Iftar meals inside a Mumbai mosque (Photo: Reuters)
IN THE QURANIC verses that exhort fasting during the month of Ramzan, the objective is for piety to become stronger. As it turns out, there are some unmentioned benefits too. Blood pressure, for instance. When a large section of population stays off food during the day for a month, what some scientists see is a ready sample for studies around health. A number of them have been done on what happens to physical markers when people fast during Ramzan. In a recent one, called the London Ramadan Fasting Study, the blood pressure of 85 Muslims who were fasting during Ramzan was recorded, both before and after. It decreased. They also looked at literature of similar studies done elsewhere, and the results agreed with theirs. The paper said: “SBP (systolic blood pressure) and DBP (diastolic blood pressure) after Ramadan fasting were lower by 7.29 mm Hg (–4.74 to –9.84) and 3.42 mm Hg (–1.73 to –5.09), even after adjustment for potential confounders. We identified 2,778 studies of which 33 with 3,213 participants were included. SBP and DBP after/before Ramadan were lower by 3.19 mm Hg (–4.43 to –1.96, I2=48%) and 2.26 mm Hg (–3.19 to –1.34, I2=66%), respectively. In subgroup analyses, lower blood pressures were observed in the groups who are healthy or have hypertension or diabetes but not in patients with chronic kidney disease.” Besides blood pressure, there have also been Ramzan studies that showed weight loss, lowering of blood sugar and other benefits just by giving the body a break from eating.
Fasting during Ramzan started only after the beginning of Islam, which is about 1,400 years old. But thousands of years before that, religions mention fasting. The Book of Exodus, which has Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt, has this verse: “Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”
Fasting began as a way of negotiating with divine powers, man proving his devotion to god saying that I am forsaking what my body needs for sustenance in order that I show my faith in you, and in doing so, you take greater care of me. It is an investment philosophy, sacrificing present consumption for a bigger reward that would come later. This is religion’s essence. Humans exist in a scary ocean of uncertainties and if there is a power that can provide stability, it must be manoeuvred into noticing us.
Almost every religion incorporates fasting in myriad ways. If Islam has Ramzan, then Christians have Lent. In a sermon, St Augustine of Hippo, one of the early Christian philosophers in the 4th century CE who gave direction to the religion in its infancy, says (from Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, translated by Sister Mary Sarah Muldowney): “Let us fast, humbling our souls as the day draws near on which the Teacher of humility humbled Himself becoming obedient even to death on a cross. Let us imitate His cross, fastening to it our passions subdued by the nails of abstinence. Let us chastise our body, subjecting it to obedience, and, lest we slip into illicit pleasures through our undisciplined flesh, let us in taming it sometimes withdraw licit pleasures. Self-indulgence and drunkenness ought to be shunned on other days; throughout this season, however, even legitimate eating is to be checked.” Some of the suffering of Christ himself is taken on through the fast.
Hinduism also has numerous connections to fasting. The Mahabharata has references to it. The nine days of Navratri is associated with it. Fasting is also a form of purification in the religion. During the month of Shravan, many decide to not touch liquor or meat. On Karva Chauth, wives fast till moonrise and a north Indian rite is now spilling over to the south thanks to Bollywood movies. The Jains have taken the concept to such an extreme that they have Sallekhana, where someone decides to end his life by fasting. It is publicly announced and the fast unto death becomes a celebration of sorts in the community, the person who is fasting is venerated.
IN THE MODERN WORLD, the concept of fasting has metamorphosed. The target is not necessarily god. In politics, it found fertile soil as a means of resistance to a higher human power. The emotions that are sought to be invoked from that power, whoever the fast is against, are guilt, shame and fear. When Anna Hazare went on his fast against corruption a decade back, it was to shame the government. The longer that fast continued, it would make the nation guilty that they were not doing enough to save his life. For such a fast to work, there must be potent moral force behind it. It underpinned Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts that propelled the Independence movement. In no personality did the spiritual and the political merge so much as in Gandhi in modern times, and his fasts, too, were of the same admixture. He was doing all of it together with his fasts—establishing a spiritual connection with the divine, enforcing a political issue, making those around him swing his way over a point when they didn’t agree and also using it as a tool to refine the body and mind. His first public fast in South Africa was because two inmates of his ashram had a physical relationship, and he felt the need to atone for them because of his obsession with celibacy. It was a more effective punishment than if he actually used violence on them. Within five years, back in India, he was fasting in service of politics, to get textile workers in Sabarmati a raise. By the end of his life, after Independence had been won, he continued using the fasts as a means of reducing the virulent hatred Hindus and Muslims felt for each other over Partition. He once said about fasting: “A complete fast is a complete and literal denial of self. It is the truest prayer. Take my life and let it be, always, only, all for Thee’ is not, should not be, a mere lip or figurative expression. It has to be reckless and joyous giving without the least reservation. Abstention from food and even water is but the mere beginning, the least part of the surrender.” Ordinarily, if the aim is so lofty, political ends should be irrelevant. But Gandhi’s genius was in how he could deftly merge everything in his person and politics.
The political fast is an instrument very fit for liberal societies but a fast cannot appeal to the conscience of a ruthless dictator because he has none. With others, it can even evoke a conscience into being
Share this on
It has often been pointed out that fast unto death of the political variety only works in the face of a reasonable opponent. If Gandhi had tried to do it in Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, it wouldn’t have worked. Long before his body withered to death, they would have killed him. The political fast is an instrument very fit for liberal societies, but a fast cannot appeal to the conscience of a ruthless dictator because he has none. With others, it can even evoke a conscience into being. Soon after Independence, there came an instance of when the government allowed a political leader to fast unto death and then had to pay for it. In 1952, Potti Sreeramulu, a freedom fighter, began to fast to demand statehood for Andhra Pradesh. The government ignored him, and he died after 58 days leading to violent agitations. Within days, Jawaharlal Nehru agreed to the demand. Fear of the unrest that would transpire should a person die, an offshoot of the veneration that such self-harm creates, is why governments are wary of fasts. Their response is often to force feed.
Fasting began as a way of negotiating with divine powers, man proving his devotion to god. It is an investment philosophy, sacrificing present consumption for a bigger reward that would come later. This is religion’s essence
Share this on
But they don’t need to do that for a fast to fail, the public can become unconvinced. A decade ago, there was a remarkable instance of this when a man who was hailed as the new Gandhi saw his halo disappear overnight. Anna Hazare’s initial fasts against corruption aroused India but later, when he gave up a fast citing ill health, the moral force vanished and people stopped caring. An implicit covenant—that someone who goes on a fast unto death must be willing to die—had been breached. An astute politician like Gandhi knew it and he was extremely careful about the manner in which he began and ended fasts. Hazare was ad hoc.
Religion is an ancient institution guided by instinct and experience. Fasting ticked many of the boxes as a function of religion. Buddhist monks don’t eat after noon and have a daily fasting regimen. This is purportedly an aid to meditation, from which eventually liberation from suffering is promised. Buddha couldn’t have known the effect of this fasting on production of adrenaline, a hormone that makes the mind sharper, or insulin, which leads to lethargy. But his monks experienced the benefits of fasting in how well they were able to meditate.
Today, millions who have nothing to do with Buddhism follow a similar fasting regimen and report similar benefits. Termed intermittent fasting, it is confused with a diet because the endpoints—weight loss and better health—are the same. But it does not mandate what you eat, only the time when you should be eating. Intermittent fasting works by regulating the hormones triggered by food which are involved in metabolic fitness. You can also choose your fasting window. Some do it for 16 hours a day, some fast two days a week and eat regularly the rest of the five days. Intermittent fasters do it on the basis of a corpus of scientific studies. This is how science has evolved, from astrology to astronomy, from alchemy to chemistry, and so on. They are wrenched out of religion, studied and experimented upon to confirm and make replicable. Fasting is in that stage. People now go for weeks without food—long fasts that have no religious objective. They have been found to increase the production of the growth hormone, which is associated with repairing cells and slow the pace of ageing. Humans might end up doing a lot more of fasting in future but just not in service of another world.