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Practical Spirituality – The regulative principles

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

yajna-sishtasinah santo
mucyante sarva-kilbishaih
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.

0 02 September, 2010 Bhagavad Gita-as i learned September 2, 2010

About the author

A techie by profession but spiritual by nature. Ambi writes about the ancient wisdom of our Indian culture in a way the modern generation can easily understand. Oh ya, his comments are as interesting as his posts and his posts always trigger healthy debates.

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  1. david

    Man its tough to be spiritualist if one has to follow the 4 principles especially the first two. The last 2 any ways I don’t indulge upon. :-((

    Curious to know why onion, garlic, mushroom are prohibited, will patiently wait for the chapter to follow.

    P.S Thanks for mentioning my name. Am elated to know you thought of me while writing the topic.

    Though tough for me to think of undergoing this rigid way of life, it is wonderful reading and gaining knowledge.

    1. Ambi


      Well, something for your consideration… again from Bhagavad Gita.

      BG 18.36: O best of the Bharatas, now please hear from Me about the three kinds of happiness by which the conditioned soul enjoys, and by which he sometimes comes to the end of all distress.

      BG 18.37: That which in the beginning may be just like poison but at the end is just like nectar and which awakens one to self-realization is said to be happiness in the mode of goodness.

      BG 18.38: That happiness which is derived from contact of the senses with their objects and which appears like nectar at first but poison at the end is said to be of the nature of passion.

      BG 18.39: And that happiness which is blind to self-realization, which is delusion from beginning to end and which arises from sleep, laziness and illusion is said to be of the nature of ignorance.

      I will be honest and say that it does look its very rigid and tough. I was a coffee addict once but the first time I realized that I can live without it, and spent a full day without it… the experience is something that is very eye opening.

      Onions, garlic and mushrooms… they are so many reasons floating around on why they should be taken and should not be taken. But for a devotee of Krishna, they cannot be taken since they are not ‘sattvic’ foods and cannot be offered as nivedya. May be I can get more details in a different article.

      The idea of regulative principles is not to scare away people. It is meant to discipline the body and mind.

  2. Alka

    Yippie! I don’t do any of the practice mentioned . ah wait :S i drink coffee/tea a lot 🙁

    But i believe before being spiritual, one need to be a proper human first right Ambi? If we can’t be a proper daughter, friend, a citizen first we cannot think of aspiring to be a spiritualist.

    1. Ambi

      Question is… what do you mean by proper human? Is there a “acceptable-to-everyone” definition for what makes a proper daughter (or daughter-in-law for that matter?) or a citizen? I guarantee you… NO. 100% NO.

      To light up a dark room, you don’t need to clear the room of darkness and then switch the light bulb on. Just switch on the light bulb on… the darkness will go away automatically.

      No offense intended, but what you are suggesting is like trying to remove the darkness first.

      Sastra and all the Acharyas before us say these are all temporal designations. Once your real identity is realized, all these will automatically fall in to the right places.

  3. Pranjal

    “who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin”. I like to eat poori. I regularly get it made at my home. The one and only purpose is to provide pleasure to my taste buds. Thats all. because the hunger can be killed by eating anything but that taste can be provided only by poori. i also don’t indulge in anything on dining table which would make me more like a pujari and less like an engineer- i don’t offer any Pooja Vooja before eating. SO i am eating sin right?

    And Bhagwad Gita says that we are not to eat Meat and hence we should not. Thats all huh? On what basis does bhagwad gita say so? Oh i forget, it was spoken by the God himseld.

    1. Ambi

      The answer from my side is Yes for your first ‘question’, but I don’t think there is any point debating this… since we both are on different boats, literally or otherwise, since there is no common ground of understanding.

      The dripping sarcasm aside, I am surprised that you, among everyone else, would ask the above questions on sin and authority of Gita. Does it trouble you then, even if it is after all just a ‘concept’ in your consideration?

      In extension, have you questioned as to what authority do the many other things have on our life, which dictate how we live it? Can anyone claim that they have full control of the way the live their life?

      1. Pranjal

        ahh… all i am questioning is the logic of believing something only because Gita says so!

        1. Ambi

          Well, I could have told you earlier… that this is not only because of “Gita says so”… but also because the Vedas stress on these points, the Acharyas of the past (and the bonafide ones in the present) exemplify these rules and also prescribe them to any serious seeker of truth… countless people have actually experimented, realized, benefited spiritually from these teachings and so on…

          But I don’t think all this would have made any difference, would it now?

          All I am asking you is whether you use the same logic of questioning so many other things that we almost don’t even bother to notice in everyday but believe in so wholeheartedly. Want an example? When you go to a new city or town, you need to ask for directions… you would obviously ask someone on the road. Would you question yourself or him saying “so I should trust you because you say so?”…

          Hold now!! Before you jump one me again,I have been saying all the while that we need the initial ‘seed’ faith… once you start seeing that each step is identified and we have been guided correctly, that faith will increase. So all I am saying, if we are reluctant to have that ‘initial seed’ of faith, we shouldn’t be questioning the direction giver/s legitimacy.

      1. Pranjal

        “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. A fragrance and taste that are uncommon and greatly enchanting and that make one forget all other experiences are attributes of Krishna’s lips”

        Oh dear… i can’t believe i actually read just this!!

        1. Ambi

          These words were of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu…

          I wouldn’t expect you to understand such words spoken with such devotion, which I am unworthy of even commenting on.

          1. Pranjal

            Sigh! Intellect exhausted.
            I have taken it that i will never comprehend some prose that talks Gods as if they were sitting by my side and sharing a cup of tea.
            So no trying to understand spirituality from now!

  4. Ambi

    That is our problem right there… we try to ‘understand’ with things beyond our limited faculties… when we should take the first step in (here comes the faith part, a teensy bit) and understanding *will* come on its own.

    Now stop speculating on this and cool your brains. 🙂

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