On fasting fellowship

THERE has been a unique coincidence this year in that two major religious groups, the Muslims and Hindus started their respective fastings on the same day, Tuesday, October 4, 2005. The Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan, whereas the Hindus are observing Navaratris.

By C. M. Bhandari

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Published: Wed 12 Oct 2005, 10:39 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 6:52 PM

The nature of fasting may be different — for example, the Muslims observe total abstention from food, drinking, smoking, sexual desire, and other vices like greed, anger, jealousy, etc. from dawn to dusk, whereas the Hindus can take water, milk, fruits anytime of the day or night, but have only one meal of cereals during the 24 hours — yet the philosophy behind fasting is universal.

It is interesting that both Hindu and Islamic calendars follow the lunar month, which is of 29 1/2 days. The lunar year is thus 11 days shorter than the English calendar year, and in 36 years of the latter, the lunar calendar completes 37 years. Thus, the English month of Ramadan keeps changing every year and returns to the first month after 36 years. This is not so with the Hindu calendar year, even though it also follows the lunar month. This is because the Hindu calendar allows an extra lunar fortnight’s correction every alternate year or so, and therefore, the exact date of Indian festivals may vary within 29 1/2 days of the given month, but not round the year.

Navaratris literally means nine nights during which Hindus offer prayers. I have never observed the Navaratris’ fast, but I observe a weekly fast every Tuesday. Therefore, as luck would have it, my Tuesday fast on October 4 also became a Navaratri fast and a Ramadan fast, for I decided to experience my body response to the stricter Ramadan fast regime by abstaining from food, drinking, smoking and sexual desire from dawn to dusk. I am glad to report that it has turned out to be a great event in my life.

Before I describe my feeling and understanding of the practice of fasting, let me greet ‘Ramadan Kareem’ to our Muslim brothers and sisters. Ramadan is a wonderful practice of cleansing the body and spirit, and at the same time promoting fellowship. I had the great privilege of joining many friends, several of whom I was meeting for the first time, for the first evening Iftaar at Shaikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan’s (Minister of Education) majlis (public meeting) and exchange greetings on the occasion. Every day is turning out to be a learning process for understanding the teachings of the Holy Quran, and a better appreciation of Islam as a religion.

The print media is daily carrying expositions on Ramadan fasting by Muslim scholars, highlighting the significance of fasting. Allah revealed the Holy Quran to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) during this holy month. It should, therefore, follow that fasting leads to purification of thoughts, and that in turn leads to revelations by Allah. The Holy Quran also says: “O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed for you as it had been for people before you, so that ye may attain Taqwa (piety, self-restraint).”

I would like to argue that the key word in the above sura is (ye who) ‘believe’. This belief if intensified, develops into faith, an acceptance that fasting leads to piety and self-restraint. It is this faith that leads the believer to observe the fast and naturally experience the benefits thereof. Without belief leading to faith, even the most orthodox follower would not have the determination to fast in the first place, and even if he/she does fast, is unlikely to experience any benefit out of it, and therefore, will conclude that it is all a mere ritual or superstition. The beauty of religious belief lies in experiencing the results by oneself, and then alone do you realise the power of religious practices in daily living.

It is universally accepted that there is only one God, only the names and attributes given are different, just as all human beings are the same in their physiology and anatomy, yet different in their languages, cultures, beliefs, etc. Likewise, fasting is observed by every religious group in different forms, but the ultimate objective of fasting is the same, spiritual purification and search for the truth — the existence of One and only One Supreme Power, no matter by what name we describe Him.

Fasting helps in atoning the physical health of the body. There is no blind faith about it. For example, what you eat matters for health. Fatty foods take more time to digest. The body system takes longer and harder to digest red meat or fried food. Likewise, certain vegetables like onion and garlic produce heat in the body. Eating a light diet of fruits and milk or juices, that is sufficient to supplement the required calories for the body, gives a feeling of light body and freshness, because the body does not take long to digest the food. Overeating leads to laziness or even constipation and illnesses. But if fasting is combined with the purification of the thought process, it becomes even more powerful for atonement of the body and mind, healing of chronic diseases, and spiritual upliftment.

The requirement of abstinence from drinking, desire for sex, and other vices is equally important. Drinking, especially of alcoholic contents, is a major obstacle in the thought process. It does not allow the intellect and memory faculties of the brain to perform normally. Likewise, sexual desire is a big drain on the vital energy of the body and has to be curbed if one is desirous of spiritual purification. The curbing, including that of other vices, has to be not only in action but also in speech and even more important, in thought as well. Thoughts actually lead to speech, which in turn leads to action, what in Indian religious texts is called abstention in all three states, viz. Manasaa, Vachaa, and Karmanaa. The entire process is designed to transcend the physical existence of the body and by scientific reasoning, experience higher consciousness.

The ancient Indian texts, e.g. 'Patanjali Yogasutra', Ch. II, aphorism 1, provide for Tapah, Swadhyaaya, and Ishwarpranidhaan for attainment of higher consciousness. Tapah relates to austerities, including fasting and minimising personal living needs. The seeker is advised to observe austerities, both physical and mental like accepting with equanimity sufferings arising out of reverses and failures of the materialistic life, and must remain steadfast in the path of self-realisation under all circumstances. Swadhyaaya relates to reading of the scriptures and understanding their deeper meanings.

Allah says in the Holy Quran: “A Book, which We have revealed to you in order that its verses may be pondered upon, so that the people of understanding may be reminded.” Unless we acquire this knowledge, mere fasting is going to provide good health, but not enlightenment. Finally, Ishwarpranidhaan means surrender to the will of God. No matter what the outcome of your efforts is, it should be accepted as the will of God. Such an approach towards daily life ensures stress-free healthy living and constant forward march on the path of success.

Therefore, the practice of fasting if inculcated on a continuous basis, has tremendous benefits for a healthy living, but it also helps the practitioner towards atoning of the thought process. The day we have succeeded in purifying our thoughts completely, which in fact implies a state of mind where no thought is able to disturb or distract the peace of mind, that state is known as being in communion with God. In my weekly Tuesday fasts, I have been following the above philosophy with absolutely brilliant results and am confident that the Ramadan fasting regime is going to make it even more empowered. Fasting fellowship is a good example of accepting the best from all sources of faith.

C. M. Bhandari is India’s Ambassador to the UAE. The views expressed above are his own. He can be reached at cmbhandari@gmail.com

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