Vrata or Upavasa – the Fasting in Hinduism
Upavasa (उपवास)- which means fasting in Sanskrit is made up of two terms- ‘Upa’ (उप) means ‘near’ and ‘vasa’ (वास) means ‘to stay’. Together they mean ‘staying near God’ while observing fast. The science of fasting has been dealt with in the Vedas (वेद) and Shastras (शास्त्र). According to these ancient Hindu scriptures, fasting is a method of purification that helps man in his mundane as well as spiritual life.
Fasting is also called called ‘Vrata’ (व्रत). Vrata is a broader term than Upavas. Vrata stands for a religious practice that is undertaken to carry out certain obligations for achieving divine blessings. It may include Upavasa or fasting along with other physical obligations like not sleeping or not speaking for a certain period of time, or taking baths at particular holy river on earmarked auspicious days and so on.
In Hindu mythology several fasts have been recommended with the objective of accomplishment of various tasks. These fasts cover all aspects of life including health, wealth, property, issues, love life, marital bliss, destiny, profession, inflow of money, eradication of sins, overcoming obstacles, attainment of all round prosperity, material comforts and spiritual success and so on and the list of objectives is comprehensive. In this section we have incorporated all types of fasts (Vratas) by observing which one can gratify his or her ambitions. We are giving the method of observing the fasts to cater the needs of readers. Vrata/ Fasting/Upvas work on the same principle the soul of which is self-control and for attaining that the entrance gate is control over temptation of taste.
The Sanskrit word for fast is ‘upa-vaas’, which means staying close to God. The original concept of fasting entailed a deviation from the normal life style and devoting one day to introspection. The fasting person was supposed to distance himself from the trivia of day to day life and think only about God. As any worldly pleasure would distract him from this purpose, he was supposed to follow a simple routine. Hence, rich food was avoided and a simple diet was taken to sustain the body. The intention was neither to starve the body nor to indulge it.
There are several interesting, mythological and historical stories behind Indian fasts which are matchless examples of our culture and rituals. On the day of fasting one should practice Bramhcharya (to stay away from sexuality and greed), self-control, solitude, silence and introspection. Fasting has been acknowledged in all religions all over the world. Fasting is the act of willingly abstaining from some or all food and in some cases drink, for a period of time. Depending on the tradition, fasting practices may forbid sexual intercourse, masturbation, as well as refraining from eating certain types or groups of food (eg. Meat). Medical fasting can be a way to promote detoxification.
Fasting is worshipped and admired in all religions all over the world because of its manifold benefits. In this section we shall be describing the significance and method of observing various important fasts along with Mantra, Vrata Katha and Aarti in Indian tradition.
Bhagwad Gita on Fasting
Lord Krishna, in Bhagwad Gita, tells Arjuna,
नात्यश्नतस्तु योगोऽस्ति न चैकान्तमनश्नतः।
न चातिस्वप्नशीलस्य जाग्रतो नैव चार्जुन।।
“O Arjuna, Yoga (the unity of individual consciousness with the ultimate consciousness) never occurs for those who eat too much or too little and also for those who sleep too much or too little.”
- No form of asceticism is superior to fasting – Mahabharata
- By doing fasting mind becomes introversive, sight turns clean and body remains light – Kaka Kalelkar
- Fasting is the most effective technique of curing all diseases. – Dr. Adolf Mayer
- Fasting has unlimited power in it because psychological strength works behind it. Fasting can be done by the powerful people not by the weak. – M.K. Gandhi
- Any work done without faith is an evil. That work neither turns out to be beneficial in this world nor in the next world after death – Srimadbhagvadgita
- Fasting is the best solution to get rid of sexuality and lust – Srimadbhagvadgita
Fasting in Other Religons
Fasting for religious and spiritual reasons has been a part of human custom since pre-history. It is mentioned in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, in the Mahabharata, in the Upanishads and in the Qurans. In the Bahai Faith, fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset during the Bahai month of Ala ( March 2 to March 20). Buddhist monks and nuns following the Vinaya ruler commonly do not eat each day after the noon meal, though many orders do not enforce this. This is not considered a fast, but rather a disciplined regime aiding in meditation. In Islam, fasting for a month is an obligatory practice during the holy month of Ramjan from dawn till sunset. In Jainism fasting is done to decrease desire and passion. Self-starvation by fasting is known as Sallekhana and is supposed to help shed Karma according to Jain philosophy. Fasting for Jews means completely abstaining from food and drink, including water, tasting food, taking medication or even brushing teeth is forbidden. Observant Jews fast on six days of the year.
In nature cure, one of the very important tools for health and disease cure is fasting. Many people are learning the trick of curing their colds, headache, nervous spells and other acute troubles by missing a few meals or taking a short fast. It is the simplest and the most efficient way of relieving the overloaded and food poisoned system. Some doctors believe that pure water fasting can not only detoxify cells and rejuvenate organs, but can actually cure such diseases and conditions as cardiovascular disease, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, colitis, psoriasis, lapis and some other autoimmune disorders when combined with a healthy diet. They believe that Fasting is Nature’s Restorer’. Many therapies, like Ayurveda and homeopath, acknowledge the importance of diet in the treatment of illness, and impose restrictions on beverages such as tea and coffee, and some non- vegetarian items. Nature cure, or naturotherapy, is virtually founded on the food principle, and considers fasting an imperative in the cure of chronic ailments. In natural medicine, fasting is seen as a way of cleansing the body of toxins, dead or diseased tissues, and giving the gastro-intestinal system a rest. Such fasts consist of either water only, or fruit and vegetable juices.
Why Do We Fast?
Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like festivals and Ekadashis. On such days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do with fruits or a special diet of simple food.
Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means “near” + vaasa means “to stay”. Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord), meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then what has upavaasa to do with food?
A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy. Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body. The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace.
Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting. The Bhagavad Gita urges us to eat appropriately – neither too less nor too much – yukta-aahaara, and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting.