“Work done as a sacrifice for Vishnu has to be performed, otherwise work binds one to this material world. Therefore, O son of Kunti, perform your prescribed duties for His satisfaction, and in that way you will always remain unattached and free from bondage.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 3.9)
Lent is the holy period in the Catholic calendar where someone gives up something, a form of sense gratification which is usually meat eating, voluntarily. The Lent period lasts for forty days, so those accustomed to regularly eating meat scramble to find ways to adhere to the fast.
Lent is generally viewed unfavorably by the younger generation. “Why is God punishing us? Why can’t we just eat what we want?” These are some of the questions posed by followers of the faith. In actuality, most people don’t even adhere to the regulations of Lent. Those who are aware of it, often look for loopholes and excuses to continue their meat eating. “Oh fish doesn’t count. I can eat that. I can most certainly eat eggs. What about chicken? That’s not really meat right?” The Catholic Church had a long-standing rule stating that people couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. That rule has since been abolished due to the fact that no one was following it.
The concept of fasting is present in all major religions. The Muslims have the Ramadan Holiday where one is prohibited from taking food during daylight hours. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, probably have the most comprehensive list of fasting regulations. Those of us who grew up in Hindu families are very familiar with many of them. Our parents and elder relatives were always abiding by some type of fast. “Oh today is Tuesday. I don’t eat on Tuesday…I can’t eat anything with salt in it today…I can only eat fruits and drink water today.” These were some of the statements we commonly heard as children growing up. It seemed very puzzling to us, since we generally just ate whatever we wanted whenever we wanted. What was the point of starving yourself? Many Hindu women even fast for Teej, which is an annual holiday dedicated to ensuring a long life for husbands.
Fasting is rooted in the concept of tapasya. Tapasya means austerities or the voluntary acceptance of penance. This isn’t any ordinary type of penance either. Tapasya is meant specifically to be for spiritual advancement, a completely religious activity. Tapasya works because it involves serving the Lord. As living entities, our natural instinct is to serve ourselves. Not necessarily selfishness, but acting in our own self-interest. The entire free-market capitalist system is built around this notion. People acting in their own self-interest, which leads to an overall favorable condition economically. The Vedas, however, tell us that this life is meant for serving Krishna, or God, and not our senses. It is for this reason that tapasya was introduced. Breaking free of the bodily concept of life is very difficult. Everyone is identifying with their gross material body, something which they are forced to give up at the time of death. I may be an Indian in this life, but in my next life, I can very well be born as an American or a Muslim. Knowing that fact, our nationality, skin color, or ethnicity isn’t important. At our core, we are spirit souls, aham brahmasmi. As spirit souls part and parcel of God, our business as human beings is to reconnect with Him. That is the ultimate aim of life. In order to truly realize this fact, we have to break free from our attachment to sense gratification. Austerities help us do that.
There is a common expression that says “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Though not true in all circumstances, with respect to tapasya, it is generally the case. By periodically abstaining from certain kinds of food, or all food in general, we actually become stronger because our minds become clearer. Many of us spend some time during the day thinking about what to eat for lunch or dinner. “Oh where should I go for lunch? I just went to such and such a place yesterday. I feel like something different today.” Even if we are eating food that we like, we tend to get sick of eating the same thing over and over again. We’re always looking for ways to satisfy our taste buds. Thinking about food may seem harmless, but that time could be better spent thinking about God. This is where tapasya comes. If we spent the day fasting, we most certainly would think about our hunger during the day. Now ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a good thing, since we would be unnecessarily causing ourselves stress. However, if we fast for God, then anytime we think of our hunger during the day, we immediately will think of Him. That is always a good thing. Sometimes men will get into fights or brawls and receive bruises and other wounds as a result. Most men love to show off these wounds to others, because it is a symbol of their toughness and what they went through. In a similar fashion, the hunger pains as a result of fasting for Krishna is a sort of war wound, something we receive as a result of our dedication to the Lord. It is something we can be proud of.
The major occasions for fasting coincide with the appearance day anniversaries of the Lord and His associates. Krishna Janmashtami is generally considered the most important day of the year for followers of the Vedic tradition since it marks the appearance day anniversary of Lord Krishna. Since Mother Devaki gave birth to Krishna at midnight, devotees usually observe a complete fast on Janmashtami leading up until midnight. People fast for the occasions of Rama Navami and Radhashtami in a similar manner. There are so many specific fasts prescribed in the Vedas for different purposes, but the two most widely observed regular fasts are Ekadashi and Purnima. The entire Vedic calendar revolves around the lunar cycle, so Ekadashi and Purnima are specific days in that cycle. Purnima represents the full moon day, and followers of the Satyanarayana Vrata fast specifically on these days. Devotees perform Katha of Lord Shri Satyanarayana, and then eat the prasadam that is offered to Him. Ekadashi is another specific day in the lunar cycle, an occasion observed specifically by Vaishnavas, or devotees of Vishnu. In a strict sense, devotees are supposed to observe a completely fast on this day, but the regulation has been loosened a bit. Generally, devotees simply abstain from eating grains (rice, bread, etc.) and beans on this day.
Vedic literature is full of people performing tapasya and receiving a benefit as a result. Mother Parvati performed severe austerities in the forest for many years and was rewarded by getting Lord Shiva for a husband. Lord Rama and Sita observed a fast the night before the initial date set for the Lord’s installation as successor to His father, the king of Ayodhya. In this way, God and other great personalities set a good example for the rest of us to follow. If one can fast without inflicting too much pain on oneself, then it is definitely worth trying. Tapasya is one of the most important tools in a transcendentalist’s arsenal. It can help us break free of the repeated cycle of birth and death, and bring us back home after this life, back to Godhead.