Thank you for the food we eat: Shebaba by Renuka Narayanan
If all things belong to the Creator, then to eat without acknowledging the provider is equal to theft, say our sages and saints.Updated: Nov 27, 2016 10:33 IST
In the ongoing currency pinch, it was inspiring to read about citizens who made a policy decision to cut back, spend less and simplify their lifestyle. It makes you think of old cultural responses to hunger and gratitude.
For instance, when we offer cooked rice to a deity as naivedya, it does not mean that we expect ‘God’ to actually eat it. Nivedana is the act of making known. ‘Nivedyami’ means ‘I am making it known to you’ or ‘I am informing you’ or, closest in spirit, ‘I want you to know that I know’. Know what? That we acknowledge that the food we eat is a gift.
It does not mean ‘I am offering you food’ or ‘I am feeding God’. It is our farmers who toil to grow that rice. Experts know how to increase its growth and variety. We even hear of fake rice mixed with plastic, ‘Made in China’ and exported to Kerala and Nigeria.
However, if we believe in ‘God’, then patently rice is the original creation of the Creator or Mother Nature, if we’d rather. We have food because of that creation. If all things belong to the Creator — isha vasyam idam sarvam, as the Upanishad has it — then to eat without acknowledging the Creator as the provider is equal to theft, say our sages and saints. So the act of naivedya is an act of etiquette that acknowledges our mortality, our physicality, our hunger, our dependence on food and therefore our gratitude that we have received food.
To eat mindlessly without acknowledgment is traditionally considered rude. The Christians say grace before a meal and the Muslims say ‘In the name of God’ before eating. In fact, they say ‘Bismillah karein’ for ‘Let’s eat’. Every culture says ‘Thanks for the food’. Today it’s probably enough to just remember to think ‘Nivedyami’ or ‘Thank you’ before eating, in a private act of acknowledgment.
In many homes, it is the custom when the lid is first lifted on a just-cooked pot of rice or the pressure-cooker is opened, to lift the first ‘slice’ of rice in offering, using the flat rice-serving spoon typical of an Indian kitchen. This rice is taken out to the balcony or yard and left in a designated spot for the crows, ants or even squirrels. So the rice, or a roti, is offered to other creatures before the family is fed. To deepen the connect, somebody even invented the folkloric notion that crows are ancestral spirits, rather like how the northern Scots think of seals as ancestors come back.
‘Annam brahmeti’ or ‘Food is God’ says the Maitri Upanishad, and so it is considered a sin to reject or waste food. That, and the point that in a hungry world in which every living creature needs to eat, it really seems very ungrateful to reject food, even if our chosen or enforced lifestyle is to keep it simple.
Inadvertently, the current holdback reminds the fortunate that we are partners with ‘God’ in growing and cooking food — ‘Here’s the good earth, use it well’ being the single-point MoU.
The views expressed are personal.