Hunger Strike - Early History

Early History

Fasting was used as a method of protesting injustice in pre-Christian Ireland, where it was known as Troscadh or Cealachan. It was detailed in the contemporary civic codes, and had specific rules by which it could be used. The fast was often carried out on the doorstep of the home of the offender. Scholars speculate this was due to the high importance the culture placed on hospitality. Allowing a person to die at one's doorstep, for a wrong of which one was accused, was considered a great dishonor. Others say that the practice was to fast for one whole night, as there is no evidence of people fasting to death in pre-Christian Ireland. The fasts were primarily undertaken to recover debts or get justice for a perceived wrong. There are legends of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, using the hunger strike as well.

In India, the practice of a hunger protest, where the protestor fasts at the door of an offending party (typically a debtor) in a public call for justice, was abolished by the government in 1861; this indicates the prevalence of the practice prior to that date, or at least a public awareness of it. This Indian practice is ancient, going back to around 400 to 750 BC. This can be known since it appears in the Valmiki Ramayana, which was composed around that time. The actual mention appears in the Ayodhya Kanda, (the second book of the Ramayana), in Sarga (section) 103. Bharata has gone to ask the exiled Rama to come back and rule the kingdom. Bharata tries many arguments, none of which work, at which point he decides to do a hunger strike. He announces his intention to fast, calls for his charioteer Sumantra to bring him some sacred Kusha grass, (but Sumantra won't do it since he's too busy looking at Rama's face, so Bharata has to get the grass himself), lies down upon it in front of Rama. Rama, however, is quickly able to persuade him to abandon the attempt. Rama mentions it as a practice of the brahmanas.

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