SPIRITUAL NUTRITION PART I
The term spiritual nutrition conjures up widely different connotations to different people. Some think of spiritual thoughts and texts, others think of the delectable sweet and savory dishes we prepare in Indian cuisine, many of which are associated with the numerous religious festivals and pujas we have during the course of a year in India. The other day I came across an article about “food of the Gods” that described a whole bunch of sweets in the Indian repertoire.
To me, the term has come to mean a combination of things, both physical and mental, that contribute to our spiritual evolution as human beings. It has been a long road and a gradual awakening to the spiritual truths that now light up my way. It all started one day many years ago with my then 15-year old daughter asking me why we were “drinking this milk.” This milk that she referred to was the regular cow’s milk that we were using daily in our diet, so I asked her what was wrong with the milk. Her counter-question in reply took me by surprise—well, almost: “Do you know what they do to the cows from whom they pump this milk?”
The twentieth century was coming to an end, and we were in America; my mind flashed back to almost thirty years earlier, when I, as a teenager growing up in India, had asked the same question. The evils inflicted on cows by the dairy industry were being brought to my consciousness a second time, with even more force than before.
As a teenager in India I’d been mortified by the sight of a stuffed calf carried by the milkman; male calves, I found out, were killed because they not only did not have milk production potential, but hurt their human “owner’s” profits by drinking their mothers’ milk. So they were killed, but then stuffed and carried by the milkman on his shoulder because otherwise the mother cow would stop making milk. My timid voice had been silenced then with the argument that my not drinking the milk would not change the world, only I’d be the loser for lack of nutrition.
Three decades later, in a different cultural setting, my rebellious daughter was not so easily put down. My reply, playing back this recorded argument about one person not changing the world, was met with blazing eyes and a scorching tongue: “well, it takes ONE to start the change, you know!” I had to admit she had a point there.
Well, to cut a long story short, the immense torture inflicted upon the dairy cows, in the enormous factory farms of this day and age, during their short, sick lives from birth to the conveyor belt in the slaughterhouses, was an even more shocking revelation than that of the earlier occasion; and I could no longer touch milk myself. I turned vegan for ethical reasons, and thus began the awakening.
The immediate disappearance of several of my ailments was an unexpected outcome. My sinusitis came down, skin on my face cleared up, several allergies disappeared. Of course, that was not the end of my woes; but as a big fan of all things dairy, I’d had no idea these ailments of mine had been caused by dairy products all those years. Although I’d delved into many disciplines during the course of two illustrious careers, I was a zero in matters concerning health. I was only sure of one thing: I’d spent all my childhood with doctors and injections, and didn’t want any more of them in my life. And after going through the trauma of seeing my younger brother spend ten days in quarantine in a hospital once, I was quite sure I’d rather die than end up in one of those establishments of modern society.
But I didn’t have a clue about health. And being something of a workaholic, I’d never had time for it either. Even after the revelations following my turning vegan.
Even then, my reflections were less about the effects of dairy on my health than about the consequences of collective karma of human actions in contemporary society. In the twenty first century, there is nothing civilized about human “civilization” if one were to judge human activities from an ethical platform. Do we really need science to tell us that the milk from a tortured, medicated, hormone-infused and extremely sickened cow can do us more harm than good?
In India the term spiritual is much more easily understood than in the west. India has been the seat of spiritual awareness and enlightenment since the beginning of civilization. Then how do we explain what is happening in Indian society today, why we are lagging behind even the West in our sense of ethics, let alone economic achievement? The answer needs a little reflection to digest.
Not long after I’d turned vegan I was helping steer the Miami chapter of John Robbin’s international organization Earthsave. We’d have a guest speaker for each of our awesome monthly vegan potluck dinners. These talks educated me a great deal on the health benefits of a plant-based diet. However, one of those talks really exploded in my brain. The speaker was my age, with a difference. He was a professional athlete and gymnast, I was a sedentary university-based researcher and professor. He trained world-class athletes for the Olympics, I trained blue-eyed youngsters in intellectual activity. He bounced around with the agility of a teenager, I hobbled around with a painful back, migraines, severe constipation, and a periodic attack of some sort of spasm that would freeze my entire back from hips to shoulders, making me a virtual invalid in bed for a couple of days at least, each time. In short, I had the agility of a ninety year old in my middle age, and he the energy and spring of a teenager. What could explain such a contrast? Of course, there is no doubt our respective vocations, and their opportunity and attendant quantum of exercise, played a significant role. But I was a regular gym-user myself, and I know there is only so far you can go with physical activity with a given state of the body. No, there was one other equally, if not more, important difference.
He ate fruit and leaves; I ate like the rest of us do: “civilized” foods.
It was a mind-opener for me that one could not just subsist, but thrive at optimum level on fruit and leafy greens. In those days being vegan was not so easy in the U.S. as it is today; there was no “vegan” labeling, and one had to know the source of all the ingredients in the simplest products to tell if it was vegan. But fruit is fruit is fruit, wherever in the work one happens to be! I think it was the sheer convenience of it that got me started on that diet the very next day.
Since that momentous experience, I’ve come a long way. Fueled by the scary sight of my long-medicated mother’s painful health condition without a medical name, I resolved to get myself out of that same potential end; discovered the confusing and conflicting maze of literature on nutrition and health; and eventually ended up first cancelling my medical insurance and a year later leaving my lucrative faculty position to delve full-time into research and self-education in human health and nutrition. My expired faculty ID card still allowed me access to the restricted libraries of medical schools.
The scientific knowledge I gained over the years through the medical, health and nutrition literature, however, is dwarfed by what I’ve learned from my own personal experience and research. The fruit-dominated diet I’d begun soon gave way to a fruit-only diet, quite naturally as my body craved for it. It felt as though I was beginning a new relationship with my self, and my body was responding with delight. I lost 15 kilos in a month, then started slowly gaining much of it back again, stabilizing at my correct weight. At the same time, my body showed startling changes. I went from 30 difficult push-ups to 100 easy ones; as grains disappeared from my diet, migraines vanished too—along with practically all my other ailments, including the painful state of my injured back and the paralyzing spasms. I found I could actually jog uphill without a hint of fatigue. I, who had to be careful lifting a chair, found myself helping a friend reconstruct the roofing of her house, bending down from a ladder to lift 15-foot wooden roofing beams and installing them with a nail-gun, for several hours, before realizing with amazement that I had a different body now.
Over the years, I’ve learned a great deal experientially about how the body functions on a pure and natural human diet, which itself needs some clarification. The experience has been well beyond the physical and mental, into the spiritual. So let me share what I know now about what I call spiritual nutrition.
First, I need to clarify what I mean by spiritual. Spirituality is often confused with religiosity. It took me a long time to understand that spirituality has nothing to do with religion, although religions are based around the teachings of spiritually enlightened souls. We are all born with spirituality, not with religion. We only get inducted into a religion, which is of human design and creation. Our spiritual self on the other hand, is not of human creation; it is something that resides deep within us and is at the core of the meaning of our lives on earth. Social practices, however, are geared toward hiding this spirituality in the interest of material progress that would otherwise not be possible. Religion, consisting as it does of ritualistic practices, is a double-edged sword: deeply understood through a combination of intellect and utter devotion to the Godhead, it can lead to spiritual evolution; interpreted superficially, it may actually prevent true spiritual attainment. Many deeply religious people I know are quite far from being aware, let alone evolved, spiritually. Religion is collective by nature, consisting of beliefs, rites and rituals accepted by a group of people. Spirituality, on the other hand, is an individual matter. There may be general maps to help one get to base camp; but as one progresses in the climb up the mountain, there are less and less defined pathways, until in the final stretch, there is no map at all, you make your own. It works much the same way in our evolution as spiritual beings.
Our physical bodies assume relevance in our spiritual growth especially when we experience illness. After all, our bodies are the temples in which our souls reside in the current lifetime. Although admittedly not the most important aspect of spiritual enlightenment, what we put into our bodies can greatly influence how easily we lend ourselves to spiritual growth. Every spiritual figure has been aware of this aspect, but it has gained special significance in our present times, when physical illness is reaching alarming proportions in society. Sickness, while irrelevant to an evolved soul, can hinder spiritual growth in the novice seeker. An awareness of spiritually nourishing foods, or spiritual nutrition, is therefore needed more than ever today.
Spiritual nutrition includes everything that goes into us—not just the foods we eat and drink, but anything else material, as well as things mental—such as thoughts and ideas. In this article I focus on the physical foods element. Basically my argument for spiritual nutrition is eating natural human food.
Let me elaborate a little on what I consider to be human food. In some of my talks I deal with the human digestive system in depth, describing relevant anatomy and physiology to show how we differ from carnivores, omnivores, and herbivores as well, though we resemble most the herbivores. For the interested reader, Milton Mills, MD, has tabulated 19 such points of comparison in such a manner as to leave no doubt about what our bodies are designed for. A Google search with his name will easily bring up the table, consisting of all the scientific facts that one may hunger for; here I will limit myself to the essential implications for spiritual nutrition.
It has become abundantly clear to me over the years, that the true human diet does not include dairy, meat, or grain. When I mention this in my talks, some people actually exclaim, “Good heavens, what do we have left to eat?!” Others ask incredulously, “How can you say that, when we have been having these foods for thousands of years?” So let me explain.
I’d earlier mentioned that we most closely resemble the herbivores, but we actually differ from all the three categories. Our system belongs to a separate category that one noted nutritionist calls “the scavenger” category. In other words, our digestive tracts, alongside that of vultures and hyenas, can deal with a wide variety of matter. I’ll come to that later. But what’s important here is that “dealing with” is not the same as “benefit from” or “is nourished by.” And when I look on the body as the temple of an evolving soul, I understand that the legitimate fuel for the human body does NOT include meat, dairy or grain. It is only for the already enlightened soul that has no more need for the body that the nature of food ingested on earth ceases to matter.
For the common man, there is enough scientific evidence for the various ways in which meat, dairy and grain lead us to ill health. That research literature is now largely available to the public on the Internet, through the Medline and other research databases.
However, we don’t need science to understand universal Truths. We can go a long way through simple observation, controlled use of our intellectual faculties, and spiritual awareness and reflection. This is less easily done by the large majority of us due to the busy nature of the present-day lifestyle. This is what I wish to share here.
So when I started observing and reflecting, I looked at the issue of meat as food. The first thing I noted was that all animals in nature use only what they’ve been given by Nature to gather their food—except humans. The argument that after all, it was nature who gave us the brains to make weapons and use them for our food, is great; and later I’ll explain why it isn’t valid, but for now, let’s look at just what Nature has provided each animal, including humans. Where do we stand?
Where we stand is certainly not on top of the food chain; we find ourselves, in fact, pretty low in that chain. We can’t even compete in speed or strength with other two-legged creatures. Have you ever tried to catch a wild chicken in the woods? I’ve tried, when my body was at its best capability; I doubt even a trained athlete could do it. A wee chicken is easily out of our reach—with those frail little legs. And if we compare ourselves with a two-legged creature our own size, such as an ostrich, well, we wouldn’t even want to be anywhere in sight of it in the wild—one swipe of its leg can send us straight into oblivion. One on one, we’re no match for two-legged creatures, let alone the four legged ones. And if we did manage to catch an unwary little rodent, our jaws are not capable of processing that animal into ingestible form without other aids. A four-legged carnivore, by comparison, can finish off a prey from head to tail—bone and hair included. Can we do it? No part of our digestive system—from mouth to anus, from our teeth to jaws to digestive acids to intestinal formation–is up to the task. And if all this were not enough, ask yourself if a pig or a cow in its natural habitat has you salivating like a piece of fruit does. Do you really feel an urge to chase down that animal, butcher it and dig into its flesh? By comparison, what do you feel when you see a luscious fruit, just ripe, hanging from a tree or a bush? Wouldn't our mouths water at the sight? Meat, quite simply, was not intended by Nature to be the fuel for the human body.
Next I turned to the issue of grain. Now there’s a biggie! How dare it be said that grain is not a staple food of humans! But going by the same yardstick of what Nature has provided as equipage for the human body, can we really use grain practically as our food in the wilderness? How long would it take to gather a handful of grain, and when we did, would we be able to eat it without the aid of other things like a container, water, and fire? Clearly the answer is no.
What use, then, does grain serve, is it a food item at all? You bet it is—for birds. Sparrows and other birds will happily peck at a few grains for a meal; they simply de-husk and swallow the grains, with imperceptible effort. Can we do the same? It is abundantly clear that Nature did not design our bodies to work on grain as fuel. There is mounting research and empirical evidence for the association between grain consumption and diseases of the nervous system as well as that of the digestive system. Isn’t it ironic that we put our scarecrows on our fields to keep the birds away from our foods while we unscrupulously steal theirs!
Less obvious was the issue of dairy. It came as something of a revelation that many human societies of the Orient do not drink milk. On reflection and a little observation, though we can see something very obvious but little thought about: that practically no animal on earth drinks milk in their adulthood—except humans. And that, not human milk but the milk of an animal that starts life with 25 kilos as a new-born calf and grows into a half ton bull or cow. Can cow’s milk be food for a human baby, let alone a human adult?
Something is quite amiss in each of these situations where humans eat meat, grain or dairy. And science only confirms this view. Research has shown unequivocally that our stomach acids and pH are very different from that of a carnivore; that each food item requires specific enzymes for its digestion and assimilation; that we lack the enzymes to break down and digest grain; and that our enzyme for digesting milk—rennin—begins to disappear from the human gut at around three to four years of age. Our bodies actually see cow milk protein as dangerous particles to be eliminated. In fact, this last finding also helped in identifying the cause of diabetes type I, where it was found that the body’s immune system was mistaking the pancreas’ insulin-producing beta cells for the structurally similar milk protein molecules, thus attacking them.
Well, then, what IS human food? What are our bodies equipped to eat in Nature, with just the equipage that we have been given? We are eminently capable of climbing trees, picking fruit; our hands can easily grasp leaves and surface vegetables; and we can even eat some roots and tubers, not to mention limited amounts of nuts and seed incidentally. All these we can eat in their raw form, without any processing through fire or other means. And what’s more, research even shows that our immune system doesn’t go up in arms when we eat these foods unaltered by cooking, as they do when we eat our “normal” diet.
In my talks this often brings up the question: “What you say is fine, but why then did God give us brains to develop our tools and weapons?”
The answer to that was not immediately obvious from mere observation and reflection. In the course of my spiritual pursuits, though, I found a clue in the Vedas, those eternal Truths that are stated to be beyond all religion, beyond time and space.
According to Vedic scriptures, the human life is special; it represents the highest level in the process of a soul’s evolution.
What is so special about human life? Mere observation does not help, for other animals are more capable in every visible feature—speed, strength, compassion, accordance with Natural laws, dealing with Nature’s seasons, living in natural habitat or building with their natural equipage, and efficient and effective communication without the so-called sophistication of our grammar and vocabulary. Their sixth sense, their sense of smell and vision are all much more acute and functional than ours. They can think, and they have emotions too. We only have to observe the ants, the bees, and other insects all the way to the fish, the birds and the whales to wonder as to what capability we really have that is superior to theirs.
The only feature that sets us apart from all other life forms on Earth is choice—deliberative choice.
Sure, a cow eats selective varieties of grass, it is programmed to know which ones, or it finds out quickly enough by sheer instinct. Who is to tell whether or not a cow has thought of trying to do other things that what it was accustomed to doing? Every now and then we come across an animal that behaves in an exceptional manner with reference to the rest of its species; does this observation not suggest a capacity to think and decide? Yet there is a limit to what it can choose to do. It does not have the choice to develop its brain and the ability to take considered decisions in quite the way humans have.
But why this ability for considered decisions brought about by the limitless abilities of our hands to turn our thoughts and ideas into reality?
Again the clue is to be found in the Vedas. The Yoga sutras tell us that our intellect is meant to be used in gaining spiritual enlightenment; and to take nothing on blind faith. Obviously, then, the eternal Truths can be reasoned out—provided that we can channel our intellectual capacities in the right direction and develop them through meditational practices.
So I pray for Light on the issue, meditate, and reflect deeply, until the Truth appears. There is nothing dramatic about this process, it is just a lot of effort, and the knowledge just rises from within, quite imperceptibly. One day, you just know. But you have to ask your Self, search deep, and spend time on the effort.
Thus it is clear to me now. Quite simply, all other life forms are in kindergarten. And then we get to human incarnation—and grade school. That is human life. Here we are deemed ready to learn. And we are tested on what we have learned. We progress to the next grade or stay back in the same grade in the next life. Thus we pass through as many life-times as needed until we have passed all the grades. When we pass the ultimate grade we attain our liberation and join with the Source. Simple as that.
Now it all becomes clear. To be tested, we need to have choice. Unless there is a choice between a correct or a wrong answer, we would be plodding along like other animals, doing what we were designed to do. The agency that allows humans to exercise the choice is the formation of the hands. With our hands, we can embrace our fellow human or we can kill him. They allow us not only to develop tools and weapons, but use fire and other elements in ways that other animals simply do not have the ability to do. And we have been given a body that can put up with wrong answers for a long time, making the more advanced lessons not that easy to understand. How we learn and what we do with that choice is at the core of our spiritual evolution.
So we have the choice. We have the intellect. We have our hands. Can we now realize the eternal Truths? Thus human lives begin the educational journey through several grades, one lifetime to the next, until we have learned all the lessons created by the human experience in order to finally reach the ultimate Truths of the Universe. When we do that, we would come full circle to realize the true glory of Creation.
But all said and done, food is a subject very close to the human heart, and people are not that readily convinced. A question that often pops up in my talks is: “If meat, dairy and grain are not part of human food, then how come we’ve thrived and actually grown as a civilization eating this over the past several thousand years?”
So just how many thousands of years have we grown as a civilization? The anthropologists tell us that agriculture started about 10,000 years ago. That was when we appropriated grain, legumes and dairy as our foods. 10,000 years in the evolution of the human species translates to about 15 days in a person’s lifetime. Eating of meat goes further back, to the discovery of fire. The consensus on precisely how far back is not as clear as in the case of agriculture, but even assuming the equivalent of a couple of years in a human lifetime, is that long enough to assert that we are eating what our bodies were designed for, especially given the tolerance of our bodies for wrong answers intentionally built into the design? I don’t think so. In evolutionary terms, we are feeling the effects of wrong decisions soon enough already.
However, here’s the punch line: we don’t even have to dwell too much on this issue. The point is less relevant than the current scientific evidence on the harmful effects of meat, dairy and grain on our health, and the research evidence that cooking destroys vital enzymes in the food.
When we come to think of it, which other animal in Nature cooks its food, except humans? The research and empirical evidence is mounting on how much of the vital energy and the enzyme content of our natural foods is destroyed in the cooking process. The correct answer in the choice of food becomes amply clear with the empirical evidence on cancer reversal through dietary changes, in cases where the medical community has given up on the patient. In fact, the empirical evidence is pouring in for not just cancer, but practically every chronic or degenerative disease. How telling it is when we see a strict raw plant-based diet and emotional work bringing a body back to health from the verge of death when no medical or other therapeutic treatment works!
Does it mean that we have to go back to eating a completely raw diet of fruits and vegetables? I don’t think so. For one thing, we have come a long way from Nature over hundreds of thousands of years, evolving into our present form. Many physical features of the human body have adapted to our changing lifestyles, although the basic physiology of our digestive system has not. That is why a raw plant-based diet still works so well when we’re in trouble. There’s an old saying they quote in the West, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!“ Well, I know enough centenarians who have been living happily and completely on non-human foods. Disease is rarely caused by food choices alone, although they assume importance once disease has set in.
The point is, disease carries a message for our spiritual evolution—the lessons the soul has to learn in this grade, this lifetime. It is still our choice whether we choose to learn it or simply end this life with the disease. If one chooses to learn the lesson and grow, then one has to begin with spiritual nutrition.
So, finally, what is spiritual nutrition? In the present article, I’ve laid out a large part of the physical aspect of spiritual nutrition, that is to say, our awareness and choice of natural human foods. But that is not the end of the story, though. Not just what we eat, but how much we eat, when we eat, and how we eat are all important issues that space considerations do not permit here, and must await a separate opportunity for discussion.
Issues of longevity don’t figure in my spiritual nutrition question because the length of life is immaterial; how we live it is far more of significance in our spiritual evolution. What I can say with certainty is that raw fruits and vegetables growing above the ground, taken with discretion and eaten mindfully, can help us accelerate our spiritual awareness and connection to Nature.
However, there is another, often more important, aspect to spiritual nutrition, and that has to do with our emotional experience of Life and the lessons to be learned, our ignorance of which is usually manifested in the physical form of disease. Perhaps that is why the spiritual heads of our time focused more on the mental and emotional than the topic of physical nutrition. For they knew the ultimate Truth—that this miracle of a human body actually doesn’t even need food or drink to sustain itself. There are people living otherwise ordinary lives today in various parts of the world to whom this whole discussion about food would be irrelevant, and has been so for years. However, to do justice to this aspect is well beyond the scope of the present article and will be addressed in a future publication.
For now, my discussion of spiritual nutrition has centered on a theme that has escaped our attention for a long time through civilization: the question of what we really should be eating. But it has been so for a very good reason: the material objectives of civilization run counter to Nature and Her laws.
Then why is this important now? It is important in these times because we are in a very interesting phase of evolution on this planet. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have beaten a path away from Nature in every way possible. We have not just gone against Her laws; we have abused and assaulted her in a thousand different ways. We have rejected Her gifts, we have relentlessly tried to control Her, we have tried to establish superiority over our Creator. In doing so, we have become sick, very sick—of body as much as of mind. For this there is a price to pay. We are already witnessing the non-sustainability of our ways, but are pushing blindly ahead as a race. Things are bound to get far worse before a better world can emerge, but even for that to happen, the need of the hour is spiritual awareness—of our roots, our source, our creation.
A second reason is that people are facing more diseases, and earlier in their lives, than ever before in the history of civilization. Several rare health conditions are becoming pandemics today. Through history the spiritual incarnations have spoken about whatever aspect of human existence needed urgent attention. There is an urgent need today for people to learn about their spiritual roots, but most of us are not in that stage of enlightenment that we would happily discard our bodies. For the vast majority of the population, there is concern about health, and spiritual awareness can come best and most easily through the subject of our physical nourishment.
Spiritual nutrition is key to this end.