Short History of Fasting

The Buddha emaciated after undergoing severe ascetic practices, including fasting. Gandhara, 2nd to 3rd Century CE. British Museum. Credit: User:World Imaging – Own work, Public Domain; Wikipedia Commons

 

Once when the Buddha was touring in the region of Kasi together with a large sangha of monks he addressed them saying:

 

I, monks, do not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening I, monks, am aware of good health and of being without illness and of buoyancy and strength and living in comfort. Come, do you too, monks, not eat a meal in the evening. Not eating a meal in the evening you too, monks, will be aware of good health and….. and living in comfort.

 

Used for thousands of years, fasting is one of the oldest therapies in medicine. Many of the great doctors of ancient times and many of the oldest healing systems have recommended it as an integral method of healing and prevention. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, believed fasting enabled the body to heal itself. Paracelsus, another great healer in the Western tradition, wrote 500 years ago that “fasting is the greatest remedy, the physician within.“ Ayurvedic medicine, has long advocated fasting as a major treatment. In ancient Greece, Pythagoras was among many who extolled its virtues. During the 14th century, fasting was practiced by St Catherine of Siena, while the Renaissance doctor Paracelsus called it the “physician within“. Indeed, fasting in one form or another is a distinguished tradition and throughout the centuries, devotees have claimed it brings physical and spiritual renewal.

 

In primitive cultures, a fast was often demanded before going to war, or as part of a coming-of-age ritual. It was used to assuage an angry deity and by native north Americans, as a rite to avoid catastrophes such as famine. Fasting has played a key role in all the world’s major religions (apart from Zoroastrianism which prohibits it), being associated with penitence and other forms of self-control. Judaism has several annual fast days including Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonements; in Islam, Muslims fast during the holy month of Ramadan, while Roman Catholics and Eastern orthodoxy observe a 40 day fast during Lent, the period when Christ fasted 40 days in the desert.

 

Women in particular seem to have had a proclivity for religious fasting, known as “anorexia mirabilis“ (miraculous lack of appetite); surviving for periods without nourishment was regarded as a sign of holiness and chastity. Julian of Norwich, an English anchoress and mystic who lived in the 14th century used it as a means of communicating with Christ. In other belief systems, the gods were thought to reveal their divine teaching in dreams and visions only after a fast by the temple priests. Fasting has also long been used as a gesture of political protest, the classic example being the Suffragettes and Mahatma Gandhi who undertook 17 fasts during the struggle for Indian independence: his longest fast lasted 21 days. Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 250 mile Dandi Salt March in 1930, and later in calling for the British to Quit India in 1942. He was imprisoned for many years, upon many occasions, in both South Africa and India. Gandhi attempted to practice nonviolence and truth in all situations, and advocated that others do the same. He lived modestly in a self-sufficient residential community and wore the traditional Indian dhoti and shawl, woven with yarn hand-spun on a charkha. He ate simple vegetarian food, and also undertook long fasts as a means of both self-purification and social protest.

 

The practice of fasting, has had its dark side, having been exploited by exhibitionists and fraudsters, and foisted on the gullible. Take “Doctor“ Linda Burfield Hazzard, from Minnesota, thought to have caused the death of over 40 patients whom she put on strict fasts, before being convicted of manslaughter in 1912. She died from her own fasting regime in 1938. Then there were the Victorian “fasting girls“ who claimed to be able to survive indefinitely without food; one of them, Sarah Jacobs, was allowed to starve to death at aged 12, as doctors tested her claims in hospital.

 

Therapeutic fasting – in which fasting is used to either treat or prevent ill health, with medical supervision – became popular in the 19th century as part of the “Natural Hygiene Movement“ in the US. Dr Herbert Shelton 1895-1985) was one revered pioneer, opening “Dr Shelton’s Health school“ in San Antonio, Texas, in 1928. He claimed to have helped 40,000 patients recover their health with a water fast. Shelton wrote “Fasting must be recognized as a fundamental and radical process that is older than any other mode of caring for the sick organism, for it is employed on the plane of instinct.“ Shelton was an advocate, of alternative medicine, an author, pacifist, vegetarian, supporter of rawism and fasting. Shelton was nominated by the American Vegetarian Party to run as its candidate for President of the United States in 1956. He saw himself as the champion of original natural hygiene ideas from the 1830s. His ideas have been described as quackery by critics.

 

In the UK, too, fasting became part of the “Nature Cure“, an approach which also stressed the importance of exercise, diet, sunshine, fresh air and “positive thinking“. “Fasting in Great Britain was at its most popular in the 1920s,“ according to Tom Greenfield, a naturopath who now runs a clinic in Canterbury, England. “The first Nature Cure clinic to offer fasting opened in Edinburgh and I still have one or two patients who fasted there many decades ago.“ Other clinics which offered therapeutic fasting included the legendary Tyringham Hall in Buckinghamshire, now closed, and Champneys in Tring, Hertforshire – in those days a naturopathic center, now a destination spa. “Fasting was used to treat heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, digestive problems, allergies, headaches – pretty much everything,“ says Greenfield. “Fasts were individually tailored and could be anything from a day or two to three months, for obese patients. The clinics would take a full case history to see if people were suitable and they would be closely monitored.“ Eventually, he says, “scientific“ medicine became dominant as better drugs were developed. Fasting and the “Nature Cure“ fell out of favor in Britain.

 

By contrast, in Germany where fasting was pioneered by Dr Otto Buchinger, therapeutic fasting is still popular and offered at various centers. Many German hospitals now run fasting weeks, funded by health insurance programs, to help manage obesity. Fasting holidays, held at centers and spas throughout Europe, include Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria, and are growing in popularity. “In Germany fasting is part of the naturheilkunde – natural health practice,“ says Greenfield. “It has remained popular because it became integrated into medical practice so patients could be referred for a fast by their doctors.“ More recently, interest in fasting has revived in the UK and in the United States, with millions trying intermittent fasting such as the 5:2 diet, or on modified fasts where only certain foods or juices are taken for a period of time. According to Greenfield, “If people can do a one day fast for a minimum of twice a year – maybe one in spring and one in the autumn and setting aside a day they can rest, when they just drink water – this will help mitigate the toxic effects of daily living.“

 

Fasting has been used in Europe as a medical treatment for years. Many spas and treatment centers, particularly those in Germany, Sweden, and Russia, use medically supervised fasting. Fasting has gained popularity in American alternative medicine over the past several decades, and many doctors feel it is beneficial. Fasting is a central therapy in detoxification , a healing method founded on the principle that the buildup of toxic substances in the body is responsible for many illnesses and conditions.

 

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