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Prasadam, see also Spiritual food

Spiritual Vegetarianism and Krishna Prasadam

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spiced chickpeas: gotta love 'em.

In this material world, all living beings are part of a food chain; one is food for another. Of all the links in that chain, humans uniquely have the developed consciousness required to question life's purpose, explore life's spiritual dimension, make educated moral and ethical choices, conduct research into the existence of a Supreme Being, and to make menu choices based on considerations beyond hunger and taste preference.

Traditional spiritual wisdom supports the view that higher intelligence carries with it a greater degree of responsibility. Vedic teachings especially say that human beings' eating habits are uniquely subject to laws of karma, right and wrong. This is why human societies generally set guidelines for what can and can't be eaten. Most genuine spiritual traditions also recommend making offerings of food in gratitude—sacrifice—to the natural and supernatural forces giving us life.

For example, those following the path of Krishna-bhakti, approaching the Supreme Person in the mood of devotional service, offer their food to the Supreme Person before eating. Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita that if we eat things that haven't been offered in sacrifice, we're liable to be punished for eating other living beings. But He also says that offering everything we eat to the Supreme Person—Krishna Himself—frees us from karmic reaction. Such offerings need not be elaborate or costly; Krishna accepts even a leaf, a fruit, a flower, and water if offered with love.

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Krishna categorizes meat, fish and eggs in the mode of ignorance—not meant for human consumption—so they are never to be offered to Krishna. The vegetarianism of Krishna's devotees is a by-product of their spiritual commitment; their goal isn't to avoid meat but to please Krishna. They take vows to avoid eating meat, fish and eggs not only because such things aren't offerable to Krishna, but eating them also severely diminishes one's capacity for mercy and for perceiving spiritual reality.

Scriptures like the Srimad-Bhagavatam and Chaitanya Charitamrita contain descriptions of some of the many wonderful dishes Krishna's devotees offer Him, and cooks in Krishna temples today strive to prepare the finest offerings for Krishna's pleasure based on such writings. Cooking is one of the most essential devotional arts of the Krishna-bhakti tradition, and many who have tasted such extraordinary devotional cooking credit that dining experience with inspiring them to pursue a more spiritual lifestyle.

Krishna devotees maintain high standards in cooking. They prepare and offer meals to Krishna, with gratitude and affection, and eat only after the offering ceremony is complete. Food offered to Krishna becomes spiritualized by Krishna's glance, and is then called prasadam, the "mercy of God."

The food we eat replenishes our body's cells, so on a purely physical level we literally are what we eat. And the quality of consciousness with which our food is prepared affects us in deeper ways. Those who only eat Krishna-prasadam are freed from all karma and get profound spiritual benefit.

Perfect Health

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from Back To Godhead Magazine #20-12, 1985

My spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, would always close his letters to his disciples with the phrase “Hoping this meets you in good health….” Of course, everyone wishes good health to those they love. But what actually constitutes good health? There are many different opinions.

For years Americans have heard that a balanced diet must include meat. The National Academy of Sciences has long recommended minimum daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. But controversy abounds. Recently the Academy advised lower recommendations. The American Heart Association advocates stricter dietary controls. Evidence from the American Medical Association linking a vegetarian diet to better health prompted the meat and dairy industry to advocate a slackening of government supervision of diet.

It isn’t surprising that in the face of today’s many divergent views on health the public takes its own course. Time and time again we engage in activities that we know are hazardous to our health. As psychiatrist Norman Tamarkin attests, “We don’t take care of ourselves, we drug ourselves, we overeat, we don’t exercise enough; It’s bound to have a depressing effect. It generally lessens our resistance to emotional stresses as well as physical viruses.”

To live a satisfying life in perfect health is possible, but one must have actual knowledge of the body and the soul and of the purpose of health. This knowledge is given in the Vedic literature. By turning to the Vedas, we can go beyond the confusion caused by shortsighted views of health and happiness.

In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna; the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that although we are eternal by nature, we are presently dwelling inside temporary material bodies. It is by ignorance and illusion only that we accept the body—so prone to disease and discomfort—to be our self.

To render loving devotional service to Krishna is the ultimate goal of life, and it is toward that end only that we should maintain good health. To remain fit in body and mind in order to better practice Krishna consciousness is the ultimate purpose of health. We should not keep healthy just so we can better enjoy sex or gain an edge on our business competitors. Rather than pursue those short-term, illusory pleasures, we should keep healthy for the pleasure of Krishna.

Essential to health is diet. But whose authority are we to trust when it comes to selecting a diet? In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes various diets and their effects.

Everything in the material world, Lord Krishna explains, acts under the influence of three factors, or forces, known as the three modes of material nature. These three modes—goodness, passion, and ignorance—and their interactions create the great variety of thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions that we experience in material consciousness. Just as the three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—combine to produce all other colors, so the three modes of material nature—goodness, passion, and ignorance—combine to create all the varieties, gradations, and nuances of our experience. And that includes diet.

In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains, “Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence, and give strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction” (Bg. 17.8). These palatable and nourishing foods include grains, milk products, fruits, and vegetables. Foods that are overly bitter, sour, salty, dry, or hot are in the mode of passion. These foods disturb the mind and cause disease. We also read, “Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed, and unclean, is enjoyed by people in the mode of ignorance.”

In commenting on these verses, Srila Prabhupada writes, “The purpose of food is to increase the duration of life, purify the mind, and aid bodily strength. This is its only purpose.”

So we should not eat just to gratify our tongues; rather, we should eat to have strength and vitality for serving Krishna. This is a very important factor in maintaining health. And the foods that give the most vitality are those which maybe eaten in natural form, such as fruits and vegetables prepared in salads or lightly steamed. (It is best to eat sparingly of fried foods and sweets.) By dieting according to Krishna’s instructions, we can best appreciate the purpose of eating. And of course everything one eats should first be offered to Krishna.

Good health results naturally when we live and eat in a regulated, spiritual lifestyle. When the mind is filled with spiritual thought and is thus free from greed and envy, the body will naturally be healthy and lustrous. The ancient sage Kardama Muni exhibited such a state of health even while practicing severe physical austerities:

His body shone most brilliantly, though he had engaged in austere penance for a long time. He was not emaciated, for the Lord had cast His affectionate sidelong glance upon him, and he had also heard the nectar flowing from the moonlike words of the Lord. (Srimad- Bhagavatam 3.21.45-47)

Devotees practicing Krishna consciousness today enjoy similar health. Srila Prabhupada, in Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, describes the benefits of Krishna consciousness to mental and physical health as follows:

"We have practical experience of this with our students in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Before becoming students, they were dirty-looking, although they had naturally beautiful personal features; but due to having no information of Krishna consciousness, they appeared very dirty and wretched. Since they have taken to Krishna consciousness, their health has improved, and by following the rules and regulations, their bodily luster has increased."

Good health is the natural condition of the body, as is Krishna consciousness, and as one practices bhakti yoga, one’s health improves naturally. By chanting Hare Krishna and by avoiding sinful habits such as meat-eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling, one can achieve far better results than he would by any concocted "health program."

A Diet for Spiritual Health

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When our oldest son was less than three, he and I were once in a supermarket when a woman passing out samples handed him a cookie that looked like ones made at our temple. He was several yards away from me, and I was apprehensive he’d automatically put the cookie into his mouth. Instead, he ran over to me and asked, “Prasadam? Prasadam?” I said no, it hadn’t been offered to Krishna and couldn’t be. He smiled and gave up the idea of eating the cookie.

Training our children to be strict vegetarians can be difficult. Giving them enthusiasm for further restricting themselves to prasadam, food prepared for and offered to Krishna, can be even more challenging.

Devotees of Krishna strictly avoid meat, fish, and eggs, and though a growing number of food products don’t contain any of these, many products have onions or garlic, which devotees also consider unfit to offer the Lord. Devotees try to avoid commercially prepared food altogether. Krishna is hungry for our devotion, not the food we offer Him, so we need to take time to prepare Krishna’s meals ourselves, with love for Him.

Not only the cooking, but also the offering of food to Krishna should be done with love. An ideal offering involves setting up at least a simple altar, putting the food on a plate reserved for Krishna’s use, and reciting prayers asking Krishna to accept what we’ve prepared.

While following the rules for a prasadam diet seems troublesome to nondevotees, taking trouble for a loved one is a great source of pleasure. And serving Krishna, the supreme lovable person, gives the greatest pleasure. Children easily feel the happiness of love for Krishna even when very young. As they watch us in the store, we can show them how we read the labels. By age ten, a child can learn to spot listings of meat products such as rennet and choose only suitable food. We can explain to our children how we try to pick the best and freshest items for our Lord.

Most children love to help in the kitchen. While cooking we can create an atmosphere of devotion by singing the Lord’s holy names or listening to a recording of devotional singing. As our children help, they learn that Krishna is the first to eat—no tasting while cooking! They can become excited about pleasing Lord Krishna.

As our children mature and gradually learn to prepare varieties of full meals on their own, they are equipping themselves for a life of cooking for Krishna. If, on the other hand, they don’t learn cooking skills, they may grow up to think that buying foods that nondevotees have prepared is a necessity.

In the temple, devotees follow a strict schedule for offering meals to the Deities. At home there can be some leniency, but a schedule of offerings reminds us we are cooking for the pleasure of Krishna, rather than simply for our own hunger and desire. Can children wait to eat until after an offering? Yes, if we feed them at reasonably regulated times, from when they first start to eat solid food, and make sure meals are both sufficient and frequent enough for their needs. “Wait until Krishna eats!” should be exciting, a spiritual game, rather than an austerity.

As we bow before Krishna’s picture or Deity and ask Him to accept our offering, even our toddlers can bow next to us. By age ten or so, a child can learn the standard prayers and offer food without adult help.

We should also show our children how to offer food when away from home. Many devotees carry small pictures of Krishna and their spiritual master and can set up a simple “altar” almost anywhere.

Being away from home or a temple is one of the most difficult times for sticking to a prasadam diet. We adults may be willing to wait until we get home and cook. But children on an unexpectedly long shopping trip may feel that avoiding all but properly cooked and offered food is impossible. Sometimes we can bring prasadam with us, but other times we are caught unprepared. At such times, we may be able to buy fruit and make a simple offering. If we absolutely must buy prepared foods, we should strictly avoid grains that nondevotees have cooked. Lord Krishna in His form as Lord Caitanya has told us that such foods make the mind wicked. A devotee must strive to keep the mind pure, so that it will be a suitable place for thoughts about Krishna.

Blog: Mushrooms or no mushrooms?

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I have never published a blog about mushrooms, but I am asked about them constantly. Since the Hare Krishna diet appears to be almost identical with many classic Buddhist vegetarian diets where mushrooms are used profusely, people usually presume that mushrooms would be acceptable.

And why are there no mushroom recipes in my books? The reason is that in the ancient culinary bhakti-yoga tradition to which I subscribe, mushrooms are not cooked. No Vishnu, Krishna or Rama (Vaishnavaite) temple kitchen will ever prepare them. They are considered unfit foods to prepare in sacred food offerings due to their fungal nature.

Yes, they are nutritious, and yes some Hare Krishna devotees will occasionally eat them. I eat them occasionally. The following exchange, originally about yeast, will shed some light:

Q: I was wondering about some of your recipes. Some of them have yeast in it. I was wondering if this is acceptable to be offered to Krishna. I thought yeast is a living organism, just like mushroom is. Please forgive my ignorance and help me understand this.

A: Thanks for your letter. Yeast is not a traditional ingredient in Vaishnava cookery, yet we do prepare and offer to Krishna fermented things like khamir poori, dosa, idli, jalebis etc. These are all fermented naturally, with the help of airborne yeasts.

Yes, yeast could be compared with mushrooms. However, it was not specifically banned by our founder Srila Prabhupada (like meat, fish, eggs, garlic, onion, alcohol are). When he first arrived from India, Prabhupada tasted western yeast-risen breads, but he said he found them dry and tasteless, and much preferred his hot, freshly cooked unleavened chapatis.

Prabhupada did not eat mushrooms, and recommended we (his students) don't. Most Hare Krishna devotees never touch them, though some do. I have seen devotees in Russia pick them from the forest and cook them. So why this apparent grey area?

Here's a recent exchange of letters about mushrooms:

Malati devi: "And, what about mushrooms? We don't offer them to the (temple) Deities. However, in France, at the Nouvelle Mayapur Chateau (perhaps Kanti will recall this), they found very exotic expensive type of mushroom known as truffles on the property, and the devotees wondered about it."

Kanti devi: "Yes, I do recall that, because I started making cream of mushroom soup for the devotees. We had mushroom pizza, mushroom rice, mushroom pakoras, so many mushrooms. There was one French devotee who would bring in crates full that he collected in the forest.

Naturally the devotees (Bhagavan dasa specifically) asked Srila Prabhupada before we did anything with them. The mushrooms were 'cèpes', (not truffles) a large mushroom that grows in the forest, and we had thousands of them. Srila Prabhupada said that 'Lord Chaitanya ate mushrooms when he was travelling in the Jarikhanda Forest, and we could as well'. We did not have Radha Krishna Deities at that time, we had a Pancha Tattva altar and Srila Prabhupada said they were offerable to (on the altar to the sacred deity forms of) Pancha Tatva, so we did cook and offer them."

This (the instance above) was a specific circumstance. Prabhupada wanted that the cooks in France did not waste them. But generally, Hare Krishna temple cooks don't use mushrooms; but as you can see in this case, they were not specifically banned like, say, onions and all other members of the allium family. If Kanti devi had been delivered crates of onions picked from the fields, for instance, she would not have prepared them in the temple kitchen. So there is a distinction.

Yamuna Devi, in her entire cookbook collection, has provided one or two recipes that contain mushrooms. I have only one unpublished recipe containing mushrooms. Otherwise I hardly touch them. They are, after all, a fungus, and do not help to elevate the consciousness like 'sattvic' foods do. Hence they are generally included in the category of 'tamasic' foods (foods touched by the lower modes of ignorance).

Here's one final exchange I'd like to share with you:

Q: Isn't it sad that with all the starvation in the world people are debating whether or not by eating (nutritious) mushrooms it may or may not place humans into a lower mode of ignorance?

A: I think these are two separate issues, in my opinion. This mushroom talk is our in-house discussion, but I just decided to share it with whomever was passing by in cyber space. If we choose to not eat mushrooms, then there will be more nutritious mushrooms to go around for all those starving people. And by the way, The Hare Krishnas are the world's most prolific and generous distributors of healthy cheap/free vegetarian food.

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Article courtesy of Kurma's blog