Ah, that commonly asked question during the month of Ramadan in beautiful Malaysia. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is a big deal for us food-obsessed Malaysians, with the Ramadhan bazaars popping up in every neighbourhood, with new hipster additions each year.
Fasting also does one's body a whole lot of good. It helps in weight loss, speeding up metabolism and promotes longevity.
In this Holy month of Ramadhan, let's take a look at how a few other religions and cultures in Malaysia - and around the world - practice fasting.
Disclaimer: The information stated here do not represent the exact purpose of fasting in each religion as stated explicitly in their scriptures. In this day and age, taking into account cultural norms, location and different ways of practicing organised religion, there are many dissimilar views and approaches to fasting. To each, his own.
A common comparison is made with Christianity, who also observe a fast. It is a temporary renunciation of something that is in itself good
, like food, in order to intensify our expression of need for something greater; namely God and his work in our lives. Although it is not explicitly commanded in the Holy Scriptures, there are indications that it was a norm back in the day.
It is also a way to glorify God. It is not a rigid form of fasting, and devotees are free to choose what they want to give up for this period, in some cases, the period of fast is also up to the devotee
. Some abstain from solid and liquid food, while others choose to go vegan.
Fasting is one of the principal tasks in Taoists' daily religious practice. The aim is for pious Daoists to keep their body clean and their soul pure
. Fasting existed long ago in ancient China. The Taoist’s fast generally means a vegetarian diet. However, depending on one’s physical conditions, one determines whether to choose complete abstention or half-abstention as the fasting method. Some people are allowed to eat some fruits, nuts and honey.
The length of time that one fasts depends on one’s strength and what one is capable of. Usually, a fast is undertaken for three days, five days, seven days and so on. Generally for Taoists, it is encouraged to fast on the first and fifteen day
of the lunar month. The ultimate aim of fasting in Taoism, is to be one with Tao.
Fasting is an ancient form of austerity in Hinduism. It is usually done either to express your gratitude, or as penance
. There are no fixed rules for fasting in contemporary Hinduism unless you are performing a particular Vedic sacrifice or a traditional ritual, in which case, one has to follow the scriptures and the long established tradition.
Fasting in Hinduism aims to build character, strength and purity as part of one’s preparation for liberation. It is also helpful to restrain the mind and the senses and practice detachment and self-control.
The fasting practiced these days may be either complete or partial. It is ultimately up to the individual as to what they would like to sacrifice for the deity of their choice
. For example, in some Vedic ceremonies the worshippers are allowed to drink only milk and water. In most cases, people break their fast after performing sacrifices or rituals and eating the remains of the food, called prasadam, which was offered to Gods.
A common form of fasting is by going on a vegetarian diet, negating eggs. Some devotees fast only by consuming fruits and milk throughout the day. There is no hard and fast written rule that explicitly states how a Hindu should fast, hence it is to be done at one’s own ability to do so.
Jainism is an organised religion which actively promotes fasting, and various types of fasts at that. Jains fast as penance, and to purify one's body and mind
- sort of a detox. Mahavira, a key figure of Jainism who reformed and refined previous teachings of the Jain tradition, went on fasts often as part of his journey of renunciation. Women of this religion partake in frequent fasts, sometimes for an extended period of time. In a similar fashion as Hinduism, fasting is performed in Jainism in conjunction with lunar cycles.
Prior to undertaking a fast, the participant makes a vow, considered a formal statement of intent. Followers of this religion also utilise fasts as a method to combat certain illnesses such as fever, asthma, hypertension and eczema.
Different fasts have different names in Jainism, and they comprise of either giving up water and food, or merely food, or sometimes limiting oneself to one meal per day. Fasting basically encourages Jains to maintain self-control and to not allow the five senses to overcome the devotee
Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í faith, designated a nineteen-day period each year during which adult Bahá’ís fast from sunrise to sunset
. This usually falls between the 2nd to the 20th of March, in the Bahá’í month of Ala which immediately precedes the Bahá’í new year.
In the Bahá’í faith, fasting is not viewed as a practice of asceticism, nor is it to be used as a means of atonement for one’s sins. Those fasting have to abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
The Bahá'í fast is usually practiced by all believers from the age of maturity, meaning from the age of fifteen up to seventy. However, some believers are exempted from fasting, such as travellers, the ailing, hard labourers and women who are menstruating, expecting or nursing. Bahá'u'lláh does not require missed days of fasting to be made up later.
Essentially, the Bahá’í fast is a time of meditation and spiritual rejuvenation
. The real meaning of the fast is abstention from the love for everything, other than the Manifestation of God.
In Buddhism, fasting is subdivided into the fasts undertaken by the monks, and those carried out by the lay people. Fasting in the monastic community is a difficult practice
, and is undertaken with supervision, under the guidance of a skilled mentor.
Monastic fasting has a list of thirteen practices, four of which pertain to food. They are eating once a day, eating at one sitting, reducing the amount you eat, and going around seeking alms, consuming only what the monk has received from the first seven houses. Some of these practices are adopted by individuals voluntarily, they are not required in the normal course of a Buddhist’s life practice.
Fasting is an additional method that one can take up, with supervision, for a time. Fasting in the lay community in Asia is sometimes connotes being vegetarian
. Basically, eliminating meat from one's diet, twice a month on the new or full moon days, or six times a month, or more often, is often considered a kind of fasting.
The principle holds that removing indulgences from the diet, in this case, nutrients that are luxuries eaten to satisfy the desire for flavour, is a form of fasting, and brings merit to the one who fasts.
Buddhist monastics who adopt the fasting practice described above do so by and large to purify their bodies and to clarify their thoughts. Fasting allows coarse thoughts to diminish, but strength also diminishes, so there is a trade-off between mental clarity and reduced ability to meditate as long. The Buddha, as is well known, emphasised moderation, and is believed to have asserted that extreme fasting runs contrary to the Buddhist path.
Why do so many religions practice fasting in the first place? Well, the answer to this has been evolving with the times. Back in the day was that by fasting and sacrificing a meal once a day for a period of time, food rationing was easier, as resources were scarce. This, we believe, is the fundamental idea behind fasting and why it was conceptualised.
The idea of fasting then progressed into a form of worship and devotion. Today, fasting has taken on a totally different role in overall health and wellbeing. It is a sort of detox for our organs, among other things. Having said that, should you give fasting a shot? Given that so many people do it, we say, what’s the harm in trying?