Sharad Makhan
Opinion - When people talk about fasting these days, it is most common to focus on what we might call its “social” or “horizontal” dimension: it is said that fasting finds its meaning in giving to the poor the food that one didn’t eat when fasting (or the monetary equivalent of such food).

Therefore, we deprive ourselves of food in order to share it with the needy.

That is, without a doubt, a praiseworthy expression and justification for fasting. It encourages us to share our material goods with those who regularly need them, when we regularly have them.

Moreover, it brings us to a true solidarity with them: by not eating, we experience “in our own flesh” (literally) what they commonly experience because of their destitution.

Too often, in times past, fasting was attached to a negative inheritance - that of depriving your body of flesh and food to make up for the sins committed. 

While these can be legitimate spiritual concerns, fasting can also be utilised in a positive way. All religious faiths describe fasting as a positive means to "shake the spirit", to "refocus priorities".

People who faced great trials and troubles often dealt with them through prayer and fasting. Whenever special courage, insight and strength was needed, they turned to prayer, combined with fasting.

This liberated them and helped them detach from a world that was slowly starting to evolve into the material world, or as some may put it, “the age of technology”.

Many people operate on the premise that a primary goal in life is to always be happy and free of pain or discomfort. Our culture makes it easy for us to become extremely self-indulgent.

We are in danger of becoming less resilient than our ancestors.

Fasting is an effective antidote to the increasing "softness" of life. A life that reaches out for every comfort and pleasure becomes weak, sluggish, flaccid and fragile. 

It is a life devoid of fulfilment and meaning - which brings me to Pitar Pakh and Navarathri (the fasting period for Hindus, which will be observed in September and October respectively).

This is where my heart aches.

For as long as I have used social media, there has not been a year that I have not seen memes, pictures and status updates that made fun of how hard it would be without, meat, alcohol and sex.

This goes on throughout the fasting period, with no sayings from our scriptures and no acknowledgement of the honoured dead. All you get is how people are going to suffer.

Every year we see Hindus flock into prayer shops, buying the best prayer goods and showing off as to whom can do their prayers on the grandest stages and who gets the most expensive pundit to lead them in prayer.

Their minds and hearts, though, are on the hardships of not eating meat and drinking alcohol. This is why religious faiths think of the Hindus as weak. We play straight into those attacks by showing weakness in the month that we are to be at the height of our spiritual strength.

I believe you should rather not fast if you are not going to commit to it 100%, because how far do we get by lying to ourselves that we forsake worldly pleasures and give to charity when we complain for an entire month. 

For those who are fasting, just because you forcing yourself to eat vegetables each day does not mean you have given 100% of your devotion to your ancestors because fasting is not just about eating vegetables for a month, but the spirituality behind it.

The frustration you feel starts conflicts within your own mind, which is then given off to others, and we know that negative minds are contagious.

A man can eat meat everyday and still show gratitude, respect, give to the less fortunate and live honestly. 

That man would have deprived himself of a total mind, body and spiritual feeling in his prayers, but I doubt he would be punished for having a pure heart, as opposed to a man who fasts, but curses because he is not satisfied, is irritated all the time, and makes fun of the month on social media.

That man may have a stronger immune system after the month is up, but his heart and mind are still very much corrupted by his own sin. 

I believe that something worse comes from having our minds focused on the pleasures that we indulge in, and that is the image that we give off to the world about our culture.

We are seen as weak and faithless in our beliefs, and we so easily find ourselves looking like fools when we expose ourselves on social media with countdown images that tell us how many days left before we eat meat and drink again.

Regardless of which religious faith you belong to, there is one common saying, which is: “Pray and give from the heart, for a polluted and distracted mind can ruin your link to God."

Fasting allows us, indeed, to vividly experience the reality that God is our greatest good, our treasure and what we most long for. 

When we feel physical hunger, we will become more hungry for God, for his presence and his power, and we will be able to live out the truth that he is the only one who can truly fill us and satisfy us.

Moreover, by fasting, we are declaring with our bodies that what we are interested in, above all else, is coming closer to an understanding of our spirituality.

* Sharad Makhan is a writer and author from Pietermaritzburg.