Paryushan: The science of fasting, and the worries behind it

Devout Jains fast during Paryushan for as long as 30 days to seek forgiveness. Youth taking up fasts that are considered tough has become a cause of worry though.

Ashutosh M ShuklaUpdated: Monday, August 22, 2022, 09:47 AM IST
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Paryushan: The science of fasting, and the worries behind it |

Paryushan, which begins on August 24, marks a period when devout Jains fast and seek forgiveness. Almost all fast at least for a day while some fast for as many as 30 days.

But what is creating news is the younger lot taking up fasts that are considered tough. This raises the question whether enough care is being taken to ensure there is no harm caused in the long run.

On Sunday, The Free Press Journal reported about a six-year-old undertaking the hunger-testing Siddhi Tap in which the child has to start with a day’s fast followed by a day’s break and gradually increase the number of fasting days until an unbroken eight-day stretch is achieved. Eventually, such a person has to live for a total of 36 days on just boiled water with eight days of break.

“Ideally children should not fast,” said Dr Bakul Parekh, a paediatrician who runs a tertiary hospital in the city. “Extreme fasting can be unhealthy for children because they do not have enough reserves.”

Dr Parekh explained that there could be hidden deficiencies in a person that can lead to problems later in life like hyperglycaemia. These deficiencies could also stunt growth, affect bone and muscle mass or result in infections.

“It is like working on battery-saving mode where other apps stop and only the calling apps works. Such problems may crop up anyway is convenient thinking. The body does adjust if fasting is done regularly, but it is at the cost of something. After fasting, binge-eating can also lead to problems," the doctor explained.

Since there is no age bar, fasts are undertaken by whoever resolves to do so.

“Fasting is to be done voluntarily. If there is any force, it cannot happen,” said Dr Pratap Sanchetee, neurologist and honorary faculty at Jain Vishva Bharati University, a deemed university in Jodhpur that works on Jain principles.

Dr Sanchetee said Jains have been fasting for a long time. "Over a period of time I have realised that three things play a role in it,” he said. “These are peer pressure, convention and faith. In Jodhpur we have done tests on around 300 people between the ages of 15 and 55. There were positives to fasting like weight loss and improvement in diabetes. We published this study in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology Metabolism. But no study has been done on children."

Fasting among Jains is related to the cleansing of karmas. A similar notion prevails in almost all religions, including Hinduism. "Fasting should not be forced and the health of the child is paramount,” said Susieben Shah, chairperson of the Maharashtra State Child Rights Commission.

“We can ask a doctor to visit him or a child welfare committee member to counsel the child if there is a need. But if a child wants to fast, we cannot force-feed him either."

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