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Faith in fasting

Most of the world’s population goes on fasting in April. Christians and Muslims, followers of the largest and the second largest religions, respectively, fast for long hours during the religious penitential period of Lent and Ramzan, respectively. It is also a time of repentance, abnegation and spiritual discipline.

During the holy period, most people give up eating the food they like most or abstain from other indulgences, apart from sex, alcohol and smoking — the “popular sins”. This period varies from one month to 40 days.

Non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity and cancers are all lifestyle disorders and the primary modality of treatment prescribed is lifestyle management. It is a science “that works to integrate lifestyle-based healthy habits into the course of a person’s daily routine”.

Lifestyle management

Eating healthy food, maintaining moderation in diet, abstinence from habit-forming behaviour such as smoking and consumption of alcohol, regular physical activity and stress busting are the various components of lifestyle management.

Hindus have various fasting practices all through the year, popularly referred to as vrat, viradham or upavasa based on the lunar calendar. The degree of fasting may vary — from skipping a meal a day to eating only one meal a day or for a specified number of days, usually 48 days (Mandalam period for Sabarimala pilgrims).

Sometimes, fasting entails sustaining on vegan diets similar to the Mediterranean diet during certain months such as the Tamil month of Purattasi.

Selective avoidance of salt (a salt-free diet) on some days is a commonly observed practice. Salt is essential for life, but in excess is injurious to health.

Sikhism also has various periods of fasting, and the Langars, or community kitchens, in gurdwaras serve simple and healthy vegetarian food, though Sikhs are not disallowed from consuming non-vegetarian food. Several other religions have their own fasting regimens suited to their region, customs and beliefs.

Cleansing effect

There is ample scientific evidence to prove that the simple act of fasting improves metabolism, lowers blood sugar and blood pressure levels and cleanses the body of toxins which otherwise may cause intangible and irreversible inflammation at the cellular level.

The next important facet of lifestyle management is incorporating physical activity.

Religion practices often lead to physical activity which becomes apparent when we closely observe the customs and practices of worship — for instance, circumambulation, an integral practice of worship in religions such as Buddhism.

Places of worship such as big temples and churches with their vast courtyards provide ample opportunity and space for walking and also a conducive environment for socialising and promotion of arts and culture.

The offering of Namaz, the daily prayers of Muslims performed by kneeling down and prostrating, or the practice of Namaskarams by Hindus contributes to physical activity and ensures flexibility of joints. Similarly, Hindu practices such as thoppukaranams or the practice of squatting several counts with folded crossed arms reaching up to the ears is the oldest known version of high-intensity intermittent training technique and is a sure-shot method for weight loss.

Hence, these lifestyle habits which promote good health in the name of religion came much before evidence-based medicine came to be known and followed.

We physicians do not shy away from boasting that medicine is our religion, but it has become increasingly apparent that religion too has a healthy dose of medicine in it.

Irrespective of the faith we follow, the essence of any religion is to make human beings healthy. Health is defined as a state of complete physical and mental well-being, paving the way for promoting tolerance, love and peaceful coexistence.

It is unfortunate to see religion divide humanity and spread hatred contrary to its intention.

The true essence of religion has been lost over time, leaving behind empty rituals.

(The author is Dean, Government Omandurar Medical<QR> College, Chennai)

rjayanthi363@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 28, 2022 11:46:38 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/faith-in-fasting/article65350883.ece