Suddenly everybody seems to be fasting for a cause. First you had Anna Hazare and his team, then you had Baba Ramdev, and soon Anna again. The moment we speak about fast-unto-death, parallels are drawn with Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent weapon to bend the administration. Someone wrote recently that Gandhiji is supposed to have gone on hunger strike some 17 or 18 times and all have had successful outcomes. So was Gandhiji the one who introduced this weapon?
The answer is a No. This probably happens since the concept of non-violence is so closely attached to him that he seems to be connected with hunger-strikes too. But history bears testimony to the existence of hunger-strikes and so does mythology (can’t shake this one away!).
The pre-Christian Ireland had seen hunger-strikes as a means of protest from a very early stage. The patron saint of Ireland, St. Patrick is supposed to have gone on hunger-strikes against god! The Irish followed a code-of-conduct (so as to say) for fasting as a means of protest. This was done at the door-step of the offender. This was probably done since offering hospitality to someone at ones doorstep was a very important gesture in those days, and someone dying at ones doorstep for lack of food and nourishment could be seen as a great personal disfavor. There were a number of causes for such fasts, and not necessarily all public causes, they could be as personal as recovering ones debts too! Many other parts of the world have seen instances of hunger-strikes as a means to protest in the Western world like US, UK, etc. long before Gandhiji made in popular during the freedom struggle.
Fasting has been an integral part of nearly all the major religions, be it Hinduism, Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. The fundamental rationale for fasting is either some sort of a sacrifice by abstinence or a penance for some act/s. Needless to say that there were scientific connotations of cleansing the system but that is not the main aspect of the act of fasting. It remains an act of abstinence and in the long-run leading to a sense of control over ones senses and the selfish impulse of gorging on food. This was intended to be done for a better self-control and also to atone for sins committed both knowingly or unknowingly. I don’t intend to get pulled into merits of fasting as that is not my immediate focus. The focus is fasting as a sign of protest, or better known as a hunger strike.
One such reference of hunger-strike is found in Rmayan. When Bharat follows Ram to the forest to get him back to Ayodhya, and Ram would not budge from his decision, there is a reference of Bharat plucking some Dhruva grass and lying on it protesting to go on a hunger-strike if Ram did not join him back to Ayodhya. However, Ram manages to convince Bharat about the futility of the exercise and convinces him no to do so. Another reference is again from some South Indian version of Ramayan. According to this version (not verified however) during the rule of Ram, there were no instances of death due to premature birth. When one such instance happens to a Brahmin, he takes the dead body of his child and sits outside the doors of Ram’s palace protesting by resorting to fast-unto-death, if his son’s life is not restored back. Ram immediately calls his council of ministers along with Narada Muni to deliberate. After deliberations, it was concluded that something was happening which was against the rule of religion. Ram set out on his flying vehicle only to find that a low caste individual by the name of Sambuka was conducting some yagna to enter the heavens which was against the law. When he did not heed Ram’s orders to stop, he was killed and no sooner Sambuka lost his life, the child came back to life. This example, better known as ‘Sambuka the Shudra’ is not verified as this could to be a plant by the champions of the anti-Aryan movement who have planted many small bits to look down upon Ram for a larger political agenda. I have only used this example to show the aspect of hunger-strike as a means of protest without taking sides.
Greek mythology also has an instance but in an oblique reference. It is the myth of Demeter and Persephone (Please refer to the article dated 27/03/11 in the same blog). According to this myth, when Persephone was forcefully abducted to the underworld by Hades, the god of underworld, she resorted to a hunger-strike to protest against her kidnapping. However, she could not sustain the fasting for too long and had to break the fast by having some pomegranate seeds.
Both in history and mythology, such protests seem to have yielded results and we have seen or read about them. But in the 21st century modern democratic world, is this a good weapon? Does fasting work as well as it did or has the weapon lost a bit of its edge?
Next time we will see how potent is this as a weapon in today’s world.