With Lent almost over, here's why most religions fast

Story highlights

  • From the ancient Greeks to Native American tribes, fasting traditions have existed for millennia
  • Most of the world's major religions practice fasting, though the meaning of each varies

(CNN)If you've been fighting off urges to reach for chocolate, alcohol or anything else you've given up for the last several weeks, take solace that -- for many practicing Christians -- this is the home stretch.

Easter is right around the corner, and the end of Lent abstinence and fasting is in sight.
If it helps, know that many others feel your pain -- and not just fellow Christians.
What you may not know is nearly all modern religions have fasting traditions.
    It's an idea that didn't originate in modern times.
    And though the religious meaning and specific rules differ from faith to faith, the larger concept remains the same.
    So, why do most religions have fasting traditions?
    And where did they originate?
    Also, how does fasting benefit those who have the self-discipline to stick with it?

    The quickest way to the spirit is through the ... stomach?

    Exactly when and where religious fasting originated is hard to pinpoint, but there is evidence of fasting in ancient Greece, pre-Columbian Peru and among Native American tribes.
    "It's almost like as long as humans have a memory of themselves, we have a memory of avoiding specific things in a ritualized way," said Dr. Ayesha Chaudhry, an associate professor of Islamic and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia.
    According to Richard Valantasis, a retired professor of ascetical theology, even early Egyptian monks who braved harsh desert conditions spoke about "drying out the body" as a way to make them more responsive to God and to dull nonreligious passions.
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    Fasting has also played a role in growing new religions. For Islam, Chaudhry said, making ritual fasting part of the religion was an intentional move to make it feel familiar to followers of older faiths, while also differentiating it with its specific traditions.
    Today, all of the major Western religions -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- still have fasting or abstinence traditions. According to Chaudhry, followers of non-Abrahamic traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, participate in forms of ritualized fasting.
    What is it about abstaining from food (and sometimes drink) that has made it an enduring part of so many faiths?
    Valantasis said the answer is pretty simple -- interrupting a basic human experience makes it impossible not to think about your spirituality.
    "In Eastern Orthodoxy, for example, the fasting rules are pretty elaborate -- no milk, no eggs, no meat, no fish with blood systems, and sometimes no leavened bread," Valantasis said. "Even though the foods for Lent are really wonderful and tasty, they still remind you that you are in the middle of a fasting period and therefore, your eating habits continually reinforce the spiritual disciplines you're supposed to be working through."

    A reset button for the soul

    Intentionally depriving yourself of food or drink is clearly an effective way to spur spiritual introspection, but what do those who fast get out of the practice?
    For one, fasts serve as a reminder to be grateful for things you might otherwise take for granted.
    "You might just drink water or eat without thinking about it, because some people can afford to do that," Chaudhry said. "We don't really think about what an incredible blessing that is."
    Fasting can also push you to shift your priorities and be more attuned to your spiritual side.
    "Instead of engaging with the world primarily in a physical way, you engage with it in a spiritual way first and really pay attention to your thoughts and your emotions -- whether you're kind and compassionate," Chaudhry said. "You try to prioritize your soul at the expense of your body."
    For Muslims, the sunup to sundown fast during the month of Ramadan includes a social justice component, with sermons often hitting on themes like helping the poor and feeding the hungry, Chaudhry said.
    And though fasting is a solitary endeavor, fasts can be a great way to connect with new people, especially in big cities. At the end of a long day of being "hangry," Muslims often gather to break the fast with group meals. To Chaudhry, this fellowship is one of the highlights of the fast.
    "When you come together to eat and you listen to sermons about how great it is that you're fasting, and encouraging you to be a better person ... then it can feel like a really good time of the year and can be really exciting."