Fasting In Other Religions

The fasting period is a special time for Bahá’í’s, but Bahá’í’s of course are not the only ones who fast. Fasting is also observed in various ways by other religions and belief systems as well, so I thought it would be interesting to take a brief look at how some of these religions and belief systems practice fasting.

Please keep in mind that this is only a mere glimpse of some of the belief systems of the world, and I am aware that there are many, many more not included here. Each one could definitely have its own dedicated article (which we may do in future), however, for the time being and for the purposes of this article, I’m just going to give you all a quick overview of a handful of fasting practices.

The First Nations People of North America

Many of the indigenous peoples of North America practice fasting at different times in their lives and for different reasons, depending on their nation. Some of the nations for instance practice a fast during certain spiritual ceremonies, and fasting can also take place in correspondence to the changes in seasons.

In general, it is more common for men to undergo these fasts, however women who are not pregnant, nursing, or ill may also take part.

It is believed that fasting takes the individual to a higher spiritual realm and it also reminds individuals to appreciate what the earth provides in the way of food and water. Perhaps one of the most commonly known forms of fasting amongst indigenous North Americans is the “Vision Quest”. A Vision Quest is where a person (quite often a young person seeking identity and self-awareness) goes out alone into the wilderness for a period of 4 days and nights, during which they deprive themselves of food and water, and pray to the spirits for a vision. If they are contacted by the spirits and given a vision, then they would have this vision interpreted by a spiritual leader when they return to their home.

Hinduism

Fasting is an integral part of Hinduism and it is performed in a variety of ways depending on the deity one follows. For instance in some cases fasting can be total abstinence from food or liquid from sunset to sunrise the next day, or it could mean limiting the number of meals one has in a day, or abstaining from certain food types.

There are numerous Hindu festivals and fasting during these religious festivals is very common. The exact methods and traditions of fasting however are quite often tied to a Hindu’s ethnic background and tradition, and/or geographical location. In India for example, depending on the region a person is from, the type of clothing worn during the fast and what foods are eaten can be completely different from region to region. Certain days of the week for instance, can also be designated or assigned to honor Lord Shiva for example, or a persons guru, however these designated days will differ depending on the region one comes from, or their personal belief in a certain deity.

Buddhism

In the Buddhist Holy Book, the Vinyana, The Buddha Himself encouraged monks and nuns to limit their food intake after the noon meal, and therefore it is common practice among Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from eating after noon until the next morning on a daily basis.  

Many lay Buddhists also fast by not eating after noon until the following morning as well, but this is only carried out once a week, as lay Buddhists are encouraged to follow what is known as the Middle Path and are discouraged from taking things to an extreme. In general, this regulation of food is not really called or perceived as a fast per-Se, but rather as a disciplined regimen, which is meant to aid meditation and good health.

Judaism

Jews fast for six days which are spread out at various times in the Jewish calendar year. As with the Bahá’í Fast, this means abstinence from food and liquids for both men and women – unless certain exemptions are necessary such as illness or pregnancy.

The most important and holiest day of the Jewish year is Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), and on this day Jews will fast and pray for a period of 25 hours.

It is believed that fasting can assist an individual or a community in achieving atonement, however fasting is by no means a replacement for an individuals sense of sincere regret. As a result, besides the designated days set aside for fasting, Jews may also conduct either personal or a communal fasts to seek repentance when tragedy strikes, or in order to avert tragedy. It is also common amongst certain Jewish traditions for instance, for couples to fast on their wedding day before the ceremony takes place.

Christianity

Although Christian scripture does not explicitly command its followers to fast, Christ Himself fasted for 40 days and nights, and there are also several references to fasting in the New Testament, which present it as something positive and beneficial.

There are various forms of fasting practiced amongst many Christians depending on the denomination they belong to, but probably the most commonly known fasting practice is Lent, which is mainly practiced by Catholics, and it’s a 40 day partial fast commemorating Christ’s 40 days in the desert. Followers usually give up some type of food special to them, as it is also seen as a time of mourning in preparation of the crucifixion of Christ.

There are several references to fasting in the New Testament, and one that I feel is a lesson which all of us who are fasting can learn from, is from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, when He said:  Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Islam

Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days during the month of Ramadan, (which is the month the Prophet Muhammad revealed the Quran), and much like the Bahá’í Fast, followers are to abstain from food, liquid and smoking.

Fasting is considered the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam (These pillars are: i. Creed; ii. Daily prayer; iii. Almsgiving; iv. Fasting; v. Pilgrimage), and it is obligatory for both men and women.

Perhaps testimony to the fact that fasting is something prescribed by other religions is a quote from the Quran, where the Prophet Muhammad said:  “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you, as it was prescribed for those before you so that you may (learn) self-restraint.” (Quran 2:183)

 

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 9 Comments

  1. great post. I heard from Kevin Locke when he was here in Australia that Walkabout in the Australian Aboriginal culture is also considered a form of fasting and contemplation. It is interesting that although they may be differences in the practice, the aim of what we should achieve is the same.

    1. Thanks Sepehr, yes, I’ve heard the same thing about the aboriginals of Australia – it’s so interesting that all of these religious beliefs all fast for the same reasons. Just another proof to me that religions are one. Hopefully next year I’ll do another post with a look into more fasting practices from around the world including the indigenous peoples of Australia.

  2. In the “Baha’i Fast” all Baha’is do is eat at a different time of day. They still eat that day.
    It’s pretty easy to abstain from food in daylight and enjoy yourself at night.
    Anything abstention from food that does not go beyond 24 hours is not really a fast.
    Generally speaking, the other religions involve themselves with genuine fasts, especially the monastics.
    A good 3-day water-only fast is a powerful karmic purifier and improver-of-the-world.
    It’s a basic fasting increment all religious people should strive for.

  3. It is true that other religions have more extreme versions of the fasting period, but this does not in any way discredit the fasting practices of one religion which is intended to include people from all walks of life. The Baha’i fast presents its followers with a practical and realistic approach to fasting while enabling them to function in their normal, everyday lives, contributing to society, taking care of their families, and remaining productive at work. It is slightly unfair to stay that abstaining from food AND water for a 12 hour period, especially when required to uphold one’s daily responsibilities, is anything short of difficult and genuine.

  4. Yes Amy thank you, I would like to see “a little truth” do HIS masters thesis in chemical engineering while pulling down a part time job and taking part in development projects, all the while looking after his family while fasting 12hrs a day. Besides, the only logical benefit of the fast is to recognize it as a symbol of detachment from material things and to realize our dependence on them…beyond this symbol there is no spiritual benefit to the act of fasting that can be rationally justified.

  5. In reference to Judaism, you omitted the Old Testament Vow of the Nazir. In Numbers 6:1-8 it says “If a man or a woman wishes to make a vow, the Nazirite vow, to vow himself to YHVH, he will abstain from wine and fermented liquor, he will not drink vinegar derived from one or the other, he will not drink grape juice or eat grapes, be they fresh or dried. For the duration of his vow he will eat nothing that comes from the vine, not even juice of unripe grapes or skins of grapes. As long as he is bond by his vow, no razor will touch his head; until the time for which he has vowed himself to Yahweh, he will not go near a corpse, he will not make himself unclean for his father or his mother, or his brother or his sister, should they die, since on his head he carries his vow to his God. Throughout the whole of his vow he is a person consecrated to YHVH.” Sampson and Jesus Christ were the most famous Nazirs. The Nazirites had to camp outside the main camp. At the time of Jesus, there were so many Nazirites, that they set up a whole village outside of Jerusalem called Nazireth.

    You also omitted the Jains, who don’t consider themselves Hindus since their religion is indigenous to India, whereas Hinduaism was in import from the north. The Jains believe that salvation, or as they call it, the kavala gnarn, only is achieved by fasting to death. There is a law in India that prohibits Jains from fasting to death until after the age of 50. Jains do another kind of fasting: fasting from stuff. The second precept of the Jain religion is non-accumulation. Jains generally live sparse lives, without accumulating material things.

    1. Hi Robin, thanks for your valuable contribution! Of course there are many other religions which fast as well, and as you’ll note, I mentioned this at the beginning of the post: “please keep in mind that this is only a mere glimpse of some of the belief systems of the world, and I am aware that there are many, many more not included here.”

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