Fasting is the act giving up eating or drinking or both. Eating and drinking are simple biological acts that human beings generally do every day. Most religions have found it useful to order and regulate them. They have told people what they may and may not eat or drink.
A religion’s dietary laws do this. They make restrictions that are permanent. Fasting imposes restrictions, too, but it makes restrictions that are temporary. A fast may involve only speciﬁ c items, or it may be total. In any case, fasting is a particularly pointed way to involve one’s body in religious observance. It may also be used to evoke mental events that occur when someone is deprived of food and drink.
When people fast, how long they fast, who fasts, what they give up in fasting, and why they are fasting—these are questions that religions answer very differently.
Some fasts are short; others are long. On the DAY OF ATONEMENT, observant Jews fast from one sunset to the next. Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant Christians have traditionally fasted during the 40-day period before EASTER known as LENT. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire month of RAMADAN. BAHA’IS fast in the same way for an entire month, but the Baha’i month is only 19 days long. Fasts may take place before life-cycle RITUALS. For example, some Native Americans fast before seeking a VISION. Fasts may also take place before rituals performed for HEALING and renewal. Orthodox Christians fast before receiving the EUCHARIST.
Some fasts involve the entire community: the Day of Atonement, Lent, Ramadan. But even here there may be exceptions. For example, those for whom the Ramadan fast may present difﬁ culties—the elderly, the sick, the very young, pregnant women, travelers—are not supposed to fast. Other fasts involve small groups, for example, those who will participate in an indigenous American sweat lodge or Orthodox Christians who will receive the eucharist at a particular service. Still others may be entirely private. Hindu women often take personal vows that may involve fasting.
At the maximum, fasting involves total abstention from food and drink. On the Day of Atonement observant Jews do not eat, drink, or smoke for 25 to 26 hours. Certain Jain SAINTS give up eating and drinking as a way to bring on death. But many fasts are partial. For example, it was once common for Roman Catholics not to eat meat on Friday.
The reasons people fast are as numerous as the reasons people practice religion. In ancient Greece, people fasted to get ready to be initiated into secret cults known as “mysteries”. Some people fast to purify their bodies or control their appetites and desires. The fast on the Day of Atonement is part of a ritual asking for GOD’s forgiveness. Jains fast in order to stop the accumulation of bad KARMA. Some people fast to acquire spiritual merit and beneﬁ ts; for example, a Hindu woman may fast to have the same husband in her next life. Christians fast at Lent as a reminder of their SINS. The Ramadan fast commemorates important events in early Islam. It also helps Muslims develop sympathy for the less fortunate, for whom fasting is a way of life.
In the 20th century, Mohandas GANDHI made special use of fasting. He said that he fasted to learn to control his senses and to atone for the sins of his followers. But his fasts were also very effective political tools. In the time since Gandhi, many others have gone on hunger strikes to bring issues of injustice to public attention.