The importance of food in Hindu Worship

Ritual Food

by Jayaram V

This essay is about the importance of food (annam) in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism

In Hinduism, food (annam) is considered Brahman or an aspect of Brahman (annam parabrahma swarūpam). It is central to both creation and life. The whole material existence is symbolized as food. It is the lowest aspect in which Brahman manifests. The Upanishads declare that by creating different types of food, names, forms and functions, God manifested diversity.

Food as the universal matter

The physical body is called the food body (annamaya kosa) because it is made up of food only.  The soul or the Self is eternal, self-existing and independent. He does not depend upon food, but the created beings invariably depend upon it. Food is both the source of life and the cause of death because it is both the nourisher and destroyer.

According the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, "Prajapati created seven types of food through austerity. Of them only one was common. He provided the gods with two. Three he made for himself. One he gave to the animals. On that rests everything, whether it breaths or not." Of the seven, one is the physical or elemental food which is common to all, five are breaths (prana), which serve as subtle food to the senses or gods. The one which was given to animals was milk which is used by humans both as food and offering in the sacrifices. Gods receive food through breath in the body and air in the macrocosm.

The same Upanishad states that the multitude of gods can be reduced by their spheres into three, the earth, the mid-region and the heaven. They can be further reduced into two categories according to their dependence upon subtle (breath) and gross foods. Thus, in Hinduism food is not just what we eat. It also includes what we breathe, perceive and accumulate in the mind and body as virtue (punya phalam), desires, sin (papa phalam), attachments, karma and material possessions. In this essay, we discuss the importance of food in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism.

At the highest level food is the universal matter and energy. It represents Nature, all the materiality, phenomena and the tattvas (finite realities) from which the whole diversity manifests. Food is the object as well as the subject of sacrifice. It is the means to creation as well as procreation. Existence is not possible without food. The world itself is considered the food of Kala, the lord of the mortal world. Hence, he is also known as the devourer. He eats everything. Since the whole material existence is considered the gross body of Brahman, everything in it is worthy as a sacrificial material.

Breath plays an important role in the movement, digestion and transformation of food in the body as well as in the macrocosm. Through austerity and breath control, food transforms into heat (tapas) and vigor (ojas) in the body (tapas), into mental brilliance (medhas) in the mind, and retas (seed) in the male sexual organ.

Wrong food or foods with the predominance of rajas or tamas cause sickness and inertia or strengthen demonic qualities, whereas light foods with the predominance of sattva improve health and strengthen divine nature. Food is also a healer and purifier. Hence, diet is considered an important aspect of healing in the Ayurveda. The symbolism of food is depicted in the following image.

Symbolism of Food in Hinduism Symbolism of Food in Hinduism

Food in worship

Hindu rituals invariably involve the offering of food due to the significance attached to it. It is divine and worthy of worship because just as God, food also performs the triple functions of creation, preservation and destruction. Food also serves as the connecting link between the triple worlds, just as God is considered the thread that binds all worlds together. Annam in a general sense means all food, but in a specific sense boiled rice. Food and clothing are considered the bare necessities of life. Hence, gifting them was an integral part of the Vedic sacrifice.

According to the Vedas, gods in heaven cannot make food for themselves and depend upon humans for nourishment. So is the case with the ancestors in the ancestral heaven who depend upon their descendants for ritual food to build and sustain their casual bodies. Then there are animals, mendicants, beggars, poor and decrepit people, ascetics, wandering monks, etc., who depend upon other for their survival.

The scriptures stipulate that it is obligatory for humans to perform daily sacrifices, sacraments and other sacrificial ceremonies to nourish these different types of beings and uphold Dharma. Thus, every Hindu ritual is essentially an act of sacrifice or offering in which one offers both gross and subtle objects. At the end of the ritual, the remains or what is left of the sacrifice is distributed between the worshippers and the host of the sacrifice as a sacred food. The Bhagavadgita states that he who eats food without offering it to God verily eats sin.

Food in penance

While in ritual worship, the worshippers offer food to gods and partake the remains of the food as a gift from the gods, in penances they abstain from it to affirm their faith or loyalty, fulfill an oath, overcome an adversity or expiate for sins and transgressions. Such penances may be performed as a part of ritual worship or separately.

According to Hindu Varnashrama Dharma, students have to obtain food only through begging. Except on certain occasions, they should not eat food unless it is obtained from more than one person, Householders have the obligation to offer food as part of their religious duties, while those who renounce worldly life and undertake Sanyasa, have to abstain from cooking, develop a distaste for food and subsist upon as little food as possible to purify their minds and bodies. In the final stages, they are expected to completely stop taking food and allow the soul to leave the body to achieve final liberation.

The law books such as the Manusmriti prescribe several types of penances as part of ritual worship or punishments for sinful actions. For example, the Manusmriti prescribes that if a student who has taken initiation from a guru remains asleep at the time of the sunrise or the sunset, he should fast the next day reciting the Gayatri. Otherwise, he will be tainted by great guilt. One of the most notable penances of the Vedic times was the Krikkhra penance, in which for the first fifteen days during which the moon waned the worshipper increasingly reduced the intake of food by certain mouthfuls, and in the next fifteen days he gradually increased it by the same number.

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