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To the hungry, God cannot appear but in the form of food

A cynical Sanskrit poet, or perhaps simply a disillusioned one, comments: “Hungry people can’t satiate their appetites by consuming grammar. Nor can the thirsty content themselves with the juice of poetry.” Even as depressing news flows in from all over the world, we should perhaps focus on the bad news at home — India’s low rank on the Global Hunger Index, and its lack of improvement over the past decade.

No-one who has ever visited India, let alone lived here, will doubt the cultural importance of food — always served in overwhelming quantities and with lavish hospitality. But the philosophical importance of food goes all the way back to the Upanishads, too. The Taittiriya Upanishad, for instance, speaks of the five sheaths of the soul, the very first of which is food. “All beings that walk the earth are born of food, they subsist on food, and they return to food…Food is consumed by all, and it consumes all in turn.” The Upanishad even refers to food as Brahman! In the Katha Upanishad, when Yama, the god of death, offers Nachiketa three boons, the second one Nachiketa seeks is the knowledge of how to overcome hunger and thirst.

Nor is it that food occupies only the human mind — even our supernatural beings are not immune to its charms, or to hunger pangs. Agni, the god of fire, is said to have been ravenously hungry once. And nothing would satisfy him but the entire Khandava forest, with all its trees, animals, and birds. But each time that Agni began burning up the forest, Indra, the king of the gods, intervened by pouring down rain to extinguish the fire until Agni was forced to stop. Finally, he approached Krishna and Arjuna in disguise, asking them to appease a hungry man with food. Once Krishna and Arjuna compassionately agreed, he revealed that he was Agni, and the food he needed was the Khandava forest! Ultimately, Arjuna held back Indra’s torrential rains while Agni consumed almost every living creature in the forest and declared his hunger fulfilled!

Food is so important that both Lakshmi and Parvati assume forms associated solely with food. Dhanyalakshmi, for instance, is the form of Lakshmi who bestows an abudance of grain. As for Parvati, many legends tell us the story of Annapurna. It is said that Shiva and Parvati were having a casual argument in which Shiva dismissed all material objects as ultimately irrelevant. Parvati begged to differ, arguing that materiality is essential to sustain the universe. To make her point, she disappeared, and given that she is the goddess of fertility and nourishment, famine struck the world. And she refused to relent to Shiva until he appeared before her in her grand form as Annapurna, holding out a begging bowl, asking for her benevolence for his devotees. Parvati then agreed, and food once again flowed abundantly.

Annapurna is portrayed with a golden ladle and a vessel of food in her hands, with Shiva holding a begging bowl before her — symbolising the importance of nourishment.

Digestion is conceptualised in Sanskrit as a kind of internal fire that consumes food, just as external fire consumes all that is offered to it. Krishna, in the Bhagavad Gita, proclaims, “I, as the Vaishvanara fire, am present in the body of all beings to digest the four kinds of food.” In other words, if you are hungry, it is God himself seeking to be fed from within you! All this to say — while allocating resources to various projects in the next budget, we would do well to begin with what’s on our plates.

(Published 21 October 2023, 19:09 IST)

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