When Does Food Become Prasadam?
From Back to Godhead
By Sivarama Swami
With proper guidance, anyone can turn ordinary food into a spiritual substance.
The phenomenon of something changing from material to spiritual is an extraordinary one, but it is something we as devotees are involved in daily—often several times a day. It happens when prasadam (unoffered food) becoming prasadam, or food sanctified by the Lord.
When I was a new devotee in Montreal, we arranged a program that was to be given on campus at McGill University. The leaflet advertising the program read, “See matter transformed into spirit before your very eyes.” That title certainly drew interest from a lot of people.
During the program, the temple president was giving the presentation, and he was leading up to this point. Finally he said, “OK, now it’s going to happen. You are going to see spirit manifest before your very eyes.”
The students were sitting on the edge of their seats. The plate of unoffered food, which was the feast for that day, was brought in and placed in front of a picture of Panca-tattva (Lord Chaitanya and His four main associates). A devotee then bowed down, rang the bell, and uttered some mantras.
Finally he stood and declared, “Here it is! We brought in ordinary food, and now it’s transformed into spiritual substance.”
And before anyone could challenge, he said, “The proof will be that you eat it now and see the effect that it has.”
As Krishna says, pratyakshavagamam dharmyam: “The principle of religion is understood by direct experience.” (Bhagavad-gita 9.2), or in this case, the proof is certainly in the tasting. Those who have tasted Krishna’s prasadam know that it has extraordinary potency, and eating it is a very different experience from eating food that isn’t offered to the Lord with love and devotion.
So when does prasadam become prasadam? When it is offered, certainly. But for an offering to be successful, it must be accepted. When Krishna accepts what we offer to Him, it becomes prasadam. The word prasadam means “mercy,” and in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, prasade sarva-duhkhanam hanir asyopajayate: “Receiving the mercy of the Lord destroys all misery.” Therefore, when we eat (or, as we say, honor) prasadam, we feel elated. prasadam destroys the results of our past sinful activities. Rupa Goswami says it makes us feel “very auspicious.”
And what is it that is really being accepted? Is it the foods itself? Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita (9.26),
patram pushpam phalam toyam
yo me bhaktya prayacchati
tad aham bhakty-upahritam
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.” He says, “I accept the bhakti.” You may offer a leaf, a flower, fruit, milk, or ghee-cooked preparations, but the devotion is what carries those preparations to Krishna, and that’s what makes Him inclined to accept it. Sri Ishopanishad (Mantra 5) tells us, tad dure tad v antike: although Krishna is very far away, He is also very close. So wherever we are when we offer something to Krishna, devotion brings Him right to us.
We should recognize, however, that not all offerings are on the same level; they depend on the nature of the devotee. Although there are many ways to categorize devotees, in this case we may consider three types: motivated, pure, and love-saturated devotees. Consequently, their offerings will fall into one of these three categories.
The Motivated Offering
A motivated offering is when something is offered to Krishna with the idea that some material benefit will come in return, such as liberation from material suffering: “If I give this to Krishna, I’ll be prosperous, I’ll be healthy, my children will find suitable spouses,” and so on. Or someone might desire to be free from suffering, or to recover from an illness—this is offering with motivation. But even that motivated offering can be done in two ways. If it is done through the guru-parampara, the succession of gurus, then Krishna will accept it, because pure devotees are very merciful, and to elevate motivated devotees they beseech Krishna to accept their meager offerings. In other words, it is the purity of the devotees in the guru-parampara that transforms the impure offering into a pure offering. If a motivated person just makes an offering whimsically, however, not through a guru-parampara, then the offering doesn’t become prasadam but remains prasadam. Yet still such offerings have value in the sense that the person is thinking, “At least I am offering this to Krishna.”
Of course, whatever way people think of Krishna is beneficial. Akama, sarva-kama, moksha-kama: without material desires, full of material desires, or desiring liberation. In each case they become gradually purified. But unless Krishna exercises some extraordinary mercy, He doesn’t accept food offered with ulterior motives. Yasyaprasadan na gatih kuto ‘pi: “Without the grace of the spiritual master, one cannot make any advancement.” (Gurvashtaka 8) Krishna won’t accept something unless it comes through the guru-parampara.
An interesting question often arises regarding congregation members or new devotees who are not initiated but who are making offerings: Are the offerings prasadam or prasadam? In this case we should consider the potency of the disciplic succession. The disciplic succession is not restricted to initiated devotees. If someone receives an instruction from an authorized Vaishnava to offer food, then Krishna will accept their offering. Krishna won’t reject their sincere approach, because such persons are, in effect, accepting the guru-parampara even though they have not yet gone through the process of diksha.
The Pure Offering
The second type of offering is the pure offering, when a devotee offers something to Krishna to please Him. A devotee has no selfish motives; he only wants please the Lord. Therefore at home he offers food to a picture, to a deity, to a shalagrama-shila. And in the temple, pure-hearted pujaris try to please Gaura-Nitai and Radha-Krishna. But even in this category there are two types of offerings: regulated and spontaneous. Regulated offerings are done out of duty, following all the rules and regulations. The other also involves the devotee doing everything just right, but out of a spontaneous attachment to the Lord. Such a devotee has a certain degree of affection, and the dominant thought is not one of obligation—”I will do this because I’ve been instructed to by guru and shastra.” Yet by doing things according to guru and shastra, devotees awaken their natural attraction to Krishna and perform spontaneous acts of devotion out of affection. This affection is a little different from mature love, spiritual love, but it is genuine. Still, both these pure offerings have to be made through the guru-parampara.
The prasadam is also different in this category. When you offer something to Krishna out of duty, He accepts it out of duty. He feels duty-bound. In the Bhagavad-gita (3.24) Krishna says, “If I didn’t follow the rules and regulations, then other people would be misled.” Krishna is acting out of duty. But Krishna considers that of all the devotees who are surrendered to Him, the one who is offering things to Him with affection is most dear to Him. Consequently, Krishna reciprocates in kind: He responds with loving affection toward that devotee.
Naturally the question arises, Are there different kinds of prasadam? And the answer, then, is yes. Krishna says, ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamyaham: “As all surrender unto Me, I reward them accordingly.” (Bg. 4.11) According to the quality and quantity of devotion with which one makes an offering to Krishna, that offering proportionately becomes prasadam. It is interesting to note that a devotee’s ability to taste prasadam will also be in proportion to his or her ability to offer prasadam. In other words, devotees will taste the spiritual nature of prasadam in the same degree they are manifesting devotion in the offering.
The Offering in Pure Love
The third kind of offering is that which is done with pure love. When devotees come to the stage of loving devotion, Krishna directly accepts offerings from their hands, and He reciprocates with them in kind. Loving devotion is that which is exhibited by Krishna’s eternal associates in the spiritual world, where He is directly engaged in tasting all the types of love His devotees offer.
So what is it that’s different, and how is it that prasadam becomes spiritual? The food looks the same before and after the offering, but what actually happens is that Krishna reciprocates with the devotion of the devotee by manifesting His svarupa-shakti, or His daivi-prakriti, His internal spiritual potency, to the degree that the devotee allows. By “allows” I mean to the degree the devotee wants, or to the degree that he manifests a quality and quantity of devotional service. When Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was in Jagannatha Puri and tasted Jagannatha prasadam, He became overwhelmed by the ecstatic taste of the prasadam. He glorified the prasadam and could directly taste the saliva of Krishna’s lotus lips mixed in with the food. He went on to glorify the effect of the touch of Krishna’s lips.
This is what happens when someone in loving devotion tastes food that has been offered to the Lord. And in this case, no doubt, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s ability to taste the potency of the prasadam exceeds that of the brahmanas who offered it to Lord Jagannatha. But, still, that prasadam is Krishna’s internal potency. It is non-different from Krishna, and it is dynamic. A loving devotee may taste more of the spiritual potency present in prasadam than was originally manifest to the pujari who offered it.
We may also consider the examples of Prahlada Maharaja and Mirabai: Both were given poison to drink, but because of their great loving devotion, the poison was transformed into nectar and had no effect. Why is that? Because both poison and nutritious food are part of the relativity of this material world. But when we offer something with love to Krishna, then Krishna’s sac-cid-ananda potency manifests in that food. In this way, poison becomes as much prasadam as a pakora does.
Offering Our Lives
We shouldn’t think, however, that an “offering” is simply the prasadam or food we offer to Krishna. Devotees make their entire life an offering:
yat karoshi yad ashnasi
yaj juhoshi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya
tat kurushva mad-arpanam
Krishna is saying, “Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform—do that, O son of Kunti, as an offering to Me.” (Bg. 9.27) Ultimately every breath a devotee takes is an offering: when devotees sleep because they need to maintain their bodies for Krishna’s service, then that sleep becomes an offering to the Lord; their eating to maintain their bodies so they can remain healthy to serve Krishna is an offering to the Lord; when they receive anything—food, soap, money—all of these things are offered to Krishna. In New Vraja Dhama (the devotee farm community in Hungary) anything the devotees acquire or receive, they first offer to Radha-Syamasundara, the presiding deities, on a tray that sits before the altar. In this way the practice of offering everything to Krishna becomes natural.
We should learn how to offer everything. We rise early in the morning, and the first thing we do is offer prayers to the Lord. We chant Hare Krishna not as entertainment but as an offering to glorify Krishna. And when someone lives like that, then in one sense the act of making the offering becomes unnecessary (although devotees do it to set the example) because such devotees are always absorbed in doing everything for Krishna. Therefore, yo me bhaktya prayacchati—the bhakti is already there, and Krishna is very eager to receive it. In fact, Krishna follows behind devotees to accept their loving devotion every moment of the day, in every movement of their bodies, and in every thought they manifest in relation to their devotional service to Him.
Ultimately this is what we aspire for, and this is what loving devotees do: they live for Krishna, and thus everything they do becomes Krishna conscious—it becomes prasadam. The cowherd boys simply sit down with Krishna and eat from their lunch packs—they don’t make any offering to Krishna. When they offer something to Krishna, they take from their lunch packs and put it right in Krishna’s mouth. Or they may even bite off half a sweetball and then say, “Oh, Krishna, just see how wonderful this sweetball tastes!” and put the rest in Krishna’s mouth. Yo me bhaktya prayacchati: it’s just their love. The formality and technicality of offering is no longer relevant, because what Krishna really wants is the love and devotion. That’s all that actually interests Him. And whether Mother Yashoda offers her breast milk, the gopis offer their bodies, the cows offer their milk, the cowherd boys wrestle and jump on Krishna’s shoulders—everything becomes prasadam because everything is an offering of love.
Our business in Krishna consciousness, therefore, is to live in this world of prasadam and thereby become prasadam ourselves. This is what Krishna concludes in the Bhagavad-gita (4.24) when He says, brahmarpanam brahma havir brahmagnau brahmana hutam …: “A person who is fully absorbed in Krishna consciousness is sure to attain the spiritual kingdom because of his full contribution to spiritual activities.” If we’re thinking about offering everything to Krishna, if our physical acts are an offering to Krishna, if our words are an offering to Krishna, then ultimately we become an offering to Krishna. Then we become prasadam. And Krishna is always very eager to taste the wonderful mellows of our loving offerings to Him.