Excerpted with permission from "Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine" published by Healing Arts Press, a division of Inner Traditions International.
In Ayurveda, sattva, rajas and tamas are not creations of the human mind but rather are three modes of primordial nature--pure, undifferentiated, universal Consciousness. Known as gunas, these three fundamental attributes present the natural evolutionary process through which the subtle takes form, or through which energy becomes matter, and also through which different types of food becomes classified.
Sattvic, Rajasic, and Tamasic Foods
The main consideration when categorizing foods as sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic is their effect on the human organism. Do they create heat or dryness in the body? Do they create extreme cold? Do they stimulate the human organism--including the glandular secretions and the psychic centers (chakras)? Do they have an extended nourishing effect? What are the aftereffects? Are the foods readily digestible, or do they take some time and energy to digest? Do the foods disturb the doshas: wind (vata), bile (pitta), and/or mucus (kapha)?
Sattvic foods are fresh, juicy, light, unctuous, nourishing, sweet, and tasty. Because these foods give necessary energy to the body without taxing it, they are helpful in achieving a balanced body chemistry--the foundation of higher states of consciousness, in which sattva predominates.
The psyche (chilla) is brought to a centered state by sattvic foods, because they bring readily digestible and nourishing food materials to the system. For aspirants of sattva and for spiritual growth and development, seasonal fruits, grains, and vegetables that are juicy, light, fresh, and sweet, as well as easily digestible, are the only diet. To eat only fruits, such as oranges, apples, bananas, grapes, and mangoes that are juicy (not pulpy), is ideal. If vegetables, grains, beans, and pulses are to be eaten, then wheat, cracked wheat cereal, bread made from freshly hand- or stone-ground flour (coarsely ground and with the wheat kernels), barley, moong (mung) beans, yellow split peas, rice, leafy vegetables, squash, milk, and butter are very good.
Wheat and barley are sattvic grains. As we have mentioned earlier, when cooked with excessive butter and spices, their sattvic nature is converted to rajas. Roasted garbanzo beans (chick peas) are sattvic, but when eaten frequently, they produce gas and thus become tamasic. If garbanzo beans are sprouted and eaten raw, they are sattvic. Fried moong beans also produce gas when eaten frequently and, therefore, give tamasic energy. Split peas are good if boiled with a little salt, turmeric, and coriander powder. They can be flavored with a small amount of cumin and asafetida once cooked.
Fresh fruit juices from sweet, ripe fruits are the best sattvic foods.
Almonds, as well as sunflower, cucumber, pumpkin, and honeydew melon seeds, are very nourishing. Almonds are rendered more sattvic when soaked overnight, peeled, and ground into a milky substance. In winter, a milky paste made from 7 almonds can be gently boiled with 1 cup of milk. Dates or raw sugar and ground anise seeds can be added, to taste. Ground seeds of the green cardamom pod or a pinch of saffron can be added to improve the digestion and give a pleasant aroma. In summer, water instead of milk can be added to the paste, which is then strained through a fine strainer. Anise or fennel seeds with cardamom and a little honey can be added. Although rose petals also can be added to these drinks, rose petals are best taken in cold drinks in the summer. After honey, raw cane sugar (jaggery) is the best sweetener, and, like honey, it is sattvic.
The goat, sheep, water buffalo, camel, and cow all give nourishing milk. Of these, cow's milk is the most sattvic. However, four hours after milking, cow's milk becomes rajasic.
Kheer (rice cooked in milk) is sattvic. Fresh buttermilk and lassis (liquified yogurt with raw sugar) are also sattvic. The guna category for certain foods, such as lemons, black peppercorns, carrots, and sweet potatoes, is not so clear-cut. Because lemon is sour, it is not regarded as sattvic, but as a purifier, it is sattvic in nature. Black peppercorns are hot and dry but are considered sattvic. They provide energy to the stomach, increase the appetite, and clean and purify the chest region.
Carrots are roots and nearly all root vegetables are tamasic, yet carrots are sweet, cold, and unctuous, and they are easily digested. They cure excess heat in the body, help clean the lower digestive tract, cure diseases caused by gas and mucus, create more blood, make more urine, and thus clean toxins from the body. Carrots increase the digestive power of the stomach; they give energy to the brain and help in the maintenance of celibacy, and thus are classified as sattvic. Sweet potatoes, beets, and turnips are also roots, yet they, too, are sattvic and provide complete nourishment.
Mountain salt (rock salt) is sattvic and therefore recommended above sea salt, which is rajasic.
Rajasic foods are bitter, sour, salty, pungent, hot, and dry. These foods create sensuality, sexuality, greed, jealousy, avarice, anger, delusion, conceit, fantasies, egotism, and irreligious feelings.
Rajasic foods are tasty only if a taste for them is developed, otherwise, they are not palatable. They need to be fried and then treated with spices before they can be served. These are foods for people who wish to have material prosperity and who take part in the race of greed and competition.
We are living in a world that demands that we work to generate the mechanism of supply and demand. In all our concerns, earning money is of considerable importance. We cannot spend all our time in ecstasy, bliss, prayer, and meditation-we need to struggle for material existence. Nature is not kind everywhere. We need technical help to keep our homes warm and cozy. We have responsibilities, and we owe something to society, which provides us with social security. Therefore we cannot afford to eat only sattvic foods, as did the saints and seers of ancient India. We need a certain amount of rajasic energy to survive. This is why we need spices and foods that sustain our energy level, enabling us to keep pace with the changing world. This does not mean, however, that rajasic foods are the only foods we must eat. We ought to keep a balance between the sattvic and rajasic foods, and try to avoid tamasic foods as much as possible. As rajasic foods produce excitement, we should take the necessary precautions to avoid overexcitement.
Foods fried in oil, sweets sold in shops, spicy foods, stimulating vegetables, salted bread, biscuits, sodas, homogenized milk, and all aphrodisiacs are rajasic in nature. Sattvic foods become rajasic if they are fried in oil, overcooked, or treated with pungent and sour-tasting spices. Sattvic foods cooked in ghee are not rajasic, but sattvic.
Rajasic foods increase the speed of the human organism. Rajas is synonomous with motion and activity. Rajas gives sorrow, pain, and also involvement. Therefore rajasic foods create disease, sorrow, melancholy, helplessness, and exhaustion. In small amounts, liquor, wine, beer, coffee, and tea are rajasic. Taken in excess, liquor, wine, and beer (not tea and coffee) are tamasic. Drugs, such as marijuana, hashish, opium, cocaine, and heroin, are tamasic because they disturb body chemistry, dull consciousness, and obscure perception of reality.
Onions and garlic are blood purifiers. Ayurveda classifies onions as tamasic, but garlic, because of its medicinal qualities, is considered rajasic. Garlic is hot and unctuous. Excessive use can create dryness. Garlic increases longevity and produces muscular strength. It also increases semen and the glow of the skin and gives digestive power to the stomach. Garlic subdues excess wind (vata) and mucus (kapha). Bile-dominated individuals (pittas) should avoid garlic. If it had a sour taste (thus giving it all six rasas) and did not have a bad smell, garlic would be categorized with sattvic foods.
Foods cooked in butter or ghee are sattvic, but when foods are cooked in oil they become rajasic. Raw milk that has been boiled for a long time acquires a thick consistency and becomes rajasic.
Red peppers, hot spices, pickles, oils, dry and fresh ginger, and salt are rajasic. Bread made with a pinch of salt is rajasic in nature. Foods that are hot in temperature while eaten, hot drinks, cold foods, and cold liquids are all rajasic. The temperature of food should not be greater than the temperature of the body and blood.
Rajasic foods create an unstable intellect.
Meat, fish, and eggs are tamasic foods. Candies, biscuits, and bread more than eight hours old are tamasic. Cod liver oil and shark liver oil, as well as hard liquor, are tamasic. Medicines that create dullness are tamasic.
Tamasic foods consume a large amount of energy while being digested. They are dry, old, bad smelling, decaying, distasteful, and/or unpalatable.
Tamasic food increases pessimism, ignorance, lack of common sense, greed, laziness, irreligion, criminal tendencies, and doubt. Tamasic foods create a severe inferiority complex and antagonistic feelings.
Foods that have been processed, canned, or frozen are tamasic. Foods that are cold and stale or that have been obtained by violence are tamasic, as are those that make one dull and drowsy. Incompatible food combinations--like milk and vinegar, or radishes and honey--produce tamas in the body chemistry. When hot and cold foods are taken together, they become tamasic.
By overcooking, foods become tamasic. Leftover food is also tamasic. Food contains prana, and this pranic energy is lost in food that is overcooked, overripe, or old. Dried milk, grains that create dryness, root vegetables (except carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, and turnips), and peanuts are tamasic. Indian breads--parathas, puris, and rotis--are rajasic but become tamasic about eight hours after they are cooked. All foods that create destructiveness are tamasic.
If one is interested in remaining alert and inspired, one should avoid tamasic foods.