As our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate their High Holiday season, Jains around the world celebrated the holiday of Paryushan this past week. While many holidays commemorate a person or historical event, Paryushan is a festival honoring the soul. It is an 8-day period of introspection and purification and, similar to Ramadan or Yom Kippur, is most commonly characterized by fasting.
Fasting, as a religious practice, has been a part of human tradition for many, many centuries. It is mentioned in the Bible, in the Old and New Testament, the Qur'an, and the Bhagavad Gita, amongst other religious texts. Many religions require fasting as an act of faith or penance - often as a means of purification. In today's increasingly materialistic and gluttonous world, regardless of our individual faith or non-faith traditions, we can all benefit from fasting from time to time.
On a practical level, fasting has many health benefits. It provides the digestive system much needed rest from the normal intake of food. Caloric restriction, within limit, has been shown to detoxify the body and reduce cravings. Fasting purely for weight loss, however, is not recommended and, taken to an extreme, can lead to severe consequences (i.e., severe malnutrition, growth retardation, heart disease, neurological disorders, and death). Done correctly, and in moderation, fasting is an opportunity to flush out your system and can give you that kick start to introduce new healthy habits.
Religious fasting affords this moderation through an additional layer of guidance that not only reduces medical complications but also enables individuals to rejuvenate both body and spirit. Though specific fasting guidelines - when to fast, rigor of restrictions, and how long to fast - vary from tradition to tradition, religions add a value system and a dimension of discipline that makes the fast easier to complete. Additionally, most traditions that prescribe fasting have built-in mechanisms to reduce the medical risks of fasting. During Ramadan observers of the fast consume the Iftar meal after sundown; many Hindu fasts allow individuals to consume water, milk, and fruit; Jews abstain from both food and drink but fast for a shorter period of time (25 hours); and in Jainism, fasting allows the consumption of water between sunrise and sunset.
Physiological effects aside, fasting is more than just the physical act of refraining from food. At its core, fasting is discipline of broadening and strengthening, not withholding and waning. It is exercise for our spiritual muscle.
If you are particularly ambitious, I encourage stepping outside your own traditions and partaking in the fasting practices of another. Observe Ramadan next year (even just for a day) or give up something for Lent. Don't stop at the physical act of consumption abstinence; challenge yourself to embody the deeper emotional principles guiding the tradition - e.g. sacrifice, penance, or meditation.
Doing so enables you to better understand what it really means to be a practitioner of that faith and to participate in the larger humanity that we all share. Religions are very complex institutions and by no means easily understood through a day or month of fasting. Sharing in these rituals, however, especially those that make us uncomfortable, forces us to dive deep in order to break down barriers of communication and conquer our fear of the "other."
Across traditions fasting is a time to turn inward and reflect, with individual faiths adding further purpose to the process of introspection. For example, Jainism encourages a focus of the mind and body on the inner qualities and virtues of the soul with the goal of self-purification and cleansing.
What does that mean? Put simply, fasting is a time to think and to make space.
Make space for things you normally don't think about or have room to fit into your schedule. Literally, in the time that I would have spent consuming lunch and dinner today, I was able to make space to write this post. On a deeper level, whether I fast for one, three, or all eight days, Paryushan allows me the space to pause, rewind, and review the past year. Not always religious in nature, it provides me space to reflect on where I am compared to where I was. Have I accomplished my personal, professional, and spiritual goals? Am I still satisfied with the principles with which I guide my actions?
Jains believe that fasting is one step in the gradual race to achieve enlightenment or, more generally, happiness. By sheer nature of the added emotional component with which one takes on such a task, the act of fasting naturally entails a process of personal introspection and growth.
I would argue that regardless of custom or belief, spiritual fasting extends this prospect of purification - both corporal and mental - to everyone, believer or not. Like spring cleaning for the soul.
A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and, to that extent, sets the soul free.
- M.K. Gandhi