Symbolism of Food (annam) in Hinduism

Offering of Food or Annam

by Jayaram V

Food nourishes the mind and body. Food is the sustainer and upholder of life. It is from food that living beings derive their strength and vigor, which are then used in the preservation of life. Hence, ancient Vedic people saw in food the divinity of God. Find here the archetypal meaning, cultural significance and symbolism of food (annam) in Hinduism.

Food occupies a prominent place in Hindu ritual and spiritual practices. It is an obligatory duty (dharma) of humans to produce food and offer it to various beings to ensure the order and regularity of the world. Those who fail to honor it would incur bad karma and remain stuck in the mortal world or fall into darker worlds. Since it is important to the survival and continuity of all worlds and beings, food is central to Vedic methods of worship. No worship is complete in which offerings of food are not made, and the remains of the offerings are not distributed among the worshippers. The Vedas are meant to facilitate sacrificial offerings to gods who cannot make food for themselves. Gods in turn help humans with rains, progeny, wealth of cattle, rains, and good harvest. Thus, food greases the wheels of creation and assists the beings in the preservation of the worlds.

In Hinduism food symbolizes materiality, gross physical body, sense objects, sacrificial offerings, grossness, elements, fire, subtle body, semen, vigor, strength, and Brahman himself. The ultimate source of food is the Sun. Hence, as the universal nourisher food also symbolizes the sun god, Surya.

The Taittiriya Upanishad emphatically states that food is the main reason for the existence of the worlds because from food alone all beings arise, and beings are made up of food only. The gross physical body is called food body because it is made up of food only. The world is subject to hunger and thirst since it is ruled by the god of Death, who is also called Time (Kala). For him the whole world, and everything that exists here is food. None can escape from his hunger. Thus, the body of the Supreme Purusha, the lord of the world, the Cosmic Being, is also food body.

Food is compared to medicine because it nourishes the body and makes it strong. The same Upanishad states, "From food only are produced all beings, whatsoever that dwell upon earth. Further, by food only they live and in the end to food only they return. Food alone is the eldest of the living beings. Therefore it is called the universal medicine."

Food is Brahman (annam parabrahma svaroopam). According to the Vedas those who worship food as Brahman obtain all food. Food alone is the eldest of the living beings. Food appeared in the world before the beings were created. Creation itself is a form of food for the Creator. Since everything is Brahman only, he produces food from himself by sacrificing parts of his own body. The Mundaka Upanishad (1.1.8-9) states, "Brahman expands by the heat generated from penance and from him food is born; from food life, mind, truth, the worlds, obligatory duties and immortality. He who is all discerning, all knowing, whose austerity is filled with pure intelligence, from that Brahman arise name, form, and food." The eternal Self is the enjoyer of food in the body.

Food is the essence of the body. The various parts in the body receive their share of food through breath, which acts as the carrier, just as the fire god Agni acts as the carrier of sacrificial food to gods. When the food is digested, its gross portion nourishes the gross body,  and the subtle parts nourish the subtle body. Hence, the mind body, the breath body, and the intelligence body are also nourished by food only. Without food the body loses vigor and the mind its memory.

Death is the lord of the mortal body. Food nourishes him to remain satisfied and stay within the body. According to Chandogya Upanishad, without food the sixteen parts in the body fail to function properly as they become weak without food. However, by replenishing the breath, the sixteenth part alone, with food one recovers and regains lost memory.

Food is a purifier. It plays an important role in the transformation and purification of the body. By eating proper food and avoiding certain types, you can purify your mind and body. However, if you do not know how to consume food with proper attitude, food may be the cause of your bondage. According to the Upanishads, the common food of all beings, which was created by Prajapati is mixed with sin because of the presence of the three gunas. Through food they become part of the three gunas in the body and influence the actions of the divinities who are vulnerable to evil and selfish desires.

Food as the nourisher and support is responsible for reproduction and rebirth of beings. Part of the digested food settles in the male reproductive organ as semen and facilitates reincarnation of souls. First, in the semen the soul that is awaiting it rebirth takes refuge. Later it moves into the mother's womb during conception through sexual intercourse. The same food energy which is hidden in the semen as retas becomes further refined and transformed into body vigor (ojas) which in the mind becomes mental brilliance (medhas).

Food is the source of bondage and delusion. Those who eat food without making offerings to gods, ancestors, seers, animals and humans verily eat sin. As an aspect of Nature, food contains the impurities caused by the gunas, namely sattva, rajas and tamas. They are responsible for the predominance of gunas in the beings and the delusion caused by them. Hence, tradition prohibits eating of certain types of food, which are troublesome for spiritual progress and self-transformation.

While in the mortal world food nourishes the beings and helps them build their mortal bodies, in the ancestral world the food offered to the departed souls by their descendents  helps them build their astral bodies. Without those offerings, the ancestors cannot sustain themselves for long in the ancestral world and incur the displeasure of gods. Hence, the offering of food to departed souls is an important customary tradition in Hinduism.

Thus from food all beings are born and into food all beings become dissolved as they become the food of Death. By food alone beings are able to survive. Finally, as an aspect of Brahman, food is responsible for the three highest functions: creation, preservation, and destruction. In its purest aspect as the contributor of sattva it is also responsible for the liberation of beings (moksha).

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