Is Fasting Good for You? (Upavaas)
Is Fasting Good for You? (Upavaas)
No. It is not good for me. I have never fasted in my life.
The question was from one of my distant relative Ajji (old lady). Whenever we meet during any family function we talk about many subjects. She is a retired school teacher. She asked further: “But according to our tradition we have to fast during Ekadasi. Upavaas (fasting) is the best spiritual practice to reach god, according to Hinduism”
“Yes Ajji, if you continue fasting, probably you will reach God faster….” I replied.
“Remember, all our Gurus and priests recommend Upavaas.”
“If fasting is really good then why not they fast their entire lives?”
“Lord Shiva said we have to fast during Siva Ratri. And Lord Vishnu said we have to fast during Vaikunta Ekadasi”
“Did they send you SMS Ajji? How can these Gods command you not to eat and drink? How can they be happy when you are starving? Isn’t that a baseless superstition? “I asked. The same Siva said “the first duty is to care for the body for practicing Dharma” (Sharira Madhyam Khalu Dharma Sadhanam).
“You have never fasted, Uday?”
“Oh, I do fast every day. Most probably, it would be between 10PM and 4AM, while I am asleep. But sometimes when I get up in between and if I feel hungry I would eat biscuits or banana”
“But you should try fasting Uday, to understand its benefits…”
“Of course yes, I want to try fasting between meals.”
“Fasting is good for your health…”
“Thank you for the advise and your concern about my health Ajji. But each body has different style of operation. I cannot tolerate hunger. My stomach would rumble.”
“There are hundreds of research studies that show Upavaas (fasting) is a healthy practice…”
“I can show equal or more number of studies that prove fasting is unhealthy,” I replied.
“I have been fasting every month during Ekadasi, Amaavasi, Sashti etc. so I could get blessings for me and my entire family…”
“That’s very nice of you Ajji. I appreciate and respect your good intention behind fasting. I know millions of people fast on certain days based on their belief and to appease certain deities.”
“But our scriptures say you must perform fasting…”
“Which scripture?” I asked.
“I don’t understand why you are being so adamant on this. Why are you opposing fasting?”
“Ajji, I am not adamant and I am not opposing. You asked me a question; I answered it… there are millions of people who are starving. I would appreciate if you skip one time food and provide it to people who really starve. My prayer is, ‘oh God, let me not starve.’ You would want to starve to please god. That’s the difference. As far as I am concerned, any fasting is adharmic and violent, so I don’t follow it.”
“Why? That’s my question. Mahatma Gandhi undertook 17 fasts during India’s freedom movement. Fasting was a weapon used by Gandhiji as part of his philosophy of Ahimsa or Non Violence”
“Gandhiji is our nation’s father. That doesn’t mean I need to follow everything he did. He was fasting as a form of protest. I would call his action as hunger strike. He was expressing his anger to British through those hunger strikes,” I continued: “It is equivalent to taking out one’s frustration over one incident on someone or something else. If you are angry with British, you should show it to them, not to the food you eat. According to our tradition, we should beg food from Goddess Annapurna. Food is ‘Anna Lakshmi’ and no one is supposed to show any disrespect to ‘Anna’ by telling NO.”
“Hmmm. You have a point there. But Gandhiji was doing it as a non-violent (ahimsa) protest”
“A human being consists of trillions of living beings inside. When you go fasting you are doing injustice to those cells and you are hurting them. So, how can it be an ahimsa (non-violence)? It’s a pure act of violence only”
“But fasting didn’t affect his health adversely…In fact, fasting made him healthier…”
“He might have been an exception Ajji. I know a tobacco smoker who is 80 now. He is still healthy.”
“You are a tough nut Uday. But how could you say fasting is unhealthy?”
“I don’t see any healthy aspect in fasting. According to my understanding, if you don’t eat for long periods of time, your body will go into starvation mode. Then, the body starts to burn the energy from the fat stored in the body. After that, when you start eating again, that food won’t be burned off as quickly, so you will end up in gaining weight. When you’re fasting, you’re stressing your body and in turn it deposit fats instead of losing it.”
“Isn’t it the other way around?”
“Ask any qualified dietitians without religious fanaticism. They wouldn’t recommend fasting. Instead they would prescribe a suitable diet for you. The human body is designed on the basic principle of conservation of energy. Why are we blind with beliefs? We are too lazy to seek truth. Truth seeking is energy spending activity for the brain. So, brain will always be comfortable with beliefs. When you suddenly reduce intake of oil, what will happen? The memory of genes would consider it as ‘famine time’ and would start storing fat. The principle of conservation of energy. So, you will end up in higher cholesterol level”
“Do you think all those religious practitioners are idiots to follow and advocate fasting?”
“No. All religions have fasting discipline. I respect all religious beliefs. But I follow Sanatan Dharma, in which I am free to follow any path. You are free to practice your beliefs. But, if you claim that religious fasting is good for the health, I can’t agree because it is obviously not. An oncology doctor once told me that (statistically speaking) the incidents of colon cancer was more among people who were fasting. But he didn’t want to make a public statement as it would hurt religious sentiments. I know a person ,who thought ‘spiritually advanced’ because of Upavaas, had to cut off a part of his colon”
“But Ayurveda promotes fasting…”
“Yes, but not for all. Fasting should be done under strict and expert supervision of a doctor who knows about the Tridosha. The Ayurveda fasting calls for high discipline. It says that fasting beyond the threshold of the body is not only unhealthy but dangerous for the normal functioning of the body.”
“Are there any side-effects for fasting?”
“Medical science says starving may lead to headaches, dehydration related problems, loss of mental ability, inability to function normally, irritability, unable to concentrate and problems related to stomach and digestive system. The acids in the stomach are powerful enough to melt iron! Continuous fasting may also cause ulcer and Ulcerative colitis.”
“But many people say that fasting made them rejuvenate, light fresh and happy?”
“Yes, since it is deeply imbibed in the belief system, there could be some psychological benefits. Fasting acts as a good placebo in many people. But, mostly, fasting puts a tremendous strain on the heart. Our body is designed to have a regular intake of food and water”
“Oh, really? You mean to say human body is NOT designed for fasting?”
“If that was the case, the production of digestive acids would have stopped the moment you begin fasting. Why does your mouth produce saliva when you go for fasting? It is a very unhealthy practice to go on starving when the saliva is produced.”
“Uday, then why did our ancestors promote Upavaas?”
“That’s a good question. Upavaas means sitting near to God. It also means abstinence from all sensual gratification.”
“When you reach near God – that is if you realise the divine presence in you – your desire to eat will reduce drastically. Your intake of food would be limited only to keep the body alive…”
“So, this is a reverse superstition…?”
“I think so. Upavaas means sitting near to God so that you don’t experience hunger. You made it just ulta (opposite) and created a belief that starving will take you near to God. Yes, you could reach God ASAP, if you to stop eating forever.”
“So, according to Sastra we have Upavaas practices.”
“Yes – as part of vratas (observance of religious rituals), devotees keep ‘Upavaas’ or fast. It is part of that ritual and not for long time period. What’s more they do ‘Achamanam’ (Sipping a little water, in the prescribed manner). So please do not mix up scientific Vedic dharma with your beliefs.”
“A friend of mine advised me that I shouldn’t go for Upavaas in day time…”Ajji told.
“It must be true. Human body has a natural rhythm aligned with the rise and fall of the sun. It is a scientifically proven fact. We call this rhythm, our Circadian Rhythm. Our body, like Mother Nature, function according to natural cycles (body rhythms) of the internal body clock (biological clock) according to Sun’s movement. We are not nocturnal creatures”
“That’s right. I know it and I have taught about it in school classes.”
“The science of eating is grounded in the fact that all life depends on the world’s largest energy source, the sun. So our ancestors advised that we should eat only during the day time. Medical science says that late night dinner is not only unhealthy but is the culprit for most of the diseases. But I know this is impossible for lots of people who have night duty etc. Since human body is more flexible and has more adaptability than any of living creatures, the life style change happens everywhere. But it would always be better and preferable if you eat during day time only. ….”I said.
Fasting is strictly a religious belief. It could work very well for those who believe in it. However, I don’t believe in it. So it won’t work with me. And I don’t think belief has anything to do with truth.
Tail piece: Calvary Memorial Church in Racine, WI, USA announced in the church bulletin for a National PRAYER & FASTING conference: “The cost for attending the Fasting and Prayer conference includes meals.”
During a huge mass fasting organised by a political party, one attendee asked: “What kind of food is permitted to eat while fasting?” The receptionist said: “Fast food.”
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