Can you imagine a more enjoyable way to learn to love God? Offer Him delicious preparations like samosas (spicy vegetable-filled turnovers, deep-fried in clear butter), or lassi (whipped yogurt, fruit juice, and berries, over ice), or Gauranga potatoes in sour cream sauce. .. and eat the "leftovers " as His mercy!
At first I was bewildered. The word "yoga" had always summoned up images of thin men with austere eating habits. Yet here we were, being encouraged to eat our fill. The scene was the Radha-Krsna temple in Rome; the occasion, a delicious ten-course feast in memory of Thakura Bhaktivinoda, a great Krsna-conscious saint. Our spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, was there with us partaking of the feast, so I asked if he'd please clear up a doubt I'd been entertaining for some time.
"Srila Prabhupada," I said, "in all yoga practices control of the senses is of first importance. But how is that control possible when there are so many feasts in Krsna consciousness?"
"Why should you hesitate?" he replied. "This is not material food. You should take to your full satisfaction. But not too much then you will be sick and have to fast for two days."
He went on to describe how all food comes from Lord Krsna and should therefore be prepared sumptuously, as an offering to Him.
"Eating is a very important function," he continued. "It should be done in a spiritual atmosphere and without disturbance. If you are disrupted while taking prasada [vegetarian food offered to Krsna with devotion], then there will be loss of appetite, and indigestion."
In his books and private instructions, Srila Prabhupada often stresses the significance of prasada in developing spiritual consciousness. Prasada is Sanskrit for "mercy." As mentioned above, vegetarian foods offered with devotion to Lord Krsna become prasada, "the mercy of the Lord," and the remnants of such offerings are highly prized by spiritualists of all kinds. For eleven years now, ISKCON centers throughout the world have held a free "Love Feast" every Sunday (see back cover), at which devotees distribute prasada to anyone and everyone. And at ISKCON's Mayapur center near Calcutta, devotees distribute simple but nourishingprasada free to more than ten thousand people every week.
Recently, at several Krsna temples around the world, devotees have established Govinda's Restaurants and made the health-giving, spiritually nourishing experience of prasada even more widely available. To comply with Srila Prabhupada's instruction that prasada be taken in a spiritual atmosphere, the devotees decorate each restaurant with paintings of Lord Krsna's pastimes, and they pipe in soft temple music called kirtana. As far as possible, the ingredients that go into the restaurants' fare are grown on farms run by devotees, and all the cooks are initiated brahmanas. (One of the main brahminical qualities is scrupulous cleanliness.)
Prasada is also available from a fleet of eighteen food carts in New York City and from a pair of "Govinda's Mobile Kitchens" in Berkeley, California. The most popular items are the samosa, lassi, and Gauranga potatoes (see above). Another favorite is the pakora, a bite-size chunk of vegetable dipped in spicy batter and deep-fried in clear butter. Bala-Krsna dasa, who heads up prasada distribution in Berkeley, explained the program this way: "If we distribute Krsna's prasada profusely, people's eating habits will gradually be purified, and they'll become more and more attracted to Krsna. So we have definite plans to make the samosa more popular than the hamburger and Govinda's Kitchen more popular than McDonald's."
The Philosophy Behind Prasada
Meat eating is one of the greatest obstacles on the path of spiritual progress. Despite farfetched interpretations, no scripture in the world recommends meat eating although some scriptures may make a concession for individuals who are unable to control their tongues. But even these authorities strictly forbid cow killing; they advise substituting some less important animal instead. Because we drink the cow's milk, the Vedic literatures consider her one of human society's mothers. Cow protection is thus imperative, for cow's milk stimulates the growth of healthy brain tissues required for understanding the principles and executing the practices of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to God. On the other hand, meat contains poisons and cholesterol that simply dull the mind and debilitate the body.
However, vegetarianism in itself is not spiritual. We must also offer our food to God with devotion. Then our eating becomes part of a loving exchange with the Lord. When devotees prepare food, they're aware that the preparation is for Krsna's pleasure, not their own. This is genuine spiritual feeling, or bhakti.
Bhakti-yoga aims at reawakening our lost sense of God consciousness. Thus the rules governing the preparation of prasada are very strict: the cook must bathe and put on fresh clothes before entering the kitchen; the kitchen itself must be spotless; the cook must never touch his mouth or any other part of his body while cooking; and most important, he must never taste the preparations before offering them to Lord Krsna even to test them. Krsna must be the first to relish.
Actually, Krsna doesn't need to eat. He is atmarama, or completely self-sufficient. But He appreciates the devotion with which we prepare foods for Him. The more our consciousness is fixed on pleasing Krsna, the more successful is the offering.
This, then, is real yoga, or linking up with the Supreme. It is not a question of stopping eating, but rather of spiritualizing our food by first offering it to Krsna. This simple process gradually makes us aware of the essential teaching of the Vedas: that everything comes from Krsna, and that He is the real enjoyer of all our endeavors.
Lunch with a Friend
Whenever friends come to visit me at the New York temple, I take them to Govinda's Restaurant.
"This is very tasty," one old high-school friend told me recently. "What is it?"
"It's a sweet-and-sour preparation, made with pineapple, plantains, egg-plant, tamarind water, and spices."
"Is it Indian?"
"You would probably find similar dishes in India."
"I suppose if the food tastes this good, it isn't hard to be a vegetarian. But how do you compensate for the missing proteins?"
"There are great quantities of protein in cheese, milk, nuts, and that split-bean soup [I pointed to the dahl] even more protein than in meat. But equally important is the proper blend of spices. Because the cooks prepare everything for Krsna's pleasure, they must learn how to select and properly balance spices. In that proper balance are many minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients needed for good health."
My friend appreciated the care and thoughtfulness with which Krsna's devotees prepare food.
"What do you mean by 'spiritual food'?" he asked.
"The Bhagavad-gita explains the difference between proper and improper foods. According to our conditioning by material nature, we are attracted to food characterized by the quality of goodness, passion, or ignorance. We can offer to Krsna only foods having the quality of goodness. These are fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy products (excluding eggs), which are conducive to long life, health, strength, and happiness."
"What about people who don't live in the temple? Do they have to get their prasada from the temple, or can they make it themselves?"
"Many people prepare prasada at home. In fact, there are thousands of people around the country who have altars in their homes and offer their food to Lord Krsna every day. If you write to the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust [please see coupon on inside back cover], they'll send you a Radha-Krsna altar kit and a Hare Krsna Cookbook. The idea is that every day when you cook, you cook for Krsna and offer the food to Him. Before long, your home will start to feel like a temple and you'll be well on your way back to Godhead."