Food – a Hindu Perspective

Food that we eat and how we eat it has a very deep connection with our health, wellbeing and spiritual growth. Hindu literature has great reverence and significance of food in our daily lives. The following verse from Gītā is recited by all Hindus before partaking of food as an offering to God, a thank you. It is like the Christians say Grace. It is in all religions we treat food as a gift from God or Mother Nature.

Brahmārpaṇam brahma haviḥ, brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam;

Brahmaiva tena gantavyam, brahma karma samādhinā – (Gītā 4:24)

The offering process is Brahman, the offered oblation is Brahman, offered by Brahman, in the fire of Brahman; by that, Brahman alone is to be reached by one who is in the Samadhi of Brahma-action.”

This means everything is Brahman or God. God is all pervasive. This is also stated in Chandogya Upanishad: “Sarvaṁ khalu idaṁ brahma” – All this is verily Brahman.

There is a saying: We are what we eat”. Our choices of what, when and how we eat have a huge impact upon the earth, our fellow human beings and other living creatures. Food that we eat has a huge impact on our own health and wellbeing. Agriculture greatly impacts the environment – from the destruction of rainforests to plant crops or graze livestock; loss of biodiversity due to intensive, industrialised farming; the pollution of water courses from pesticides and fertlisers. And how we treat livestock is also a big moral issue.

Hindu Classification of Food – food is divided into three categories:

Sāttvik– “Pure food that promotes health, vitality, mental calmness, and appetite, which is wholesome and agreeable”(Gītā 17:8). It may include fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. But it does not include meat, fish or alcohol.

Rājasik – “Food that is bitter, sour, saline, excessively hot, pungent, dry, and burning; productive of pain, grief and disease”(Gītā 17:9). It may include meat, fish, egg, onion, garlic and hot chilies. It gives rise to increase of aggression and passion.

Tāmsik – “Food that is stale, tasteless, stinking, cooked overnight, refuse, and impure” (Gītā 17:10). It may include preprocessed, stale food, meat, tobacco and alcohol that may lead to laziness, ill-mannered and moody behavior.

Ayurveda – Science of life

Ayurveda means science of life. Ayu meaning life and Veda meaning knowledge or science of. Ayurveda defines health as harmony of body, mind and soul. Each must be looked after to create good health. It is a holistic science whereas the western medical system is very specialized in nature.

Ayurveda is over 5,000 year old. The Rig Veda, the base of both Ayurveda and Yoga, contains verses on the nature of health and disease, and principles of treatment. Rig Veda contains discussions on three Dosas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha, and the use of herbs to heal the diseases to foster longevity. The Atharva Veda lists the eight divisions of Ayurveda: internal medicine, surgery of head and neck, ophthalmology and laryngology (throat ailments), toxicology, psychiatry, paediatrics, gerontology or science of rejuvenation, and the science of fertility.

Ayurveda believes that man is a replica of the universe. Both are made of five elements Air (vayu), Ether (akash), Fire (agani), water (jala), and Earth (prithvi). It gives a graphic account of how the living body is only a microcosm of nature. This close interaction with nature forms the basis for the Ayurvedic treatment.

Based on the mix of these five elements, each individual is categorised into one of the three basic types, i.e. Vata, Pita or Kapha. The person with predominance of air and ether is known as VATA type. The person with predominance of fire and hot water is known as PITTA type. The person with more of earth and water is known as KAPHA type. When Vata, Pitta, Kapha are in right proportions, they are in balance. The persons enjoys perfect health. But when they are not in balance they create DOSHAS and are the cause of many diseases.

Ayurveda uses herbal, mineral, purification, fertility, rejuvenation, massage, aroma, music, gem, psychology, toxicology, mantra, and surgery therapies to balance the Doshas. Ayurvedic therapy is very dynamic and adopts to changes with ease as it treats the very changes to bring the body in equilibrium. “Wholesome diet promotes health and growth, unwholesome diet is the most important cause of diseases” – Charaka Samhita (900-600 BCE).

Ayurvedic Food Etiquettes

It is not only important what we eat but how we prepare the food and how we eat it is equally important. We are not talking here about the table-manners, they are important too but about the rules for food preparation and partaking of food. These are simple commonsensical rules. There are variations of these rules in different cultures and societies. Food provides physical and mental nourishment. Right type of food eaten in a proper way is very important for our total well-being.

Preparation of Food – the cook should prepare healthy nourishing food with loving care, not overcooked so as to preserve the nutrients. The kitchen should be clean and cook should himself/herself be clean and of happy mental disposition.

Eating Food – we should wash our hands, although we may be using fork and knives we do tend to touch food with our hands or eat with our hands. We should not eat when we are angry or upset. The act of eating is an art of attunement with our own nature and respect for life.

We should say Grace – apart from religious reasons, saying grace shifts the attention from negative thoughts, settles the mind and uplifts the thoughts.

We should be mindful of what we are eating. We should enjoy what we are eating without any disturbance, not sitting in front of TV.

We should chew our food properly – the digestive juices in our saliva and in the gastrointestinal tract break down the nutrients in the food. That helps digestion. We will not be able to over eat, if we do that.

Eat a moderate amount – Ayurveda, recommends filling only ½ stomach with food, ¼ with water and ¼ with air. We may sip warm water in between the meal. Don’t drink too much cold water or sugary drinks. That dilutes the digestive juices. Moderate eating is also emphasized in Gita verses 6.16-17.

Tirukkuṛaḷ (Tamil ancient religious text 200 BCE – 400 AD) states in verses 943 through 945, “eat in moderation, when you feel hungry, foods that are agreeable to your body, refraining from foods that your body finds disagreeable”.

Rinse mouth after eating – This is important for our dental care.

Don’t eat too late in the evening or night – there should be at least a couple of hour’s gap in eating and going to sleep. Have a leisurely stroll after the supper. If we follow these simple rules we get more benefit from our diet.

Nutritive Value of Indian Foods

Balanced diet contains right proportion of nutrients like proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.

Cereals – Rice, wheat and millets (Jowar, bajra, ragi etc.) are the main source of calories in Indian diet. Pulses (or legumes) are rich in proteins and vitamins. This year 2016 is the International Year of Pulses. Pulses or Daals make up a regular part in our Indian diet. Nuts and oilseeds are rich in protein and fat. Green leafy vegetables like spinach are rich in calcium, iron, carotene (unsaturated hydrocarbon substance responsible for the colour of fruits and veggies), vitamin C, riboflavin and folic acid. Root vegetable like potatoes, carrots, yam are rich in carbohydrates. Fruits are good source of vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates. Milk is an ideal food for infants and children and a good supplementary food for adults. Fats – like groundnut oil, sesame oil contain high proportion of poly-unsaturated fatty acids.

Spices and Herbs

Spices and herbs are added for flavouring. They contain many medicinal properties. India has had a long history of export trade in spices going back many thousands of years. Indian state of Kerala has been a major spice trade Centre from 3000 BC. In fact the East India Company came to India in early 1600s to trade in spices and other commodities like tea, silk and cotton. The company eventually came to rule large areas of India with its own private armies, exercising military power and assuming administrative functions. Company rule in India effectively began in 1757 after the Battle of Plassey and lasted until 1858 when, following the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Government of India Act 1858 led to the British Crown assuming direct control of India in the form of the new British Raj. Ultimately India got independence from British in 1947.

Some of the spices used in Indian cooking are listed below with their properties:

Turmeric contains Curcumin which is strongly anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant. Red chili contains Capsaicin, which reduces appetite and boosts fat burning. Cinnamon helps lower cholesterol and triglycerides in blood. Ginger provides effective treatment for nausea and helps reduce pain. Garlic is used for reducing cholesterol and blood pressure. Coriander leaves are rich in vitamins A, C and K; and seeds provide dietary fiber, calcium, iron, and magnesium. Tulsi (Holy Basil) – improves immune function and helps reduce blood-sugar level.

References:

Universal Message of Bhagavad Gītā by Swami Ranganathananda, Advaita Ashram, Calcutta.

Resurgence of Ayurveda by Prem Arora, Deepavali 2005 Souvenir, Hindu Council of Australia.

Ayurvedic Food Etiquettes, extract from the book Absolute Beauty by Dr Pratima Raichur, Ayurvedic Physician and Doctor of Naturopathy.

Nutritive value of Indian Foods published by the National Institute of Nutrition, Indian Council of Medical Research Hyderabad, India.

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Vijai Singhal

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