At one point in my life, I was quite a “fast-er”. I fasted on Thursdays for two decades. I also fasted on Saturdays for some time, and I fasted on Mondays in the month of Shravan (a month in the lunar Hindu calendar dedicated to Lord Shiva, which usually falls in July or August). I fasted one day a month in honour of Lord Ganesh, I fasted on special days such as Shivratri; I even fasted on days such as Gokulashtami (the day of Lord Krishna’s birth) when no one else fasts! Let’s just say something within me called me to fast on these days, and I simply followed my gut.
How I started fasting
The way I began fasting was quite interesting. I was about 19 at the time, studying in the second year of my engineering course at university. My father had been fasting for Thursdays for many years, and my mother … well, she used to be a bit of “fast-er” … quite like I have described myself in the paragraph above. Perhaps I got it from her, who knows! One day, I felt this inner urge to start fasting on Thursdays, and I announced my intention to the family at the dinner table: “I am going to start fasting on Thursdays from now on.” My parents were a little surprised on hearing this.
A little background
A little background would be useful at this point. In India, we usually fast on a particular day of the week or specific days of the month or year because that’s what everyone in the household does. We start fasting when we are told we should. The other reason people start fasting is if they are having a tough time with something in their life, and someone like a friend, a teacher or a spiritual guide recommends that they should start fasting on a specific day of the week.This is the case with most Hindus. People from other religions sometimes fast because it is expected/demanded, but even in those cases, they start because that’s what people around them do, or ask them to do.
My case was a bit unique because our parents never asked my brother or me to fast. Not on a specific day every week, or specific days in a month, or special days in a year … nothing at all. So my announcement, coming out of the blue as it did, was a bit of a surprise for my family. When they asked me why I wanted to fast, I really had no answer, except that “I feel that I should.” No one had advised me to, nor had I read about it anywhere. I just felt I wanted to, and that was it. My parents told me I was too young to fast, that these were my “growing years” as we call them in India, and that I could fast when I was a bit older. I heard them out, and then put the idea off.
A few weeks later, it came back. This time, I made my announcement again: “I’m going to start fasting on Thursday.” Once again, my family went through the same process of explaining to me that I was too young, and that there was no need for me to fast. But this time around, I had made my mind up. I said: “I’m going to start fasting on Thursdays, and that’s it. If you make me take my lunchbox to college, I’ll bring it back exactly as it is.”
The type of fasting I undertook
Now, in India, everyone has their own style of fasting. Some people eat specific foods such as khichdi made from sabudana (sago), which happens to be one of my favourite snacks to this day. Other people only take fruits, some take only milk, yet others take only water, and some really serious folks – nothing. Most people will only fast for one part of the day, i.e., skip meals in the daytime, and then have a normal meal in the evening after sunset. Over my “fasting years”, my routine varied from the sabudana khichdi to fruits, but it was generally about skipping food in the mornings and having a normal meal for dinner. I didn’t get to any of the “extreme” versions. Somewhere during the course of the many years of fasting, an interesting insight came to me suddenly one day. I wondered why I was fasting, and what inspired me to undertake a fast on Thursdays, all those years ago when I didn’t really have a clue. The answers rolled out from within:
First, health: the fasting was a good rest for the digestive system. That was simply from the physical aspect of things; resting the system is always a good thing, and I did notice that after a day’s fast I was ravenous and the fire in the belly burnt oh-so-bright.
Second, compassion: the experience of feeling hunger and still not satiating the hunger with food showed me what it felt like to be hungry and not have food. A great many of us are fortunate to have never experienced a lack of food when we need it, but there are also many who go hungry. Experiencing what it feels like to be hungry opened up my heart to a deep compassion for those who go hungry not out of choice like me, but out of having no choice. I could never look at a hungry person in the same way again, because I had experienced it, I knew how it felt, and I could feel what they must be going through. The fasting built this bridge of compassion.
Third, love when I felt hunger pangs through the day and it made me feel tired and irritable, it also reminded me why I was fasting. I fasted mainly on Thursdays, believed in India to be the day of the Guru (I talk about the Guru in a short article here), and also on some other days. The important lesson was that when something is done willingly from a place of love, any suffering that comes as part of that action does not annoy us. The hunger was of course very real and very present, but because I was doing it out of love, it didn’t feel bad; in fact, it felt good! This experience showed me first hand the miraculous power of Love; its ability to transcend suffering, and verily, to transform suffering into joy!
Fourth, discipline the habit of fasting instilled discipline, and the ability to resist urges without giving in blindly. There is great wisdom in the body of course, and when it signals us to eat or drink, we should usually follow its advice! However, we should not be slaves to our body, and that is what the discipline is all about.
Now and future
The fasting carried on for a full twenty years by the time I was done with it. Then one day, I simply stopped fasting altogether, when something within me said it was done with the fasting business.
These days, I don’t fast. Occasionally, if I feel a bit too full, I do skip a meal, but I do not undertake fasting as a practice like I did before.
As for tomorrow or a year down the line: who knows! It will depend on what my inner guidance feels is best in that moment. It’s better to follow your inner guidance, rather than having set rules. Rules are important when we are starting out, but at some point, we must get to the place where we’ve grown enough to no longer need rules to keep us in place – by then, we’ve learnt to listen to our inner voice. The lower our consciousness, the more rules needed; the higher our consciousness rises, the less rules there are. Externally, we may be exactly the same as before; the transformation is completely internal.