Why Should We Offer Food to Gods Before Eating It?
Question: We have this tradition of offering food to gods before eating it. We do the same in ritual worship (puja) as well as sacrificial worship (yajna). Why should we offer food to gods?
"Those who eat the sweet remains of the sacrificial food go to the eternal Brahman. This world is not for those who do not perform sacrifices. Then, where is the question of the other worlds, O best among theKurus?" The Bhagavadgita.
This is not a mere ritual, nor is it a mere act of superstition. It is a noble tradition that sets us free from the sin of selfishness. The Bhagavadgita (3.13) declares, "The pious who eat what is left of a sacrifice are freed from all kinds of sins, but those evil (persons) verily eat sin, who cook food for themselves." It also states (17.13) that any sacrifice in which food is not distributed is tamasic in nature.
Thus, there is a strong justification behind the Hindu tradition of offering food to gods before it is shared by the devotees. Many people ritually or habitually do it without knowing why, because they have seen others doing or they follow it as a family tradition. The offering must be sincere. It is not necessary that it has to be done explicitly calling attention to ourselves or make a show out of it.
You can do it silently, with an attitude of expressing gratitude and reverence. The attitude is more important than the act itself. Whether you do it or not, the food that you eat ultimately goes to the gods only who reside in your body. It is shared by them all according to their contribution to the wellbeing of the body and according to their importance in its preservation.
Your body is a small universe in itself. It is the Mount Meru of the microcosm, surrounded by seven concentric circles of oceanic consciousness. The gods reside in it just as they reside in the macrocosm, as your organs, breaths and tattvas. They engage in their respective duties to uphold the Dharma of the body, which is to serve the Self that resides in it as its devotee. In other words, it serves you and all the gods who live in you also serve you.
Now, as to the question of why should anyone make the offering? It is to express gratitude and repay the debt that you owe to the gods, so that whatever karma that arises from it and whatever negative energies that are present in the food are neutralized with one stroke. The Bhagavadgita states that those who eat food without offering it to God verily eat sin. This is true. When you eat food without offering to others, you will engage in selfish action, which according to our scriptures is a bad karma. Therefore make others a part of your food eating practices and offer to them.
Food is a form of energy (Shakti). Your physical body is formed out of it. Hence, it is also known as the food body (Annamaya kosa). The food that you eat contains many energies. Some of them are good, but some are harmful. Some types of food increase tamas, some rajas and some strengthen the demonic qualities in the body, causing delusion and egoism. The people who cook the food and the attitude with which it is cooked are also important since they can have positive or negative influence upon the people who eat it.
Those impurities cannot be removed from the food, with normal precautions. However, by offering it to gods, you can neutralize them and make the food sacred. When you offer food to god before eating it, you convert it into sacrificial food and make it pure. This is one of the important reasons why our tradition encourages the practice of offering food to gods.
Another important reason is to express gratitude. You may ask, “Why to show gratitude? Are we not nourishing the gods? They should express gratitude.” It is true that gods are dependent upon us for food and we nourish them both through our bodies and through our offerings in the sacrificial rituals. However, the reason we offer food is because the gods not only serve us and help us in our bodily functions but also play an important role in the production of food and the order and regularity of the world.
The mortal world is dependent upon gods who facilitate our survival here. For example, Indra causes the lightning, Maruts and Rudras churn the clouds, Varuna makes the rains fall and nourishes the earth, the river goddesses carry the water to the fields and Pushan ensures a good harvest, green vegetables and ripe fruit, apart from helping the cattle with verdant pastures. The sun and the moon in their respective spheres ensure the proper progression of seasons. The gods also help us by preventing storms and floods, pestilence and other natural catastrophes. They protect cattle and ensure good harvest, peace and prosperity.
According to the Vedas, the gods are active in all the upper worlds, starting from the mid-region (antariksha) and play an important role in the transmigration of the souls to the ancestral world and their continuation there, apart from helping the liberated souls on the path of gods (devayana) to the immortal world (Parandhama). They help the Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesa, in upholding the Dharma, enforcing Karma, punishing the wicked and protecting the world from evil influences.
The source of our actions is also God. We are expected to perform his duties upon earth and offer the results to him only, without claiming ownership or doership. For these reasons, human beings cannot claim ownership of the food they produce. Since it is a gift from gods and produced through collective effort, it becomes obligatory for us to share it with others.
In Hinduism, everything that is not God or Self is worthy of offering only. The Upanishads declare the whole world as the food of God. We call that offering sacrifice. Life is a sacrifice in itself when it is dedicated to the service of God or to the humanity. In other words, everything is worthy of an offering or being called food for God or Nature. The Bhagavadgita states that every action, perception and enjoyment must be offered to God as a sacrifice so that one can become free from the impurities of karma and rebirth and attain liberation.
In reality, there is no sacrifice and no sacrifice. All is God. The distinction arises because of the duality which we experience. When you renounce the ownership and doership of any sacrifice, you become free from the consequences of your actions. The Bhagavadgita states, ""From food beings come into existence; from rains is created food; from sacrifice arise rains; and sacrifice has obligatory work as its origin." Thus what is produced by sacrifice is returned to the source of sacrifice through sacrifice.
In today’s world, people may be reluctant to attribute their existence, their actions or their successes and failures to gods, or hold them responsible for what happens to them upon earth. We know how precarious life upon earth is and what role chance or fate plays in the lives of beings upon earth. Where there is chance, there is a high probably of gods or fate or universal forces playing a role. Thus, even from the scientific perspective, life upon earth is a rare gift and a unique opportunity to be alive, conscious and active.
The Vedas urge humans to perform the five daily sacrifices (pancha yajna) to discharge this debt. According to the practice, householders who follow the traditional Vedic mode of life have to engage in the daily ritual of cooking food (paka yajna) as an obligatory duty and distribute it among gods, ancestors, ascetics, animals and dependent humans. In return for the food they offer, they receive blessings and healing from the five classes of beings. The Bhagavadgita states that ancestors fall down to earth or lower worlds if their descendants do not offer them food.
Now this is the justification. By nature, human beings are selfish and egoistic. It is difficult to make them give anything. Hence, Hinduism encourages the practice of selfless giving and sharing, so that instead of accumulating papam or sin, people will accumulate punya or merit. It recognizes charity as one of the highest virtues and of the charities, the charity of food as the best.
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