Hindu Dietary Practices: Feeding the Body, Mind and Soul
A love of nature and the importance of living a simple, natural life are the basis of Hinduism, a faith that originated in India and is generally acknowledged to be the world’s oldest and third largest religion. Like Buddhism, the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other religions that promote a vegetarian lifestyle, the Hindu faith encompasses a number of health beliefs and dietary practices arising from the idea of living in harmony with nature and having mercy and respect for all of God’s creations.
Followers of the Hindu religion, which is practiced primarily in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, believe that the body is made up of natural elements: earth, air, fire, water, etc. The proper balance of these elements indicates good health, while an imbalance indicates the opposite. Hindus believe self-control and meditation is the path to health, with prayer to the Almighty God being the last resort. For many Hindus, yoga is a means by which to bring the integration of the body, mind and intellect together in order to achieve perfect harmony or alignment.
The four Vedas (which means “the Wisdom and the Knowledge”) are among the most important of the Hindu holy books. For devout believers, these sacred texts address every aspect of their lives that are controlled by their faith, including their daily practices, their yearly calendar and their use of water in acts of worshipping. For Hindus, water is believed to be a purifier and a rejuvenating agent for religious acts, as evidenced, for example, in the traditional practice of bathing in sacred rivers during pilgrimages.
The Hindu Dietary Code
Devout Hindus believe that all of God’s creatures are worthy of respect and compassion, regardless of whether they are humans or animals. Therefore, Hinduism encourages being vegetarian and avoiding the eating of any animal meat or flesh. However, not all Hindus choose to practice vegetarianism, and they may adhere to the religion’s dietary codes in varying degrees of strictness. For example, some Hindus refrain from eating beef and pork, which are strictly prohibited in the Hindu diet code, but do eat other meats.
Like Buddhists, Hindus believe that food affects both body and mind. Food is considered to be a source of the body’s chemistry, which affects one’s consciousness and emotions. Thus, expression of the soul depends on the body, which depends on the food. A proper diet is considered vital for spiritual development in Hinduism. The Hindu diet code divides food into three categories, based on the food’s effect on the body and the temperament:
- Tamasic food is leftover, stale, overripe, spoiled or other impure food, which is believed to produce negative emotions, such as anger, jealousy and greed.
- Rajasic is food that is believed to produce strong emotional qualities, passions and restlessness in the mind. This category includes meat, eggs, fish, spices, onions, garlic, hot peppers, pickles and other pungent or spicy foods.
- The most desirable type of food, Sattvic, isfood that is non-irritating to the stomach and purifying to the mind; it includes fruits, nuts, whole grains and vegetables. These foods are believed to produce calmness and nobility, or what is known as an “increase in one’s magnetism.”
Hindus believe that for true service to God, purity of food is necessary to maintain the desirable state of mind that leads to enlightenment. Food is consumed not only to survive but also to stay healthy and maintain mind/body equilibrium. By eating a purer quality of food, such as a Sattvic diet, and regulating food consumption, one can ensure a pure heart, long life, cheerful spirit, strength, health, happiness and delight. Good and pure food promotes a peaceful—not agitated—mind, which is needed to see the Truth as the Truth. Sin, or an agitated state of mind, prevents the journey to moksha (divine supreme knowledge, which leads to freedom from the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth).
Some specific Hindu dietary customs and practices include the following:
- A true devotee will refuse to accept any food that is not offered first to God. Gaining God’s blessing before consuming the food is essential. Hindus may do this is by placing their daily food before the particular deities they worship and by reciting shlokas(prayers). Once the food is offered to God, it is eaten as prasador blessed food.
- Before starting any daily meal, a devout Hindu first sprinkles water around the plate as an act of purification.
- Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the table to acknowledge the debt owed to the devta runa (divine forces) for their benign grace and protection.
- For a child’s birthday celebration, the sacred symbol “OM” is added onto the birthday cake along with “Happy Birthday.” Also, a lamp is lit instead of having the child blow out the candles. In the Hindu faith, lighting a lamp is symbolic of new life, a new beginning or the spreading of knowledge.
The Practice of Fasting
Some Hindus practice the tradition of fasting during special occasions, such as holy days, new moon days and festivals. As is also the case in a number of other religions, fasting is seen as a way of staying close to God and attaining a close mental proximity to Him. Hindus fast in various ways, depending on the individual: They may choose to not eat at all during the fasting period, or to eat only once, eat only fruits or restrict themselves to a special diet of simple foods.
Fasting is believed to help reinforce control over one’s senses, squelch earthly desires and guide the mind to be poised and at peace. Hindus also believe that when there is a spiritual goal behind fasting, it should not make the body weak, irritable, or create an urge to later indulge. Rather, rest and a change of diet during the fasting time is considered to be very good for the digestive system and the entire body. The idea is that every system needs a break and an occasional overhaul to work at its best.4
Health Considerations of the Vegetarian Diet
There is a myth that vegetarians suffer from vitamin deficiencies. The truth is that all needed nutrients are found in vegetables, fruits and nuts when eaten in sufficient amounts; the only exception is vitamin B12. To overcome this potential deficiency, which can cause anemia and other disorders, vegetarians need to markedly increase their protein intake. According to the recommendation of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), vegetarians should increase their consumption of rice milk, soy milk, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals to ensure a sufficient intake of vitamin B12.
Some vegetarians refrain from eating meat, fish or fowl but do consume eggs and/or dairy products. In contrast, a vegan diet is a total vegetarian diet that excludes any and all animal products (i.e., no meat, eggs and dairy). Therefore, vegans generally have a lower calcium intake than non-vegetarians, but they may have lower calcium requirements as well. Vegans are advised to increase their intake of Omega-3 fatty acids found in flax seed, walnuts, soybeans and dark green vegetables.
The ADA is just one example of a major health organization that recognizes that a well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and cancer. Because vegetarians are less susceptible to major diseases, they can live healthier, longer and more productive lives, with fewer visits to doctors, fewer dental problems and lower medical bills.
Here are some additional health benefits of the vegetarian diet:
- Food is easier to digest, provides a wider ranger of nutrients and requires less effort to purify the body from its wastes.
- Vegetarians’ immune systems are stronger, their skin is less flawed and their bodies are more pure and refined.
- Finally, because meat is expensive compared to fruits, vegetables, etc., a vegetarian diet can also have financial benefits for low-income populations. Unfortunately, lack of sufficient access to food stores that sell good quality fresh produce continues to be a serious health problem in disadvantaged communities.
Editor’s Note: Previous articles in the culturally competent dietary assessments series, including “Meeting Jewish and Muslim Patients’ Dietary Needs” and “Understanding Buddhist Patients’ Dietary Needs,” are available online.