Fasting - Serving - Starving

Fasting reminds me of Batachyachi Chal, a famous creation of P.L. Deshpande, the master comic writer in Marathi language. He lucidly describes the antiques of fasting commenced to reduce weight. P.L. here has brought out the subtle nuances of fasting given to us by our culture and how we have been ridiculing it eventually. Eating absolute unhealthy food as fasting savories, or eating double than usual as goes the famous saying Ekadashi duppat khashi (eating twice on the eleventh day of the lunar cycle of every month is a popular fasting day in India) is common with us. But what is ‘fasting’? We hardly fathom the idea, though fasting has been part of a number of cultures all over the world.

In our culture ‘fasting’ equates to spending quality time with our divine spiritual energy. This fasting is not only for the spiritual exemption but the main aim rather is the cleansing of body and mind. Religion is not only about sin and virtue, but it also tries to imbibe an ideal lifestyle. Many religions have subscribed to fasting. In Hinduism, the day of worshipping God and that of self-control is fasting. For Muslims, Ramazan or Ramadan means experiencing extreme thirst (heat). Fasting has been prescribed to take experience of the energy, the heat within our own bodies. So one can say that ‘Fasting is the method of cleaning, renewing the soul’. Christianity indicates that fasting prepares the body and soul for the coming in of new energy. Baha'i believes fasting to be the best medicine, a medium to rid oneself of diseases. Parsis do not have the concept of fasting but they do agree on the idea of closely listening to the demands of the body and consuming food in accordance. Jainism has given exceptional importance to fasting. During Paryushan, a deep sympathy is shown towards all microorganisms in the universe along with self cleansing. At the same time with Pratikraman, meaning self-introspection, a new journey is commenced. From these examples one observes that not just Hinduism, but all religions have associated fasting with faith and worship. This certainly has some scientific basis. In sanskrit fasting is called upas. Upanishads give the meaning of up + aasan as sitting with your desired energy. It is not just sitting in one place but the process of forming a synergy between mind and body, becoming neutral and looking within oneself.

The cell is the basic unit of our body. A number of cells are continuously active in our body, the energy utilised by these cells is largely sugar (blood glucose). Whatever we eat converts largely into glucose and provides energy to the cells. The cells work, and thus the body works. While creating this energy, the body also creates many other non-useful elements. These need to be emissioned, drained out. When we pre-decide and not consume food for sometime, the cells in our body have a system of recycling these unused/unwanted elements into energy again. Anyways, half of what we eat is accumulated in our body in general. We have a long history to support this fact. For prehistoric man, concepts like ‘food at any time’ and a variety of foods available 24 hours did not exist. As available food was scarce, hunting or gathering food every day in the morning was a daily routine. Food was usually tubers, fruits, at the most animal hunt, that were relished in the evenings. Sometimes there was simply no food due to natural calamities. In such times the fats stored in the body were utilised.

Even today, after thousands of years of evolution, our body keeps reserves inside. During fasting, the body uses ‘fat’ instead of glucose for energy. The energy thus acquired is used by the muscles. Simultaneously, elements with carbon called ‘ketones’ are also generated in some quantity. These ‘ketones’ are useful for our brain to an extent. It is said that these are the brain's favourite food, these increase the capacity of the brain and make it even more enthusiastic. The mind is able to concentrate, and eventually one is able to worship. One acquires stability, the body is cleansed, and so are our thoughts. And aren't thoughts the energy of living?

।।लंघंनं परमौषधम्।।

(fasting is the foremost medicine)

This is a popular idiom; if anyone has indigestion at home, rather than taking the quick release medicines, they are generally suggested to simply not eat, i.e fasting. Avoiding eating for a particular period of time actually acts like a medicine. Nowadays advertisements promote a number of powders, tablets to consume immediately in indigestion for quick relief, but these have adverse effects on our digestion in loger terms and eventually medicines stop working on our body. So the best medicine actually is fasting.

Father of modern medicine – Hippocrates (c.460 - c.370 BC) has also stated that sudden death occurs in overweight people than people with well - maintained body fats. He also accepted that the lifestyle with exercise, appropriate food intake and fasting or starving periodically was for good health. He says that fasting helps the healing of our body. Swiss German physician and father of Toxicology, Paracelsus (1493-1541) says, “the dose makes the poison”; means too much of something destroys it. Although food is essential for our survival, excess of eating is harmful for the body and leads to diseases, thus it should be consumed only in appropriate amounts.

"Fasting is the greatest remedy - the physician within." Many Greek thinkers have also supported the concept of fasting. Mahatma Gandhi in fact has given an exceptional example to fasting, non-violence and its combined power. Be it Mahatma Gandhi pacing ahead after 21 days of fasting or the contemporary Jain, Hindu, Buddhism masters, all are the symbols of energy. What cannot be achieved with fasting? It naturally helps control fattening. It controls glucose in the body and eventually secretion of insulin is streamlined, thus insulin resistance is avoided. The oxidation process in the body is reduced and so lesser free radicals are generated, thus fasting actually works like a natural antioxidant. ‘Triglycerides’, the unnecessary cholesterol in the body is controlled and significantly, it is the easiest, natural and the most convenient way to bring in ‘happiness’.

"अतीव बलहीनं हि लंङ घनं नैव कारयेत्। ये गुणाःलंङघनं प्रोकास्ते गुणाः लघुभोजने।।"

This idiom suggests that weak, malnutritioned people should not fast. They should take light food with appropriate nutrition value. Fasting should be done for a particular period of time, and only as per requirement. It is advisable to go to the doctor and take appropriate directions for the same. To not have food is an extremely malnutritioned, sad state of the body; our body in such circumstances does not get required nutrition and becomes weak. But if done with correct advice and proper understanding, fasting can give ample nutrition to the mind and the body, and thus fasting is a natural elixir given to us by nature. Its correct incorporation in life can make us healthy, fit and fine.

Dr. Vinita Deshpande