Foodie. Carnivore. Couch Potato.

"Upwaas" – The religious absense of food

Upwaas or Fasting is a willing abstinence or reduction from some or all food, drink, or both, for a period of time. Fasting is synonymous with most religious festivals in India.

Today marks the holy day of Maha Shivratri – an annual festival celebrated in honor of Lord Shiva. A lot of people around me (including my wife) are fasting today, mostly from sunrise to sunset. Some are fasting completely – ie, only water. Some are on a ‘fruits-fast’ i.e., once fruits and water to be consumed. Others have different modes – only vegetarian food or “Upwaas special” food like sabudana khichadi and suran chips.

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Sabudana Vada – Image courtesy google images
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Sabudana Khichadi – Image courtesy google images

We see a similar divergence in customs during Navaratri / Durga Pujo. While both the festivals are synonyms of each other in all intents and purposes – both being celebrated in honor of Maa Shakti (called Maa Ambe in Gujarat and Maa Durga in Bangal), the food habits are poles apart. Navaratri sees nine days of complete abstinence from non-vegetarian food, Durga Pujo sees people hogging down some of the best chicken moglai, kosha mangsho, and other bengali non-vegetarian dishes at the stalls lining the puja pandal itself.

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Kosha Mangsho

This lead me to question – who decides this? Who decides the time of the day to start and end the fast? Who decides what can or cannot be eaten? What defines “upwaas ka khana”?

Usually, its your parents. Who were instructed by their parents. And so on. Rituals, while being religion specific, are also mended by each family.

Unlike other religions, Hinduism doesn’t really have strict rules per se, its pretty open to interpretation. Traditions vary from region to region, family to family. They usually trickle down the generations, morphing their way through time. I’m sure our grandparents couldn’t even dream about pre-packaged upwaas khakhras and farsaan!

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Image courtesy Google Images

However, there is a scientific basis to fasting as well. This was explained to me by the priest who officiated my wedding.

So, when we eat, our natural digestion process takes over. Obviously, gases are passed, from both the orifices. Some may be loud, some silent, some are odorless, while others may have the power of a tear gas shell. But I digress.

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The idea is to maintain an aura of cleanliness. Passing gas halfway through a prayer ritual or a satyanarayan katha, or on the wedding alter isn’t the best idea. That is one of the primary reasons to fast on the day of an important ritual.

Another thought suggested by a wise man (my father-in-law, hello!) is health. Upwas is a necessity for the body for detoxification.Giving it the name of a ritual, faith, Dharma and service to God helps in ingraining this very valuable bit of advise into people’s minds. It has also been observed that maintaining a fast does result in higher concentration and health.

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Seeing the number of fad-diets around detox and liquid diets these days, I think our ancestors had it down!

That being said, it isn’t always an ‘abstinence’. For many, a fast does turn into a FeAST! See below an example of an “upwaas special thali”, image courtesy desijam.in

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Navratri Vrat Thali

Like everything else in faith, there really is no right or wrong. This holds a lot of meaning for a lot of us. Ladies fasting during Karva Chauth for the health of their husbands do so with a lot of happiness. Those preparing for the Sabarimala pilgrimage are expected to follow a Vratham (41-day austerity period) prior to the pilgrimage, which includes a lacto-vegetarianism diet and teetotalism. And those who return from the successful pilgrimage believe it helps in personality development which will synchronize and control the body, soul, mind and diet.

At the end of the day, do what your heart tells you to. Eat to your hearts content, and fast as per your personal values and beliefs. Or when you feel like. Or when mom tells you to. Coz, you know…….

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PS: I do not mean to hurt or insult any religious or personal sentiments here. These are my personal thoughts, and I hope to hear from you about what you feel. If, by chance, I did end up hurting your feelings, I apologize. I assure you I did not mean to.

PPS: Apologies for the overuse of memes! It’s too much fun!

Happy F(e)ASTING!



21 thoughts on “"Upwaas" – The religious absense of food”

  • Upwas for any reason through any custom /religion is a necessity for the body for detoxification. So, in the name of Puja etc this upwas system was ingressed in the minds of people as a faith of Dharma and service to God.
    So, there is no definite formula except for the likes of people for least food during upwas. Staying Nirjala Upwas is a state of mind for greater concentration towards god and in the process a health factor for those who can do it.

  • I don’t believe the primary reason for fasting could be so no one could pass gas. An empty stomach makes more noise and in my case passes more gas than on a full stomach. What I feel could be a more probable reason is that while observing religious rituals, the state of mind and hence that of the body is very important. Avoiding anything that takes too long to digest(read rice and non veg) and anything that can rouse strong feelings e.g. chilly, onion, garlic, pepper etc is thought to be the basic means to keep the body in a position to be able continue with the performance of necessary rituals. Also, it helps keep the mind calm and the person sober. Although this is completely my opinion.

    • True. My father in law, MR AR Mahapatra believes in said the same in the comment above. I would like to incorporate your advise into my blog too.
      Thank you for sharing your thought!

    • Also, the passing gas story was actually narrated by my priest. If the last meal you ate was dinner last night, and had a good night’s sleep, your system will be empty the next day. Try it. 🙂

  • Very well written…
    I don’t believe in fasting food somehow… Like you eat potatoes and other heavy to digest food to impress god like why will god be impressed, coz you having potatoes… ?
    I believe eat what you feel like n when you feel like… Eat right n be healthy that’s it…
    And in case you want to impress god do it by doing good karma… Might help !!!

  • I totally agree on your theories. I want to add one of mine:

    Fasting was not only introduced as a mean to detoxify the body but also bring about the self-control and discipline it demands. It brings about a similar effect on your stomach as meditation on mind.
    Also it helps you train your body to survive in scarce times, Scarcity can put the theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest’ to action; Fasting merely enable us to exercise the reverse-mechanism.

  • You have summed up the whole issue in the last para.
    We Hindus believe that the Gods are our parents. How can during a Puja, the parents be merrily eating the Prasad which we offer while we are fasting. Sounds odd and ridiculous isn’t it?
    In earlier days the toilets used to be outside the main house. Secondly, every time one used to go to the toilet one had to take a shower. So, it was decided by the Brahmins .. btw I am also one, to practice fasting during the Puja or any other religions function. Sounds logical isn’t it?

  • One of the reasons for fasting for ladies used to be the good food which they got to eat during the different shasthi and ashtami days.According to my grandmother ladies hardly got to eat luchi or fruits which were usually given to male members of the family.Ladies were served these special items only on the days of fasting.Another reason cited by her was a rest day for ladies.Having a fruit diet meant a day’s rest and cooking holiday.

  • Fasting is definitely not my cup… Be it tea or coffee… I fast only on days when my tum tum is upset…. I eat it all no restrictions… Having said that… Yes! This idea of fasting has been dinned into our minds by our parents and almost every community in India and around the world too fast at some time or the other during the year… We parsis have a month in the parsi calendar called Boman mahina during which we abstain from eating meats… It’s a way of contributing to nature and allowing the animals to grow and multiply… Well each to their own 😍👍

  • Wilner: Had a photo ID for work once that was taken in a room so poorly lit that all you could see was glare off my glasses' lenses. At the time I was annoyed, maybe I shouldn't have been.

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