The ancient yogis noted that the universe goes through cycles of potentiality and manifestation, similar to the speculations of modern-day physicists about an oscillating universe. During the process of creation, out of primordial matter known as undifferentiated Prakriti, everything evolves—from the mind itself, to the subtle and gross elements, to the world, as we know it.
Swami Vivekananda observed that, “In this universe, there is one continuous substance on every plane of existence. Physically, this universe is one.” Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) used to say, “We are interdependent, cells of one universal body.” The 17th century English poet, John Donne, expressed the same truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
All life is interconnected, and from there arises the beauty, elegance, and mystery in the divine plan of creation. Survival depends on mutual support, enlightened stewardship, and sacrifice. Sri Gurudev often noted that sacrifice is the law of life. The candle sacrifices to give us light; the incense stick to provide fragrance; the apple tree offers its fruits for all to enjoy. The Bhagavad Gita explains, “After creating humanity together with yajna (sacrifice), the Creator said, ‘Through sacrifice you will increase yourself and get everything that you want.’” Even rain, it declares, is the result of sacrifice, and from rain comes food and all beings. When there is sacrifice, the elements become favorable toward us and bless the earth with abundance.
The need to eat is at the basis of survival and is fundamental to the design and functioning of every society. It is a determining factor in our economic systems. It defines many of our cultural norms for social interaction. The choices we make as to how, when, where, and what we eat have great impact on our personal spiritual growth, as well as on the delicate balance of life on our planet.
There is a story in the Mahabharata, the great religious epic from India, which Sri Gurudev used to tell that illustrates some of these points. It describes an episode in the life of the noble Pandava family. Once Yudhisthira, the eldest brother, decided to conduct a great yajna (ritual sacrifice). In the midst of the ceremonies, a strange-looking mongoose suddenly appeared and began rolling in the remnants of the food that had been offered. Then it stood up, examined its body, and looked quite disappointed.
Clearly, this was not an ordinary mongoose. Aside from its peculiar behavior, one half of its body was a beautiful golden color. So Yudhisthira asked the mongoose for an explanation.
“I used to be an ordinary mongoose, without this golden color,” the mongoose recounted. “One day, during a time of great famine, I was very hungry. I came upon a small hut, where a poor teacher, his wife, their son, and daughter-in-law lived. Fortunately, one of the teacher’s students had brought them a little flour for bread. The wife prepared four rotis (wholemeal Indian bread), one for each of them. When everything was ready, the teacher came out of the house and looked around to see if anybody was coming.
“The scriptures say: ‘Atithi devo bhavah,’ which means ‘treat the guest as God.’ It is the custom of pious people at mealtime to go outside the house and see if there is anyone passing by who is hungry. They would be fed first, and if there were anything left over, then the family would eat. The teacher saw somebody approaching, so he invited him to dine.
“The teacher, his wife, the son, and daughter-in-law all came forward in turn and offered their portions to the guest, who graciously accepted the bread. After eating everything, the guest blessed the family and left. The poor family collapsed and died of hunger, but their faces were radiant with joy.
“Because I was so hungry, I checked to see if there were any crumbs left. There were a few on the floor, not really fit for eating, so I just rolled in them. When I got up, I saw that half of my body had become golden, so I thought something extraordinary must have happened here. Then I realized these people had performed a holy yajna; they had sacrificed themselves for the sake of another.
“Since then, I’ve been traveling all over trying to make the other half of my body golden. When I heard that the Pandavas were performing a grand royal yajna, I came running. I rolled in the remnants, but nothing has changed. It seems the humble gift of bread by that family, at the cost of their own lives, was a greater offering.”
The Tirukkural, a great scripture from South India, proclaims: “Is it even necessary to sow in the field of one who eats the food left over after feeding guests?” In life, we are meant to love and give, care and share. If we live this way, in accordance with nature’s law, there is food enough for everyone. Just like milk is produced in the breast of the mother when a baby is developing in her womb, so, too, nature will provide enough food for everyone. Again, the Tirukkural states: “Seasonal rains, together with unlimited produce, are found in the realm of the ruler who wields his scepter justly.” The elements, themselves, respond to our thoughts, words, and deeds. Consciousness is everywhere, and all life is interconnected.
Even in the face of survival, we are called to rise above selfishness, to share, to sacrifice, and to cause as little pain as possible. No matter what we eat, something offers itself to become a part of and nourish us. Life requires the sacrifice of life in order to continue. Even plucking a carrot from the earth no doubt causes pain to the plant. But as spiritual seekers, we can choose to cause as little pain as possible by observing a vegetarian diet and eating only what is necessary to healthfully sustain our bodies.
Eating a meal can be understood as a puja, an act of worship. The Divine comes to the table in the form of food to sustain our lives and to provide us with the energy to serve others. An important sloka from the Bhagavad Gita, often recited as a meal prayer, states: “The offering is Brahman [the Absolute One]. The oblation is Brahman, which is offered by Brahman into the fire of Brahman. The one who sees nothing but Brahman in all that he does certainly realizes Brahman.”
The meal prayer recited daily at Satchidananda Ashram, composed by the great sage Adi Shankaracharya, begins as follows: “Beloved Mother Nature, you are here on our table as our food. You are endlessly bountiful, benefactress of all. Please grant us health and strength, wisdom and dispassion, to find permanent peace and joy, and to share this peace and joy with one and all.” Beginning our meal with a prayer can help us to remember this higher purpose and to receive the food with gratitude.
Sri Gurudev explained that, when food is received as a divine offering, it can even bypass the digestive system and be transmuted directly into energy. It is experienced as prasad, or a divine blessing. Many years ago, I served as the kitchen mother for our annual retreat in California. We were blessed on the retreat by the presence of Sri Gurudev’s longtime devotee, Sohini Mehta. The last meal was a big Indian feast, which I had the opportunity to serve to Sri Gurudev, who was joined at the table by Sohini. As I placed the food on his plate, he would ladle some of it onto hers. Then, when I went to serve Sohini, she immediately placed a big spoonful of the food Gurudev had placed onto her plate directly into my mouth. It felt like sheer electricity. It seemed to explode throughout my system, going everywhere and lighting me from within. The food was not only blessed by him, but doubly blessed by the devotion of this great devotee, and I was the fortunate recipient.
Sri Gurudev spoke about the “3 Ts”: the tongue, the time, and the tummy. He cautioned against eating just to satisfy the tongue. There is no end to fulfilling desire in that way, and we are likely to overload our systems with toxins. Likewise, he said not to eat simply because it is mealtime. Instead, check in with your tummy and see if you are hungry. If the hunger is there, you will digest and assimilate the food well. The Tirukkural asserts, “There is no need of medicine for the body, if you eat only after making sure that the food already eaten has been digested.” Once digestion is complete, eat with moderation. That is the way to prolong the life of the body. The Bhagavad Gita gives this assurance, “If you are moderate in eating, playing, sleeping, staying awake, and avoiding extremes in everything you do, you will see these Yoga practices eliminate all your pain and suffering.”
Anything we wish to accomplish requires energy. Food provides energy for life—for growth, exploration, and discovery. The way we perform this fundamental, daily act common to all living things, reflects our values, our culture, and our consciousness. By partaking in the proper spirit, we go a long way toward maintaining our health, living in harmony with nature’s law, and proving ourselves to be good guardians of our planet’s resources.
About the Author:
Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had over 40 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and wellbeing. She developed, and for 25 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.
Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.
Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.
Source: Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga by Swami Karunananda