The famous Bhrigu Varuni went to his father with a request, "Revered Sir, teach me about Brahman." His father (Varuna) taught him that food, prana, sight, hearing, mind and speech are a means to know Brahman. Further, Varuna told him to strive for that from where all living beings are born, after being born where they live and where they ultimately dissolve. That is Brahman. Bhrigu then started tapas, and through this austerity came to know that food is Brahman, because from food all living beings are born, having been born they live by food, and at the end they enter into food again. Thus he understood the reality of food.
One should not find fault with food. This sacred rule should be followed. Prana is indeed food. The body is the consumer of food. The body is dependent upon prana, and prana depends upon the body. Therefore, food is dependent on food. One who knows this becomes firmly established (in Brahman).
In the ashram, food is referred to as prasad, that which has been sanctified, blessed or energized and purified by a higher or divine energy, whether God, a deity or a living saint. In the Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Rikhia, the food is indeed blessed because it is prepared and eaten in the energy field of an enlightened sage. It is therefore saturated with prana. Food is Devi and should be received, treated and respected as such. We should eat with cheerful acceptance (prasad buddhi). Annapoorna Devi is the goddess of grain, and one who truly understands the value and meaning of her prasad will not wish to waste or spill even one of her precious grains. According to the law of karma, those who waste or disrespect food in this life, or who do not share it freely with others, will suffer hunger in their next incarnation. Why have the people of Rikhia and so many other people throughout the world suffered in the past from lack of food? According to Swami Satyananda, it is because they have misused or wasted food in a past incarnation. In the Rajasooya yajnas of 2003 and 2004, grain was distributed to everyone as prasad directly sanctified by Devi.
In India, many people, before eating, will first feed a poor person, or a cow, or even a stray dog. This act of thinking of another being first opens the heart and bestows peace of mind on the giver. In this way we can develop the feeling of oneness with all beings, or atmabhava. One who shares their food with others, no matter how little it may be, will never go hungry. This is also a karmic law. The scriptures say that feeding the poor, brahmins and sannyasins helps to purify one's karma, gladdens the heart and uplifts one spiritually. In Rikhia Sri Swamiji regularly feeds the poor. When they are happy, he is happy too. When their stomachs are full, his heart is full, and the whole environment is uplifted.
Before the ashram prasad is served, it is first offered to the god of fire, Agni, for without the power of fire, food cannot be cooked. Once a year, at Makar Sankranti (the winter solstice) a special ceremony is held in many Indian homes where various types of prasad are offered to the fire. But there is another Agni, which is related to manipura chakra, the digestive fire. In this yajna, we are the sacrificial priest and the stomach is the havan kund or fire pit. The food we offer into the kund or pit of the stomach is the samagri or oblation to the digestive fire. The life force is within us as the five life-giving physiological functions or systems: respiratory (prana), excretory (apana), circulatory (vyana), digestive (samana) and reserve (udana). This force is offered food with the following mantra, "Praanaaya swaahaa, apaanaaya swaahaa, vyaanaaya swaahaa, udaanaaya swaaha, samaanaaya swahaa, brahmane swaahaa."
The process of imbibing food is a most important ritual, a type of living yajna that can transform our mind and thinking, and therefore our lives. The simple act of eating can lead us toward the state of sattwa, harmony and balance. In the Bhagavad Gita (4:24) Krishna tells Arjuna: "Brahmaarpanam Brahma havir Brahmaagnau Brahmanaa hutam, Brahmaaiva tena gantavyam Brahmakarma samaadhinaa." The meaning of this verse is, "The yajna is Brahman, the oblation is Brahman, the process of offering the oblation is Brahman, the one offering the oblation to the fire is Brahman, and the fruit obtained by the yogi who is established in that action of Brahman is also Brahman." So while you are eating do not think that it is you who are eating. Think rather that the divine is eating through you, that the process of eating is a divine act, that the food is a part of the divine and that it will transform you into a divine being.
"You are what you eat" and Tat Twam Asi (You are That Brahman) are phrases we all know well, and if we really thought about them, we would be more careful about what we are thinking while we eat. Food gives us life, energy and vitality. It is our life. For the food to be properly broken down so that the subtle essence can be released and absorbed, our state of mind is more important than the actual food. Not only this gross body but all the other bodies or koshas have to be nourished. If our mind is agitated, upset or angry, or if we eat with speed, tension or greed, this will not happen. It can only happen if our thoughts are sattwic.
Maintaining silence or mouna while eating, not only helps to preserve our energies for digestion and absorption, but creates a restorative vibration and atmosphere in which we can replenish our energies, calm our mind and restore our balance. We can 'recharge our batteries' before resuming our duties (and our life in general). Brahman is silence. Yoga is a practical, ongoing process of transformation that is to be lived from moment to moment with constant awareness. Each and every act can be transformed into an act of yoga, and everything that life brings to the yogi is accepted in the spirit of prasad.
The chanting of mantras before eating helps to prepare the body and mind, and charge the atmosphere. Mantras create a feeling of peace and harmony. When many people are gathered together, the chanting unites everyone in spirit and positive feeling. Chanting from the Bhagavad Gita before taking prasad has a profound and calming effect on both body and mind, and helps to produce sattwa. Another powerful mantra, which greatly increases the pranic field around the food is, 'Annapoorney Sadapoorney, Shankara Prana Vallabhey, Jnana Vairagya Siddhyartham, Bhiksham Dehi Cha Parvati.' The meaning is: "Annapoorna (also known as Parvati), who is ever full, and who is the beloved of Lord Shiva, give me alms so that I may become perfect in jnana and vairagya." At the end of the meal you can repeat the mantra: Om Vrikodaraaya Namaha three times to stimulate the digestive system. Vrikodara was the name given to Bhima, one of the five sons of Pandu in the Mahabharata. Bhima had tremendous physical and moral strength, and a most powerful digestive system.
In the ashram a dynamic life of seva is led, but there is still space in the day for quiet contemplation. These times are valuable for pondering and assessing the various reactions and interactions that take place during the busy work schedule. During meal times we can pause, take stock of things and keep in tune with our intuition.
The bell has gone. Put aside your work and, taking only your awareness with you, prepare yourself for prasad. As you walk to the kitchen be aware of the natural sounds around you. Look at the beauty before your eyes - the trees, the birds and small animals, the sky, the hills in the distance, which change their moods from day to day. Feel yourself to be one with these surroundings. Breathe deeply. Be aware of your body and your footsteps as you walk in silence through the gardens.
The queue is long. Never mind. Watch the breath as you wait patiently. Or repeat your mantra. Observe the calm beginning to take place in the body and mind. Take only as much food as you really need, without judgement or finding fault. No raga-dwesha, like and dislike. Accept a little of everything with a feeling of prasad buddhi.
Before eating, consider the long process the food has gone through before it finally arrived in front of you. Spare a thought for the earth which held it in its womb from whence it sprang, for the sun which poured down its loving rays upon it, for the rain which watered it with care, and for the wind that fanned it into life. This process is also a type of yajna. Give thanks for the farmer and the harvesting, for the shopkeeper, the marketing, the effort that went into the cooking, and for the serving. Think also of all those who will go hungry today, and how fortunate you are to have this food - for 'All is Brahman' just like you.
Be totally aware of what you are eating and understand that it will be transformed in your mind and body, and all your koshas. Do not hurry. Relax. Give your full mind to the process. Contemplate the words of the Taittiriya Upanishad, "Food is Brahman because from food all living beings are born, having been born they live by food and at the end they enter into food again." When you have finished, sit in vajrasana, close your eyes and take your awareness to manipura, the solar plexus. View the day so far and the events that have taken place. See which actions you would correct if you could and prepare yourself to join the play of life once more.