Diet plays a very important part in people’s lives. Food not only makes the body, it makes the mind. It has a direct connection to the attitudes of the mind. Today we do not think much about the different qualities of food and its effect on the mind. In Yogic thinking, everything in nature, including food, is divided into three groups according to the three gunas or qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is the tranquil state, rajas the very active state, and tamas the state of inertia or dullness. The Bhagavad Gita speaks at great length on the qualities of different diets. According to Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of medicine, foods can be divided according to the effect they have on the body. There are three conditions that food should meet: it should help your mind maintain its tranquility; it should not stiffen the body with toxins; and it should be able to be digested without wasting a lot of energy.
Foods that are close to their natural state, not very spicy, sour or hot, are considered to be sattvic. These include fruit, nuts, milk products, vegetables, cooked grains, beans, cereals and seeds. When the same products are mixed with a lot of spices and become sour or hot, they become rajasic. That means they create restlessness in the mind. Our main goal is to keep the mind in a tranquil state. Rajasic food also includes meat and other flesh food. They make us active in a restless, sometimes aggressive way. All foods that are old, very cold or overcooked, come under the tamasic category.
People often ask “Do you have a prescription for a healthy diet?” I would never want to give a “prescription” for a healthy diet, because one person’s nectar is another’s poison. Constitutions vary, lifestyles vary, so each person has to decide what is best for him or her. But I would generally recommend any diet that would keep the mind calm and serene, would not deposit toxins into the system, would be easily digested and would give enough nutrition. It should agree with your system. The human body is a temple. Everything you take into your body should nourish you.
A vegetarian diet is the best diet known for promoting good health. However, health considerations are not the only arguments in favor of a vegetarian diet. We can look, too, from the points of view of philosophy, religion, ethics, ecology and economics. We can consider what kind of foods our bodies are physiologically designed for. We can look at what kind of diet is most conducive to our mental well-being. Considering even one of these points is likely to make us think more seriously about adopting a vegetarian diet. When we look at all of them, the evidence becomes quite convincing.
Many people are concerned about the violence in our society and about the threat that violence poses to the very existence of our planet. Our meat diet is a part of that violence. We should think about such things, and about adopting a policy of ahimsa. Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word which means nonviolence. Causing pain is violence. If we want to be nonviolent, our food should come with as little pain as possible. The more developed the expression of consciousness in a particular form of life, the more pain is felt when you destroy it. Where is our karuna, our compassion? What is happening to our hearts? If you have even once seen pictures of young seals being killed for their fur, you will never wear fur again. In the same way, if you once saw how animals die in the slaughterhouse, you would never want to eat meat again. Just because the killing is done by somebody else, somewhere else, does not mean that the karma, the responsibility, is not yours. Whatever we do to other living beings comes back to us. That is Nature’s law. What you sow you have to reap.
We hear of many organizations dedicated to saving pets. Members will go to court to save the life of a cat. What is the difference between the cat’s life and the cow’s life? Every day so many animals are killed for food. We are destroying the hearts and souls of millions of animals. We think we can get away without facing the karma for this, but we cannot. The Bible says “Thou shalt not kill;” we interpret that as thou shalt not murder—meaning only our fellow human beings. We say we want a loving world, a peaceful world; but we cannot cultivate that love if negative vibrations get into us through our food. Eating the products of violence brings a violent vibration to the mind. You are what you eat. If you understand this, how careful you will be about how you get your food. Not all food is clean. It should come to you in a clean way and with a good heart.
I once visited the Christian monks on the Greek island of Mt. Athos. I found them all strict vegetarians. It reminded me of the very first thing that the Bible says about diet: “And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb-bearing seed, which is upon the face of the earth, and every tree, in which are fruits; for you it shall be as meat.’” (Genesis 1:29) Almost every religion advocates at least some days of adherence to vegetarian diet. By staying away from meat you make a day holy. If you stay away from meat every day, every day will be a holy day. Consciously or not, we recognize the effect of food on the mind and know that a vegetarian diet leaves the mind more serene, more peaceful.
The Yoga Sutras say: “In the presence of one firmly established in ahimsa, all hostilities cease.” (sutra II:35) When nonviolence is practiced continuously in thought, word and deed for some time, the entire personality brings out those vibrations. Lord Buddha cultivated this practice. Wherever he went he brought peace, harmony and friendliness. St. Francis is another great example of this. Mahatma Gandhi’s life was based on the vows of ahimsa and satya (truth).
Our human family is starving in many parts of the world. People say that there is not enough food for all of us, that overpopulation is the cause. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The earth has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” If we were only willing to care and share, there would be enough for everyone. According to agricultural statistics, you must feed 16 pounds of grain to a steer in order to get one pound of meat. On the average, an acre of land used for grain production gives five times as much protein as an acre used for producing meat; and an acre of vegetables, fifteen times as much protein. So to feed a meat eater, how much more land is needed! If everyone were to become vegetarian, there would be plenty of food for everyone.
Mahatma Gandhi often said, “Go back to nature. You will enjoy everything that is good in life.” Our society has become unnatural in so many respects: our food is artificial, even so much of our thinking is artificial. That is why we have so many problems—personal, interpersonal, national, international. The aim of Yoga is to go back to nature as much as possible. To lead a natural life, with simple food, simple dress, simple living. Once we start living simply, we will have the time to think high and to solve our personal and world problems. Let there be a limitation in everything, a tranquility in everything. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “Yoga is not for the person who eats too much, nor for the one who fasts excessively.” The middle path is what we need for a life of health and peace. Let us think in a peaceful way; eat in a peaceful way. Let all of our actions be done in this spirit. Let us be easeful, peaceful and useful.
Excerpted from The Yoga Way, To Know Your Self: The Essential Teachings of Swami Satchidananda, and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda.