All about fasting
Fasting unauthorized by sastras condemned
Fasting to death
The Sanskrit word for fasting is upavasa. Upa indicates nearness and vasa means 'to reside'. Thus the literal meaning of upavasa is "to reside with the Lord". Another reading of upavasa can also be "going back to life", withdrawing from sin and leading a proper life (upa - going back, and vasa - life). In other words, all improper actions must be given up.
Both definitions suggest a spiritual concept of fasting. Not simply to abstain from food, but to search for divine communion with the Lord. Fasting is seen not as an act of self-mortification, but as a joyful occasion, for one can give more time and energy to his devotional exercises and come closer to Krsna. Vaisnavas accept fasting for their own purification, to increase their remembrance of Krsna and to please Him.
Life (Sanskrit 'ayus') fully manifests in a healthy combination of body, sense organs, mind and soul. According to Ayurveda, the oldest medical science, health is not merely a state of freedom from disease but a state of permanent physical, mental and spiritual happiness and fulfillment. Ayurveda prescribes fasting as a means of restoring one's health. In the beginning of a disease or in an acute phase such as during fever, when one or more of the dosas have become imbalanced, it is the time to fast. Fasting means to rest the dosas that have become spoiled. Taking heavy food at this time increases the strength of the spoiled dosas.
The benefits on health, derived by occasional fasts, are well known to the world at large. But only spiritual aspirants know about the spiritual advantages of fasting. Monks or brahmacaris are aware that fasting weakens the sexual drive, at least temporarily.
"By fasting, learned men quickly bring all of the senses except the tongue under control, because by abstaining from eating such men are afflicted with an increased desire to gratify the sense of taste." (SB 11.8.20)
Complete fasting helps also to control sleep. As such, its application and practical value in spiritual life have an immense potential. However, emphasis should be put on spiritual awareness if we want to derive any substantial benefit from fasting. No doubt, fasting can give a temporary relief to our body and mind, but spiritual benefits are not guaranteed. Fasting can be even detrimental if we lack the right attitude of humility and tolerance.
"When you fast, don't assume an air of sorrow just like the hypocrites, who contort their faces to show others that they are fasting. They have their reward." (Matthew 6:16)
"There are so many rules and regulations, and if one at all wants to understand Krsna, he must follow the regulative principles described in the authoritative literature. One can perform penance in accordance with those principles. For example, to undergo serious penances one may observe fasting on Janmastami, the day on which Krsna appeared, and on the two days of Ekadasi (the eleventh day after the new moon and the eleventh day after the full moon)." (BG 11.54 p.)
In the Manu-samhita fasting is associated with atonement from sinful reactions. Manu enumerates different types of fast, according to the gravity of the offense performed. They are called santapana, krcchra, ati-krcchra, tapta-krcchra, candrayana, paraka, etc.
Through fasting, one can counteract an offensive mentality, such as disrespectful behavior toward one's own superiors. "One who does not show proper respect toward a brahmana or anyone of his seniors, by words or actions, shall bathe and fast during the remaining part of the day, and appease the person offended by reverential salutation." (Manu-samhita 11.205)
Pusta Krsna: May I ask the next question, Srila Prabhupada? "Are fasting and other dietary regulations necessary for leading a spiritual life?" Srila Prabhupada: Certainly. For advancement in spiritual life, such tapasya is essential. Tapasya means voluntarily accepting something which may be painful. (Civilization and Transcendence 8: Civilization means Regulation)
There are different levels of fasting - from just avoiding certain foodstuffs up to complete fasting with added austerities. "Drinking water only, without solid food, is also considered fasting." (SB 1.13.53 p.)
Fasting is also held at the appearance days of the Lord and appearance and disappearance days of important spiritual persons.
Vaisnavas in general don't eat anything unoffered to the Lord. This could also be considered as fasting.
Main fasting occasion for Vaisnavas comes on Ekadasi, eleventh day after full and new moon. Purpose of fasting on Ekadasi, which Sri Caitanya stressed very much, is to avoid the sins manifested in grains at that day and especially satisfying the Lord by this bit of austerity.
Hari-bhakti-vilasa (16.301) mentions that the personality of Ekadasi is an unmanifested form of Sri Visnu on the Earth (ya sa visnoh para murtir avyaktaneka rupini sa ksipta manuse loke). Ekadasi is said to be equal to the Lord Himself. Srila Sanatana Gosvami remarks in his Digdarsini-tika, "One who strictly observes the Ekadasi fast, worships Sri Hari." The Srimad-Bhagavatam (9.4.29) reports that it was with this aim in mind that King Ambarisa and his wife accepted the austerity of Ekadasi for a whole year.
"Nevertheless, regulated fasting on Ekadasi is not an impediment to spiritual advancement. Rather, it is a perpetual aspect of devotional service and can be considered an auxiliary principle supporting the main principle of worshiping Lord Krsna and His devotees. Because such secondary principles help one become fit for executing the primary processes of devotional service, they are also greatly beneficial." (SB 11.12.1-2)
Srila Jiva Gosvami has extolled the greatness of Ekadasi in his commentary on Bhakti-sandarbha. Therein we find that once a brahmana's daughter observed fasting very strictly on Ekadasi and during the Karttika month. As a result of her penance, she took birth as Satyabhama, one of Sri Krsna's wives in Dvaraka.
padme kartika-mahatmye cha brahmana kanyayah
kartika vrata ekadasi vrata prabhavat
srimat satyabhamakhya-bhagavat preyasi pada praptir
api sruyate, kim bahuna?
By the mercy of Ekadasi, the simple daughter of a brahmana attained to the unparalleled position of Krsna's consort and queen of Dvaraka. Srila Jiva Gosvami has expressed his wonder about the extraordinary effect of the Ekadasi-vrata with the words 'kim bahuna?' - What more (can be said about the glories of Ekadasi)?
Fasting unauthorized by sastras condemned
"Austerity means to accept voluntarily things which may not be very comfortable for the body but are conducive for spiritual realization, for example, fasting. Fasting twice or four times a month is a sort of austerity which may be voluntarily accepted for spiritual realization only, and not for any other purposes, political or otherwise. Fastings which are meant not for self-realization but for some other purposes are condemned in the Bhagavad-gita (17.5-6)." (SB 1.17.25 p.)
Besides, one should not torture one's body with excessive fasts because this can create a mental imbalance. The material body requires food for its maintenance. This is unavoidable, for it is a fundamental need which has to be satisfied. One must learn the ways of moderation and sobriety as Krsna Himself teaches in the Bhagavad-gita (6.16). Whoever wants to practice yoga (communion with the Lord) must avoid extremes such as eating too much or not eating at all, sleeping more than necessary or keeping awake all night. One should accept whatever is required to keep the body fit for Krsna' service.
"Although we should minimize our eating and sleeping, we should not attempt this too rapidly, at the risk of becoming sick. Because people are accustomed to eating voraciously, there are prescriptions for fasting. We can reduce our sleeping and eating, but we should remain in good health for spiritual purposes. We should not attempt to reduce eating and sleeping too rapidly or artificially; when we advance we will naturally not feel pain due to the reduction of these natural bodily processes." (Path of Perfection 4: Moderation in Yoga)
"There are many rules and regulations in the Vedas which apply here, like rising early in the morning and taking a bath. Sometimes it is very troublesome to rise early in the morning, but whatever voluntary trouble one may suffer in this way is called penance. Similarly, there are prescriptions for fasting on certain days of the month. One may not be inclined to practice such fasting, but because of his determination to make advancement in the science of Krsna consciousness, he should accept such bodily troubles when they are recommended. However, one should not fast unnecessarily or against Vedic injunctions. One should not fast for some political purpose; that is described in Bhagavad-gita as fasting in ignorance, and anything done in ignorance or passion does not lead to spiritual advancement. Everything done in the mode of goodness does advance one, however, and fasting done in terms of the Vedic injunctions enriches one in spiritual knowledge." (BG 10.4-5 p.)
"Those who undergo severe austerities and penances not recommended in the scriptures, performing them out of pride and egoism, who are impelled by lust and attachment, who are foolish and who torture the material elements of the body as well as the Supersoul dwelling within, are to be known as demons." (BG 17.5-6)
PURPORT: "There are persons who manufacture modes of austerity and penance which are not mentioned in the scriptural injunctions. For instance, fasting for some ulterior purpose, such as to promote a purely political end, is not mentioned in the scriptural directions. The scriptures recommend fasting for spiritual advancement, not for some political end or social purpose. Persons who take to such austerities are, according to Bhagavad-gita, certainly demoniac. Their acts are against the scriptural injunctions and are not beneficial for the people in general. Actually, they act out of pride, false ego, lust and attachment for material enjoyment. By such activities, not only is the combination of material elements of which the body is constructed disturbed, but also the Supreme Personality of Godhead Himself living within the body. Such unauthorized fasting or austerities for some political end are certainly very disturbing to others. They are not mentioned in the Vedic literature. A demoniac person may think that he can force his enemy or other parties to comply with his desire by this method, but sometimes one dies by such fasting. These acts are not approved by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and He says that those who engage in them are demons. Such demonstrations are insults to the Supreme Personality of Godhead because they are enacted in disobedience to the Vedic scriptural injunctions. The word acetasah is significant in this connection. Persons of normal mental condition must obey th e scriptural injunctions. Those who are not in such a position neglect and disobey the scriptures and manufacture their own way of austerities and penances."
Fasting to death
On the other hand, although the Vedas reject the suicide, dying by fasting (prayopavista) is the only authorized, karma-free way to die. An example is Maharaja Pariksit (SB 1.4.10, 1.19.5,7,12,18, 12.12.57). "When because of disease or old age one is unable to perform his prescribed duties for advancement in spiritual consciousness or study of the Vedas, he should practice fasting, not taking any food." (SB 7.12.23)
Finally there is another kind of fast, which is unconscious of the environment and without a tinge of calculation. It is the fruit of a highly emotional condition. This was, for instance, the spiritual frame of the Vrndavan Gosvamis such as Sri Rupa and Sri Raghunatha. These celebrated associates of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu were the emblem of self-forgetfulness and divine surrender. We should not think, however, that they fasted and underwent austerities as ordinary sadhakas do. They simply forgot to eat due to their consuming absorption in the sublime intoxication of divine love. Vows and rules lose meaning for an advanced devotee who sometimes becomes indifferent to their bodily needs. Being always in touch with the Lord (upavasa) through the divine service of guru and Krsna, one has already gone back to life (upavasa) having regained one's original devotional temperament. Such a devotee experiences the real life of the soul.