Every act of the Hindu, including those connected with his daily routine, is permeated by the spirit of religion. Bhojana or taking meal is a very important part of such a daily routine.
According to Chāndogya Upaniṣad (6.5.4; 6.5.1; 6.7; 7.26.2) body and mind are closely interconnected; and the food eaten by us affects our mind. Since purity of food is conducive to the purity of mind, great attention has to be paid to what we eat. This regulation of food concerns four aspects:
The food should be conducive not only to health and strength but also to purity of mind. Hence, food classified as sāttvic (vide Bhagavadgītā 17.7) should always be preferred.
As regards the quantity, it should be neither ‘too much,’ nor ‘too little.’ Works on the Āyurveda (the science of longevity or health) prescribe that half the stomach is to be filled with solid food, a quarter with liquid food or water, leaving the last quarter for the circulation of wind or air. Whereas young brahmacārins, who are expected to do a lot of work and study in their gurukulas, are permitted to eat sumptuously, the vānaprasthins (forest dwellers) and the saṁnyāsins (monks) have to eat very limited quantities, as much as is necessary to maintain general health and strength, necessary for spiritual pursuits.
Coming to the time, the general rule is that one should eat only when one is hungry. The time should also be adjusted to suit one’s religious practices, in a way that does not disturb their tenor. Consuming food or drinks during the eclipses of the sun or the moon is strictly prohibited.
Concerning the place where food can be taken, physical cleanliness and pleasing sights are strongly recommended. Eating in moving vehicles or in a public place in full view of others has been prohibited. There may have been compelling reasons during those times, when these rules had been made, for such prohibition, though they are not possible to observe now-a-days.
Since purity of food conduces to purity of mind, the dharmaśāstras have dealt with this subject rather in great detail.
Certain food articles like garlic and onion, are ‘jātiduṣṭa’ or defective by their very nature (jāti = species, nature) and hence unfit for consumption.
Others that get polluted due to the touch of unclean hands or animals, (called ‘kriyāduṣṭa’) or belonging to the morally depraved persons (called ‘parigraha-duṣṭa’) or from the houses of those observing aśauca or ceremonial impurity (due to birth or death in that house) are also prohibited.
In some of the works, it is stated that if one contemplates on the act of eating as a yajña or sacrifice, he will reap great benefits (vide Chāndogya Upaniṣad 5.19).
Facing east or north at the time of eating, observing silence during eating and repeating the name of God in between two morsels, restricting the food of the house-holder to two square meals per day, inscribing certain religious symbols below the plate or the leaf used for food, showing due respect to the food when it is brought for serving, keeping away small quantities of food as bali or offering to Yama (the god of death) and others—these are some of the interesting side-lights in these religious works, concerning bhojana.