Our Scriptures don’t just take care of our spiritual health; they also contain information on how to achieve physical wellbeing

Arvind Dhekne, who once headed the Government of India Press, Nasik, carries a copy of the Bhagavad Gita wherever he goes — even on a day trip to the Ellora Caves. “I keep reading it,” he said, and smiled, “It helps me stick to a diet.” I was intrigued. In their discourses and treatises scholars have discussed the Gita on its messages of peace, duty, work culture, business management — but health and diet?

It does, affirms Professor K. S. Balasubramanian, Sanskrit College, in his essay ‘Yogic Life and Nutrition’. “The Gita accepts this view that food has a major role in physiological/psychological growth.” The Gita (and texts on Yoga) classifies food into three categories — Sattvika, Rajasika and Tamasika, he says. “Foods that increase vitality, energy, vigour, health, joy and cheerfulness, which are savoury and oily, substantial and agreeable are liked by the Sattvika (BG 17.8). Foods that are bitter, sour, saline, over-hot, pungent, dry and “burning” are the Rajasika's favourites and are productive of pain, grief and disease (17.9). That which is stale, tasteless, stinking, cooked overnight and impure is the food liked by the Tamasika (17.10).”

Quoting several authoritative texts, he makes a list of “accepted food items”. Wheat, rice, barley, purified milk, ghee, sugar, butter, sugar candy, honey, dry ginger, snake gourd and green gram — go in for whatever is available. Cow's milk is best; make buffalo's milk the next choice. The meal to make you strong should have goat milk, wheat/rice mixed with ghee and vegetables. If you were the travelling type (sanyasi, mendicant) prefer rice, vegetable soup and salt. Say no to greasy food, sambar “that is overheated and without tamarind, cumin seeds and betel leaves.” (Hatasanketacandrika).

In his well-known commentary Swami Chidbhavananda takes the details further. Food that promotes cheerfulness also boosts appetite, he says, highlighting the psychology of food. What you eat should keep you smiling, not make you suffer bellyache, indigestion or dyspepsia. Eat food that is free of toxins and easily digestible. And watch the portions. “Food should be substantial,” he says, “it should give you prolonged sustenance.” Time and place are important too. Have a light breakfast; adjust supper time to give the digestive organs their much-needed rest. He quotes Sri Ramakrishna: “Eat as much as you require during the daytime; reduce food as much as you can at night.” Rajasika foods tingle and sear the tongue, says the Swami. Your eyes turn bloodshot, tears trickle down, your nose waters, your head reels and your stomach burns. He gently warns: In this diet there is no spiritual quest, and it affects life expectancy. He calls for discrimination in consuming food cooked overnight. “Some kinds of food have to be kept for hours/days before they are ready for the table. Others have to be eaten immediately after preparation. Check the food before consuming it.” Stay away from stale, rotten, foul-smelling items; do not eat or serve leftovers. “Achievements in life are determined by what you eat and the way you consume it.” (Pages 814-815)

The Gita says much about mental health, says M. P. Bhattathiri in his scholarly treatise Bhagavad Gita: A Motivational Management Book. Here is warrior Arjuna, left depressed by what he saw on the battlefield, and Krishna the therapist, counsels him out of his blues. “The Gita was delivered to boost Arjuna’s declining morale, motivation, confidence and increase his effectiveness,” says Bhattathiri. It talks of anger management and stress, “focusses on exploring the inner world of the self.” The mind is difficult to curb and is restless, but control is possible through suitable practices of meditation and detachment (6.34). Doing one’s prescribed duties, even if imperfectly, is good for mental health (3.35).

The much-quoted “karmanye vadhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachana...” (2.47) translates to “You have a right to perform your prescribed duty, but you are not entitled to the fruits of action. Never consider yourself the cause of the results of your activities, and never be attached to not doing your duty.” Get deeply involved in your work, do it with single-minded devotion, do the best you can. “Perform your duty equi-poised, O Arjuna, abandoning all attachment to success or failure. Such equanimity is called yoga.” (2.48) “Yoga has two different meanings,” concludes Bhattathiri. “A state of stability and peace and the practices which lead to that state. The Gita uses the word with both meanings.”

Is it possible to follow the Gita diet while travelling, I asked Dhekne. “Difficult,” he admitted. “Can't give up Rajasik food, we developed a taste for it in childhood. But we absolutely need to keep off Tamasik food.” We can't always choose our food while on the move, but it’s best to limit eating outside. “Go for home-cooked stuff,” he advises.