Humble salutations to the Supreme Intelligence, The Advaitha Guru Parampara (lineage teaching non-Duality / Advaitha Vedantha) and my own Acharya (Preceptor) for the content that I put forth in this blog !
Matter (in this specific context, food) can influence the mind! In normal parlance, we are used to the phrase, “Mind over matter”. But as per Vedantha, mind and matter are not 2 different things! Mind itself is nothing but matter, only in a subtler form when compared to the gross body. Anything that falls within the awareness of Consciousness is really only an object, whether gross or subtle. Thus mind really is not separate from an object, for all its contents- thoughts, emotions, feelings,etc. are known to the Self. That is why even many Psychosomatic illnesses are treatable by using medicines at the physical level. Getting drunk changes one not just at the physical level but all the way up to his thoughts, words and demeanor. When they say, “You are what you eat!”, they mean it literally, at all levels of our personality, physical and mental. So let us make a conscious effort to eat what would be right, positive, spiritually enriching, nourishing and uplifting.
The Chhandogya Upanishad, a text so ancient, teaching about Self knowledge, debunks the subject of “classification of food” so beautifully and in depth, Let’s see what this Upanishad has to say on the topic of food….
The Upanishad says that all foods ingested, whether solid or liquid are apportioned into 3 parts by the digestive juices / fires (called Samaana Prana):
- The grossest part
- The middle part
- The subtlest part
The grossest part
The grossest part of the food, whether solid or liquid, is its physical quality which is what we run after due to it appealing and catering to our taste buds. This part however says the Upanishad, simply becomes waste at the end of the digestive process.
The middle part
The middle part is what caters to the nutrition and well-being of the physical body. It is what concerns Medicine and Science in the form of carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, proteins, etc. It is what keeps the body fit and healthy like a well oiled machine.
The subtlest part
This is a unique part which is talked about only by Scriptures and not Science! According to the Upanishad, the subtlest part of the food is what influences the subtle body which comprises of the mind, life force called Prana and other Physiological functions. By physiological functions is implied, the power behind the organ. The blind man may have a physical eye, but not the power behind it.
The scope of Science / Medicine ends at the level of the middle portion itself! Science is yet to acknowledge the existence of a mind separate from brain! Then where is the question of studying about food influencing the mind!
How can we understand the idea of food getting divided into portions?
The Upanishads leave nothing to guesswork but expound every detail thoroughly! To make us understand this it gives the example of churning buttermilk / yoghurt / curd. When buttermilk / yoghurt is churned physically, the butter that lays dormant in it in subtlest form all along, separates and floats to the top. Similarly, the digestive juices churn the food and extract from them their essence, which goes to nourish the subtle body and all it’s functions.
While the primary concern of Scriptures is well-being of the mind / the subtle body because it knows that only a healthy, calm, peaceful mind can turn itself towards the Self and enquiry, the primary concern of Science / Medicine is the well being of the physical body. It is because of this that contradictions sometimes appear in what Medicine calls “good for health” and what Scripture declares as “good for Spiritual evolution or improving the quality of the mind”. It is important to understand that both are talking with respect to 2 completely different areas. The consumption of onions, garlic, coconut oil and clarified butter are the stark examples for such contradictions! It is simply a matter of priority for those who understand, physical well-being or spiritual well-being!
Scripture doesn’t promote disregarding the well being of the physical body but at the same time provokes us to think if emphasis should be on physical body ALONE. My Preceptor jokes, “Yes, animals live long, so what?” The primary aim of a Spiritual aspirant should be Spiritual growth and evolution while adequately taking care of the needs and well being of the physical body. Afterall, a body with aches and pains will keep Awareness trapped at that level. It doesn’t really matter how long I live, HOW I live should be my focus as a serious Spiritual aspirant!
Every food influences the mind differently invoking emotions, actions and thoughts pertaining to its subtlest functionality. Based on such influence of food on the subtle body / mind, food is categorized into :
- Satvik food
- Rajasic food
- Tamasic food
Sattva, Rajas and Tamas may be understood as the nature or attributes of ALL matter, which is called GUNA. All 3 Gunas are present in ALL matter in the Creation but in varying proportions. In fact, it is this variation in degree that accommodates for this beautiful multifarious Creation out there.
1. Satva – stands for the nature of knowledge, purity
2. Rajas – stands for the nature of dynamism or activity
3. Tamas – stands for the nature of inertia, laziness, dullness, confusion
Food being matter, it also has these 3 qualities / Guna in it and depending upon which Guna is predominant in a particular food, it correspondingly influences the mind. The Bhagavad Gita (Lord Krishna’s Divine song on Self Knowledge) in 7.7-7.10 elaborately describes what foods constitute each of these categories.
Sattva defines a person who stands for knowledge and purity. Only one with a calm mind is even capable of Self knowledge and Self enquiry. Listed below are the main characteristics of what constitutes Satvik food. A person who is inherently Satvik in nature will naturally be attracted to such foods which in turn help his Spiritual progress.
- First and foremost, the food must be VEGETARIAN. The Upanishads make no secret of the fact that plants and trees should ideally be the only source of food for the Spiritually inclined. The subtlest energies of a dying animal will certainly not evoke peace, calm and quiet in the mind of those who ingest the meat. Afterall, what living being gives in to death without a struggle!
- Satvik foods are that which naturally promote longevity, mental strength, physical strength, good health, comfort and happiness not just while eating but later too.
- Sweets constitute Satvik food, in moderation of course! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
- Foods that are visually pleasing!
- Foods that aren’t dry i.e have moderate amounts of oil and clarified butter / ghee in them!
- These generally are some of the items included in a Satvik diet. Fresh, organic fruit and vegetables; whole grains and nuts; dairy products such as milk and ghee; beans and lentils; plant-based oils; mildly sweet foods (natural, unrefined sugars), honey, molasses; spices such as cinnamon, basil, coriander, ginger and turmeric
How does Satvik food correspondingly influence the mind?
- Sattvic individuals are known to be loving, calm, kind, compassionate (towards all), graceful, peaceful, helpful, sensitive, intuitive, disciplined and pure-minded. It’s hard to make them upset or angry easily.
- Owing to their peaceful demeanor, such people are naturally attracted to silence, quiet, aloneness.
- They always face life and all it’s experiences with equanimity and peace.
- Sattvic people always look fresh, alert, aware, and full of luster and are recognized for their wisdom, happiness, cheer and joy. Like my Preceptor jokes, ”A Satvik person makes everyone happy WHEREVER he goes and not WHENEVER he goes (away 😜)!”
- Foods that are extremely salty
- Foods that are extremely hot or cold
- Foods that are extremely bitter
- Foods that are extremely sour
- Foods that are extremely spicy
- Foods that are very dry
- Foods that are capable of corroding the inner lining eg. mustard
- Rajasic foods include hot substances, sharp spices or strong herbs, stimulants like coffee and tea, meat of animals, fish, eggs, salt and chocolate. 😱chocolates?
How does Rajasic food correspondingly influence the mind?
- People who are dominated by Rajasic qualities tend to be ambitious, aggressive, egoistic, competitive, controlling of others, demanding and are proud of themselves.They are achievers in the materialistic sense of the term.
- They work hard and chase power, prestige and position. Thus they are very extroverted individuals who hate quiet and calm.
- Being achievers and perfectionists, they suffer from a fear of failure and so tend to be angry, irritated and jealous. Sounds like your boss 😉?
What’s wrong in being ambitious and successful if we ask, Scriptures agree that definitely nothingness wrong. In fact only such people can drive their environment to materialistic success. Opinion differs though only when we look from the standpoint of spiritual progress.
- Undercooked / uncooked foods. Oops, there go our salads! Like stated before, the contradiction is because here we are primarily concerned with the influence of food on the mind and not the physical body. Fire according to Vedic Scriptures is a purifier. So insistence is on compulsory association of food with fire,before consumption, for it to generate maximum spiritual vibes.
- Overcooked foods which are totally stripped off their nourishments.
- Foul / strong smelling foods. Eg. Some cheeses, fermented foods
- Leftover foods / cooked food kept overnight. 😱😱there goes out the window the plan to cook once a week or biweekly. We however need to be concerned and change our ways only if Spiritual evolution is our concern!
- Tamasic items include meat, alcohol, tobacco, onions, garlic, fermented foods, such as vinegar, and stale left over food, contaminated or overripe substances.
How does Rajasic food correspondingly influence the mind?
- Individuals dominated by Tamasic qualities tend toward depression, laziness, excessive eating, drinking, and excessive desire for sex.
- Tamasic people may be greedy, possessive, attached to materialistic things, They are irritable, selfish and uncaring towards others.
- Tamasic people lack the motivation to take up any work or require more efforts to complete their task.
- They sleep excessively.
We might notice that our food choice may not remain restricted totally to one particular group all the time. It is important to understand that every individual is a mix of all the 3 Gunas / qualities in varying degrees. We are all born predominantly Tamasic, eating and sleeping all the time as babies. It is through right nourishment, love and care that through time our individuality is molded and carved to make us what we are now. Yes, we may find ourselves predominantly a particular type but we still need the other 2 attributes to function as a whole. For example, Jack may predominantly be the Satvik type which means he is quiet and contemplative. But his Rajas still has to kick in if he has to go out in the world and act dynamically to work and earn a living. Similarly, at the end of a long day, unless Tamas / inertia kicks in, Jack cannot fall asleep and thus get rest.
Our plan of action would be to determine where exactly we stand in terms of our basic nature and then use these food prescriptions to further our nature and move us along Spiritually. We cannot all of a sudden switch to Satvik diet if we aren’t already there asserts Scripture. The evolution is in steps, like any other. Swami Chinmayananda says, “Spiritual progress is an evolution, not a revolution. There is no such thing as instant liberation / realization!”
On the topic of food, Scripture cautions about 4 extra “points to be remembered”:
- Source : Though not completely practical in today’s circumstances, Scripture says that it is best when the food is cooked by someone “known”. Afterall, common sense tells us too that such food would be cooked with love and care rather than for a few $$. Recently my uncle mentioned to me how my grandmother continuously chanted prayers while she cooked. Sound waves are capable of being absorbed by everything in the immediate surroundings. The quality of prayer vibrations are known to be the highest. So any day I’d lay my bet on food cooked while chanting prayers rather than food cooked by an angry, irritated chef whose subtle negative vibrations are being transferred to the food. Very similar to bracelets made by the Tibetan monks who chant as they tie every knot. These bracelets are believed to bring luck to the wearer owing to the subtle vibrations of the prayer it transmits, which were previously absorbed.
- Quantity : First things first, says the teacher, “Eat ONLY WHEN hungry” A problem area for many of us! Scripture says, “Stop when you feel like you can eat some more!” What if I feel that way even after gobbling up 2 large pizzas? 😉The cardinal rule to follow in this matter is, divide the stomach into 4 quarters. Solid food fills 2 quarters, liquid fills 1 and leave empty the last quarter. Really speaking a common sense rule again. Even in a blender jar we do need to leave some empty space so all the ingredients have room to groove. This is probably why Vedic followers sat on the floor while eating with legs criss crossed. This way, even as the stomach started getting half full, they would feel discomfort leaning forwards to pick up more food, so they would eventually stop eating at the right time. These days, we are so far removed from such basic, healthy practices. We not only sit on chairs or eat standing or walking around, but we also keep ourselves engaged with a book or tv while eating and the invariable happens! Overeat, discomfort, heaviness, bloating……
- Mode : It is important that we sit and eat, in quietude, while keeping our entire Awareness completely on the food at all times. In Vedic tradition, the act of eating began with prayer because the entire process was treated as an act of reverence and gratitude towards the Highest Life Principle which is present enlivening every individual.
- Quality : Where the Source is reliable, the quality is automatically guaranteed!
Now Scripture wants to make the most important point regarding food for a serious Spiritual aspirant. It says, “Don’t treat food as a sense pleasure. It simply is a means for removing hunger and keeping the body fit and well nourished!” They say that one person over eating somewhere is automatically depriving someone else somewhere of even a basic amount of food. I would have found that statement hard to believe until fully understanding that we are all really one organic whole. I am not separate from everything around me! Afterall it is said,
“That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling a star”
Food cannot liberate one but can certainly contribute to the right climate in an individual for him to recognize the Self. Therefore, let us use this valuable gift from the Highest, to our advantage and use it to advance Spiritually.
OM! Peace! Peace! Peace!