Posted by: Harsha • Aug 10th, 2007
Sri Ramana used to say that of all the yogic rules and regulations, the best one is taking of Sattvic foods in moderate quantities. This view is consistent with that expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, and indeed most of the Yoga Shastras.
The logic is that since food has a major effect on the body and the mind, a Sattvic diet should be adhered to in order to enhance both the health of the body as well as purity and strength of the mind.
A disciplined and one pointed mind is an aid to ones’ learning and education as well as having success in business and other worldly affairs. A clear, pure, and a reflective mind is, of course, essential to self-enquiry which leads to Self-Realization.
The question then becomes, “What is a Sattvic diet? What is the authority for saying that certain foods are Sattvic and lead to good health, mental clarity, poise, and spiritual advancement, while other foods do not?”
There is much yogic literature on this topic and also some disagreement among experts depending on their school of thought and background. Since most Hindus generally accept the Bhagavad Gita as the final word, I will refer to that as my primary source on the Sattvic diet.
We should keep in mind that Sri Krishna, who speaks in the Bhagavad Gita with complete spiritual authority, is also considered the model of exceptional and abundant physical health and perfect mental poise. He is depicted in the ancient writings as slim, active, energetic, graceful, and overwhelmingly attractive. Sri Krishna, as is well known to all Hindus, had many girlfriends (the gopis). However the relationships of those days between Sri Krishna and the gopis were pure in nature.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna demonstrates profound insight into not just spiritual nature but also human nature and physical nature. By inference, his words on food and the Sattvic diet carry much weight for those who study the Bhagavad Gita.
What foods should one minimize according to the Bhagavad Gita?
In Chapter 17 (verses 8, 9, 10), Sri Krishna makes clear the type of foods to be avoided by those who seek good health, worldly success, and progress on the spiritual path.
According to the Bhagavad Gita, foods which are too bitter, sour, salty, pungent, dry, and hot can lead to pain, distress, and disease of the body. Further, Sri Krishna says that foods cooked more than three hours before being eaten, foods which are tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed and unclean should be avoided by spiritual aspirants and those who seek excellent physical and mental health.
What foods should be eaten according to the Bhagavad Gita?
In Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna states, “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it:’ (Bg.9.26). To me this seems to suggest that Sri Krishna is sanctioning a diet based on leaves and fruits and water as the best one for spiritual growth. I am no scholar on the Bhagavad Gita, but my liberal interpretation of this verse would be that the Sattvic diet is generally plant based and includes all or most vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts, etc.
Because Sri Krishna gave cows sacred status similar to that of a human mother and favored raw butter for personal consumption as a child, one could reasonably argue that dairy products (such as yogurt, milk, lassi, etc.) belong to the Sattvic food category.
Many yogis hold the view, however, that dairy products can only be considered Sattvic if these are obtained respectfully from the cows and goats who are shown kindness, love, and humane treatment. According to the principle of Ahimsa (nonviolence), any food procured through violence to animals cannot be considered Sattvic.
Yogic Sattvic Diets
Some yogis that I have met favor a completely raw vegetarian diet with a primary focus on sprouted grains and beans (such as Garbanzo, Blackeyed peas, etc.) along with raw fruits and vegetables. Their diet is essentially vegan and contains no animal products. However, modern science teaches us that since vitamin B12 is missing from a purely vegan diet, supplementation is necessary.
A number of medical and scholarly references can be found on this issue on the web.
Other yogis have felt that a raw vegetarian diet is too limiting and include cooked foods as well as dairy products (milk, yogurt, lassi, etc.) in their diet. This diet, known as the lacto-vegetarian diet, is probably the most wide spread among Indian Hindus and Jains.
A few well known yogis have also traditionally included not only dairy but also eggs and egg products in their otherwise vegetarian diet. This is known as the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
Although very few Indian yogis include any kind of fish, fowl, or meat in their food, there are exceptions. Buddhist yogis, for example Dalai Lama, do eat meat. A few Hindu yogis also eat meat pointing out that some scriptures sanction meat eating for certain rituals. Hindu castes such as Kshatriya (ruling class or warriors) have traditionally eaten meat.
For most Hindu and Jain yogis, however, there is no convincing argument for eating meat if one wishes to uphold the supreme principle of Ahimsa and follow the philosophy of nonviolence.
What is the best Sattvic Diet?
The general answer from my study is that foods which cause the body to gain health and for the mind to be calm and peaceful constitute the Sattvic diet. To some extent, this requires knowing the needs of one’s own body and being sensitive to the effects of various foods on our system. Foods which are very suitable and nutritious for one person may not be right for another. Common sense and wisdom are the essential ingredients to find the best Sattvic diet for yourself.
In terms of particular foods to be eaten, the yogis and sages have answered this question, but the answers have different variations. One common element of a yogic Sattvic diet is that it is primarily vegetarian. This is true at least for Hindu and Jain yogis.
Within the broad framework of vegetarianism, a number of dietary systems are possible where certain foods are included and some are excluded. In the most liberal vegetarian diets, eggs and dairy products are included. Some people include dairy in their vegetarian diet but not eggs. Some include eggs but not dairy. In the most strict vegetarian diet, eggs and milk are excluded. Supplementation through vitamins is needed in such diets, according to modern medical opinion.
My personal experiences
Having experimented with a variety of diets for decades, I feel that a vegetarian diet can be healthy or unhealthy depending on many factors. For example, if I am a lacto-vegetarian and eat too many pizza pieces, the feeling of discomfort is likely to follow. In fact, after experimenting with eating pizzas thousands of times in my younger days, I am fairly certain that this is indeed true. I believe this also holds if one eats bucket loads of ice cream on a frequent basis. So, is lacto-vegetarian diet healthy? It depends on how lacto you are and how often you go lacto with heavy fat and fried lacto foods!
The point is that a vegetarian diet can be either healthy or unhealthy depending on the nature of food eaten as well as the quantity of food consumed.
In Chapter 6, verse 16, Sri Krishna specifically emphasizes moderation in eating and sleeping. He states, “There is no possibility of ones’ becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.”
Clearly, over consumption of food leads to problems and one can logically conclude that the quantity of food consumed is probably an important element in a diet being considered Sattvic.
Sattvic diet is also a matter of degree. Some diets may be very Sattvic, while others may be moderately Sattvic.
Finally, the thoughts and the emotional balance while eating the food has an effect on our system. This is why in many religions, prayers and showing of gratitude for the food being consumed is offered. This mental state while eating helps the diet become more Sattvic.
What does it all mean?
So what does it all mean and what are the lessons from Bhagavad Gita and our discussion of the Sattvic diet? Here is what I think some of the lessons are. See if you agree.
1. Whatsoever you eat, eat in moderation (easier said than done!).
2. Educate yourself on proper nutrition, be sensitive to your body, and see what foods work for you.
3. Emphasize fresh vegetables and fruits and eat a diet which is mostly plant-based.
4. Do not eat foods which are too salty, bitter, or have gone stale and putrid.
5. Regardless of the food being eaten, eat with gratitude, prayerful attitude, and with mental poise.
6. Chew the food carefully and taste it deeply without rushing.
There are literally thousands of great sources on the web and hundreds of books in stores to help you educate yourself on the Bhagavad Gita, vegetarianism, and nutrition. Go do some research and find out for yourself!
As Captain Planet used to say, “The power is yours!”.
That’s my homespun wisdom for today. Good luck!