Sunday, August 1, 2010

Saying Grace

Sita in meditation “Then taking the payasa from Indra’s hands, Maithili [Sita], a woman possessing luminous smiles, mentally offered it to her husband, Rama, as well as to Lakshmana.” (Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, Ch 57)

Eating prasadam is one of the central practices for devotees of Lord Krishna. Similar to the concept of saying grace, eating and honoring prasadam is a way of thanking the Lord for all His blessings. Prasadam means “the Lord’s mercy”, and it applies to anything that is first offered to God and then returned to the giver. Usually the term is associated with food, for eating is one of the most important aspects of day-to-day life. Due to time and circumstance, it is not always possible to only eat prasadam, but for the highly advanced devotees, their dedication to honoring and thanking God for food is unmatched. Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama, was one such devotee.

Shrila Prabhupada distributing prasadam Those growing up in America are exposed to Judeo-Christian values, which recommend that one say grace before taking a meal. Some followers don’t adhere to these rules except on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. When practiced, saying grace is certainly a nice devotional act. As is obvious to anyone, without food we could not live. In the modern age, most of us buy our food from the supermarkets, thus we sort of lose sight of how food is actually produced. If we want to eat, we simply go to the store or to a restaurant and partake of the food of our choice. The food doesn’t get produced in these retail outlets, but rather on farms throughout the world. Seeds are planted at the beginning of the season, the crops are maintained, and then the harvest takes place at the end of the season. An intelligent person will realize that this food is a gift from God, for its production is a miracle that none of us could create on our own.

“O Arjuna, I control heat, the rain and the drought. I am immortality, and I am also death personified. Both being and nonbeing are in Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.19)

Lord Krishna Vegetables are a form of life, and the Vedas tell us that the plants even have souls. Those of us who maintain plants in our own homes know how difficult it can be to manage them. These plants require constant attention and just the right amount of food; otherwise they will wilt away and die. Now let us imagine the same care on a macro level, with a field that produces hundreds and thousands of crops. What makes them grow properly? It takes just the right combination of soil, rain, and climatic conditions to make sure that we all can have enough food to eat. This is all done through God’s mercy, for He controls the heat, rain, and everything else.

None of us could survive without the magic of vegetables. Even the meat eaters rely on vegetables; the animals they eat survive by eating grass and other forms of vegetation. So we see that it is God who sustains our life by providing the rain that enables the vegetables to grow. We know that God is responsible for the rain because we know that there is no way for us to produce it. Spirit is always superior to matter, for our bodies are useless if there is no spirit soul residing within. Once the spirit soul exits the body, the body is considered dead and starts to rot and decay. In a similar manner, the potency of vegetables comes from the life inside them. Without life, vegetables also very quickly start to rot and decay. Thus we see that spirit is always superior to matter, and it forms the basis of life. In the same regard, God forms the basis of spirit. Even though we living entities have limited control over certain things, God has control over everything. For this reason, living entities are sometimes referred to as ishvara, while God is the supreme ishvara, or parameshvara.

“In the beginning of creation, the Lord of all creatures sent forth generations of men and demigods, along with sacrifices for Vishnu, and blessed them by saying, ‘Be thou happy by this yajna [sacrifice] because its performance will bestow upon you all desirable things.’” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.10)

Satyanarayana puja Devotees of the Vedic tradition realize that God is ultimately responsible for everything, so they dedicate much of their time towards pleasing Him. One of the central practices of spiritual life in the Vedic tradition is yajna, or sacrifice. A yajna usually involves some sort of fire and the offering of various items such as clarified butter, water, etc., accompanied by the chanting of Vedic hymns and mantras. While yajnas are usually associated with rituals, it is interesting to note that yajna itself translates to sacrifice. What are we sacrificing? The material disease is that we tend to think in terms of “I” and “Mine.” This is a flawed mindset because we are not the proprietors of anything. This earth existed before we got here, and just because we take birth and associate with various transformations of earth, it doesn’t mean that we all of a sudden become the owners of matter. This is evidenced by the fact that after death, all our possessions remain here, while our soul goes somewhere else. Knowing this, how can we claim to have complete ownership over anything?

The forces of nature are so binding that it becomes very difficult to break out of the flawed possessive mindset. To help us along in the process of realizing the supremacy of God, the Lord gave us the practice of yajna, or sacrifice. By voluntarily giving up certain things and offering them to God, we slowly but surely detach ourselves from our possessions and our false claim of ownership. The beauty of a Vedic sacrifice is that there are always remnants left over. This is because God kindly accepts whatever we offer Him, but then gives it back to us after it has been spiritualized. These remnants are referred to as yajna-shishta. Since these remnants are the mercy of the Lord, they are also known as prasadam.

“The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice [yajna-shishta]. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 3.13)

Krishna eating laddus Devotees try to only eat prasadam, or at the very least, when they prepare food, they do so only for the Lord’s benefit. It is not that one gets a craving to eat something, makes the necessary preparations, and then offers it to God as a formality. Prasadam is not meant to work that way, for it is intended for the Lord’s benefit. The impetus must be to please the Supreme Lord Krishna. Devotees prepare and offer food for Krishna’s satisfaction. It is assumed that Krishna will eat the food, provided that it is in the mode of goodness [vegetarian, along with some other stipulations] and offered with love and devotion. Devotees offer the food as part of a sacrifice, meaning they have no claim to it. They are voluntarily giving it up. What occurs, however, is that God leaves all the food for the worshiper to eat after eating it Himself. This is why prasadam is known as the Lord’s mercy. Krishna doesn’t have to give the food back, nor do the devotees expect Him to. But He is so kind that He wants the devotee to eat the sanctified remnants, so He returns the food intact.

Some devotees are so fortunate that they get to prepare and offer food directly to God in His personal form. One such devotee was Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Lord Krishna is God Himself, but His personal expansions are non-different from Him. Lord Rama is one such expansion, and He appeared on earth many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga. He was married to Sita Devi, the daughter of the pious King Janaka of Mithila. Sita was actually an incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi, God’s eternal consort in the spiritual world. As Rama’s wife, Sita was accustomed to offering everything to her husband. She viewed her husband as her foremost deity, a practice which is taught to all women growing up in the Vedic tradition. As part of the couple’s pastimes, they embarked on a fourteen year trek through the woods of India. Rama’s younger brother, Lakshmana, accompanied the group. While living in the forest, Sita would prepare the meals and then offer them to both Rama and Lakshmana. This is similar to how mothers cook for their families. This practice is also very common in Hindu households, where the women usually do all the cooking and then don’t eat until after the male members of the family have eaten.

Sita Devi eating with Rama and Lakshmana Through a series of unfortunate events, Sita ended up being kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. He took her to his island kingdom of Lanka and held her captive in an ashoka garden. Sita was mortified, as she had just been taken against her will to live with a man who wasn’t her husband. This was all part of the demigods’ plan, for they needed an excuse for Rama to take on and kill Ravana in battle. By kidnapping Sita, Ravana set the wheels in motion for his demise. Upon reaching Lanka, Sita decided that she did not want to eat anything. Ravana was a Rakshasa after all, meaning he was an avid meat eater. Not only that, but he was a dreadful demon, so Sita considered all the food in his kingdom to be tainted. She decided that she would rather starve herself to death than associate with anything offered to her by Ravana.

Sita Devi Obviously the demigods did not want Sita to refrain from eating. The chief of celestials, Lord Indra, visited Sita and offered her a magical concoction of payasam, which is a kind of rice dish mixed with ghee and milk. He told her to eat it since it would let her remain alive for the duration of her stay in Lanka. In the above referenced passage, we see that while Sita is about to partake of the payasam, she first mentally offers it to both Rama and Lakshmana. This represents the pinnacle of devotion. She was in the midst of the most troubling circumstances of her life, but she still remained true to dharma.

What’s ironic is that Lakshmana, being the younger brother of the husband, was technically inferior in stature to Sita. In the Vedic tradition, the older brother’s wife is referred to as bhabhi, and she is an object of worship. Prior to leaving for the forest, Lakshmana’s mother, Sumitra, told him to view Rama as his father and Sita as his mother. Yet we see that Sita is mentally offering her food to Lakshmana as well. She viewed Rama and Lakshmana to be the same God, for they were so dedicated to each other. Sita Devi is actually hinting at Lakshmana’s true nature as an incarnation of Ananta Shesha Naga, or Baladeva. Krishna is also known as Vasudeva, and Vasudeva’s immediate expansion is Baladeva or Sankarshana. Thus Lakshmana is almost equal in potency to God.

Rama and Lakshmana eating When we eat our food, we should always try to remember this great level of devotion from Sita Devi. It may not always be possible to eat yajna-shishta, but in those situations, we can still mentally offer our food to the Supreme Lord and His wife. This is the highest form of saying grace, and by following this model, at least our minds will be purified at the time of eating.