Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #3 – Kaniṣṭha, Madhyam, and Uttama Eating

January 18th, 2021

The first and lowest stage of material consciousness, which represents the karmic or selfish mind, is called anna-moya, the animal consciousness of seeing everything only in terms of food. Therefore, for one who is serious about self-realization, controlling their eating is a priority. It is no wonder that one of the six main obstacles on the path of bhakti-yoga, the selfless path of devotion, is called atyāhāraati – extreme, āhāra – eating — for just like all obstacles on the path of bhakti, overeating sinks one into material consciousness and impedes devotion. Interestingly, although atyāhāra literally means “overeating”, it is used primarily in a generic way to indicate the excessive increase of material demands, which shows how much eating is conflated in general with the core of material consciousness, and why eating properly is so important.


I have divided eating into three levels according to its effect on consciousness. The terms kaniṣṭha (neophyte), madhyam (middling), and uttama (topmost) are generic terms used to indicate the level of one’s qualification for practicing devotion. I am using these terms here in a somewhat similar way in order to gradate the levels in which we can approach eating.


Kaniṣṭha (Restaurant Eating)

I am using the term restaurant eating to refer to eating food that was cooked to accrue profit and not cooked for one personally and lovingly. The experience of eating such food is simply sensual. As the activity of the eater is not sacrificial, but selfish, there is karmic reaction for such eating, whether one is a vegetarian or even a vegan.


“ […] Others [those who don’t offer food first for sacrifice], who prepare food for personal enjoyment, verily eat sin.” (Bg. 3.13)


Madhyam (Home Cooking)

I am using the term home cooking to refer to food that was cooked with love for one’s family, such as food cooked by a loving mother for her children. Taking such food is therefore not just a sensual experience, but also an emotional one, as the taste of the food is an expression of the cook’s love for the person being served. I have written about this before[1] in terms of how much of today’s mental disease, such as depression and anxiety, is caused by a lack of affection in one’s formative years, a nurturing that was mostly communicated through the food cooked by one’s mother.


It is, therefore, a sad time now in modern society, where there is not a culture at home of family meals, and, when eating, one thus mostly fends for oneself through restaurants, take-out, frozen meals, and snacking. Contrast that with high-end Bengali culture where even when two people are taking meals, one person will lovingly serve it.


Still, if the food is not offered in sacrifice there is a karmic reaction.


Uttama (Prasādam)

Prasādam literally means “grace”. It is an age-old tradition in Indian eating. One’s food is lovingly cooked and offered to God, and only taken in a mood of honoring Krishna’s mercy. It is thus also karma-free, because the cooking, serving, and eating is done with devotion.[2] The experience is therefore both sensual, emotional, and spiritual.


It is beyond the scope of a weekly post to describe the intricacies of how food is offered to God and transforms in the process.[3] I will state, however, that it is the experience of those adhering to the tradition, and confirmed by the sacred texts, that food cooked and taken in this way has a tangible transformative effect. Narada, the most famous Vaiṣṇava saint, describes his experience of taking prasādam from the plate of his teacher:


“Once only, by their permission, I took the remnants of their food, and by so doing all my sins were at once eradicated […]” (Bhag. 1.5.25)


Properly honoring prasādam is thus uttama eating, a sensual, emotional, and spiritual experience.



[1] https://wavesofdevotion.com/2016/04/18/the-mother-the-mind-and-food-2/

[2] Of course, it goes without saying that offering things with devotion means to offer vegetarian foodstuffs.

[3] There is so much more that can be discussed from exactly how one offers food to God and philosophical foundation of how it becomes transformed and frees one from sin.

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