Fasting Shuts the Door on Temptation
Interview with Fr Theodoro Mascarenhas, Official of the Pontifical Council for Culture
The practice of fasting seems to sustain the whole religious structure. What is the ultimate goal of fasting for Muslims?
For the Muslims, the motivation behind fasting is self control. According to this monotheistic religion, when a person is overpowered by material desires and cravings, he becomes negligent of his own spiritual being and turns indifferent to the obligations imposed on him by his creator. Therefore, to help man to counter this material onslaught, the Almighty has enforced as obligatory, the annual fast. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is neither for expiation nor as a sign of penance. Nor is it a sort of punishment; it is a religious ritual for a positive intention. This is explained very well in the Koran, "O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you as it was prescribed for those before you, that you may develop God-consciousness" (Surat ul-Baqarah, 2:183). Fasting has a spiritual as well as a social meaning. Muslims believe that through fasting, the soul of man is liberated from the shackles of his wishes and desires and takes the lofty step towards the Most High. Fasting shuts the doors upon temptations. Since the devil attacks man on the weaknesses of the tongue and of the body, abstinence from food and sex thwarts these assaults. Fasting leads man to become God-fearing. For this reason, every adult must practice it, along with the obligation of the daily reading of a part of the Koran and participation in community cult. Besides, also to be considered is the social dimension. Through fasting, a person is able to have a better understanding of the gifts received from God and thus be able to open himself to others, in greater compassion and charity towards those who are less fortunate and marginalized. Fasting includes abstaining from dawn to dusk, from all carnal pleasures, like for example food and sex.
Among the eastern religions perhaps Buddhism is the one most known in the western world. Can you explain to us the philosophy that underlies the idea of fasting in this religion?
It is true that the Eastern religions devote a special attention to the relationship to the body. Fasting is a means of exercising control over one's body. In Buddhism, fasting is a way of attaining a higher level of spirituality that is of "awakening" oneself. It is an initial step in self-discipline. For Buddha, nirvana is a state of perfect peace of mind, free from desire, anger and other worldly states that hinder this faculty. Desire for Buddha was the root of evil. Food is the most basic desire of man. Therefore, it is necessary to renounce this desire so as to obtain liberty from worldly tangles. Fasting is one of the dhutangas which the monks practice to "shake up" or to "invigorate" themselves. Buddha himself had fasted before he was "enlightened". The spiritual enlightenment of Buddha is closely linked to fasting. Interestingly, he arrived at enlightenment not during the fasting, but immediately after he had broken the fast. Therefore, fasting is a practical exercise to progress towards the liberation of the person.
Is the practice of fasting in Hinduism much different?
There are some things in common, even though the differences at times are substantial. The Hindus are profoundly religious. The goal of life is self realization or attuning to the absolute. Fasting controls passion, and checks the emotions and senses also. Just like gold is purified by fire, so also the mind is slowly purified through repeated fasting. According to Hindu scriptures, fasting is a great instrument of self discipline which establishes a harmonious relationship between the body and the soul, bringing man to be in synch with the Absolute. The Sanskrit word upvas for fasting, which literally means sitting close (to God), already indicates this movement towards union with the absolute. Fasting, therefore, is the denial of the needs of the body for the spiritual gain. According to Hindu philosophy, food means gratification of the senses, while on the other hand, to starve the senses is to elevate them to contemplation. By controlling the physical body, the emotions and the mind, one can achieve the final goal of unconditional knowledge, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth, in union with the transcendent, both on the personal as well as the impersonal level. In addition, in Hinduism, a person may fast in order to fulfil a religious vow, vrata. In this sense, fasting and abstinence lead to the attainment of religious merit, and may then be used to obtain the end for which the vow was made.
Can one find something common in this spiritual journey which goes across these three religions? What do we actually find?
The spiritual journey of these three religions definitely has some things in common. All the religions speak of and encourage to use fasting as a form of discipline and of purification of the person. In all three one finds the motivation of self control and self discipline. Besides, one sees the fundamental concept in all world religions that "man does not live by bread alone" but that there is something higher which transcends the material world. Fasting, that is the abstaining from nourishment of the energies of the body, brings man to the knowledge of a higher power, first and foremost within himself, which in the case of Islam and Hinduism leads to a knowledge of the Absolute Being.
In what way is the practice of fasting in these religions different from that of Christianity?
It is difficult to point out a difference on the general level. However, one can distinguish the Christian practice of fasting from that of other religions. For example: if in Buddhism, fasting is almost a goal in itself — it is to be remembered that Buddhism is a religion with an atheistic matrix — for Christians, fasting represents a means to live with God. As pointed out by our Holy Father Benedict XVI, in his message for Lent, fasting serves to "assist us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbour, the first and greatest Commandment of the new Law and compendium of the entire Gospel".
The difference between the Christian and the Hindu practice of fasting can be set down to the fact that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, in which each one makes a vow according to his needs and according to his personal conception of the divinity. In fact, in Hinduism fasting is individual and voluntary, while in Christianity as in Islam, fasting is compulsory at least on prescribed days. Further, in Hinduism the effort aims at liberating the mind and breaking the cycle of rebirth; whereas in the Christian practice — as affirmed by the Holy Father in his Lenten message — "The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with the Lord."
The Practice in Islam seems to be the closest to the Christian fasting. In fact, in both religions, fasting helps in freeing the person to love God and to love his neighbour. However, while Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan from dawn to dusk, after which they can eat as much as they want, in the Christian practice, this distinct difference between the period of fasting and the time not prescribed for fasting does not exist. Again, while in Islam, at times, attention is paid to the time, the form and to norms, in Christianity the accent is placed on the interior disposition. Fasting in Christianity normally takes place in the period of Lent, which is specified as the period of penance. The spirit of penance pervades the whole season of Lent and fasting is just one of the forms of penance. To cite Benedict XVI again from his message, "Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses."
What can Christians learn from the understanding of fasting by faithful of other religions?
The practice of fasting in the three religions which we have discussed can enrich our way of conceiving and observing fasting. From Buddhism, in particular of its conception of the liberation of the person by way of fasting, we can learn to reinforce our ancient notion of fasting, as explained by Benedict in his message, that fasting may be a "a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it."
From the practice in Hinduism, we learn that fasting can become a form of prayer, as stated by Benedict in his message, "open in the heart of the believer a path to God." In the Catholic Church, fasting is a practice regulated by a minimum number of laws and almost entirely left to the conscience of the faithful. Islam instead has well prescribed rules and regulations and enforces a rigorous practice of fasting on the part of the faithful. Perhaps, some of this rigour without exaggerations would do good to the Christian practice. This could help recover from the indifference which at times is evident in regard to the practice of fasting. For the Muslims, reading the Koran and participating in community cult during the period of fasting is mandatory. In this sense, we Christians should respond positively to the appeal of the Pontiff, "of a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the Holy Sunday Mass".
Weekly Edition in English
6 May 2009, page 15
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069