Now we are firmly past Pancake Day and into the run up to Easter, many of us have given up something for Lent, the most popular choice being chocolate and all things carby and sweet. Yet the motivation for this discipline is important – not just to get your bikini body ready in time for the blazing hot summer term in Manchester – but, paradoxically, to connect with yourself on a spiritual level.
Fasting is a tradition engrained in our biology from our time as hunter-gatherers. This was fundamental in a world reliant on nature where hunger and starvation were real aspects of life. The rhythm of hunger and fastingis ubiquitous in human culture. Either partial or complete abstinence from all food or from certain foods has existed from the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, China and India, Palestine and Persia to name a few. For instance, Jainismencourages a focus of the mind and body on the virtues of the soul with the goal of self-purification and cleansing. Fasting has since been an important part of religious practice and continues to be so for Christians during Lent and Muslims during Ramadan.
Historically, religious fasting has provided dignity to both starvation and gluttony. The pace of history has been moved by hunger: pressure to find food from fresh sources has come from the need to feed. A ‘culture of hunger’ has prevailed revolving around fear of starvation. In early modern England, the ‘famine of living’ upset the price curve by rocketing the price of foodstuffs to an inaccessible level for urban artisans and labourers while the withered countryside saw its inhabitants migrating towards the safe haven of the cities in order to beg. Simultaneously, those ‘better’ sorts actively participated in the conspicous consumption of luxury food products and used food as a strategy for social pretention within a new material culture and emergence of a dining ritual. This was accompanied by a shift to Protestantism under Edward VI, which unleashed a puritanical spirit towards pleasures of the body. Indeed, humans have always held a strange tension between greed and restraint. In the aftermath of the Plague, the takeover of most land was from death; therefore, the ‘capitalist sorts’ rose, not because of thrift and abstinence as economists have traditionally depicted, but from the dispossession of others. As such, religious ideas of frugality and dietary temperance covered up an appetite for land and fields.The painting His Battle between Carnival and Lent (1559) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder perfectly depicts the daily battle between bodily pleasure and temperance at this time. These extremes in diet are ones we still struggle with today.
Fasting, therefore, represents purification from gluttony and materialism. It becomes a therapeutic exercise and gives space to reflect on personal, professional and spiritual goals to ask: am I still satisfied with the principleswhich guide my actions? Rather than the physical act of abstinence it is a challenge to embody to deeper principles, such as sacrifice, penance, or meditation. Sharing in these rituals, particularly ones that make you feel uncomfortable can force us to break down barriers of communication and conquer our fear of the other through empathy and cultural transaction. Notable annual fasts include famine events, such as the 30 Hour Famine, to bring awareness to world poverty and hunger. As such, fasting is not always religious in nature; increasingly, we are being made aware of the physical benefits, made popular by the 5:2 diet. It is claimed that fasting improves our health by increasing lifespan, increasing cognitive function and protection from disease.
Fasting can also be an expression of human wants, whether religious or not – indicating that what you are asking for is more important to you than the fundamental need to eat. For instance, a hunger strike is a method of non-violent resistance in which fasting acts as a political protest to provoke change. Notable instances include Emmeline Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi, Bobby Sands and César Chávez. Many activists have lost their lives during hunger strikes in their quest for a better world and while there has been great social and political success through this type of protest, many ask if self-harm is necessary to achieve these ends.
Therefore, fasting cannot always be seen as something beneficial. Sikhism takes a unique stance: ‘torturing’ the body does nothing for the spirit. Indeed, it is worth remembering fasting is only ever promoted in moderation, whether your motivation is religious, spiritual, physical or political.