Published in Speaking Tree, July 17, 2011
Every year, during the rainy season, comes the month of Shravan when many people fast. The men who like their drinks abstain from alcohol for two fortnights. Some men don’t shave. This period is equivalent to the Lent of Christians and Ramazan of Muslims, a period of cleansing and spiritual purification.
Logical answers are often given to explain the practice of fasting: it cleanses of the system of toxins, gives the digestive tract rest, helps the body develop immunity during the disease-ridden monsoons. This burden of making rituals logical began in the 19th century when all things that could not be explained through science came to be viewed as inferior. Rituals, however, have been used by cultures to communicate ideas that shape the imagination and hence impact our emotions.
One can look at festivals and rituals through the lens of food. There are festivals like Annakoota and Diwali when lots of food is cooked and feasts are organized to enjoy various delicacies. Special foods are cooked on special occassions to please particular deities. These are festivals of indulgence. Then, there are festivals when food is not cooked. The kitchen fires are put out. Everyone fasts or eats specific ritual food. These are festivals of abstinence. Shravan, Lent and Ramzan belong to the latter category.
In the Smarta traditions, Vishnu, the householder, is traditionally associated with festivals of induglence. Mountains of food are presented to the deity in various Vishnu shrines. Shiva, the hermit, is indifferent to indulgence and abstinence. With the Goddess comes rituals of sacrifice, which can extend from sacrificing a live animal to sacrificing one’s own meal. Through denial one is reminded of all the bounty nature provides us. Through rituals of denial one is made grateful for everything that one gets in life.
Food is closely associated with violence. This is obvious in case of non-vegetarian food but not so obvious in case of vegetarian food. Every field, every orchard, every garden is established by destroying a forest, hence an ecosystem. Life is taken so that life can be sustained. To feed a lion, a deer must die. To feed a deer, grass must die. Fasting then is associated with non-violence. By not eating one allows nature to regenerate. That is why fasting plays a key role in the life of monastic orders. One of the key reasons for worshipping cows is that milk can be obtained from a cow without needing to kill any animal or destroying any forest. But when milk went into mass production, even that changed. In the Bible, Abraham realizes that his goats have to die so that his children can get food and survive in the harsh desert. He learns to be grateful for the sacrifice of his lifestock and the generosity of God.
In the Mahabharata, Shibi tries to save a dove being chased by a hawk. The hawk says, “What will I eat now?” Shibi offers the hawk his own flesh, and realizes that to feed the hawk someone has to die. It is then pointed out to Shibi that to save the dove, someone has to die also. And to save the king, someone else has to die. Humans interfere with the cycle of nature by creating fields and orchards and gardens. That is why during fasting, one is encouraged to eat wild roots and shoots and fruits fallen off trees, in other words, foods that are found in the jungle, food that was eaten by hermits, food that is not ‘manufactured’ by culture.