By Mass L. Usuf –
There are several major religions and philosophical schools in this world. Billions of people follow one of these religions or philosophies. There is a relatively smaller number of atheists and those not belonging to the idea of religion and God. The atheist does not believe that there is a God Creator. Here, God meaning the traditional definition of a God. However, if one analyses, the atheist though does not believe in God Creator, he still believes in something. It is not that the atheist is bereft of any belief whatsoever. The atheist may believe for example, in Cosmic power or Nature as the source of creation. Logically, belief is present but the object of the belief is different. The atheist misses the point that even these beliefs cannot come into being by themselves. This is a separate discussion.
When examining religions (for convenience, this includes philosophies too) a common phenomenon that is found in all of them is that each exhorts its followers towards goodness. This goodness can be broadly classified into three in the theological sense. Goodness to one’s self. Goodness towards the others and goodness towards the Creator. If we compare Buddhism, it teaches the same thing except that it does not accept the concept of a Theist. The practise of mindfulness (sati) in Buddhism in its various formats serves the essence of the self and humanity (For example see: Satipatthana Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 10).
In this context, fasting can be identified as one such common phenomenon weaving through several religious beliefs. In Islam fasting has been prescribed in the Quran. It states:
“O you who believe! fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed for those before you, so that you may attain tattaqūn (self-restraint, mindfulness)” (Chapter 2 verse 183).
A salient feature in this verse is that it refers to fasting as having being prescribed to those people before Prophet Muhammed. This is making reference to all those previous religions. An interesting area for comparative research. In the context of its extended application, fasting would include all the three classifications listed above viz. goodness to one’s self, goodness towards the others and goodness towards the Creator. With regard to one’s self the exercise is that of restraining and abstaining from everything that attracts a person. Buddhist terminology recognises this attraction as Tanha. Meaning: craving, hunger for, thirst, excitement, the fever of unsatisfied longing (Pali English Dictionary, Edited by T. W. Rhys David and William Stede). Tanha is one of the foremost obstacles according to Buddhism which stands in the path to liberation (nibbana). It is classified into three as: kama-taṇhā (thirst for sensual pleasures), bhava-taṇhā (thirst for existence and becoming), and vibhava-taṇhā (thirst for non-existence) (P. 29. What the Buddha taught by Walpola Sri Rahula).
The Muslim fast starts from dawn and ends at dusk every day in the lunar month of Ramadan. During this time, the Muslim not only keeps away from consuming food and drinks. Fasting also very strictly includes abstaining from all kinds of sinful thoughts and mental actions (Mano-kamma), verbal actions (Vacī-kamma) and physical actions (Kaya-kamma) – like foul language, backbiting, slandering, lying, listening to music, sexual relations, stealing, time wasting by watching movies, gossiping, etc. During the month of Ramadan, Muslims undergo this training of controlling the tanha demonstrated by way of real practise. A Muslim has to strictly follow the rules of fasting. If not the fast is nullified. The Prophet Muhammed said that a person who does not observe the fast as it should be, had only remained in hunger. Meaning, he has not availed anything spiritually in the eschatological sense nor has benefitted mentally in the physical sense.
Tanha in the world of Buddhist thought, given a literal meaning, can be understood to be the result of attachment. Humans naturally have the tendency to like and liking creates attachment. Liking can include even loving something or someone. This attachment can lead to suffering which is dukkha. Therefore, it is said that the only way to end dukkha, that is suffering is by putting an end to tanha.
It is interesting to note a difference in the Islamic philosophical view relating to attachment. Most importantly Islam recognises the fact that man has this innate quality to like and, or love. This is natural and, according to Islam, there is nothing wrong in having what nature has endowed on man. Of course, it has to be lawful and correct. Branching off from this recognition, it does not look at liking or loving something or someone as necessarily the antecedent to suffering. It is not everything that a person likes leads him to attachment and consequently to suffering. A man may like to see a clear blue sky or he may love to hear the chirping of a particular kind of bird. This would not cause an attachment nor would it end in suffering.
However, Islam while recognising this natural inclination in man have clarified the limitations of the extent or intensity of liking or loving (tanha) in a general sense.
“And what is the life of this world except the enjoyment of delusion.”
(Quran: Chapter 3 Verse 185)
“Worldly desires, wives, children, accumulated treasures of gold and silver, horses of noble breed, cattle, and farms are all made to seem attractive to men. All these are the bounties of the worldly life but in the life to come, Allah! With Him is a more excellent abode.” (Quran: Chapter 3 Verse 14)
These are some of the numerous verses in the Quran reminding man about the delusionary (moha) nature of this worldly existence. Reminding man to look at these worldly possessions with a sense of reality and not in ignorance (avijja). Anything in excess is frowned upon. It is a reality that man must like many things. If not, the world would come to a standstill. Thus, Islam propounds the concept of ummatan wasatan meaning: middle nation, a balanced nation, moderation. Effectively striking an equilibrium between extremities. Islam is a path between hedonism and ascetism.
“Thus, have We made of you a people justly balanced (wasatan), that you might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves… “ (Quran : Chapter 2 Verse 143).
It is within this framework that fasting in the month of Ramadan has to be understood. It is interesting to note that part of the rules of fasting to be followed in Islam has in it the ten precepts (dasa sila) in Buddhism. The dasa sila prescribed especially for the monks is an enhanced version of the eight precepts (ata sila) practised by the laity.
Reference is made to Uposatha, in the Uposatha Sutta (Anguttara Nikaya: AN 8.41). Uposatha literally means ‘fasting’. This fast can be observed in Buddhism on the full-moon day, the new-moon day and the two days of the first and last moon-quarters. (Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines by Nyanatiloka).
In Islam, too, there is a fast each month for three days. These are called the White Days (Ayyam Al-Beedh). The white days refer to the 13th, 14th, and 15th of the lunar month. The days are named as such due to the moon being full and the light it reflects is at maximum which makes the nights luminous. It is compulsory to fast in the month of Ramadan but fasting on these three days is optional.
The Uposatha Sutta lays down the following eight precepts of Uposatha:
1. Not to kill.
2. Not to steal.
3. Not to engage in sexual intercourse.
4. Not to speak lies.
5. Not to take intoxicants.
6. Not to eat food between noon and the following dawn.
7. Not to sing, dance or watch entertainments, and not to use ornaments, cosmetics or perfumes.
8. Not to sit or lie on a large or high seat or bed.
For the monks there are ten vinaya precepts (dasa sila) whereas for laity it is eight (ata-sila). The precept concerning entertainments is split into two parts (for the monks) and, one additional rule, that is prohibiting the handling of money, gold and silver.
The Quranic verse mentioned above states the purpose of fasting: “that you may attain ‘Tattaqoon’. The Arabic word ‘taqwa’ has a very deep and broad meaning. ‘Tattaqoon’ is derived from the word ‘Taqwa’, and includes meanings referring to several qualities such as: ‘conscientious’, ‘forbearance’, ‘consciousness of Allah’ etc. When one is mindful of these and exercise self-restraint, in both the material and the mental states, he disciplines his mind and body. He is thus receptive to being good to himself, to the others and to His Creator – Allah.
A significant common factor in all religious teachings is man. Religions do not preach to the animals, trees or mountains. It is also true that all that is taught to man has shared values of goodness and morality in it. It is up to us as human beings to reflect on these and live a life accordingly. Such a life will bring all of us joy and success both in this world and in the hereafter.