How do religious ascetics know their limits?

Fasting: Finding God in renunciation

Whether as a penance for sins, as a reminder of the calamities suffered or as a conscious renunciation to sharpen the senses for inner contemplation and prayer - fasting is a common feature of the otherwise so different world religions. Even if the temporary renunciation of physical enjoyment is perceived with different degrees of severity, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism cannot be imagined without it.

In all religions there is a need "to limit oneself, to reduce life to the essentials and to do without", explains Thomas Lemmen, who is responsible for interreligious dialogue in the Archdiocese of Cologne. It's about "discovering new dimensions of human existence or the relationship with God," Lemmen said in an interview with DW. This is where the religions are alike. But where do the various fasting rituals originate?

Christianity: impermanence and repentance

According to the biblical record, Jesus withdrew into the desert for 40 days. The "Son of God" prayed, fasted, resisted the temptations of the devil. Inwardly strengthened and strengthened, he returned from loneliness. Countless Christians orient themselves to this Bible narrative when they forego food or meat for around seven weeks.

The most important Christian Lent begins on Ash Wednesday after Carnival in February or the beginning of March, when the Catholics are drawn with an ash cross on their foreheads as a symbol of impermanence and penance. Lent ends on Easter Sunday: the day on which the resurrection of Jesus Christ after crucifixion is celebrated. Sundays are officially exempt from fasting. Strict rules are rarely followed these days. Many Christians decide for themselves what they want to forego.

The ash cross as a sign of repentance is drawn on the forehead of a Catholic

Much earlier, some did not take abstinence so seriously. As early as the Middle Ages, clever Christians tricked the church's asceticism. Because the meat of warm-blooded animals was forbidden on fasting days, people not only ate cold-blooded fish, but also beavers and otters. Both subtle and crude, those unwilling to renounce argued that the animals lived more in water than on land and were therefore to be equated with fish.

The cheaters didn't even stop at alcohol. Even the Pope is said to have helped unintentionally, says Michael Schmiedel, a scholar of religion at Bielefeld University, to DW. There is the story of Bavarian monks who brought a keg of strong beer to Rome to ask the Pope whether it was allowed to drink it during Lent. "But by the time the keg arrived in Rome, the beer had gone bad. The Pope tried the stuff, spat it out again and said: 'Yes, you are welcome to drink that during Lent'."

Islam: revelation from God

In Islam, the rules of fasting are largely observed more consistently than in Christianity - especially in Ramadan, which lasts 29 to 30 days and is used as a time for reflection. He recalls that the Koran is said to have been revealed in the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex during the day. Those in need receive alms. Breakfast is served before sunrise and the fast is broken every day after sunset.

Every year the date of Ramadan is shifted by two weeks. In summer, when the sun goes down later, these fasting days are much longer than in winter, which demands a lot of stamina from the believers, especially on hot days. Children, pregnant women, breastfeeding women, menstruating women, travelers, professional athletes and the sick are exempt from this annual obligation. The days missed are usually made up for by adults. Ramadan ends with the great festival of breaking the fast.

Collective fasting on a street in Istanbul

In Germany, which is dominated by Christianity, social acceptance of the fasting ritual of Islamic citizens has grown, says Thomas Lemmen, the expert on interreligious dialogue in the Archdiocese of Cologne. This can be recognized by the fact that for Ramadan there are "greetings from the churches, representatives of politics take part in breaking the fast or invite them to do so. That's why, I believe, something has changed." Ramadan is perceived more positively by the public. "Whether everyone in this country shares that is another question," Lemmen restricts - probably also with a view to the right-wing populist AFD.

Judaism: Destruction of the Temple

The Jews have several religious holidays on which they fast. The most important in the Jewish calendar is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. This strict holiday ultimately replaces theologically the function that the Jerusalem temple had until its destruction by the Babylonians and later by the Romans: the reconciliation of man with God. The date of this day varies annually in the months of September or October.

Orthodox Jews pray particularly intensely on Yom Kippur

On their most important holiday, Jews fast for 25 hours at a time. From sundown on, they refrain from solid and liquid food, sexual intercourse and luxury goods such as cigarettes. Driving, bathing, showering, applying make-up, playing computer games or working are also prohibited. Nothing should distract from the process of inner contemplation. Girls fast from the age of 12, boys from 13. Many believers spend the day in the synagogue. On Yom Kippur, public life in Israel comes to a standstill and appears frozen to outsiders. Restaurants and cafes are closed except for the Arab facilities. Only ambulances, fire brigade and police drive on the streets.

Hinduism: purification of the soul

In contrast to the three monotheistic religions mentioned above, there are no fixed rules of fasting in Hinduism. Often people fast before big celebrations. Gurus and monks, however, live in asceticism for a few weeks a year or more and forego everything that they do not necessarily need to survive. There is a very large ascetic tradition in Hinduism, says the religious scholar Schmiedel. He refers to the sadhus, who are often emaciated almost to the point of skeleton.

With the will to extreme asceticism: an Indian sadhu

"These people are highly revered by the normal Hindus and are often given essentials because the givers believe that this has a positive effect on themselves again," explains Schmiedel. The most prominent fasting follower in Hinduism was Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), who once said: "I cannot do without fasting any more than I can do without my eyes. What the eyes are for the outer world, fasting is for the inner one. "

Buddhism: moderation for good karma

As in Hinduism, there are no general rules of fasting in Buddhism. The Buddhists celebrate the so-called Vesakh festival as the highest day of fasting. On the first full moon day in May or June, they commemorate the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. The forms of celebration range from contemplative rest and fasting days to carnival-like parades. Sex, alcohol and meat consumption are taboo on this day.

Prayers for Good Karma: A Fasting Buddhist

In the foreground is the belief in karma, according to which every action necessarily has a consequence - in this world as in the hereafter. It is about "remembering that existence is suffering and that by following rituals one improves one's karma on earth", explains Thomas Lemmen, the expert on interreligious dialogue.

In contrast to the extreme asceticism of the Hindu sadhus, Buddhists eat so much during meditation that they can still get full. Some Buddhist nuns and monks "don't eat anything after the afternoon," says religious scholar Schmiedel: "Not again until the next morning. It's like today's interval fasting." At this point, Buddhism and the wellness movement are very close.

In general, especially in secular European countries such as Germany, it is evident that even people without religious beliefs are increasingly taking the Lent period as an occasion for restraint in eating. The boundaries between diet and fasting are fluid.