Gandhiji’s fasting – (In the Light of Theosophy)

Theosopy GF b

In the article, “My Fasts” Gandhiji says that his religion has taught him to fast and pray whenever there is distress which one is unable to remove. “What the eyes are for the outer world, fasts are for the inner.” Curiously, he mentions that these fasts undertaken by him are not undertaken for amusement or fame, but because “they are imposed upon me by a higher Power and the capacity to bear the pain also comes from that Power.” The fasts [unto death] undertaken by him are not to be undertaken lightly. “I, must, therefore undertake the fast only when the still small voice within me calls for it….A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent, sets the soul free….Purity thus gained, when it is utilised for a noble purpose, becomes a prayer.” He seems to suggest that fasting and prayer go hand in hand. When one abstains from food and water, it marks the beginning of the surrender to God.

Fasting is only useless starvation unless it is the result of God’s grace. There must be right mental attitude. Just as a prayer could be mechanical repetition of words, so, too, a fast can become a mechanical torture of the flesh. Neither will touch the soul within. Mortification of flesh or body is necessary so that it can be used as an instrument of service. The strength of the soul grows in proportion as one subdues the flesh. However, fasting can prove useful in gaining back the health of the body without taking medicines, if for instance, one is constipated, anaemic, rheumatic, suffering from indigestion, headache, depression, etc.

It is very important to bear in mind that fasting can be resorted to reform a person one loves, but not to extort rights. Gandhiji says that his fasts at Bombay and Bardoli were for the purpose of reforming. However, fasting can be coercive “when undertaken to wring money from a person or for fulfilling some such personal end. I would unhesitatingly advocate resistance of such undue influence….Like all human institutions, fasting can be both legitimately and illegitimately used. But as a great weapon in the armoury of Satyagraha, it cannot be given up because of its possible abuse. The weapon of fasting, I know, cannot be lightly wielded. It can easily savour of violence unless it is used by one skilled in the art. I claim to be such an artist in this subject,” writes Gandhiji. (Bhavan’s Journal, February 16-29, 2024)

Physical body is called Annamaya Kosha or the sheath made up of food or sustained by food. Our body is the instrument of the soul and it must be kept strong and healthy. Fasting is one of the oldest and most sacred of spiritual practices which has been used by sages and rishis for bringing about purification of the body, mind and soul. Fasting as a spiritual discipline is called Upvas. Upvas means to dwell closer to God. If true fasting means nearness to the divine within, then it cannot be achieved by merely restricting the intake through the mouth. We need to restrict and purify our sensory intake also.

Mind and body are intimately connected, and when we refrain from eating food, or even heavy food, the mind tends to become more focused and alert. When the physical is paralyzed or weakened, the psychic and spiritual nature of man manifests itself. The custom of fasting is said to have arisen from the observation that in times of war and famine starvation brought on religious ecstasy accompanied by dreams, visions and the hearing of voices. When this austerity was seen to subdue passions and clarify the mind, it took on a religious significance.

Gandhiji’s rite of fasting is commented upon at length in The Theosophical Movement for April 1939. It says that Gandhiji’s fasts have been puzzling only to people devoid of spiritual discrimination. Gandhiji’s fasting was a real expression of Soul Force. However, Gandhiji himself discouraged fasting for those not pledged and trained for mental and moral ahimsa. He said, “Fasting like some very potent medicine can only be taken on rare occasions and under expert guidance. It is wrong, it is sinful for everybody to consider himself an expert.” The prerequisite for the fast to be efficacious is years of self-purification. Moreover, a pure and true moral outlook is also absolutely necessary.

As for the philosophical basis for fasting, gluttony is considered to be one of the seven deadly sins. When severe strain is put on the vital energies by overtaxing the digestive machinery, the best and only remedy is to let it rest for some time and recoup itself as much as possible. Fasts were instituted simply for the purpose of correcting the evils of overeating. The Buddhists do not have the practice of fasting but they seem to fast daily, and all their life, by following the injunction of moderation in eating. The idea is to learn to control the desires. Hence, we are told that it is no use fasting so long as there is desire for food. 

[This article also appeared in The Theosophical Movement. For more articles published in this excellent magazine follow this link: 



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