Everything in this universe, except for the Supreme Lord, has to follow rules and perform the prescribed duties. But Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that though he is not bound by any rules, he still executes his duties so as to set an example to all the souls.
BG 3.22: O son of Pṛthā, there is no work prescribed for Me within all the three planetary systems. Nor am I in want of anything, nor have I a need to obtain anything — and yet I am engaged in prescribed duties.
BG 3.23: For if I ever failed to engage in carefully performing prescribed duties, O Pārtha, certainly all men would follow My path.
Spiritual practice can be a different experience depending on which path one takes. In general, the best path to take would be and should be the easiest one, is it not? This applies to spirituality as well. But easy does not mean “no rules”. There is a common misconception that is going around that you can do anything you want as long as you say a few prayers and ask for forgiveness. Some even go to the extent to say “Oh, Krishna is like my friend. He just wants us to enjoy like he did!” There are people who even seek to justify their bad habits using Vedic philosophy.
A story I heard: A Krishna devotee was visiting a home once. The lady of the house, during the course of her discussions, mentioned that her son was a good ‘naishtika brahmachari’ and a pious person but he smokes a lot. She requested this devotee to go and talk her son to put some sense in to him. The devotee went outside to the back of the house and found the lady’s son puffing out smoke like a steam engine. When he asked the son: “Sir, why do you smoke this much? Do you not know this is bad for health?” The son replied, “I am not smoking, my body is smoking!”
So, this kind of dangerous ideas can be the result of unguided, self improvised spiritual practice. Vedic Spirituality is not a simple “Be good, Get good” scheme. It is not a way to get material wealth and happiness through ‘grace of God’. Certainly, it is not wrong if someone prays to Krishna for protection in dire times or relief during extremely difficult financial or family situations, but treating Krishna or any of the devatas as “order suppliers” should be strongly discouraged and avoided.
Let’s get back to the topic. For any aspiring, sincere spiritualist, there are 4 basic regulatory principles that must be followed. These rules were followed as a matter of habit in the past, but Srila Prabhupada gave them prominence since he was preaching in a place which was abound with the below practices.
1) No meat eating (meat, fish eggs etc.)
2) No intoxication (smoking, drinking liquor, coffee and tea (yes, you read it right) etc.)
3) No gambling
4) No illicit sex
We will look at these one by one in detail in the order shown.
Before we get in to the details, here are some statements to consider.
From Śrī Īśopaniṣad:
Iso 1: Everything animate or inanimate that is within the universe is controlled and owned by the Lord. One should therefore accept only those things necessary for himself, which are set aside as his quota, and one should not accept other things, knowing well to whom they belong.
From Upadeśāmṛta (The Nectar of Instruction) of Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī:
NoI 1: A sober person who can tolerate the urge to speak, the mind’s demands, the actions of anger and the urges of the tongue, belly and genitals is qualified to make disciples all over the world.
I will leave these at this point. We will come back to these as and when needed.
Now, for the first rule… being a vegetarian. There will be so many people who might have raised their eyebrows at the other rules, but I am sure the first one comes as no surprise.
Why vegetarianism? For spiritual practice, one of the goals is going beyond the control of the 3 modes of nature. But the first step is to be in the mode of goodness… sattva guna. The other two modes of nature are mode of passion (Rajas) and mode of ignorance (Tamas).
Ok. Quote time.
BG 9.26: If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.
BG 17.7: Even the food each person prefers is of three kinds, according to the three modes of material nature. The same is true of sacrifices, austerities and charity. Now hear of the distinctions between them.
BG 17.8: Foods dear to those in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Such foods are juicy, fatty, wholesome, and pleasing to the heart.
BG 17.9: Foods that are too bitter, too sour, salty, hot, pungent, dry and burning are dear to those in the mode of passion. Such foods cause distress, misery and disease.
BG 17.10: Food prepared more than three hours before being eaten, food that is tasteless, decomposed and putrid, and food consisting of remnants and untouchable things is dear to those in the mode of darkness.
You with me still? Good.
Basically, to get situated in the mode of goodness, one must avoid eating foods that are detrimental to such a progress. As such, non-vegetarian items are not categorized as ‘sattvic food’. There are several reasons why this is stressed by the Acharyas. I am not going to go in detail… but will briefly touch upon them.
There is no need to kill animals for food when the same is accomplished through grains, vegetables, fruits and milk. It is quite understandable that this is not possible for people who are desert nomads or Arctic Eskimos. But for people in civilization, where there is plenty of the vegetarian stuff available, to be eating meat is sheer indulgence which takes the animals for granted as being at our disposal. There will be some people who claim animals don’t have souls and hence ‘killing’ them is fine. That is very a foolish argument, as are the claims of some people that we cannot get all nutrition from vegetarian food.
Does this mean it is ok to gorge down on vegetarian food and kill plants as well as trees at our will?
No. Absolutely not! Here is where we refer to the quoted verse of Śrī Īśopaniṣad. Everything belongs to the Supreme Lord but we are allowed our quota for sustenance. Nothing more, nothing less.
There was a question from David on this topic. It is true that many vegetarians take pride in being so, and put down the other side. I was one too, to be honest. I have just one verse to quote on that.
Srimad Bhagavad Gita Canto 3, Verse 13
bhunjate te tv agham papa
ye pacanty atma-karanat
“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.”
This is a direct statement from Krishna which is self explanatory. Anything that is prepared as food and eaten without offering it to the Lord is basically sinful. So, even it is vegetarian food, if it is not first offered as ‘nivedya’ and consumed later as ‘prasadam’, it is sinful. Obviously, non-vegetarian food cannot be offered as nivedya (as well as preparations with onion, garlic, mushrooms etc. but more on this later.) This concept of ‘prasadam’ is directly tied to the verse which mentions about controlling the urges of the tongue.
Trust me, in the current world, being a vegetarian is an austerity where one has to be very vigilant in what one eats. But I have seen the effects of food on one’s mental disposition, behavior and mood first hand as well as heard of the same from many others.
I will stop here for this article. In the next installment, we will look in what the other regulative principles are meant to accomplish.