Everyone needs food, and everything is food for something or someone else. Living beings eat and are eaten, state the ancient Hindu texts, the whole of creation is a vast food chain, the cosmos a giant food cycle.
“You are what you eat” is a common phrase many of us have heard. In terms of Spirituality, there is truth in this simple statement and it has an even deeper significance. We choose what we eat or drink based on liking, health, social factors and other reasons, but most of us do not consider the spiritual dimension when choosing what we consume.
Every food or beverage has a certain level of spiritual purity. When we consume spiritually pure items, we imbibe positive energy from them and this benefits us in our daily lives and in our spiritual practice.
We feel healthier, lighter, more clear headed and we become more productive also by consuming them. On the other hand, when we consume spiritually negative foods or beverages, we imbibe black energy and this has a strong negative effect on all aspects of our life.
We even negatively affect others if we serve spiritually negative food or drinks to them. If we regularly serve our children meat for example, it has the potential to negatively affect them as they grow up and this would have a long term effect on them.
Consuming spiritually negative foods and drinks can lead to having more anger, aggression, health problems and other problems as well throughout life. In this section, we explore what choices we can make while eating and drinking to imbibe spiritual benefit and to be protected from spiritual distress.
Diet in Hinduism varies with its diverse traditions. Many Hindus prefer a vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian lifestyle, and methods of food production that is in sync with nature and that is compassionate, respectful of other life forms as well as nature.
The Upanishads and Sutra texts of Hinduism discuss moderate diet and proper nutrition, as well as Aharatattva (dietetics). The Upanishads and Sutra texts invoke the concept of virtuous self-restraint in matters of food, while the Samhitas discuss what and when certain foods are suitable. A few Hindu texts such as Hathayoga Pradipika combine both.
Moderation in diet is called Mitahara, and this is discussed in Shandilya Upanishad, as well as by Svātmārāma as a virtue. It is one of the yamas (virtuous self restraints) discussed in ancient Indian texts.
Some of the earliest ideas behind Mitahara trace to ancient era Taittiriya Upanishad, which in various hymns discusses the importance of food to healthy living, to the cycle of life, as well as to its role in one’s body and its effect on Self (Atman, Spirit). The Upanishad, states Stiles, notes “from food life springs forth, by food it is sustained, and in food it merges when life departs”.
The Bhagavad Gita includes verses on diet and moderation in food in Chapter 6. It states in verse 6.16 that a Yogi must neither eat too much nor too little, neither sleep too much nor too little.
Understanding and regulating one’s established habits about eating, sleeping and recreation is suggested as essential to the practice of yoga in verse 6.17.
According to Kane, one who is about to eat food should greet the food when it is served to him. In performing this act, he should honour it, never speak ill, and never find fault in it.
The Dharmasastra literature, states Patrick Olivelle, admonishes “people not to cook for themselves alone”, offer it to the gods, to forefathers, to fellow human beings as hospitality and as alms to the monks and needy.
All living beings are interdependent in matters of food, thus food must be respected, worshipped and taken with care. The Shastras recommend, states Olivelle, that when a person sees food, he should fold his hands, bow to it, and say a prayer of thanks.
This reverence for food reaches a state of extreme in the renouncer or monk traditions in Hinduism. The Hindu tradition views procurement and preparation of food as necessarily a violent process, where other life forms and nature are disturbed, in part destroyed, changed and reformulated into something edible and palatable. The mendicants (sannyasin, ascetics) avoid being the initiator of this process, and therefore depend entirely on begging for food that is left over of householders. In pursuit of their spiritual beliefs, states Olivelle, the “mendicants eat other people’s left overs”. If they cannot find left overs, they seek fallen fruit or seeds left in field after harvest.
The forest hermits of Hinduism, on the other hand, do not even beg for left overs. Their food is wild and uncultivated. Their diet would consist mainly of fruits, roots, leaves, and anything that grows naturally in the forest. They avoided stepping on plowed land, lest they hurt a seedling. They attempted to live a life that minimizes, preferably eliminates, the possibility of harm to any life form.
The Manusmriti discusses diet in chapter 5, where like other Hindu texts, it includes verses that strongly discourage meat eating, as well as verses where meat eating is declared appropriate in times of adversity and various circumstances, recommending that the meat in such circumstances be produced with minimal harm and suffering to the animal. The verses 5.48-5.52 of Manusmriti explain the reason for avoiding meat as follows (abridged),
One can never obtain meat without causing injury to living beings, he should therefore abstain from meat. Reflecting on how meat is obtained and on how embodied creatures are tied up and killed, he should quit eating any kind of meat. The man who authorizes, the man who butchers, the man who slaughters, the man who buys or sells, the man who cooks, the man who serves, and the man who eats – these are all killers. They is no greater sinner than a man who, outside of offering to gods or ancestors, wants to make his own flesh thrive at the expense of someone else’s. — Manusmriti, 5.48-5.52, Translated by Patrick Olivelle