On the eve of Shivratri I am re-posting a ‘fasting’ post, especially since this post is getting a lot of hits today!
Fasting seems to have stuck to me and my blog – fast. I can’t help it, what with Anna, Baba Ramdev and even the likes of Modi going on one to make their points/presence. None of them gave me a complex for not fasting though, not even Anna who had fasted for a cause.
But my maids over the years have been another matter altogether and when they start giving me a guilt complex on account of their fasts and my non-fasts, it is time to start pondering and ranting. Don’t you agree?
I once had this maid who fasted on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The heathen that I was, I would make a breakfast of upma with onions in it. She would sniff it the moment she came into the kitchen. ‘Don’t give me breakfast today. I will just have tea,’ she would announce loftily. The first time I had innocently asked her why. ‘It is my fast today and I won’t eat onions,’ she had replied, looking at me pointedly. Suddenly reduced to the height of two inches, I would try to dig a hole with my toes big enough to bury myself in for shame. It was bad enough that I didn’t fast on any day of the week, it was worse that I ate onions on the days she fasted. So I would try to remember frantically each morning to look up the calendar to ascertain her fast days and make something that would be acceptable to her. I swear that no bahu could have been as mortally afraid of her mother-in-law as I was of this maid!
There was this other one, who didn’t eat any cooked food on Mondays and no salt on Thursdays. I would have to remember to give her some fruit with her tea on these days. Even that I could take, but when she asked me, ‘Aap barat nahin rakhte kya? (Don’t you observe any fast?) I would look at her guiltily and shake my head awash with shame – for being a middle-aged woman and a grandmother to boot – and eating everyday of the week!
It was worse when I had a Muslim maid. During Ramzan, she would not even swallow her saliva, going to the washbasin every few minutes to spit it out. It would make me so self conscious that I would wait for her to finish her chores and leave so that I could have a cup of tea or make something to eat. Not that she asked me anything about not fasting. Thank God for small mercies!
Alas, all of these women or their taunts couldn’t still make me start fasting – for love of ideology/power/kursi. I am not including God because I don’t believe that one needs to fast to show one’s love for Him. We south Indians especially believe that festivals are meant for feasting and not fasting. We have specific and elaborate naivedyams (offerings) for each festival and we lovingly prepare them, do puja, offer them to God and then gorge on them! Of course, all the heavy food meant that one couldn’t eat more than one meal that day and so we fasted in the evenings. Convenient, isn’t it?
On Ganesh chaturthi, we make a whole lot of things starting with modak, vada, sweet appam, sundal, kheer, laddoo and offer an assortment of fruits. Or take Navaratri: the offerings include a sweet, a sundal, a mixed rice preparation all the nine days and one of Dushera. I had written about the way we celebrate this festival here. All the pujas are done in the mornings, which meant that the Gods (and you) are well fed by noon. When you are celebrating the birthday of a God, how can you starve Him the whole day? I can think of only a couple of festivals/vrats that are celebrated in the evening and so one fasted through the day and prepared all the goodies to offer God in the evenings. Janmashtami is one such. Shivaratri is the only festival during which nothing is eaten all day and night too, if one could manage to go hungry and stay awake.
Now take our northern counterparts. They fast on all festivals be it Navaratri or Shivaratri. I find this unacceptable because Hindus believe that every life form is the incarnation of God. So how can you starve the God inside you? In fact, unless you are highly spiritual or extremely religious, it is not possible to ignore the gnawing inside your stomach and pray. People in my old neighbourhood used to be aghast at the spectacle of a woman who did her puja-paath after filling her belly. ‘Don’t you fast during Navaratri?’ asked one busybody. ‘No. We offer the goddess a feast and eat the prasad!’ I told her without batting an eye. After all, you only have to add an ‘E’ to fast to make a feast, right? Needless to say, she turned away in disgust.
Often, religious fasting is not just about fasting. It is also about eating. You can eat certain foods during fasts or after breaking the fast. Sabudana, potatoes, nuts, fruits, milk, tea, coffee, juices….the list is exhaustive. Maharashtrians have a whole range of yummy upvas-layak (suitable for upvas) foods. Come Navaratri, the restaurants in the capital have special thalis, which has dishes prepared from specific foods that are ‘allowed’ during the fasting period. Eating certain foods and avoiding certain others is part of fasting. Come to think of it, religious fasting is pretty complicated!
Don’t take me amiss. I am not against such fasting, even I fast on occasions as detailed above when I eat just one meal, but never through the day. Fasting is an ideal way to cleanse the system, and enhance one’s spirituality. What gets my goat is the sanctimonious way in which those who fast act vis-à-vis us non fasters — as if we are the ultimate sinners, as they down gallons of tea or coffee, not to speak of other ‘acceptable eatables’, in the name of fasting. Some have food taboos during certain days of the week – they would not eat meat or eggs on say, Mondays or Tuesdays or whichever day they observed a fast. If they feel eating meet or eggs is morally or spiritually wrong, how can it make it right if they eat them on other days of the week? I have never been able to get a satisfactory reply from these people on this subject.
Typically, religious fasting is undertaken with the purpose of going closer to God and one is expected to engage in spiritual pursuits and prayers. Also it is healthy to fast periodically as one grows older, but I find it unacceptable when young children observe vrats and fasts and are encouraged to do so by their parents and elders because their bodies are not designed for fasting and they need all the energy they can get.
Fasting is not restricted to the Hindus alone. All major religions have fasting in some form or the other. Christians fast during Lent and Muslims during the month of Ramzan. Muslims are allowed to eat before sunrise and after sunset, but forgo even water during the day, which can be really tough since the month typically falls during summer. Jains have several ways of fasting too.
Do you feel that one can get closer to God only by fasting? Or am I the only oddball in this world who thinks otherwise?
Image courtesy: Hindu.com