Common Ground Found in Fasting
Believers in major religions share goals of purification, self-discipline
Wednesday - October 20, 2004

photo - THI DAO - ucla daily bruin

Kusala Bhikshu - Buddhist Chaplain
Speaking at the
University Catholic Center at UCLA

Buddhist monk Kusala Bhikshu speaks of the importance of a life of self-sacrifice at the University Catholic Center at UCLA. The concept is crucial to many religions.

During the holy month of Ramadan, a little over a billion Muslims around the world practice their faith by fasting and praying from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to God.

Though the month is exclusive to the Islamic religion, the concepts of self-discipline and purification that Ramadan embraces are integrated within the fabric of all major faiths throughout the globe.

Christianity has 40 days of sacrifice during the pre-Easter season of Lent. Judaism has two major days of fast (Yom Kippur and Tisha B'Av) and five other days throughout the year. Millions of Hindus throughout the world practice self-control on the eleventh day of every lunar month, called Ekadashi. And in the Buddhism religion, practitioners are encouraged to live lives of renunciation and simplicity.

While each religion's practice of fasting (which is typically also associated with community service and abstinence) has very different historical significances, the widespread practice reflects the similarity that exists between the teachings behind major faiths.

"It's a very interesting correlation – religions' uses of fasting," said Elliot Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. "It's demonstrating something serious. ... You don't fast in joy; you feast in joy. When you are fasting, you are marking something that is serious."

In many faiths, the seriousness of their practice results from the significance of the event they are commemorating when they fast.

In Islam, Ramadan marks God's first revelation to the Prophet Mohommed through whom God sent guidance to the people, said Muzammil Siddiqi, the director of the Islamic Society of Orange County.

Like in Ramadan, the purpose of fasting in the Hindu faith is to dedicate time (one day out of every month) to God and focus on doing good works, said first-year undeclared student Anand Ghandi, who practices the religion, but added that he does not always observe Ekadashi.

Meanwhile, Christianity's practice of sacrifice is associated with the belief that Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross as a symbol of God's outpouring of love, said George Grose, co-founder of the Academy of Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies at UCLA.

In the same sense, instances in which Jews fast are often associated with tragedies that occurred to the Jewish people in history, Dorff said.

While times of Jewish and Christian fasting indicate periods of mourning, the mood associated with Ramadan is more celebratory, Siddiqi said.

"Ramadan is a very pleasant time; we celebrate our devotion to God. ... It's a celebration of the Word of God," he said.

Similarly, the Buddhist faith preaches the achievement of happiness through fasting and leading a life of simplicity.

"If Renunciation is your practice, simplicity is the result," said Kusala Bhikshu, a monk from the International Buddhist Meditation Center in Los Angeles. This tradition contrasts from a life of consumption, he said: "If Consumption is the practice, then complexity is the result."

To lead a good Buddhist life, Kusala Bhikshu told a handful of students gathered at the University Catholic Center on Gayley Avenue, one should begin by giving up – giving up killing, lying and stealing to find peace and tranquility in life.

The differences in individual faiths aside, many believe that self-sacrifice shows commitment while strengthening individuals of all faiths.

In Judaism, many fast by not taking in food or drink, not engaging in sexual intercourse, not taking full showers and ridding themselves of luxury, Dorff said.

In many faiths, "people are giving up food and some of the other necessities and luxuries of life in an attempt to try to symbolize their commitment to God in some form or the other," he added.

Gandhi agreed that this commitment is beneficial.

"The concept of sacrifice (and) of giving up everything that you are attached to, you gain mental control," Gandhi said. "Your mind grows stronger. ... Everything in our lives is for physical well-being, but this is for your spiritual well-being."

Several religious leaders believe that the commonality of fasting is symptomatic of the connection between different cultures throughout the world.

Though there are different reasons behind religious practices, these similarities show that "even if we think we are different, we are all connected," Kusala Bhikshu said.