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A Hindu Perspective on Body, Health and Diet

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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Ancient and modern


Attached to the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, are six supplements or sub-branches (Vedangas) that deal with subjects of a more worldly nature; one of these relates to ayurveda, the Veda of Health. The science of ayurveda offers a complete system of healthcare based on diet, exercise, massage and herbal or mineral remedies and is still widely practised in India today. It has also gained a following in the West, though one should be cautious about undertaking a course of treatment as many of the western practitioners are neither qualified nor properly learned in this complex and subtle science. Although many ayurveda treatments are simply herbal remedies that have been studied and refined over the centuries, we also encounter the idea of a subtle anatomy with energy centres and channels that must also be taken into account in seeking the overall health of the body. Here ayurveda overlaps somewhat with forms of Hatha Yoga in which bodily postures, breathing exercises and sitting positions are recommended for the purpose of both bodily health and spiritual advancement. The Hatha Yoga and other related systems place great emphasis on the transformation of the physical body. Exercises are prescribed which allow the divinity inherent within the physical form to be awakened and expanded so as to fill the body with divine potency. In the beginning stages of this Yoga practice, the body becomes energised and healthy and many teachers of Yoga take their followers only to this stage so that they experience remarkable improvements in physical and mental wellbeing.


Today, Western and ayurvedic medicine exist alongside each other in India and the emphasis is generally pragmatic; the main point is good health rather than a dogmatic insistence on one system or the other. Where the emphasis of Hindu discourse is on spirituality and the quest for liberation from the cycle of rebirth, the body may be seen as an obstacle to be overcome. Hindu teachings typically offer a dualistic understanding of the human being that draws a sharp distinction between body and soul, designated as prakriti and purusha respectively. Seekers after liberation desire to rid themselves of bodily identity and realise their true spiritual nature. Hence teachings on this subject typically advocate restraint of the senses and the adoption of a more ascetic lifestyle in which the body is maintained physically, but one resists the sensual temptations towards bodily pleasure.


You are what you eat!


Much of Hindu thought is derived from the Samkhya philosophy and this system postulates the inherent presence of three fundamental qualities or gunas throughout the material manifestation. These are Sattva (purity and goodness), Rajas (energy and activity) and Tamas (darkness, impurity and ignorance). The position of the soul and of God is wholly beyond these three qualities, but in order to reach that higher level it is recommended that one try to associate one's lifestyle with Sattva as closely as possible. This is reflected in the type of life one leads, taking up activities that are healthy, fulfilling and enlightened. The Sattvic person would avoid any food, substances or practices that would harm the body and in particular would insist on a diet in which the foods are permeated with Sattva rather than Rajas and Tamas. It is believed that one's nature is shaped by the type of life one leads and so if a person eats Sattvic food and tries to enjoy life in a Sattvic manner then his or her nature will gradually be turned towards Sattva. So in this sense, the maxim 'you are what you eat' would certainly apply to Hindu thought. Leisure activities derived from Sattva might involve the appreciation of the countryside or more intellectual pursuits, whilst Sattvic foods would include fruit, vegetables, milk products and whole grains. The idea is that such foods are not just good for the body, but they will also have a subtle influence on the personality. Food that is Rajasic tends to be very strongly flavoured and energising so that it stimulates a person towards activity and passionate endeavour. Foods under the heading Tamas would tend to be those that are created by industrial food processing or those that are stale, tasteless and rotten.




Hindu ideas on diet are not, however, confined to recommendations for good health and personal benefit; in this area there is also a strong moral dimension. Hindus generally prefer to eat a vegetarian diet and this is particularly true of those who attach greater importance to living a religious life. In the Mahabharata, a very important Hindu text, it is repeatedly said that ahimsa (not harming others) is the highest religious principle and in that same scripture we find several passages that make the obvious connection between ahimsa and vegetarianism. In the twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi became famous for his insistence on non-violence, and for him also vegetarianism was a fundamental principle. It is sometimes suggested that this reluctance to take animal life is derived from the belief in reincarnation, but in the Mahabharata and elsewhere it is made clear that this is a moral issue. The point is made quite simply; we are all attached to our own lives and therefore it is wrong to cause suffering to other creatures by killing them for food.


The cow


In fact vegetarianism amongst Hindus is far from universal and a recent survey in The Hindu newspaper suggested that just under 50% of Hindus adhere to this principle. In effect, vegetarianism is recommended as the ideal form of diet, but it is not insisted upon and many devout Hindus do eat meat and/or eggs. However, the prohibition on the eating of beef is almost universally accepted and it would be very rare to find a practising Hindu who does not observe this principle. In fact the reverence for the cow and the prohibition on cow slaughter is not well attested in the earliest Hindu texts but it is confirmed in the Mahabharata and in the Puranas, a collection of scriptures composed some time after the Veda was revealed. A number of explanations are offered for this dietary restriction. It is suggested that the cow is to be regarded as sacred because it produces the ghee (clarified butter) that is used as an offering in the ancient Vedic ritual of yajña, or fire sacrifice. The cow is also shown as symbolising the earth goddess, and in this context the injunction to nurture and protect cows has a very profound contemporary significance. The idea here is that the earth and the cow are both like mothers because they nurture human society, but humanity must be reverential towards these sources of human life and not ruthlessly exploit them as is normal in modern societies. Hence the protection of the cow symbolises an attitude of reverence towards the natural world as a whole, showing that we should not simply take the resources of nature without seeking to venerate and protect that which makes our lives possible. Another explanation for the Hindu respect for cows is to be found in the representation of Krishna, who is one of the most popular manifestations of God. He is known to have been a cowherd in his early life and is usually shown in association with cows; Shiva, who is another form of God in Hindu theology, is usually shown with Nandi, his bull carrier, in the iconography of this Deity. So for any or all of these reasons, Hindus hold the cow in high regard and believe that this animal should never be harmed by human beings.



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