fast cleanses body, mind and soul. It crucifies the flesh and to that extent
sets the soul free. A sincere prayer can work wonders. It is an intense longing
of the soul for its even greater purity. Purity thus gained when it is utilized
for a noble purpose becomes a prayer. The mundane use of the Gayatri, its
repetition for healing the sick, illustrates the meaning we have given to
prayer. When the same Gayatri japa is performed with a
humble and concentrated mind in an intelligent manner in times of national
difficulties and calamities, it becomes a most potent instrument for warding off
danger. There can be no greater mistake than to suppose that the recitation of
the Gayatri, the Namaz or the Christian prayer are superstitions fit to be
practised by the ignorant and the credulous. Fasting and prayer therefore are a
most powerful process of purification and that which purifies necessarily
enables us the better to do our duty and to attain our goal. If therefore
fasting and prayer seem at times not to answer, it is not because there is
nothing in them but because the right spirit is not behind them.
A man who fasts and gambles away the whole of the day as do so many on Janmashtami day,
naturally, not only obtains no result from the fast in the shape of greater
purity but such a dissolute fast leaves him on the contrary degraded. A fast to
be true must be accompanied by readiness to receive pure thoughts and
determination to resist all Satan's temptations. Similarly a prayer to be true
has to be intelligible and definite. One has to identify oneself with it.
Counting beads with the name of Allah on one's lips whilst the mind wanders in
all directions is worse than useless.
Young India, 24-3-'20
Of course, it is not to be denied that fasts can be really coercive. Such are fasts
to attain a selfish object. A fast undertaken to wring money from a person or
for fulfilling some such personal end would amount to the exercise of coercion
or undue influence. I would unhesitatingly advocate resistance of such undue
influence. I have myself successfully resisted it in the fasts that have been
undertaken or threatened against me. And if it is argued that the dividing line
between a selfish and an unselfish end is often very thin, I would urge that a
person who regards the end of a fast to be selfish or otherwise base should
resolutely refuse to yield to it, even though the refusal may result in the
death of the fasting person. If people will cultivate the habit of disregarding
fasts which in their opinion are taken for unworthy ends, such fasts will be
robbed of the taint of coercion and 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. Satyagraha has been designed as an effective substitute for
violence. This use is in its infancy and, therefore, not yet perfected. But as
the author of modern Satyagraha I cannot give up any of its manifold uses
without forfeiting my claim to handle it in the spirit of a humble seeker.
[With reference to a letter
from C. F. Andrews expressing moral repulsion amongst Christians in England
against 'fasting unto death', Gandhiji wrote:]
Hindu religious literature is replete with instances of fasting, and thousands of
Hindus fast even today on the slightest pretext. It is the one thing that does
the least harm. There is no doubt that, like everything that is good, fasts are
abused. That is inevitable. One cannot forbear to do good, because sometimes
evil is done under its cover.
My real difficulty is with my Christian Protestant friends, of whom I have so many and
whose friendship I value beyond measure. Let me confess to them that, though
from my very first contact with them I have known their dislike for fasts, I
have never been able to understand it.
Mortification of the flesh has been held all the world over as a condition of
spiritual progress. There is no prayer without fasting, taking fasting in its
widest sense. A complete fast is a complete and literal denial of self. It is
the truest prayer. "Take my life and let it be always, only, all for Thee" is
not, should not be, a mere lip or figurative expression. It has to be a reckless
and joyous giving without the least reservation. Abstention from food and even
water is but the mere beginning, the least part of the surrender.
Whilst I was putting together my thoughts for this article, a pamphlet written by
Christians came into my hands wherein was a chapter on the necessity of example
rather than precept. In this occurs a quotation from the 3rd Chapter of Jonah.
The prophet had foretold that Nineveh, the great city, was to be destroyed on
the fortieth day of his entering it:
"So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sack-cloth,
from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the
king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him,
and covered him with sack-cloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be
proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and the
nobles saying, 'Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let
them not feed, nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with
sack-cloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn everyone from his evil
way, and from the violence that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will
turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger that we perish not?' And
God saw their works that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of
the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not."
Thus this was a 'fast unto death'. But every fast unto death is not suicide. This fast of
the king and the people of Nineveh was a great and humble prayer to God for
deliverance. It was to be either deliverance or death. Even so was my fast, if I
may compare it to the Biblical fast. This chapter from the book of Jonah reads
like an incident in the Ramayana.