Philosophical Lessons from Eating Dirt

Complexity: 
Easy

If everything is "one," why not eat dirt instead of rice?

One day, shortly after He learned to walk, Lord Chaitanya was playing with other small neighborhood children when His mother, Srimati Sachidevi, brought Him a dish filled with rice and sweets. After asking her child to sit down and eat, mother Sachi went about her household duties. But as soon as she left, Lord Chaitanya began to eat dirt instead of the lovingly prepared food. Upon returning, mother Sachi was greatly surprised. "What is this!" she exclaimed.

This was one of Lord Chaitanya's childhood pastimes when He appeared on earth five hundred years ago. Yet at first hearing, it hardly seems to confirm Lord Chaitanya as the same Supreme Personality of Godhead described in the ancient Vedic literature. The Bhagavad-gita does assert that to establish universal religious principles the Supreme Lord regularly appears within the material creation, playing the part of a human being. Thus, although He is the oldest of all, He exhibits many uncommon pastimes as a child.

But what's so uncommon or divine about eating dirt? Every one-year-old tends to think that anything visible is also edible. How is Lord Chaitanya's dirt-eating any different? And how does it serve to establish universal religious principles? Let's return to the scene of the Lord's childhood misdemeanor and find out.

Upon being asked by mother Sachi to account for His behavior, the Lord replied in a surprisingly philosophical way. "Why are you angry?" He said. "You gave Me dirt, so how am I to blame? Rice and sweets, or anything edible, is all but a transformation of dirt. You gave Me dirt—and I ate dirt. Why do you object?" Lord Chaitanya argued that since all food comes originally from the earth, it is but a transformation of dirt. So eating sweets or eating dirt, what's the difference?

Lord Chaitanya's childish reply parodies the philosophy of monism espoused by the Mayavada philosophers, who hold that the one and only reality is all-pervading, eternal, undifferentiated spiritual existence, or Brahman. Thus, as the popular Mayavada slogan goes, "All is one." In other words, despite appearances, you and I are not separate individuals, but we are one in all respects with the impersonal Brahman. Or, to get right down to it, each of us is God-if we could only realize it. And this material universe—with all its variety—is, they say, false, an illusion.

In eating dirt Lord Chaitanya was taking the "All is one" philosophy to its logical conclusion. "Dirt is illusion, and sweets are illusion," He was implying. "So what's the difference between eating dirt and eating sweets?"

Mother Sachi was no pundit, yet her stern reply to Lord Chaitanya shatters the foolish subterfuge of Mayavada scholars. "Who taught You this philosophy that justifies eating dirt?" she asked. "If everything is one, why do people in general eat not dirt but the food grains produced from the dirt?"

Thus mother Sachi exposed the impracticality of Mayavada philosophy and showed the commonsense Vaisnava viewpoint. (A Vaishnava is a devotee of Lord Vishnu, or Krishna.) "My dear boy," she said, "if we eat dirt transformed into grains, our body is nourished, and it becomes strong. But if we eat dirt in its crude state, the body becomes diseased instead of nourished, and thus it unfortunately is soon destroyed.

"In a waterpot, which is a transformation of dirt, I can bring water very easily. But if I poured water on a lump of dirt, the lump would soak up the water, and my labor would be useless."

Unlike the Mayavadis, Vaishnavas, as mother Sachi explained, have a very practical, workable realization of spiritual truth. They accept that all is one, but only in the sense that everything is the energy of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. This material world, being His inferior energy, is one with Him. But the varieties within that energy, although temporary, are not illusion. And as for ourselves, we are eternal, individual manifestations of the Lord's superior, spiritual energy. Thus we are one with God in quality. But to argue, as the Mayavadis do, that we are all God would be a gross oversimplification.

The Vaishnava knows material varieties have practical value in devotional service to the Supreme Person. With a waterpot we can bring water to wash the Lord's temple, church, or mosque (or in mother Sachi's case, to bathe the Lord Himself). And with rice and other foods we can prepare varieties of dishes, offer them to the Lord, and use the spiritualized remnants of those offerings to nourish our bodies and thus strengthen them for engaging in the unlimited variety of pure devotional activities.

Mayavadis, on the other hand, consider devotional service to be an occupation only for the ignorant. "Why serve God?" they say. "You are God." To them water, earth, food, our physical bodies, and all other material manifestations are illusion and therefore of no practical value. Since they see all form and personality as illusion, they consider the Supreme Lord Himself to be illusion. Everything is illusion, they claim, except their own idiot philosophy.

In the simple childish act of eating dirt—and defending it—Lord Chaitanya parodied, and allowed His mother to defeat, a philosophical doctrine of monism that poses a serious threat to anyone of any religious faith who aspires for a loving relationship with God. Mayavada philosophy, Lord Chaitanya would later teach, is worse than atheism, because in the guise of a spiritual teaching it denies the Supreme Personality of Godhead and the eternal value of devotion to Him.

An excerpt from The Glories of Lord Chaitanya, pt. 4, by Mathuresha Dasa