A mother wakes up early in the morning to cook for her whole family. The house is still quiet, and no one else has roused yet. Her family likes home-cooked meals, and takes packed lunches for the day instead of eating at the cafeteria. She feels it to be a blessing to make food for her family, and she cooks in a deep state of joyful connectedness within. The food is filled with her love, and everyone in the family benefits.
In one of his books, the 20th century saint, Shri Ram Chandra of Shahjahanpur (Babuji), mentions that food prepared and eaten with love is very beneficial. He describes how food eaten after it is offered to the Lord is charged. This food we can call Prasad.
There are special celebrations, joyous occasions, marriages, births, milestones of babies, and such events all over the world call for such joyful offerings. And we partake this with our friends and family. This tradition of sharing offerings to the Lord exists in all cultures, religions and ethnic groups, as a way of sharing our joy, first with our Maker and then with everyone else.
There are so many examples: the sacramental bread of the Eucharist, holy water, sweets, cakes and flower offerings, etc. Even customs that are very secular in nature today find their roots in earlier sacred offerings. For example, the tradition of lighting candles on birthday cakes is said to have come from the ancient Greek custom of offering round cakes to the moon goddess Artemis. The lit candles on the cake represented the glow of the moon, and the smoke from the blown-out candles carried their prayers and wishes to the goddess.
Why is Prasad given? How are we meant to receive it? Let’s explore these questions further.
Prasad comes from the word Prasāda in Sanskrit, meaning ‘to dwell before’. It was originally described in Vedic literature as a spiritual state. In an early text, the Rig Veda, Prasāda is described as a mental state experienced by gods or sages, in which they felt a spontaneous generosity, often granting boons to their followers. It is actually only much later in history that Prasāda came to describe the offering of material things such as clothes, flowers and food, especially sweets.
Looking into the meaning of the word, the two Sanskrit words derived from it are Prasanna and Prasāda. Both words evoke joy. Prasanna means ‘clear, bright, and tranquil’. Similarly, when someone is offering Prasāda, it is with so much joy, brightness and clarity.
When offering Prasad, it is the attitude that matters. Babuji of Shahjahanpur once recounted the story of how his teacher, Lalaji of Fatehgarh, would make an offering to divine beings on the new moon day. According to the ritualistic fashion, he would pour water and offer it to his forefathers in the higher world. However, when Babuji observed what his teacher was really doing, he found that Lalaji was actually transmitting the essence of the water he was offering. It is not the outer ritual that matters but the inner condition, the attitude behind the ritual and how it is actually done.
So what is the best attitude we can have when offering Prasad? It is one of complete love and reverence, with such humility and innocence that we are offering the most potent part of that which we offer. In doing so, we create osmosis between what is offered and the one to whom it is being offered.
In fact, that is what gives Prasad its joyous quality and reverence — something that I have offered to my Maker, I can now share with all His other children.
On another occasion, Babuji mentions that if food is eaten in a happy disposition it percolates into the lower layers of our existence and purifies them. And when we imbibe this state and cook or eat food, the effect spreads through our blood, thus purifying every atom of our body. Such food is Prasad
People often follow a lot of cultural etiquette when distributing Prasad, and in today’s world it can sometimes seem too ritualistic and anachronistic. But if we explore the science behind the etiquette, we soon realize that there is a purpose to each gesture defined by our elders. This purpose is generally based on precise scientific principles and the physiology of well-being.
In India, one such ancient tradition is to always give and take Prasad with the right hand. Why is it so?
Let us understand a little more about how the body, brain and nerves work together. First, the right side of the body is primarily controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and the left side of the body is primarily controlled by the right hemisphere of the brain.
Second, our autonomic nervous system, which controls our automatic physical responses to situations, has both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, our body becomes more active and excited, and endorphins and cortisol levels increase. In contrast, when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, our body relaxes and calms down, reducing our endorphin and cortisol levels.
There is something called Cerebral Hemispheric Laterality, in which each hemisphere of the brain is more connected to one of the autonomic nervous systems. When we stimulate the right hemisphere of our brain the parasympathetic nervous system is invoked, and when we stimulate the left hemisphere of our brain the sympathetic nervous system is invoked.
So when we breathe through our left nostril or use the left hand, it stimulates the right hemisphere of the brain, which is connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us feel calmer. Hence, there is a yogic practice of breathing a few times through the left nostril, while closing the right nostril, to lower stress.
Perhaps this is also why Babuji of Shahjahanpur gave blessings by raising his left hand instead of following the usual Indian custom of raising the right hand. By doing so, he remained calm and cool, exercising discrimination in giving only what was best for the seeker’s spiritual growth.
So when we give Prasad, our attitude for the occasion is meant to be joyful, with a feeling of love and gratitude towards the Divine. We want to remain active and excited. This will happen when we give from the right hand, which is connected to the left side of the brain and the sympathetic nervous system.
When we receive Prasad, the tradition is also to accept it with the right hand. This resonates with our sympathetic responses and we are able to reciprocate the feeling of joy of the giver. If we were to accept the Prasad with the left hand, it would invoke the parasympathetic nervous system, and we would be too mellow to share in the giver’s excitement and happiness.
When Prasad is offered to us in a beautiful and joyous way, we want to be equally joyous and grateful to receive this gift. Imagine being angry or upset when we take this divine offering in our hands! What message would that give to our Lord? How would our system react?
There is another aspect of great scientific and spiritual significance in the giving of Prasad: only a very small quantity is supposed to be given and eaten. This is so that small amount will remain in the body rather than being excreted, helping to purify the whole system.
The science of how Prasad purifies the system and cures spiritual ills is the subject of profound wisdom for another time.
So then the next question naturally arises:
The concept of conscious eating has been explained in detail in Babuji’s writings, and this we will also explore in a future article.
With love and respect,
 Mel Robin, 2002. A Physiological Handbook for Teachers of Yogasana, pp. 55–56, Fenestra Books, USA
Originally published at medium.com