Every spiritual practice is based upon a philosophical principle. Indian schools of thought differ on specifics but share many common principles. One of the most common principles, in fact, the most fundamental principle of all schools, is the concept that, “I am not this body.” It is the first principle Śrī Kṛṣṇa teaches in the Bhagavad Gītā and is the very basis of spirituality. Although a very common principle, and although almost everyone has heard about it, and although it is quoted and discussed by all and sundry on certain special occasions such as death, it nonetheless is one of the most misapplied principles in practical life.
When I had my first encounter with a spiritual organisation, this concept was preached to me very enthusiastically. I had no problem accepting it, but what followed as a consequence messed up my health for a long, long time; to this day.
I was told that because we are not this body, we should not waste much time taking care of it. To care for one’s body was taboo. It was “māyā,” which was a dreadful word.
We were given examples of great devotees who lived only on a cup of buttermilk and slept a few scanty hours at night. These devotees were our ideal. We had to be like them. We were told that if we fell sick, we were not to pay too much attention to it. Again, we were given examples of great devotees who continued doing their sevā even as they were physically suffering.
Trying to live up to these ideals, I tried to ignore my body. I purposely skipped my dinner because I was a brahmacārī, and was told not to eat at night otherwise my mind would be sexually agitated. Even my hunger pains night after night did not deter me. Others would eat at night, but I remained staunch. I had fixed my mind on following all the principles to attain the ultimate goal.
I slept as minimally as possible. I would wake up around 2 am and complete my sixteen rounds before maṅgala-ārati, which was at 4:30 am. I was young, so my body could it take it for sometime. Soon, however, it started giving me trouble. For example, I contracted a heavy cold due to bathing early in the morning in freezing cold water. Of course, I ignored this cold, which resulted in tinnitus in both my ears. I also began to experience heartburn and constipation. Ignoring these eventually resulted in loss of appetite and a weak immune system.
I remember driving on the highway to recruit “life-members” (donating patrons) and falling asleep at the wheel, drifting into different lanes while dozing off—all because I was “not this body” and therefore should “minimize sleep.” Sometimes I would just exit and go to some parking lot and take some rest, because it was not possible to drive. I have heard of several devotees dying in car accidents on the highway. I also remember many others who were trying to minimize their bodily needs abnormally. Like me, they all faced the unpleasant consequences.
It is true that “we are not the body”, but it is also true that “we are in the body.” Everyone knows that they are not their car, but everybody takes care of their car. Nobody wants to drive a car that has major problems. Life is a journey, and the body is the vehicle. If we are serious about reaching our destination, we need to keep that vehicle in good operating condition. We should not waste all our time on it, but we should not flip to the other end of the spectrum and neglect it completely.
In my early years in that spiritual organization, we were also told that the body is the temple of Kṛṣṇa and that is why we put tilakaon it, yet we were not told to take care of it like a temple. That is very strange. We were also told that a human birth is very rare and precious, yet we were asked not to take that much care of this precious object.
In truth, we need to respect our body. It is an amazing creation of Kṛṣṇa. If we have to use this body to serve Kṛṣṇa, then we should keep it healthy! We would also not offer an unclean, dysfunctional, or broken object to the deities. There is a saying in the tantra, devo bhūtvā devaṁ yajet—one should worship the divine by first becoming divine oneself.
If we have surrendered to Kṛṣṇa, then our body belongs to Him. If it is His, it should be protected as a treasured object. So, taking care of our bodies is a crucial part of the spiritual path, because it will help to keep us healthy and strong so we can engage in our service with a stable mind.
It may not sound right, but we must take care of ourselves first. It is like the safety instruction we hear before an airplane takes off—”in case of a drop in cabin pressure, put your air mask on first and then take care of the child next to you.” This is because we cannot properly serve anyone else if we neglect to properly serve ourselves. Most of us do the opposite and feel guilty for any little care we show to ourselves. We have to get rid of this guilt in order to become more integrated and healthy.
Ayurveda says that good health is the basis of attaining success in any of the four pursuits of life—dharma-artha-kāma-mokṣāṇām ārogyam mūlam uttamam. Without good health we cannot be successful materially or spiritually.
Therefore, Śrī Kṛṣṇa advises to tread the middle path and to not be an extremist (BG 6.16-17):
“O Arjuna, there is no question of success in yoga for one who overeats or who abstains from eating to an extreme, nor for one who sleeps excessively or who remains awake to an extreme. For one who is moderate in diet and recreation, methodical in the performance of actions, and regulated in sleep and wakefulness, the practice of yoga dispels all misery.”
This is very wonderful advice. One can remain healthy if one eats, sleeps and relaxes in a balanced manner. Ayurveda also says that food, sleep, and celibacy are the three pillars of health. Just as a building stands on pillars, our health exists on these three things. If they are debilitated by neglect or extremist ways, then our health is bound to suffer.
This is illustrated by an incident in the life of Buddha. A prince became his follower. Being a royal person, the prince had a big ego, so he wanted to be Buddha’s best follower. If other monks were eating twice a day, he would eat only once. If they were waking up at 5 am, he would wake up at 4 am. If they sat in the shade, he would sit under the sun. Everyone marvelled at his austerity. They could not believe that a person who lived all his life in comfort was able to tolerate so much.
Soon the prince’s body became emaciated. One day when he was sitting alone, Buddha approached him and asked him a question, “Did you enjoy music when you were a prince?” The prince-monk replied,
“Yes, of course. I was a good vīṇā player.”
Buddha further asked, “Tell me, if the strings of the vīṇāare too tight, will it play nicely?”
The prince replied, “Certainly not. The notes will not bend easily.”
Buddha then asked, “What if the strings are too loose?”
The prince said, “Then you can hardly play anything at all.”
Hearing this, Buddha smiled and said, “Look, my dear prince, this body is like a vīṇā. As a prince, you had too much enjoyment. As a monk, you are too austere. Both are not good for enlightenment. Follow the life of moderation.”
A question may be raised here. What about the great devotees, who lived a very austere life? Are we not supposed to follow their example? The answer is this: For these great devotees, austere life was not a practice but an outcome of their advanced state. They were so absorbed in thoughts of Kṛṣṇa that they were unable to focus on caring for their bodies. Renunciation is a natural outcome of bhakti. When you have the kind of bhakti they have, you will naturally and happily become renounced like them. But until then, you need to take care of your health and be moderate.
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