“Thousands moved almost frantically with outstretched hands, hoping to receive but one morsel, one grain of rice from the plate of the Gods. Those who received it from the hand of the priest touched it to their heads, shared it with their friends, and placed it on their tongues. That which fell to the ground in turn brought the people to their knees. When they again arose, not a morsel remained on the ground. The entire atmosphere was filled with joy and wonder. It was as though they were eating their way to enlightenment. Such was one Westerner’s account of her visit to the Jagannātha festival in Purī. In her letter to me she secretly confided that she too had tasted ‘honoured’ the prasāda, sacred food of India, and that “my life has not been the same since.”
The idea of India’s sages, that something eatable can become spiritual or attain spiritual qualities, is an integral aspect of Vedic theology. This idea is also found throughout the religious community at large. Sacred offerings of food are part of the liturgy of most religious traditions. Christians say “grace” before each meal in thanks to God. The Jewish faith speaks of food which is kosher as that which is sanctified. Catholics transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. These are but a few examples. Yet, in comparison, the concept of sacred food found within the Vedic system is much more developed, in the least, taking into consideration not only those who are eating (we humans), but those who are eaten (vegetables, fruits, grains, etc.) and those who are not eaten (flesh) as well. Moreover, the sacred food of the Vedic tradition is not food we have prepared with ourselves in mind asking for God’s blessing, rather food prepared solely for the pleasure of the transcendental senses of Godhead.
If we were to find another tradition that most parallels the Vedic tradition with regards to sacred food, it would be Catholicism. Although there are many differences between the two, and this is not the place for a detailed comparison, the concept of the transformation of food into spirit is common to both. Those spiritually grounded in Western tradition may better be able to appreciate sacred food of the East and the millions who honour it with an emotional fervour by reflecting on the theories found within Catholicism—those of transubstantiation common to the Roman sector, and consubstantiation as found within the Greek and Russian Orthodox.
Transubstantiation refers to the idea that the bread and wine, symbolic of the Last Supper, through ritual performed by a qualified medium between the laity and God, is wholly transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The transformation, the Eucharist, is then taken as a sacrament. The Romans hold that the bread and wine through such sacred ritual have been wholly transformed into the Christ. It is no longer bread and wine, but God. It does not act like wine or bread having lost its material qualities.
Consubstantiation qualifies the sacrament. It has become the body and blood of Christ, yet it continues to act materially as bread and wine, as well as spiritually. If left out, it will appear to be material to material eyes, ie., it will grow stale, etc. Amongst the Greek Orthodox, within the monasteries, it is common to bring a piece of the ‘holy bread’ that has been transformed to each and every member of the monastery as they sit and quietly take their meal.
Consubstantiation is closer to the Vedic concept of prasāda (literally mercy), food offerings that have become one with Godhead. The metaphysics of this concept are well worked out within the Vedic tradition. Matter, bahirāṅga-śakti, is one of the multi energies of Godhead, the shadow of Godhead. This is referred to in Bhagavad-gītā, where the internal energy, antarāṅga-śakti, the soul or consciousness, is also described. The mixing of matter and spirit in the hands of God produces the material world, all of which rests upon an ocean of desire. Man proposes, God disposes.
In a higher sense, these two energies of Godhead are one. Just as electrical energy is one, yet it can be used either to heat or to cool, so the śakti of Godhead acts differently in different situations. Thus for “material” food to be transformed into spirit, it requires only that we know the process. This process is mentioned in Bhagavad-gītā. In order that the supreme spirit enter and become our offering, we need but to put our own spirit into the act of offering. Devotion is at the heart of the ritual, and while there are many other details that must be attended to (time, place, cleanliness, types of food offered, etc.), they are only important inasmuch as they serve to promote the necessary attitude—one that will attract the attention of God. There is no mechanical formula that can consistently produce God. Yet Godhead is controlled by love, love being the heart’s purified condition which enables one to transcend material conditioning. Material conditioning forces upon us certain habits and ways of thinking. These habits and concomitant mentality must be replaced with the type of thinking and habits that promote spiritual love. Thus the rituals and rites surrounding a systematic approach to self realisation and love of Godhead—transforming matter into spirit— are absolutely necessary, yet relative at the same time.
In the temples there is strict observance of various rules and regulations surrounding the preparing of offerings. The basic principle of sacred food is that it is prepared for the pleasure of Godhead and then offered in love and devotion. During preparation, the cook, the kitchen, the foodstuff, and the offering are all important, each act is surrounded by a set of injunctions. These obligatory procedures tied to the preparation of prasāda are detailed in India’s ancient Sanskrit canons. The sages have also given thousands of delicious, healthy, and easy to prepare recipes.
It is prescribed in the Sanskrit canon that the cook should be in the consciousness that he or she is a servant of Godhead. Thus they must try to satisfy the senses of Godhead by preparing foods according to the particular deity’s taste, not his or her own individual sensual preference. The many faces of Godhead appearing in various incarnations that have been mentioned in the ancient texts, have tastes of their own. Thus the offerings are highly personalised, and the act of offering constitutes a personal and intimate meditation.
Before preparing foods the cook must bathe and dress in clean clothing. While cooking one should never taste the preparations in progress. Excellence in taste is achieved by practice and by following time proven recipes from India’s culinary tradition. Tasting while cooking is therefore not necessary.
In the kitchen, shoes and other articles of clothing that have been worn on public streets or worn into the bathroom are not allowed. This is a consideration for cleanliness. Dogs, cats, and other domestic animals are also prohibited from entering the kitchen for purposes of cleanliness, while they are more then welcome on the other end of the ritual when the prasāda is distributed. Talking on mundane subject matters, such as politics, economics and general gossip is also to be avoided in the kitchen. Such conversation is believed to pollute the atmosphere and bring down the consciousness of the cooks. It is recommended that one should refrain from talking as far as possible in the kitchen, and fix his or her mind on the service of cooking for Godhead. Thus the act of cooking becomes a meditation.
Foods are to be chosen from a vegetarian assortment. Meat, fish, eggs, and various products derived from the slaughter of animals are strictly prohibited. Although it has become common, especially in Bengal, to offer fresh goat’s meat to Goddess Kālī, such present day “sacrifices” hardly represent the tenants of the scripture. In general, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, and milk products head the list. These foods are said to increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence, increase one’s memory, and give strength, health, happiness and satisfaction. Often the deity of the temple will have his or her own garden within the temple grounds, or farmers who have for generations been growing food for the deity will bring foods for preparation daily.
When the preparation has been completed it must then be offered before the deity. The cook selects a portion of each preparation and places it on a special plate. Entering the alter area, the offering is made through the utterance of Sanskrit mantras, further invoking the deity’s presence. All in all, the procedure is often very elaborate.
In some of India’s larger temples there are magnificent arrangements for preparing and distributing prasāda. At the Purī temple 450 cooks work in one of the largest kitchen in Asia to prepare fifty-four offerings a day. The offering is cooked on wood fires in large clay pots. Whatever is in season is prepared and offered to the deity. The offering is enough to feed more than 50,000 persons daily. On certain festival days as many as one million people will come to Purī to celebrate and take prasāda. At times sweets are thrown to the crowds by the priests. If in the excitement the prasāda happens to fall on the ground, as my friend has described in her letter, it is picked up nevertheless and eaten by the pilgrims. They say that prasāda can never be contaminated. And even if it were, the faith of the pilgrims seems to be an over ridding consideration.
At Vṛndāvana, the holiest of holy places, more than 5000 temples prepare prasāda on a daily basis and distribute it freely among the pilgrims and residents. In some of the temples specific preparations are offered to the deity that may not be found except in that particular temple.
At the Rādhā-Ramaṇa Temple a special offering called kulia is distributed to the public. The ingredients for kulia are whole milk and raw sugar. Placed in a large pot, the milk and sugar are cooked together until they reach a consistency almost like peanut butter. Then the kulia is placed in 2.5 ounce clay cups and offered before the deity by the thousands. While visiting the Rādhā-Ramaṇa Temple I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a small family of devotees had been carrying out the service of making the kulia for almost two hundred years.
Other than the philosophical basis for ‘belief’ in the wonderful spiritual effects derived from honouring the food of God, there are many stories that surround sacred food offerings in the temples. There are many documented incidences where the Deities have returned their plate with visible remnants. That is to say that the deity actually ate from the plate and only a portion of what was offered remained when the priest returned to the alter to take away the plate away. Incidences such as these abound throughout the recorded histories of the various lineages.
By honouring prasāda one easily controls his or her senses and surpasses the obstacles on the path of self-realisation. Indeed, many ‘miracles’ have been attributed to the honouring of prasāda. It is said that if one receives prasāda even once in this lifetime, he or she is guaranteed the human body in the next life.
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa relates several stories about the miracles of this sacred food, and how in various instances the eating of prasāda has led to enlightenment. There it is said the great sage Nārada Muni was the son of a maid-servant in his previous life. It so happened that a group of four saintly persons stayed at the house of his mother for several months. During this time the saints cooked their food and offered it to Viṣṇu, the God of sustenance. Nārada, who was then only a small boy, used to render service by cleaning the plates of the saints after they had eaten the Viṣṇu prasāda. Once Nārada asked the saints if he could partake the remnants and he was given permission. Nārada himself says, “Once only, by their permission, I took the remnants of prasāda, and by so doing all my previous bad karmas were at once eradicated. Thus by the effects of eating prasāda I became purified in heart, and at that time the very nature of transcendence became attractive to me.”
In another place in the Sanskrit canon it is said that once two sages were traveling in the forest. When evening came they camped by the side of a river. There they cooked their meal of rice and vegetables and offered it to their deity. While eating the prasāda some grains of rice were spilled on the ground. The next day when the sages had broke camp, a chipmunk came out of his hole and ate the grains of rice they had left behind.
That day an owl, the natural predator of the chipmunk, swooped down from his nest and devoured the little fellow. No sooner had that happened when a fox caught the owl on the ground and ate him. While the fox lay sleepily in the sun digesting his meal, a tiger appeared and ate him. Not yet satisfied by eating the fox the tiger ventured into a nearby village in search of food. Fearing for their lives the villagers ran away and the tiger followed in pursuit. Just as the tiger was about to devour a small child a man stepped forward and killed the tiger. Because of having been even remotely connected both physically and consciously with the sanctified foods in this life, all four animals, the chipmunk, the owl, the fox, and the tiger attained the human form of life in their next birth with the opportunity to progress in spiritual life.
Thus the rituals surrounding sacred food extend spiritual benefit beyond the immediate scope of human society. Yet not only can animals benefit from taking prasāda, so also can those souls who have taken birth in the inanimate realms of plant and mineral life. Their participation is not by way of consuming prasāda, rather becoming prasāda. The Vedic theology is one that takes into account all species of life, not merely in terms of life on Earth, but in terms of their evolution towards transcendence as well. Animals and plants are not to be exploited by human society, rather all forms of life are to be ‘exploited’ for the service of Godhead. The unique position of the human race is not that we are the master of all other forms of life. According to the Vedic conception, we are stewards, intended to guide all forms of life along the spiritual pathway, recognising the dignity of all living things as wayward souls.
Although such accounts may raise some doubt in the naturally skeptical minds of today’s world, in the very least they attest to the potential of sacred offerings of food. Granted, all offerings are not of the same quality. The consciousness of those who make the offering must always be taken into consideration. But if all of the elements of the offering are operating at the highest level of consciousness, such things, according to the scriptural/historical record are possible. Although it is not possible to consistently produce such results in the laboratory, neither are the skeptics capable of producing the type of devotion with which the offerings are to be made.