Food Choices and Human Growth
Our dietary habits generally are governed by what we are fed from childhood. Each nationality has a specific food- Indian, Chinese, French, Italian etc. Even each country, different family have specific eating habits. In India- some homes make a lot of fried food while others try to minimize oil and ghee intake. What we eat as an adult is more or less governed by habits acquired during childhood as well as acquired test as an adult.
Since eating is one activity that we do every day three times a day, we can be more deliberate in choosing the intake rather than mechanically follow the habits acquired from the past. Being spiritual means making your choices based on consideration of various facts to make more responsible decisions.
With reference to eating, certainly unlike animals who are largely programmed, human beings have a choice. For example, tigers and lions are by birth carnivorous whereas cow, elephants are herbivorous. We human beings have a choice. Our choice has to be guided by various criteria which we will see below:
(1) Health: if you take into consideration the criterion of health, certainly vegetarian diet fairs much better. It is largely recognized by medical doctors that diet containing fruits and vegetables avoid problems of high cholesterol, heart diseases, obesity. Of course, we can not say that people eating vegetarian food don’t suffer from these diseases, but the probability reduces significantly. Advocates of non-vegetarian food claim that vegetarian foods lack iron and protein. Contrary to such belief, certain vegetarian foods such as daal, beans when eaten with rice create complete protein. Moreover, dairy products and soya products can also provide required protein for vegetarians. As far as iron is concerned, all the dry fruits and leafy vegetables are rich source of iron. Hence, if one is aware of nutritional values of different vegetarian food, one can have complete nutrition. In India, people have been vegetarian for generations and they have lived upto 100 years without suffering from any deficiencies.
Another awareness we have is not only the food has to be vegetarian, it has to be freshly cooked, without too much oil, many spices and strong smelling things such as garlic. This type of simple, healthy and fresh food is termed as Satvic. Even according to Chinese tradition, food has to be fresh otherwise the ‘chi’ (energy) in food is lost and it becomes ‘dead’.
It is seen that this type of healthy food not only impacts physical health positively but also augments mental health. It is seen that vegetarian people in general have calmer disposition. One of my friends observed that the face of vegetarians in general looks more sober and serene. Of course one can not make a statement that vegetarians are always less aggressive but there is certainly some correlation between what you eat and how you feel and act. It is all a question of probabilities.
(2) Ethics: if you consider the criteria of ethics, vegetarian diet far surpasses non-vegetarian. There is universal value of non-violence based on the fact that just as I don’t want to be harmed, others equally don’t want to be harmed. Hence, I should live my life cause least harm to everyone else and also protect myself from being harmed by others.
It is true that life lives upon life and even vegetables have life. However, the fact remains that one can not compare the violence involved in slaughtering of animal with that of plucking the plants. Many times, plants and trees give fruits and vegetables without giving up their lives. For example, mango tree bears mango that we can pluck without having to destroy the tree. As opposed to this peaceful process, imagine the way livestock industry operates. Often animals are reared in an artificial environment, over-fed, injected with hormones to increase their fat and slaughtered one day. It is said that animals when taken to slaughter house, realize what is going to take place and release a chemical which pass through their body out of fear. When we eat meat, we partake in this whole process. Of course, the meat comes to our plate all decorated and well-presented, so we don’t think about what it entails. However, wisdom lies in not ignoring these realities and making a choice considering these ‘unseen’ facts.
(3) Environment : Hindu scriptures introduce a concept of Yagna which makes one aware of ones interconnectedness with the universe. Every morning, you are supposed to get up and welcome sun as it makes your life possible. Everyday you remind yourself about the role of sun in giving you life by nourishing the plants, providing warmth so that mammals can survive, contributing to process through which portable water is available to us. Without the sun, the temperature on earth would be so cold that life is not possible. Plants absorb nutrients from the sun through the process of photosynthesis. These nutrients are available to us when we eat the plant. The sun also makes it possible for plants to survive by providing rain water. The presence of sun makes it possible for ocean water to evaporate and form clouds. These clouds then produce rain. All these processes are continuously at work to make it possible for us to survive. The rituals are meant for us to take cognizance of these facts, not take them for granted and in fact demonstrate ones gratitude for their contribution.
The example of sun can be extended to many different objects. To make it possible for us to have a simple meal, many things have to contribute. In addition to all the natural forces at constant work as mentioned before, we need farmers, wholesalers, retailers, people who cook food to produce one meal. Our interdependence all many people and forces is evident from above examples.
If we depend upon contribution of so many people, we have responsibility to preserve the natural symbiosis and contribute towards preservation of ecology and work towards maintaining overall balance in the universe. Livestock industry certainly does not fair well as far as preserving of the environment is concerned. The livestock while being reared, releases ‘methane’ which is 37 percent of human induced methane. It is a major contributor to global warming. If the livestock industry is reduced and freed land is used to cultivate food for human beings, both the environment as well as food security problems in the world would be reduced.
Considering all the above criteria, it is undeniable that choice of vegetarian food exhibits the fact that person is more responsible, aware of ones actions, compassionate and has more mastery over ones self as food choices are made deliberately and less mechanical in nature.
Fasting where you either abstain from eating for a certain period of time or regulate your diet with specific restricted food is one form of Tapas (austerity). It is meant to gain self discipline and mastery over pressures created by senses. There are other types of tapas such as Vak tapas which means you regulate your speech or abstain from speaking for a length of time. This is again meant to make you more deliberate and thoughtful about what you say and not blurt out everything that comes to your mind. There is also very popular tapas called meditation where one tries to give direction and focus to ones mind for a length of time so that one gains mastery over thinking.
According to Hinduism, fasting is recommended say once a week; or on special intervals such as every Eka Dashi (eleventh day of waxing and waning moon) which falls once in fortnight; or on special days such as Shiva Ratri or during navaratri which lasts for nine nights. On these days, there is no strict prescription of manner in which the fast is to be conducted. Some people take only liquids while others prefer to eat fruits or only some special type of grain like sago. It depends upon the preference and the constitution of a person.
The fasting serves multiple purposes:
Body Cleansing : Fasting certainly aids the process of detoxifying the body. It gives rest to organs which do the work of digesting food day and night. When the organs get a break from digesting food day after day; they have an opportunity to repair and rejuvenate hence, work more efficiently. In recent times, we go to Spas and Alternative health centers where they put us on detox program which mostly consists of some of fasting. Our tradition has recognized the importance and introduced this practice many years ago.
Gaining Mastery over Senses : Every human being has a tendency to be overpowered by pressures created by the senses. If we observe our behaviors, many responses to situations are governed by past impressions and are mechanical in nature. A situation arises and triggers anger, fear or insecurity in us. We act not out of deliberate choice but under the influence of these emotions. How does one learn to become more aware of ones choices and not act out of programmed thinking? One of the techniques is fasting. At physical level, food is one most basic instinct we have. Not only we rely on food for our survival but relish it and devote significant amount of time preparing, eating and using it as a means to please oneself and socialize with others. If we begin to regulate the food periodically, we certainly have to go against the natural instinct. When we are able to resist natural instincts, we become more deliberate in our choices. Moreover, fasting in Hinduism has religious dimension which makes the person more aware of ones connection to the divinity.
It is evident that both choices of diet as well as practice of fasting contribute to personal development. Through these, we become more responsible and mature human beings. We have a tendency to look at the world, be dissatisfied with its state of affairs and blaming someone for the chaos be it politicians, business tycoons, multinationals, bureaucrats, etc. The diet and fasting puts focus on ourselves and checks our own tendency to indulge and make irresponsible or un-thoughtful decisions. It is a choice of a responsible human being. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Be the change that you would like to see in the world’. This is a starting point of being the change…
This post consists of edited speaking notes of a talk given on 15th September 2009 by Neema Majumdar at Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), Bangkok:
‘Food & Fasting : Dietary Practices in Religions’
For a review of this event to which four speakers from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity participated, you can read:
and the announcement of the event by FCCT
To watch the video of the talk by Neema Majmudar, you can go to: