The fasting period is a special time for Baha’is, but Baha’is of course are not the only ones who fast. Fasting is 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.
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 person’s guru, however these designated days will differ depending on the region one comes from, or their personal belief in a certain deity.
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 in the afternoon until the next morning on a daily basis.
Many lay Buddhists also fast by not eating in the afternoon 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.
Jews fast for six days which are spread out at various times in the Jewish calendar year. As with the Baha’i 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 individual’s 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.
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)
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 Baha’i 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 a 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)
Naysan is passionate about using the arts and media to explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith. Back in 2011, Naysan started up the Baha’i Blog project, channeling his experiences in both media and technology companies to help create a hub for Baha’i-inspired content online.