Eating Hindu Style
By Mahesh Radhakrishnan
Hindu teachings regarding food state Annam Brahma, food is God. There are many levels to this idea, one being that food should not be wasted. This philosophy is one often expounded by Hindus and Hindu spiritual teachers in a world where many people go without food.
Hinduism also teaches that the body is atempleofGod. Following from this, it is our duty to take care of our bodies and ensure that the food that we eat is clear, nourishing, sanctified as well as sufficient. To ensure food is always clean, nourishing and sufficient one cannot always ensure that there won’t be anything left over which is too much for one person, family or however many people are sharing a meal. The calling not to waste food is, therefore, a challenge that requires our thought and creative energy to look for ways to deal with situations of surplus.
A Surplus Puzzle
Staying at an Ashram (spiritual retreat) inIndia where I had no access to a fridge I found myself in a situation where some food I had shared with my mother was a bit too much for the both of us. Knowing that this food would more than likely go off before the next day and that both of us had eaten as much as we could from that one vessel, I decided that I had no alternative but to throw the rest and take care next time round. When I asked one of the volunteers at the Ashram where I could go to throw the food he was very quick to point out that it was wrong for me to waste food while many people were going hungry, especially when such people could be found right outside the Ashram. He suggested I take a walk and find someone who needed a feed to give it to. Walking some distance from the Ashram I did not come across any beggars or see anyone who looked in need of food on this occasion. Furthermore, Hindu cultural beliefs about the uncleanliness of food that is half eaten by someone else (particularly someone not related or closely acquainted) made me feel guilty about giving my half eaten food to someone, for if they were hungry they ought to be fed clean food.
Talking to the God within I said that if I didn’t see anyone when I reached the next cross street I would come back and throw the food into a little indent in the dirt beside a tree. I reached that point and, looking around, saw no one who looked hungry so I walked back to the spot where I planned to throw the leftovers. Nearby, I spotted a newspaper with some other food scraps placed on it, probably for the dogs and birds, I thought. And then I realized that we can share our food with many other beings (taking care to know what they should and shouldn’t eat, of course) and I also remembered that the Earth is also a part of the whole equation, eating and digesting what’s left over. So I felt a bit of relief as I poured the leftovers over the pile of food scraps knowing that it wasn’t going to prove unmanageable. There are so many food chains operating at once within this cosmic play, all of them striving towards that perfect balance and harmony. And perhaps that is the key to the belief that food is God, that is, the same stuff flows throughout the cosmos from being to being energizing and sustaining each of us on our journeys. And that stuff can be traced back to the source of all creation.
Belief in the sacredness of food gives rise to gratitude for the gift of food, mindfulness of the nutritional value of the food we eat, care taken in choosing foods that have a positive effect on our bodies and minds and awareness regarding the voluntary and involuntary sacrifices made by animals, plants and people to produce the food we choose to eat. For those who believe that food is a sacred gift, issues such as genetic engineering, organic farming, fair trade and equal distributing of food should be considered highly important because they directly connect our choices as civil consumers to our beliefs about the sacredness of food.
Hindu Food Prayers
The following lines from the Bhagavad Gita are usually recited before the partaking of food as an offering.
Brahmārpanam Brahma Havir Brahmāgnau Brahmanā Hutam Brahmaiva Tēna Ghantavyam Brahmakarma Samādhinah
The dedication is the Supreme Being, the oblation is the Supreme Being, the one who offers is the Supreme Being, the sacrificial fire is the Supreme Being, the attainment of the one who performs the act of offering and sees the Supreme Being in all is the Supreme Being (Bhagavad Gita, Swami Adganand’s translation and .
Aham Vaishvānarō Bhūtvā Prāņinām Dēhamāśritah Prāńāpāńa Samāyuktā Pacāmyannam Caturvidam
Becoming the life-fire in the bodies of living beings mingling with the upward and downward breaths, I digest the four kinds of food.
Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around the plate as an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt owed by us to the Divine forces (devta runa) for their benign grace and protection; our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family culture; the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have been “realised”, maintained and handed down to us by them; our fellow beings (manushya runa) who constitute society without the support of which we could not live as we do and other living beings (bhuta runa) for serving us selflessly. Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the five life-giving physiological functions, is offered the food. This is done with the chant:
The Bhagavad Gita refers to purity in three (3) aspects: The vessel, the process of cooking and the cook – All need to be pure and clean, starting with the cook. That is why , “Brahmarpanam, Brahmahavir”, is usually chanted as a daily prayer prior to eating as an offering to God (Naivedyam) that sanctifies the food.
Brahmaarpanam Brahma Havir
Brahmaagnau Brahmanaa Hutam
Brahmaiva Tena Gantavyam
Brahma Karma Samaadhinaha
The whole creation being the gross projection of Bramham, the Cosmic Consciousness itself; the food too is Brahmam, the process of offering it is Bramhanit is being offered in the fire of Brahman. He who thus sees Brahman is action, reaches Bramham alone.
Aham Vaishvaanaro Bhutva
Praanaapaana Samaa Yuktaha
Pachaamyannam Chatur Vidam
I, the Supreme Spirit, abiding in the body of living beings as the Fire (Vaiswanara) in their stomach I am associated with their Praana and Apaana, digest the four type of foods (solids, fluids, semi-fluid and liquid) which they eat.
Food and Hindu Festivals
Held in mid January, Makara Sankranti celebrates the movement of the Sun northward entering the sign of “Makara” (Capricorn) from Cancer brings on the change of season and the time of harvest. Called by various names such as Uttrayan in the north and Pongal in Tamil Nadu, this time is celebrated with different festivities in each region. In Maharastra and Karnataka sesame sweets are made and distributed abundantly amongst family and friends. In Tamil Nadu, Pongal (literally translated as ‘boiling over’) is marked by the ritual boiling of sweet rice pudding on an open fire around sunrise. Especially in the south, rice is symbollic of prosperity and rice grains are often used by elders to bless their children, newly married couples and initiates.
is celebrated around August/September each year when the moon is in its fourth phase, this festival is a celebration of Lord Ganesha, the elephant faced God who is remover of all obstacles. The special food item made on this occassion is called Modaka (Sanskrit/Hindi) or Kozhakattai (Tamil) and is a steamed dumpling of rice flour stuffed with a sweet jaggery based filled.
Other festivals where special foods play a part include Krishna Jayanti where a kind of puffed rice (Tamil avil or Hindi powwa) and sweets of all kinds are made, Rama Navami, where diluted curds and sweet ginger water are prepared in rememberance of Rama’s sparse diet during exile and Navaratri, celebrating the nine nights of the Mother Goddess where a variety of sweets and foods are made and served to guests. At temples and places of worship, prasad (translated as offering) is any kind of food that is placed before the altar as an offering. Prasad is usually distributed after a ceremony or worship session and taken as consecrated food free from impurities.
On Mahashivaratri (the great night of Shiva), the stars are aligned in such a way that makes it conducive for people to meditate and experience God. Fasting is common on this night, usually undertaken by staunch devotees of Shiva who spend the whole night awake in worship and meditation.
South Indian Brahmin Weddings and Banana Leaf Eating
At Hindu weddings like many others, food is a very important part of the whole experience. The couple getting married often have a fast on the morning of their wedding which is only partly broken by some sweet milk while all those attending the wedding have full breakfasts. When elders bless the couple with a long and happy married life by throwing uncooked rice grains at them, the couple usually catch the grains with the grooms shawl. The traditional south Indian meal, which features at the South Indian wedding lunch is often a big affair with a variety of sweets, curries, rice, curds and pickle.
There is a level of ritual that is traditionally incorporated into eating the sorts of meals one is served at weddings often on a banana leaf. All eating is done by the hand (almost always the right hand) which is washed before sitting at the leaf. Firstly the leaf is washed down by sprinkling a small amount of water on it and spreading it across with the right hand. Then most of the items are served one by one, something sweet first, curries and then rice and one is usually supposed to wait until the rice is served and a drop of ghee added to the rice. Those initiated into a Brahmin tradition (that of the priestly caste) or who know the food prayers can then offer the food to God and acknowledge the divine digester within before proceeding to eat. Orthoprax Brahmins will sprinkle water clockwise around the food thrice and eat seven single grains of the rice (each eaten after a small utterance) before commencing their eating. One thing I learnt during my recent travels inIndiawas that one does not fold their leaf unless they are unsatisfied with the meal.
Vegetarianism in South Indian Brahmin Tradition and Compassionate Consumption
Whilst I am unsure of the origins of the practice of vegetarianism in the South Indian Brahmin tradition it has been around for a long time. In South India, a wide variety of vegetables grow plentifuly and together with dairy foods such as yoghurt, ghee and milk, have formed part of a complete diet for generations. From a spiritual perspective, vegetarianism is based on compassion for all animals and the belief that it is sinful to take the life of an animal. Traditionally, a kind of symbiotic relationship existed between human beings and cows, which once formed the basis of Hindu economy and life. Cattle provided people with labour for ploughing the fields and transporting people and goods, provided fuel in the form of dung and a variety of dairy foods. In exchange for these invaluable outputs, people cared for cows and their calves, regarded them as sacred and refrained from causing them any injury. Whilst animal sacrifices were a part of early Brahmin ritual, the influence of great teachers such as Buddha and Mahavira, founders of the Buddhist and Jain faith traditions respectively, drew attention to the importance of non-violence as part of Hindu Dharma and since then animal sacrifice has become obsolete in mainstream Hinduism. The industrialisation of agriculture all around the world has seen many countries embrace models of animal farming that have become increasingly uncompassionate and far removed from the source. Within this context, diet choices such as vegetarianism (the avoidance of meat) and veganism (the avoidance of animal products) have become increasingly important in the struggle to inspire mindfulness and compassion in daily practice.
Shreemad Bhagavad Geeta
Yatharth Geeta- The Geetha in its True Perspective
– Swami Adgadanand