Transpersonal psychotherapy has been called a blending of spiritual traditions and modern psychology. Fasting has used in major religions for spiritual, physiological or psychological purposes. Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity utilized fasting for purification, health, penitence, mourning, in preparation for marriage and initiations, and to develop magical powers. The following are examples of fasting practices of world religions and cultures.
In Judaism, fasting was instituted as a sign of mourning, when danger was perceived, or in preparation for divine revelations. Occasionally, fasts were instituted for entire communities, particularly when the nation was believed to be under divine displeasure, such as a times of great upheaval, pestilence, or drought. In Leviticus 16:29-31, Moses states the purpose of a fast: to make atonement for past offenses. In the Talmud, written by Rabbis in Babylonia around 600 C.E., an entire chapter is devoted to Yom Kippur, also known as the Torah or Day of Atonement, a fast that lasts for one day. Four more days of communal fasting are spelled out in the Talmud, each commemorating historical tragedies.
In Christianity, fasting is often seen as imitating Christ, a realignment of misguided priorities, and initiating a deeper connection to God. In his biblically based book Gods Chosen Fast, Arthur Wallis (1986) details the long list of references to fasting in the Bible, as well as the saints, scholars, preachers, missionaries, revivalists and evangelists who have fasted and testified to its value. Wallis calls for the Catholic Church to renew the practice of fasting as a means to regain its lost apostolic power. He claims a biblical imperative to fast and that spiritual power can be gained through fasting.
Muslims trace their roots to the Koran, sacred writings by the Prophet Mohammad. Mohammad, who lived during the sixth and seventh centuries, fasted for extended periods. Muslims fast during the sacred month of Ramadan to honor the time when Mohammad wrote the Koran. Sufism, a mystical dimension of Islam, is also associated with the Koran. In Sufi customs, fasting is an essential spiritual discipline that curbs physical appetites, and strengthens humility, patience and gratitude. One Sufi saying says, “Fasting cannot be separated from love.”
In Hinduism, fasting is seen as a way to purify and enhance concentration during meditation and worship. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi became known for fasting as an expression of passive resistance. Gandhi professed to having difficulties controlling his desire for sex and food and initially began fasting with the intention of learning self-restraint. He soon realized that fasting had more significant benefits such as detoxification, heightened clarity of consciousness, and spiritual enlightenment. After a 21-day fast, Gandhi described the experience as “21 days of uninterrupted prayer,” and said he felt “an indescribable peace within.” In conclusion, he declared, “There is no prayer without fasting.”
For those who follow the teachings of Buddha, fasting is moral, ethical, prudent and self-imposed. All the main branches of Buddhism practice periods of fasting, generally on full-moon days and holidays. To Buddhists, fasting is seen as a method of purification. Buddhist monks fast to help them do demanding yogic feats and as a means of freeing the mind.
Fasting has played a central role in the formation of the religious and spiritual worlds of Native American tribes. As early as 1623, young Native American men would fast for as long as thirty days until they had a dream or vision that would help with hunting, warfare or healing. In Native American spirituality, fasting is meant to build inner strength to fight life’s hardships, teach how to be of service, and create connection with the Great Spirit in order to receive prayer and guidance. Similar to Judaism, Native Americans would fast for the entire tribe or for a suffering individual. In Native American healing rituals, the great medicine men and medicine women would prescribe fasting as a method to heal the mind, body and spirit.