Food may well seem to some people a topic too mundane to be harped upon in a spiritual classic, but the fact is that it is mentioned many times in the Upanishads, which are the oldest written works in the yogic tradition. As the old German proverb has it, from one point of view man is what he eats. Sir Thomas Browne pointed out long ago that the substance which makes up our bodies has at one time or another been on our plates, and that we have, in a manner of speaking, eaten ourselves.

What is true of the physical body is also true of the mind. In the Chandogya Upanishad it speaks of the food we eat being divided threefold: its coarsest part being rejected and passing through the body to be excreted, its middle part becoming the substance of the body, and its subtlest part being incorporated into the stuff of the mind. There is an even more vivid illustration of the dependence of the mind on food in the story also told in the Chandogya Upanishad in which the Teacher brings home this dependence to his pupil. After telling him that the mind consists of the subtle part of food, he asks him to fast for fifteen days, but during that time to drink as much water as he likes. (One could say that this is one of the first records in human history of a scientific experiment.) In accordance with the instruction of the Teacher the pupil does fast for fifteen days. The water that he drinks sustains his life, but when on the fifteenth day, weak from his fasting, he approaches the Teacher and is asked to repeat the well-learnt verses from the Vedas, he cannot remember them. One can perfectly well imagine this investigation being reported today, in the current jargon, in the pages of Nature. “During the initial control run,” it would say, “the subject was tested on verbal retention and memory, and performed well. He was then subjected to fifteen days’ food deprivation and retested, and a marked decrement in performance indicated a severe degree of memory impairment.” The experiment anyway was reported, not in Nature, but in the Upanishad. The Teacher then tells the pupil that by his fifteen days’ fast he has reduced not only his body, but also his mind, to a mere fraction of its former strength and power. But he goes on to say that, just as in the case of a fire which has died down for lack of fuel, if even a single coal is left barely alight, then when it is covered with straw the fire will blaze up and will burn as strongly as ever, so, he tells the pupil, when you eat, your mental vigour will return. To complete the experiment the Teacher gets him to eat and he finds that his mental functions are again working normally and that he can remember the verses that he knew before. What this investigation demonstrated then, was that our minds are as dependent as our bodies on food, and that they are evolutes of the subtle aspect of the same matter which makes up the body. Now this sounds like rank materialism, but we should not run away with the idea that Yoga teaches materialism.

If we look at another story from the same Upanishad, when the two students, Indra and Virochana, approach their Teacher Prajapati to ask him about the nature of the Self, he first takes them to look at their own reflection in a pan of water, then he gets them to dress themselves in rich clothing and ornaments and to look again. They see themselves, and they see that they are changed, or rather that the outer coverings which they wear are changed. The less spiritually receptive and percipient of the two pupils, Yirochana, thinks: “Ah, I see, this is what I am. I am the body which remains the same even when the clothes change. I am simply the physical body. This is what the Self really is.” He goes away satisfied thinking that he now knows that the Self is nothing other than the physical body—the body which can be enriched by acquisitions of one kind or another. Now, as the Upanishad goes on to say, the Teacher knew that this doctrine was false, but he equally knew that one cannot teach anyone anything unless they are open to receive truth whether or not it conflicts with their fondest prejudices. The truth of the fact that both the body and the mind are dependent on food, and formed, in a certain sense, from food, is obvious and self-evident—as obvious as the reflection which one sees when one looks in a mirror to see what one really looks like— but it is only a half-truth. The more receptive of the two disciples, Indra, realizes that the doctrine that man is nothing but the physical body, raises as many problems as it solves.

From our modern viewpoint, the role of food as a sustainer of the physical body is just one illustration of the scientific principle of the conservation of matter, which emerged as one of the basic generalizations from nineteenth century physics. Of course the body is made from matter, and naturally the matter must come from somewhere. Matter is neither created nor destroyed. So it must be exchanged; it must be taken in from the environment and built up into the body’s tissues. The exchange goes on in both directions; the worn-out cells get brushed off the skin, our hair is cut and left at the hairdresser’s, and we continually excrete waste material. Matter is therefore the reality, said the nineteenth century scientist; the dependence of the body on food is simply an illustration of it. Thought is simply the secretion of the brain, as bile is the secretion of the liver. The trouble about this view is that the scientists themselves no longer believe it. They no longer believe in matter as the real substance of the world, in the sense in which they did believe it in the nineteenth century. With the advent of Einstein it became clear that more fundamental than matter is energy, and that matter is only an evolute of electro-magnetic energy in a particular form. But energy is not a thing, it is rather an activity, or a way of describing events. As Bertrand Russell has very clearly pointed out, the substance—matter—has disappeared from the description of the world in modern physics. If the world can still be described poetically as a Heraclitean fire, he says, what we are left with is simply the burning, and what burns has disappeared. It is fire without substance, without any fuel. Only the burning is left, energy is simply a description of the activity of burning—of the events.

Of course it can be argued that this makes little difference to the materialistic doctrine. All one has to suppose is that the body and the mind are made up of energy, and not of matter in the old sense. But there is a difference in thinking of them as made up of energy. We can understand much more easily how the same principle can be manifest in a gross form and a subtle form, as matter and as mind. Modem thought has come very close, in fact, to the yogic doctrine in regarding both the body and the mind as evolutes of one single energy of nature, which is called in the old Yoga classics ‘prakriti-shakti.’

Food and thought are not then so radically different; they are different aspects of the same energy. But, like Indra, we must be careful of resting content with a half-truth. To explain man simply as a product of energy is no more satisfactory in the end than to think of him as being purely a bundle of matter. It is true that energy can be exchanged and obeys the same great principle of conservation, so that any addition or increase to man’s physical or mental being must in practice be supplied from the environment. But it is quite clear that thought is not simply energy. An entirely new principle is involved in the exchange of thought, which makes it quite unlike the exchange of light, or heat, or motion, or physical energy in any of its forms. That altogether subtler principle is, to use a modern term, information. To give a simple illustration: It requires energy to send a telegraph message along a wire, but the amount and kind of information which is transmitted has nothing to do with the amount of energy which one transmits. What matters in thought, as in the transmission of information in the outer world, is the structuring of the events.

We can all read letters because we recognize their shape, and those shapes convey a meaning to us as soon as we have learnt to read. But the information conveyed by shape or form does not need to be in written language. If we see a picture or a cartoon, we recognize what it is a picture of because it represents within it some structural features of the original face or scene; it has the form of the thing pictured. The information which we receive through our senses, unlike the food or energy which we are exchanging in our bodies, is thus altogether subtler, and depends on this entirely different principle. In the Yoga classics this was well recognized, and this feature of experience is what is called ‘nama-rupa,’ names and forms. And it takes us away from the plane of matter, and beyond the place of energy, on to an altogether subtler plane.

Man then is in continuous communication with the world around him. As an individual he is an active and passive participant in the cosmic life, continually giving out and receiving; taking in and emitting. In his physical body he is continually exchanging matter and energy with the physical environment. In the life of his senses and his mind he is continually exchanging information in the form of impressions— impressions of names and forms. He is an eater of knowledge, both sense knowledge and intellectual knowledge, and he is equally a giver-out of knowledge. Every time he opens his mouth to speak he emits information, and transmits it to those around him. Every time he writes he transmits names and forms to the printed page to be read and ingested through the senses, through the eyes or the ears, by others. But even the illiterate who cannot read or write are not debarred from this exchange, nor are animals. By the language of gesture, or facial expression, or even from the language of bodily movement and posture, there is a continual exchange of information going on throughout the living world. When you listen to the song of the birds, reflect that each of them is uniquely able to signal to others of its kind, not only its own presence, but its state of mind, and its reaction to any events going on around it. The whole of the living world is in this continuous process of transmission of names and forms from one place to another, and it is only in these terms that we can understand the nature of emotion, sensation or thought. If we try to explain these things, as the nineteenth century scientists did, in terms of matter or of physical energy, we can give no clue to their real nature.

It is, say the yogis, the subtle aspect of prakriti which is manifest in the mind, and not the gross aspect which is manifest as matter or as physical energy. “I am food. I am the eater of food,” says a verse in the Taittiriya Upanishad. If the food of the body is matter and energy, the food of thought, the food of the mind, is ‘nama-rupa,’ forms and names, sense-impressions and verbal concepts. It is no wonder that the relation of the body and mind has intrigued and baffled philosophers. They are so different in their nature. When one thinks of words and ideas, of thoughts, they seem entirely real and immediate from the point of view of experience. And then again, when one thinks of these thoughts they seem entirely unreal and insubstantial from the standpoint of matter, or energy. So much so, that people tend to feel that only one or the other can be the reality, and not both. This has led, on the one hand to the doctrine of materialism, and on the other to the philosophy of subjective idealism. And yet both these philosophies seem to have something odd about them from the standpoint of common-sense, and this has often been pointed out. Even in the days of the classical spiritual paths in the East, one finds this. There is a story, for instance, of a Chinese Zen master Ho-Jen. One of his pupils was expounding the current Buddhist doctrine of this school, that everything was in the mind. And the Teacher said: “What about that great stone over there?” The pupil said: “Yes, from the point of view of the Buddhist teachings, that also is in the mind.” And the Teacher said: “Your head must feel awfully heavy if you’re carrying that great stone around in it!”

Even more paradoxical perhaps is the scene in Alice Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice is taken by Tweedledum and Tweedledee to see the Red King lying, snoring, on the ground under a tree. “He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee, “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?” Alice said: “Nobody can guess that.” “Why, about you!” Tweedledee explained, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?” “Where I am now of course,” said Alice. “Not you,” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously, “you’d be nowhere. Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream.” “If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out bang!” “I shouldn’t,” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you I should like to know?” “Ditto,” said Tweedledum. “Ditto, ditto,” cried Tweedledee. He shouted this so loud that Alice couldn’t help saying: “Hush, you’ll be waking him if you make such a noise.” “Well, it’s no good your talking about waking him,” said Tweedledum, “when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real!” “I am real,” said Alice, and began to cry. “You won’t make yourself a bit realer by crying,” Tweedledee remarked, “and there’s nothing to cry about.” “If I wasn’t real,” Alice said, half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous, “I shouldn’t be able to cry.” “I hope you don’t suppose those are real tears,” Tweedledum interrupted, in a tone of great contempt.

This is one view; the other view is perhaps best exemplified in Dr. Samuel Johnson, who when he heard of Bishop Berkeley’s subjective idealist view, said: “I refute it thus!” and stamped his very substantial foot on the ground. Both are expressions of viewpoints, and both ultimately are expressions of personal prejudice. One can argue about it, and one may feel there is something odd about both extreme conditions; but there is no logical way yet found of proving or disproving either the subjective idealist position or the materialist position if it’s held consistently. It is like the story of the two Zen monks who began arguing about a flag which was fluttering in the breeze. One of them said: “You see there the flag is moving.” But the other said: “Oh no it isn’t! It is the wind which is moving.” They got thoroughly worked up in this argument as to which it was, and in the end they went to the Teacher to arbitrate. The Teacher heard their argument and said: “It is not that the flag is moving; it is not that the wind is moving. It is the minds of two virtuous men which are moving.”

There are these two points of view. The idealist thinks of thoughts and sense impressions as the immediate stuff of all experience; the realist considers how insubstantial thoughts are compared with matter. But from the point of view of Vedanta, the mind is no more real than matter, nor is matter more real than mind. Both are phenomenal, empirical creations of that creative energy of nature called ‘prakriti.’ The Reality, say the yogis, is ultimately something other than both matter and mind: it is the spiritual Consciousness in which both live, move and have their being. This spiritual Reality, called theologically Brahman or God, is not something apart from the world, neither is He the same as the world. He is, say the yogis, the substratum of the appearances of the world. The world has an empirical, phenomenal existence, but the Reality behind that appearance is Brahman—the Absolute. Just as the world of energy transcends the world of matter and yet encompasses it, so this world of energy is transcended by the world of forms and ideas, which are the appearances of structure seen in sense experience and in the mental images to which sense experience gives rise.

If you see smoke rising from a fire, says Sureshvara, it doesn’t have to push apart the empty space of the sky in order to make its way upwards through it, because the space in the sky is untouched and unaffected whether the smoke rises through it or not. If they were on the same level of reality, then one could have either smoke or space, not both, and the space would have to get out of the way in order to allow the smoke to get up. But the space is something subtler than the things which it contains, and so it exists on another level of reality. In the same way as the space is subtler than the universe of matter, including the smoke, so the mental reality—the universe of thoughts and ideas, and sensation and experience—is a subtler reality than the physical reality, but it is still, say the yogis, only a relative reality. Transcending the physical universe and transcending also this subtler universe of the mind (the mental consciousness), is the Absolute Reality. And the clue to this Reality is man’s real Self, the Self hidden in the mind.

Our being functions on all these planes; and on all these planes it requires food. The food of the body is physical food. The food of vitality is energy. The food of the emotions is love and the feeling of unity (and a man is starved indeed if he does not satisfy the feeling for love or unity). The food for the intellect is knowledge, and the food for the spirit is wisdom or spiritual enlightenment. But as well as starving, or being malnourished, we can also eat the wrong food. If we eat the wrong physical food we grow physically unhealthy and suffer from the many diseases which arise from errors of diet. If we eat the wrong emotional food, say the Yogis, seeking satisfaction in sensuality, or sensationalism, or sentimental nonsense of one kind or another, then we will grow emotionally unhealthy. The human heart needs the right kind of affection and friendly relationship, as much as the body needs food and water. Only an enlightened man, say the Yogis, can live independently of others, because only he has a true feeling of oneness with others, whatever their behaviour towards him may be. But we need the right kind of love; and the best thing, say the Yogis, is to offer our love to the highest, either to the Lord, or to a Saint, or to a Perfect Man, or to a Spiritual Guide.

As the Lord says in the Bhagavad Gita: “He is supremely dear to Me whose devotion to Me is single-minded. I am supremely dear to him, and he is dear to Me. The wise worship Me, endowed with meditation. Their thoughts are fixed on Me; their lives wholly given up to Me. They are contented, and rejoicing in Me. To those who are in constant union with Me, and worship Me with love, I grant the power of understanding by which they come to Me.” This is the greatest and the best emotional food for man’s emotional being.

Much of what we are offered today as food is ‘ersatz,’ and this is just as true of spiritual food as it is of physical food. It has the right name, but it is not the real thing, and it does not nourish one properly. The so-called ‘Zen’ offered by the Beat-poets, or the ‘Yoga’ peddled by hippies, has the name of something genuine, but it hasn’t the power of nourishment for the soul which the genuine article contains. Man awakening to wisdom has to discover the real food which will nourish his soul, and that food is the spiritual teachings which lead the soul to a knowledge of the non-dual Principle within his own being, and within the universe as a whole. When he has realized his oneness with all on the highest plane, then his realization is expressed in the ecstatic utterance which Swami Rama Tirtha quotes in his essay on ‘Upasana’ or worship:

“Whatever grain is eaten is eaten by Me. Whosoever sees and breathes does so by Me. Whatever is heard or said, it is by Me. Those who do not know Me as abiding in all as the Inner Controller, they perish in the world for want of knowledge of Me. O Lightning, I proclaim the Absolute, Brahman, Who is achieved by faith and endeavour.”

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