Ashram is a Sanskrit word for a place of self-realization. Sometimes it is used for a monastery or temple, but it also refers to any stage of life from student to household years and from retirement to renunciation when a person makes a deliberate effort to evolve as a spiritual being while performing his regular duties. This unique way of intertwining one’s work and consciousness used to be the basis of Indian social structure, and is still an integral practice in the bhakti tradition from which the culinary inheritance of yoga cuisine originates and into which I was initiated in my early twenties. You could say that the ashram life is a culture of sacred living, because it transforms, among other things, a kitchen into a sanctum, cooking into meditation, and eating into a blessing.
Except for the fragrance of incense that became interlaced with the caramelized vapors of ghee, cumin, fennel, cinnamon, and chili in the kitchen, little changed in the environment and the basic routine of cooking. I still used a knife for chopping, a stove for boiling, and sugar for sweetening desserts. However, my state of mind sobered when I no longer viewed myself as a random cell, acting like a parasite that enjoys, controls, and exploits its host organism for selfish gain. Addressing the needs of the soul—not only mine but others’, too—invoked a flavor I had never tasted before, and after discovering it, all other ways of eating, regardless of how attractive, aromatic, or refined they were, appeared flat and limited.
It gradually dawned on me that my interest in cooking had never really been about food—it had always been about fulfillment, which no amount of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, or minerals was able to bestow. Even the delight of sharing food with others, which I had held in higher esteem than gratifying the tongue, hadn’t fully satiated my hunger until I linked food science, cooking techniques, and taste to transcendence. Perceiving and connecting all parts of reality—the soul, energies, and the energetic source—made my manner and style of cooking a yoga practice. I started to observe food as energy that sustains both the temporary body (including the mind and intelligence) and the eternal soul, as if it were an electric current flowing from a power supply to simultaneously heat an oven and cool a refrigerator. That’s when I found that food is a medium of affection and love, which you and I experience differently, according to our individual consciousness. Our capacity to taste is not constrained by the sophistication of the palate, social customs, or any other material condition, but it can reach beyond spiritual liberation into devotional bliss, which the soul is actually craving.
Some of the resident cooks in the temple I assisted for many years hadn’t mastered recipe literacy, dexterity, or other mechanical skills, but they all displayed personal virtues like wisdom, kindness, truthfulness, self-control, humility, benevolence, and cleanliness to such a degree that it seemed like these attributes seasoned the food and touched everyone who took part. Their example showed that the attitude and characteristics affect the result as much as the physical facts and figures of gastronomy.
Many of the practices I adopted then I carry on still today, such as abstaining from onions, garlic, and mushrooms, which increase the tendencies for passionate and ignorant behavior; bathing before going to the kitchen; fasting from grains and pulses twice a month; and, foremost, offering everything we eat at home as a beautiful sacrament in our altar room by reciting Sanskrit hymns invoking auspiciousness. Food that is prepared and honored in such a way is called prasadam, or grace, and it not only frees us from the intricacies of karma (actions and reactions) and samsara (the repeated cycle of birth and death) but also facilitates interactions based on love.
From Pure Vegetarian by Lakshmi Wennakoski-Bielicki, © 2015 by Minna Wennakoski-Bielicki. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.roostbooks.com