Updated: Aug 17, 2020
This ISKCON Hare Kṛṣṇa movement is meant to bring a cultural revolution into the lives of misguided souls of this world and age. Because the eating has been a major part of all the people, regardless of their race and creed, it plays substantial part in the culture and education of Śrīla prabhupāda’s movement.
Education and culture means preaching. Education without culture is mental speculation, just a theory, which due to lack of dedication and determination is not put into practice. It is a pride fulfillment, “See? I know so much.” Like academics do. They collect so much knowledge just for the sake to pride themselves with it. It is an intellectual collectible, like relic hunters like to posses. Something is out there for hundred and thousands of years, just completely dried out, some sucked up creepy mummy. Somebody dug it up and added it to a museum collection. No use of it. There must be very tight dynamic link between education and culture. If we know something good like sambandha-jñāna then if we do not practice it and teach it others, we are just creating another version of secular system. Practice of it keeps our minds tuned to the activities of Vaikuṇṭha-dhāma. We practice how to apply it here, like apprentice do, so we can more easily achieve prayojana, the goal. There must be no hostility towards the abhidheya – practice, apprenticeship (mad-bhakteṣv abhidhāsyati). Since food is very important part of human life, we are shedding some light there in this context (Bg 16.88):
ya idaṁ paramaṁ guhyaṁ mad-bhakteṣv abhidhāsyati bhaktiṁ mayi parāṁ kṛtvā mām evaiṣyaty asaṁśayaḥ
“For one who explains this supreme secret to the devotees, pure devotional service is guaranteed, and at the end he will come back to Me.
āmi — ‘sambandha’-tattva, āmāra jñāna-vijñāna āmā pāite sādhana-bhakti ‘abhidheya’-nāma
“[Lord Kṛṣṇa says:] ‘I am the center of all relationships. Knowledge of Me and the practical application of that knowledge is actual knowledge. Approaching Me for devotional service is called abhidheya
Prasāda-sevā is in great details delineated in pañcarātrika-viddhi under svādhyāya, which means studying and practicing Kṛṣṇa’s instructions. Everyone needs to eat, however, cooking and serving prasādam is supposed to be in the hands of trained persons. Those are expected to be the brāhmaṇas. If somebody else can do as well that is all right. But trained person means brāhmaṇa. It is not the matter of feeling or shear enthusiasm. If somebody wants to be an astronaut just because he likes the idea, it will not work. He will end up in the ditch instead of the space. It is a matter of training before he is shot into space. Same is with cooking and serving prasādam. Cooking is performed according to certain rules, and serving is done according to certain rules. That creates pleasant atmosphere. Prabhupāda served mahā-prasādam to new bhaktas. Jagadānanda Paṇḍita, Svarūpa Dāmodara, Caitanya served mahā-prasādam. Organizing and serving mahā-prasādam ought not to be in the hands of inexperienced and untrained persons.
As far as cooking goes, for instance, cooked food means cooked in ghī. Or else it is boiled. Concept of raw food is not Vedic. Raw food is not meant to be eaten by humans. Oil is not healthy, neither physically nor psychologically. It weakens subtle energetic basis, the ojas. Sometimes mustard or coconut oil is added as condiment. In āyurveda everything is described as cooked in ghī. Not cooked means rayatas – mixtures of uncooked vegetables or sprouts or fruits, often mixed with yogurt. They are mostly taken as single items during snack, for refreshment. Sometimes they can be taken with main meal under certain conditions, and as appetizers, as starters, or after subjīs, for the same reason. There is no concept of vegan food in the spiritual realm. That is just another concoction on the material plane. There are many details concerning the art of cooking. I am not going to present all of them here. All of it is already described by Kṛṣṇadās Kavirāja Goswami, by Śrīla Prabhupāda, in Bhoga-ārāti song, and practiced by many. I will mention few of them, which are related to the importance of understanding where we want to make standing culturally.
We can safely presume that all know this stanza catur-vidha-śrī-bhagavat-prasāda. This is understood and practiced in a certain way. It means it can be appreciated when eating with fingers. Cutlery is invention for rākṣasas, so that while cutting and rationing the meat on their plate, they present themselves very dignified. Behind all external manifestation is internal motive. These four kinds of foodstuffs are offered to Kṛṣṇa, and then served as mahā-prasādam – whole pieces and solid food, which is grasped by fingers and chewed (carvya), are for example pakoras, rice and so on; semisolid prasādam like subjī in gravy, khīr, is licked from fingers (lehya); semi liquid, as is liquid chutney, is quickly picked with fingers and sucked from them (cūṣya); liquid is drunk from cup (peya). This categorization is according the way of eating. Then there are six tastes – bitter, sour, salty, astringent, pungent and sweet. They should be present daily in our food in main meal, whether it be lunch or dinner. “Seventh taste” is light, transcendental and blissful atmosphere during eating without downwards pulling materialistic conversations. Our minds should be tuned to thoughts how Mahāprabhu was enjoying mahā-prasādam with His associates.
Serving should proceed swiftly without idling. Don’t uselessly waste time with each devotee to whom you serve.
Dishes and serving spoons must not be touching plates of eaters.
Succession of serving each prep follows as is described Caitanya-caritāmṛta or Bhoga-ārati, and is living tradition in India. First goes appetizer, if any. After that follows bitter prep – suktā, then śāk. After that rice follows, then bread – capātī, dośa, paratha, etc, which are used for scooping up subjī. Fried items follow. Dāl is poured over the rice. Next are sabjīs, firstly simpler and drier. After them more heavy and juicer ones follow. Next are appetizers, rayatas and chutneys for last in this section. Sweets are served last – first less sweet and simpler and made from grains. After those more rich, milky and sweetest are served and eaten at last.
Simple plain rice boiled in rice is the basis. It can be combined with all dals and sabjīs. Pulao fits with rich sabjī.
Depending on the eater, and what he has on the plate and what he misses, needed preparations are served to him.
Need to mentions that eaters sit on the floor, and servers walk and serve in organized way. It is all about experience. It is like well performed drama. If everything is in place, everybody enjoy, and Kṛṣṇa is pleased.
Preparations are served on the plate one next to each other, not on top of each other. Sweet preps are not mixed with salty. Pieces are served with bare hands. Other items are served with spoons and ladles. Firstly only small portions are given to test the eaters. Next round according to the individual needs more of each preparation is served.
There is a need to discriminate to whom, what and how much to serve. Although all preps are served to all following the row, not just something to somebody while jumping from one eater to another. Plates of the eaters should not be empty, unless somebody already finished his meal and is going to go away.
These are all rules of common sense. Kṛṣṇa has ultimate common sense. That is why we should take His instructions more seriously than that of an auntie. If children, or anyone else eats beforehand the others, they should eat separately, so it does not disrupt main serving mood.
Before and after eating wash hands, mouth and feet. Rinse your mouth after the meal as many times as is needed to make it clean. No teeth brushing is done after the meal. Rather mouth refresher – mukha-vāsam – is chewed. It may be one of these or combinations of these: betel nut/leaves (we do not chew), cloves, cardamom, fennel, anise with a pinch of sugar candy.
During the meal śikhā is tied, as should always be, head is not covered and feet are bare without shoes or socks.
Eating is done at peaceful and clean place, not in moving vehicle, and not at all while walking or standing.
Eating is not suitable during sandhyā, before taking bath, before gāyatrī japa, before morning deity worship. Also it is unsuitable to eat before previous meal is digested.
Eating is done on the floor. While eating, legs are crossed, not stretched out. Plate sits on the floor or on a low table, it is not in the lap or held with left hand. Left hand rests in lap. Do not lean against it.
Prasādam is shown respect. That is why all these ethics are mentioned. Before starting the meal, we look at mahā-prasādam and recite mahā-prasāde govinde and śarīra avidyā-jāl (this one is not recited on Ekādaśī).
Eating is done with right hand. Digestion starts with the sense of sight and touch. Some use for picking up prasāda index finger too, some don’t.
The food, like rice and dāl or rice and subj ī is mixed on the plate with fingers or the whole hand. By doing this it gets finer taste, better than just by spooning it into the mouth. One morsel at a time is taken with the fingers. Morsels are not bitten off from the hand. For instance only that much of the chapati on the plate is torn off as much we can put into our mouth.
Eating, sleeping and bathing is not done in public.
Strange sounds are not made during eating. No gośala atmosphere.
The prasādam is not frown upon. Do not point mistakes in it. It is better not to eat it, if it does not fits you, or if there is like to be “mistake” on prasādam. I witnessed one mātājī, who found an unmentionable polluted items on her plate of prasādam, which was mistake on the part of those who prepared it. She silently stood up and left. That was the end of her lunch for that day. It is a matter of culture. She could have made big uproar, blaming all. But she did not. If there is any problem, it is responsibility of those who are obliged to look after the quality.
Take on your plate only as much as you can actually eat. Throwing away the food is offensive.
It is impolite to stand up from the unfinished plate. First finish your plate of prasādam, and then run wherever you please. For the same reason it is not suitable to have buffet system.
The result of quality cooking, serving and honoring mahā-prasādam is that devotees are satisfied, food is light to digest, and most important devotees spontaneously see how Mahāprabhu relished that mahā-prasādam. Bhuṅkte bhojayate caiva is one third of the lives of the devotees.
It is unnecessary to create distinction between the “ordinary” prasādam and prasādam which is from the Deities plate, while denoting it as mahā-prasādam. There is no distinction in mercy-power of either. According to Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī Prabhupāda all food is denoted as mahā-prasādam, be it directly from deites’ plat or not. While term prasādam is used for any item gotten by the mercy of the Lord, be it food or not. He used also term mahā-mahā-prasādam, the leftovers mahā-prasādam of great devotees and gurus.
Regarding drinking the water or juice during meal, we try to keep cup clean. Drink in such a way, holding cup in your right hand, that it does not touch your lips. If your hand is overly dirty, take the cup in left hand and dink in same manner. Juice is served and drunk first. Later during meal the water is served.
Regularity, temperance and simplicity contributes to overall health. Overeating, one sided diet and improper combinations creates bodily disorders. Eating rice, subjī, dāl and capātī on daily basis is sufficient to keep oneself fit. For a wise man food is medicine. Festive occasions make exceptions. Śrīla Bhaktivinoda Ṭhākura and Caitanya-caritāmṛta recommends in this case rule ākaṇṭha-bhojana, “eat up to the neck”.
The place of eating is clean-washed after the meal.
Physical work is not done after the main meal. Rest on left side or have a light walk.
Let this help you to be healthy and happy in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.