April 25, 2018, 9:48 pm IST
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T.K Thomas

“Ridiculous Fasts Spreading Like Plague”?!!

By: T.K Thomas,   Apr 16, 2018

Fasting and Satyagraha are in fashion in today’s Indian political firmament. Cutting across political parties and ideologies everyone seems to be practicing a Gandhian weapon for their political ends. This writer being fiercely apolitical and with very strong Gandhian moorings, does not wish to name any politician or political party. They all have received tremendous media glare and the people of the country know who fasted, when and how long.  Our Father of the Nation who used fasting [and of course prayer] and Satyagraha in his speeches and writings, did articulate what these are. Without being judgmental, one would like to present a Gandhian perspective.

Fasting  has essentially been associated with religion and spirituality. Probably since man turned to a supreme power and fear of the unknown, prayer and fasting became an integral part of man’s quest to explore what is termed spirituality. All ancient cultures and religions practice fasting and prayer. As  high school students we had learned Kalidasa’s ‘Kumara Sambhavam’ especially the fasting and penance of Parvati to win over Lord Shiva culminating in an argument between both of them when she slaps him and he reveals himself. That was single minded devotion. One’s Hindu friends used to fast on all Ekadashis [Ekadashi incidentally is the eleventh lunar day of each of the lunar phases-Shukla and Krishna Pakshas]. Navaratra ‘Vrat’ or fasting is almost universally practiced coinciding with Ram Navami. In parts of North India Hindu women fast on’ Karva  Chauth’ for the well being and longevity of their husbands. They break their fast only after seeing the moon through a sieve. Fasting is practiced in different parts of India by Hindus on different occasions.

Almost all faiths have fasting as an integral part of their religious / spiritual practice. All semitic religions viz. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have annual fasting at different times. Judaism has several days for fast in a year including Yom Kippur. Christianity especially the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches have fasts, the most important being the 40/50 day lent before Easter. Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan. The practices vary from faith to faith. In some cases certain food items including grains are avoided. Some avoid non vegetarian food; some others give up what they consider their favourite food items. Abstinence and frugal life styles or not using electronic media or cyber media is another kind of fasting. Probably the only faith which prohibits fasting is Zoroastrianism.

For weight loss or trimming dieticians and physicians recommend fasting which is meant for the body rather than the spirit! It is essentially fasting for health and body shape.

There is a short chapter on fasting in Gandhi ji’s autobiography ‘My Experiments With Truth’. Here he writes about how he had practiced Ekadashi fast which he observed  with just milk and fruit. He however abstained from milk and fruit and had only water. These experiments helped him in later years.During his days in the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa he encouraged inmates belonging to different faiths to observe their respective fasts. They kept partial and full fast. Those fasts were a time for abstinence and self denial. He concludes the chapter thus:

“Fasting can help to curb animal passion, only if it is undertaken with a view of self restraint. Some of my friends have actually found their animal passion and palate stimulated as an after effect of fasts. That is to say that fasting is futile unless it is accompanied by an incessant longing for self restraint. The famous verse from the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita is worth noting in this connection:

For a man who is fasting his senses

Outwardly, the sense- objects disappears,

Leaving  the yearning behind; but when

He has seen the highest,

Even the yearning disappears.

Fasting and similar discipline is, therefore, one of the means to the end of self restraint, but is not all, and if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”

Gandhi ji being a man of faith practiced fasting and of course Sarva Dharma Prarthana Sabha which included prayers and hymns from all faiths. This is what he wrote in the Young  India of 25-9-1924, “ My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.” He adds in another issue of the same publication of 3-12-1925, “I am not responsible for these fasts. I do not undertake them for my amusement. I would not torture the flesh for the love of pain. Though I bear joyfully the pangs of hunger and many are the discomforts of fasting, let no one imagine that I do not suffer. These fasts are bearable only because they are imposed upon me by a higher Power and the capacity to bear the pain also comes from that Power.” So the Mahatma attributed his fasts to a divine direction. Can ordinary men of today in commercial  realpolitik who may be following practical rather than moral or ideological considerations get dictates from what Gandhi ji called a ‘higher Power’?

No wonder Romain Rolland, French writer, mystic and Nobel Prize winner for literature, 1915 called Gandhi ji as “a saint and hero of Satyagraha”. In January, 1932 Rolland wrote to Edouard Schneider, who was rather cynical about Mahatma Gandhi quoting a letter he wrote to an English friend upset about events in India, “ The great and ambitious Indian experiments with Satyagraha is the only chance open to the world of achieving this transformation of humanity without having recourse to violence. It’s either Gandhi or Lenin! “[Romain Rolland and Gandhi: Correspondence- Publications Division]

One is skeptical of a generation not beholden to Gandhian ideology appropriating  him for all the right and wrong reasons. Use of Gandhian weapons of political protests without proper understanding of its nuances and deeper meaning of what he explained is not exactly the ideal thing. Gandhi ji directed his followers to understand  the attributes of a satyagrahi; when and how it should be used as a weapon of protest. Writing in the 25-3-1939 of the ‘Harijan’ he ‘prescribed’ the following six requisite qualifications of a Satyagrahi :-

He must have a living faith in God, for He is his only Rock.

He must believe in truth and nonviolence as his creed and therefore have faith in the inherent goodness of human nature which he expects to evoke by his truth and love expressed through his suffering.

He must be leading a chaste life and be ready and willing for the sake of his cause to give up his life and his possessions.

He must be a habitual Khadi -wearer and spinner. This is essential for India.

He must be a teetotaler and be free from the use of other intoxicants in order that his reason may be always unclouded and his mind constant.

He must carry out with a willing heart all the rules of discipline as may be laid down from time to time.

Well, that is a very difficult essential qualification. Gandhi ji is considered to be the creator of the concept of Satyagraha and it is not meant for all and sundry. As mentioned earlier Satyagraha is a spiritual weapon to fight for justice. So it has to be practiced with the sanctity we give to the Father of the Nation! Gandhi ji himself practiced what he preached. He was arrested in April 1919 when he was going to Punjab. When the police brought him back to Bombay, violence broke out in the city and other places. After his release from detention, he said, “I have not been able to understand the cause of so much excitement and disturbance that followed my detention. It is not Satyagraha. It is worse than ‘Duragraha’. Those who join Satyagraha demonstrations were bound one and all to refrain at all hazards from violence, not to throw stones or in any way whatever to injure anybody…”

‘’There can be no room for selfishness, anger, lack of faith, or impatience in a pure fast…..Infinite patience, firm resolve, single-mindedness of purpose, perfect calm and no anger must of necessity be there. But since it is impossible for a person to develop all these qualities all at once, no one who has developed himself to following the laws of Ahimsa should undertake a Satyagraha fast.”                       [ Harijan 13-10-1940]

Was Gandhi ji predicting the season of fasts in India today when he penned the following lines in the ‘Harijan’ of 21-4-1946? :-

“One general principle, however, I would like to enunciate, a Satyagrahi should fast only as a last resort when all other avenues of redress have failed. There is no room for imitation in fasts. He who has no inner strength should not dream of it, and never with attachment to success….Ridiculous fasts spread like plague and are harmful.”

It would be worthwhile for our political class to do some introspection and learn from the person who pioneered fasting as a weapon of resistance and justice and authored the non violent weapon of Satyagraha-GANDHI- before they launch the next season of Fasting and Satyagraha!

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