The Qualities of Food and Spiritual Practice

When people take up spiritual practices, they are exposed to many different ideas about the proper diet. With the idea that ‘you are what you eat’, there is a long list of foods that are considered suitable for spiritual practitioners to eat, what are called in the ancient traditions of India, ‘sattwic’ foods. Foods that are considered rajasic, or tamasic are to be avoided. This has led to some very strict dietary regimens which pick out certain foods as helpful and others as detrimental to spiritual growth.

This approach varies markedly from those that leave everything to ‘whatever comes’ into the begging bowl!

There are also stories about whether food should be taken from or in the presence of certain individuals who are considered low caste, or outside caste. One such story had a sage being offered the nectar of immortality by the god Indra, who had taken the form of an ‘untouchable’. The sage turned down the offer because he could not see through the illusion and was bound by the customs of the society as to what could be taken and from whom.

Another instance had Lord Rama accepting food from a low caste woman who was his devotee, despite objections from his brother Lakshmana, because he saw the pure love and devotion, without concern about the specific embodiment of the individual in this lifetime.

The issue of vegetarian or vegan diet adds another dimension to the question. The animals which embody a higher vibration of consciousness than the plant kingdom, are able to suffer pain and the vibrations at the time of their death can impact the person eating that food. Many spiritual paths forego eating meat therefore, and avoid the entire question of imbibing the energy of the animal that has been slaughtered for food. In today’s world, with the intense suffering attendant upon the vast cattle raising and slaughtering industry around the world, the question raises even greater concerns than in the past.

Food today has further issues with the chemical and pharmaceutical contaminants, and pollution, and the intense breeding that changes the essential qualities of various foods and makes them in many cases devoid of much life energy or nutrition. Taking nourishing food that is grown in a more traditional and focused manner certainly provides values that highly processed foods cannot possibly duplicate.

Sri Aurobindo points out that without getting into all the minutiae of individual food substances and their various micro impacts on the being, the underlying consideration was more about the virtue of the food as to its energetic qualities. Tamasic foods were devoid of energy due to being spoiled or stale. Rajasic foods were over-heating. Sattwic foods were nourishing and uplifting. People have made a science out of this, but in reality following these simple guidelines is probably as much attention as needs to be paid by the spiritual practitioner who needs to shift the focus away from the physical body toward the spiritual endeavour.

Sri Aurobindo writes: “I think the importance of sattwic food from the spiritual point of view has been exaggerated. Food is rather a question of hygiene, and many of the sanctions and prohibitions laid down in ancient religions had more a hygienic than a spiritual motive. The Gita’s definitions seem to point in the same direction — tamasic food, it seems to say, is what is stale or rotten with the virtue gone out of it, rajasic food is that which is too acrid, pungent, etc., heats the blood and spoils the health, sattwic food is what is pleasing, healthy, etc. It may well be that different kinds of food nourish the action of the different gunas and so indirectly are helpful or harmful apart from their physical action. But that is as far as one can go confidently. What particular eatables are or are not sattwic is another question and more difficult to determine. Spiritually, I should say that the effect of food depends more on the occult atmosphere and influences that come with it than on anything in the food itself. Vegetarianism is another question altogether; it stands, as you say, on a will not to do harm to the more conscious forms of life for the satisfaction of the belly.”

“As for the question of practicing to take all kinds of food with equal rasa, it is not necessary to practice nor does it really come by practice. One has to acquire equality within in the consciousness and as this equality grows, one can extend it or apply it to the various fields of the activity of the consciousness.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Food, pp 314-317