Published in Sunday Midday on 28 March, 2010.
Ancient Hindu seers known as the Rishis believed that the purpose of life is to enable the soul engage with the material world. To do so, the soul needs a vehicle, a body. Food nourishes this body. This makes food sacred, fuel for the fire of life, worthy of worship and contemplation. Food therefore was only served using the auspicious right hand. The left hand was reserved for polluting ablutions.
But who should the right hand feed? Only oneself, or others too? And what constitutes the others? The Rishis wanted to remind us that besides us, the world is constituted of other food-seekers. They wanted to do so without being pedantic, which means they did not want to give ‘gyaan’ — they wanted people to discover it for themselves, with a little help. This little help came in the form of ‘mudras’ or ritual gestures that served as puzzles. He who paid attention to the mudra would decode the puzzle. From reflection comes realization; with realization comes wisdom.
Unfortunately, over time, the puzzles have been passed on without the codex. Yet, the codex is relatively easy to find, if one observes the rituals carefully. Basically, there were five different ritually prescribed methods of feeding.
Method 1: for self
Food placed on the palm was poured towards the wrist, in the direction of the body, into the mouth. This was meant to feed oneself.
Method 2: for nature (elements and plants)
Food was poured over the finger, away from the body, towards the gods. This is how offerings were made into fire during a yagna with the chant, “Svaha!” Water was offered to the sun-god by pouring the water away from the body. This is how water was also poured on holy plants like the Tulsi and the Banyan tree.
Method 3: for animals
Food was placed in the centre of the palm to feed the animals. Grains of rice placed in the well of the palm was offered to birds and to dogs. Grass placed in the palm was held with a firm grip for the cow.
Method 4: for fellow human beings
Food was poured along the left edge, towards the body, to feed family, friends and fellow humans. In a traditional Indian family, not just Hindu, serving guests on the table with the left hand is considered inauspicious. Even with the right hand, the movement of the wrist must be towards one’s body and not away. This indicates that the person to whom one is serving food is included in our lives and in our world.
Method 5: for ancestors
Food was poured over the thumb, away from the body, to feed the ancestors or Pitrs, who reside in Yama-loka or Pitr-loka, located across the mythical river, Vaitarni. Food offered to the dead was thus offered away from the body in contrast to food offered to the living. Thus, while the dead were offered food and hence respect, they were simultaneously not welcomed, suggesting that they should move on, and not stay in the land of the living as ghosts.
As one studies these five ritual methods of feeding, one realizes that the Rishis wanted us to be sensitive not just to satisfying our own hunger but also the hunger of those around us, the living, the dead, the animate and the inanimate. In the worldview they propagated, all things were hungry, and yearning for food. Thus one was being asked to be sensitive to all, not just oneself.
Hunger here is both reality and metaphor. Everyone is hungry — for food, for water, for air. But why? What is the point of this hunger? In the Upanishads is a line that says, “Everything is food. Everything eats or gets eaten. Food is the Brahman.” Without food there cannot be flesh. Without flesh, the soul cannot engage with the material world.Thus the act of eating and offering food is an act of giving everyone flesh. It is the act of wrapping the soul, giving form to the formless. The form may be human or animal or plant or mineral. Even the dead are fed as a reminder that they crave for a form as they await rebirth in the land of the dead.
The dead are afraid that they will be forgotten by the living and hence are hungry for attention. Minerals and plants and animals are hungry for food to survive until they die and are, ultimately, eventually, reborn as humans. Humans are hungry for food so that they can live human lives and enjoy the benefits of human flesh — especially the human mind that allows humans to introspect and ask questions about the point of life.
Humans are the only species that can speculate on the nature of existence — Why do we exist? Why do we have choice? But nature offers no answer. As the human being observes the vast world, the stars,the mountains and the oceans, and imagines what lies beyond the horizon, he finds no manual telling him what is the point of his existence. Like every other living creature, humans eat food and experience hunger and observe death, but humans alone can speculate about death, and life. Only we wonder what is the point of it all, is death the end, or is there something more. And finding no answer, we are filled with fear. And perhaps that is why, every god and goddess in the Indian pantheon has one more hand-gesture, quite different from the feeding gestures, the upraised right palm which means ‘abhaya’ — do not be afraid.
The abhaya mudra comforts all living creatures and reminds us that beyond the hunger and the food there is an answer. There is a point to this life. If we have patience, and faith, we will find it.