Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science
CHAPEL TALKS BY V.V. RAMAN - 2013 IRAS CONFERENCE
VI. Fasts and Famine
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice
And untie the cords of the yoke,
To set the oppressed free
And break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter
When you see the naked to clothe him,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
As long as we get the food for which we pray and pay, we can handle reasonably well most of our chores and challenges in life. But now and again food is not within reach of many people. So our theme for today will be, not food but the absence of it. This absence can occur under two conditions: voluntary and involuntary.
Voluntary absence of food occurs when we fast. Fasting may be undertaken for personal reasons. But most often it is done as part of a religious observance. Every religious calendar has its fasting days and nights, associated prayers and rituals.
Fasting is different from restricting calories to lose weight. In the religious framework, any act of giving of oneself is a sacrificial act. The general tenet is that fasting results in an inner transformation of the individual resulting in spiritual betterment.
Fasting could be for a day or for half a day. There are different approaches and purposes to fasting. It could be to atone for a sinful action, to ask for forgiveness, to avert a severe punishment from a wrathful God, to compensate for a wrongful act, even if was a non-hurtful. Fasting could be done on an individual basis or done collectively. In ancient times, fasting was used as a protest in India. The practice was revived in the twentieth century against the government during the British occupation of India. It has spread to many other countries where it is now known as hunger-strike.
In the Judaic tradition it is said that Moses fasted for a forty day period. We read in Deuteronomy (9.9): “When I was gone up into the mount to receive the tables of stone, even the tables of the covenant which the LORD made with you, then I abode in the mount forty days and forty nights, I neither did eat bread nor drink water.” Whether or not it was literally so, the significance is that there was a prolonged spiritual commitment here, at the expense of one’s own daily needs.
King David fasted as an atonement for his affair with Queen Bathsheba. It has been reported that people sometimes fasted after they had a nightmare resulting from guilty conscience. Sometimes, like Hindus, Jews fast on the day of the death anniversary (Jahrzeit) of a family member. I have read that one fasts if by mistake the Torah roll is let fall to the ground.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement. It is a holy observance. It is remarkable in being a festival without food. It is a day of fasting and prayer, of introspection and self-judgment when, collectively and repeatedly, people confess their sins and pray to be written into God's Book of Life. There is something humbling and truly penitential in recognizing one’s faults and misconduct by foregoing food – the most basic need for survival – as an infliction on oneself to pay for one’s derelictions. The spirit in which this is done is more important than the amount of food one gives up.
In the Christian framework fasting enables the Holy Spirit to reveal one’s spiritual condition. Like Moses, Jesus is also said to have fasted for forty days. In Mark 4:2 we read: “Then was Jesus led up of the spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward hungered. And when the tempter came to him, he said, If you be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. …” This is remembered in the forty day Lent period during which traditional Christians observe some kind of fast. Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are expected to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Here fasting could mean taking only one full meal a day.
The young prince Siddhartha – who was to turn into the Buddha or the Enlightened One eventually - left his palace in search of the ultimate truth about life. He is said to have fasted for the next six years, eating barely a grain of rice a day. He wandered through the countryside studying with six teachers and practicing severe austerities. Towards the end of this period, surviving on unbelievably meager meals, the young man in the spiritual quest was reduced to skin and bones. In this stage he is referred to as the Fasting Buddha. Now he realized that such fasting would lead him only to starvation and death, and not to the enlightenment he was seeking. So he decided to follow the middle path between the extreme of the palatial luxury in which he had been brought up and the extreme of austerities which he was leading him nowhere. So he gave up his penance and went to a town where a young woman offered him a bowl of gruel. Siddhartha walked to the bank of the River, bathed, and exchanged clothes with a corpse. He divided the gruel into fifty balls, ate one of them and put the others away. Then he crossed the river and approached the place that is now known as Bodh Gaya. Ultimately Siddhartha attained enlightenment at the age of thirty five and became known as the Buddha - The Enlightened One.
Non-Budhists may have difficulty in believing that the wise master lived on just one grain of rice a day for several years. But that is not the point of this story. It is meant to reveal at least three important truths: First, food is as essential for spiritual awakening as it is for physical existence. To the non-religious, food is no more than a nutrient, as relevant for us as flies are for frogs or carcasses are for vultures. But in the religious framework food has esoteric significance and relation to the great forces that sustain the world. Second, one also learns that following the extremist path in any context can lead to disaster rather than to discovery. This is the core truth that the Buddha realized and taught: madhyamá pratipad as it called in Sanskrit, chúdo in Japanese, via media in Latin. Thirdly, when food becomes available it is important not to consume all of it at once: an Eastern version of aversion to the sin of gluttony.
In Hindu lore, the sage Vishvámitra is said to have fasted for years to attain the highest spiritual state. But he was distracted by the attractive damsel Meneka who had been sent by the gods to prevent the sage from acquiring too much spiritual power. This is to remind us that the seeker of spiritual enlightenment will encounter many an obstacle. Among Hindus, fasting is a fairy common practice all year round. Practically every Hindu fasts at least once a month, some even once a week, and everyone on a few auspicious religious days. Here too, by fasting one means eating nothing during half a waking day, and subsisting on fruits and milk.
In the epic of Mahabharata there is a long dialogue on fasting in which a sage declares: “He will be regarded as one who is always fasting if he eats only once during the day and once during the night at fixed hours without eating during the interval. Such a person, by always speaking the truth and by adhering always to wisdom, becomes a chaste person. By never eating the meat of animals not killed for sacrifice (in the terminology of other tradions, by eating only kosher or halal meat), he is the equal of a strict vegetarian. By always becoming charitable he will become ever pure, and by abstaining from sleep during the day he will become one that is always wakeful. That person who never eats till gods and guests are fed, wins, by such abstention, heaven itself.”
In the Ayurvedic system of health and medicine, it is stated that diseases are caused by the accumulation of toxic substances in the body, and that fasting is a mode of cleansing the body of these.
In the Islamic world fasting is the fourth of the Five Pillars; i.e. it is incumbent upon all Muslims. Fasting is recommended to develop self-control, and is also seen as a mode of expressing one’s love of God. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar is known as Ramadan. During this month all adults are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset, except under special circumstances such as travelling, sickness, pregnancy, and the like. In addition to the month of Ramadan, many Muslims fast on other days too, especially Mondays and Thursdays, and some days in the months of Rajab and Sha'ban which precede Ramadan.
Like all virtues, fasting has its benefits for those who practice it in the appropriate frame of mind. This could be piety in a traditional religious mode, as also with thought of the less fortunate members of the human family who don’t have the resources to feed themselves well.
In all religious traditions, associated with fasting are injunctions to be humble and charitable to the poor, and be helpful and considerate to all. In some denominations of Christianity, for example, during Lent one is expected to attend Mass daily, including the evening service, and pray with the rosary, and undergo some penance. Aside from the prayers one has also to engage in acts of self-denial, alms-giving and personal charity. There is also the recommendation to teach the illiterate, and read to the blind. People are encouraged to help in soup kitchens, visit the sick and do other social service of one kind or another. It is worth recalling all these instructions in the context of religious fasting because, whether or not one subscribes to the doctrinal tenets of any religion, one ought to respect the fact that practically all religions: Buddhism Judiasm, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, all preach humanitarian values along with fasting. When associated with such action, religious injunctions take on even greater meaning and significance. We may not in this context that the founders of Sikhism spoke out explicitly against fasting, and said that what is important is to serve your fellow humans, and feed the hungry. In any case, fasting of any kind, religious of not, when combined with social service, is perhaps the highest mode of serving the God one believes or does not believe in.
Scientific studies of food and nutrition seem to suggest that periodic fasting is good for general health. In a way this is not surprising. After all, any complex machine works better if it is not running ceaselessly. Some experts in nutrition suggest that we may even eat more heartily if we have a near-fasting diet once a week. Some modern nutritionists, like David Ash, also recommend regular fasting on the grounds that it is essentially giving insulin and gastric juices periodic respite. Thought there is some debate as to whether significant reduction in calorie intake will necessarily prolong life, according to the National Institute on Aging, studies from animal models suggest that if one begins to practice intermittent fasting diet one can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
From the physiological perspective, when we don’t eat anything for more than ten to twelve hours we begin to fast. During this period all the available glucose in the bloodstream is utilized, and the glycogen stored in liver and muscle cells start turning into glucose for the needed energy. With continued fasting the fat in the body breaks down, and the liver begins to produce what are called ketone bodies. These serve as fuel for the brain. This reminds us of the quip: The answer to the question whether life is worth living is, “It depends on the liver.”
In spite of all our great progress in science and technology, in spite of all the advances in medicine and the multiplication of our food output many-folds, the overall health of the general population even in the scientifically and technologically advanced countries has been coming down. Every health statistic reveals that there have been steady increases in heart disease and diabetes and obesity. This unwelcome state has prompted many initiatives to resolve the food-related health crisis. Thus, in the past few decades there have arisen dozens of new nutrition-movements and dietary fads. In ancient times religions set rules for what is to be consumed and what not. In our own times, experts in the field of nutrition do this.
Unfortunately, like cosmologists who periodically change their views on how the universe came to be, our licensed nutritionists have been regularly changing their tune. The ancient Chinese believed that good and healthy food keeps the elements wood, fire, earth, metal and water of Chinese science in balance. The Indian Ayurvedic system has its own theories on good and bad diets. Today we have countless dieting programs like the Atkins diet restricting all carbohydrate intake, the DNA Diet which emerged from the genome project, macrobiotics which recommends eating only natural foods, the Raw Food plan of eating only unprocessed and uncooked plant foods, and more. The one principle on which all these rest is that many of our ailments derive from excessive consumption of carbohydrates, sugars and red meat: in other words, everything that the food industry propagates and tempts the population unto.
Let us not turn our attention to famine. There are more than seven billion people on the planet today. Billions more of other creatures from microbes to mammoths also inhabit our planet. Every one eats every day, whether it is just the tiny bites of insects, small nuts of squirrels, small and big fish for birds, grass for cattle, game animals for beasts, or pizzas for parties: whatever it be, from a morsel to gourmet banquets, the planet has been feeding its life-forms day in and day out, since the unrecorded dawn of creatures on earth. We simply cannot imagine how much food is required for all this, though a good deal of it is recycled food!
But there is a limit even to planet earth’s impressive capacity for food production. We recall the ominous statement of Thomas Malthus, made in the late 18th century, to the effect that "The power of population is so superior to the power of the Earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race." He went on to say that “our unquenchable urge to reproduce would ultimately lead us to overpopulate the planet, eat up all its resources and die in a mass famine.” Thanks largely to human ingenuity in agricultural science, the Malthusian prediction has been pushed more and more into the future.
But now and again, in many parts of the world acute food scarcity arises with catastrophic consequences. Famines have occurred all through history. There are also theories as to the factors that cause famine. In fact, there are many different causes for any specific famine.
We have all heard of the potato famine of the 1840s in Ireland where more than a million people died. It is said that this famine resulted from the use of potato as a mono crop. Human factors can alleviate the suffering or augment it. Irish soldiers serving in Calcutta raised 14,000 pounds for Irish relief. The Ottoman Sultan Abdül-mecid wanted to send ten thousand pounds for relief, but Queen Victoria asked him to send only a thousand pounds because she herself had donated only two thousand.
Let me recall one particular famine which it was my misfortune to witness first hand, when I was eleven years old. This was the infamous Bengal famine of 1943 which took the lives of three to four million people. I still remember the staving throngs that used to be fed on the street of our house in Calcutta. My father had initiated a soup kitchen four years earlier: Every Sunday a few hundred indigent people came for a bowl of rice cooked with lentils and vegetables. My brother and I used to go from door to door collecting rice and lentils from various homes, as also small donations for vegetables. But during the weeks of the famine the crowds swelled to unmanageable multitudes of men and women and children so emaciated their ribs could be counted, and their eyes had an eerie blank look that was frightening to watch. As we served them the pitiful porridge they would beg for another ladleful like Oliver Twist, and ask if they could come again the next day. A few died even as we were serving them on the street.
That horrible human tragedy which was not reported in newspapers all over the world because World War II was in full swing. When enemies were shooting at each other who had the time to report deaths from a horrific famine? There were many causes for the Bengal Famine of 1943. There had been a cyclone in Bengal in January which had flooded the fields with sea water, besides killing more than fourteen thousand people. That cyclone also propagated a fatal fungus that destroyed rice plants. Bengal could not import rice from neighboring Burma because that country was occupied by the Japanese. Fearing that the Japanese would invade India by land the British ordered all boats and rice in the coastal areas to be destroyed. The irony is that there was plenty of food in India. The country exported 70,000 tons of food to feed British troops and civilians that year.
This needs to be told because, aside from the blind and heartless fury of nature that causes draught and flood, many of the famines that have occurred were avoidable. Lack of transportation, slow action, poverty, and reluctance to help for political reasons have often played a stronger role than non-availability of needed food. The famine that affected Ethiopia three decades ago was caused largely by political unrest, intentional negligence, and a civil war. The famine in Somalia a couple of years ago was as much due the international community’s ignoring the warnings that a famine was imminent there, as due to the mindless religious extremists who stood in the way of transporting assistance to the victims.
Olivier de Shutter, a United Nations expert on famine said: “Drought and famine are not extreme events. They are not anomalies. They are merely the sharp end of a global food system that is built on inequality, imbalances and – ultimately – fragility. And they are the regular upshot of a climate that is increasingly hostile and problematic for food production across huge swathes of the developing world.”
This means that in principle, famines can be controlled and responded to. Political self-interests, ethnic callousness, trading on grains in the futures market, and ill-considered decisions on the part of politicians, governments and policy-makers, are among the reasons why help does not reach the afflicted people who are in dire need.
A far more pervasive and persistent tragedy than famine is hunger and malnutrition which may not kill the victims right away but which diminish the mental capacity and quality of life of millions of people in our messed up world.
According the 2010-2012 Report of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization one out of eight human beings is malnourished in the world. It is some consolation that this number has diminished somewhat in Asia and South America since the previous survey, but the number has not come down in sub-Saharan Africa. Incredibly, right now one out of six people in the United States suffers from malnutrition. We are living in a truly sad period of history.
What is ironic here is that we are producing more food than we need to feed everyone on the planet. But a fair percentage of the food produced is either wasted or used to fatten further those who are already over-fed, to the detriment of their health.
One reason why there are hungry people in a world that produces more food than it can consume is startling: People are hungry, not because there is no food in the market, but because there is no money in the pocket. There are some 1.3 billion poor people in developing countries who live on $1.25 a day or less. Thus it would seem that the solution to hunger is that everyone has to have a job with a regular decent income, or is the beneficiary of a substantial inheritance. It may seem that we are drawn into a vicious cycle. More jobs means more industrialization, and that means more environmental degradation, and so on. Some have argued that with appropriate modification of the current economic, social and governmental set-ups this need not be the case. There are periodic proclamations by the United Nations to eradicate hunger and malnutrition and to prevent famine anywhere the world: But it appears that though there may be the wish, there is not the will, the competence, or the leadership within nations to actualize the proclamation of the U.N.O.
In the midst of all this, one shouldn’t forget that over the past several decades there have been numerous organizations and programs that have raised millions of dollars for food aid to undernourished and famine-stricken areas. UNICEF or FAO, mass concerts by celebrity musicians and other entertainers, and many more in affluent countries have contributed significantly to alleviate the plight of the poor and the malnourished in various parts of the world.
We should be thankful to international organizations dedicated to the eradication of hunger, poverty, and social injustice, organizations to which many of us are contributing. Every year for my birthday my son sends me a gift certificate which says that a goat or half a buffalo or a small vegetable plot has been donated in my name to a family in some remote region in Africa. This is done through the Heifer International program whose goal is to end hunger in the world through small scale assistance. Started in 1944, this organization has expanded to a global scale providing thirty kinds of animals – from goats and geese through bees and silkworms to rabbits and water buffalo - to individual families in many villages all over the world. It also brings people together and connects them to local markets. Heifer International offers one of the most efficient and least cumbersome way to send help to people in distant regions. There are other such undertakings as well.
Or again, Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations. Its goal is to help people reach economic and nutritional independence. The organization was started in 1942 – the year before the disastrous Bengal famine, when the Second World War was in full swing. It began as an effort to send food to the people in a Greek island who were starving because of Allied blockade. The first overseas branch of Oxfam was inaugurated in 1963 exactly fifty years ago in Canada.
I would like to draw your attention to what is called a Hunger Banquet. If you can organize or participate in one, you will experience what the situation is in the world today. In such a banquet you pay a full amount to get in. Every participant draws a ticket at random which entitles the guest to one of three groups: say, 15% of the tickets are of class 1 for high income groups, 55% are class 2 for middle income groups, and 30% of the tickets are for low income groups. The first group goes to the station where they can help themselves to a sumptuous feast, the second gets a simple but adequate meal of rice, a piece of meat, and some vegetables. People of the third group are asked to serve themselves a small bowl of rice and a cup of water. Now if they all sit at the same table and eat, the impact on those who hold the class 1 tickets would be considerable.
Participating in a Hunger Banquet should give us an idea of how our world is today. We are all part of a global Hunger Banquet. Not everyone has class I ticket, and vast numbers have only the class three ticket. In the real world, which ticket we get is a pure stroke of chance. But because we are all sitting at different tables in remote regions, so eat whatever is available to us, unaware of how others eat.
Most probably, this has always been so. In our own times, through news media and general education, through TV programs and conferences like this we are becoming more and more aware of the conditions under which it is the lot of millions to live. This is unconscionable to awakened people all over the world. That awakening arises from science and technology, as well as from religion and moral conscience in the best sense of the terms.
Science is, or ought to be, more than a knowledge of how the world functions. In so far as scientific knowledge touches the human condition, science bears an enormous onus: responsibility for its actions and results, responsibility towards fellow humans and fellow creatures. As to religion, there is more to it than glorifying God, going on pilgrimage, and observing fasts and feasts. Religions should never forget the deepest messages in their core: love and compassion, caring and sharing.
The goal of science should be to ameliorate, not degrade the human condition; and the thrust of religion should be to feel for, and not fight with fellow humans, especially in context of food.
I will conclude with a poem written by someone from Somalia about the recent famine in her country.
Dying from severe hunger
Bones decaying in front of my eyes
as I forget how it is to be a youngster,
dried tears, no need to be in anger.
That’s Shaitan's characteristic,
I'll just obey Allah, submit, and surrender.
Your daily Dua is all I request
For that will give me an assurance
that my life might turn out for the best.
I understand this could be a test
But this is a lesson for you,
You who throw away food.
You whose satisfaction is subdued.
You who overeats to the point where the food changes your mood,
You who'd rather spend 10 dollars watching a movie.
I don't blame you as you haven't experienced this pain.
Can you imagine staring at the sky for hours
just to witness one drop of rain?
Maybe that's too much strain on your brain.