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Every year at about this time, I get asked by friends: “If I wanted to take part in the Baha’i fast, could I do it?” “Sure,” I tell them.
One friend asked me two days ago: “Do I have to be a Baha’i to fast?” “No, you don’t,” I said.
Given this level of interest in fasting with the Baha’is, I thought it might be helpful to outline what the Baha’i fast entails, and let everyone know what it takes to fast like a Baha’i.
First, though, it helps to understand that the Baha’i Fast isn’t just a physical exercise – it’s primarily a spiritual one. In his Book of Certitude, Baha’u’llah wrote:
… as the sun and moon constitute the brightest and most prominent luminaries in the heavens, similarly in the heaven of the religion of God two shining orbs have been ordained – fasting and prayer.
Fasting is not just a Baha’i practice, as this quotation infers. Instead, it has had a prominent place in the practices of all Faiths. So let’s take a look at how – and why – Baha’is around the world abstain from food and drink during daylight for 19 straight days.
Abstain from Food and Drink During Daylight Hours
The Baha’i fast takes place during the 19-day Baha’i month that immediately precedes the Baha’i New Year (called Naw-Ruz in Persian) on the Vernal Equinox. For that one Baha’i month of the year, Baha’is all over the world abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours.
Baha’is have fasted this way, at the behest of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, since the Faith’s beginnings in the 19th century. Baha’is believe that the Baha’i Fast symbolizes detachment from the physical world, develops empathy for the poor and hungry, and engenders the development and growth of the soul.
The Baha’i fast has tremendous physical benefits, even though its primary purpose is spiritual.
RELATED: When and Why Did Humans Start Fasting?
The Physical Benefits of Fasting
Human beings evolved as hunters and gatherers. Our ancestors spent hours each day searching for food. Their lifestyle required it, because food wasn’t always abundant, and sometimes wasn’t available at all. That meant people would commonly fast involuntarily — and then, when they found food, they would feast.
As a result, humans gradually evolved a genetic code, a genotype, which allowed their bodies to thrive by adapting to these cycles of feast and fasting. We still carry that genetic code, even though most cultures in the developed world now eat regularly, consuming two or three meals each day, plus snacks and desserts, without fail or respite.
Recent scientific research, however, demonstrates the health benefits of various intermittent patterns of fasting and voluntary abstinence. Because this pattern replicates the feast-or-famine diet of our ancestors, many researchers now cite the advantages of periodically emptying the human digestive system, and allowing it to self-cleanse and purify without the constant presence of food.
Those research studies show that a regular pattern of calorie restriction, in which people reduce their routine intake of nutrients with a recurring fast, can deliver some very significant health benefits. Intermittent fasting reduces risk factors for multiple chronic diseases in animals and humans, and it dramatically increases life span in several animal studies. In July of 2013, Scientific American reported that:
Religions have long maintained that fasting is good for the soul, but its bodily benefits were not widely recognized until the early 1900s, when doctors began recommending it to treat various disorders — such as diabetes, obesity and epilepsy.
Related research on calorie restriction took off in the 1930s, after Cornell University nutritionist Clive McCay discovered that rats subjected to stringent daily dieting from an early age lived longer and were less likely to develop cancer and other diseases as they aged, compared with animals that ate at will. Research on calorie restriction and periodic fasting intersected in 1945, when University of Chicago scientists reported that alternate-day feeding extended the life span of rats as much as daily dieting in McCay’s earlier experiments. Moreover, intermittent fasting “seems to delay the development of the disorders that lead to death,” the Chicago researchers wrote.
We know that people who regularly fast show a considerable extension of lifespan, coupled with a reduction of chronic physical and mental illnesses common in old age; and that fasting ramps up autophagy, a kind of garbage-disposal system in cells that gets rid of damaged molecules, including ones that have been previously tied to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurological diseases.
The Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
All of the increasing scientific evidence about the health benefits of fasting helps explain why groups of people who fast regularly – Buddhists, Mormons, Baha’is – tend to live longer and healthier lives. But the Baha’i teachings emphasize the spiritual benefits of fasting, so Baha’is don’t fast simply for dietary or health-related reasons.
In fact, Baha’is fast primarily for the benefits it confers on the spirit. The annual Baha’i Fast sets aside an entire 19-day Baha’i month for extra meditation and prayer, for reflection and rejuvenation. Fasting this way provides a period of spiritual recuperation, for refreshing and reinvigorating the soul, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
… this material fast is an outer token of the spiritual fast; it is a symbol of self-restraint, the withholding of oneself from all appetites of the self, taking on the characteristics of the spirit, being carried away by the breathings of heaven and catching fire from the love of God.
RELATED: Why Do Baha’is Fast Every Year?
So if you want to fast like a Baha’i, simply forego food and drink during the daylight hours from March 2nd to March 20th this year. Take the extra time that you’d normally use for preparing and eating your mid-day meal to nourish and refresh your soul, with reflection, meditation, and prayer. Think back on the entire year and ask yourself: “What can I do in this coming year to make my life and the lives of others better? How can I be of service to humanity?”
Then let your spirit, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote, “associate with the Fragrances of Holiness:”
O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions and animal traits. Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention.
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