from Back To Godhead Magazine #20-12, 1985
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
My spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, would always close his letters to his disciples with the phrase “Hoping this meets you in good health….” Of course, everyone wishes good health to those they love. But what actually constitutes good health? There are many different opinions.
For years Americans have heard that a balanced diet must include meat. The National Academy of Sciences has long recommended minimum daily requirements of vitamins and minerals. But controversy abounds. Recently the Academy advised lower recommendations. The American Heart Association advocates stricter dietary controls. Evidence from the American Medical Association linking a vegetarian diet to better health prompted the meat and dairy industry to advocate a slackening of government supervision of diet.
It isn’t surprising that in the face of today’s many divergent views on health the public takes its own course. Time and time again we engage in activities that we know are hazardous to our health. As psychiatrist Norman Tamarkin attests, “We don’t take care of ourselves, we drug ourselves, we overeat, we don’t exercise enough; It’s bound to have a depressing effect. It generally lessens our resistance to emotional stresses as well as physical viruses.”
To live a satisfying life in perfect health is possible, but one must have actual knowledge of the body and the soul and of the purpose of health. This knowledge is given in the Vedic literature. By turning to the Vedas, we can go beyond the confusion caused by shortsighted views of health and happiness.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna; the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that although we are eternal by nature, we are presently dwelling inside temporary material bodies. It is by ignorance and illusion only that we accept the body—so prone to disease and discomfort—to be our self.
To render loving devotional service to Krishna is the ultimate goal of life, and it is toward that end only that we should maintain good health. To remain fit in body and mind in order to better practice Krishna consciousness is the ultimate purpose of health. We should not keep healthy just so we can better enjoy sex or gain an edge on our business competitors. Rather than pursue those short-term, illusory pleasures, we should keep healthy for the pleasure of Krishna.
Essential to health is diet. But whose authority are we to trust when it comes to selecting a diet? In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna describes various diets and their effects.
Everything in the material world, Lord Krishna explains, acts under the influence of three factors, or forces, known as the three modes of material nature. These three modes—goodness, passion, and ignorance—and their interactions create the great variety of thoughts, feelings, and sensory perceptions that we experience in material consciousness. Just as the three primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—combine to produce all other colors, so the three modes of material nature—goodness, passion, and ignorance—combine to create all the varieties, gradations, and nuances of our experience. And that includes diet.
In the Bhagavad-gita Krishna explains, “Foods in the mode of goodness increase the duration of life, purify one’s existence, and give strength, health, happiness, and satisfaction” (Bg. 17.8). These palatable and nourishing foods include grains, milk products, fruits, and vegetables. Foods that are overly bitter, sour, salty, dry, or hot are in the mode of passion. These foods disturb the mind and cause disease. We also read, “Food cooked more than three hours before being eaten, which is tasteless, stale, putrid, decomposed, and unclean, is enjoyed by people in the mode of ignorance.”
In commenting on these verses, Srila Prabhupada writes, “The purpose of food is to increase the duration of life, purify the mind, and aid bodily strength. This is its only purpose.”
So we should not eat just to gratify our tongues; rather, we should eat to have strength and vitality for serving Krishna. This is a very important factor in maintaining health. And the foods that give the most vitality are those which maybe eaten in natural form, such as fruits and vegetables prepared in salads or lightly steamed. (It is best to eat sparingly of fried foods and sweets.) By dieting according to Krishna’s instructions, we can best appreciate the purpose of eating. And of course everything one eats should first be offered to Krishna.
Good health results naturally when we live and eat in a regulated, spiritual lifestyle. When the mind is filled with spiritual thought and is thus free from greed and envy, the body will naturally be healthy and lustrous. The ancient sage Kardama Muni exhibited such a state of health even while practicing severe physical austerities:
His body shone most brilliantly, though he had engaged in austere penance for a long time. He was not emaciated, for the Lord had cast His affectionate sidelong glance upon him, and he had also heard the nectar flowing from the moonlike words of the Lord. (Srimad- Bhagavatam 3.21.45-47)
Devotees practicing Krishna consciousness today enjoy similar health. Srila Prabhupada, in Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, describes the benefits of Krishna consciousness to mental and physical health as follows:
"We have practical experience of this with our students in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Before becoming students, they were dirty-looking, although they had naturally beautiful personal features; but due to having no information of Krishna consciousness, they appeared very dirty and wretched. Since they have taken to Krishna consciousness, their health has improved, and by following the rules and regulations, their bodily luster has increased."
Good health is the natural condition of the body, as is Krishna consciousness, and as one practices bhakti yoga, one’s health improves naturally. By chanting Hare Krishna and by avoiding sinful habits such as meat-eating, intoxication, illicit sex, and gambling, one can achieve far better results than he would by any concocted "health program."