for The Times of India on March 11, 2010
Among the many Lenten practices, fasting is the most significant. Fasting has been around a long time as a spiritual discipline in almost all cultures and religions. To fast is to abstain from something that gives us pleasure and enjoyment in order that it may enhance our spiritual experience; it is not dieting or ‘not eating’. It is a way to spiritual fitness.
Jesus fasted for 40 days before he began his public life. Yet, he does not make it an obligatory exercise. He does not say fasting is essential but says what kind of fasting is acceptable to God. Jesus discounts all such fasts done with a concealed intention to draw attention to one and to seek others’ acclamation: “When you fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance so that they may appear to others as fasting”. (Matthew 6:16). The one who fasts must avoid all sense of spiritual superiority and pride. This is why Jesus insists that the one who fasts must not “appear to be fasting” and must “oil your hair and wash your face.” These are ritualistic observances but acts of love for God and so must be done happily and with a happy face.
An important reason to fast is that it helps develop more self discipline to transcend sensual and physical gratification. We tend to overindulge rather than exercise restraint and in this context, fasting is a good way of striking a balance. Prophet Muhammad’s statement, “The worst thing man can fill is his stomach” comes as a deterrent to gluttony. The Buddhist Dhammapada goes a step further to compare a craving person to a “fat domestic pig” bound by the fetters of samsara.
Fasting takes us beyond the carnal level of existence to the realm of the divine within. A better articulation of this dimension of fasting can be found in the Sanskrit term for fasting, upavas. Upa meaning ‘near’ and ‘Vaas’ means ‘to dwell’. Thus, fasting means to live or remain closer to God. It is not a negative act of abstaining but a positive step of obtaining God’s love. Fasting is fuel for the soul that ignites faith and greater intimacy with God and thereby makes our lives happier and more joyful.