Why do we Fast ? - Brief description about Fasting - Upavaasa

Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasaUpa means near + vaasa means to stay. Upavaasa therefore means staying near(The Lord), meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then what hasupavaasa to do with food?

A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our mind dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy.

Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body.

The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace.

Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting. Some fast, rather they diet, merely to reduce weight. Others fast as a vow to please the Lord or to fulfill their desires, some to develop will power, control the senses, some as a form of austerity and so on. The Bhagavad Geeta urges us to eat appropriately- neither too less nor too muchyukta-aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet ) even when not fasting

A Scientific Way About Fasting: 

Why do we fast on Ekadesi days?
11th day of moon cycle
the importance of fasting on Ekadasi (11th day of moon cycle).
Now, it is an age old practice for Indians to observe a fast (vrat) on Ekadasi days. Ekadasi is 11th day of the moon cycle, both from the full moon and from the new moon (equidistant).

I came across an interesting legend from the Padma Purana, which describes the relevance of Ekadasi. I am giving a brief description below:

Jaimini Rishi, a renowned sage, once became inquisitive about the Ekadasi vrat. He asked the great sage Vyas about the same. Vyas said that initially, when the world was manifested, Lord Vishnu created a demonic creature (Papa-Purush) that was the embodiment of all types of sins. This was done in order to punish all evil human beings. Subsequently, he also created Yamaraj, so that anyone who sinned (signs of Papa-Purush in him) would be punished and sent to Yamalok. 
On a visit to Yamlok, Lord Vishnu noticed the miseries of the people living there, and had pity on them. He created Ekadesi from his own being, and decided that anyone undertaking the Ekadasi vrat would be cleansed of his sins. 
Papa-Purush became alarmed. He immediately went to Lord Vishnu and pleaded that on Ekadasi day, he had nowhere to hide. So the supreme God told him that any type of grain would provide a safe haven to him on Ekadasi.

According to scientific research, it is known that the air pressure on the earth varies to extreme limits on both the new moon (Amavasya) and the full moon (Purnima) day. This is because of the orbital path combination of the sun, moon and earth.

This can be observed by the change in the nature of the tidal waves on the new moon and full moon days. The waves are very high and rough, but from the next day onwards, the waves become calm, an indication that the pressure has also receded.

Now, based on this fact, the significance of Ekadasi fasting can be explained in 2 ways:

1) According to science, it takes about 3-4 days for the food that we eat today to reach our brain (for the brain to understand the food intake). Now, if we eat light/fast on Ekadasi days, that intake will reach the brain correspondingly on the New moon/full moon day.

On both of these days, the earth pressure is at its maximum, thus leading to imbalance in everything, including ones thought process.

So, if the input to the brain is at a minimum, the chances of the brain indulging in any wayward activity due to the high pressure imbalance also becomes minimum.

2) Another explanation for Ekadasi fasting is that compared to any other day of the moon cycle, atmospheric pressure is lowest on Ekadasi days. Thus, this is the best time to fast and cleanse the bowel system. If we fast on any other day, the high pressure/strain may damage our system. Thus, it is advisable that after fasting on Ekadasi, on the immediate next day (Dwadasi), we should get up early and eat as soon as possible. 

As per both the above theories, the fasting practice on Ekadasi days has a strong scientific base. People who observe the fast are asked to stay away from all types of grains, and to have a light diet of nuts, milk, fruits, etc.

It is amazing how the ancient Vedic Indians devised this method to keep ourselves fit and free from any negative influences ! The relevance of the fast has been imbibed into a story in the Puranas so that it can be easily carried on from one generation to the other...

Type of Fasting :
> Hindus fast on certain days of the month such as Purnima (full moon) and Ekadasi (the 11th day of the fortnight).

> Certain days of the week is also marked for fasting, depending on individual choices and on one's favorite god and goddess. On Saturday, people fast to appease the god of that day, Shani or Saturn. Some fast on Tuesdays the auspicious day for Hanuman, the monkey God. On Fridays devotees of the goddess Santoshi Mata abstain from taking anything citric.

> Fasting at festivals is common. Hindus all over India observe fast on festivals like Navaratri, Shivratri and Karwa Chauth. Navaratri is a festival when people fast for nine days. Hindus in West Bengal fast on Ashtami, the eighth day of the festival of Durga Puja.

> Fasting can also mean abstaining from taking certain things, either for religious reason or for the sake of good health. For instance, some people refrain from taking salt on particular days. It is common knowledge that excess salt and sodium causes hypertention or elevation of blood pressure.

> Another common kind of fast is to forego taking cereals when only fruits are eaten. Such a diet is known as phalahar.

Fasting in India - The Hindu Day Fasts

Fasting is an integral part of Indian tradition. Fasting means holding oneself back voluntarily from eating something certain or even any kind of food for a definite period of time. In Hindi language it is called “vrat”. A fast can be partial or prolonged, e.g. for a duration of 24 hours. There are also some fasts in India which are observed for a week or more, examples being Navratri fasts, or Muslim fasts during Ramadan and Jain fasts. In Hinduism each day of the week is related to planetary constellations and devoted to a certain deity. These fasts are generally observed according to one’s individual needs. The day fasts can be understood in the following manner according to the different days of the week:
It is observed for the Lord Sun or Surya. Red is the colour of this day. It is believed that this fast helps you in fulfilling desires. People suffering from skin diseases also observe this fast to get rid of it. Extra importance is given to cleanliness of the body and surroundings. Red flowers are offered for prayers and red coloured sandalwood tilak is applied on the forehead.

It is observed for Lord Shiva. On this day unmarried girls observe fast to find an ideal husband and married women fast to pray for a prosperous married life. Lord Shiva is considered to be very calm and also as somebody who can be pleased easily. Fasting on Mondays begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. On this day, food is only eaten after evening prayer. Lord Shiva and his consort Goddess Parvati are worshipped, but of course no worship begins without remembering their elephant-headed son Lord Ganesha. The fasting on Mondays in the month of Shravan is considered even more auspicious.

Tuesday fasts are either observed for Lord Hanuman or for Planet Mars called Mangal in Hindi. This fast is observed by people to alleviate the problems from their life as they pray to Lord Hanuman, who is also known as Sankat Mochan (the Problem Solver). However, some communities might be worshipping other deities on Tuesday. For example, in South India the day is dedicated to Skanda or Murugan or Kartikeya (Kartik). But in most regions Tuesday is dedicated to Hanuman. People wear red coloured clothes on the day and offer red flowers to Lord Hanuman. It is believed that Lord Hanuman will help his devotees in overcoming difficulties in life. Those who undertake the fast on Tuesdays only take a single meal. It is a whole day fast. The single meal on the day is usually food made of wheat and jaggery. Most people observe the fast for 21 Tuesdays without a break.

The concept of fasting on a Wednesday started quite recently. It is generally related to Lord Shiva or Planet Buddh (Mercury). It is generally observed by married people, whereby both husband and wife together keep the fast and pray for a happy married life. The food is generally taken only once but rather in the afternoon than in the evening.

Thursday also known as Brihaspativar or Guruvar is generally dedicated to Lord Vishnu or Planet Brihaspati (Jupiter). It is thought that people who observe a fast on this day will be blessed with wealth and a happy life. The colour of this day is yellow, so people who are fasting prefer to wear yellow clothes. They also eat yellow-coloured food without salt, often made out of Channa Daal Aata (Besan flour). Some people also pray to the banana tree on this day and thus do not eat any bananas. 

Friday is dedicated to Shakti, the mother goddess in Hinduism, and also to planet Shukra (Venus). The worship of Shakti on Fridays basically relates to Goddess Lakshmi (goddess of wealth), and to Goddess Santoshi (another incarnation of the mother goddess). Shukra is believed to provide material wealth and joy. Observing fasts in the name of Goddess Lakshmi on this day is considered highly auspicious. The fasting ends only with sunset. The evening should compulsorily include one dessert, usually kheer or any other milk-based sweet. Ladies worshipping Lakshmi on this day generally wear red clothes. This fast is mostly observed for bringing joy and material well-being.

Saturday fast is generally observed to alleviate the ill effects of the planet Shani (Saturn). Shani is symbolic of cruelty and is adverse in nature. It is also considered to be the planet of justice and thus has the power to punish anybody who does injustice to anyone in his lifetime. People generally donate black cloth, pieces of metal, mustard oil, black urad gram and black til (sesame seeds) to the Dakot (a person who accepts offerings made to Shani). Food is generally taken after the evening prayers, and generally includes black urad and sesame seeds, etc. Also some people worship the peepal tree on this day and tie a thread around its bark. People also pray to Lord Hanuman in order to lessen the ill effects of Shani because it is said that Hanuman is respected by Shani as Lord Hanuman rescued Shani from the prison of the demon Ravana. Hence, devotees of Hanuman are not harmed by Shani.

Apart from these religious reasons fasting also has a health purpose. You can see many Indians fasting partly because of the religious reasons and partly because of medical reasons. Some people observe fasts to keep their metabolic rates working properly, for instance. Thus fasting in India is not based on religious traditions alone.

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