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Fasting in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Ancient Greek Traditions




“O you who have attained to faith! Fasting is ordained for you as it was ordained for those before you, so that you might remain conscious of Allah.”

(Qurān, al-Baqara, 2:183)


The practice of fasting is found in the religious life of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhist and others.
In Christianity, the largest and most widespread of the world’s religions, fasting has formed a regular practice from its inception, and its origins can be retraced to the life of Christ. In the gospels we read of him fasting for forty days before the onset of his ministry. On one occasion, he cast a demon out of a man of was possessed. When pressed by his disciple to explain why they themselves were unable to do the same, he replied, “this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21).

Hunger, it was implied, allowed one to harness a power and thereby realize what would otherwise remain impossible. While Jesus left no explicit regulations about fasting, early Christians nevertheless engaged in the ritual although only after his departure, in some cases drawing on Jewish custom, and in others consciously differentiating themselves from the adherents of Christianity’s parent religion.

One may note, as a case a point, the adoption of fasting on Fridays and Wednesday to set the followers of the Nazarene apart from Jews who did so on Thursdays and Mondays to commemorate the days that Moses ascended and returned from Mt. Sinai.

Tertullian (d. 240 CE) spoke of the importance of fasting “on the Day of the Passion,” namely good Friday, and there also emerged some centuries after Christ “the fast of forty days.” The spiritual benefits of the restricting one’s consumption of food were widely acknowledged by early authorities. Chrysostom (d. 407 CE) the archbishop of Constantinople, for example, argued that it brightened the soul and gave it wings to mount and soar. The fifth century theologian Pseudo-Athanasius called attention to all that one gained by denying oneself physical sustenance. “Observe what fasting does,” he wrote, “it heals disease, dries up the bodily humors, casts out demons, chases away wicked thoughts, makes the mind clearer and the heart pure, sanctifies the body and places the person before the throne of God.”

Maximus the Confessor (d. 662 CE), on the other hand, felt that fasting had to be combined both with almsgiving and prayer, since fasting weakened the passions and sensual desire, while prayer purified the intellect and almsgiving soothed the inflamed disposition of the soul. The combination of all three contributed to perfecting the self. As a method of spiritual catharsis, fasting would become central to Christian piety, especially in the medieval ages where holy men and women would go on to acquire fame for surviving on the Eucharist alone.

Among pre-Christians fasting was no less pivotal to the holy life. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (d. 495 BCE) recommended a frugal, vegetarian diet and fasting. It is said that he would only initiate disciples after a taxing forty-day period of complete abstinence from food. Plato (d. 348/347 BCE) encouraged detachment from the appetites of the body and scorned gluttony since enslavement to physical desire prevented contemplation of the universals, preparation for death and the final ascent of the soul.

We also know of ascetic groups that emerged in 4th century BCE in Egypt who ate nothing before sunset, sometimes extending their fast for three or even six days. In the Hebrew Bible, Moses fasted on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Torah (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 9:9), as did the prophet Daniel before communion with God (Daniel 9:3). In the ancient Roman world, the Hebrews became so renown for the practice that the pagan emperor Augustus (d. 14 CE) could boast that “he had fasted more earnestly than a Jew.”

To this day the pious observe completion abstention from food and drink on Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.

Fasting Buddha, Lahore Musuem
As far as the Sino-Indian world is concerned, while it is true that the Buddha discouraged extreme asceticism, the middle way he advocated between the twin extremes of self-mortification and indulgence constitute fasting by most standards. In many monasteries, monks, following the example of Siddhartha, eat only once a day — a mid-meal followed by nothing afterwards. Buddhists may also fast on the days of the new and full moon (the 29th, 30th, 14th and 15th of the lunar month).

In Hindu tradition, recognized for having produced yogis and ascetics who have gone without food and water for inordinately long periods, the days of the fast often depend on the particular deity to whom one is devoted. And in Jainism, the principle of ahimsa or non-violence is taken to its logical end in the “fast unto death,” where the devotee vows not to harm any sentient being through a complete and total, albeit gradually induced, abstention from food until freed from the fetters of the flesh, and beyond that, one’s karmic bondage to samsara.



~ Credit, Ayn Kha Facebook Post


Further Reading:

# Fasting of Jesus Christ and Mary

# Intermittent Fasting Benefit and Buddhist Tradition

# Are you spiritually fat?

# Buddha Diet and Intermittent Fasting

# Fasting and the Holy Family

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