the Indian subcontinent: "Have you eaten?" is asked in the same way as people elsewhere might ask, "How are you?" Food is
Fasting in the sense of not eating for a specific time (upava), or abstaining from specific substances during certain periods, is a well-established part of all Hindu spiritual practices. In the early times it was related to tapas, ascetic practices, and it is still a major aspect of the religious practices of many of the shus or "holy men" in India. Also, many ordinary Indians fast on specific days during the year, either by taking no food at all or by restricting their diet. For instance, Vaisnavas fast on the eleventh day of each half of the lunar month (eka), when they are only allowed to eat what has grown below the ground, along with dairy products. Before and during rituals, like sacrifices, but also before going on a pilgrimage, fasting and abstinence from certain food items are part of the practice of Hindus.
It is all part of the concept of vrata or religious vow. A vrata can be taken during a religious festival, or a pilgrimage, and also in conjunction with pursuing some goal in life, which may include material or spiritual wellbeing or success in business, love, or a good job. Vratas are applied following ritually significant and meaningful patterns, depending on which deity is addressed or which goal is pursued, or on a person's station in life. Fasting and abstinence lead to the attainment of religious merit, which is then "used" to achieve the desired goal.
There is, however, also a spiritual aim: the control of the physical body as well as of emotions and the mind, which may lead eventually to the ultimate goal of unconditioned consciousness or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, in union with the transcendent (either considered personal or impersonal).
Complete fasting, in its most radical form, can be pursued until death, in which case it is called propavista ("one who sits down and quietly awaits the approach of death" by not eating). Suicide through starvation has been well documented in Jainism, a religion that originated in the sixth century B.C.E., but Jain customs regarding this kind of suicide may be based on Hindu practices from around the fourth century B.C.E. Elderly people, who feel they are of no use any more to the community or feel they are a burden to the family, can choose this way of ending their lives. Suicide by ending the cycle of rebirth (samsa) through not eating is beyond mainstream Hinduism, which sees it as another attachment that will even bring a worse rebirth unless the person has already been detached of all worldly concerns. A person can fast for a specific period to attain some goal, thereby pressuring family or community members, as exemplified by the fasting of Mahma Gandhi for political and humanitarian ends.
In the general practice of Hinduism, fasting and abstinence are not clearly distinguishable and are performed under the general concept of vrata or vow. The most common form of abstinence practiced by communities as a whole is vegetarianism. The consumption of substances that entail the killing of a living animaln principle this also includes eggss considered to create demerit, which has to be avoided at all cost by people belonging to those communities. Many others also practice vegetarianism as a spiritual practice by personal choice, either all the time, or even just one day a week.
Certain other substances are also avoided when a person performs a vow, because they are known to stimulate the senses, and therefore are contrary to the goal of control over the body and the senses. In particular, onions and garlic are avoided. For some groups or individuals this restriction is followed all the time. For others these foods are only avoided on certain occasions that call for a stricter diet. Especially on days that are set aside for rituals for ancestors, onions and garlic are forbidden.
Vrata or spiritual vow has three main branches. The first one is called nitya, which means permanent or always. Persons undertaking this type of vow are usually seeking the grace and blessing of a particular divinity toward a particular wish or desire (such as a good job, success at exams or business, or a good marriage). Hindus sometimes abstain from certain foods permanently. Or, they fast completely during one day of the week or month.
The second form of vrata is called naimittika, which means occasioned by some particular cause. It pertains to people who experience remorse or repentance in connection with a sin they have committed. They practice a vow in order to be relieved from the karmic consequences of their sin. The third type of vow is called kya vrata, which means a vow for what one desires. This form of vow is performed in order to achieve property, popularity, wealth, or health. An example of this kind of vow is called somavrata, which involves complete abstention from food on Mondays.
Vows follow many diverse patterns, depending on which deity is beseeched for blessing, the nature of the objective, or the wish that the devotee wants to see fulfilled. Such vows can require not eating, eating less, eating only certain substances, or avoiding certain substances altogether. The choice of the days on which or the periods during which the vow is performed is regulated by the ritual calendar.
The days of the week are ruled by the planetary deities and are also indirectly related to the main deities of Hinduism. People may choose to fast, or abstain from certain substances like meat or fish, or also from onions and garlic, on the day dedicated to the deity they are addressing with their vow. Sunday, Raviva, is ruled by Sūrya, the sun, and is dedicated to the achievement of victory, as in the case of disputes and court cases, but also when starting Vedic studies or a journey. Monday, Somava, is dedicated to Candra, the moon, and to va. Fasting on Monday is directed to all general spiritual purposes. Tuesday, Mangalava, is dedicated to Mars, and Kttikeya, va's son and the god of war. Fasting on Tuesday is directed toward victory, childbirth, and good health. Wednesday, Budhava, belongs to Mercury. It is said that fasting on this day has twice the value of other days. It is mostly dedicated toward education and success in business. Thursday, Brhaspativa, is dedicated to Jupiter, ruler over education and scholarship. Friday, ukrava, is ruled by Venus. Fasting on this day is dedicated to prosperity, marriage, and a harmonious family life. Saturday, aniva, is ruled by ani or Saturn. Fasting on Saturday will give the blessing of Saturn and longevity.
Another aspect that is important to the ritual calendar is the phases of the moon. One pattern of fasting and abstinence, which relates to the phases of the moon, starts on new moon day, when the practitioner eats fourteen hands full of food. Then every next day one eats one handful less, until on the day of the full moon one eats nothing at all. During the waning moon one eats again one handful more each day, until the vow is completed on the next new moon day, when again fourteen hands full of food are eaten.
Generally, all kinds of vows of fasting and abstinence are practiced on the occasion of the many religious festivals celebrated during the course of the year, and also on the occasion of the Hindu rites, which are related to specific stages in life, such as birth, name-giving, first eating of solid food, puberty, the beginning of Vedic studies, marriage, and cremation.
On the other hand, certain foods are especially dedicated to certain deities. Such foods are regularly prepared at home and offered to the deity as part of certain festivals or during home worship, after which they are enjoyed by those present, and often also sent to relatives and friends. These special foods are also prepared and offered as part of the daily temple worship. After being offered to the deity, they are distrbuted as prasa or sanctified food among the worshipers and visitors. Examples of such special food are rice prepared with black pepper and cumin fried in clarified butter or ghee, which is dedicated to va; laddu or sweet balls for Krishna and Gane; or rice prepared with tamarind, which is specially offered to Visnu. A person can also make a vow in connection with a certain deity to eat only the deity's special food for a period of time.
Some examples of this kind of vrata include twenty-one days of drinking only milk, or eating only the leaves of the bilva and banyan trees, after dipping them in water, a vow dedicated to va. A fasting vow that is dedicated to Gane is practiced from the day after the new moon in the month of Kttika (Octoberovember), through the sixth day of the waxing moon in the month of Mgarsa (Novemberecember), which means complete fasting for three weeks. Those who follow this vow are given a yellow thread bound around their wrist, a raksabandha, worn on the right wrist for men and on the left for women. On the concluding day they give a donation of money to a priest as well as food, and then they eat again. A vow for the goddess Devī involves complete fasting on the Friday in the month of Caitra (Marchpril). During the day the practitioner meditates on the goddess. The person concludes by offering jagari, which is raw sugar from sugarcane. After this worship one eats again. A vow dedicated to Visnu is called Vaikuntha caturda and involves complete fasting on the fourteenth day of the waxing and waning moon.
One other place where fasting is given great importance within the many traditions and practices of Hinduism is in Ayurveda and Siddha medicine. According to these traditional healing methods, fasting is considered one of the great medicines. Both apply fasting for the cleansing and balancing of the physical body, as well as for the emotions and the mind. Here three kinds of fasting are distinguished: purification fasts to clean the system; healing fasts to overcome a specific disorder; and austerity fasts, which are undertaken to deny the bodily urges on the way toward liberation from the cycle of rebirth.
According to the Buddhist tradition, Siddhtha Gautama, the Buddha, lived between 560 and 480 B.C.E., although recent research indicates that he may have lived about a hundred years later. In that period northeast India was being transformed from a agricultural society to a more complex urban society. The ancient religious traditions of early Brahmanism no longer fitted the needs of society and of individuals. Therefore, many left society to find new religious ways, mostly by practicing asceticism. The Buddha was one of them. The Buddha used traditional ascetic practices including a very strict fast, reducing his intake of food to a few drops of bean soup a day. This starvation almost killed him, and he became aware of the fact that the body should not be ignored to arrive at man's spiritual core, but should be supported in a healthy and moderate way: no consciousness without a body; no experience of liberation or nirva without a body. After his "awakening" (bodhi) he formulated his "middle path," holding the middle between extreme asceticism and indulgence. This is the reason why fasting and abstinence in Buddhism are always placed within the context of the middle path.
In Asian as well as in Western Buddhist communities, certain traditions regarding food are followed in which there is a difference between the customs of lay-people and the stricter rules for monks and nuns. In general, Buddhists prefer to abstain from eating meat, since this involves the killing of living beings, although, even for the monks and nuns, there is no rule forbidding the eating of meat, unless the monk or nun, who is provided with a meal by a layperson, knows that the animal has been specially killed for the occasion. According to the monastic rules, the Vinaya, monks and nuns should have only two meals a day, in the early morning and before noon, and abstain from food for the rest of the day. One of the reasons is that meditation practice is considered to be difficult if the stomach is full. On festive days, especially at full and new moon, and during meditation retreats, laypeople regularly follow those rules too. In lay Buddhist practice, the Hindu custom of sharing "sanctified" food or prasa, food that is pure (no meat or sharp spices) and has been offered to monks and nuns or to statues of the Buddha or Buddhist deities, is also followed.
In the Buddhist practices of the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley, one finds observances, vrata, similar to those of the Hindus, in which fasting takes a prominent role, for example, in the observances connected with full and new moon, but also in those directed to a specific deity; for example, on the eighth day after full moon the fasting is held to honor the bodhisattva Avalokiteara-Lokeara, the embodiment of compassion. During public or private ritual performances fasting is observed to maintain purity. And, similar to the Hindu custom, an observance is also a way to achieve a specific spiritual or material goal. Some examples include the fasting for Lokeara, which is supposed to cause the birth of a son; a fast for T which frees one from illness, dangers, pain, and untimely death; a fast for Hītī protects against smallpox; and other deities are invoked by following rules of purity, including abstaining from sex, and fasting for good jobs, before an exam, or before going on a journey.
See also Buddhism; China; Hinduism; India; Religion and Food; Southeast Asia.
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Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Johari, Harish. Dhanwantari. Calcutta: Rupa, 1992.
Klostermaier, Klaus K. A Survey of Hinduism. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.
Stevenson, Mrs. Sinclair. The Rites of the Twice-Born. New Delhi: Oriental Books Reprint Corporation, 1971.
Raja Deekshitar Ria Kloppenborg
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