Fasting, the act of abstaining from food, drink, or really anything else for a prescribed amount of time, is a time-honored practice in many faiths. In February, I fasted for a day after I found out about my Hindu Mentor’s passing. As a Latter-day Saint in July, I observed a fast on the first Sunday of the month, and gave money otherwise spent on two meals to the church to help the needy. In August, I took part in the month-long Ramadan fast as a Muslim.
Jains, however, take fasting to a whole new level.
Today is a pretty important time for Jains–especially in India. Tonight’s full moon marks the end of Chaturmas Vrat, the four month monsoon period when the traveling monastics remain in one place and teach the Jain Dharma. During this time, Jains observe their most important holy season, an eight to ten-day period called Paryusana Parva. The entire period is spent in the study of scripture (especially the Kalpa Sutra, an account of Lord Mahavira’s life and other Tirthankaras), fasting, and spiritual exercises and austerities for the purpose of shedding old karmas and preventing the acquisition of new ones. According to the scriptures, one must fast for at least three days, however many go the distance and complete all eight.
Although Paryusana has already passed this year, I’m going to celebrate this time anyway. In this way, I will also observe the obligatory fast of at least three days. Some Jains go the distance with eight days. We’ll see how I’m feeling after three.
But what is the Jain perspective on fasting?
First, we must explore the Jain theory of karma.
According to Jain philosophy, karma is not simply a law of nature regarding cause and effect, but an actual type of matter. You, me, animals…we all have a corporeal presence because of an accumulation of karma on our pure state: the soul. Karmic particles accumulate on your soul through actions, feelings, and thoughts dealing with passions, lack of self-restraint, fear, ignorance, and other causes. Therefore, the whole point and purpose of Jain philosophy is to free yourself from karmic particles and exist in the pure, bodiless state of the soul: a siddha.
Fasting then, is a tool for such a goal. By restraining our desires for food (and other things), we demagnetize our souls, so to speak, and thus reduce the attraction of new karma. Fasting is also a method of penance for committing trespasses against one’s spiritual discipline and helps return focus to the Path. Jains are so efficient with fasting that they’ve devised a categorical system which describes many types of fasts depending on length of time and items put aside.
Living as an ascetic this month, I’m already taking one meal a day with boiled water. This is called Ekasanu. The most intense fast is called Santhara, a complete fast one undergoes until death. Only those who have completed their religious duties and are free of all karmas perform this fast.
In our society, going without by choice is difficult. We are a land of plenty and a culture of consumerism. Apparently, the more you have, the happier you are, but I think we’ve got it wrong. For me, this month is about destruction. Destruction of old consumerism paradigms, destruction of mental stupor, destruction of selfishness, and the destruction of entitlement. Fasting is a lesson in need over greed. How much does your body truly need, and once you figure that one out, look back and marvel at all the waste. It’s sickening.
Indeed, some may consider the Jain fasting practices as hard core, but so is military Basic Training and other extreme fitness programs, and look what that produces. Fasting is a great tool to gain insight. I’ve never gone longer than a day without food so this will be a tough time for me, but I think I can hang. The important thing is understanding the line between needs and wants.
In honor of this fast, I’m inviting you to join me for at least three days. If you have the courage and stamina, I’d like for you to come along with me on this test of endurance and time of reflection. I’ve had a few slip-ups this month already so I have a lot of karma clearing to do. What sort of housekeeping is in store for you?