Ramadan Fasting and Penance Strengthen the Soul
A feature common to most religions, worldwide, is the practice of undertaking periodic fasts. Saum or fasts are an integral part of Islam. For Hindus, fasts are a form and part of prayer and worship and the word upvas means “being near God“.
The concept of asan or fasting takes different forms in Jainism. Followers of Buddhism too observe fasts on certain days as do Christians, especially during Lent.
Abstaining from food during Ramadan is a part of the broader programme that Islam prescribes for man to fulfil his moral and spiritual destiny in this world and in the hereafter.
It is special worship designed to develop in man the ability to exercise self-restraint and patience. Fasting enables man to keep in check unruly desires and tendencies that make him prone to greed, revenge, anger, provocation and fear; that make him commit various sins, acts of aggression, cruelty and oppression.
It seeks to free the human soul and endow it with moral and spiritual strength to promote beauty, harmony, kindness, peace, compassion and justice.
The Quran says: “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed to you as it was to those before you, that you may (learn) self-restraint” (2:183). Edward de Bono writes in Teaching Thinking that errors in thinking like errors of perception, partialism, adversary thinking, arrogance and conceit are responsible for negative feelings which obstruct human progress.
Fasting is a pious and harmless way of solving this problem. Leading a life of restraint for a whole month definitely transforms one’s thinking for the better. It enables one to offer a positive response even in the face of others’ negative behaviour. The entire demeanour of a person who is fasting and praying is more controlled and tranquil.
Before commencing his prophetic mission, Jesus had fasted for 40 days in the desert. Only then was the word of God revealed to him. This is narrated in the Bible as the Sermon on the Mount. Likewise, Prophet Mohammed used to go to the cave of Hira before he attained Prophethood.
The mind needs to be periodically cleansed and we must try to maintain it in a state of purity. So just as the body requires physical nourishment, the soul must be nourished spiritually.
While decreeing the fast of Ramadan, the Quran says: God desires your well being, not your discomfort. The Quran teaches that it is essential, at least during the month of Ramadan, to retire from the material world in order to develop the spiritual part, so that one may see far and beyond all material veils.
Self-purification is the most soul-satisfying, soul-embellishing of the processes that one can achieve through fasting, which is necessary to cleanse our souls of all the filth we accumulate in the course of our daily lives. Self-purification is an art that needs to be consciously cultivated.
The mind-body theory further vindicates the benefits of fasting. Fasting increases one’s powers of concentration, and improves one’s mental as well as spiritual strengths, and gives us peace of mind, confidence and courage.
It is well known that Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and almost all the sages of Indian mythology have abstained from food at various times in the course of their pursuit of spiritual insight.
The neo-Freudian view of the sublimation of the body’s energy lends further credence to this view, best exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi’s use of abstention — whether it meant not indulging in food, sex or speech — as a tested method to strengthen the soul.