Hinduism and Fasting.
What is Hinduism?
This is not an easy question to answer. Hinduism is more a set of religious traditions than a formal religion (at least as most western societies might think of religion). It comprises a wide ranging set of ideas that are not consistent from one set of followers to another. Beliefs and ideas adhered to by some are not practiced or held by the other Hindus. Fasting is regularly practiced as a part of many belief systems and, in some cases, is rather elaborately and strictly formalized into one's life.
An example of a Hinduism Fasting Tradition.
Some Brahman follow fasting traditions that may seem particularly complicated and demanding: First, no food is ever eaten before noon and only two meals a day are taken: one at midday and one before retiring. Fasting is practiced on many days, both during different days of the month and during particular days during the year. On days when there is to be a new moon or a full moon no food or drink are consumed for twenty-four hours. During the tenth day after the new moon, a half fast is followed; one meal is eaten in the middle of the afternoon. There are also other fasting days during the lunar month, with various combinations of missed meals, twenty four hour fasts, and consumption of special meals on specific days.
Annual fasting days and anniversary fasts are also overlain with the lunar fasting schedule. For example the Fourteenth of Magh is a day when some Hindus will not eat food, drink, or sleep for twenty-four hours. A meal of peas, cakes, bananas, and coconut is the only meal eaten on the Ninth of Cheit. And so on (other examples, and a nice blog about Hinduism). Anniversaries of the ten earthly incarnations of the god Vishnu, other days considered sacred in specific spiritual concepts (different deities and entities are part of different traditions) and the anniversaries of one's parents deaths might also demand a day of fasting.
Some Justification and Rational For Fasting in Hindu Tradition
Why is fasting desirable? (this and the following excerpt are taken from text that discuss fasting:
Yudhishthira said: Common people say that fasting is Tapas (penances). Is fasting, however, really so, or is penance something different?"
Yudhishthira said: How can one practicing such penance come to be regarded as one that is always fasting or as one that is ever devoted to the vow of Brahmcharya, or as one that is always subsisting upon sacrificial remnants or as one that is ever regardful of guests?
Bhishma said: He will be regarded as one that is always fasting if he eats once during the day and once during the night at the fixed hours without eating during the interval. Such a Brahman, by always speaking the truth and by adhering always to wisdom, and by going to his wife only in her season and never at other times, becomes a Brahmacharin (celibate). By never eating meat of animals not killed for sacrifice, he will become a strict vegetarian. By always becoming charitable he will become ever pure, and by abstaining from sleep during the day he will become one that is always wakeful. That Brahman who never eats till gods and guests are fed, wins, by such abstention, heaven itself.
…..and on the merits of fasting……
Yudhishthira said: The disposition is seen in all the orders of men, of observing fasts. The reason, however, of this is not known to us. It has been heard by us that only Brahmanas and Kshatriyas should observe the vow of fasts. How, O Grandsire, are the other orders to be taken as earning any merit by the observance of fasts? How have vows and fasts come to be observed by persons of all orders, O king? What is that end to which one devoted to the observance of fasts attains? It has been said that fasts are highly meritorious and that fasts are a great refuge. O prince of men, what is the fruit that is earned in this world by the man that observe fasts? By what means is one cleansed of one’s sins? By what means does one acquire righteousness? By what means, O best of the Bharatas, does one succeed in acquiring heaven and merit? After having observed a fast, what should one give away?.......
That man of wisdom who, with his senses and soul under control, O Bharata, fasts, by abstaining from one of the two meals, on the fifth and the sixth days of the moon as also on the day of the full moon, becomes endued with forgiveness and beauty of person and conversance with the scriptures. Such a person never becomes childless and poor. He who performs sacrifices for adoring the deities on the fifth and the sixth days of the moon, transcends all the members of his family and succeeds in feeding a large number of Brahmanas. He, who observes fasts on the eighth and the fourteenth days of the dark fortnight, becomes freed from maladies of every kind and possessed of great energy.
The man who abstains from one meal every day throughout the month called Margasirsha, should with reverence and devotion, feeds a number of Brahmanas. By so doing he becomes freed from all his sins. Such a man becomes endued with prosperity. He becomes endued with energy. In fact, such a person reaps an abundance of harvest from his fields, acquires great wealth and much corn.
That man, who passes the whole month of Pausha, abstaining every day from one of two meals, becomes endued with good fortune and agreeable features and great fame.
This text goes on to describe other such rewards. This illustrates some of the rational for fasting but there are many and varied reasons for following such practices. Other writing provides different reasons for performing other fasting routines. One should note that such ideas are not considered universally true and hence are not followed by all Hindus.
Overall perhaps the important point to be made here about Hinduism and fasting could be summed up like this. Hinduism generally has some focus on restraining the needs of the body and subjugating the senses to the will. Fasting is used in some traditions as one means of working towards this goal.
Other resources for more information:
There are many texts and other information about Hinduism. For example:
Also the Hinduism Explained website has an extensive body of information about beliefs, texts, and practices.