Faith in Fasting – The Hindu

Most religions prescribe deprivation of food during certain periods, which also plays in favor of health.

Most religions prescribe deprivation of food during certain periods, which also plays in favor of health.

Most of the world’s population continues fasting in April. Christians and Muslims, followers of the largest and second largest religion, respectively, fast for long hours during the religious penitential period of Lent and Ramzan, respectively. It is also a time of repentance, self-denial and spiritual discipline.

During the holy period, most people forgo eating the food they love most or abstain from other indulgences, apart from sex, alcohol and tobacco – the “folk sins”. This period varies from one month to 40 days.

Non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and cancers are all lifestyle disorders and the main treatment modality prescribed is lifestyle management. It is a science “that strives to integrate healthy lifestyle habits into the course of a person’s daily routine”.

Lifestyle management

Eating healthy foods, maintaining a moderate diet, refraining from addictive behaviors such as smoking and alcohol consumption, regular physical activity and stress management are the various components of lifestyle management.

Hindus have various fasting practices throughout the year, commonly known as vrat, viradham or upavasa depending on the lunar calendar. The degree of fasting can vary – from skipping one meal a day to only one meal a day or for a specified number of days, usually 48 days (Mandala period for Sabarimala pilgrims).

Sometimes fasting involves maintaining a vegan diet similar to the Mediterranean diet for certain months, such as the Tamil month of Purattasi.

Selective salt avoidance (a salt-free diet) on certain days is common practice. Salt is essential for life, but in excess it is harmful to health.

Sikhism also has various fasting periods, and Langars, or community kitchens, in gurdwaras serve simple and healthy vegetarian food, although Sikhs are not prohibited from consuming non-vegetarian food. Several other religions have their own fasting regimes tailored to their region, customs and beliefs.

Cleansing effect

There is plenty of scientific evidence to prove that the simple act of fasting improves metabolism, lowers blood sugar and blood pressure, and cleanses the body of toxins that could otherwise cause intangible, irreversible inflammation at the cellular level.

The next important facet of lifestyle management is incorporating physical activity.

Religious practices often lead to physical activity which becomes apparent when we closely observe worship customs and practices – for example, circumambulation, an integral practice of worship in religions such as Buddhism.

Places of worship such as large temples and churches with their vast courtyards provide ample opportunity and space for walking and also an environment conducive to socializing and promoting arts and culture.

The offering of Namaz, the daily prayers of Muslims performed by kneeling and prostrating themselves, or the practice of Namaskarams by Hindus contributes to physical activity and ensures joint flexibility. Similarly, Hindu practices such as thoppukaranams or the practice of repeatedly squatting with crossed arms reaching to the ears are the oldest known version of the high intensity intermittent training technique and are a surefire method for losing weight.

Therefore, these lifestyle habits that promote good health in the name of religion emerged long before evidence-based medicine was known and followed.

We doctors do not hesitate to boast that medicine is our religion, but it has become increasingly clear that religion also contains a good dose of medicine.

Regardless of the faith we follow, the essence of all religion is to make human beings healthy. Health is defined as a state of complete physical and mental well-being, paving the way for the promotion of tolerance, love and peaceful coexistence.

It is unfortunate to see religion dividing humanity and spreading hatred contrary to its intention.

The true essence of religion has been lost over time, leaving behind meaningless rituals.

(The author is Dean, Government Omandurar Medical College, Chennai)

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