“Whatever you do, make it an offering to me–the food you eat,
the sacrifices you make, the help you give, even your suffering.”
~Bhagavad Gita, 9:27
There’s a diet that has been promoted by sages of India for thousands of years as being the most conducive diet for both health and spiritual growth. The brahmin diet, also called the sattvic or yogic diet, is a vegetarian lifestyle that focuses on natural foods that promote peace and tranquility. In modern terms, it’s branded as a whole foods, plant-based diet. I’ve been on a variation of the brahmin diet for more than five years, and can attest to the health benefits, energy, and peace of mind that it provides.
We trust the wisdom of India when it comes to ontological concepts, meditation guidelines, bhakti yoga, and countless other spiritual practices. Why not trust this ancient and tested wisdom on diet as well?
The Caste System, Diet, and the Wisdom of the Brahmin Priests
The caste system in India was originally non-hereditary. This form of society is a true meritocracy, in that if a child well-suited to be a priest was born into the merchant caste, he would be moved to the priestly caste. Likewise, a child born to a ruler who had the qualities of a laborer would have been moved down to a different caste. The people of the various castes (varna) were said to have different qualities or energies (gunas), and thus they would have different diets:
- Brahmins (priests, academicians): Sattvic qualities
- Kshatriyas (rulers, administrators, warriors): Rajastic qualities
- Vaishyas (merchants, craftsman, tradesmen, farmers): Rajastic qualities
- Shudras (laborers, servants, peasants): Tamasic qualities
Brahmins are the “highest” of the four castes in India because they are the custodians of Dharma (of course, before the caste system was degraded, all levels were respected as necessary to a healthy society). As priests, in the past the brahmins lived according to the principles laid out in the Vedas, the oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism. Three duties are compulsory for Brahmins: studying the Vedas, performing Vedic rituals, and practicing dharma. Their occupations involved things like religion, philosophy, yoga, rituals, arts and culture, music, dance, writing, astrology, astronomy, logic, law, medicine, martial arts, and military strategy.
Yogic philosophy says if you eat sattvic food, you will become a sattvic being. If you eat rajastic food you become rajastic (ambitious, temperamental, egoistic, etc.). And if you are naturally tamasic, you’ll continue to eat animal products and unhealthy foods and develop an animalistic lazy nature. The Brahmin caste traditionally ate a sattvic diet and has been vegetarian for millennia (though a few groups are non-vegetarian). Eating beef, however, was not permissible except for the untouchables.
The Three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, Tamas
In yogic philosophy, all of Nature, including our food, is classified into the three gunas (“vibrational levels”). Yogis believe that “you are what you eat,” and also that you choose to eat foods that reflect your own level of spiritual and mental purity. Modern dietary theories now agree with the ancient idea that food makes a huge impact on a person’s health and well-being. For example, not only does science show vegetarians are healthy and live longer, but the science of food energetics confirms the folk wisdom that certain foods provide energy while others make you tired. Leafy greens, which take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen, are perfect complement to our respiratory system and provide energy as well. Vegetables that grow in the earth, such as carrots and potatoes, can help us feel grounded.
Indian philosophy teaches that food affects both the physical and astral body. This isn’t hard to believe, given that food obviously affects the mind in addition to just the physical body (as anyone who’s stuffed themselves on BBQ or pasta knows). This makes sense because prana, the “vital energy” in the human body, also underlies all of physical manifestation: Prana is in all of our food, all plants and animals, water, sunlight, and the air we breathe. Why does this matter? Food that is whole and fresh is full of enhanced prana, according to yogic doctrine. And it will bring those same wholesome benefits to those who consume it.
A diet primarily of sattvic foods—those with the highest vibratory level—keeps the body lean and the mind clear and sharp, creating a lifestyle that is conducive to meditative, spiritual, and academic practices. This way of eating is completely in harmony with nature, since it involves foods grown in the soil and sunlight and fed with water and fresh air. The divine goodness inherent in the natural world is infused into sattvic food in a natural, divinely ordained way. Quite the opposite of processed foods that are laden with chemicals and preservatives to make them storable for years on end. (Certainly from a Tantric perspective anything may be seen as divine, but that doesn’t make all things equal, and sattvic foods will still be the ones with the highest concentration of prana.)
According to The Sivananda Companion to Meditation, food choice is extremely important for those pursuing a spiritual path in life:
Effort needs to be applied to increase sattva in all aspects of your personality and your life, because only in a sattvic state will you have the motivation and energy necessary to expand your consciousness and resist the negativities of the mind.
The three gunas are:
Sattva (purity): This includes pure foods such as fruits; vegetables; grains; proteins like legumes, nuts, and seeds; herbs; natural sweeteners; and either dairy products from humanely treated cows whose calves have already been sustained by their mothers (very hard to find!) or vegan dairy products. These foods promote vitality, energy, health, and joy. They encourage the mind to be pure and calm and are uplifting to the spirit. It’s obvious, of course, why practitioners of meditation would want to start with as clear and calm a mind as possible. To qualify a sattvic, food must not only be pure (such as free from artificial ingredients), but must not spread disease or harm in the world. Many of today’s imported foods would not qualify as sattvic if the workers were mistreated. Sattvic foods encourage the development of the higher chakras.
- Rajas (activity, passion, change): These overstimulating foods include items that are overly hot, bitter, salty, or sour. Rajasic foods include onions, garlic, hot spices, stimulants, fish, eggs, and salt. These foods excite the intellect and passions, thus interfering with meditation but making them good choices for certain active or creative pursuits.
- Tamas (darkness, inertia): These putrified foods don’t benefit the mind or body. Since prana is largely withdrawn from them, they dull the mind and cause inertia and sickness. These foods include meat and fermented foods (including alcohol), as well as spoiled or overripe foods and overeating. They strengthen the lower two chakras and inhibit the development of the higher chakras.
The Bhagavad Gita sums up the three gunas:
Those who are sattvic worship the forms of God:
those who are rajasic worship power and wealth.
Those who are tamasic worship spirits and ghosts.
Some invent harsh penances. Motivated by hypocrisy
and egotism, they torture their innocent bodies and
me who dwells within. Blinded by their strength
and passion, they act and think like demons.
The three kinds of faith express themselves
in the habits of those who hold them: in the
food they like, the work they do, the disciplines
they practice, the gifts they give. Listen, and
I will describe their different ways.
Sattvic people enjoy food that is mild, tasty,
substantial, agreeable, and nourishing, food that
promotes health, strength, cheerfulness, and
longevity. Rajasic people like food that is salty
or bitter, hot, sour, or spicy–food that promotes
pain, discomfort, and disease. Tamasic people
like overcooked, stale, leftover, and impure food,
food that has lost its taste and nutritional value. (17:4-10)
A Holistic Lifestyle: A Diet for the Entire Body
The sattvic diet is a truly holistic diet, in that it incorporates all aspects of life, not just food:
- Proper exercise (not necessarily vigorous exercise): Simple hatha yoga practices and walking can have incredible health benefits.
- Proper breathing: This connects the body to the solar plexus, a huge energy source in the body. Techniques like pranayama can help the body release this energy for rejuvenation of the body, mind, and spirit. (See David Shoemaker’s Living Thelema podcast on Asana and Pranayama.)
- Proper relaxation: This cools us down, gives our body and mind a rest, and helps us to recharge and stay balanced. (See Israel Regardie’s Relaxation Ritual.)
- Proper diet: Food and drink are the body’s fuel source. By eating a plant-based diet of whole foods, we will benefit by good health and vitality.
- Positive thinking and meditation: We need a balanced mind to help guide us and to have inner peace.
- Study of sacred scriptures.
A Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
Brahmins may occasionally eat certain types of meat, but generally they eat a whole foods plant-based diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and other plant foods. Generally they believe eating meat—involving killing an innocent animal—develops bad karma and has harmful consequences.
Vegetarianism has its roots in the the oldest of the Hindu scriptures. Part of the Dharmaśāstra, of the Brahmanical tradition in India, is the Manusmṛti (the Laws of Manu). In it the slaughter of animals and eating meat is strongly condemned. While meat-eating is not forbidden, it’s obvious that it’s seen as the very worst path:
He who does not injure any [creature], attains without an effort what he thinks of, what he undertakes, and what he fixes his mind on. Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to [the attainment of] heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun [the use of] meat. Having well considered the [disgusting] origin of flesh and the [cruelty of] fettering and slaying corporeal beings, let him entirely abstain from eating flesh. He who, disregarding the rule [given above], does not eat meat like a Pisaka, becomes dear to men, and will not be tormented by diseases. He who permits [the slaughter of an animal], he who cuts it up, he who kills it, he who buys or sells [meat], he who cooks it, he who serves it up, and he who eats it, [must all be considered as] the slayers [of the animal]. There is no greater sinner than that [man] who, though not worshipping the gods or the manes, seeks to increase [the bulk of] his own flesh by the flesh of other [beings]. (5:47-52)
Outline of the Brahmin Diet
Members of the Brahmin caste adhere to a diet that emphasizes sattvic foods, minimizes rajasic foods, and eliminates tamasic foods. An overview of the Brahmin diet includes:
- No Meat: All meat products are forbidden.
- No Eggs: All eggs are forbidden.
- Dairy from happy cows permitted: Milk products, butter, yogurt, cream, ghee, etc. are permitted; however in India these are expensive and used sparingly. In today’s world, milk from a happy cow would mean it is grass-fed, has plenty of access to fresh air and sunlight, her calves are allowed to sustain themselves on their mother’s milk, and male calves are not sent off to become veal. This is almost impossible to find in the West today, so a truly sattvic diet would involve dairy substitutes instead.
- Some cheese is permitted: The exception is cheese that is coagulated with the animal product rennet (look for vegetable rennet in the ingredients for a vegetarian option; mozzarella is usually rennet-free). Again, it must be from a well-treated cow. The coagulated cheese paneer is the most popular kind in India.
- No Onions: Onions are forbidden, along with other members of the Allium genus, including garlic, scallions, chives, and shallots, since they are considered rajasic.
- No Mushrooms: And also no form of fungi, as it is associated with decay.
- Minimal Stimulants: Stimulants like coffee and tea are rajastic and interfere with meditation.
- No Alcohol: Alcohol is not permitted.
- Water: A lot of water, the substance that generates life on the planet. The brain is 85 percent water, the body is 75 percent water, and many illnesses start with dehydration.
Why Vegetarian? A Diet for a Spiritual Planet
The traditions of both Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) and pagan sects like the Pythagoreans and Orphics advocate vegetarianism. When Greeks met a group of Brahmins in the time of Alexander the Great, his messenger Onesicritus marveled at the similarity between Greek and Indian thought and told them how Pythagoras, Socrates, and Diogenes advocated vegetarianism (Stuart 41). In India, adherence to a vegetarian diet is partly due to the concept of ahimsa, non-violence, which later was incorporated into Buddhism.
Modern-day “factory” farms are torture factories for animals, and there are barely any laws in place that regulate the treatment of farm animals. (Just watch the video Meet Your Meat if you’re not convinced.) Native Americans used to acknowledge and thank the Creator before going out to hunt a deer, and by consuming it they took on its sight, smell, hearing, and agility. In the West today, we eat animals that have spent their entire lives in sickness and suffering before dying in pain and fear, and thus we consume that energy as well. Consuming this negative energy is one reason that so many people today have become weak, pathetic, angry, and unable to think clearly.
This type of torture of other sentient beings is simply not part of Vedanta, which realizes that every creature is a sacred being who feels love, joy, sadness, and pain. (See this excellent book review about animals’ feelings.) A person fully encompassed in the Brahmin mindset cannot contemplate killing an animal for food.
Besides the violation of both animals’ Wills and Vedic tradition, eating meat is associated with numerous health problems and is the main reason modern Western countries have the highest rates of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes compared to societies that rely on meat-free or minimal-meat diets. (For more statistics, see this article.)
Our bodies are also not set up to be carnivores. We have dull, flat teeth, made to grind plants and grains, not sharp teeth like tigers that were designed for tearing flesh. Our intestinal tract is completely different from that of carnivores. Of the animal kingdom, we most closely resemble fruit- and plant-eating primates.
Many people’s main opposition to a vegetarian diet is worries about not getting enough protein. This is a myth perpetuated by the government and Big Ag industry lobbies that control the FDA and USDA. Most Westerners get way too much meat (people have even started to get gout again!). There is enough protein in vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains to give people more than enough protein. Those worried about it can always supplement with high-quality protein powder shakes, but if you eat whole foods and limit junk food, it’s impossible to not get enough protein. Vegans only need to take one supplement, a vitamin B12 pill each day.
Spiritually minded people will also be interested in the effects of meat-eating on the planet and other people. One acre of cereal will produce five times more protein than an acre used to raise animals for consumption. One acre of legumes, 10 times more protein, and one acre of leafy greens, 15 times more. Given the number of hungry people in every nation, eating meat is simply not sustainable. Raising animals for meat also wrecks havoc on the environment, as this Time article details.
The Brahmin Diet is Easy to Try
It’s very easy to get started with a sattvic diet, and you’ll feel the benefits of it within a few days. You also don’t have to follow it exactly to benefit—most people don’t spend their lives meditating and will likely want to include some rajasic foods like onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and caffeine. Breakfast options include smoothies, oatmeal, or cereals with almond milk. Lunch can be salads, veggie wraps, veggie sandwiches, kitchari, soups, or chickpea salad sandwiches. Dinner options are numerous in today’s world: stir-fries, fajitas, a variety of veggie burgers, soup and salad, kabobs, Indian dishes, lots of veggie sides, or meat-free tacos or lasagna. Simple snacks include hummus, veggies, fruits, dried fruit and berries, veggie chips, popcorn, nuts and seeds, breads, smoothies, and juices. The sattvic diet is a very simple change to try for a few weeks, and I’m convinced that you’ll see major improvements in your physical and spiritual life.
This is a great video from Sri Acharyaji about the many reasons to be vegetarian from a Traditionalist, Sanatana Dharma perspective:
Bhagavad Gita. Trans. Eknath Easwaran. Nilgiri Press (2009).
Sivananda Yoga Vedanda Centers. The Yoga Cookbook. New York: Simon & Schuster (1999).
Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Yoga. New York: Simon & Schuster (2000).
Sivananda Yoga Center. The Sivananda Companion to Meditation. New York: Simon & Schuster (2003).
Stuart, Tristram. The Bloodless Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton (2008).