Fasting has been practiced all over the world since antiquity for various reasons, including religious convictions, rituals, ethics, health objectives, and as a means of voicing dissent. Fasting is the deliberate abstinence from food or drink for a specific period.
As a two-year intermittent fasting veteran and having authored over 50 thoroughly researched articles on the subject, I took it upon myself to uncover the origins and historical evolution of fasting. After 90-plus hours of research, I have compiled this incredibly informative article, offering you an insightful journey through the history of fasting and the evolving health perspectives that have influenced this practice.
What is Fasting?
Fasting involves voluntary abstaining from food or beverages for a certain period. It may be total or partial or vary depending on the fasting duration or frequency.
Origins of Fasting
Fasting has played a vital role in the survival of our species. Food was not readily available before the agricultural revolution, which was approximately 10,000 years ago. Consequently, the early man had to go without food for long durations, making fasting an integral part of their lives.
Research suggests that a regular feeding-fasting cycle and increased physical activity may contribute to human beings’ potential survival and well-being. 
Another research of the thrifty-gene hypothesis says that continuous access to food can lead to obesity and other metabolic health challenges. 
Ancient and Religious Fasting
While some religions made fasting a part of their rituals, historians proclaim that people in ancient Greece used fasting for therapeutic purposes. Fasting has been a part of humankind for religious or spiritual reasons since pre-history. For example, some people preclude food and sexual activity due to traditional beliefs. Some avoid certain types of food during fasting, such as meat.
The practice of fasting has been mentioned in several holy books, such as the Bible, the Quran, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and the Upanishads. People of almost all cultures have partaken in fasting purposefully for spiritual or health reasons.
Nearly every religion has embraced the practice of fasting to encourage spiritual development and physical resilience. The ancient fasting practice was first introduced by Vedic, Hindu, and Jain religions around 1500 BC. Fasting was prevalent in parts of the ancient world, including India, China, Greece, and the Middle East.
Fasting is an integral part of Hinduism. Hindus observe a variety of fasts based on customs and traditions. Some examples are:
- Some people observe fasting on specific days of the month, such as Ekadashi, Purnima, and Sankranti.
- Some people observe fasting on specific days of the week dedicated to their favorite god.
For example, Monday is dedicated to Lord Shiva, and Tuesday is dedicated to Goddess Durga.
- Thursday fasting is a common tradition amongst the Hindus in northern India.
- People also fast during religious festivals (Maha Shivratri, Navratri, Diwali, or Karwa Chauth).
The methods of fasting also differ distinctively. For example, if a person observes fasting strictly, then the person must not consume any food or water until the fasting period is over. Sometimes, the methods vary and involve limiting oneself to one meal a day or refraining from eating specific food types such as any animal products like meat or eggs during the fasting days.
Although fasting has been practiced in various Christian religious groups, some denominations see it merely as an extrinsic observance. However, many people observe fasting during different times of the year at their behest. The Lenten fast in the Anglican tradition is a 40-day-long partial fast to reminisce the memory of the fast observed by Jesus Christ during his enticement in the wilderness.
Chapter 58:3-7 of the Book of Isaiah states that fasting involves not eating or drinking anything to avoid satisfying hunger, thirst, or any other impious desire. This could include things like greed, envy, and pride. It emphasizes that the significance of fasting extends beyond the physical act of abstaining from food or drink.
It is said that the blessings we earn from fasting are substantial. Verses 8-16 of the opening chapter of the Book of Daniel talk about how partial fasts have a positive effect on health, such as improved overall well-being and spiritual focus.
Islam requires Muslims to fast from dawn (fajr) to dusk (maghrib) during the holy month of Ramadan. They are forbidden to eat, drink, smoke, and even engage in sexual activity while fasting. The followers of Islam believe that fasting and abandoning the acts or things they enjoy draws them closer to Allah.
Holy Qur’an says that fasting inhibits them from committing any sins, and it acts as a shield to protect them from attaining hell (Jahannam). Muslims also believe that fasting not only abstains them from having food or drink but also helps them abstain from untruthfulness, uttering any indecent speech, fighting, and any impious thoughts.
Moreover, the month of Ramadan is dedicated to generosity and shared meals, where the fast is broken collectively. While it is obligatory to fast in the month of Ramadan, Islam also allows specific non-obligatory fasting days, such as:
- Every Monday and Thursday of the week
- The 13th, 14th, and 15th day of every lunar calendar
- Six days in the month following Ramadan, famously known as Shawwal
- The ninth day of Dhu al-Hijjah in the Islamic calendar, also known as Arafat
- The 10th day of Muharram in the Islamic calendar, known as Ashuraa
Buddhists use fasting as a medium of asceticism and usually fast from noon to dawn daily. However, they do not think of it as fast. Rather, it is considered a disciplined regime that helps with meditation. The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, had also incorporated fasting in his life to attain nirvana. 
Baha’is contemplate fasting as one of the indispensable commitments. During the Baha’i month of ‘Ala’ (2nd to 20th of March), Baha’is observe fasting from dawn to dusk. This fasting practice involves complete abstinence from food, drinks, and smoking. It is compulsory for all Baha’is over 15, which is considered the age of maturity.
Jainism encompasses several fasting practices, one of which is Chauvihar upwas, in which no food or drink is consumed until the next day’s sunrise. On the other hand, Tivihar upwas permits consumption of boiled water only, but no food is allowed.
Jains observe fasting during the Paryushana season (usually celebrated in August or September in the Lunisolar Hindu calendar); however, it can be observed at other times as well. Sometimes, a person consumes only lentils with salt and pepper as the only spices to purposefully decrease desire and passion. According to Jain philosophy, self-starvation is a medium of shedding karma.
Medical fasting has been in use therapeutically since the 5th century BCE. Greek physician Hippocrates suggested ill people to abstain from food or drinks.
Some Greek medical professionals believe that food consumption during an ailment can worsen the condition. They considered fasting to be an important part of the natural healing process.
Fasting has been used since ages as a natural and accessible method to combat diseases. Before the advent of modern science and the development of germ theory, early medical treatments often worsened the ailments they aimed to cure.
President George Washington’s medical records reveal a particularly striking example, wherein he was afflicted with a sore throat one night, which deteriorated to a respiratory condition the following morning.
While there are still some speculations about his cause of death, the medical professionals who came to treat him attempted bloodletting and drained 82 ounces of his blood, which was approximately 50% of his total blood volume. [4, 5]
On the contrary, fasting used as a therapeutic form of early medicine, was non-invasive and had low to no side effects. Moreover, it was an effective treatment for multiple conditions, including severe infections, allergies, and other ailments that were tough to treat.
By the 19th and 20th centuries, fasting had been established as a therapeutic boon to different diseases. Based on research, fasting can be capable of treating maladies like arthritis, fatigue, asthma, high irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, Crohn’s disease, lupus, paralysis, and many other diseases. 
Traditionally, fasting was the principal and probably the only therapy for diabetes and epilepsy. Nowadays, we understand that fasting supports regulating blood glucose and insulin levels in patients with diabetes. Further, in epilepsy, the overactive motor neurons get stimulated and partly controlled by ketones, which are increased during fasting.
According to some doctors, pure water fasting not only detoxifies cells and rejuvenates organs but also cures diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colitis, psoriasis, lupus, and certain other autoimmune disorders, when combined with a healthy diet.
In recent studies on mice, fasting every other day and eating a normal diet led to better insulin and blood glucose control, increased neuronal resilience to injury, and improved health indicators on non-fasting days compared to mice on a 40 percent calorie restriction diet. 
Alternate day calorie restriction may extend lifespan. It may attenuate diseases related to inflammation, oxidative stress, and aging. According to natural medicine, fasting is a natural cleanser of the body as it eliminates harmful toxins, dead tissues, and cells and allows your gastrointestinal system to rest.
Fasting as a Form of Protest
Fasting has historically been used for social and political motives, particularly to protest. While this method has its roots in history, Mahatma Gandhi elevated it to an unprecedented level. He started fasting in prison in the early 20th century to atone for the violent actions of his followers who had deviated from his principles of nonviolence, known as “satyagraha.” 
Mahatma Gandhi also fasted to eradicate untouchability in India. 
Fasting has also been used to protest wars, social evils, and injustices. One such example is when American comedian Dick Gregory fasted to protest the civil rights violations of American Indians and U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, in 1981, 10 Irish nationalists succumbed to death during a hunger strike in prison in Belfast, demanding to be recognized as political prisoners. 
Frequently Asked Questions
Did fasting have a historical presence?
The ancient fasting practice was first introduced by Vedic, Hindu, and Jain religions around 1500 BC. Fasting is practiced for various reasons, namely cultural, religious, and therapeutic reasons. Fasting was prevalent in parts of the ancient world, including India, China, Greece, and the Middle East. Fasting on certain holy days was a customary way to minimize the impact on animals and plants, lessening harm and burden.
What religion started fasting?
The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, born in 563 BC, reached enlightenment at 35. It is believed that he started to meditate and fast under a tree until he obtained enlightenment.
Why is fasting important in religions?
Fasting is essential for many religions because people believe that fasting can foster inner purity and help in attaining a state of spiritual well-being.
Fasting has been an ancient practice that has evolved over time with new techniques and variations. Examples include intermittent fasting, which is a phenomenon that entails alternating between periods of eating and voluntary fasting. Intermittent fasting has become popular in recent years for its touted health benefits, including improved mental clarity, reduced risk of heart disease, better metabolism, weight loss, and so on.
Although fasting has a myriad of health benefits, it should not be followed blindly, and you must be cautious. Before starting fasting, it is always recommended to consult with your healthcare provider to avoid complications.
To conclude, fasting has a long and rich history that spans several cultures and goals, from medical benefits to religious purposes. Since it has developed over time, its relevance is seen in several forms. Understanding the history and evolution of fasting helps us paint a holistic picture of this long-standing practice.
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