Monday, November 02, 2009


One of the most laughable and irrational dietary restrictions I had to follow as a Hare Krishna devotee--beyond the prohibition against eating meat, fish, and eggs--involved shunning garlic and onions. We were told that these naturally pungent bulbs grew only in "dirty" conditions and also have a nasty side effect of making one more passionate. I remember blushing violently when I repeated this nonsense to a Sunday feast guest, who immediately told me that I was talking absolute nonsense. He was right of course, but at the time I repeated this irrational garbage like a sari-clad puppet. Truth is, I never really believed in the prohibitions against garlic and onions, particularly after we were told that a good substitution is asafoetida ("hing" and here's where things get really nasty.

For one thing, asafoetida is a sulfurous gum resin that is usable as a spice in tiny amounts and only after it has been browned. Otherwise, it has a fetid and rather disgusting smell, much like a huge trove of rancid gym room sneakers festering in a hot locker room. This was the stuff we used to season much of our soups and vegetables, which only goes to show what lengths people will go to when deprived of their garlic and onions.

However, that's not the worst of it: the sad truth is that no other plant ingredient has a longer history in the preparation of black magic potions than asafoetida (which is one reason it is also known as the "devil's herb"). It also has medicinal properties, though nothing to compare with the health benefits of onions and garlic. The idea that these foods are non-Sattvic is derived from the conception of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas, representing goodness, passion, and darkness, respectively). These were originally representative of innate qualities and linked to the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in their capacities as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer (Maitrayaniya Upanishad). Furthermore, the Bhagavad Gita (17:2) treats the three gunas as innate qualities of individuals, which is treated by some commentators--Swami Dayananda Saraswati is a famous example--as proof that the spiritual preceptor, ignoring the caste of the parents, should assign a caste to a student upon completion of gurukula training based on his knowledge of the child's innate qualities.

The link to diet came much later with the concept of the Ayurvedic diet, which advocates foods considered to promote Sattvic qualities and proscribes foods that are considered to encourage lower tendencies. Here we enter into the realm of folklore and magic. It is understandable, given the great antiquity of Vedic culture, but personal experience and reason should step in at this point and assert themselves, for who else can attest to these qualities affecting a person but the man or woman ingesting the food in question? We know for example, that onions are ubiquitous in Indian cooking and that India is the world's leading exporter of onions. If onions and garlic had such debilitating effects on the Indian people, they would have run riot years ago and destroyed themselves in a vast onion and garlic precipitated holocaust.

So much for forsaking garlic and onions; instead of eating these healthful foods, we spent years eating a spice whose use is almost universally regarded as an important part of black magic potions and smells abominable into the bargain. Better eat with your health in mind and judge for yourself what is in your best interests.

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Anonymous said...

As an Indian, I can tell you some very strict vegetarians refuse to eat root vegetables in India, because they subscribe to a principle of ahimsa in the strictest sense. Therefore, according to their logic, eating root vegetables require killing the plant, therefore unethical.

It looks like the swami mangled up random brahmin superstitions, with extreme vegetarians.

Although, asafetida does have its uses in certain types of cooking, such as south indian, where it brings out the flavor of complimentary spices. It isn't a ubiquitous use all spices, for all occasions. Definitely does not work with western food.

It seems like strange borrowing of already odd rituals that are considered to be "extreme" without really undestanding the reasoning behind it.

Typical cult thinking

Anonymous said...


My husband is a devotee. When I read in this post about asafetida being a substitute for onions and garlic,I almost laughed out loud at how familiar this statement sounded. To me it seems like these people are parrots, trying to look like people who question reality and are trying to find the truth but actually they are just regurgitating what is being fed to them.

Pete said...

I had some herbal basil tea and I was told I couldn't drink it because the plant is classed as a devotee.

planetaryeyes said...

Crazy ideas lead to absurd practices. Holy basil, known in India as Tulsi, is a blackish version of the spice typically used in seasoning foods or as a tea. Folk remedies are often simply a form of quackery for the ignorant; the same can be said for people who concoct belief systems based on legends or folk stories.

harearmy said...

i was a pre-member of iskcon when i was in my first year college. Now im in my final year, and had taken back to the broader, "normal" form of hinduism my parents follow- light a lamp at eveninng, pray for sometime, and mind our own more "fanaticism", no more of "preaching" as I had tried doing in my first year college back when i was an iskcon member. with that ideology infiltered into my mind, i could not see the good in the world, and only see that the "material world is full of sufferings".This is non-sense. If we are created to live in this world, then we must endure everything in this world-enjoy the good and go through the cover up the good sides of the world, and talk only of the "sufferings" part is simply hypocricy.
the iskconites once told me that even tea is alchoholic, n now i drink four cups a day!four cups of tasty draughts from heavenly tea! Isckonites told me not to go for movies, or chat with friends, because all of them are "materialistic". back in that time, i had cut a lot of friendshipt circles,solely due to these ideas being taught to me. i never knew i was slowly getting radicalised. by the time i reached my third year, i started seriously questioning these beliefs, and ponder if they are actually worth. I understood these are gross oversimplifications of,once simple, concepts.infact, their idea of womanhood literally made me burst out in awe!Now i go for newly released movies, and luckily i am able to make my frienship back again. i do go to temples when at home, with my mom and my younger brother, but not neccessarily to any of these iskcon temple, and would warn my family members from getting into any of these cults.
you want to follow your religion, follow it withing limits that prevents you from being a radicalised follower, or an extremist and DO NOT GET INTO AN ORGANISATION, that would,surely catalize the process of indoctrination.Infact, Isckon has its theology too extremist- one god of one form, others are his subordinates, one book and that too, one interpretation to be followed without questionm because all others are adulterated!!!
Im a student interested in religious philosophy,because that is there in my soul as a passion, and isckonite philosphy had given me its bad taste. Isckonite philosopy had made Bhagavad Gita an extremist text, with their own interpretation, and is INTOLERANT TO QUESTIONS ASKED AGAINST THEIR IDEOLOGY,AND DEMANDS BLIND FAITH; all against the principles of actual mode of studying anything.A true way of studying, as Krishna does, is by doubting and asking questions, and a proper logical analysis of the claims made,by rational thinking,something Iskon dosen;t allow you to do.(i only read Chinmayananda's translation or Dayanand Sarawathi's translation- those make a lot more understanding and sense than the exclusivistic iskcon interpretation.)
Anyways,it took some of your time for me to explain as to why i left Iskcon. Thse are things i find flawed in Hare Krishna philosophy.And extremely sorry for the spelling errors made.I am used to type in a hurry where i miss keys.

planetaryeyes said...

Thank you for your very thorough and informative comment (don't worry about the typos, you make your point clearly). It is sad to hear that the ignorant and ill-informed ISKCON cultists caused you to lose friendships at such a crucial time in your life; however, you should know that they always target college students. Cults in general look for new recruits among the young and inquisitive, hoping to corrupt and confuse them when they are vulnerable. Consider yourself lucky to have escaped their clutches! Yes, their practices and philosophy make a mockery of Hinduism in general and the sublime precepts of Sanatan Dharma in particular. As you wisely note, engaging in personal scriptural interpretation is key to understanding, yet the Hare Krishna fools insist on their own "purports," with the aim of stifling opposing views. I wish you much luck in your studies and congratulate you on freeing yourself from the Hare Krishna cultists.

ramakant said...

Some of their concepts are disturbing. Like their concept of the inferiority of women. One would think that since they are born to women, they would show some respect. In Indian culture one's mother is regarded very highly. Respect for parents is the basis of culture. On the
other hand chanting does give peace. No need to go to the temple to do that. I feel doing one's own duty: like holding down a job, bringing up kids and being a responsible member of society is far superior to escaping from reality and hiding in a temple. It's written in the Bhagwat gita: better to do your own job rather than to pretend to do someone else's. And since they are so against materialism, should they not practice what they preach? Why accept donations? It's all Maya is it not? You need a very strong social grounding if you want to venture near their temples. Self control is good if it makes you avoid road rage. Mind control and blind obedience of another human is bad. Take everything that a living 'guru' says with a pinch of salt. People have a brain. Not using it and blindly following instructions from someone is just crazy.

anon seeker said...

is there any way i can talk to you off-site?

planetaryeyes said...

Sure: use the donation button at the upper right hand of the full website. Be generous!

Paul T. Harrison said...

First thing is that devotees are NOT vegetarians as they eat whatever Krishna says that he will eat and they do say it is OK to kill an animal before a battle... My comment is a response to a devotee out of control:

You are NOT pure vegetarians like the Franciscians (christian) are, and there have been tons of brilliant spiritual writers, philosophers, and humanitarians who are so called “karmis”. Can you show me any evidence, besides your “authority” stance that demonstrates that people who never dated are actually more spiritual than someone who did date? Even Sp said to bring the beautiful girls to the Temple… so you are on a weird puffed up trip of putting down others which u think elevates you while you are sooo lazy to work out any details of your supposed truths….typical cult stuff, and not spiritual… why not read a good book explaining how cults work and stop doing cult stuff in Hare Krishna and ruining it for Krishna? You are doing dis-service here anyway…..MANY people never drank or ate beef who are not devotees, so U R not on such a high horse as you would like to be. NO u are puffed up and on an elitist ego trip brother… and you are using a weird interpretation of your religion in order to boost your ego… obvious … snap :-)

planetaryeyes said...

You’re right on target with your insight that vegetarianism is neither exclusive of ISKCON nor even Vedic in origin. However, cults in general tend to impose severe modifications on diet and other choices usually left to the discretion of rational adults by remaking its members as the dependent children of an all-knowing guru. So, as followers of Bhaktivedanta Swami, we were told such absurdities as “garlic and onions were grown in dirty places and increased passion” and that coffee, tea and chocolate are “ intoxicating.” But it was fine to eat the foul spice asafoetida and eat on the floor with no utensils with fingers which—as the high level of disease suffered by Hare Krishna devotees is proof—were often grimy with germs due to being forbidden to use toilet paper after defecating. For more on the mindset that led so many to follow this nonsense, visit my companion blog and start with this essay: