Researching a piece on diets, I listened to an episode of the Gastropod podcast. The topic of the episode was diets; a section covered fasting as a religious practice. It struck me as rather separate to dieting and thought it might warrant a post of its own. It also made me think about the religious attitudes to food I grew up with and how unique I perceived them to be. Much of this was informed by my childhood and teenage years spent observing and comparing Christianity and Vaishnavism as I experienced them.
I went to a school that wasn’t affiliated with any church but I’m not sure secular schools really exist in Northern Ireland. It wasn’t Catholic so was by default Protestant. Methodism and Presbyterianism are the predominant strands of Protestantism in Northern Ireland. I often say that the non-church school I went to was more religious than the Catholic sixth-form college I went on to work for.
To me it seemed that food didn’t play much of a part in Christianity. The ideas of fasting and feasting didn’t seem overly important. I was aware that Lent encompassed both: a period that began with Pancake Day, before the girls at school might give up chocolate, swearing or biting their fingernails for forty days and then spend Easter Sunday eating endless chocolate eggs. By contrast, fasting and feasting was part of the rhythm of our lives throughout the year. We had fast days – half day fasts for smaller festivals, perhaps the birth or death of a saint, and full day fasts on big festivals – we fasted until moonrise for Gaura Purnima in March, sundown for Nrsimha Caturdasi in May and until midnight on Janmastami in August before a big feast would be served and we were allowed to stay up late. One day a fortnight, we fasted from grains. Ideally, the day would be spent in prayer, reflection, chanting and kirtan, but if you had family or work commitment, fasting from grains was the compromise. We made various dishes from buckwheat and potatoes.
Fasting is commonly associated with Ramadan but is common to all three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, something I was unaware of. Ramadan lasts for thirty days – a meal is eaten each day before sunrise and the fast lasts until sundown. ‘Muslims fast as an act of worship, a chance to get closer to God, and a way to become more compassionate to those in need.’ (Al Jazeera, 2020) Fasting is also seen as a way to learn patience and break bad habits. Ramadan ends with the three day festival of Eid al-Fitr and is celebrated with a meal called Iftar. Iftar events may be held where the public are invited to come and eat.
The Jewish festival of Yom Kippur falls in September or October. It takes place in the ten days following Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) – these are the ten days of repentance which culminate with the 25 hour fast of Yom Kippur, or the day of atonement. ‘The rabbis also explain that the things we abstain from are all those that make the soul comfortable in the body. By engaging in activities that make it uncomfortable, the soul is more likely to rise up from the body, taking us to a higher spiritual plane.’(Ross, 2000)
Fasting previously played a greater part in Christianity. Early Christian ascetics fasted and struggled with their desire to eat. St Augustin of Hippo said of food, (it is) “not an evil which I can decide once and for all to repudiate and never to embrace again, as I was able to do with fornication.” Eating is of course bound to the sin of gluttony and many suggest that these attitudes are still present today in how we view people who are overweight. Augustin faced the tussle between the worldly and the spiritual, the difficulty in renouncing worldly pleasures, which are also required to keep us alive. Catharine of Siena fasted extensively and died very young which was linked to her fasting habits.
Catholics used to fast, or avoid meat, on Fridays. Christmas Eve is still celebrated by Catholics in Poland with a meat-free meal. Lent was of course a fast period – Mardi Gras means ‘fat Tuesday’. Pancake Day was the day when all the butter, oils and eggs were used up before the fast period began. People ate one meal in the evening, eschewing meat, eggs, butter and dairy. Lenten fasting was officially relaxed during the Second World War. Lent was a ‘a way to foster simplicity and self-control; many use their cravings or desires for these items as a reminder to pray and to refocus on spiritual matters’. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Fasting continues to be practiced by Orthodox Christians. The Ethiopian Orthodox church has 180 fast days for lay people, including a 40 day fast leading up to Jan 7th. They eat one vegan meal in the evening, very similar to pre-WW2 Catholics, but this has led to a rich plant-based cuisine in Ethiopia.
I’ve talked about fasting as something shared by major world religions, serving various purposes, but ‘most agree that ascetic abstention aims at rendering the practitioner morally acceptable before the divine’ (Finn, 2012). It can be a form of penance or atonement but for many it seems to be about shifting the focus from the bodily to the spiritual; spending more time on prayer, reflection and learning to become a better person and that is the version of fasting that I am familiar with.
The temple was busy with a full schedule on fasting festival days. It is very much a religion of focussing on God by being occupied and there were plenty of things to focus on other than feeling hungry. There was lots of kirtan, a visiting dignitary might give a talk, there was usually an abhishek ceremony, the children might do a play, sometimes we were lucky enough to have a Bharatanatyam dancer who would perform a dance telling a story about Krishna, sometimes we recited the Brahma Samhita. There was always plenty of work to be done in the kitchen, which was on the go all day, in order to prepare the meal for the evening or you could help to string endless flower garlands to decorate the altar.
Christian ascetics sought simplicity in their lives and to master their bodily desires. This is very much present in Vaisnavism. Ross’ explanation of Judaic reasons for fasting or undergoing hardship are very similar to Vaishnava reasons. Here is Ross’s quote again: ‘by engaging in activities that make it uncomfortable, the soul is more likely to rise up from the body, taking us to a higher spiritual plane’. Monks and serious practitioners sought to exist on a higher plane at all times.
The matter of food is however rather more complex. It seemingly presents a dichotomy: religious practices advocated controlling one’s senses and desires yet food was abundant. Growing up, I was struck by the difference in attitudes to food between Vaishavism and Christianity as I knew it. Food was very important to us – there is a reason they call it the kitchen religion. An attitude was present that everything you did should be done for the Lord. And so everything we ate was offered with Sanskrit prayers; sanctified food is known as prasad and was to be honoured. (There is perhaps some slight overlap with the Catholic idea of imbibing some of the Divine.) Cooking was an aspect of worship – you weren’t cooking for yourself, you were cooking for Lord and so it should be done with care and attention. When we weren’t at home, we mumbled the offering prayers under our breath, before we ate.
The Grace we said in the dining hall at primary school struck me as very short and perfunctory by comparison. The girls chorused ‘For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful,’ with the amen at the end stretched out to sound more like ‘Ah-uh-meh-uuuun’. At the temple and at home we chanted an upbeat lengthy prayer in Bengali which rhymes pleasing, expressing gratitude for the sanctified food we were about to honour.
One of the songs we sang was a Bengali bhajan which described the things Krishna and his friends ate: ‘Bhaja bhakata vatsala sri-gaurahari’. (I listen to various versions on Youtube, deciding which one to link to. I note the Bengali vowels, where an a is pronounced as an o and jai becomes joy.) The song lists vegetable dishes – spinach, jute leaves, pumpkin, dal, fried dishes, yoghurt, banana flowers (I think of the banana blossom I tried in Sri Lanka), milk sweets, sweet rice with camphor, puris with sugar and filled with cream and laddhus. (Laddhus are made of toasted chickpea flour, butter and sugar – nutty, crumbly, buttery and slightly fudge-like.)
Where Catholic or Orthodox fasts prescribed giving up meat as a form of penance, this was an alien idea to us. There was nothing penitent about prasad. It was far too delicious. Not only was it something to be to be treated with respect but we knew people were drawn to our food and then often developed an interest in the beliefs. Every event we held was heavily catered and we looked for opportunities to give people prasadam to bring them closer to God. It was also about accessibility, a common denominator – everyone eats.
We viewed eating meat as animalistic and took the attitude that you are what you eat. If the body was a temple, it was not be filled with dead flesh. We also ascribed to ahimsa or non-violence and did not view slaughter as an acceptable means of obtaining food.
We were very aware of what our food meant to people. Temple prasadam made the transition to a teetotal, abstinent life easier. If you were going to indulge, it was better to eat sanctified food than do anything else. We expected newcomers, especially young men to eat lots but it was expected that some restraint would be developed as people matured.
Specific dishes were prepared every day to be offered on the temple altar. Milk sweets in the early morning which my mum often made: sandesh, burfi, rasagulla. Halava, kheer and fruit salad for the 8am offering. We called the food which came off the altar maha, which in this context is perhaps best translated as meaning ‘blessing’. (You could perhaps think of maha as Prasadam Plus; it was extra special) It went in a blue tray called the maha tray. It came out three times a day and everyone got a bit of everything to go with what had been made for the main meal. The morning maha tray was arguably the most exciting although the warm puris in the evening were pretty good too. There were always maha tray lurkers, someone trying to swipe more than their fair share before it reached the prasadam room where meals were served. The respect we held for prasad combined with the post-war attitude to avoiding food waste that my parents’ generation had inherited was quite something. I’m still obsessive about not wasting food and I don’t think I’ll ever lose that reflex to offer hospitality. A part of me wants to make an entire Sunday feast every time we have guests over but it’s not practical.
I’ve learnt a lot writing this piece. I hadn’t realised that the major world religions had so much in common when it comes to asceticism, fasting and feasting. I’ve only scratched the surface on the topic of asceticism in different faiths but I’m sure there’s plenty of reading you can do elsewhere if you’re interested. (One might say the things I write about are already sufficiently obscure.) I should learn more about how the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism developed with regards to fasting and feasting. I suspect it might involve Martin Luther and his Diet of Worms.
I was intrigued to learn there is an award-winning restaurant called Prasad in Bradford. There are no references to religion on their website, but they do talk about Gujarati vegetarian family recipes, passed down the generations. Next time I’m up North, I’ll definitely call in for lunch.
Acyutananda Swami and Jayasacinandana dasa (1991) Songs of the Vaisnava Acaryas. Mumbai: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
Al Jazeera (2020) When is Eid al-Fitr 2020: Everything you need to know. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/05/eid-al-fitr-2020-200518142558169.html
Encyclopaedia Britannica (2013) Asceticism Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/asceticism
Finn, R. (2012) Asceticism. obo in Biblical Studies. doi: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0110 Available at: https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0110.xml#:~:text=Asceticism%20may%20be%20specific%20to,the%20refusal%20to%20eat%20meat.
Ross, L. K. (2000) Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holidays Handbook: Jason Aronson. Available at: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/fasting-and-asceticism/
Twilley, N. & Graber, C. (2018) The ancient origins of dieting – Atlantic article available at: