A disciple asked the Zen Master, “Master, when do you meditate?” The Master replied, “I meditate when I eat and when I sleep.” The confused disciple pleaded, “We all eat and sleep – but isn’t that meditation? Master explained, “There is a difference. When you eat and sleep, your mind is full of other thoughts. But I only eat when I eat and I only sleep when I sleep”. Along the same lines, Swami Vivekananda said to one of his disciples, “He who does not know how to cook well can never make a good sannyasin. Unless the mind is pure, food can never be tasty”. But there is a difference.
Swami Vivekananda was the epitome of “practical Vedanta”. He was a monk but not an ascetic. His spirituality was rooted among the masses. His ideas are more relevant than ever. But to understand his philosophy, it is important to understand Vivekananda the man. It is therefore encouraging that more studies are emerging on the temporal aspects of his life, which is essential for a holistic assessment of the phenomenon that Swamiji was. Malati Mukherjee’s translation of the Bengali work of Sankar (Mani Sankar Mukherji) is an addition to this genre.
Like Vivekananda’s thoughts on life, religion, and spirituality, his views on food and diet are complex. Presented out of context, some of them may even seem full of contradictions. His cooking doctrine, if there was one, must be appreciated in the context of his evolution from Narendranath to Vivekananda. Sankar attempts to trace this journey through various accounts of his childhood, early sannyasi days, overseas travels drawn from a myriad of sources, and Vivekananda’s own correspondence with his disciples and monastic brethren.
Vivekananda had very specific ideas about the anthropology of food. He developed his theory by observing food habits around the world during his stays abroad and by studying our own scriptures. He believed that diet depended as much on climate, geography, and the nature of work as it did on culture or religion.
Spirituality and diet
He therefore challenged conventional notions about the correlation between spirituality and diet. While a “sattvic” vegetarian diet may be best for those following a spiritual path, those engaged in physical labor may eat meat as a source of nutrition. It’s not enough to say that “X” and “Y” are quite healthy and strong despite being a vegetarian. Compare the whole race. Affirming Ahimsa is the greatest dharma” but imposing it on everyone without studying the consequences can be ruinous for society. Thus, some people “give sugar to ants while plotting to ruin their brother for money.” “God is not a fool,” he said.
Vivekananda was firm in his belief that the sattvic way of life is not for everyone. It is good for a small proportion of the population to pursue a sattvic way of life. But for progress, he claimed, “we need the awakening and inspiration of rajasik energy” – otherwise the country will become “inert like trees and rocks”, which is really the lethargic gloom of ‘ tamas‘.
Regarding the sannyasins, he would say that the society thinks that a man conquers all his senses as soon as he takes the vows of a monk. Which he thought was both unfair and unrealistic. “Should we spend our lives constantly evaluating the quality of the food we eat or should we control our senses? He asked. For the latter, we must be “discerning of the food we choose to eat” but cannot reduce “dharma to a pot of rice”. A monk needs food to support his work for humanity. He can eat anything he gets and will never lose his “caste” because of it. “Is God a nervous fool like you that the flow of his river of mercy is dammed by a piece of meat? If such is Him, His value is not a pie! Swamiji once wrote to a disciple, about the orthodox Brahmins’ criticism of his meat consumption in the West.
The book is loaded with anecdotes and stories that often stray from the main message. Those not immersed in the life of Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda may feel a bit lost in the procession of characters and subplots. Sankar drew his references from multiple sources. As a result, there are some repetitions. His storytelling style, primarily written for Bengali audiences, does not lend itself to vanilla translation. Perhaps a transcreation distilling the juice (or recovering the ‘Maal’ from the ‘Gol’ of Golmaal – to use Sri Ramakrishna’s favorite expression) would have made it more accessible to the uninitiated reader.
Swamiji inherited the love of cooking and the joy of feeding others from his father. It was part of the environment in which he grew up. He never apologized for it. “People like me are the culmination of all aggregates. I can eat large amounts of food, or go without eating at all, smoke, or abstain completely. Yet I also willingly experience the senses. Otherwise, where is the value of forbearance?” he asked.
Another Vivekananda commentator wrote, “The joys of Prakriti are nothing less than the joys of sat and chit (being and consciousness). Prakriti unfolds in the amazing diversity of shapes, colors, sounds… Like poetry, music, words, sounds and feelings” – food is another manifestation of Prakriti.
There are a thousand facets of Vivekananda. This book feasts on a delectable part of his personality.
Swami Vivekananda – The monk who fasts and feasts
Sankar / translated from the original Bengali by Malati Mukherjee
247 pages (paperback); ₹399
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( S andip Ghose is an entrepreneur, prolific commentator on news and food and life blogs)
January 30, 2022