Agreeable Hunger

Source: By Jaydev Jana: The Statesman

My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, 25 September 1924.

To go on fast is a very old system of protest, practised for a variety of purposes at different stages of civilization. In its traditional sense, fasting crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free. Indeed, what is bread to a hungry stomach, fasting is to a soul struggling for self-realization. The logical outcome should be the control of impulses, passions and temptations. It is a prayer to clean the body, mind and soul.

Hindus believe that by going on fast a person will go to the heaven of that God in whose name the fast is observed. The Hebrews associated fasting with divine revelation. A fast is not a hunger strikebut a method to abide by God’s commands. A hunger-strike makes God concede our demands. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed went on fast to see God face to face. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Fasting, unless it is the result of God’s grace, is useless starvation, if not much worse.’

Gandhi’s experiment with fasts was integral to his search for truth. He took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined with it the Judaic concept of representative leadership and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a ‘voluntary crucifixion of the flesh.’

It involved fasts undertaken by an acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers. Gandhi was on fast because he believed that there is some goodness in every human being and every human being is capable of showing qualities such as compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, generosity and love. No matter how cruel or inhumane a person might appear to be, deep down he too has a heart. He didn’t decide to go on fast in haste. Nor was he unaware of its consequences in terms of his health.

Mahatma Gandhi went on fast on several occasions between 1913 and 1948. He first undertook penitential fast at Phoenix (South Africa) on 13 July 1913 and on 13 January 1948, he was on fast at the age of 78 for restoring communal harmony at Birla House. This was the last fast of his life. His fasts stretched from three days to three weeks. He fasted in different places: in South Africa, in cities across India, in prisons and at home. His fasts were never devoid of spiritual significance. A variety of factors influenced him to go on fast ~ against violent protest during the freedom struggle, in support of the ‘untouchables’ and in opposition to the British constitutional proposal based on separate castes, for Hindu-Muslim unity, and against communal riots.

In the words of his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi: ‘Gandhi resorted to some 30 fasts, of which one-third were directed at himself for ‘atonement’, of self-purification, one-third were directed against the Raj and one-third at India’s social mores. A more honest trinity cannot be imagined. The latter two fasts were meant to make an impact on the ‘other side’; they were part-fasts and part-hunger strikes, part anashan and part bhukh-hartal, though he derived from each a sense of spiritual self-renewal.’

John Connolly, an Irish writer, once commented, ‘for in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.’ While Mahatma Gandhi had many influences in his life, none was greater in his spiritual development than his mother, Putlibai. He wrote in his Autobiography, ‘She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meal without her daily prayers… Two or three consecutive fasts were nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chatumas was a habit.” Gandhi’s fasts achieved mixed results. At times, he was able to secure concrete action, such as the withdrawal of the British proposal on separation of castes. On occasion, he had to end his fasts without any immediate, tangible achievement. In his reckoning, fasting was an act of standing for Truth, the truth of the cause of self-rule. It was a potent means of communication.

A fast is a non-violent form of action, an overarching philosophy of ascetic discipline by which one becomes a master of oneself. Fasting, through the imposition of suffering upon the self, is essentially a ‘soul-force’, a spiritual practice of self-sacrifice, a patient education of the ‘other’ away from error and also to convert others by love. Gandhi prescribed two models of fasting based on the objective and the target.

There was a tone of challenge, but not of threat. Gopalkrishna Gandhi has written, “The purity of the motive, the lack of animosity towards the targets of his fasts and, above all, the readiness during the fast to engage with the other side raised his fast to moral heights.” Gandhi also added a unique dimension to his fast ~ elevating it to a powerful, though peaceful, means of shaming into submission the oppressive violent and sectarian forces that tattered the social fabric. His fast added an edge to his efforts towards redemption, even if his ultimate aim was political.

Gandhi went on fast for the people, and never with an intention to turn it into a political weapon. Nor for that matter did this agitprop seek to destabilise the British government or challenge its policies. The only exception was Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award, against which Gandhi sat on a ‘fast unto death’ in 1932 in his cell at Yeravada Jail in Poona. Gandhi achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools ~ he fought stubbornness with shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage and lust with the moral weapon. It would be useful to quote his word of caution ~ “The weapon of fasting, I know, cannot be lightly wielded, it can easily degenerate to violence unless it is used by one skilled in the art. I claim to be such an artist in this subject.’