Westerners and Indian Diet: The Challenge of Eating What Kṛṣṇa Eats
Bhoga offering to Śrī Śrī Rādhā-Mādhava in Śrī Māyāpura Candrodaya Mandira, photo by Vṛndāvan Līla dd, courtesy of remembermayapur.com

Prabhu (1): How can I make the distinction between what’s my will and the Lord’s will?

His Holiness Bhaktividyā Pūrṇa Mahārāja: What is given to us in the śāstra, that is the Lord’s will. That you take it up and follow these things to the best of your ability and apply your intelligence and energies and emotions into that - that is your will.

Prabhu (1): In my daily life how can I figure out what’s my will and the Lord’s?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Why? Where will the problem come? Let us say eating. What will you eat? What is the basic principle? What element of eating is God’s will?

Prabhu(1):  Prasādam.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Ok, and then what’s your will?

Prabhu (1): Prasādam.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Of course, but what kind of Prasādam you make that day, that is your will, but that you make it according to Kṛṣṇa’s rules, offer it to Him, take those remnants - that is His will. His will is that there is a particular condition about it. Your will is that you take part in it. So the combination between yours and His, that is bhakti.

Prabhu (2): It also applies to what Kṛṣṇa likes to eat, how to cook nicely.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: You have different levels of that on the cooking. You have one is that you just want to do it to please Him, so the standards of cleanliness and the consciousness that you are cooking for Him and that you are offering it to Him, that’s the most important. Then naturally the next thing would be, since you are doing it for Kṛṣṇa, the result is for Kṛṣṇa, and it’s something that daily goes on, you might as well be expert at it. Why offer something less to Kṛṣṇa? So then one will be expert at the science of cooking, whatever it is. Whatever you do cook according to Kṛṣṇa’s rules will be nice.

Then the next step is, what does Kṛṣṇa like to eat? So most important is, of course, something cooked with devotion. But there is also the element that He does seem to like certain kinds of food. Because in the song sukta-sakadi bhaji nalita kusmanda, it gives like what is there, Caitanya-caritāmṛta tells what’s there and so we see that it’s actually the same thing. There is just a mild difference in the Bengali spicing and the Vraja spicing, but otherwise it’s the same kind of cooking. That kind of element, that would be the next natural step.

But along with that then also Nectar of Devotion mentions that something that you consider very special, that you can offer. So whatever the specialties are of your area that you really appreciate and members of your family, community appreciate, that also can be offered because you think it’s special, so you’ll make it very special and you are offering, you fell inspired.

In other words, what Kṛṣṇa likes to eat or what you really think is very good, both of these have some element. But it still must be made according to proper cooking and the proper standards of purity.

Prabhu (3): Two things, it seems that our machines, these bodies, are not born in India, so the Indian type of spicing and cooking... I see devotees who have been here for quite some time, they just... The machine breaks down, it doesn’t work with this type of food, I know so many devotees that just can’t deal with it. So there is always this, 'You got to eat the way the Lord eats.' And then the other element is that devotees think that they should take Mahā-Prasādam to their full content, and they also... In many temples where devotees just live from Mahā-Prasādam, they also get sick because it’s the Lord’s diet and not exactly our diet.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: One is, I would still say that it would go back to certain aspects of... Even if we are taking it that devotionally the mentality is right and the standards of cleanliness are correct, but I would just for my own experience have a great doubt that actually anybody really knows how to cook, that actually knows the science of cooking.

Prabhu (3): But that’s the same here and there.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Yes, so that’s why I am saying, there are plenty of sick people in the West on their own soil eating their own food. And even if you say you are from the West, do you actually eat your own food? In America, the bananas don’t come from America. Everything comes from somewhere else. Except if it happens in season the locally growing strawberries you may get it, but the rest of the time the strawberries are coming from elsewhere. So it’s still a global community, that aspect. But whether it is this or that, it’s generally a matter of whether they know how to cook.

It’s just like in the West they use lots of ghee and butter and all that, but they won’t use the proper amount of chilli to balance it. So they stay away from it because when they have had the Indian preparations, you have people that they like more chilli, but it’s actually more than is necessary for the amount of richness. Because chilli and richness balance each other. Means if it’s done properly it won’t be hot, it just won’t be heavy.

You can take the heaviest preparation, let’s say panir butter masala, that is for 1 kilo of panir you are going to put, you are going to put 500 g of butter. And then you are also going to a few hundred grams of cream. So you are talking heavy here. But if you use the right amount of chilli in it, it won’t taste heavy at all. It will feel very light.

Generally what happens is people don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to spice, they burn spices, they deal with them wrong. Because if you look at it, a cumin seed is very purifying, turmeric, everything that is used in Indian spicing is extremely good for health. In fact, many in the West who work from traditions that have some culinary expertise, they know these spices. Some few they may not know, let’s say kalo jeera, but most of the spices we use are very common in the West. Like mustard we eat, they are coming out of our ears. You put it on your sandwiches this and that. But if you put it in the chaunce in the Indian cooking, 'Oh this is what makes you sick, the mustard!' But they’ll eat much more of it as a paste which is raw, which is even more heavy, like this.

So it’s a matter of generally it’s the expertise of cooking, it’s the environment of eating, how it is being served, how the person eating it is receiving it, all that is actually the health. So it’s not just the diet. Then you have the seasons, of course, like what you are talking about. Then how it’s eaten, Mahā-Prasāda. Then if it’s eaten cold it is going to be a problem, unless you are either very young or you are doing a lot of physical exercise. So all that needs to be taken into consideration.

Otherwise everybody is sick everywhere. I mean it’s easy to say it’s Indian, but it’s not necessarily that’s the case. If something is cooked properly wherever it is, whatever the cuisine, it works. And whatever the cuisine, if it is not cooked right generally very few survive.

I would say somehow or another in the transition between 1970s and the new millennium,  that the science of cooking as given by Prabhupāda got lost in general. There are still devotees who know it and they are very expert at it, but it’s not common like before. Before it was, everybody could cook like that. But now it seems to be very rare. So that method of cooking and all that is not well known, and dieting and what are the levels of cooking.

Like you are saying there, you have a daily food, you have have special occasions, and then you have festivals. So you have three levels of cooking. So devotees don’t necessarily know that, how to balance that.

So all these different things put together, that is a very big science. If it wasn’t then why would Kṛṣṇadasa Kaviraja Goswami spend a quarter, a third of Caitanya-caritāmṛta explaining food, what were the diets, what was served, how it was served, the method of what was the cooking. Even Advaita Ācārya, that when He’d cook, when He finished cooking the kitchen was clean. So He was cleaning as He was going, so the last preparation is done and that pot is washed, it’s done. So you even get that how He was serving it, what was the arrangements of serving and all these things. So it’s not so much that.

It’s like we are saying we are here, but we go to Calcutta, go to New Market and buy foreign goods, but we are from Europe, but the goods are from America, or you are from America but the goods are from Europe. Or many of them they are coming from somewhere else, coming from Philippines, coming from China.

More is just what you yourself and your mind are satisfied with. Because that’s a very important part, if you don’t like the food it is not going to like you. He is kind of reciprocal. So if you are not pleased... That’s why the brahmacari is trained at what he gets, he is pleased in receiving. Because he doesn’t have so much control, but you have control over being pleased or not with what you get. So if he takes it 'By the Lord’s grace I have gotten this,' he is satisfied. Then when he is a grhastha he can control the environment, or he is the manager, so he can control the diet then you may make adjustments and you do what it is. But the principle of being pleased with it.

Because otherwise I have seen a lot of times... It’s a funny phenomena but I have observed it that those who are the most health conscious are sometimes the most unhealthy, and they are the worst people to take Prasāda with. Because whatever it is, there is always some fault in it. It’s never quite right, 'Oh, it’s too heavy, oh, it’s too this, oh it’s too that,' it’s always too something. What is perfect, there isn’t such a thing. Maybe straight brewer yeast or something, brewer yeast mixed with spirulina, but then you need a little bran in it, to give some fibre, that might be good. But that might be too tight, so then you’d use a little bit of flea husk also to get that movement. That might be perfect. So a lot of times you can’t eat with them. So that’s there. Or the servers, they just want to eat themselves, so they are just serving it to get it over with. So in that environment you can’t, you either you get too much, too little, too quick, too slow.

So that’s the whole point, the culture. The animals, they get out and get it themselves. There is a field there, grass is growing, eat it how you like, how much you like, when you like. But humans then that regulation, there is that whole element of social interaction. Cows don’t interact when they eat, they just eat. But humans, that’s a platform of rasa. It’s one third of the Vaishnava interaction. Maybe that’s where the one third in Caitanya-caritāmṛta.

You have dadati pratigrhnati, bhunkte bhojayate, guhyam akhyati... That interaction based on food, on gifts, on discussions. So you see, Caitanya-caritāmṛta is full of that. That Prasāda, that interaction, the discussions between the devotees, the whole mood, how they relate to each other on the social platform. So all that science is very, very important. But nowadays somehow or another it does not seem to be valued or taught, or even spoken about as important. There is always the element of... It appears due to insecurity, there is the idea of 'Get control of your life, you are ok, you can do it.' Those are nice. But even if you can do and are successful, why would you want to be doing it alone? Why wouldn’t you want to be interacting with others who are important to you, your friends and family and senior devotees etc? So that whole element is kind of like lost. Philosophy we can discuss and we value, somehow or another culture is not.

And so it’s not a matter of East or West because even if you say West, what’s Western diet? You have American, otherwise each country has their own kind of cuisine. But then of that some of them are harder to call cuisines. They have that joke about the European heaven. Then they have hell when the British are the cooks. I think they consider heaven when the French or Italians are the cooks. There are cuisines that stand out more, that are more developed, more refined. If you say continental, that generally means more French, based on that kind of thing, or around that. Or basically that and then specialties from other areas of Europe. But it’s still it’s got the central thing that they actually have and understand the science of cooking. Or the Oriental, they understand the science of cooking. So you have these cuisines of the world that stand out. But otherwise most people don’t know, it’s just you have to eat, so then by necessity they learn to cook something. They figure out how a can opens, it works, how to get it into a pan and how to heat it up either in the modern way by a microwave or archaic by putting it on the stove. Nowadays you can buy ready-made, then you don’t have to worry about even opening the can, it’s already much more user-friendly.

Prabhu (3): What’s the position of raw foods and salads in Vedic diet, and with salads I don’t just mean a slice of cucumber and tomato but actually salads? Because it’s not just happening. Because maybe that’s the natural conditioning for people who are from the West. The same thing with soups, and I don’t just mean spicy dāl, but I mean actually soup.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Means, they work. The principle is that you start with something wet and you go into dry things and you go back into wet. That’s the Vedic principle of eating. So you see there, if you are following some cuisine it works because that was designed for those people  in that area what was available, but how many follow that? How many actually take the soup, the salad, the main course, the dessert, how many actually do that? Very few. So even they say 'Western,' they don’t even follow that. Even if they say 'America,' how many even eat their burgers and fries and their milk shake? How many do that? So it doesn’t really match anything. That’s the fun thing.

Basically when you are dealing in cold climates and it’s based off of wheat, and especially non-vegetarian, there is not a whole lot of roughage in the diet because vegetables aren’t so prominent and other things. So the salad becomes very important that it creates the roughage to actually make the system work. From it the salad itself basically it’s roughage because of the cellulose, we don’t have the system to digest it, so if we chew it really nicely, how much juice we get out of it that much benefit we get as vitamins and minerals. But if we don’t then it only acts as roughage. In the Indian diet they don’t use it as much because the variety of vegetables and rice and that then generally there is enough roughage that it works. But if you are going to use the salad then it is generally recommended, because they do have it, but they use it generally more as snacks and other things, it is not used at main meals, it is used in-between. But because the nature of is cooling and so it really robs the fire of digestion. Because technically even on the Western platform only people with pita constitution can digest salads. Those with vata and kapha they don’t do well with salad. The one doesn’t have enough digestion, the other they are already cold and it makes it more cold. But pita has got the fire, they can eat salad any time, any place and survive. Those persons, make sure they get it. But everybody else, then it may not be as important. If you are going to eat it, it’s generally better at the beginning or at the end, because if you mix the raw with the cooked it generally creates problem, it creates gas and everything. That’s why I am saying, the pita, it doesn’t matter, you can eat at any time, any place, it will work. But if it’s not then you have to be more careful about it, or eat it on its own, just as an in-between meal you eat a salad.

It doesn’t have as much of a place, because the idea is that something is cooked enough that the cellulose is broken, then you can get the things from it. So that’s why in Indian cooking you always have these simple vegetables. They are just cooked enough just that it’s there and then you get all that benefit from it. Plus all the cellulose is there so you get the roughage but it’s in a form that is easier to digest and easier to extract your vitamins and everything from.

So it’s a matter of if you really know cooking and the dieting and that then you can work out what actually works. But most of the time the complaints are there and the complaint may be valid but they don’t actually know how to solve it because they don’t have the skills, really. Because you have to actually know some culture of some variety to be able to actually work with cooking and diets.

That’s why in the West they have the 'this goes with that, doesn’t go with this,' and so many different things like that.

Prabhu (4): Is there somewhere where we can go to learn all these things?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Generally there is not so many somewheres because no one has been interested so therefore there has been no somewheres made. There are people that are learning these things but it’s more in-house. So far the out-house hasn’t been interested.

Prabhu (4): If someone is interested they have to learn by books?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: It is really hard to say because it is very rare I ever had that question asked.

Prabhu (4): It seems like important.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: It is, but it is very rarely asked. Basically to know how to cook you have to know how to eat. So the opportunities to know how to eat are also just as rare. Just like now it’s getting rare. Before there was some concept that you sit down and you’ll be served nicely, though that generally wasn’t done so nicely. But now it’s taken its ultimate step until buffet which means the same guys that didn’t know how to serve the Indian how really don’t know how to serve the Western. So therefore it’s really going to be a riot.

You need twenty guys before to serve and they don’t want to be there because they want to be attending the festival. Now you only need three guys to serve, but those three guys don’t want to attend the festival? So that means it can’t be a senior guy because they will pull rank and they get to go. So it’s going to be brand-new bhaktas that really hate to be there and that’s going to be what we call hot cuisine? It’s a joke.

Prabhu (4): So it’s hopeless.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: It’s never hopeless. That’s the nice thing about Kṛṣṇa consciousness. It is never hopeless. I am really not sure. You have to find people that know how to cook, know how to eat and associate with them. And from that expand it from there. Because there are devotees who know.

Because what I am saying, I said you have those three levels, you have they have the right attitude in cooking, they know the attitude and the cleanliness standards, they are just the Pancaratrika standards. Then they know the art and science of cooking. Then whatever cuisine they know, it will always work. Then if they know Vedic, nice. But if they don’t, at least it is edible food that will work. They have the attitude, they know how to cook it, they know how to serve it, they know how to present it, they know how to eat it. So that’s what makes them good cooks because they know all three. Because you have to know three to know the whole science.

Because if you know how to cook but you don’t know how to eat, how do you actually know what you are doing with it? You don’t know how to serve it, how will it go? So you have to know the whole thing. So if you find those devotees that know that then that makes it easier, that would be the only practical thing that I can say now. But if it’s seen that people actually want to know all these things there might, you find devotees that know these might be willing to teach.

Prabhu (2): Starting with understanding their own chart, vata, pita and kapha. Normally three planets are kapha, three are vata and three are pita. So understanding what is their constitution, then understand the rasa, astringent, pungent, sweet. See what is more beneficial for their bodies then learn to eat that kind of food.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: That’s good. But still that would have to be based on knowing the devotional aspects of cooking and the science of cooking. Because, in any case, whatever it is, if it is not done well, it still is not.

Because if something is done really well and it’s what you appreciate... In other words, until you appreciate good cooking, proper cooking, then that won’t even work. Because you can give them and they won’t appreciate. So the whole culture of what you have grown up in and that. So that’s the element, it’s just the mind is satisfied. That’s why it’s considered it’s good because the mind is satisfied. So even if you get sick you don’t notice it. But if you don’t like it even if you get a little sick, a little discomforture from it, it’s all that fault. While the other is, you can tolerate. Like kids, they can eat all kinds of junk, they can get sick as anything but they are perfectly happy because they are just unaware of it. So it’s very important that one likes what one is eating. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean that these other things aren’t good. Because Kṛṣṇa who being God could eat anything, He has chosen these particular things to eat because out of all the different tastes they are the most developed and refined and everything. So it’s a nice direction to go towards. But I would say more important is to learn how to cook. Because if you can cook then you can always learn how to cook Indian.

Because the Vedic is actually much different, Vedic meaning properly cooked maybe very different than what we experience in the temples. Some may know, some may not know. But if you actually go to cultured people’s houses and eat how they cook then you generally never have a problem.

Prabhu (5): …is very famous in cooking…a lot of knowledge. Maybe they can…  something?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Books are there and stuff, but you still have to know cooking to use them. Because the Indian cook books, they are for people who know how to cook. But they teach you variety and elements that you may not have known you could do, what spicing could go with which vegetables and which kind of preparation. So the cook book is to expand your repertoire as opposed to teach you how to cook. Teaching, you actually have to be in the kitchen and learn it from someone who is cooking. Because it’s an art.

It’s like music, you can’t learn from a book. But if you know music then you can look at so many other people’s music and from that get ideas and expand the ways that you would do things. So the same way is... So that’s the difficulty. So books are there, it’s just a matter of actually teaching the art and science of cooking. That’s more of a difficulty.

Prabhu (6): It is very difficult in the West for some devotees to accept the…spicing. They say the food should not be spicy. They actually neutral means there should not be spices inside.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Yes, somehow or another they connect the spices with chilli. But it’s just like when they eat their sandwich, how much ketchup or mustard do they put on it? It becomes very spicy. Mustard is a strong spice, it is very hot. Vinegar is very strong. All these other things, they are very strong.

So it’s not actually that, it’s a matter of they don’t know how to use it in a balanced way that it actually gives a nice taste. It’s easier to buy it in a bottle. Because the people that make the Kikkoman, the people that make the Heinz Ketchup, the people that make up, they know how to balance. But the point is, how much you put, too much or too little doesn’t work. If you put too much salt, it won’t taste good, if you put too little salt, it won’t taste good. You have to put the right amount.

Generally what happens is, when you drop cooking down to the position that it’s not an important service and therefore people that are not really nessarily interested in it or inspired in it, then they by duty have to cook, you end up with something not edible. And then if we say that’s Indian or that’s Vedic, that’s very far from the truth.

If I took a piece of bread and put it in the toaster and toast it until it was charcoil and then got it out and then put one milligram of butter in one corner and then serve it to you and say that this is Western food, would I be correct? It’s bread, it’s toasted, it’s butter, so why it’s not Western? So in the same way what most devotees call Indian food is to that extreme not Indian. So that’s the problem.

It’s just bad cooking. It’s not a matter of Indian or not Indian. It’s like I doubt that people survive... I have heard of one temple where it was not uncommon that the lunch was like dal and popcorn. That was lunch for the whole temple, a hundred devotees, they got dal and popcorn. And the best part is that because they cooked the popcorn fresh and they put it in those big black plastic bags to keep it fresh... So, unfortunately, the popcorn is hot – plastic. So when they actually served it, it had that very down-home plastic flavor. So plastic popcorn and dal. So that’s not cooking. That’s actually criminal. These people should be locked up.

Prabhu (3): And because most people don’t know what they are doing in the kitchen so… chilli because if you don’t know what you are doing with chilli you shouldn’t be touching it, it can be poisonous.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: You have to be very, very careful. All the six tastes need to be there. Means, you have so much difficulties in the diets because they don’t have all the six tastes. Like in the West they don’t use them. But if they use them wrong it also overdoes it.

Prabhu (3): Can’t one get it with ginger and black pepper?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: You can if you know how to do it.

Prabhu (3): And then avoid the chilli alltogether. 

HH BVPS Mahārāja: You can if you know. Means if it is not too rich. If it goes over the top rich then it’s better to use a little chilli. The ginger, but how to use the ginger. How it’s prepared, you cut it you put it in the chaunce, how much you cook it... Because the more it’s cooked then the more it will cut the ghee and all that and at the same time it won’t cause... If it is too raw it also it has the element, it will create diarrhea and stuff like that. But if it’s more cooked then it won’t do that. Also the rawer it is the more it creates desire. While if it’s cooked it won’t. Then you have the element you can put it there.

But how many know that you can also grate it, fry that and use the juice, squeeze it, because otherwise if you don’t squeeze the grated ginger sticks to the pan. Then you put that juice in later and that gives another flavor. And the pepper, you put it in the chaunce and you can put a lot more, it kills the black pepper flavor, but the pungency remains. Even they are using black pepper and ginger, to know how to use it to get...

Because, otherwise, the Vedic is just those two. Chillies is introduced by the Portuguese. It’s something from South America. The principle of pungent is there, but you really have to know properly how to use it. Because like I said, it shouldn’t be overly hot. If you want, it should either be neutral or just on the warm side if you like that taste. But when it actually goes into it’s hot in the mouth that’s something that has been developed because then it pumps adrenaline into the system. So they are eating it and you wonder how it’s not killing them? It is, but they don’t mind that because of the benefits they get from all the adrenaline rush. So what to do?

Prabhu (3): So chilli is not Vedic and also not Indian?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Yes, it’s not. But they have expertly brought it into their system by those who know how to use it. So those who are cultured, they use it very well and you wouldn’t have any problem with it. But you basically won’t know that it’s there.

In other words, if you know it’s there then it’s a problem. If you can just tell that it just balanced everything, then that’s actually... Like you are saying, Ayurveda, you are trying to balance the dosas. So cooking means you are trying to balance all the spicing with the vegetable and the method of cooking. So all that put together. So depending upon how you cook is how you are going to use your spices and how much spices or what vegetable you use. If you use potatoes, cauliflower, you can basically use double the spicing that you would for something else, for something like let’s say beans, barbati or these French beans, they won’t absorb any spice, so you have to use very minimal on them. So you have to know the whole thing because then otherwise they overdo things that shouldn’t and underdo other things they should, and so it’s a mess.

Prabhu (7): And also when you are talking about the balance the ghee and the chillies. So in one of the memory books Srila Prabhupāda mentions he is talking about barbati chacheri and then he mentions that in barbati chachari the problem is not too much oil, the problem is not enough chillies. So what about the balancing?

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Barbati or bati chachari?

Prabhu (7): Bati chachari.

HH BVPS Mahārāja: Bati chachari, not barbati. Prabhupāda had one preparation that he would make, bati chachari, very few people know it. It’s a boiled sabji, so the health people can appreciate it. You take a pot, generally a flat bottom and generally one that is wider than it is tall, that kind. And you put in potatoes cut in big pieces and you can use either eggplant or cauliflower or potol, those are generally the ones that are used, probably you can use anything, but these are the ones that go well in it. That’s probably two parts vegetable per one part potato, … you do half-half. Then once you have that in there then you are going to put in there ghee for about ten sabjis that size, chilli ten times, and turmeric ten times, and then you put the regular amount of water just to cover to boil it and regular amount of salt. Then you put the lid on it, put it on the stove and boil it not too fast that it cooks nicely until it goes dry and it burns. So it’s actually charcoal on the bottom. And it’s an amazing sabji. It’s in a different class.

So Prabhupāda is saying, the problem is not the ghee, the problem is not enough chilli. But if you put the right amount of chilli it’s not hot and it’s not heavy. It’s rich but it’s not heavy. So that’s the science, unless one knows that... So it’s actually very, even though it’s actually such a simple sabji, it’s actually very difficult to get it right. Once one has it then that’s there. But it’s not an easy sabji to get right.

You notice on the diary, when he is on the Jaladuta, he said today I made bati and then they have in bracket 'kichari' because they didn’t understand it, it was bati chachari. There is not bati kichari. Bati chachari. Otherwise you don’t write kichari in your diary.

Prabhu (3): It’s nothing to write home about.

HH BVPS Maharaja: Yes, it’s nothing to write home about. So we end here for today. So īśāvāsya principle, everything is according to the Lord’s balance and desire.
Excerpt from a Lecture on Śrī Īśopaniṣad, 25th November 2008, Bhaktivedānta Academy, Śrīdhāma Māyāpura

Original transcription by Uddhava Priya Prabhu, used with permission, minor edits made by site admins

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