Importance of Fasting

Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Man's foremost duty is sadhana for the realization of God. For sadhana, a sound body and a sound mind are most essential, and fasting helps to keep both mind and body in a perfect state of health. That is why fasting is commended by all religions. It is the first step on the ladder of divine life.

Both fast and feast are blessings to human beings. The feast gives you an immediate blessing which vanishes in a few hours, inducing a craving for more, whereas a fast gives you a different kind of happiness more lasting than that of a feast. Fasting gives a continuous flow of bliss which brings lightness to the body. The bliss lingers on in your system and forms a part of your Self. It is constantly evolving and gives you absolute happiness and a different personality altogether. You are definitely nearer to God. This kind of bliss sheds its rays on whomsoever it comes into contact with. It was from this experience that sages of old practised and preached fasting as an important routine in life.

Fasting bestows a divine happiness which can be enjoyed with such delight that once you take to it, you will be reluctant to leave the habit. A man who spends a few hours in absolute calmness after his first meal on breaking a fast has a feeling of enjoyment which can never be expressed. His joy knows no bounds. It is heavenly and bears no comparison to anything on earth.

Fasting gives clear insight into a subject. It bestows on the human machine an activity all anew. Just listen to the discourses given by a man who practises fasting. You develop a feeling of awe and an inexplicable liking for him. You are happy to have him in your presence because of the divinity radiating from him without his knowledge. You are suddenly forced to think: 'I should practise fasting at once'.

A man who genuinely practises fasting at regular intervals has clear-cut thoughts, an expression all his own and an imagination which others cannot excel. His ideal can only be the realization of the Self. His aim in life can only be the attainment of immortality. The ego stands nowhere before him. His thoughts are sublime and firm. His actions are diligent. There is a transcendental glow on his face, and he has found the kingdom of God in his own personality. He never wounds the feelings of others. His ideas are rays of light in the darkness of human life.

The fast cure

Animals, which depend only upon nature, fast spontaneously if there is any disease, and cure themselves by natural means - sunlight and fresh air, fast and rest. If you stuff your stomach with food when there is no hunger, you are going against nature, and nature will punish you severely. Therefore, do not overload the stomach. Observe moderation in diet and fast from time to time. Then you will be happy and healthy, and you will make spiritual progress.

When you notice the first sign of disease, it is time to fast for a day or two. Many serious ailments can be averted if you start fasting in the early stages. If you allow any disease to strike deep roots it will be difficult to cure it later on. You will have to take recourse to long fasts and the rate of progress will be very slow.

Just observe a man who has eaten and drunk fully. He suffers more than a sickly man, for his stomach gets bloated with poisonous gas. Therefore, never eat unless you are really hungry and are able to enjoy every mouthful. Beware of a false appetite. Never force yourself to eat. If you have no appetite it clearly indicates that the body does not require any food at that moment. To force yourself to eat simply because it happens to be the time for meals is exceedingly unwise.

Fasting gives perfect rest to the overworked digestive organs. Undigested food gets digested. The digestive juices which are poor in quality and quantity regain their normal condition. It is absurd to imagine that you will grow weak for want of food. One becomes stronger day by day while fasting, because energy is conserved. A considerable amount of energy which is used in digestion, assimilation and elimination is saved, and this conserved energy builds better health.

Physically your system gets an entire overhaul, more than any intelligent doctor could do for you. Mentally you develop more concentration and resisting capacity. You improve in firmness, and there is a greater capacity to withstand physical disturbance, illness, fatigue and disease.

Statistics show that people who fast live the longest. I can assure you that most ailments may be prevented or cured by moderation in diet and through a partial or complete fast. Dyspepsia and other digestive diseases like loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, dysentery, colic, gastritis, colitis, inflammation of the bowels and all kinds of fevers may be cured without any medicine if you observe the rules of health and hygiene and by careful and judicious dieting and fasting.

Although fasting is an excellent remedy, it should not be expected to accomplish the impossible. It cannot cure deficiency diseases due to insufficient nourishment, like scurvy and rickets, congenital defects and serious organic troubles. Long fasts are not advisable in wasting diseases like consumption, pernicious anaemia and also during pregnancy.

Breaking the fast

A fast can be broken at any time, but it is best to wait until you feel hungry. If you break it before hunger appears naturally, you will not realize the maximum benefits. After the fast is properly broken and also during the breaking period, you may have a tendency towards constipation, but later on this will vanish completely. That is the reason why a fruit diet should be strictly adhered to for the first few days after breaking a fast. Fruits digest very easily and stimulate peristalsis.

After breaking a fast a strong craving to eat large quantities and ail kinds of food will arise. If you yield to these impulses the consequences will be serious. The tongue and stomach will revolt violently. Be cautious. Control this abnormal appetite. Stick to your prescribed course. Allow this greed to pass off.

If the fast is not broken properly and the stomach is overloaded by eating too much heavy food, the body becomes bloated. To get rid of this condition, fast again. Take hot baths and one or more enemas daily. When the swelling disappears, break the fast. This time do it slowly and carefully.

After long fasts, continue a light liquid diet until all digestive trouble is over and normal hunger is established. Break your fast with half a cup of diluted fruit juice, or vegetable soup, or the water of a tender coconut. Take three to four times on the first day. Milk is a heavy food. You should not break your fast with milk. However, you can take it gradually.

If juice or soup is not available, any kind of food can be taken in a liquid form in small quantities. You can take a small tea-spoonful of mashed potato or bread combined with four ounces of water. Mix it well with the saliva in the mouth before swallowing. Take this three or four times during the first two days. The quantity may be increased by one third on the second day, and so on, until the stomach and intestines become strong enough to receive more food.

In the case of a prolonged fast, stick to the above liquid diet for about a quarter of the length of the fast. The quantity at each meal and the number of meals per day must be carefully regulated.

Gradually take one light meal of substantial food daily, or every alternate day, according to your power of digestion and assimilation. When you gain more vigour and the digestive fire becomes keener, your meals may be heavier.

The digestive power becomes very weak after a long fast. You cannot take heavy food suddenly. Nature must take her own time and course to renovate and invigorate. If heavy fuel is placed over the dying embers of a fire, the flame will be extinguished. But if dried grass is used it will grow into a big fire that will burn big pieces of wood. So also is the case with the digestive power after a long fast.

Long fasts require much careful thought. Fasts of over one week not only cleanse the body but they give more energy, power and spiritual strength. However, they should be observed under the guidance of an expert, otherwise there is every possibility of doing more harm than good to the system. Two or three days fast can be observed without the guidance of an expert, but the daily use of an enema during the fast, and for a day or two afterwards, is necessary.

No one is ever too old to fast. Even aged persons should fast. Older persons can observe short fasts, then they will be free from diseases. However, the fast should be discontinued when the action of the heart becomes very slow or the person begins to feel very weak.

When you fast, do not entertain thoughts of food. You will not derive the benefits if your mind always dwells on food. Turn your mind towards God. Entertain sublime, divine thoughts.