The other day, Roli and I were chatting about interfaith sharing and learning when he remarked,
“There’s a form of interfaith exchange that I bet you’ve never heard of before.”
“What? Tell me,” I said.
“Interfaith eating!” he exclaimed.
From the look on his face I knew he wanted me to probe further.
“Oh, what’s that, now?” I retorted. “Something you cooked up yourself, I bet!”
I thought Roli was being frivolous.
“If you mean people from different faith backgrounds sharing a meal, what’s the big deal? I do that almost every day at office—and often at home as well.”
“No, I didn’t mean that,” Roli explained. “I was referring to a new way of eating that I’ve been practising for some time now. You want to hear more?”
I certainly did, I replied.
And this is what Roli said:
“It’s like this. As a child, my mother taught me to say a sweet little prayer at mealtime:
Thank you God for the world so sweet.
Thank you God for the food we eat.
Thank you God for the birds that sing.
Thank you God for everything.
I can’t remember when it was, but at a certain age I stopped saying this prayer. In fact, I stopped praying altogether. I think it happened when I was sent to boarding school—I was hardly ten then. You know how it is in such schools, that tout themselves as being ‘elite’ and ‘sophisticated’ and ‘world-class’ and all of that—there’s almost no room for God in such places. If you pray or talk about God ‘too often’, you risk being derided by your classmates and teachers for being ‘old-fashioned’ or what they call a ‘namby-pamby’. It’s a sure way not to have any friends.
From school, I went on to college—to a college said to be the ‘best’ in the whole country—and then to a university in Europe. There, too, I never saw anyone praying before meals. I didn’t ever pray either. I never thought I needed to.
By this time, the environment at home and the many years of ‘education’ that I had gone through—ironically, much of it in institutions run by supposedly religious missionary organisations—had made me a confirmed hedonist. Not once did my parents and teachers ever seriously talk to me about God, the soul, the Hereafter and so on. I was led to believe that the purpose of life was simply to maximise sensual enjoyment. This world was all there was. No one talked—or even wanted to think—about death and the life eternal that comes after we die.
‘Have as much as fun as you can! That’s the purpose of life’: this was the message that was drilled into my mind every single day—from what I heard and saw at home, from what I learnt at school, and from what the TV and newspapers said.
God had no major place in the worldview I was reared on—other than making an appearance once a year, just before the annual examinations for me to ask Him for good marks. After a certain age, then, I never once felt the urge to pray to Him or the need to thank Him.
That’s how it was in the ‘secular’, ‘progressive’, ‘Westernised’, ‘upper middle-class’, ‘enlightened’, ‘club-going’, ‘partying’ ‘and ‘fun-loving’ circles I grew up in. If you took God and prayer seriously, they’d think you were terribly odd, miserably old-fashioned, ‘unscientific’ and ‘backward’, and generally a total misfit. It was not the sort of thing that people who were convinced that the purpose of life was having ‘fun’ thought was at all appropriate. As far as they (and, at that time, I myself) were concerned, it was something that only ‘illiterate’ and ‘poor’ people, people who lived in villages and slums, did. It was considered a definite sign of ‘backwardness’, or what was called a ‘low-class thing’. If I, or the sort of people I moved around with, ever saw someone praying, including before a meal, we’d think he was definitely ‘strange’, or perhaps even a ‘fanatic’. Such people were definitely not the sort we would ever want to have anything to do with.
No one I knew prayed—least of all before a meal. I hadn’t seen anyone thanking God before or after eating—at any of the restaurants I ate in, in any of my friends’ homes, or in the many students’ hostels I had stayed in—in India and abroad. In my parents’ house, I don’t know if anyone even bothered why the practice of praying before meals was suddenly dropped. It definitely wasn’t missed, and perhaps it wasn’t even noticed. No one ever remarked about it, as far as I know.
And so, for decades I lived without ever praying to God, not even at meal-times as I used to as a child. Not once did it ever cross my mind that the food I ate was all a blessing from God, a gift from Him for which I should be grateful. Not once did I feel it necessary to thank Him for it, and, indeed, for everything else He had blessed me with. My mindless hedonism didn’t permit me to think that way. And so, I would eat to my heart’s content—often stuffing myself sick—but not once did I think of and thank the One who had given me the food I had just had. It seemed to be the same for all the people around me—my parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, teachers, classmates, and just about everyone else.
Over time, I began to revel in being what they call a “foodie”. Soon, I developed an unhealthy and uncontrollable craving for food, so much so that it became a pathological obsession and my weight shot up to—you won’t believe it—a staggering 105 kilos! There was almost nothing more that I liked than experimenting with new foods, reading about new recipes and trying out new restaurants in town. I didn’t have the urge to think of anything higher in life. I lived in order to eat, not eat in order to live. Sometimes, I’d eat myself sick, and then I’d tickle my throat, vomit out what I had eaten, and then begin to stuff myself again! My neurosis had become that bad!
But then, after many years of leading this sort of life, new things began to happen. Some years ago, I was at staying with a friend at his home—he was a Hindu. Every time we settled down for a meal, I noticed, he would lift a bit of the food that was in his plate, bow his head low and whisper something, and only after that would he eat.
Intrigued, I asked him what this was about.
‘I’m taking God’s name,’ he explained.
Sometime later, I had a similar experience when I met up with a friend—a Muslim—for dinner. I noticed that each time she lifted a morsel to her mouth she uttered something to herself. I asked her about it.
‘It’s to praise God and thank Him for the food He’s given me,’ she replied.
Not long after that, I met a Buddhist woman from France, who was travelling around the country leading meditation classes. At a Buddhist vihar, I listened to her talk about eating ‘meditatively’. I had heard about different types of meditation, but not about ‘eating meditation’. I thought it might be some new Western fad. But then, as I listened to her, I realised that what she said really made a lot of sense:
Before we start our meal, it’s a good practice to bless all the many beings—humans, plants, animals, and even the mud, the rain, the rocks, the sun, the moon and so on—that have gone into making our food.
It’s good, too, to bless and thank all the many beings that have gone into arranging for the food we eat—the farmers who’ve grown the vegetables, the truck-drivers who transported the vegetables to the city, the shopkeepers, the cooks, the workers in the kitchen where this food was prepared, and so on.
And when we eat, it’s good to eat slowly, trying to focus on the food, on the act of chewing and on the act of swallowing—trying to be in, and to savour and cherish, the present moment. That’s eating in a meditative way.
It’s good, too, to keep silent while eating, making our eating a form of worship. If we honour our food, which goes into nourishing our mind and body, then we should give our time and attention to it. Don’t ignore it or take it for granted by talking to someone else while eating. We can always chat with our friends and relatives later—we have all of the rest of the day for that. Give this special time to the food you are taking in, the food that is helping to keep you alive. Give it the respect and attention that it deserves.
Never before had I heard such things! All my life, I had rushed through my meals, as if in a race, while stuffing myself senselessly. I hadn’t ever heard anyone talking about giving time and attention, and, most importantly, silence, to my food. I had always thought mealtimes were a special occasion for meaningless banter. But now I was hearing something just the opposite.
I had another such wonderful learning experience last year, when a Catholic family invited me to their home for dinner. We took our seats at the table, and I was just about to help myself to the soup when Paul, my friend Raymond’s son, stopped me. ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘let’s say grace first.’
I gulped in embarrassment.
It was Paul’s turn to say grace that day. He said a short prayer, thanking God for the food we were about to have. And when we finished eating, he said another prayer.
I hadn’t ever seen a family like that ever before—so cheerful, loving and united, and so God-oriented. Everyone in the family—from 83 year-old Uncle Solomon, Raymond’s father, to 5 year-old Roma, Raymond’s youngest child—took turns, once a week, to say grace before and after meals.
‘A family that prays together stays together,’ they say. I can vouch for that—there are few families I know of as cheerful and content as Raymond’s.
Some months ago, I had another such beautiful food-related experience. I was at a non-denominational ashram, a place that welcomes people of all faiths and persuasions. On the wall of the dining hall, I noticed a board that said something really beautiful:
Each time you chew your food, take the name of God—any name you like—Ishwar, Allah, God or any other. That way, you can grow in awareness of God and learn to express your gratitude to Him for the food, and for everything else, that He’s given you. You can remember God even while eating. We can try to remember Him at every moment, even while we eat.
That was amazing, wasn’t it!”
“Roli! Come to the point!” I interrupted him, not concealing my impatience. “What does all of this have to do with the interfaith eating thing you were meant to be telling me about?”
“Hold on! It has everything to do with it,” Roli laughed, and then he explained:
“You know what? After decades of turning my back on God, He drew me back to Him. I now pray to Him often—it’s because of His grace that I do so. And I also pray to Him at meal times, like I did when I was a child.
God led me to observe how people from different faith backgrounds—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Buddhists—remember and thank Him in different ways at meal-times, and He led me to practice in my own life some of what I learnt from them.
These days, before I eat, I thank God for the food He’s given me. I also request Him to bless all the beings—and that includes humans, plants and others—that have gone into the food as well as into arranging for it. I prefer to maintain silence while eating, and I try to remember to take God’s name each time I chew. And then, when I’m over with my food, I thank God for it.
That’s what the ‘interfaith eating’ that I do these days is about. It’s based on things that I’ve learnt from people of different religious backgrounds—Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and universalists—who honour and thank God in different ways for the food He’s blessed them with.
Isn’t that wonderful?”
“It certainly is!” I agreed. “I want to practice it, too!”
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