Food and fasting

Indian Mythology 9 Comments

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.

  • Uday Vemuri

    Dear Devdutt,

    I would like to share one theory that I came across stated by a commentator of the Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad. It was stated that since the quest of all our lives is to achieve the state of Brahm and since Brahmn does not need to eat or use other sense organs and still lives in a state of bliss, all rituals are therefore starting point in our journey to the state of Brahm. Therefore, even before eating, if we are told to recite the famous Gita shloka “Brahmaarpanam, Brahma Havih….”, which suggests that everything is Brahm really, moderation is therefore being encouraged till we reach a state where food along with use of other sense organs become unnecessary. Accordingly, during festivals, while we practice abstinence, if we return to our original ways of gluttony, all the moderation is simply wasted. Eventually, love for food must be corrected and food must merely be an input for survival and nothing more. Of course, a view like this may not find favor with many of us who are proud of our love for food. But to my limited mind, this commentary does sound sensible. No comments expected – I am merely sharing what I found interesting.

    Best regards
    Uday Vemuri

    • Balsu

      I second it completely

    • vijay

      These are the views which hold true to the ones who know Tattva.For the commom man may not grasp this.

    • Manish

      Yes, I agree in principle to your views, love for food has become another facet of extreme materialism, its vulgur display & utter wastage in mariiage ceremonies, feasts etc is a case in point. Moderation is the path to equilibrium and attaining peaceful state of mind,

  • Priti

    Devadutt ji

    How do I thank you for your invaluable response.Such beautiful choice of words to explain this beautiful process of fasting.I am determines more than ever to keep regular fasts for the benefit of self and other.


  • S V Ramanan

    Dear Devdutt Ji,

    Excellent article as always.
    However one correction It is not Smarta tradition but the Vaishnava tradition ……. Smartas are Saivites.

    S V Ramanan

    • Deepak

      Smarthas = Saivates is a popular misconception. I reckon, ‘smartha’ is derived from sanskrit root ‘smr’ as in ‘smriti’ which means ‘from thinking’ or ‘from memory’.
      Hence, smarthas are those who follow the tradition of smritis or rites as prescribed in the vedas.

      Vedas were much ancient and the sects of vaishnavism and shaivism actually came much later

  • Its in articles like these that science really marries art and mythology.

    What a great piece of work, Devdutt! So glad to have known you.

  • Gujjarputtar

    Common understanding is “Survival of Fittest” those who are strong will survive, and “Jivo Jivasjya karanam”
    one life is survive on another one. This cycle can not be broken. But the mode or outlook can be changed.

    Our Rishis have thought of the ecological problem. They have given hunting rights only to king and that is not for the entertainment but for the benefit of the society. The concept of sacrifice was evolved because of this reason. Even in today’s society Muslims eat halal’s meat or Jews eat koshar food or vishnavist have their own concept.
    As the soul advance spiritually, becomes more compassion to other life and hence the thoughts of nonviolence and the way to survive without harming others.

    We eat food through listening, vision, senses, acts, verbal expression and mental thoughts. Fasting of all these senses are essential, particularly mental restrains. Other wise it is an animal behavior.