"Upwaas" – The religious absense of food
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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…….
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!