If Prahlad Jani’s example shows us that eating is not necessary for devotees, why do we still do it? Our standard answer is that rejecting food is a false renunciation that denies the Lord our service (of offering and honoring prasādam). Is that all there’s to it, though?
The argument against false renunciation is solid, of course, but we also know that we get to eat even when we don’t offer food to the Lord. I know a local vegetarian eatery, for example, that is a great place to accidentally meet devotees. They won’t be wearing tilakas but they’d still be instantly recognizable, sometimes fresh off the plane from India after Mayapur festival.
Eating commercial food prepared by non-devotees is not a service to anyone but our senses, so why do we do it? Why doesn’t Kṛṣṇa switch off our need to eat, our hunger? Is it to test us? Should we understand that if we really really surrender we CAN survive only on prasādam in any and all circumstances?
Personally, I’ve never got a chance to ask Russian devotees who were put in prison in Soviet Union about their diet, it just seemed as an inappropriate question to ask unless one becomes a close friend. My understanding is that they ate only vegetarian food, probably bread and potatoes, but I’m not sure if they offered it. One devotee died while in prison, partially out of hunger, because he refused non-vegetarian food they served there and they didn’t give him plain vegetables. Did he refuse bread, too? Possibly.
I only know that he left his body in full Kṛṣṇa consciousness, chanting or at least holding his beads in his fingers until the last moment. Technically, one might raise a question about Kṛṣṇa’s protection in this case because He did allow His devotee to die but we should also remember what victory and protection really means – leaving our bodies in Kṛṣṇa consciousness and returning back to the Lord. How and when is determined by our karma, Kṛṣṇa does not change that, only that our karma stops affecting our consciousness.
I explain it to myself that Kṛṣṇa offers protection to the soul, not necessarily to the body, so while the body might externally perish, the soul won’t. Even so, given the situation that Russian devotee was in, it was probably better for him to leave his body in prison than to continue suffering there for years, so in this sense Kṛṣṇa had actually saved him even from the POV of bodily comfort. Of course one could then say that Kṛṣṇa would have saved him even better if He let him out of jail miraculously or never put him there at all. That’s not how karma and Kṛṣṇa consciousness usually works, though. We become Kṛṣṇa conscious not by changing our fate by accepting it and dealing with it in a Kṛṣṇa conscious manner, with Kṛṣṇa’s help.
Also that devotee was probably Armenian, not Russian, but in those days ethnicity didn’t matter as much as it does now.
Anyway, why do we still eat even when we don’t offer our food? Why doesn’t Kṛṣṇa help us overcome our hunger? I don’t think it’s simply a question of testing our resolve. We aren’t even required to make a vow of eating only prasādam. In the company of devotees it’s very easy and if one has a proper household it’s also easy there, but there are many situations in our lives when prasādam is not easily available, like when travelling, for example. I was introduced to commercially sold food in India by Indian devotees and by managers of the project that engaged my services there.
I didn’t like it but there was no choice and I didn’t see anyone in our group rebelling against our leaders taking us to a restaurant for lunch. It was probably Sikh and if it wasn’t it was surely below our standard of accepting food only cooked and offered by twice initiated vaiṣṇavas. I’m not even sure they didn’t serve other, non-vegetarian items on the menu. We didn’t see any there but our group was relatively large so we didn’t see what other customers were served at all, and everything in that place was written in Hindi so I couldn’t tell. All of us explicitly accepted arrangement by our authorities and no one wanted to start an argument, our managers clearly had no other choice. We’ve also honored halava at that main Sikh temple in Amritsar, without questions, as I remember, it would have been rather rude to reject it as they treated us as guests.
My point is that Kṛṣṇa doesn’t seem to take this stuff very seriously. Lord Caitanya personally went after his wayward servant and dragged him by his hair from the gypsies, and, I suppose, one can easily remember a few cases when he has been personally protected from temptations we meet in course of our lives, but, in my limited experience, food, as long as it’s vegetarian, is no big deal.
I’m not saying that not offering food is not a big deal for us as devotees, I’m saying that Kṛṣṇa doesn’t seem to take this particular transgression seriously enough to personally intervene and drop some “nectar” directly into our mouths as Goddess Amba does with Prahlad Jani. I tend to think that Kṛṣṇa considers His job done when we get food, whether we offer it or not is our choice, not His responsibility.
We eat because consuming food is part of our relationship with the Absolute Truth. We tend to think of this relationship only as service to Kṛṣṇa but, fact is, we always relate to the Absolute and the Absolute always relate to us regardless of whether it qualifies as devotional service or not.
We can say that when we eat unoffered food we serve our senses and consume only sin but that’s not the whole story. When we eat for our own pleasure (even if it’s prasādam) we relate to the Absolute as if we were enjoyers and the Absolute was our servant to be enjoyed. We see controlling and enjoying the matter as the Absolute Truth, that’s the degree of our real realization of it, not withstanding empty philosophical statements about Kṛṣṇa being the Supreme. I say empty because we just don’t see it. We can repeat it numerous times but it doesn’t subside our hunger and it doesn’t make us detest eating for our pleasure.
This is our reality and we can’t go against it. Kṛṣṇa consciousness offers us direct experience of Kṛṣṇa and if we don’t have it, we aren’t Kṛṣṇa conscious, as simple as that. Enjoying unoffered food is unthinkable in Kṛṣṇa’s presence, just as lust and all other material desires dissipate from the heart visited by the Lord. Ācāryas’ sentiments like “I spit when I think of sex” aren’t just empty proclamations, it’s their reality as they see the world with Kṛṣṇa being at its center.
In our lives, however, Kṛṣṇa plays only a marginal role but that doesn’t mean that we don’t get to relate to other, inferior aspects of the Absolute Truth, and for us it appears in the form of matter we can enjoy ourselves. It’s not Kṛṣṇa but it’s the best we know. It’s true not only for us, of course, but for all manners of atheists or even animals, for that matter.
In Prahlad Jani’s case, his relationships with his worshipable deity excluded offering food, it was clear right from the start, and it excluded enjoying his own senses, too, so his world is arranged in such a way that it doesn’t include anything to do with food.
We get to eat because Kṛṣṇa, through His separated material energy, wants us to have these perverted relationships with Him where we get to enjoy His services. Most people don’t even know they are dealing with Kṛṣṇa and, in a sense, they aren’t because Kṛṣṇa means all-attractive, meaning everyone is attracted to serving and pleasing Him, and most people do not even think of the Absolute this way. For them Kṛṣṇa appears as māyā and so they have plenty of other names and words to describe their relationships with the Absolute.
As aspiring devotees, however, we know that all food comes from Kṛṣṇa and we should always remember that, so even when we are enjoying eating we understand that it’s the service lovingly provided by our Lord and therefore we can’t refuse it.
If one day He stops feeding us it should be because we get to have a better quality relationship with Him, the one where we aren’t concerned with the state of our bellies whatsoever because we would be busy doing something else, like chanting the Pure Name, for example.
We can’t upgrade our relationships with Kṛṣṇa at will, however, we have to wait for His kind invitation and be ready for it. Until then, food is given to us because it’s the only thing we know and appreciate. Ideally, we should be ashamed of ourselves and beg for the higher taste, but that’s our real situation and so, instead of higher taste, we should start with contemplating our deeply fallen condition and beg for realization of tṛnād api su-nīcena verse first.