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Forty Days: A human cycle of change?
There is a common misconception that Ash Wednesday was introduced as a way to atone for the extreme frolicking of the Carnival season. However, Father Matthew D’Hereaux puts this myth to rest when he says:
“There is no link between Ash Wednesday and Carnival. Instead, Ash Wednesday is linked to Easter. Ash Wednesday begins Lent, which is a period of preparation for Easter. In countries where there is no carnival, there is Ash Wednesday.
“Ashes are not distributed for the forgiveness of sin committed during the carnival season. There are people who do not take part in Carnival but are happy when Lent begins, because it is a period of deep reflection on the invitation to a deeper relationship with God.
“Ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful, not for the remission of sins, but as a sign that the faithful have accepted the call of Christ ‘to repent and believe the good news of salvation’.”
Father D’Hereaux believes that Lent is significant now more than ever:
“Lent is about accountability and responsibility for one’s action. Today, taking responsibility and being accountable are values that are quickly disappearing. If Lent is properly and reflectively observed, this trend can be reversed for many people.
“Lent is lived, truly lived, when people stop the blame-game and say that they take personal responsibility for the wrong they have done.
“It is time to say we have failed and need to get back up and start afresh, start again. People have turned away from God and become self-absorbed in material pursuit and vain glory. Lent challenges the believer to set aside a period of time—40 days of self-scrutiny—in order to bring about a change of lifestyle.”
Lent and Shivaratri
Admitedly, many are familiar with Lent —our fast food outlets add fish options to their menus at this time to accommodate those abstaining from meat, and fish prices skyrocket at this time.
But Lent is not the only religious period of fasting and reflection that overlaps with carnival.
As the Christian community embarks on its journey of discipline, the Hindu community has just completed a similar but shorter journey. Shivaratri, which is observed by the Hindu community, has in some previous years, even fallen on Carnival Monday. This year, it was celebrated on Friday into Saturday.
Yes, Shivaratri coincided with Fantastic Friday.
However, Pundit Munelal Maharaj notes that there is no link between Shivaratri and Carnival.
Shivaratri, he explains, like other Hindu festivals, is calculated by the lunar calendar, and falls on the night of the 14th day of the dark fortnight in the month of Phalgun, which is during February or sometimes March.
It is a time when Hindus fast and worship Shiva, part of the Trimurti or the Hindu Trinity.
Shiva is the destroyer, absorber and transformer, and represents self-realisation.
Just as Christians fast and reflect during Lent to draw closer to God, Hindus fast and reflect during Shivaratri for the same reason.
Maharaj explains that during Shivaratri, Hindus fast and pray to reconnect with their spirituality, quiet the mind, destroy temptations, and transcend negativity. They worship by honouring the Shiva Linga, a symbol of the power of the universe.
Fasting in all faiths
The three major religions in our country all observe a lengthy fast during the year. Christians fast for 40 days leading up to Easter, Hindus fast for weeks before Divali, and Muslims fast during Ramadan, which lasts 29 or sometimes 30 days and culminates in the celebration of Eid-ul-Fitr.
Why the fasting?
Well, the 40-day Lenten fast is symbolic of the 40 days and 40 nights Christ spent in the desert.
Ramadan is the month in which the Holy Qur’ an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. Mufti Asrarul Haque of the Anjuman Sunnatul Jamaat Association notes that, “fasting exhorts towards righteousness, purification of souls and bodies, and showing patience...Allah’s messenger said, “Allah said, “every act of the son of Adam is for him, except Fasting which is meant for Me and I will give the reward for it, Fasting is a shield or protection from the fire and from committing sins.”
The Hindu fast varies according to the devotee, many choose to fast a month before Divali.
Some also fast regularly throughout the year for the many Hindu observances, and locally, many Hindus fast on Thursdays to honour Shiva and the Guru.
Detoxing body and mind
Stepping away from religion however, one month or more of abstinence also happens in the secular world.
While it was previously believed that it takes about 21 days to kick an old habit and form a new one, more recent research by University College London has shown that it actually takes about ten weeks.
Either way, one month or more seems like a pretty good timespan to give oneself to detox mind and body.
Pundit Maharaj explains that a month or more of fasting is significant because it takes 20 days for total physical cleansing, and another 20 days to prepare and dedicate the mind and senses to the spiritual path.
He says anyone, Christian or non-Christian, can utilise Lent as a good opportunity to detox the body, and thus benefit health-wise.
“Our scriptures have taught us that food has two components—the physical nourishment and the subtle component that affects our minds and personalities.
For example, the “pure foods”such as fruits and vegetables are considered “sattvic” or possessing noble qualities that help our minds and senses develop on a pure and spiritual level.
“Foods such as pepper, and various spices, are considered ‘rajasic’ or having qualities that inflame the mind and senses towards anger and other such passionate qualities.
“Meat, which is considered ‘tamasic’, brings out the lower base animalistic qualities in us. When we look at the vicious predators of the animal, they are all carnivores. Whereas the beloved and admired peaceful animals, such as the elephant, giraffe, cow, deer are herbivores. This is the source of the statement, ‘We are what we eat.’
“To help cleanse our society, fasting can be used as a tool, to eat pure foods to bring about a higher level of vibration in the minds and hearts of people.
“Eating less processed foods, and more natural foods with the direct energy from the sun, can help us to raise our spiritual consciousness, become more peaceful, more loving, more compassionate, and help us to progress on the pathway to a more united society with the inclination to help others.”
Pundit Maharaj hopes people can use the Lenten season to rid themselves of bad habits, including ills which plague our society such as alcohol abuse, which he calls “an unchecked disease that is destroying our society at every level and a significant contributor to the level of violence in our society, especially domestic violence.”
Mufti Haque advises: “To get the reward of a fasting, one should not only abstain from food, drink, or sexual advancement, but also from every single immoral activity like fighting, backbiting, tale-bearing negatively, making argument, lying, cheating, and killing .
“The prophet of Allah said: ‘For the one who does not stop telling lies and acting according to it, Allah does not care about him abstaining from eating and drinking.’ Therefore fasting cleans the body physically and spiritually so that one who fasts should not be involved in crime and taking the lives of innocent people.”
Father D’Hereaux suggests people use the next 40 days to help heal our society:
“Lent helps us to confront and tame desire for something as basic, legitimate and necessary as food,” he says.
“Unruly desire and greed are at the heart of crime and violence. We desire to get even; we desire to take revenge. As a society, we need to control our desires. Lent helps us to do so.
“A lot of crime begins with a desire for someone else’s property. The terrible greed in society also leads to crime, including white-collar crime. The drug trade is about greed and a desire for more and more; the drug lords are not poor people.
“State corruption is rooted in greed. They are rich people who are greedy. They are rich people who want more and more.
“Lent says you can live with less. Lent is a social asset because it inspires forgetting one’s immediate needs for something greater than ourselves.”
Father D’Hereaux notes that the fast is not an end in itself and that our motive for fasting should not be superficial.
“At a social level, fasting is important because through it, we know what it is like to go hungry. Fasting places us face to face with the fact that although our fast ends, there are people who are always hungry.
“Because fasting is not an end itself, but a pathway to conversion and renewal, one social benefit of fasting should be working towards ending local and global hunger. Traditionally, as well, some churches have had the practice of fasting and the money saved from the fast was given to the poor.
“Fasting re-distributes wealth and challenges greed. Fasting teaches us about need. It can encourage the sharing of material wealth as well as the sharing of each other’s suffering with the hope that we understand the plight of those who go hungry all year round.”
Now that we’ve established that this 40-day period can benefit all of us, Christian and non-Christian, perhaps it is time to decide what you wish to reflect on and refrain from. Good luck on your journey!
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