You’re what you eat

From Pratiksha Apurv's desk Media Watch

In the Indian context, vegetarianism… is about respecting all forms of life as an organic unity, writes Pratiksha Apurv. Published in The Speaking Tree on November 24, 2019.

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Painting by Pratiksha Apurv
‘You Are What You Eat’ by Pratiksha Apurv, 66×88”, Oil on Canvas, 2013

The 18th century French lawyer Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, famously said: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Savarin was perhaps the first person, though not a chef, who realised that whatever we eat directly reflects in our being. Fifty years later, German philosopher Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach made it a little more explicit by saying, “Man is what he eats.”

The Upanishads describe food as Brahmn and that is why we always stress on an appetising and nutritious meal, because it affects our senses, making us more alive, more aware. The effect of food on our mind, body and soul has been the centre of discussion even in ancient Greece, when Pythagoras argued in favour of a healthy vegetarian diet. Though at the time when the philosopher lived, in around 500 BC, the term ‘vegetarianism’ was not known; his diet came to be known as ‘Pythagorean diet’.

Many of us know Pythagoras for his theory on geometry, but few will be aware of his profound wisdom on food habits that weaves together materialism and spirituality – body and soul – into a harmonious whole.

Of course, it is a personal choice whether one wants to be vegetarian or a non-vegetarian, but the recent craze about vegetarianism in the west that has largely been non-vegetarian, perhaps, derives the motivation from Pythagoras.

Unlike in the west, religions in India since ancient times, have favoured vegetarianism. In the Indian context, vegetarianism was never about eating grass and lentils but was about respecting all forms of life as an organic unity. Indian spirituality always emphasised that man is not an island but an orchestra in this universe, and life without animals, birds and fish would be monotonous. That is why our vegetarianism sutra says that life is God, and any form of destruction would be like destroying the very root of the universe.

It is said that vegetarian food is light and non-vegetarian food is heavy. This is significant. Eating meat makes one feel heavy and tethered to earth while a vegetarian diet makes one feel light. This by no means is to say that non-vegetarians cannot be meditators. Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians can meditate, but for the former, diving deeper and sitting in stillness will be easier, while the latter may have to put in extra effort because of the heavy nature of the food they eat.

We become what we eat. Put in another way, two people want to climb a mountain. One of them is carrying heavy rocks and the other one is not carrying any load. Naturally, the one who doesn’t carry any burden will reach the summit first. Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians can take a plunge into inner bliss, but a vegetarian, who is lighter and is full of reverence for life, may find the path easier than the non-vegetarian, because our journey in meditation is all about the body’s chemistry.

Even the Buddha, who allowed non-vegetarian food, realised that whenever he ate meat, meditation became an effort, but when he avoided it, he could meditate easily. Jain Tirthankaras who, before embracing the ascetic life, were non-vegetarians, turned vegetarians, breaking all conventions; this was the result of experiments with meditation.

My painting, You Are What You Eat states that transformation of human consciousness is not possible without bringing change in the body. Our body reacts to the kind of food we eat. The chemistry that the taste buds trigger when we eat meat-based food will be different when we eat vegetarian food. This is science and not religion.

I admire Pythagoras because he was the first western seeker who realised that by consuming meat, a person absorbs the animal inside and to reach the peak of consciousness, this unconscious heavy food habit is to be avoided. Although Pythagoras was ridiculed for this idea, thousands of years later the world is now recognising that he was not just promoting a particular dietary habit, but was propagating the need for meditative energy for people to become more aware and touch the peaks of consciousness.

Italian physician Antonio Cocchi, born in 1695 and best known for his work on anatomy, endorsed Pythagoras’ views that a new way of living or opting for vegetarian food was not because of superstition, but because of the desire to improve the health and manners of men.

Osho says that vegetarianism is an alchemical change within, which creates the space where the baser metal can be transformed into gold. He said: “Try vegetarianism and you will be surprised that meditation becomes far easier. Love becomes more subtle; loses its grossness; becomes more sensitive and less sensuous, and becomes more prayerful and less sexual. And your body also starts taking on a different vibe. You become more graceful, softer, more feminine, less aggressive, more receptive.”

Chhandogya Upanishad says: Aharasuddhau sattvasuddhih, sattva-suddhau dhruva smritih, smrtilambhe sarva-granthinam vipra-moksah, meaning, ‘Purity of thought is a consequence of the purity of the food that we eat. When food is pure and subtle, it transforms the very basic nature of man.’

Besides food, our senses too play a major role in transforming our body’s alchemy. Our senses respond differently to different types of food – vegetarian and non-vegetarian. And that is why the Chhandogya Upanishad stresses on the need to purify the senses through the food we eat.

Not every vegetarian is a meditator. We should also not project every non-vegetarian as a non-meditator or someone doing something wrong. The messages from spiritual masters and scriptures are about unburdening the heavy baggage that we are carrying in our journey towards the peak of consciousness, in an easier and faster way.

The essence of vegetarianism which the Upanishads termed as purity must be received and transcended beyond our sense organs including sight, touch, smell, listening and taste in order to turn into unadulterated nature. Only then can our mind become more firm. A stable mind is more conducive to be transformed into thoughtlessness – a state of deep meditation.

Quote by Osho from Philosophia Perennis, Vol 2, Ch 6

Pratiksha Apurv

Pratiksha Apurv is a painter and writer. She lives and works in Pune.

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