Sanga: Prasadam is Bhakti

12-prasadamSanga Q & A with Swami B. V. Tripurari

Q. Devotees are known for distributing delicious vegetarian food offered to Krishna with little or no charge to the public. In the West they have been doing this at their temples as well as at music festivals and other popular events for almost fifty years. Interestingly, Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs relates how during his college years the late Apple co-founder regularly walked to the Krishna center in Portland, Oregon to chant, dance, and enjoy the free feast being served there. Lecturing at Stanford University, Jobs told students, “I would walk the seven miles across town every Sunday night to get one good meal a week at the Hare Krishna temple. I loved it.”

In India, along with prasadam distribution at temples and events, devotees work with government agencies in distributing food to the poor. One of their programs provides free prasadam lunches to thousands of impoverished school children daily.

Yet, in spite of the popularity of prasadam distribution, there are some in the Krishna movement who want to discontinue programs that don’t directly involve proselytizing for converts. Their argument is that food distribution unaccompanied by chanting (kirtana) and/or preaching is akin to secular social work where the interests of the body take precedence over those of the soul. Implementing this opinion might cause some prasadam programs for the poor in India to be discontinued. So my questions are: What is the spiritual understanding of prasadam, and do you feel that prasadam programs that don’t include chanting and preaching should be discontinued?

A. The word prasadam means mercy, kindness, or grace. If we collect, prepare, and offer food to Krishna before taking any ourselves, we convert our primal necessity for eating into a mystic experience that can lead us to the zenith of human potential—selfless love. This is because offering food to Krishna and distributing it to others, without expectation of reward, is a spiritual practice that brings our requirement for self-preservation into conjunction with our spiritual capacity to love. Spiritual practices like these can transform our lives because they serve to convert our selfish desires into a serving desire supported by the realization of our complete dependence upon God. Indeed, all of the karmic reactions for our present life of exploitation can be overcome by this practice because the most important activity in human life is to be engaged in the service of Krishna, who energizes our efforts through his remnants, his kindness, and grace (prasada).

Ideally, prasadam distribution is accompanied by kirtana and the opportunity for those who partake to learn something about devotion to Krishna (bhakti). This is how Srila Prabhupada established the Krishna consciousness movement in the West, and this reflects the age-old tradition of distributing prasadam at temples and religious functions in India. But even without being accompanied by kirtana or philosophy, prasada distribution is a potent spiritual act beneficial for both the giver and receiver. Indeed, anything—especially food—given from the hands of a pure Vaishnava or his or her representatives, whether or not it has been ritually offered to Krishna, is mercy/prasada for the baddha jiva, the conditioned soul.

The sruti says that food is Brahman; food is rasa; and Krishna says in the Bhagavad-gita, aham vaishvanaro bhutva: “I am the fire of digestion in everyone.” Feeding people with this in mind will make the giver one with Brahman as well. It will enable all those involved to eventually taste God as rasa.

Q. We Vaishnavas are theists who believe in a Supreme Being, not monists who believe that ultimately there is no distinction between God/Brahman and man. So what do you mean when you say that distributing prasadam will make the giver one with Brahman?

A. The scriptures speak of becoming one with Brahman. Whereas monists understand this to mean something equivalent to becoming God, Vaishnavas understand this to mean becoming one with God in desire and purpose—to become instruments of his will. We Vaishnavas are certainly interested in becoming one in desire with Brahman, in becoming fire so to speak, in order to enter the fire. Again, I am not speaking of monism, but rather the far-reaching philosophy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who taught that the individual soul (jiva) is simultaneously one and different (acintya bhedabheda) from Brahman/God. In this realization the jiva experiences a transcendent oneness with Brahman in the context of sacrifice, service, and love.

When we offer food to God, do we not become one with him in love? When we distribute prasadam to others are they not involved in Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s pastime of delivering the fallen souls—his pastime of love?

Devotees will attain love of God through offerings in which they feed others in the consciousness that they are offering food to Krishna, who dwells within as Paramatma, the Supersoul, or as Vaishvanara (the fire of digestion), as Krishna refers to himself in Bhagavad-gita. Food given to others from the hand of a Vaishnava, even if not ritualistically offered, is a form of prasada as well; and if one meditates on the fact that Krishna is the fire of digestion and if one also feeds this fire with devotion, one will become Krishna conscious by doing so. What to speak of distributing prasadam, Srila Prabhupada said that even alcoholics will make spiritual advancement if they see their intoxicating beverages in relation to Krishna. Srila Prabhupada said, “I may request even the drunkards, ‘When drinking wine, kindly remember that the taste of this drink is Krishna. Just begin in this way, and one day you will become a saintly, Krishna conscious person.’ ”

Q. Some devotees argue that performing charity such as feeding people is not genuine bhakti but rather an aspect of varnashram, or Vedic socio-religious life. They say that devotees will “fall away” if they become involved in charitable work devoid of bhakti.

A. Charity and feeding the needy fall within the purview of varnashrama dharma, which includes pious activities which may or may not be materially motivated, but this is not a very meaningful argument when the food distribution being discussed is in fact prasadam distribution. Bhakti and prasadam are synonymous. Bhakti means loving devotion to God, and prasadam is food that has been offered in loving devotion to God. Food without bhakti is not prasadam because it is bhakti that makes food prasadam. Therefore, distributing prasadam is bhakti—not varnashrama dharma. The claim that those distributing prasadam will fall away if the activity is not accompanied by kirtana and preaching fails to understand the nature of svarupa-siddha-bhakti, which affects one who participates in it whether that participation is knowing or unknowing. How can an activity that is svarupa-siddha-bhakti possibly have an adverse effect on those giving or receiving it? To think that it can is an offensive to bhakti.

Of course, it is preferable to include kirtana and preaching in prasadam distribution, and I would think that such an adjustment would be a minor thing in India. But all told, prasadam distribution in whatever form it takes is bhakti, and whosoever is touched by bhakti, even animals, plants, and trees, will be eternally spiritually benefited.


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24 Responses to Sanga: Prasadam is Bhakti

  1. Hare Krishna. Dandavat.

    Food given to others from the hand of a Vaishnava, even if not ritualistically offered, is a form of prasada as well

    How is this so? Any level of Vaishnava (kanistha, madhyam, uttam)? Thank you.

    • Vaisnavas are the krpa-sakti of Bhagavan. To the extent that one is a Vaisnava one moves only for the pleasure of Bhagavan. Thus if the Vaisnava gives one food, it is mercy/pradadam.

      • Thank you.

        But why a Vaishnav would not offer the food first to Bhagavan and then give His prasad to others?

        • Sometimes Vaisanvas are given prepared food and they honor it for Bhagavan and in turn give it to other people.

          • This is nice. But I meant why would Vaishnava not first offer food (bhoga) to Bhagavan and then distribute His (Bhagavan’s) prasad to others? Because in the article I cited it is said that food given from the hand of Vaishnava, even if not ritualistically offered, is also prasad. My question was how is this prasad if it is not offered to Bhagavan first? And why would Vaishnava not offer food (bhoga) to Bhagavan first, before distributing it to others?

          • Usually they do, kanistha Bhagvatas that is. Madhayama Bhagavatas offer in their minds. Uttama Bhagavatas consider what they are given has come from Bhagavan as prasada. But otherwise I have already answered your question. Please re-read my answer.

  2. Oh, so it is only about different types of offering of food (bhoga) to Krishna that Vaishnavas on different levels do? I’m in kanistha, that is why I could not understand higher levels.

      • Could you please explain more then?

        • I wrote, “Sometimes Vaisanvas are given prepared food and they honor it for Bhagavan and in turn give it to other people.” If someone offers food to a Vaisnava and that Vaisnava gives that food to someone else, that food is prasada/mercy.

          • What if Vaishnav himself goes to market and buys apples to give them to others? He will offer them first to Bhagavan right? And then give those Bhagavad prasad apples to others. He will not just touch them and give them to others, right?

            And how does uttam adhikari offer if he himself goes to market to buy apples to give them to others?

  3. Dandavat pranam.

    Distributing/honoring Prasadam automatically calls for Deity worship (Pancaratriki Marg), because we need to offer prepared food to Krishna in the first place, and its attendant rules and regulations on “external purity” such as bathing a certain number of times a day, eschewing certain items like onion/garlic, and so on.

    It was very heartening to read that the consciousness that food is actually going to Krishna who resides as the Vaishvanara in the digestive tracts of living entities even without the ritualism will make one Krishna conscious.

    From what we read from the scriptures, the Bhagavat Marg (hearing and chanting) is by itself fully capable to take one back to Godhead. If this is indeed the case, I have always been unable to understand the enormous emphasis placed on following Pancaratriki principles by Gaudiya Vaishnavas.

    I would be very grateful if you could kindly shed any light on this. Thank you.

    • The point made in the article is that prasada is not under the Pancaratrika viddhi. Food does not need to be offered externally to a Deity for it to be prasada. It is the will of the Vaisnava that makes it so.

    • P. Jnanesh,

      Harinama can give prema. However, Sri Jiva Goswami stresses in Bhakti-sandarbha that the 18 syllable krsna-mantra is even more powerful than Harinama. This is so because within it names of Krsna are arranged in such a manner as to reveal a particular relationship with Krnsa in due course. So the idea is that with the help of the krsna-mantra one can proceed along the path better equipped.

      This mantra also enables one to engage in arcana. And arcana with all if its regulations is most helpful for the materially conditioned jiva. So since the time of its inception Guadiya Vaisnavism has involved the blessing of the guru to chant Harinama and mantra diksa received from sri guru. To receive these from the guru is the method prescribed in sastra, and sastra must be followed. Thus while they themselves are independent even of diksa, chanting them without diksa will not be fruitful.

  4. Vrindaranya dasi

    “My question was how is this prasad if it is not offered to Bhagavan first? And why would Vaishnava not offer food (bhoga) to Bhagavan first, before distributing it to others?”

    Uttama adhikaris would sometimes not offer the food to Bhagavan because their vision is that they already received it as prasad from Bhagavan and you don’t offer prasad back to the Lord. So the question remains, is it prasad or not? Yes. As Srila Sridhara Maharaja said, even the so-called fiction of the pure devotee is more real than our so-called reality. At the same time, a kanistha adhikari cannot imitate the uttama-adhikari.

  5. Ok, thank you all for explaining.

  6. I think that when Vaishnavas make an effort to feed others as their service to the Lord, that act in itself makes this food a prasadam, or ‘mercy, kindness, and grace’. Whether the food was first formally offered to Krsna or not, does not change this basic fact. And since Vaishnavas do that on behalf of Lord Krsna – whatever comes out of their mercy is the mercy of their Master.

  7. “Bhakti and prasadam are synonymous. Bhakti means loving devotion to God, and prasadam is food that has been offered in loving devotion to God. Food without bhakti is not prasadam because it is bhakti that makes food prasadam.”

    In the above quote you state that “Bhakti means loving devotion to God..”, and also that “Bhakti and prasadam are synonymous.” This makes prasadam and the honoring of prasadam such a sacred activity. I have never raised this point before out of fear of being rebuked, but as this talk of prasadam is so-to-speak on the table here, I am going to put it forward.

    You, Swami Tripurari, are not a neophyte. But as far as I can understand, the rest of us are. Both when visiting Audarya in California and Madhuvan in Costa Rica, I requested the devotees for permission to read from our scriptures to the assembled devotees while they are engaged in honoring prasadam. I also requested that we could hear your recorded classes while honoring prasadam, or watch videos of your classes. But in all of these cases my requests were denied. Devotees prefer to talk of anything and everything while taking prasadam rather than engage in hearing Krishna katha.

    As I have written above, we devotees are neophytes, and while more advanced devotees may be able to honor prasadam while worshiping it in their hearts and thinking of Krishna’s pastimes, my own feeling is that the least we can do is to hear from sources that will remind us of what we are about.

    Even at home, I will not sit down to take our humble offerings without putting on a CD or sitting with one of our literatures. I do this because I enjoy taking prasadam in that way. So sitting with the devotees and hearing all the chatting about anything and everything while we are honoring prasadam was disheartening for me. Sometimes I would simply take my parasad and sit under a tree while reading one of our good books. We are a few feet out of the Deity room, and immediately the mood of reverence evaporates. And we are taught to believe that prasadam is Krishna Himself, and therefore should be respected just as we worship Krishna on the altar. So why not institute such practices for us who are so neophyte that we have no taste for it on our own?

    • We honor prasada by eating it mindfully. But this honoring also serves as a form of recreation, a festive and social time for sadhakas. We see this in the lila of Mahaprabhu. Also whenever I took prasada with Prabhupada he was light hearted and talked to me about various things. And recreation has its place in yoga, as Sri Krsna states in the Gita. Thus discussion of various issues practical and philosophical and social interaction are not entirely out of place while honoring prasada. Then again,sometimes we honor in silence and one is free to do that. But I think your characterization of the discussions you experienced taking prasada at my ashram may be over the top. I take prasada with the devotees daily and do not find the discussions out of place.

      • I understand your viewpoint, and I accept it.

        I also feel that when you are present the whole room takes on a different tone and feeling that is more spiritual. Also that when you are present others behave somewhat differently.

        I am only a neophyte trying to be a bhakta, and tend to hanker for an atmosphere where the sadhana is in full force, and perhaps a little more formal.

        We used to chant japa in the temple room loudly, before the Deities, as a regulative principle and the room was like a bee hive. I miss that. We used to have readings or recorded lectures at prasadam and I miss that. In my ideal ashram there would be recorded lectures or bhajans on speakers throughout the property 7/24. I find it helpful. But I know we are all different.

        When I say that the kirtans amongst Caitanya’s associates were relational, and uproarious, and let that be our standard, that doesn’t fly. But when I say that there should be more Krishna katha while taking prasadam, then the levity amongst Caitanya’s associates during prasadam is mentioned.

        I feel that my desire for a given atmosphere is not incorrect. And what is going in in different camps is not incorrect. We all have our own temperments. I have never fit very well in any camp, so this is not a new thing for me. I still prefer my books or a good recorded class to a conversation especially while taking prasadam. And you are not saying I can’t have it.

        “….. let us take this prasadam to our full satisfaction and glorify Their Lordships Sri Sri Radha and Krishna and in love call upon the help of Lord Caitanya and Nityananda.”

        I was afraid you might chastise me for being a fault-finder. As you may have noticed, I’m not even attracted by outings off the property, often debating whether to stay back or try to join the crowd. In Vancouver Temple I lived in a closet, and in L.A. I lived alone in a boiler room. It’s part of my lightly autistic nature to cling to a tightly controlled environment. Without a steady on-going flow of sadhana, I can barely function. In a letter to Satvarupa, Srila Prabhupada once wrote, “Ishan has a tendancy to run amuck, but he is very sincere so take care of him.” Thank you for your patience and for being gentle with me.

        • Your comments such as this one are rather personal and might best be addressed to me personally, rather than on this public forum. But yes, there are many ways to do kirtana and honor prasada. And if senior men or women find the spiritual atmosphere deteriorating, they should try to bring the discussing to a higher level. I can’t be everywhere at once, nor do I want to be,

  8. Dear Shri Swamiji & Shri Citta Hariji,

    Many thanks for your explanation.

    I will deliberate on these matters.

    Jnanesh

  9. ” prasadam programs that don’t include chanting and preaching should be discontinued?”

    I rather find that the above argument faulty as I am of the opinion that there cannot be any prasadam distribution by any Krishna Movement that is without chanting and preaching. The very fact that it is recognized as a food from a Krishna Movement causes a sort of chanting for people talk/think/remember about it. It is a kind of preaching to the people that we care about them and that we are compassionate about their overall welfare; we cannot approach people solely on the soul platform as it will turn out to be only dry philosophy to them.

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