By Devdutt Pattanaik
Food is essential to existence, and to the religious experience as well. Every religion has rituals where food is offered to the worshipped, shared, eaten, or even tabooed
Before Indians share good news—first rank in an examination, a job, a promotion, birthdays, anniversaries, engagement, marriage, birth of a child, purchase of a car or flat—we distribute sweets. Why? Simple. To prevent people’s tongue from getting sour with envy. To prevent bitterness from forming in their mouth. No scriptural evidence for this. But the ritual, explained thus, does make sense in some magical way.
Food is magical. Not only is it the currency of survival, it is also vital for forging social ties. Cave men shared food to make friends, form communities, express love. When loved ones died, they were buried with food to nourish them as they made their journey to the hereafter. Greeks and Romans placed honeyed cakes in graves to help the dear departed distract Pluto’s three-headed hound, Cereberus, who guarded the gates of the Elysian fields. Hindus even today offer rice cakes to ancestors who wait in the land of the dead for their turn to return to the land of the living.
Food habits distinguish one religious community from another. Hindus will not eat beef, though some, mostly peasants and village folk, may consume the meat of a buffalo sacrificed during Dussehra to the village-goddess, popularly identified as Durga. Muslims will eat only halal meat obtained by slitting the throat of the beast and letting it bleed to death. Also, they will not eat pork. This is the one thing they are in agreement on with the Jews.
For centuries, the Jewish diaspora maintained its ‘separateness’ as the Chosen People by eating what was called ‘kosher’ or ‘proper’ meat. The rationale given for this is hygiene—that kosher meat helps prevent tapeworm infection. Somehow such arguments do not quite convince. One is thus left in that not-quite-logical twilight realm of religious faith and belief.
The first food taboo—the Fruit of Knowledge—comes to us from the Bible. It has been identified as apple in Christian art, pomegranate in Jewish poetry and banana in Islamic folklore. The Bible also introduces us to another popular taboo—wine, first enforced by Noah, who also suffered the first hangover. ‘And he drank of the wine and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.’ (Book of Genesis, 9:21) Perhaps that is why Prophet Mohammad prohibited all Muslims from partaking alcohol. Or perhaps the reason was to separate Muslims from Christians, who made wine an essential ingredient in their communion with God.
During the Eucharist, bread and wine is taken to be the flesh and blood of Christ, either actually or symbolically depending on whether one is Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, or Anglican. While partaking it one is supposed to experience gratitude, remembering that Christ died for humankind’s redemption. Bread and wine was the common man’s food in ancient Palestine and so, easily available for ritual. In Central Africa, three million Christians have replaced bread and wine with local fare—yams and honey.
Food forms part of most Hindu rituals. Coconut, banana, rice, mango and sugarcane represent Nature’s bounty and form part of fertility rites like marriage and childbirth. This is a type of ‘sympathetic ritual’-like produces like. By placing symbols of bounty in and around the house, one hopes to harness prosperity from the cosmos. This also explains the ceremonial use of five nectars, the pancha-amrita: water, milk, curds, butter, sometimes treacle (sugarcane juice) and honey.
Food is offered in many Hindu rituals to adore a benevolent deity or appease a wild one. Shiva, the ascetic, is given unboiled milk and uncooked fruits. Vishnu, the more worldly manifestation of God, is given sweet food cooked in clarified butter. The Goddess, who embodies Nature, is given blood sacrifices, reminding one and all that Nature is both life-giver and life-taker. The death of one goat or buffalo is nourishment for many. The sacrificial beast is invariably male: suggesting a relationship between blood and the male seed and of the violent act with sex. The blood of the beast replenishes the waning fertility of Mother Earth.
In the Bhagavat Purana, Vishnu tells the earth-goddess who appears in the form of a cow: ‘You will refresh yourself with the blood of kings who have milked you dry with their greed.’ Perhaps the sacrificial beast is a ‘scapegoat’, not unlike the goat who was driven out and sacrificed by ancient Jewish tribes in the belief that it carried away the sins of the entire community.
Nowadays, with growing awareness of animal rights and the popularity of vegetarianism, a pumpkin or a coconut symbolically represents the sacrificial beast. The goddess is also offered lemons and chilies. These are kept outside the house to please the malevolent aspect of the goddess like Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune, so that she can satisfy her hunger outside without casting a glance within the house. For benevolent aspects of the goddess, like Santoshi, goddess of satisfaction, the offering of jaggery is considered more suitable and inviting. The Hindu practice of eating food and water that has been offered to, or has come in contact with, a god or goddess is a type of ‘contagious ritual’—the food believed to transmit divine aura, just as yams, bread and starch wafers ‘host’ the spirit of Christ during the Christian Holy Communion. Food is always eaten in joy not sorrow. It is served in marriages and at happy occasions to share joy and in the hope that a satiated guest will, in gratitude, offer blessings to the family. Food is also offered after funeral, following the period of bereavement, to remind us that life must go on. Ancient Hindus believed the soul, after leaving the body, goes to the moon, then reenters earth via rain and finally lodges itself in food. When we eat food, that which has died supports that what is alive. The cycle of life rotates once again. We are reminded of the Upanishadic aphorism: ‘In the cosmos there are only eaters and the eaten. Ultimately, all is food.’
The author has written six books on Hindu mythology and is a lecturer on sacred beliefs and customs.
—photographs by Martin Louis
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