Annam or Food in Hinduism
Annam means food. According to Hindu scriptures, annam is a form of Brahman (annam parabrahma swaroopam). In the Prasna Upanishad we find this description of Brahman as food: "Food is in truth the Lord of Creation. From food seed is produced and from this beings are born."
Food is the characteristic of mortal life. For Brahman in His aspect of Death, the whole world is His food. He devours everything. If the embodied Self is the subject. food is the sum total of all the objects and diversity. And what connects them together are hunger and thirst, which Brahman created in the begining, after He manifested Death. Brahman as the enjoyer in creation, and the Self in the body, enjoys the food as the object of enjoyment. In this sense, food is not only what we eat but also the sense-objects we perceive. The food consumed by the body is shared by the deities present in the organs with the help of fire which helps in the digestion and with the help of Breath, which helps in its circulation through the various channels present in the body.
According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Brahma created seven kinds of food. "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." What he gave to the animals is milk.
Hindu texts refer to the physical body as annamaya kosa or food body because it is produced by food. It is the outermost sheath of our five sheaths. The remaining four bodies are the breath body, the mental body, the intelligence body and the bliss body which surround the inmost atman. The Taittiriya Upanishad describes these different bodies in detail. The following verse describes the physical body: "All beings that exists on earth are being born of food. Thereafter they live by food. Again ultimately they go back to it and merge to become food. So verily food is the eldest of all creatures. On that basis food is called the medicine (aushadham ucchyate sarvam) of all. Those who meditate upon Brahman as food will obtain all food. From food are born all beings and after being born the grow by food. Food is eaten by all beings and in the beings all beings are eaten by food. Therefore food is called annam."
The food body is also identified with the earth element (mahabhuta) because it consists mostly of the earth matter. The gross body is the seat of our senses and it receives nourishment through the senses and food. It is responsible for our bodily desires and bondage to earth. When a person dies he leaves his food body behind and goes to other planes of existence depending upon his previous karma. The Taittiriya Upanishad explains the process in detail:
That which is in man is also in the sun. He who knows thus, upon leaving this world and the self made of food first attains the self made of prana (breath), next the self made of mind, next the self made of buddhi (intelligence) and lastly the self made of bliss.
Food occupies an important part in the religious life of Hindus. Food is offered to ancestors during rituals. Food is offered to gods during their invocation ceremonies. Food is offered to deities in the temples. Food is served to the poor and the needy as part of seva or charitable service. Food is also served to the animals and birds as a part of religious duty. Food is offered to one's personal deity before eating. It is believed that when food is offered to one's personal deity before eating it, the deity would neutralize harmful energies contained in the food. In the Taittiriya Upanishad. Varuna gives an advise to his son Bhrigu (Chapter 3, Bhriguvalli) that he should consider it as a duty not to disrespect food, not to reject food, keep plenty of food and provide without fail whatever food that is made in the household to the guests who come to visit.
Hindu texts also put heavy emphasis on eating the right kind of food. Food is the main source of energy for the physical body. Whatever food that we eat impacts the triple qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas in our bodies, which inturn impact the balance of our minds and bodies. The Bhagavadgita recognizes three kinds of food in terms of the qualities each promotes. Food that is freshly made, juicy, oil, tasty and agreeable is sattvic food. It promotes longevity, purity, strength, health, happiness and cheerfulness. Food that is bitter, sour, salty, hot and pungent is rajasic food. It causes pain, grief and disease. Food that is half cooked, rotten, stored, stale, putrid, left over, half eaten and impure is tamasic food. It promotes slothfulness, cruelty and evil nature. The Bhagavadgita declares that the sacrifice in which no food is distributed is tamasic sacrifice, in which food is distributed with some selfish intent is rajasic and the sacrifice in which food is offered without any desire for its fruit is sattvic.
The Hindu dharma shastras 1 prescribe a number of rules to be observed before, during and after eating food. There are specifications as to what kinds of food should be eaten, in whose company it should be eaten or avoided, what vessels should be used to eat, most of which would not make any sense in the present world. For example one of the rules says we should not eat any readymade or prepared food from the market or food that was prepared a night before. Likewise there are rules prohibiting intoxicating drinks, sheep milk, camel milk, cow milk within ten days after the cow gives birth, food mixed with herbs, mushrooms, garlic, onions, leeks, meat of one hoofed animals, pigs, bulls, birds (like cock) that scratch their feet, swans, cranes, five toed animals with some exceptions and food touched or cooked by impure persons. The shastras also prohibit eating food which is prepared in certain places (in the house of a near relation where a person has died recently) or during certain periods or offered by certain classes of people (food prepared by a professional physician or a eunuch).
A majority of Hindus are non-vegetarians. They may not however eat meat as regularly as in the west especially because meat is more expensive in India. The number of strict vegetarians is comparatively less but their number is growing as more and more people are drawn into spiritualism. Jainism and Buddhism did bring some awareness about vegetarianism because of their emphasis on non-injury to living beings, but it is difficult to say how much influence they had on the masses. Meat eating was not prohibited for Hindus in ancient India. Technically there is a religious permission to eat meat especially for those who are not initiated into spiritual life or into priestly duties. Certain types of meat was not allowed. So was meat eating on certain days in a week or certain festival days.
If we go by the beliefs of Hinduism, meat eating impacts the development of the five sheaths and delay our spiritual advancement. Beside it is bad karma to indulge in the killing of animals or support it through buying and eating animal flesh. Most important of all it impacts the collective karma of entire nations and the planet itself and delay our planet's further evolution. So long as we indulge in killing animals on our planet either for pleasure or for food, violence and aggression will continue to effect our lives in one form or the other.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Hinduism, Food and Fasting
- The Significance of Vegetarian Food In Spiritual Life
- Books on Vegetarian Cooking
- The Significance of Animals in Hinduism and Hindu Ceremonies
- What is Ahimsa, Non-violence or Non-injury?
- Hinduism and the God of Death
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga