13/09/2015 8:06 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

In Defence Of Fasting

OPEN Magazine

This article is from Open Magazine.

By Shylashri Shankar

A few years ago, I did a 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Jaipur. For the uninitiated, Vipassana is Gautama Buddha's mode of meditation. Apart from silence, no telephones, no reading and no exercise, part of the regimen involved eating very little. The wake-up gong sounded at 4 am, followed by meditation, then breakfast of porridge and one banana (no coffee or tea), rest, more meditation, lunch (one ladle full of dal, one roti and a handful of vegetables --no going back for seconds), meditation. On the first day, I thought that the teatime snack of poha, milk and bananas was to keep the body and soul together until dinnertime. Well, I was wrong. No dinner. And the snack was only for first-timers. The rest were allowed a glass of milk, followed by more meditation and an evening lecture. The first three days were a blur of pain, hunger and constant craving for food and sleep. But by day five, I was not hungry and took very little for lunch, was sleeping only for a couple of hours and meditating most of the time. It was the first time in my entire existence that I had fasted voluntarily. The things I had found irritating--the jangle of bangles and the hearty snores emanating from some of my fellow meditatees, and the harsh cries of the peacock tribe that strutted about outside the meditation chamber--were no longer bothersome. On the 10th day, I returned to civilisation and had brunch in Jaipur. I smeared a generous dollop of butter and orange marmalade on a piece of brown toast, all the while feeling guilty about the butter. I crunched it. Over the years, I had forgotten the intensity produced by the aromatic bitterness of the orange rind and the treacly sweetness of the preserved Seville orange pulp. In that instant, I remembered and experienced the joy all over again. Fasting and eating small quantities of bland food had scoured off the dross and rejuvenated my palate.

After this experience, Brillat-Savarin's observation about privation and suffering being intimately connected to the ability to experience pleasure has made more sense to me. In a passage subtitled 'How we used to fast', Brillat-Savarin tells us about those of his grandfather's generation (in the early 18th century) who on fast-days only had one meal, dinner, at four in the afternoon and were 'perishing with hunger' by five. He recounts watching his two great-uncles 'both of them strong level-headed men' almost swoon with delight at that moment on Easter Sunday when after the Lenten fast, they watched the carving of a ham or the first shattering of a meat pie's crust. From this, Brillat-Savarin extracts a wonderful nugget for us to reflect on: 'We see that our pleasures are based on the difficulties, privations and yearnings we suffer to attain them.'

"Animals instinctively know about the benefits of fasting because they stop eating when they are ill. "

The sequence of fasting, sacrifice, guilt, feast, guilt and pleasure creates the capacity in our tastebuds to experience food and drink with intensity. Something in the act of fasting kickstarts the taste glands and intensifies the pleasure. This knowledge, I think, underpins the practice in Madras pre- mid-20th century when every two months, children were given a couple of tablespoons of castor oil to purge their stomachs. Several bouts of diarrhoea later, the child is given yoghurt, rice and a dal chutney. It tasted sublime, says my mother, who has undergone this regimen in her childhood, and still remembers the peppercorns in the chutney.

The practice associated with a fast has not really undergone much change since its beginnings centuries ago. No water until lunchtime, then consume a glass of fruit juice or water, and break fast only after sunset. A 24-hour cycle, since one would have eaten at sunset the previous day. For believers, fasting is the way to attain purification and commune with divinity. Every day of the week in a Hindu calendar is blessed by a deity. Fast on a Monday and you please Shiva, Tuesday you gladden Hanuman's heart, and on Friday, your fast will evoke blessings from the Mother Goddess Santoshi Ma, and so on.


More recently, science has discovered that fasting has other beneficial effects on the body. It can kickstart your immune system and prolong your life. University of California researchers found that the body forces the stem cells to start producing white blood cells, which can fight off infection. Animals instinctively know about the benefits of fasting because they stop eating when they are ill. More recently, weight loss programmes--like the 5:2 diet-- propagate fasting for two days and feasting for five days. Fasting helps you lose about a pound per day during a water- only fast. From day two onward, the body begins utilising fatty tissues for energy, thereby conserving as much muscle tissue as possible (a mechanism called protein sparing). For those who plan to try it, a water fast is better than a juice fast because in the latter, the digestive tract has to work to process the nutrients, leaving less energy for detoxification and healing.

Alright, fasting, pleasure and feasting seem to be connected in elevating the potency of our tastebuds, you say. Is that so unusual since feasts follow many a religious fast? Brides fast before the wedding, priests fast before partaking of a sacrificial feast. The Navratra fast is followed by a Diwali feast. Other religions too follow a similar cycle over the course of the year. Muslims fast during Ramadan and celebrate its end with an Eid feast. The Byzantine fast is followed by the Christmas feast.

But how does sacrifice and guilt help in honing our tastebuds, you may ask. Doesn't guilt make it less easy for us to feel pleasure? Does it not muddy the intensity of taste?

You may have seen advertisements that talk about the sinful and guilty taste of rich dark chocolate. Logically, one would assume that attaching guilt to chocolate would reduce the pleasure of eating it. Far from it, say researchers at the Yale Center for Customer Insights. The three researchers conducted five experiments to test the relationship between guilt and pleasure. None of these experiments associated guilt with harming another person or violating moral norms, though guilt is usually discussed in these terms. The harm, if it occurred, was done to oneself. In every instance, they found that those who felt guilty also experienced the greatest enjoyment. For instance, in one of the experiments, they activated guilt by priming a goal (health) and then having participants consume a product (chocolate) that conflicted with that goal, inducing the type of guilt that results from a failure in will power. Those who felt guilty about eating chocolate also experienced the greatest pleasure from doing so. This implies that pleasure is intimately linked to experiencing guilt, though perhaps only when the action does not harm someone else. Perhaps a guilt that relates to inflicting suffering on oneself is a very different beast and ought to have a different word to distinguish it from the guilt one feels when making someone else suffer.

"The sequence of fasting, sacrifice, guilt, feast, guilt and pleasure creates the capacity in our tastebuds to experience food and drink with intensity."

But this is not a new concept. The Ancients must have known about the cognitive association between guilt and pleasure. Guilt lies at the root of sacrifice, says Roberto Calasso in Ardor (translated as tapas, rapture, the fire burning within us), where he delves into the Vedas including the terribly dense Satapatha Brahmanas on the rituals practised by the Vedic people, 'those remote beings' who lived 3,000 years ago in northern India. Sacrifice was the means to acknowledge and contain violence through religious ritual and practice. 'Sacrifice is not a way to avoid guilt or to excuse guilt, it is a repetition of guilt. In a sense, it is a reinforcement of guilt. The first guilt is the very fact of making things disappear. Killing is only one of the ways of achieving that. Eating is another.' If so, when you fast, you are also eschewing guilt by not making things (food) disappear. When you feast, the guilt returns, and so does pleasure. Soma, the intoxicating drink at the centre of these rituals, enhances individuals' ability to achieve immortality and communicate with the gods; it enhances their 'ardor': 'If soma is desired just as much by gods as by men, it will also become their factor in common. Only in rapture can gods and men communicate.' In Ardor's revelation of the enigmatic web of ritual and myth that defines the Vedic world, sacrifice involves killing. But if we limit sacrifice to 'not eating', and if we see this as an act inflicted on oneself rather than on someone else, the equation between sacrifice, guilt and pleasure becomes less puzzling. You eat food, feel guilt, fast, sacrifice food to the gods, transfer guilt to the gods, and then consume a feast whose pleasure is enhanced by the guilt but is also mitigated by its transference.

If periodic fasting becomes a way of life for everyone, our civilisation will live longer, be more healthy, while also recapturing the intense pleasure produced by our purified taste buds.

(Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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