Ancient Indian Science

Science Behind Upvas (Fasting)

Intermittent fasting seems to be a ‘buzzword’ in the health & nutritional realm with the keyword being searched on the most popular search engine nearly one million times a month and is said to be a breakthrough in the world of “dieting” and “weight loss.” Others like “juice cleanse,” “water fasting,” ‘Partial Fasting,” and “Calorie Restriction” are also by-n-large marketed as ‘revolutionary.’

It is, although, inaccurate to state so as these practices date back thousands of years in different regions and observed in almost all religions; nowhere more so than in Ancient India.

Throughout certain religious periods in India, people go on fast called as vrat or upvas (a specific type of purifying austerity or tapa) owing primarily to religious reasons but there exists a clear thought and purpose behind it all. Ayurveda, the ancient system of medicine and one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, states that one should mend their diets in accordance with seasons and detoxify at least once a year as per the body’s three ‘doshas.’ Vata, Pitta and Kapha are the trifecta; energies that are believed to circulate in the body which govern physiological activity. The proportional differences among them determine individual temperament and physical constitution with the imbalance causing a disposition to particular physical and mental disorders.

These define a person’s connection to the five fundamental elements: earth, water, fire, air, void, and aether. These aren’t static and vary throughout one’s life with a change in age, environment, physical activities, and external factors such as climate, food or pollution. Therefore, when seasons change, our bodies experience a shift in these elements and seek a rebalance. Herein fasting helps the body to adapt in order to change dynamics both within and around.

The spiritual significance

Apart from the obvious physical benefits, it’s important to comprehend the spiritual emphasis laid on the science behind fasting. The science, as preserved in the Vedas and the Shastras, is a method of purification which can aid us in mundane, as well as, the spiritual life. These ancient texts understood and were in sync with the law of nature and man. The devised systems stem from the profound knowledge and came about to enable the human beings to raise consciousness into the higher realms as fasting has been scientifically proven to make the mind calm and serene.

The scriptures advise the worship of certain deities during these fasting periods as the mind becomes more receptive and when the positive aspects of a particular deity are concentrated upon, those qualities are ultimately evoked in the individual. The deities are deemed to be the aspects of the dormant mind that are waiting to be awakened and be mobilized in our consciousness rather than being separate entities. Worshipping them arouses these potent faculties to elevate the low, sensual consciousness to super-consciousness.

The Astrological reasoning and application

The Vedas and Shastras propound systems that coordinate the mankind’s biological rhythms with the cycles of nature with one of the most fundamental connections being observed in the phases of the moon. It is scientifically known that the tides of the ocean rise during full moon and by the time the dark moon comes they have completely ebbed. As the human body is approximately 70% water, it is worth considering the effects of these phases on the whole constituency as the gravitational force of the moon affects the fluid contents. The different stages of the moon’s waxing and waning are what comprise the basis of fasting. It’s also the reason why fasting is practised more extensively by women as the cycles of the moon affects them in particular through the menstrual cycle.

The moon’s monthly cycle comprises of two phases:
– Shuklapaksh: ‘The white fortnight’ consists of fifteen days as the moon waxes. The full moon or Poornima occurs on the last day of this period.
– Krishnapaksh: The second half begins with the moon’s waning and ends with the Amavasya when it is completely dark.

The days specified for fasting are calculated based on the intensity of the moon’s influence during these two phases with the most relevant and popular periods being the full and no moon. These are especially recommended for young and unmarried youth. These are linked with specific occasions throughout the year, as well. In May-June, devotees of Buddha fast on Buddha Poornima. On Guru Poornima disciples offer homage to their teachers, educators, and guides. In March, Shivaratri falls on Amavasya which is noted as the time when Lord Shiva, the consciousness, united with Goddess Parvati, the energy. This makes it very significant as it’s supposed to be the darkest night of the year. Furthermore, any Amavasya that falls on a Monday is also dedicated to him.

The other specific days are assigned to corresponding deities or festivals. The fourth day of either fortnight is known as Sankashta Chaturthi reserved for the worship of Ganesha, the remover of obstacles and troubles. The eighth day of each fortnight is called Ashtami and of importance on occasions like Janamashtami or Gokulashtami, the birthday of Lord Krishna. On this day his divine qualities are remembered and revered. Navaratrashtami during November-December is devoted to the Devi and respect is paid to the incarnations of Durga and Kali. The ninth day or Navami is the next significant day and Ramnavami, the birthday of Lord Rama, falls on this auspicious date.

The eleventh day, Ekadasi, is an important date as according to Skanda Purana, fasting on that day serves as a preventive medicine. During the three months of monsoon called as Chaturmas, this is of most relevance. In this time the quality of available food deteriorates as a result of the climate together with the weather being non-conducive to digestion. Some people eat only a meal a day from the first Ekadasi in Ashada (July-August) till the eleventh day in Kartik (November-December). It’s taken to be as a time of hibernation as the god Hari is said to go to sleep during this period.

Fasting in the monsoon period is also prevalent in the Islamic religion during Ramadan when food and drink are prohibited in daylight hours in the ninth month of the Arabian year. This exhibits how the rules are adapted to the conditions of the climate in which fasting is to be observed as regions that don’t experience monsoon don’t reap much benefit keeping fasts in this period.

Devout followers additionally dedicate different days of the week to separate gods and goddesses and fast accordingly. Eka Bhukta means a single meal can be consumed in the afternoon. Nakta Vrat implies eating once at night. Upavas is to fast completely or take only some fruit in the day also referred to as Phalahar.

The Fasting Diet

Ayurveda categorises food into three groups – rajasic, tamasic, and sattvic food. Food that’s either hot, unripe or hard in nature is classified under rajasic and tamasic while pure, natural, vital, energetic, and clean one is labelled sattvic. Therefore, it’s the sattvic group that’s recommended for consumption during fasts which includes fruits, dairy products, lemon water, coconut water, buttermilk, rock salt, potatoes, and buckwheat. Meat, fish, onions, garlic, mushrooms, bread, whole wheat, white salt, etc., fall under rajasic and tamasic. Spices grown below the ground are avoided but cumin, green chillies, and cinnamon can be consumed.

This is in congruence to the main motive behind fasting. Fasts help one to align the mind and the body thereby increasing attention and awareness. Rajasic and Tamasic food which generally grow below the ground distract one’s mental focus as they either increase of decrease the energy. On the other hand, sattvic food provide subtle or tranquil energy that aids better focus, detoxification, weight loss, and also cleansing of kidneys and intestines.

The fasts are there to induce a state of peace in all acts. All of the external and internal conditions are taken into consideration and the aim is to rise above the influence of the five senses; even if for the short period. Therefore, given India’s many sects and religious groups, different systems of fasting exist depending on local beliefs and climatic conditions. For example, Jains can fast for a day, a week, a month, or even until the final samadhi with intake of only boiled water twice a day. Some groups fast on a single food like wheat or rice as per the climate and availability. For others, grains are forbidden so they consume only fruit and/or dairy products.

The Health Benefits backed by science

1. Reduction of Insulin Resistance: Fasting improves blood sugar control as several studies have found making it very useful for those at risk of diabetes. One specific study done among 10 people with Type 2 diabetes showed that short-term intermittent fasting had significantly reduced blood sugar levels.

2. Decrease level of inflammation: Chronic inflammation has serious consequences for health as it may be involved in the development of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Fasting helps in decreasing this leading to promotion of better health.

3. Improve heart health: A study revealed that eight weeks of alternate-day fasting significantly reduced levels of ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and blood triglycerides by 25% and 35% respectively. This indicates better blood pressure and reduced stress on the heart can result from fasting.

4. Boost brain function and prevent neurodegenerative disorders: Although this research has been mostly limited to animal test subjects, the studies are still astounding. The powerful effect on brain health owing to fasting showed that the brain structure and function had improved in mice that were kept on intermittent fasting for 11 months. Furthermore, the studies suggest that due to less inflammation fasting may protect against and improve outcomes for conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

5. Boost metabolism and aid weight loss: Research has also corroborated that short-term fasting boosts metabolism by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter nor epinephrine which helps in weight loss. One of the studies even shows that whole-day fasting can reduce body weight by up to 9% and assists in significant decrease in body fat over a period of 1-2 years.

6. Increase in growth hormone: Human growth hormone (HGH) is a type of protein hormone which is vital for growth, metabolism, weight loss, and muscle strength. It is central to many aspects of health. Fasting has been seen to be instrumental in increase of HGH secretion.

7. Extend longevity: Several animal studies have shown the positive impact of fasting on potential lifespan extension and delayed aging.

8. Increase in effectiveness of chemotherapy: Some studies have indicated that fasting can be beneficial in the treatment and prevention of cancer. One particular animal study found that alternate-day fasting had helped in blocking tumour formation.

The bottom line is that we can all adopt these systems of fasting to help us in our lives regardless of what our profession is, where do we live, or which religion we follow, or whether we have faith or no faith. These systems were formulated and recorded to enable all people to strive for better health and maintain well-being by aligning our physical bodies with everything around us to enable sustained equilibrium in every aspect of life.

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