Devotees and Health
When I first lived in a Hare Krishna temple, another new devotee, whom I'll call "Bhakta Michael," won my admiration for his complete neglect of his health and hygiene. I had learned that the self was different from the body, but not knowing how to apply that understanding, I thought Bhakta Michael must be an advanced soul. As I read Srila Prabhupada’s writings, however, and understood more about the real transcendentalist’s attitude toward the body, I gave up my admiration for abuse in the guise of detachment.
Prabhupada would sign his letters, “I hope this meets you in good health.” He was concerned that his disciples led a healthy life, including cleanliness, exercise, and a proper diet. When an early disciple became ill, Prabhupada advised him, “Your first business is to look after your health, because if you don’t feel well everything will be topsy-turvy.” He would sometimes tell sick devotees to suspend work and take complete rest.
Sometimes Prabhupada would recommend special diets, which might include barley, fruit, milk, or raw cereals soaked in water overnight. Diet, after all, can be the mother of either health or disease. Prabhupada also gave medical advice for conditions ranging from a toothache or an infected finger to constipation or jaundice. If an illness was serious he suggested consulting “some approved physician.” To one disciple, who was making money for Krishna through business, Prabhupada wrote, “You must have the best kind of treatment available, and you can spend from the money you are collecting on behalf of Krishna.”
As for surgical operations, he was wary. As far as possible, he said, operations should be avoided. But “when there is no alternative, of course we have to take shelter of such demonic treatment.”
Prabhupada said that his own body was “a broken old house.” He would often say he could pass away at any moment. But he wanted his disciples to live for a long time “to push on this Krishna consciousness.”
Above all Srila Prabhupada advised his disciples to depend upon Lord Krishna. “Actually, medicine is not the remedial measure for our bodily troubles unless we are helped by Krishna. Therefore, whenever there is bodily trouble we may adopt the prescribed methods of medical science and depend upon Krishna for His mercy.”
As we may err on the side of neglecting the body, we may also be too concerned about pampering it. As a new devotee I was impressed by the vitality of a devotee who worked at our London restaurant, then called Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. He looked the picture of health as he chewed ginseng and punched the till ("cash register") keys.
We lived in the same house, and I felt awed by his vibrant health. He worked out on dumbbells, humidified his bedroom by putting damp cloths on the radiator, avoided eating salt, sugar, and milk products, took a variety of vitamins and mineral supplements, and “never” got ill.
Seeing my struggles with one bout of flu after another, he convinced me to try a course of vitamins. I spent $45 and didn’t notice much difference except that my urine turned bright yellow.
That devotee went to live in the States, and a year later I was sorry to hear he had contracted leukemia. It took only six months for his strong body to become an uninhabitable wreck. When he died I gave up my attempt to achieve perfect health.
Srila Prabhupada referred to the body as vyadhi-mandiram, “a temple of disease.” He said that as long as we have a material body there must be some kind of trouble, but because the body is external we should not be very much disturbed by it.
In a lecture Prabhupada was comparing disease to “Maya’s agent.” Even Krishna, he said, was attacked every day by Maya’s agents, what to speak of Krishna’s devotees. “But,” he continued, “Krishna promises, ‘My devotee is never vanquished,’ so therefore our business is to become His devotee. Then everything will be all right.”