FASTING IS AS POPULAR as feasting in India. Almost every day of the week is dedicated to a fast for some deity, generally for a material purpose to get wealth, to cure a sickness, to obtain political power, to get a good marriage partner. Fasting for material purposes can produce results, but those results, being material, are temporary.
Besides, fasts for material gains are like business transactions between us and God. We worship the Lord for some benediction, and as soon as we get what we need, we stop the worship. Srila Prabhupada calls such rituals "material religion." My father still remembers that when he was a child, his grandmother would do a fast for the goddess Sitala-mata, for protection against smallpox. Today smallpox is gone, and so is the fast.
An aspiring devotee fasts to help his spiritual life. Srila Prabhupada writes, "The basic principle is not just to fast, but to increase one's faith and love for Govinda, or Krsna." Fasting should help one purify the body, control the mind, and engage more fully in the devotional service of the Lord. Fasting also shows our determination to serve the Lord.
Srila Prabhupada prescribed fasting at least from grains and beans on Ekadasi, the eleventh day of the waxing and waning moon. He also told devotees to fast on the appearance and disappearance days of the Lord and His devotees. These fasts are to be done only for the satisfaction of the Lord. Srila Prabhupada writes, "The real reason for observing fasting on Ekadasi is to minimize the demands of the body and to engage our time in the service of the Lord by chanting or performing similar service."
For many generations people in India fasted on Ekadasi. But people today are not so interested in spiritual life, so few observe Ekadasi. When my aunt decided to observe Ekadasi, there was much opposition from her relatives. "Ekadasi is only for old people," they said. "What are you going to gain by keeping Ekadasi?"
Srila Prabhupada considered fasting on Ekadasi and other holy days an important part of spiritual life: "All these rules and regulations are offered by the great acaryas [spiritual authorities] for those who are actually interested in getting admission into the association of the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the transcendental world. The mahatmas, great souls, strictly observe all these rules and regulations, and therefore they are sure to achieve the desired result."
The main point is that fasting should aid our spiritual life. If fasting hindered a devotee's service, Srila Prabhupada would allow him to eat.
Devotees also consider that eating only prasadam food offered to Krsna is a kind of fasting, because one forgoes the demands of the tongue. In this sense, devotees fast every day. And such fasting for the pleasure of Krsna, while hearing and chanting His glories, is a true feast for the soul.
Ravi Gupta, age fourteen, lives at the Hare Krsna center in Boise, Idaho. The center is run by his parents. Ravi, who was schooled at home, is a second-year student at Boise State University.