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Food and the Three Gunas

Part 78 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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The food also liked by each one is threefold, as is sacrifice, tapasya, and almsgiving. Hear the distinction of them (17:7).

It is interesting that these three things are major indicators of the dominant guna of an individual.

Sattwic food

Foods increasing life, purity, strength, health, happiness, cheerfulness, flavorful, smooth, firm and substantial are liked by the sattwic (17:8).

Since we are seeking to become increasingly sattwic, we should look at each point of this verse so we can improve our diet and increase our sattwa, remembering that food becomes mind according to the Chandogya Upanishad. “Food when eaten becomes threefold, its coarsest portion becomes the faeces; its middle (portion) flesh, and its subtlest (portion) mind… Thus, my dear, mind consists of food” (6.5.1, 4). “Of the curd, my dear, when churned, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes butter. In the same manner, my dear, of the food that is eaten, that which is subtle moves upwards, it becomes mind. Thus, my dear, mind consists of food” (6.6.1,2, 5).

Ayus–food that actually increases the span of life. In other words, truly healthy food that protects the body and fosters it. The problem is that everybody has their own idea about what kind of food is healthy. I recommend that you read Dr. Neal Barnard’s books on diet, starting with Food For Life. Also T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study. But the absolute best books on diet and health are How Not To Die and How Not To Diet, by Dr. Michael GregerMost people are slowly killing themselves with wrong diet. If they do not shorten their life, they make sure that they are sick for years at the end of their life. Ayus also means what increases life force.

Sattwa–food that increases the quality of sattwa, which also implies food that promotes virtue, both in the sense of strength and in the sense of goodness. It is food that lightens and promotes health of body and mind, food that is actually spiritual in its effect. This is purely vegan food, free of both animal and chemical elements.

Bala–food that imparts strength to the body and mind.

Arogya–food that strengthens the immune system so the body can resist or rid itself of disease.

Sukha–food which is easy for the body to digest and which produces ease and comfort in the body.

Priti–food that truly satisfies the body nutritionally, and therefore the mind. It need not be eaten like medicine. In fact, priti is that which gives actual pleasure in the eating.

Rasyas–food which has abundant good flavor, that has plenty of taste.

Snigdhas–food which contains sufficient oil, which is smooth and pleasant to eat.

Sthiras–food which is substantial.

Hridyas–food which is hearty, satisfying and pleasant-feeling in the stomach.

This is a valuable checklist to help us eat truly sattwic food.

Rajasic food

Foods that are pungent, sour, salty, excessively hot, harsh, astringent and burning, producing pain, grief, and disease are liked by the rajasic (17:9).

Kata–food that is extremely acrid, pungent, or sharp–that is virtually caustic to the mouth.

Amla–food that is very acidic, sour, or vinegary.

Lavana–food that is very salty or briny (containing pickle-type fluid). This is hard on the kidneys and raises the blood pressure.

Atyushna–food that is excessively hot. The problem here is deciding what is excessive, for the more people eat hot food the more tolerance they develop, until what will be painfully burning hot to others will be mild to their taste. I knew a man who would sit and eat jalapeño peppers whole like a snack. When I asked if they were hot, he said No. So I bit into one. Volcano!

Tikshna–food that is harsh, fiery, and acid, especially in the stomach.

Raksha–food that is astringent, and also rough and dry, the kind of things that cut the roof of your mouth or even your esophagus as it goes down.

Vidahinas–food that is burning and scorching.

The results

This kind of food is productive of:

Duhkha–pain and discomfort or stress.

Shoka–misery: that regret so many feel and which makes anti-acid manufacturers rich, and which contributes to ulcers.

Amaya–sickness in the sense of malfunction and disease produced by the harming it does to the body.

Next to its harmful effects, the more unfortunate aspect of this kind of food is its addicting nature. So rajasic food is the most difficult kind to give up.

Tamasic food

That which is stale, tasteless, putrid, leftover to the next day, uchchishta [the remnants of food eaten by others; actual leavings from someone’s plate] and impure, is the food the tamasic like (17:10).

Yatayamam–food that is leftover, stale, and even spoiled. A lot of people eat this kind of food just from laziness or lack of initiative–both traits of tamas. Most chain restaurant food is unfit for human consumption, what to say about the “deli” food from big grocery stores. No one knows how old that is. Fast food chains pack their food–especially meat–in bags of formaldehyde and other horrors. Some people will cook a large amount of food and then eat it for a week or more. I have known people that would scrape off the mold and eat away. Much canned food is another offense to humanity. The willingness to eat stale food–and sometimes the inability to tell it is stale–is more psychological than physical, and we must not let misapplied thrift get us into the habit of eating this devitalized food. Since there was no refrigeration in ancient India, no food was considered fit to eat if it sat overnight. However, now that we can refrigerate and even freeze food, the eating of leftovers is not always detrimental.

Gatarasam–food that is tasteless, devoid of flavor. This description applies to a lot of “sattwic” food cooked by those that think they are spiritual or even yogis. It is flavorless and insubstantial, and often has a displeasing color and texture. And on top of it all they give people a little dab, commenting: “This is really pretty rich [or heavy] and you mustn’t eat too much.” Some chance! The last time I had to eat in the home of such dedicated, grim and rote people, the amount served for eight people would only have sufficed for three normal human beings. Their tasteless and insufficient food reflected their philosophy and their minds.

Puti–food that is putrid, stinking, and fetid. How many times have you seen restaurant signs or ads boasting that they serve aged steaks? It is the custom of “gourmets” to “hang” birds and let them decay a bit before cooking them. I read of one restaurant that would “hang” grouse until they bred maggots, which they would wash off before cooking. One evening a group of customers called for the chef and rhapsodized over the delicious “stuffing” that had been in the grouse. At first the chef was bewildered, and then realized that the maggots had not been removed, but had been baked in the grouse! This is a clear example of how tamasic food perverts the palate.

Meat itself is rotting flesh. And what of the moldy and “stinky” cheese so beloved to many? Think of the awful smell fish and seafood emit when being cooked, what to say of the stench in oriental markets that stock them dried? Delight in such things is distinctly abnormal. Do I need to mention such ghastly things as “hundred year old” eggs and suchlike?

Uchchistam–food that has been eaten on by another person. This is a favorite of many. They grab off the plates of others, plop things from their plates on others’ plates, say: “Give me a taste of that” and take a bite off whatever someone has been eating (often a body part of an animal). Eating another’s spit! In modern times when we know about germs and communicable diseases, it makes no difference to them. “Give me a sip of that… tear off a hunk of that for me… let me have a little bite of your….” This is the way they feed. It is also a way they take the life energies of others and give to them their unhealthy or diseased energies.


The description of tamasic food applies to drink, as well, the rajasic and tamasic loving fermented, alcoholic liquids, and being addicted to every form of poisonous soft drink.

A missing element

At the time of Krishna refined sugar in any form was unknown, so it is not on the list. It may be disguised as rajasic in elaborate and ingenious forms of sweet things, but its destructive nature makes it tamasic, though there is a good case for arguing that it should not even be listed as food, but poison.

Even more

These principles can be applied to every aspect of our life, not just to food. Society, religion, personalities, modes of life–just about everything can be classified with the traits of the food Krishna has described. We really are what we eat, and eat what we are, even metaphysically speaking.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Religion and the Three Gunas

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

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Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

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Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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