If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.
- Bhagavad-gita (9.26)
Beyond concerns of health, psychology, economics, ethics, and even karma, vegetarianism has a higher, spiritual dimension that can help us develop our natural appreciation and love for God.
Walking through a supermarket, people may forget a very basic fact of nature - it's not man but God who makes food. There's something mystical about the way food grows. You put a tiny seed in the ground, it sprouts, and by the mysterious life force within it a food factory arises - a tomato plant producing dozens of tasty red tomatoes, an apple tree producing bushels of sweet apples. No team of scientists anywhere has yet invented anything as amazing as the simplest green creation of God.
But rather than admit the existence of a superior intelligence, scientists mislead the public with their theories of chemical evolution, Without substantial evidence, they proclaim that life comes from chemicals. Yet they cannot utilize those chemicals to make a seed that will grow into a shaft of wheat that will produce more seeds that will sprout into hundreds of more shafts of wheat.
Once we admit that life comes only from life, it's entirely reasonable to suppose that all life originates from a common living source, the one Supreme Lord, known to the Muslims as Allah, to the Jews as Yahweh, to the Christians as Jehovah, and to the followers of the Vedas as Krishna.
So at the very least we should offer our food to God out of gratitude. Every religion has such a process of thanks-giving. But the spiritual path outlined in the Vedic scriptures of India is unique in that the offering of food to the Lord is part of a highly developed form of yoga that helps one develop one's personal loving relationship with God. This is called bhakti-yoga.
Originally, each soul has a direct relationship with God in the spiritual world, and according to the Vedas the main purpose of life is to revive this lost relationship. The Srimad-Bhagavatam, a classic Sanskrit work known as the ripened fruit of the tree of Vedic knowledge, states, "The human form of life affords one a chance to return home, back to Godhead. Therefore every living entity, especially in the human form of life, must engage in devotional service."
Devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, is the highest form of yoga. In Bhagavad-gita, after discussing various kinds of yoga, Lord Krishna, the master of all yoga, declares, "Of all yogis, one who always abides in Me with great faith, worshipping Me in transcendental loving service [bhakti], is most intimately united with Me in yoga and is highest of all." Lord Krishna further states, "one can understand the Supreme Personality as He is only by devotional service. And when one is in full consciousness of the Supreme Lord by such devotion, he can enter into the kingdom of God."
Summarizing the process of bhakti-yoga, the yoga of devotion, the Lord says, "All that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering unto Me." So offering food is an integral part of the bhakti-yoga system.
The Lord also describes the types of offerings that He will accept. "If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it." Krishna specifically does not include meat, fish, or eggs in this list; Therefore a devotee does not offer them to Him. Out of love, the devotee offers Krishna only the purest and choicest foods - and these certainly do not include the weeks-old rotting corpses of slaughtered animals or the potential embryos of chickens.
In most religious systems people ask God to feed them ("Give us this day our daily bread"), but in Krishna consciousness the devotee offers food to God as an expression of love for Him. Even in ordinary dealings, somebody will prepare a meal as a sign of love and affection. It isn't only the meal itself that is appreciated, but the love and consideration that goes into it. In the same way, the process of offering food to God is intended to help us increase our love and devotion toward Him. Of course, it is very difficult to love someone we have never seen. Fortunately, the Vedic scriptures, unique in all the world, describe God's personal features in great detail.
The Vedic conception of God is not vague. In the scriptures of other major religions God is briefly mentioned as the Supreme Father, but surprisingly little information is given about His personality. Christ spoke of himself as being the son of God, and Muhammad was His prophet; but what of God Himself? He appears only indirectly - as a voice form heaven, a burning bush, and so on.
However, once we admit that God has created us, then we cannot reasonably deny that He Himself possesses all the attributes of personhood - a distinct form and appearance, and all the powers and abilities of various senses and organs. It is illogical to suppose that the creature of God can in any way surpass his creator. If we possess distinct forms and personalities, and God were not to possess them, then we would be superior to Him in that respect. So just as we are persons, God is also a person - the Supreme Person, with and infinitely powerful spiritual form, but nevertheless a person. After all, it is said that we are created in the image and likeness of God.
Using their imaginations, Western artists have generally depicted God as a powerfully built old man with a beard. But the Vedic scriptures of India give direct descriptions of God's personality - information found nowhere else. First of all, God is eternally youthful, and He possesses wonderful spiritual qualities that attract the minds of liberated souls. He is the supreme artist, the supreme musician, He speaks wonderfully and manifests unlimited intelligence, humor and genius. More over, He displays incomparable transcendental pastimes with His eternal associates. There is no end to the descriptions of the attractive features of the Personality of Godhead found in the Vedas. Therefore He is called Krishna, or "all-attractive." When we understand God's personal identity, it becomes much easier to meditate upon Him, especially when offering Him food.
Because Krishna is supremely powerful and completely spiritual, anything that comes in contact with Him also becomes completely pure and spiritual. Even in the realm of physical nature certain things have the ability to purify various substances. For instance, the sun, with its powerful rays, can distill fresh, pure water from a lake contaminated with pollutants. If a material object like the sun can act in this way, then we can only imagine the purifying potency of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who has effortlessly created millions of suns.
By His immense transcendental energies, Krishna can actually convert matter to spirit. If we place an iron rod in fire, before long the iron rod becomes red hot and takes on all the essential qualities of fire. In the same way, the material substance of food that is offered to Krishna becomes completely spiritualized. Such food is called prasadam, a Sanskrit word meaning "the mercy of the Lord."
Eating prasadam is a fundamental practice of bhakti-yoga. In other forms of yoga, one is required to restrain the senses, but the bhakti-yogi is free to use his senses in a variety of pleasing spiritual activities. For instance, he can use his tongue to taste the delicious foods offered to Lord Krishna. By such activities, the senses gradually become spiritualized and automatically become attracted to divine pleasures that far surpass any material experience.
The Vedic scriptures contain many descriptions of prasadam and its effects. Lord Caitanya, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord who appeared in India five hundred years ago, said of prasadam, "Everyone has tasted these material substance before. However, in these ingredients there are extraordinary tastes and uncommon fragrances. Just taste them and see the difference in the experience. Apart from the taste, even the fragrance pleases the mind and makes one forget any other sweetness besides its own. Therefore it is to be understood that the spiritual nectar of Krishna's lips has touched these ordinary ingredients and transferred to them all their spiritual qualities."
Eating only food offered to Krishna is the ultimate perfection of a vegetarian diet. After all, even many animals such as pigeons and monkeys are vegetarian, so becoming a vegetarian is in itself not the greatest accomplishment. The Vedas inform us that the purpose of human life is reawakening the soul's original relationship with God, and only when we go beyond vegetarianism to prasadam can our eating be helpful in achieving this goal.
Our consciousness of the higher purpose of vegetarianism begins as we walk down the supermarket aisles selecting the foods we will offer to Krishna. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna states that all foods can be classified according to the three modes of material nature - goodness, passion, and ignorance. Milk products, sugar, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains are foods in the mode of goodness and may be offered to Krishna. As a general rule, foods in the modes of passion and ignorance are not offerable to Krishna, who says in the Gita that such eatables "cause pain, distress, and disease" and are "putrid, decomposed, and unclean." As may be guessed, meat, fish, and eggs are foods in the lower modes. But there are also a few vegetarian items that are classified in the lower modes - garlic and onions, for example. They should not be offered to Krishna. (Hing, sometimes called asafetida, is an acceptable substitute for them in cooking and is available in most Oriental or Indian specialty shops.) Coffees and teas that contain caffeine are also considered to be in the lower modes. If you like beverages of this sort, purchase caffeine-free coffees and herbal teas.
In shopping, you should be aware that you may find meat, fish, and egg products mixed in with other foods, so be sure to study labels carefully. For instance, some brands of yogurt and sour cream contain gelatin, which is prepared from the horns, hooves, and bones of slaughtered animals. Make sure any cheese you purchase is rennetless, because rennet is an enzyme extracted from the stomach tissues of calves.
You should also avoid foods precooked by people who are not devotees of Krishna. According to the subtle laws of nature, the cook acts upon the food not only physically, but mentally as well. Food thus becomes and agency for subtle influences on our consciousness. To give another example of this principle, a painting is not simply a collection of strokes on a canvas. It is also an expression of the artist's state of mind, and this mental content is absorbed by the person who looks at the painting. Similarly, if we eat foods cooked by people devoid of spiritual consciousness - employees working in a factory somewhere - then we are sure to absorb a dose of materialistic mental energies. As far as possible, use only fresh, natural ingredients.
In preparing food, cleanliness is the most important principle. Nothing impure should be offered to God, So keep your kitchen work-area very clean. Always wash your hands thoroughly before preparing food. While preparing food, do not taste it. This is part of meditating that you are cooking the meal not simply for yourself but for the pleasure of Krishna, who should be the first to enjoy it. When the meal is prepared, you are ready to offer it. Arrange portions of the food in diningware kept especially for this purpose. (No one else should eat from these dishes.) The very simplest form of offering is to simply pray, "My dear Lord Krishna, please accept this food." Remember that the real purpose of this is to show your devotion and gratitude to the Lord; the actual food you are offering is secondary. Without this devotional feeling, the offering will not be accepted. God is complete in Himself; He has no need of anything. Our offering is simply a means for us to show our love and gratitude toward Him. Following the offering one should chant a few minutes the Hare Krishna mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Then the prasadam may be served. Try to appreciate the spiritual quality of prasadam by remembering how it frees one from the effects of karma. But above all, enjoy it.
Eventually you may wish to make a more formal offering according to the procedures established by the Hare Krishna movement for persons who desire to practice Krishna consciousness in their own homes. Briefly, this involves setting up a simple altar with pictures of Lord Krishna and the spiritual master, learning some simple Sanskrit mantras, and so forth. If you would like to learn how to do this, please contact the Krishna temple nearest you or write the secretary for ISKCON Educational Services (3764 Watseka Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034).
Of course, offering prasadam is only part of the process of bhakti-yoga. In order to further purify your consciousness and spiritualize your senses, you can practice other items of devotional service. The first of these is the regular chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra - Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The Kalisantarana Upanisad states, "These sixteen names composed of thirty-two syllables are the only means to counteract the evil effects of Kali-yuga [the present age of quarrel and hypocrisy]. In all the Vedas it is seen that to cross the ocean of nescience there is no alternative to the chanting of the holy name." The Hare Krishna mantra may be chanted either congregationally, sometimes to the accompaniment of musical instruments, or quietly as a private meditation. For private meditation, the recommended procedure is to chant the Hare Krishna mantra on beads especially made for this purpose. For further information, see the Contemporary Vedic Library Series book Chant and Be Happy, which fully explains the process of Hare Krishna mantra meditation.
To improve the quality of your spiritual life, you should also avoid the use of intoxicants - drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, as well as soft drinks, coffee, and tea if they contain caffeine. Using these substances unnecessarily clouds the mind, which is already clouded with all kinds of material concepts of life. The Vedas also recommend that a person attempting to advance in spiritual life have nothing to do with gambling, for it invariably puts one in anxiety and fuels greed, envy and anger. Another activity that increases material desires and blocks the growth of spiritual awareness is illicit sex. The regulations of bhakti-yoga do however, allow sex within the context of marriage.
By following the principles mentioned above, one can always experience increasing spiritual pleasures as a tangible part of one's life. In particular, one's offerings of food become more pleasing to Krishna. God does not require the food we offer; rather, He appreciates the degree of purity and devotion in our hearts as we offer it.
Eventually, one should take initiation from a bona fide spiritual master, without whose instruction and guidance it is not possible to attain the perfection of Krishna consciousness. In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, "Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth."
Srila Prabhupada, renowned as India's greatest cultural and spiritual ambassador to the world, personally instructed his disciples in the art of preparing and distributing prasadam. Furthermore, in his books and public lectures, he extensively explained the Vedic philosophy underlying the practice of offering food to Krishna. "We should remember then that it is not vegetarianism which is important," Srila Prabhupada once said. "The important thing is that we simply have to try to learn how to love Krishna. Love begins with give and take. We give something to our lover, he gives something to us, and in this way love develops." Anyone can enter into this loving transaction by offering vegetarian foods to Krishna and accepting the remnants as prasadam.