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Upanishads on Food

by Swami Sivananda

Food As Matter: Its Philosophy

The Upanishads mean by 'food' that which is experienced by consciousness, either directly by itself or indirectly through certain organs. An object that is presented to a conscious subject is the food of that conscious subject. That which supports or maintains, or preserves a thing is the food of that thing. In short, food is that which feeds and sustains individuality. Hence, in the Upanishads, food is identified with matter. The Maitrayani Upanishad says:

The conscious person exists in the midst of matter. He is the enjoyer because he enjoys the food of matter (Prakriti). Even this individual soul is food for him; its producer is matter. Hence, what is to be enjoyed has three attributes (Gunas). The enjoyer is the person who exists in the midst of matter. Matter is that which is to be enjoyed. Pleasure, pain, delusion, everything is food. There is no knowledge of the essence (i.e., quality) of the source (matter), when it is not manifest. The manifest is food, and the unmanifest also is food (VI. 10).

It is also further said that the intellect and the other organs are manifested only to enable the consious subject to experience food or matter. Food is experienced as an object when it is manifest and as ignorance when it is unmanifest. Food has qualities, but the enjoyer of the food has no qualities. The fact that he is able to enjoy shows that he is consciousness in nature (VI. 10). The eater of the food is consciousness; the eaten is the matter which is the substance of all kinds of food or objects of experience.

The fact that food is any extraneous experience is brought out by the same Upanishad: Verily, all beings fly forward day by day with a desire to obtain food. The sun takes food for himself through his rays. Fire blazes up with food. This world was created by Brahma with a desire for food (VI. 12).

But it should not be thought that food is something quite different from the experiencer, or that matter is absolutely foreign to Spirit. Food is identical with the experiencer. Matter is only a phase of the Spirit. Food is only a manifestation of the Atman. One should adore food as the Atman (Maitra. Up. VI. 12). It is eaten and it eats all things (Taitt. Up. II. 2). I am food; I am the eater of food; I, who am food eat the eater of food (Taitt Up. III. 10).

But, the form of food is not the same as the Atman, though its essence is identical with the Atman. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says, Some say that food is Brahman. This is not correct. For, food rots without life (within) (V. 12). Hence, food which is eaten is not, literally, Brahman. Only the ultimate essence of food is Brahman.

The Prasna Upanishad describes the creation of Food and Life (Rayi and Prana) as two aspects of the One Creator Prajapati. The whole Universe is the effect of the interaction of food and life, or matter and energy, which are respectively food and the eater of food. Life or Prana is the same as energy. Food is converted into energy, and hence, energy eats food. Prana is the eater of food.

Sun is energy and Moon is matter or food. All this is merely food, whatever seen or not seen, (Prasna. Up. 1. 5). Here the sun is compared to the eater of food which is moon. Moon is controlled and enlivened by the light and energy of the sun. Hence sun is the eater of the moon in the form of food. The whole universe is only a manifestation of matter or food in the form of its eater which is energy. Matter and energy are different only figuratively, in their forms and their functions. The truth is that they are the gross and the subtle aspects of Prajapati. Wherever is energy, there is matter, and vice versa. Matter or food has form and energy or the eater of food has no form. Accordingly, Time, as controlled by the sun and as manifest in the forms of Uttarayana and Dakshinayana, Sukla-Paksha and Krishna-Paksha, day and night, is described as constituting food and the eater of food respectively, the bright half being the effect of sun's light and the dark half the effect of moon or matter or food.

Further, the Prasna Upanishad says that the sun as the centre of life and energy, i.e., as the eater of food, energises the whole world whenever he pervades it with his rays. The importance of sun's light and heat lies in that these are the life-givers or the feeders of all beings who are confined in matter or food. Food will not grow and beings cannot live without their father who is the life-giving sun. In this Upanishad it is shown that there is no such thing as birth and death except only a formation or a manifestation of the universal food and the universal eater of food, which, too, are not actually two, but simply appearance of the One Creator.

Food and Drink: Their Assimilation and Function

The Chhandogya Upanishad describes the process of the assimilation of food and drink.

Food which is eaten, gets divided into three parts. That which is its coarsest part becomes faeces. That which is medium, the flesh; that which is finest the mind.

Water, which is drunk, gets divided into three parts. That which is its coarsest part becomes urine; that which is medium, the blood; that which is finest, the breath.

Fire which is eaten, gets divided into three parts. That which is its coarsest part becomes bone; that which is medium the marrow; that which is finest, the voice.

The mind consists of food; the breath consists of water, the voice consists of heat.

It is also said that hunger is absorption of food that is eaten by water; thirst is drying up of water that is drunk through heat; death is the extinction of the heat within in the Highest Divinity. Food is like fuel to the fire or heat in the body. When food is not eaten, the mind loses its strength and the fire in the body is extinguished. When water is not drunk, Prana which is the essence of water passes out of the body.
That the mind is influenced by the food that is eaten is mentioned in another place in the Chhandogya Upanishad: In purity of food there is purity of mind; in purity of mind there is established memory; in established memory there results the release from all the knots of the heart, (VII. 26). After a fast for fifteen days, Svetaketu lost his memory and could not recite the Vedas. But, when, afterwards, he ate food, he regained his memory and recited the Vedas. If one does not eat for ten days, even though he might live, he becomes a non-seer, a non-hearer, a non-thinker, a non-doer, a non-understander. But on eating food, he becomes a seer, a hearer, a thinker, a doer, an understander. Adore food! (Chh. Up. VII. 9). This shows to what extent the mind is influenced by the food which is eaten. A person thinks through the mental nature which he consists of, and this nature is fed by food. Hence, the food that is eaten should always be Sattvic, for, Verily, this person consists of the essence of food (Taitt. Up. II. 1).

Eating is a Sacrifice

Food should not be eaten with passion or avidity. Food is called a medicine for life, a remedy for the pains of physical life. It is the Conscious Divine Being within, the real eater of food, that is offered the oblation of food. It is the Agnihotra sacrifice offered to the Atman in the Prana, in the form of Rayi or food. The Maitrayani Upanishad says that both the mind and the food to be eaten should be purified before eating food. The eater of the food should be conscious that the Universal Atman is the real eater of food and, therefore, the food should be offered to this Atman with certain Mantras which are meant to convey the meaning of this sacrifice or internal Dravya-Yajna. The Vaisvanara or Virat is the real giver of life to all and He is the real eater of all foods. This Vaisvanara Agni is the Fire that digests food. This fire which is within and which digests the food that is eaten is Vaisvanara (the universal living fire) (Brih. Up. V. 9). It is not the inert element fire but the divine power of Virat in the form of universal living fire that digests food. This fire is called Vaisvanara. Ultimately it is the Atman that is responsible for eating food as well as digesting and assimilating food. Hence, before eating, the Pranas, the mind and the Atman are worshipped and offered the food which is consecrated. The Maitrayani Upanishad says that one should meditate on the Atman before and after eating food. the meaning is that one should not eat food at the cost of the Atman, i.e., one should not forget the Atman in the process of eating. He who eats with these rules does not again take birth in the material body, (Maitra. Up. VI. 9).

Food is the form of the all-sustaining Vishnu. Energy is the essence of food. Mind is the essence of energy. Knowledge is the essence of mind. Bliss is the essence of Knowledge, (Maitra. Up. VI. 13). The Upanishads exalt the process of eating food to divine worship, because the food and the eater of food are forms of Divinity. There it is said, One should not insult food. That is the rule. One should not despise food. That is the rule (Taitt. Up. III. 7. 8).

Even external sacrifice in which food is offered as an oblation becomes the source of the life of all beings. The offering properly given in sacrifice, rises up to the sun. Through the sun rain is produced. From rain food is caused. by food, all creatures live (Maitra. Up. VI. 37).

The Arunika Upanishad says that food should be eaten as a medicine. From food, verily, all creatures are produced. by food, in fact, they live. Into it also they finally enter. Therefore, it (food) is called a medicine (Taitt. Up. II. 2).

Food is eaten only to maintain life and not for the sake of enjoyment. Hence one should eat only the minimum quantity of food as a medicine for life and not to satisfy the passion. Food is called 'Anna' because it is eaten (Adyate) by all beings and it eats (Atti) all things in the form of Prana the eater of food (Taitt. Up. III. 7).

Charity of Food

A giver of food prospers. Food should be offered even to uninvited guests with devotion. One should not refuse anyone (food) in one's house. That is the rule (Taitt. Up. III. 10). This is the principle of Atithi-Yajna.

Brahman as Food

The highest form of obtaining food is meditation on and realisation of Brahman. They obtain all food who worship Brahman as food (Taitt. Up. II. 2). He who worships food as Brahman attains regions of food and drink (Chh. Up. VII. 9). Hunger is permanently appeased and thirst is quenched for ever, when Brahman, the Goal of all desires and aspirations, the real Food for spiritual hunger, is realised. The realised sage exclaims, I am the food! I am the food! I am the food! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food! I am the eater of food! I, who am food, eat the eater of food! I am the whole universe! (Taitt. Up. III. 10).

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