Religious Starvation September 16, 2008

Religious Starvation

Yesterday morning, one of my students came up to me before class and said, “Mr. Mehta, we saw your name in the paper today!”

Oh crap, I thought. What did I do?

Turned out an Indian girl who shared my last name was featured in the Chicago Tribune.

Eva Mehta is a Jain (the religion in which I was raised) who happens to attend the same temple I went to as a child.

She was in the paper because she had just set a temple record by fasting for 34 days straight.

I wrote in my book that my sister Nina fasted for eight straight days for the same religious occasion — called Paryushana — and that was a major tipping point for me becoming an atheist. I thought it was a form of self-inflicted abuse brought about in the name of religion. It sickened me.

My sister was 11 at the time.

The girl in the Tribune article is 17.

At times, the 17-year-old was so weak and nauseated that her parents had to use a wheelchair to bring her from their van to their Jain temple in Bartlett. When the hunger pangs hit hard, she would pinch her ears. But she kept up her fast, even when she went to bed hungry and dreamed of food.

“I would just say in my mind, ‘No, it’s not real. I just won’t eat it. I’m not going to eat this until I’m done fasting,’ ” she said.

Her fast ended Sept. 3 after 34 days. By then the 5-foot-4 Evanston teen had lost 33 pounds, her weight dropping to 119.

But Mehta’s fast stands as a temple record, a triumph of discipline and devotion, say Jain leaders, who plan to hold a celebration Saturday at the Bartlett temple for Mehta and others who fasted.

“I always tried to keep my mind, just pray to my god every day,” Mehta said recently, appearing happy and relaxed. “I would pray, just help me get rid of this feeling. I always pinch my ear and pray whenever I’m hungry.”

During the fast, Mehta says she experienced intense bouts of nausea, caused by an increase in gastric acid that occurs during fasting.

She skipped the first week of school at Evanston Township High School.

It disgusts me that her parents would allow her to go through with it. It’s sad that a seemingly intelligent young woman would think this actually helps reduce her bad karma and brings her blessings.

You have to wonder what the Jain community’s reaction would’ve been if the girl ended up in a hospital — or worse. Would they have seen her as a martyr? Would they be celebrating her record-breaking fast?

Her mother said she would have stopped her daughter from fasting if Eva got sick.

Apparently nausea, hunger pangs, rapid weight loss, gastric acid buildup, and needing a wheelchair are perfectly healthy…

What’s worse? Knowing our Indian community, I can see plenty of other parents encouraging their own children to be just like her.

I remember complaining to my mom when she let Nina fast for over a week. They held a celebration for her at the temple. I couldn’t believe they were supporting the self-imposed starvation. Our arguments became shouting matches and they spanned several days.

When I talked to my mom about this article today — and complained about it — she wasn’t putting up much of an argument. She made a half-hearted attempt to defend the Jain practice, but it wasn’t very convincing since she was smirking as she said it.

This was idiotic on the girl’s part.

Her parents are worse for letting her do it.

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  • Joe L.

    It’s too bad the article treats this as some kind of celebratory feat. The paper almost certainly didn’t put any kind of skepticism from someone like a doctor for fear of discrimination or putting down someone’s faith.

  • Eric

    I’ve fasted a few times – once for the week before Easter, as a Christian, and once for a week this past spring, just for the heck of it. But both times it was a “no solids” fast, not a complete fast, and I weighed myself every day to make sure that if I dropped more than 10 pounds, I’d start eating solid foods again. And my parents were wary of even letting me do that, even though I wasn’t a minor, and even though I was still taking in a healthy amount of calories, and even though I was keeping track of my health and was going to stop if anything seemed to not be okay.

  • Erik

    Without a doubt this length of fast is dangerous and unnecessary. Fasting is not all evil all the time, however. Done responsibly, it is denying yourself something you enjoy for the purpose of gaining self-discipline.

    I have a lot of respect for Muslims who do Ramadan. The interesting thing about Ramadan is that you are excused from that responsibility if you are too young, too old, or sick. So staying healthy is definitely a part of the Islamic fasting tradition.

    My own tradition, Christianity, use to hold limited fasting as a central path to more discipline and focus, but at least in American Christianity it’s been abandoned (if you ask me, it’s because American Christians seek too much comfort). I’ve done two kinds of fasts: giving up one thing for a number of weeks, or giving up all food for a day. Both were helpful in making me more focused and disciplined as a person.

    Honestly, you don’t have to be religious for fasting to work. I believe it’s important in some martial arts and those are not particularly religious. Who couldn’t use more mental tenacity? I don’t doubt there are other ways to go about getting that, but I wouldn’t discount fasting entirely, even if you’re non-religious. It’s more psychological than spiritual sometimes.

  • Rather than an example to celebrate she could so easily have been an example to lament. Controversially I have no problem with people starving themselves to death over a religious belief. There is something Darwinian in the idea that they remove themselves voluntarily from the gene pool and allow the genes of less reckless examples of humanity to propagate.

    It’s a good thing that there are no long term effects of prolonged starvation like a weakening of bones and muscle or undernourishment of vital organs causing ongoing and irreparable damage. Oh wait, there are. Doh!

  • Jen

    When I was in high school, we called that an eating disorder. I had a college roommate who didn’t eat. She has lifelong problems relating to her anorexia. That’s because fasting, no matter the reason, is not healthy.

    I don’t know Jainism. I do know teenage girls. I would bet good money she wanted a diet and used this as an excuse.

  • Polly

    I thought it was a form of self-inflicted abuse brought about in the name of religion. It sickened me.

    Fasting can actually be somewhat beneficial if done in moderation and carefully planned out.

    My sister was 11 at the time.

    Oh! Then that IS sick. I would say that as long as you’re still growing and developing you shouldn’t fast.

    I once “fasted” for about 3.5 days when I was about 16 or 17. It wasn’t religious…I just wanted to see if I could do it. I fantasized about cheeseburgers. Other than hunger pangs and nausea that subsided by day 2, I didn’t real feel too bad.

    I have fasted for 24 hours for religious purposes. No results to report.

    This girl is nuts. If you need a wheelchair because of something you’re doing to yourself, your problem is psychiatric. If she were “white” it’d be called anorexia.
    edit: Like Jen said above.

  • andyinsdca

    I have a lot of respect for Muslims who do Ramadan. The interesting thing about Ramadan is that you are excused from that responsibility if you are too young, too old, or sick.

    The difference with Ramadan is that you eat every night; Ramadan’s fasting is only sunrise to sunset (I think it’s when there’s enough light so you can tell the difference between a black and white thread)

  • Chris Nowak

    Holy shit, that’s messed up. Yeah no wonder she had to have a wheelchair by the end of it, she had ZERO energy stores left unless she could consume calories by drinking, in which case she could actually be alright (there ARE all-liquid diets out there which probably aren’t great for you, but it’s a lot better than not consuming ANY calories…if this were allowed though it seems like one could carry on fasting indefinitely).

    @Jen, agreed, it wouldn’t surprise me either if it was so she could drop a few pounds, but we can’t say for sure. Obviously regardless of her inner motivation the church didn’t just allow but they encouraged it to happen.

    Fasting is never ever ever healthy and it’s a really stupid way to lose weight. Your body doesn’t keep burning at the same rate if you stop eating…it adjusts and slows down and you start to feel like shit because your body holds on to every last piece of fat it can until it absolutely has to burn it. It’s why starvation diets DO NOT work.

  • Melissa

    Ok, I have a question in regard to all of this, how does fasting actually work? are they not allowed to eat anything at all for the entire period? Can’t one die if they don’t eat or drink anything for about a week or so? If that’s so, how would one fast an entire month??

    But my ignorant questions aside, this really is sick…

  • Femdujour

    I agree with Erik & Polly that fasting is not a fundamentally bad thing. I’m a skeptic atheist who’s about to start her semi-annual 7 day lemon/cayenne/syrup fast. I’ve been doing it for years and find it a wonderful way to re-adjust my relationship with food and my digestive system. The fast that Eva Mehta put herself through was obviously harmful and extreme. She and her parents should all be ashamed. If done correctly and responsibly, fasting can be beneficial. If done to excess, it can cause serious consequences.

    While I’m on the subject, I’m often surprised to find myself on the opposing side from many skeptics when it comes to homeopathy (Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe folks, for example.) My skepticism in this area is aimed primarily at huge pharmaceutical companies and the FDA.

    Anyone else find themselves agreeing more with the hippie vitamin freaks than with Pfizer and Eli Lilly?

  • Polly


    I’m no expert, but a normal adult can go up to about 40 days without solid food before real damage gets done. Depending on weather conditions and activity you need water within 3 days or you die.

    The definition of fasting varies widely. The strictest definition is no food and only water. Some allow tea or juice but no food. Others restrict eating to certain times.

    Water, I believe, is universally allowed. Only in the Bible have I ever heard of no water or food for 40 days, but of course, that’s just horseshit um, I mean supernatural. It certainly isn’t commanded.

    I believe the record for a liquid-only diet with vitamin tablets is around 400 days.

    There are preparations that people have to make who are going on a long term fast (more than a week). Usually they decrease their eating slowly over the days before they begin, eating lighter meals of fruits or vegetables. Then, when the fast is over, the reintroduce food slowly.

    For fasts like Ramadan, I doubt much preparation is needed, since they are still keeping their digestive systems active on a daily basis. (IMPO, it’s not really a fast)

    Oh yeah, some expand the definition of fasting to include abstaining from non-food enjoyments.

  • Becky

    As someone with a former eating disorder, this made me tear up. I only went a couple to a few weeks w/o eating, and I can only imagine 30+ days. Besides, I was in college at the time, not high school. I hope this didn’t affect her grades (it certainly did to mine) or her morale. Fasting, for any length of time over 3 days to a week, seems so excessive and harmful to me, and I can’t stand it when I hear about it.

  • Polly

    “I always tried to keep my mind, just pray to my god every day,” Mehta said recently

    You know, if you just read this sentence and don’t look at the pic it’s kind of surreal, like some bizarro universe where Hemant is devout.

    I have an unusual last name and I actually found someone quite well-known in political circles who shares it. He turned out to be an atheist, too.

  • Gullwatcher

    There were recent reports that the Mormon habit of fasting may be linked to their good cardiac health. However, I believe that their version consists of fasting one day once a month, which is so different from what this woman did that they really ought to have a different name for it.

  • Richard Wade

    All religion is lunacy. Their forms of madness have more variety than life forms in a world class zoo. The fact that they differ in intensity makes them no more or less insane.

    I wonder if religious fasting originated with very early religions because it was during a time when famine was very common and widespread. They were starving anyway, so they decided to make a virtue out of it. Sort of a religious version of saying “I meant to do that” after you slip and fall on your butt. I’m sure the food sacrifices offered to the gods didn’t stop during the fasts. The more of the faithful who were fasting, the more food there’d be for the priests in the little room behind the statue of the deity.

    Ever notice that? From ancient ruined temples to modern cathedrals, there’s always a little room really close to the image of whatever hungry god was worshipped. In olden days the priests ate the offering in there. Now they count it.

  • She prayed to her god? I thought that Jainism was a non-theist religion, like Taoism and Buddhism…

  • Jen, you may be interested to know that many Historical Psychologists believe extreme religious fasting to be the historical equivalent of anorexia, as it often affected the same demographic group and people with similar life situations.

    Gullwatcher, That is correct, most Mormons fast for two meals (depending on your church’s schedule either Sunday breakfast and Lunch or Sunday Breakfast and Saturday dinner, as the fast is formally broken when one takes communion) the first Sunday of the month only. It’s actually kind of a nice idea since you are supposed to donate the cost of your skipped meals to feed the poor.

  • Audrey

    My high school used to promote doing a 30-hour fast to raise money for starving children in other parts of the world. Of course, being a Christian school they put a whole religious twist on it. I always thought the whole thing was dumb, and not particularly good for your health.

    Fasting just seems like bad idea to me, in general. Some people might have positive experiences with it, but to me it really just seems like unnecessary torture.

  • Davis

    Hey Polly,

    Where does the Bible refer to a no-water fast?

  • Richard Wade

    If one of the purposes of religious fasting is to show one’s devotion by depriving one’s self of what is needed for life, how about a really fast fast, a fast track fast by depriving one’s self of AIR? The deeply devout could demonstrate their devotion and it would all be over in about three minutes or so. It could be done right in front of the rest of the assembled devotees and it’d be really dramatic.

    The idea of non-religious fasting to develop self discipline seems idiotic to me. If this self discipline is supposed to be applied to things other than overeating, then why not exercise your self discipline directly on the thing in your life that needs it? I don’t think that going hungry for several days will make you more able to stop smoking or swearing or writing bad checks or watching soap operas or taking another trip to Vegas or spending too much time on blogs…

    …I’m gonna get something to eat.

  • Lynx

    While I’m on the subject, I’m often surprised to find myself on the opposing side from many skeptics when it comes to homeopathy

    Not trusting big pharmacutical companies is fine, but trusting the multibillion dollar industry of vitamin peddlers isn’t much better.

    But vitamins, though being regularly overused, do actually have proven medical benefits that are undeniable on a scientific level. Homeopathy, as defined as giving people small vials of water while claiming that it has been imbued with certain qualities because a substance that has been diluted basically out of existence, is pseudoscientific junk. Homeopathy is the triumph of the placebo effect to an absolutely absurd degree, and constitutes one of the greatest frauds of our times. I stand to gain nothing from the fall of homeopathy, but I am a biochemist and would beg ANYONE considering this snake-oil to please consult with a REAL doctor.

  • Polly

    @Hello Davis,

    Hey Polly,

    Where does the Bible refer to a no-water fast?

    Deuteronomy 9:18, Moses claims to have gone 40 days and nights without eating or drinking.

    Also, Exodus 34:28 agrees with this.

  • Chris Nowak

    I, for one, am a skeptic when it comes to any of the supposed benifits of fasting – I am aware of people who do it but I have yet to see any scientific studies showing benifits or possible long term problems.

    I don’t think anyone here places blind faith in the pharmeceutical industry – that would be ridiculous – but at least the products the big corps put out have to go through a fairly rigorous vetting process. Many of the homeopathic remedies just don’t have enough of this – they’re placed out into the market with only anecdotal evidence and no studies into possible long-term effects.

    Moral of the story – if you’re going to do anything extreme to your body, make sure it’s been studied competently first and isn’t a technique that’s just based around the positive anecdotes of friends. We don’t put blind faith in pharmeceutical companies – why would we put blind faith in homeopathic remedies?

    Also, as far as eating causing permanent damage – sure, it may take 40 days or so for you to be permanently hurt by starvation, however, your risk of catching potentially dangerous sicknesses is a magnitude higher due to the lack of any sort of nutrients to fuel a functioning immune system. Moderate fasting may not be dangerous but 34 days is just. not. healthy.

  • Chris S

    You left out the best part of the article, the very end, where her father was quoted talking about next year’s fast:

    “One-day, two-day, three-day fast—that’s all,” he said. “I don’t want her to miss school.”

    And that’s the ONLY reason?!!!

  • Loren Petrich

    I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell describing how someone he was acquainted with considered herself very spiritual, though not connected with any specific creed of church. She likes to fast a lot, so she could have visions.

    BR responded that if you eat too little, you will see heaven, while if you drink too much, you will see snakes.

    That may be another reason for religious fasting, to get religious visions and experiences.

  • cipher

    I agree; this is pathological.

    I noticed the article said, “In some cases, Jains practice santhara, or fasting until death, in order to free the soul from its sins.” My understanding was that fasting to the point of death is considered a “non-violent” way to end one’s life and either to achieve liberation, or to progress significantly farther toward it.

  • cipher

    And it says she was 153 lbs before and 119 lbs afterward. I question how much of this had to do with devotion, and how much had to do with her self-image.

    And they had to take her around in a wheelchair. The more I think about it, the more I feel that someone really ought to call Social Services. At the very least, the parents need a stern talking-to.

  • I’ve been fasting since 8:30am this morning. Where’s my parade?

  • Eva mehta

    Yes I fasted for 41 day but it was my religion and no i did not want to lose pound. Somehow god came to my heart and told me to do upvas(fasting). yea it hard to fast but i was on boiled water. I am a good example for my religon and to the kids around my age that want to learn more about jainsim.

    Have a question:

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