Food – the Universal Medicine – Swami Prakarshananda

“Food is also called a universal medicine. In the right doses, it blesses; in over doses, it kills,” declares Pujya Gurudev Swami Chinmayananda. The natural question that follows is, “If food is a medicine, what disease does it cure?” Providing an apt answer, Adi Shankaracharya states, “Treat your hunger as a disease!”[1]

Hunger – A Disease?

How can hunger possibly be a disease?   If we split the word ‘disease’ it will read as ‘dis-ease’ – where there is no ease, that is dis-ease.   A disease requires to be correctly treated.  A fever cannot be cured by taking a tablet meant to alleviate headaches. Every disease requires an appropriate cure. When the body is at dis-ease due to hunger, the treatment is to provide it with nutrients.

It is imperative to understand that hunger is a requirement of the body from the standpoint of nutrition – not food.  As the mind is not under our control, we tend to fall into the trap of likes and dislikes with regard to the food we consume. Can there be any likes and dislikes where medicine is concerned? Absolutely not!  Similarly, food must be consumed only from the perspective of providing the body with the required nutrients, not from the standpoint of personal taste and preference. In addition, the amount consumed has to be monitored carefully.  Two helpings of ice cream are certainly not needed, but we are a slave to our taste buds!

Effects of Food

A sadhak needs to understand that food should not be eaten merely to satisfy the taste buds; he or she should exercise discrimination in eating as well know about the food’s effect on the body and mind. Just as every word has a meaning and an effect when it is used; each food item has its own special quality. For instance, if someone calls you intelligent and if another calls you stupid, do not these two words have a different impact on you? Likewise, every food item has its own effect on the body.

Being unaware of the nature and influence of different food items, people continue to eat tamasic food; consequently, not only one’s health is destroyed, but tamasic qualities like laziness, inertia, forgetfulness and negative tendencies gain ascendance. Such a person remains at the gross level of consciousness. He or she is always engaged in pampering to the unending demands of the body. As a result his/her thoughts have no occasion or time to rise to a higher plane of thinking.

Be Alert to Addictive Foods

Addictive foods and drinks should be eliminated from our diet.

Let us take the interesting example of alcohol. If taken in a cough syrup for medicinal purposes, it is fine.  In Goa, there is a famous drink called feni. During the four months of the torrential rainy season, a small cup of this concoction was given to everyone to prevent coughs, colds and similar infections. Unfortunately, feni is now more popular for its intoxicating and addictive properties rather than its therapeutic benefits! The medicinal value is forgotten and the beverage is taken for “pleasure.” It is important to understand this wrong mind set.

For a medicine to be effectual, the doctor prescribes its dosage, duration and frequency. Similarly, food should be taken only when the effect of the earlier meal has worn off.  In other words, we should eat only when we are hungry. That is the basic principle.  If we eat when we are not hungry, when the “digestive fire” is weak, the food will not be digested properly; resulting in the release of toxins  that damage our physical health. Therefore, we should recognize the needs of our body and eat accordingly.

Moderation in All Areas

In the Bhagawad Geeta[2] Sri Krishna declares that unless and until we bring moderation in our life, we cannot overcome unhappiness and suffering. All activities – eating, recreation, work, sleep and so on should be in moderation. Anything in excess is poisonous.

Moderation is the key word.  The more one keeps on eating, the more our hunger grows, we feel more lethargic and want to sleep more and more. Hence, be very vigilant about your habits.  All that is taken in through the senses, including food, should be in limited quantities. In Ayurveda, it is said that out of four parts, one part of the stomach should be empty, one part should be filled with water and the remaining half part should be filled with food

The essential point to remember is that a sadhaka should regulate each and every action and lead a vigilant life of restraint and discipline.  His or her focus should not be on food. Food has to be treated as a medicine.

[1] ksudvyadhisca cikitsyatam  – Sadhana Panchakam 4

[2] yuktahara viharsya, yuktacestasya karmasu  yukta svapnavabodhasya yogo bhavati dukhaha 6.17