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Fasting and Penance

In the Indi­an con­text, Upavasa is of immense impor­tance. Fast­ing or absti­nence from food is a part of Upavasa. Upavasa is much deep­er term and involves liv­ing in asso­ci­a­tion with Guru, God or Agni. Our mind gen­er­al­ly is pulled towards the objects of the sens­es — sight, hear­ing, taste, touch and smell. An out­ward going mind is unable to per­ceive sub­tler aspects of life. And hence to make the mind per­ceive sub­tler aspects, the objects of the sens­es have to be tem­porar­i­ly tak­en away so that the mind is cleansed and clar­i­ty of mind dawns. Vra­ta is gen­er­al­ly com­bined with Upavasa and is observed dur­ing impor­tant fes­ti­vals, cer­e­monies (like mar­riage) and towards spe­cif­ic divini­ties. Vra­ta is a vow or a promise to one­self.

In the Vana par­va of the Mahab­harat, Arju­na was on a pil­grim­age to the north­ern part of India. It is said that inorder to gain immense pow­er, strength and bless­ings of the Gods, he under­took severe aus­ter­i­ties. He ate with­ered leaves and passed the first month eat­ing fruits once in 3 nights. The sec­ond month, he ate once in 6 nights and the third month by eat­ing once in every 15 days. He went on com­plete fast­ing, con­sum­ing only air, since the fourth month. He stood with arms raised, lean­ing upon noth­ing and on his toes and per­formed penance. The amount of courage and clar­i­ty that Arju­na got after under­tak­ing such a penance is immea­sur­able.

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