A large part of our health and well-being depends on our daily food habits.
We often hear our elders’ telling us to develop healthy eating habits or, to eat in a certain way and also to sit in a proper manner while we are in the process of eating.
Their advice stems from ancient knowledge of the Vedas and is often backed by rational and scientific reasons. This article explores this interrelation of science and ancient traditional knowledge of India.
In English, the word ‘science’ means physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics.
For someone who is a French speaker, the word ‘science’ also includes sociology;
and for a German speaker, ‘science’ consists of economics and politics and what we usually consider ‘science’ is known as hard sciences. The distinction between science and traditional art depends on the language used to talk about them instead of the subject itself.
Attention, here, needs to be paid to India’s great and vast past in logic, mathematics,
and medicine (Ayurveda) where the division between traditional art and science is extremely blurred. Art was science and science as art. Nowadays, we try to dismiss the traditional arts as we think that there is no empirical proof in these arts but science complements it by giving proof.
India has always followed the eating habits as per the Ayurveda.
We have often heard from our grandparents that they used only homemade ingredients in their cooking or that they used to eat food in specific metal utensils.
Have we ever tried to investigate why they have such preferences?
It turns out that using homemade ingredients such as freshly roasted spices not only ensures hygiene and adds to the taste of the food but, also strengthens one’s immunity.
Are you aware of the benefits of commonly used spices or Masalas in our food?
Turmeric contains antioxidant curcumin which is known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Drinking milk infused with turmeric can cure body aches. Curcumin has also proved helpful in preventing cancer. We often use turmeric along with pepper in our vegetables.
Pepper improves the absorption of turmeric by the body and hence more of the nutrient is used by the body.
Similarly, the type of metal which is used in making our utensils also matters and constitutes healthy eating habits. According to the eating habits in Ayurveda, our body constitutes of three touches known as Tridoshas which are: Kapha (emotions, immunity), Pitta (metabolism) and Vata (nervous system) which are affected by the utensils we use for eating food.
Eating in silver utensils boosts immunity and improves skin health. Silver utensils also keep the contents fresh for a long period of time. Silver is also known for its antimicrobial properties.
Copper utensils are often used to store water. Drinking that water improves digestion, cleanses the blood, stimulates the brain and fights cancer by providing antioxidants to our body.
Before trying to understand the tradition of fasting in the Sanathan Dharma, it is important to understand the origins of this Dharma. Sanathan Dharma or “the Eternal, Universal tradition of righteousness and duty” is the duty, conduct or ‘the right path’ for everyone in the universe to follow. The word Dharma does not directly translate to religion, rather, it refers to the duty that one must perform.
According to Sanathan Dharma, a human being’s dharma or duty is Lok Kalyan or the welfare of other human beings. Non-Aryans or Persians invented the word Hinduism to refer to the spiritual and social practices of the people of India. Thus, Sanathan Dharma is a self-assigned label for a spiritual lifestyle and Hinduism is a foreign label used to identify the people who follow and propagate this lifestyle.
The traditional word for fasting is Upavasa. The former part upa means ‘near’ and the latter vasa means ‘to stay’. Conclusively, to fast is to stay near god or to stay on a higher spiritual level. The practice has an inherent inclination towards acquiring a higher spiritual state of life. People who follow Hinduism fast on certain festivals or on certain days related to a deity.
In the Indian subcontinent, the festival of Vasant Panchami or the fifth day of Magha month is considered the first day of the spring season. This period approximately coincides with early February. This is the time when we are moving towards spring season from the winter season. Forty days later, Holi is celebrated which marks the consummation of a single spring cycle. It is around this time that Navratri or the nine days’ fast is observed.
Does fasting during Navratri has some scientific explanation?
When there are major seasonal changes in the environment, it is advised to eat only the amount of food that is sufficient to fulfil our hunger instead of overeating. People are advised to observe fast and only eat fruits or other Sattvik food. According to Ayurveda, fasting can improve metabolism. A good metabolism is able to remove the toxins from our bodies. Fasting also improves the activeness of our body and mind.
In another exercise of fasting, people observe a fast once a week. Unlike the other religious beliefs and creations of the world which consider Sunday as a rest day, the Indian traditional texts say that a human being must keep working towards the right path; his karma must be in accordance to the dharma. Therefore, one day every week is set aside for fasting.
On the fasting day, agnihotra havan is performed for good and positive vibes. A morning and evening puja is also held. This aligns the body with the sunrise and sunset patterns and further connects the body to the exterior environment. This pattern of fasting refreshes the body for the next week and also brings one closer to God.
In the first type of fasting, the aim is to achieve purity of body and soul. It is an attempt to reach a higher meditative state of purity. In India, certain traditional days marked by the Hindu calendar are important fasting days. For example, Purnima or a full moon day, Ekadashi or the eleventh day after the full moon and Amavasya or the new moon day are reserved for fasting.
In the case of Ekadashi, eating after the previous day’s sunset is not allowed. Non-vegetarian food is strictly forbidden and heavy activities like travelling and washing clothes are discouraged.
In the second form of fasting, people control their diets based on the gods and goddess. For example, people avoid non-vegetarian food and eggs on Tuesday as it is assigned to Lord Hanuman. Instead, people worship him and eat boondi prasand. Similarly, Thursday, called guruvaar, is a day to worship Guru Brihaspati and eating non-vegetarian is forbidden on this day as well.
Such restrictions are made in Hinduism because eating animal meat frequently can cause various diseases in our body. To restrict this and to provide a more nutritious diet, the religion suggests consumption of a plant-based diet.
In this type of fasting, a group of people hold a fast along with prayers. The fast may be associated with a myth or a god. For example, Karvachauth is fast kept by wives for the well-being of their husbands. The wives pray for the long lives of their husbands. They eat sargi before sunrise and the next meal is only after sunset.
The devotees start the fast at dawn and eat the next meal only after the evening Ganesh Puja. Other than the religious significance, these fasts also build community values in the participants.
Fasting can stimulate a lot of different hormones in our bodies which help in weight loss, controlling blood sugar levels and strengthens the metabolism. Fasting can make our body produce human growth hormones which help in weight loss. It also ensures the stimulation of insulin which is one of the main body fat controlling hormones.
Right amount of insulin in the blood and ensure the adequate fat percentage in the body. Regular fasting also gives the body a routine and order which helps in improving the metabolism of our body. It gives an internal discipline to the body. This further ensures a calmer and peaceful mind which is the main goal of fasting.
The food serving and eating are like a ritual in itself. Indians have a tradition of washing their hands before and after the meal. We do not talk and sit cross-legged (Sukh Asan pose) on the floor during our food intake.
According to Vedas, every finger is an extension of the five elements out of which our body was formed. Through the thumb comes space, with the forefinger comes to air, the middle finger is fire, the ring finger is water and the little finger represents earth. Hence, eating with one’s fingers stimulates these five elements and helps in bringing forth digestive juices in the stomach.
The nerve ending or the acupuncture points of the fingers are known to stimulate digestion. Eating with hands also brings us closer to the food we are eating as it increases our consciousness towards our food as there are no barriers and we can feel what we are eating. Washing our hands before and after eating ensures hygiene and is an important part of healthy eating habits.
The exercise of sitting on the floor makes us aware of our appetite and makes digestion easier. Our upper bodies move back and forth while picking up the food, which helps in the movement of the abdomen muscles. It also inculcates good family values in the people who sit down and eat together. The practice of serving food on a banana leaf is also prevalent in Indian tradition.
Banana leaves contain large amounts of polyphenols that are natural antioxidants. Food served on the banana leaves absorbs the polyphenols which are said to prevent many diseases. They are also said to have anti-bacterial properties that can possibly kill the germs in food. It is also economic, eco-friendly and hygienic.
There is also a lot of emphasis on the food that we eat. The Indian tradition is known for its use of ghee in the dishes. Though there are misconceptions about the effects of ghee on our body, research tells that it is good for the heart, improves digestion and helps in weight loss. Another valued component of an Indian diet is the pickle.
In Indian tradition, there is a large range of fruits and vegetables that are preserved as pickles. Pickles improve our digestion and since they are made of uncooked vegetables and fruits, its antioxidants are also preserved. Other components such as curd (raita) and chutney also improve digestion.
Although dismissed in the last few decades, the healthy eating habits of the Indian tradition are being adopted by the western part of the world. They are adopting the practice of eating their food with their hands. Vegetarian diets are also being adopted by the people. With the passing of time, there is also the growth of awareness in the world about the ‘scientific tradition of Indian culture’ and its importance and relevance to our collective health.
While there is some westernization happening in our country, ‘Indianization’ is happening in the healthy eating habits of other countries.